Best Buddhist Writing Back to Normal

If last year’s edition of The Best Buddhist Writing was the most Asian volume published to date, then this year’s volume is a return to normal.

For the past nine years, Melvin McLeod and the other Shambhala Sun editors have gathered into a single book “a thought-provoking mix of the most notable and insightful Buddhism-inspired writing published in the last year.” On average, six or seven Asian writers make it into the volume, which translates to a ratio of about one in five. This year is perfectly typical with six Asian writers at a ratio of exactly one in five. That’s not many when you consider that more than three-in-five American Buddhists are Asian.

I had hoped that last year’s exceptional number of Asian writers would mark the start of a new normal. Compared to The Big Three print magazines, The Best Buddhist Writing historically includes a higher proportion of Asian authors. The editors even highlighted their awareness of diversity issues last year when they organized a Buddhadharma forum titled, “Why is American Buddhism so White?” Maybe there wasn’t much good Asian writing to be found this year. Maybe 2011 was a fluke.

The editors at least managed to find new Asian writers, unlike the two years when the only Asian authors included where those who had been published in previous volumes.

If Asian Buddhist writers are to be better represented in The Best Buddhist Writing, then the yearly number of new Asian authors will have to grow. This shift will be reflected in the measure of “Best Asian Writers”—those who have ever been published in The Best Buddhist Writing—as a proportion of the total lot of “Best Buddhist Writers.” Since the series’ inception in 2004, this proportion has declined from less than one in five to now just one in seven.

In other words, new non-Asian writers have been included in The Best Buddhist Writing at a greater frequency than Asians have been.

For The Best Buddhist Writing to meaningfully include more Asian writers, the editors could include in each volume the writing of four Asians who had not been included in any previous edition. That’s just one more than the three new writers who are currently added on average each year. Of course it means that more work would need to be done to find that worthy piece of writing. My hunch is that as the Shambhala Sun editors get more used to seeking out good writing by Asian authors, they will develop sharper intuitions on where to look and they’ll find some more promising work along the way.

We’ll see how The Best Buddhist Writing turns out next year. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy The Best Buddhist Writing 2012.

The Economist Staff

The Asian Meter is one of the tools I use to demonstrate the marginalization of Asian Americans in Buddhist publications. You can find similar approaches at the Op Ed Project and now at I just found out about the latter site today—they even have a word cloud!

The site sprang up in response to issues over a particular article on Korean women golfers. I don’t have much to say on that topic, but I certainly can commiserate on the topic of editorial diversity. As I mentioned over two years ago, if you take a look at the staff of the most widely distributed Western Buddhist magazines (Shambhala SunTricycle and Buddhadharma), it’s not hard to see the irony that an Asian American’s more likely to show up on the White House Cabinet.

Best Buddhist Writing 2011

This year’s The Best Buddhist Writing 2011 has made positive strides across the board in the inclusion of Asian Buddhist writers. Nine of the 32 contributors are Asian. That’s more Asians than ever before. They also make up a larger proportion of the authors than ever before. You could say that this year’s volume is in fact the “most Asian” volume published so far. This increase in representation boosts the entire series’ overall quotient to 20.3 percent (compared to 19.2 percent as of last year’s publication). As usual, I’ve included an Asian Meter chart to illustrate the comparison with previous years.

This progress is especially notable for the number of new Asian writers. Many of the writers in The Best Buddhist Writing also have been published in previous volumes; in the past three years, 42 (2008), 58 (2009) and 61 (2010) percent of writers in Best had also previously appeared in the series. In the last two years, none of the new writers were Asian; all Asians in those volumes also had work published in previous volumes of Best. In contrast, of the nine Asian writers included in this year’s volume, four are new.

Of course, the representation of Asian writers is still quite low compared to the proportion of Asian Buddhists in the North American Buddhist community. My count of nine authors is perhaps inflated by the fact that one of the pieces is co-authored by two Tibetan monks. (I count authors, not pieces.) Best also features fewer authors this year (32) than it usually does (34 on average). If we further take gender into account, we see that all of the Asian authors are male, even while this volume of Best is the closest yet to gender parity. (Women comprise 15 of the 32 writers.)

That said, progress is progress. Not only has the Asian quotient improved over last year, this year’s quotient is the highest yet. I hope with all my heart that they will keep up this good work.

(Thanks to the Tricycle blog for bringing this book to my attention!)

A Bit More than a Smattering?

The much anticipated 2011 Buddhist Teachers Council has finally concluded, in spite of all the griping. It was organized secretlyIt was exclusive. But I was more interested in how many Asian participants were invited to the party.

“Mostly, as might be expected,” Rev. James Ford writes, “folk of European descent. But a bit more than a smattering of [People of Color], African descent and Asian, as well as a few Tibetans and other Asians.”

Those terms are hard for an unskilled layperson like me to gauge. Fortunately, Rev. Ford posted a list of attendees, which I spent the last few days coding. The list falls short of the 230 mentioned in the press release, but I have to work with what I’ve got. After crunching the numbers, it turns out that “a bit more than a smattering” equates to about one in nine.

If you break out the Asian participants, there were just fifteen of us (that’s one in twelve). Thus “a bit more than a smattering” falls short of the representation of Asian writers in The Best Buddhist Writing (one in five), but hangs a couple notches above the paucity of Asian contributors to Tricycle (one in fifteen). Maybe then a “smattering” is the handful of Asians you find in Tricycle.

On the other hand, if we look at the inclusion of women at the conference, their representation is much stronger. There were four women for every five men present. That’s a little better balanced.

So even as the White gatekeepers seemed to have no trouble finding spots for the female half of Western Buddhism, the share set aside for Buddhists of Color was obscenely low. We also make up about half of Western Buddhism, but we’re apparently not as important to the discussion of the future of Buddhism in the West. (I’m having flashbacks.)

That said, I’m glad for the Buddhists of Color who showed up, including one whom I interviewed on this blog. A strong contingent came from the East Bay Meditation Center, along with several others whose names were entirely new to me. Since this conference is scheduled to recur, I hope the organizers will make an effort to be more inclusive the next time around.

Lastly, as editors from both Shambhala Sun and Tricycle were in attendance, we might just be able to look forward to a few new contributors in the next few publication cycles. (Is that too much to expect?) Or at least Tricycle might be able to boost its Asian quotient to “a bit more than a smattering.”

For more on the conference from Rev. James Ford’s blog, see herehereherehere and here. Not to mention photos!

Update: This post has been revised to reflect corrections from a Tricycle editor in the comments below.

Best Buddhist Writing 2010

One of my side projects includes tallying Asian writers. Specifically, I tally the bylines set aside to Asian writers in mainstream Buddhist publications. Early last year, I investigated The Best Buddhist Writing series and came away with the following three conclusions: Asians are underrepresented in the anthology (about 19 percent of authors), most of these Asian writers tended to be Tibetan, and the Asian authors reappear in the pages more frequently than their non-Asian counterparts (who make up a much larger, mostly white pool).

A few weeks back, I updated my “database” to include The Best Buddhist Writing for 2009 and 2010. Little surprise, the running average remains almost exactly the same, at 19.2 percent.

But I’ve been more interested in a different statistic. It turns out that the editors of The Best Buddhist Writing choose from a very small pool of Asian authors. Out of 163 authors who have ever appeared in its pages, a mere 21 have been Asian, accounting for 46 bylines. Now, the real shock came when I tried to answer the question: How many new Asian Authors join each year?

Over the past two years—none!

The number of Asian authors—those who had ever had their work published in The Best Buddhist Writing—increased each year until 2008, where it plateaued at 21. In 2009 and 2010, the Asian authors all had also been published in previous volumes. In contrast, the number of total writers keeps on growing, as new non-Asian authors continue to be added to the mix.

The Best Buddhist Writing 2010 is the newest edition and currently on the bookshelves. You can check out a very positive review at the Buddhist Blog.

Opportunities, Incentives, and Privilege

On the last Asian Meter update, Adam asked about the dynamics that underlie the small number of bylines that TheBigThree set aside to Asian writers. 

So, why do you think that is? Is it just blatant racism, or are there other factors? How many Asian writers have submitted material/applied for positions at The Big Three? How do they source their writers and material?

I responded separately that I believe this pattern to be a case of institutional racism, rather than “blatant” racism (such as an informal policy or a consciously implemented prejudice). This question is explored in more detail on an old post at Dharma Folk.

The second part of the question speaks to the submission process—we know the output, but what about the input? This question has been asked several times before and is worth revisiting. Below I’ve provided a similar comment that Ashin Sopaka left a long while ago.

While I do not in any way invalidate your experience of racism in Buddhism (I myself have seen negative comments like “ethnic Buddhists”), I can’t help but wonder how many Asian American (AA) Buddhists are stepping up to the plate, applying for jobs or submitting articles to the referenced publications, asking to be involved in panel discussions, etc. If this is happening and AAs are being actively excluded, then indeed, this is racism at its ugliest. Or, are AAs sitting back and waiting to be invited/involved? Or are AAs refusing the invitations due to language barriers, or whatever other reasons?

The logic here is straightforward. Perhaps this inequality is of the marginalized groups’ own making—there are fewer Asian writers because fewer Asians submit articles. This point was addressed directly by another blogger.

Ashin[hpoya], I can answer that one for you. These publications don’t think to ask Asian-Americans, so Asian-Americans are rarely if ever extended an offer to refuse in the first place. It’s not that Asian-Americans aren’t stepping up, it’s that there is a network of white convert Buddhists entrenched in the publishing field and they reach out to print articles by and about other people like themselves, without stepping out of their bubbles or making serious attempts to include other voices.

Some of this has to do with race issues in publishing. The staff at these magazines is virtually all white and always has been. That is not unusual in the publishing world, but it is regrettable at publications that seek to represent a religion that is overwhelmingly non-white (and even English-speaking Buddhists are less than 50% white). It isn’t racism in terms of actively disparaging non-whites. It is white privilege, the privilege to be focused only on one’s own community, to believe one’s own community is representative of the whole, and to not ever have to think about how one’s whiteness allows smooth entrance into the world of publishing and speaking for Buddhism in a way that people with far more history with Buddhism (but far more melanin as well) are as a group unable to access (the occasional individual exception doesn’t invalidate the general rule here).

Mr. Boyce’s article and his shock at how it was received are typical of this pattern. A person of presumably no malicious intent, he was simply blind to how his decisions wound others–blind because his skin color and social privilege allow him to not have to think about such issues until someone blows up at him after the fact. This is not racism as outright hatred, but institutionalized racism that affects the whole society and is especially entrenched in the media (i.e. the industry of representation and normative information control), Buddhist magazines included.

This response cuts right into the interwoven threads of opportunity, incentives and that pernicious elephant on the dining room table: white privilege. While hinging on white privilege, what’s key is how this privilege increases both opportunities and incentives for white writers at the expense of People of Color.

The Asian Meter merely puts some casual observations to the test with systematic inquiry. How many Asians actually write for The Big Three? Adam’s question goes further and points in the direction of what’s going on behind the scenes here. What are all the players doing? The answer to his question is more complex, and it’s exactly the sort of question we need to be asking in order to effectively address racial imbalances in our publications.

For example, in creating the Asian Meter database, one of the key factors I noticed has to do with the composition of a magazine’s regular contributors. If you are a white writer, you’re more likely to be tapped to write again in Tricycle than if you happen to be Asian. (I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now, but I’ll happily dig up the numbers for another post.) One solution might be for Tricycle to do more outreach both to recruit new Asian writers and also to retain old ones. But I’m getting ahead of myself here—it’s only by looking deep into the issue that we have the empirical basis to act on such a suggestion.

I haven’t provided a very thorough response, but Adam’s question has no simple answer. Just think of when we ask the same type of question in other fields. Why do so few women become surgeons? Why do so few African American students sign up for business plan competitions? It is no less controversial to ask why so few Asians write in the major American Buddhist publications. But it’s my belief that questions like Adam’s are among the few ways we can make any progress towards a truer diversity.

Asian Meter 2009

How much things change in a year! A year ago this blog did not even exist. I was still wrapped up in the excitement of unleashing my inner Angry Asian Buddhist onto the blogosphere. Who knew the party would go on so long?

On the other hand, there are many things that barely change at all. For example, look at how few bylines continue to be set aside for Asians in the The Big Three publications. (And by Big, I’m talking about distribution.) Below I present the aggregate results for 2009.

The Asian Meter developed out of a play on the Buddhist community’s fascination with the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew’s Buddhist numbers were questionable largely because of flawed assumptions about the Asian American community—like how many of us are out there. And without any attempt to validate the numbers, Buddhist publications chose to take them at face value.

I decided to run the numbers on the periodicals themselves. There’s no special magic behind the Asian Meter. The metric is a simple quotient of Asians. Originally I looked at the proportion of writers of Asian heritage in a given publication. These days, I focus on the proportion of bylines allocated to writers of Asian heritage. There are different benefits and drawbacks to this shift in methodology, but I don’t care to talk about it—that’s what the comments section is for! My precious few readers probably prefer the graph.

Tricycle remains the laggard, with nearly half as many Asians in its pages as the pack leader, Shambhala Sun. I’ve taken the liberty of combing back through several years of issues, only to find that Tricyclists stick to the habit of, on average, setting aside just one out of every ten bylines to an Asian brother—and sometimes an Asian sister.

To get an idea of what I see when I look at the authors in Tricycle, an area graph tells a better story. Consider that we probably make up at least half of the Buddhist community. We speak English! We are Americans! Let us in!

Here’s to positive changes in 2010! Sabbe satta abyapajjha hontu!

Tricycle and It’s Token Minorities

With Tricycle‘s Summer 2009 issue currently online, I decided to take a sneak peak. There are notable articles regarding climate change, the Tibetan diaspora and an issue close to my heart: the state of the nunhood in Thailand. But in spite of all the intriguing titles and informative content, they reduced their writers of Asian heritage to a measly 6.4 percent. If you forgot why I hold the Tricycle Foundation to higher standards of inclusiveness, then simply take a look at the foundation’s own claims:

The Tricycle Foundation is dedicated to making Buddhist views, values, and practices broadly available. In 1991 the Foundation launched Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the first magazine intended to present Buddhist perspectives to a Western readership. Tricycle soon became the leading journal of Buddhism in the West, where it continues to be the most inclusive and widely read vehicle for the dissemination of Buddhist perspectives.

Look at these words: the most inclusive. I am aghast that they can shamelessly make such claims when it turns out that Tricycle continues to devote, on average, less than 9 percent of its bylines to authors of Asian heritage. In a community where at least half of the members are Asian American, this exclusion is obscene. I wonder what they could have possibly meant by calling themselves “inclusive” — I can only imagine that these words are intended as a subtle dig against Shambhala Sun.

Following a suggestion, I went through the last 15 issues online and counted up the bylines. (Beyond Winter 2005, I started finding online articles with omitted bylines.) You can see the results in the image to the right. At least over the past four years, Tricycle has continually declined to welcome Asian American Buddhists into its ranks, with the exception of the occasional token minorities. Someday, I’ll just sit down with a stack of all the issues back to 1991, and then I’ll have some real fun.

One thing that’s occurred to me is that I would like to make a difference. My writing is about as influential as Free Burma activists trying to take on the Burmese junta. So how can we get Tricycle to represent? I know a few of the contributors to Tricycle, and there are a few more contributors who keep an eye on my blog. If they truly care about Asian American voices, then maybe the next time they have an opportunity to write a piece for Tricycle, they might ask the publisher whether any consideration had been given towards extending more opportunity to Asian Americans. And don’t forget other minorities too! Would anyone care? I’ll ask around.