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)

Urban Refuge

I’ve blogged about Urban Refuge before, but it’s definitely worth a repost a year later. Here’s Urban Refuge’s self-description:

A virtual sangha for Buddhist practitioners of color, allies and all others interested in promoting racial and cultural diversity in Western Buddhism.

On this site, you can find a community blog page, upcoming events, a listing of People of Color meditation groups and more. This site’s strength, however, is only as strong as the community that supports it. If you believe in diversity and racial equality in Western Buddhism, I encourage you to show your support by joining this site and contributing.

You might be asking yourself now, “What could I possibly contribute?” Well, here are three ways you could:

  • Do you know of diversity programs that your community offers that don’t appear on the site? If you do, you have something to give that isn’t already there!
  • Do you know of books, articles or other resources of benefit to the community? These are resources that you can share!
  • Do you know of great teachers, leaders or artists of color in the Buddhist community, who aren’t well known? Here’s a great opportunity to join and get the word out to the greater Buddhist community about these individuals!

These are just three examples. Even if you don’t have ideas off the top of your head, you could easily snoop around on Google and fill in the gaps that we’ve certainly overlooked. In fact, that’s exactly how many of us got in touch with other Buddhists of Color to begin with. I imagine there must be more People of Color meditation groups than are currently posted on the site!

(Hey, non-Americans, your communities are totally underrepresented here—I’m sure you all have much to share!)

Or then there’s the other question, “Does this site really make a difference?” Well, I can’t say for sure—I just know how it’s impacted me. In my case, Urban Refuge is the site that ultimately brought me to a People of Color group—a place where one fellow practitioner simply reached out to me and showed me to a group that has deepened my connection to my local Buddhist community. I imagine that there are other Buddhists of color out there, who—as I was—are within arm’s reach of a more supportive community, but don’t even know it.

So why not check out Urban Refuge and lend a hand to furthering racial and cultural diversity in our community?

Meditating on a Sign

Last year, I blogged about the photo on the left. The second image I yanked from Danny Fisher’s blog, associated with Tricycle’sChange Your Mind Day.

The way we depict ourselves in abstractions tells worlds about how we see ourselves prototypically. When I think of a meditator, I would draw a stick figure one more like the one on the right. I wonder if those two images tell something about different ways that meditators relate to the simple act of sitting…

Meditation Session at St. Cloud

This past event at St. Cloud State University is noteworthy for several reasons.

Sponsored by Ayubowan Sri Lanka Organization, Society of Buddhist Red Lotus and Theravada Buddhist Student Association, a Buddhist discussion and meditation session took place at 4 p.m. on Friday in Voyageurs North of Atwood Memorial Center. […] “[The objective of the session was] to deliver an opportunity for the SCSU and local St. Cloud community to learn, understand and make use of meditation and Buddhist teachings,” Charitha Hettiarachchi, president of Society of Buddhist Red Lotus, said.

It was student-sponsored, meditation-oriented, interfaith, cross-cultural and with Asian American representation! More than that, I’m stunned to hear that there are two Buddhist groups at St. Cloud, the Society of Buddhist Red Lotus and the Theravada Buddhist Student Association. I didn’t have even one Buddhist group to welcome me back when I went off to college. Read more about the event here.

Some Effective Outreach

I finally meditated at Against the Stream tonight. In spite of all obstacles, I made it there, I’m glad I went, and I plan on going again. It’s taken me well over two years to finally get myself over there. For all my writing about increasing diversity in the Buddhist community, I was feeling a bit hypocritical without actually trying to spend time with the whiter groups that I routinely hold in my crosshairs.

Now, I have to admit that I very likely would never have gone if it hadn’t been for one of the readers of my blogs, who happened to notice that I live in Southern California and invited me to the People of Color Night at Against the Stream. I was subsequently invited to attend the Wednesday meditation group. And I went! Simply because the person who invited me was a Person of Color, someone who shares the same concerns and many of the same experiences that I do.

That’s effective outreach right there!

Thank you, Against the Stream, for hosting a People of Color Night, and showing that you care. Thank you, Erica, for kickstarting Urban Refuge where I found out about all this. You all made a difference for at least this Buddhist here.

People of Color Night

Thanks to a post by Erica at Urban Refuge, I was alerted to Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society’s People of Color Night at their Los Angeles location, 4300 Melrose Avenue, near LACC. Their upcoming meeting is this Friday, February 12 at 7:00 PM.

Hopefully I’ll be able to attend this Friday night. The schedule looks as though it involves a mix of meditation and discussion, all of which I look forward to. If you happen to live in the Los Angeles area, I’d love to see you there!

Unsolicited Plug

Wandering Dhamma is the hands down favorite blog that I hardly ever read. Brooke Schedneck writes wonderfully thorough (and very long) posts about her dissertation research in Thailand. (I vow to read them all.) Her exploration of the Thai meditation traditions is relevant and illuminating on many levels. Most prominently, meditation is one of the primary “Dharma gates” through which many non-heritage Buddhists come to Buddhism. So how is meditation in Thailand presented to Westerners? Her research also touches on the role the Theravada in modernity. Through investigation of particular histories, she reveals how the increasing diversity and dialogue within the Theravada community manifests itself within contemporary Buddhism in Thailand. Not to mention that the recent Australian bhikkhuni ordination and institutional backlash have shoved the Thai forest traditions into the spotlight of the Buddhist media. (Check out her post on visiting a bhikkhuni meditation center.) These are traditions that are often romanticized and poorly understood in the broader Buddhist community. Honestly, I would know hardly anything if one of my dearest friends weren’t a monk at a Wat Pah Pong branch temple in Thailand. If you’d like a more intimate perspective on Buddhist meditative traditions in Thailand, Wandering Dhamma is certainly a great place to go.

Twheet: A Bay Area Meditation Conference

Not sure if I’ll be able to attend Turning Wheel Talks 2009 — Twheet! Examining Meditation in 21st Century America, but if you are, I certainly encourage you to check it out.

Meditation helps us connect to reality and discover profound peace in what’s really there. This event is intended to support and strengthen the meditation community in the Bay Area. Twheet is for folks who have been meditating for years and want to deepen their practice. Twheet is for those who have never tried meditating, but want to. Twheet is for the people who’ve dabbled in meditation and seek to establish a stronger habit and practice. It’s for “closet meditators” who wonder what else is out there. It’s for those who identify as Buddhists. It’s for those who don’t. It’s for anyone who wants to be part of the younger-adult community in the Bay Area! In other words, Twheet is for you.

They have a Facebook page too.

The Danger of Ethnic Buddhism

A friend recently pointed me to Ethnic Buddhism and Other Obstacles to the Dhamma in the West by Dr V. A. Gunasekara.

When ethnic Buddhism is introduced into a Western country it tends to shunt the particular manifestation of Buddhism into an ethnic ghetto. The danger here is that many people will perceive Buddhism as a ghetto religion. Indeed the mass media in Western countries have made it a fine art to present Buddhism as an ethnic religion and not a universal message of liberation. The activities of ethnic Buddhists in the West lend support to this propaganda of the mass media to the great detriment of the cause of Buddhism in the West.

The piece is riddled with patent falsehoods presented as fact, not to mention that I have a ton of issues with the way he structured his argument and examples. But there’s some interesting food for thought too.