Calling All Asian American Young Buddhists!

If you’re a young Asian American Buddhist (ages 18–39), I know someone who would love to talk with you. Chenxing Han, a graduate student at the Institute for Buddhist Studies, wants to write about the experiences and perspectives of Asian American Buddhist youth. That’s you. She wants to know about you.

She’s done more than either the Tricycle or Shambhala Sun foundations or even this little blog to reach out. She’s asking for you to speak with her directly:

While secondary readings in American Buddhist studies, Asian American studies, and other disciplines inform this project, the voices of young Asian Americans form its foundation. I am currently conducting one-on-one interviews with people between the ages of 18 to 39 who are 1) of Asian heritage, 2) engaged in Buddhist practice, broadly defined, and 3) willing to complete a two- to three-hour interview in English. The interview includes open-ended questions and interactive activities that explore participants’ Buddhist practices, communities, and beliefs; perceptions of Buddhism in America; and opinions about the representation of Asian American Buddhists.

So what are you waiting for? Go get in touch with her today!

For those of my readers who aren’t Asian American Buddhist youth, I encourage you to participate by reposting this call on Facebook and Twitter. Or heck, you could even blog about it too.

Please Double Check Your Asian Counts

Update: The post below is a response to the numbers in a Huffington Post article on racial diversity in American Buddhism. The numbers in the article have since been vetted and revised to address the issues raised.

I encourage you to read Jaweed Kaleem’s most recent Huffington Post article, “Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas’: Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators.” This is a fantastic piece about People of Color sitting groups. Kaleem did some great on-the-ground research and interviews, but when it comes to some of the numbers he presents, there are two important points I’d like you to keep in mind.

First, the numbers are wrong. Kaleem repeats figures from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that “[American] Buddhism is made up largely of white converts, who count for more than half of U.S. Buddhists; less than one in three are Asian.” These figures struck many as surprising back when the survey was published, and after closer inspection it turns out the numbers were off. As I have pointed out, the Pew study estimated the number of Asian Americans to be half the U.S. Census’ estimate for 2007, thus undercounting the number of Asian American Buddhists.

Fortunately, the Pew Forum has since conducted a survey focused on Asian Americans. Its report on religion (“Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths”) puts the number of American Buddhists at a total of 3–4 million of whom over two-thirds are Asian American. The study estimates that more than one in three Asian American Buddhists meditate at least weekly, so that means there are at least 650,000 Asian Americans who meditate. Imagine if everyone in Boston were an Asian meditator!

Secondly, be aware that Kaleem misinterprets some of the numbers in the Mosaic of Faiths report. For example, he writes:

Studies have shown that most Asian-American Buddhists don’t meditate. Instead, they practice the faith by venerating ancestors, spiritually observing holidays such as Lunar New Year and practicing yoga, and they believe in nirvana and reincarnation.

In this instance, Kaleem presents a divergent inference where there was no basis to do so (i.e. Asian Americans venerate ancestors, observe holidays and practice yoga instead of meditating). All the Pew study told him was that 56% seldom or never meditate; in fact only 38% of Asians never meditate, while the rest report they meditate to some degree. The report doesn’t clarify how many Asian Americans identify as meditators, and it’s not clear if the other practices are viewed as alternatives or complements. It’s conceivable that some of those who meditate also venerate ancestors and observe holidays. At least I do.

A comparison of both studies suggests that Asians probably aren’t engaging in other practices at the expense of meditation. I compared the rates of meditation, prayer and service attendance in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of all Buddhists and the Mosaic of Faiths report of Asian Buddhists. All Buddhists turn out to be more likely to meditate weekly (61%), pray daily (45%) or attend weekly services (17%) than Asian Buddhists (34%, 29% and 12% respectively). That disparity suggests that non-Asian American Buddhists meditate, pray and attend services at higher rates than Asians do. More importantly, while Asian Americans appear to meditate less than non-Asian Americans, they aren’t taking up extra prayer or service attendance in its place.

Asian American Buddhists also don’t appear to be shifting their spiritual focus from practice into the realm of belief. When I compared belief in Nirvana, it again turns out that all Buddhists (62%) are more likely to believe in it than Asian American Buddhists (51%). So again, it’s not as simple a story of white Buddhists meditate more while Asian Buddhists do more _____ instead.

Very little of Kaleem’s article has to do with the numbers—just two background paragraphs in fact. But these numbers are still important. Through his interpretation of the survey data, Kaleem perpetuates the stereotype that Asian Americans Buddhists basically don’t meditate much and instead preoccupy themselves with ritual and superstition. A closer look at the data, however, suggests that Asian American Buddhists simply participate less in some of the key rituals and beliefs which strongly characterize non-Asian American Buddhists.

The article speaks much more to the often invisible Buddhists of Color who are not Asian. Kaleem’s interviews weave together an illuminating perspective into the dynamics of People of Color sitting groups, which are just a drop in the bucket that is the American meditation scene. From my experience at just one of these sitting groups, they fill an important gap in the meditation landscape between temples with a strong focus on the needs of Asian immigrant communities and meditation centers rooted in the normative assumptions of white Americans. If you have never heard of these groups, hopefully reading the article will help you understand how they can be such important gateways to the Dharma.

I just hope that in future articles, Kaleem spends a little more time double-checking his numbers.

(Photo credit: Wonderlane)

Charles Prebish Believes I’m Racist

Thanks to Rev. Danny Fisher, I was pointed to a recent Secular Buddhist podcast hosted by Ted Meissner featuring Charles Prebish, Sarah Haynes, Justin Whitaker and Danny himself.

All of the podcast guests, foremost of them Charles Prebish, are individuals who have done tremendous work to promote the interests and visibility of Asian Buddhists in North America. I was delighted to hear that they were brought together to share their valuable thoughts and perspectives on “Two Buddhisms.” Several facets of their discussion relate to issues that I discuss on this blog. In fact, Chuck even mentioned me briefly—though from what I heard, he didn’t have much good to say! I’m very flattered for the mention, but I’d have rather preferred he left out his degrading speculative inexactitude.

I found their full discussion very interesting and well worth listening to. With luck I’ll have the chance to share my thoughts at a later date. You can download or listen to the podcast at the Secular Buddhist.

Don’t Forget Vincent Chin

My earliest experiences of Asian American political activism were dinner table discussions of the Vincent Chin case. I have mentioned his name repeatedly over the years, as his murder reflects many of the dilemmas with which Asian Americans continue to struggle. Vincent Chin died 30 years ago today. His last words were, “It’s not fair.”

If you’ve never heard of Vincent Chin, or if you wonder why this case is of any importance, I encourage you to read the New York Times Op-Ed “Why Vincent Chin Matters” by Frank H. Wu.

On June 23, 1982, in Detroit, a young man named Vincent Chin died. Four nights earlier, he had been enjoying his bachelor party with friends at a local bar when they were accosted by two white men, who blamed them for the success of Japan’s auto industry. “It’s because of you we’re out of work,” they were said to have shouted, adding a word that can’t be printed here. The men bludgeoned Mr. Chin, 27, with a baseball bat until his head cracked open.

The men — a Chrysler plant supervisor named Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz — never denied the acts, but they insisted that the matter was simply a bar brawl that had ended badly for one of the parties. In an agreement with prosecutors, they pleaded to manslaughter (down from second-degree murder) and were sentenced to three years of probation and fined $3,000.

It has been a long time since Vincent Chin. His murderer lives a quiet life in Nevada, never having served a day in jail. I would like to think that the days of hate crimes against Asians are long behind us, but that was what I was thinking when Thien Minh Ly, an aspiring diplomat and devout Buddhist was murdered in Southern California. Just two days ago I read about a Vietnamese man in Oregon who’s had bombs thrown at his house. It’s not fair.

To learn more about the Vincent Chin case and it’s importance with regard to modern Asian American political activism, check out the film Vincent Who?, produced by a family friend. You can view the trailer below.

And please don’t forget Vincent Chin.

Buddhism in the American Mainstream

Perhaps it’s all a bad gamble that there might be stories out there, somewhere, of Buddhism in the American mainstream unpreoccupied with neophytic meditators or scholarly navel gazers. While I often write as though the secret is hidden behind some language barrier or waiting for a generation of storytellers to come of age, the more likely case is that these “untold stories” are actually hiding in plain sight. One such story is Barbara Chai’s journey to interview the Dalai Lama.

[Archivist note: regrettably, the rest of this post and one comment were lost in the transition to the new server.]

American Buddhism’s “Ethnic” Problem

I wish people would stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists.” Lewis Richmond did it again today when he referred to Asian Buddhists as “ethnic Buddhists” in his Huffington Post article. His categorization of the Buddhist community into “ethnic and non-ethnic Buddhists” is a crude version of Charles Prebish’s already crude “two Buddhisms” model. Prebish himself is no stranger to the term “ethnic,” which he recently used to refer to Asian Buddhist communities in a Tricycle blog piece.

My gripe is not with the word “ethnic” itself, but with how this bare form is used in expressions like ethnic food, ethnic music, ethnic neighborhoods… or ethnic Buddhism.

When Americans use “ethnic” in this way, rarely do we refer to the cranberry sauce with the Thanksgiving turkey, Mozart concertos, or Scarsdale’s Quaker Ridge neighborhood. “Ethnic” is the term we assign to people of strange and foreign cultural backgrounds. It would not surprise me if Charles Prebish, an ethnic Ashkenazi, has himself had the (mis)fortune of being deemed “ethnic,” thus labelled by those who saw Jews as somehow less “American” than their WASPish counterparts. “Ethnic” is the term that “we” use to refer to “them.”

So what would be the alternative to calling us “ethnic Buddhists”?

Call us Asian Buddhists. It’s the term which by and large we use to refer to ourselves. You may not remember, but there was once a time when Asian Americans were referred to as Orientals or Asiatics — even Mongolians! — and it was a coalition of Asian American activists in the late 1960s who successfully brought the term “Asian American” into common currency. We have never encouraged others to label us as “ethnics,” so please: don’t.

* * *

My parents are from the generation which spearheaded the Asian American movement, the movement which fought for the term “Asian,” for an apology for wartime internment, for recognition of the grave injustice that was the murder of Vincent Chin. Even so, my parents occasionally slip and say, “Oriental.” It’s an annoying slip, albeit unintentional, which probably stems from my parents’ ages (both pre-Boomers) and the linguistic habits they formed in their youth. I would like to imagine that for Charles Prebish, a great friend and supporter of Asian American Buddhist communities for decades, his use of the term “ethnic” is likewise a reflex of his youth during another era of American history.

I hope both Prebish and Richmond understand that I address them with nearly the same respect and compassion that I hold for my own dear parents when I say:

Please stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists”!

Magha Puja

I decided to cheat this year and post last year’s interview.

I have little time recently to tend to this blog, but fortunately you can learn something from interviews past. This interview was my first holiday interview. The interviewee was a good friend of mine, a young monk who also happens to be an enthusiastic leader, charismatic teacher, and a humble meditator. I’m delighted to be able to share this interview again.

Who are you?

A young (for now) Asian American monk who ordained in the Thai Forest Tradition.

What’s the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

Observing the spontaneous gathering of 1,250 enlightened monks, to hear the Buddha teach on a full moon night.

What does this holiday mean to you?

That so many liberated beings in saffron robes were gathered together in the same place to listen to the words of their liberated teacher, a fully awakened one, is itself beautiful and powerful. Imagine being in the presence of all those noble beings. Beyond that, the Ovada Patimokkha Gatha, what the Buddha taught that night 2,600 years ago, stands the test of time as the best and most concise (not to mention the most quoted) summary of the whole of the Theravada Teachings: “Avoid evil, do good, purify the mind, this is the Teaching of the Buddhas.”

What do you plan to do on/for Magha Puja?

Share the Buddhist Teachings with young people and then attempt to stay up late into the night to meditate and listen to the Dhamma.

You can check out other holiday posts on the holiday calendar page.

My First Kathina

This post is several months overdue, but I hope you will no less enjoy this interview about one practitioner’s first experience of the Kathina festival.

I celebrated Kathina last year with a group of friends at Metta Forest Monastery. Larene is one of these friends. She is a practitioner, artist, teacher, and caring spirit (in no particular order), and I was honored to spend the day in such good company and to be able to interview her about this Buddhist holiday experience.

Who are you?

I am a twenty-something Asian American Buddhist living in Los Angeles county.

What did you do on this holiday?

On this holiday, I went to Wat Metta Monastery with a couple of friends and a couple of other younger students in my Buddhist community. We went the night before the festival to offer help with whatever they needed to get done. On the morning of the festival, we woke up around 5:30am and went to the chanting service and meditation. Later, we helped with whatever needed to be helped with and took a short hike with a couple of other college students, who also came to volunteer and partake in the festival. We participated in the ceremony in which the monks received their robes and later enjoyed all the delicious Thai food that people made. Afterwards, 10 to 15 volunteers helped to break down all the tents and put away all the chairs. I had a great time!

What is the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

I actually was not aware of this holiday previously, because the tradition that I am more familiar with is the Mahayana tradition. I am not sure, but I believe that Kathina is more of a Theravada tradition, or at least, it is the tradition of Thai forest monks. It is during this holiday that Buddhist monks receive a new set of robes, which happens once every year. It is also significant as a symbolic representation of the lay peoples’ support of the monks at this monastery. The other significant aspect of this holiday is the festivities in the form of food. Usually, laypeople will prepare food at the monastery under tents that are set up for the holiday. During the actual day of the festival, the lay people will line up with bowls of rice and a spoon; as the monks of the monastery walk down the line of people, each person will put some rice into their bowl, another symbolic gesture of the lay peoples’ support. After the ceremony, in which the monks are formally offered the robes, there is a big festival, where the food people bring is shared with everyone.

What does this holiday mean to you?

I attended this holiday because I didn’t know much about it, and also because I had heard about it from a friend. I saw this as an opportunity to better know and understand other Buddhist traditions and also as another way to volunteer. Because many tents had to be set up and broken down (in addition to other preparations) for the festival, I basically went to serve with other people.

If you’re interested in reading more holiday interviews, you can find them here and here.

Project Renew: Rebuild the Lao Temple

Remember the Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado that burned down? Well, now you can help. Especially if you live in Colorado.

On Saturday, February 18, 2012, you can attend a fundraiser at the University of Denver where “Asian and hip-hop communities will rise in solidarity to hold an extravaganza of Asian cultural dances and hip-hop showcases.” Admission is just $5!

To quote the flier:

The Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado burned down on December 5, 2011. Only darkened debris and remnants of memories were salvaged of the once regal temple that emanated strength and hope.

Even a small donation will make a big difference to this community. You can learn more about the temple at their website, where you can even submit a donation by Paypal.

Planning on attending the fundraiser? Let me know—I’d be delighted to post your photos or share your thoughts on this blog.

Jane Michiko Imamura, 1920-2011

The Rafu Shimpo today remembers the contributions of the late Jane Imamura to American Buddhism.

Jane Michiko Imamura is remembered for her warm and compassionate spirit as well as for her numerous contributions to the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, the Buddhist Churches of America, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i and the Hawai‘i Kyodan.

In addition, she was recognized for her active role in advancing and promoting the study of Shin Buddhism to Westerners.


“Jane Imamura made everyone, regardless of background or age, feel welcome and wanted,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, who along with other Beat Generation iconic figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, studied Buddhism at the temple during the 1950s. “She was also a wonderful, personal friend and advisor, with a deep knowledge of Buddhist thought and values, and a great spirit of compassion and service…. Jane Imamura was kind of a beacon in my mind, a light to steer by all those years, and I know this was true for many others — not just me. My great thanks to her big spirit and extraordinary life.”

Jane Imamura was also the mother of Rev. Ryo Imamura, a founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. A year ago, I reprinted his response to Tricyclefounder Helen Tworkov’s assertion that “Asian-American Buddhists … have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.” I hope you will recognize that Jane Imamura’s life was one immersed in the creation and development of the very institutions of American Buddhism that we take for granted today.

You can read more at the Rafu Shimpo online. Also check out Jon Kawamoto’s tribute to Jane Imamura, who passed away on December 26, 2011.