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)

Diversity at the Buddhist Teachers Council

A recent Tricycle blog post on diversity caught my attention. The magazine asked some participants of the recent 2011 Buddhist Teachers Council the following question about unity amid diversity:

Buddhism is very diverse—some would even say that the different traditions represent different religions. What was the common Buddhist thread that brought you all together?”

And here are the responses of two Asian American participants.

I came seeking unity in the Three Treasures. I was disappointed to find that the “mindful” community remains unable to bridge the gap of diversity; and further, that this vital necessity is not a primary concern.
—Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin, Myoken Temple

What brought us together probably has something to do with the Buddha’s saying “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” It has such a universal calling. However, while “Buddhism” may be diverse, “Buddhist” communities in the West do not yet reflect the diversity of our multicultural experiences. 
—Larry Yang, East Bay Meditation Center

I am very glad that Tricycle included us in their list, and that these thoughts were shared. For all my grumblings over diversity at the Buddhist Teachers Council, I’m inclined to think of the conference as a positive success. Diversity was certainly not prominent, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say the conference was an abject failure on this front. More on that thought in another post.

You can read other responses to this question in the current issue of Tricycle. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s is one of my favorites.

It’s Not About Richard Gere

A recent post by Tassja at Womanist Musings stirred up some controversy in the Buddhist blogosphere around the themes of culture, race, privilege, and appropriation. More importantly, this maelstrom pulled in the voice of a frequent commenter with whom I coauthored a letter to Buddhadharma, inspiring her to write in solidarity with Tassja. She frequently comments as Liriel.

My name is Wisdom. Specifically, Prajña. As in Prajñaparamita. My legal name. I never changed it. It is the name my parents gave me at birth, encompassing all their hopes for how I would deal with the myriad array of choices in my future.

This is what we mean when we say that Buddhism is written on our bodies.

Chinese school at the Chan temple is where I learned to dance from the first Chinese Disneyland music box ballerina, fold origami cranes—the last one I folded is now part of an art installation for the victims of the Japan quake—and chant sutras before lunchtime. I still never waste a single grain of rice. The temple library is where my mother would go to borrow cartoons starring the 15th century Zen monk Ikkyu for me to watch. We have a youth orchestra and our own version of the boy scouts that marches under the Buddhist flag. Fifteen years after I was a student there, I attended the funeral of my favorite teacher.

This is what we mean when we say that Buddhism is moulded on our skin.

I would like to tell you how Buddhism influences my father’s treatment of his patients, every one of whom are criminally insane. I would like to tell you how Buddhism plays a role in the way my mother lends the money she doesn’t have to spare. I would like to tell you of how Buddhism sustained my aunt through the famine and my uncle through the war—I would like to tell you how it gave some measure of peace to those who did not survive.

Because this is what we mean when we say that Buddhism flows in our blood.

I would like to tell you, but I am afraid. I am afraid of you Barbara O’BrienKyle Lovett, and Anonymous Commenter. I have a bone-deep fear of the things you will say about my father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, and my three-year-old brother. I am terrified because I can see my future in what you are presently doing to Tassja.

You might tell me that Buddhism belongs in the meditation center and not the hospital. You might tell me that the war is over so what does it matter. You might tell me famine is a state of mind or any number of other things equally indicative of never having helplessly watched a child starve to death. You could discount all my family’s blood, sweat, and tears and the way they flow into and out of the Buddhism I live everyday.

Or perhaps what I say will not matter in the least. You could disregard everything I say in favor of ad feminam attacks about my being an angry person of color with a chipped shoulder. Or about my being young, in my early twenties, and thus uninformed. Or about my being an illogical woman, a “silly cow.”

All these barbs will likely be pointed at me as they are being used against Tassja, and I am afraid. But I am still here, still non-white, still young, still female, still Buddhist, still speaking out in order to tell you that this fear you strike in my heart that makes my fingers numb as I type is the issue. Not Richard Gere. Every time I want to express my differing perspective, I’m silenced by the shitstorm I know is waiting to demean my person and mock my loved ones, rather than engage with the logic of my thesis.

And so I take refuge in the non-white, non-English-speaking, immigrant sanghas I was raised in. And thus our bodies and our voices are absent from your conferences and self-congratulatory blogs. And consequently there are few to challenge your cocksure assertions of your own diversity and inclusiveness even as I stand here feeling alienated.

I retire to await your abuse with one last thought, the one that constantly plagues my mind as I read your vitriolic reactions to Tassja and Arun: there is always so much talk of detachment and transience and samsara in your cavalier dismissal of these writers, but where is your consideration for the other great pillar of Buddhism? Compassion. Where is your loving-kindness and empathy for your fellow sentient beings who suffer? Beings whose suffering is as real as yours? Beings whose suffering you should feel as you own rather than mocking as ridiculous or dismissing as inconsequential?

Na Mo Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa.

The Accuracy of Diversity at the Maha Council

Rev. Danny Fisher invited bloggers to read his interview with Lama Surya Das and encouraged us to give him feedback on the interview. The invitation is much appreciated, and I am very happy to post my impressions here.

Overall, I am very grateful for this interview. It gave me some great perspective on the conference’s background and the organizer’s intentions. I am also grateful to get a glimpse of how the conference challenged the organizers’ own expectations. But I have two critical points, one of which I discuss in this post.

Rev. Fisher quoted Jaweed Kaleem’s article in The Huffington Post—“Most attendees at the Maha Council were white, many were men, and the average age skewed toward the 50s”—and then stated that a few conference participants felt that this statement “wasn’t exactly accurate.” Rev. Fisher’s remark surprised me because I found Kaleem’s statement to be quite accurate.

To be clear, what Rev. Fisher wrote was truthful—some participants feltthat this statement was inaccurate, and feeling is entirely subjective—but I’d like to take a moment to consider what sort of demographics would be necessary to make this statement less than accurate. Kaleem made three points, none of them particularly outstanding.

The assertion that “most attendees at the Maha Council were white” would be false if there were more than 95 People of Color in attendance. (Update:“most” means at least “more than half,” and Das states there were about 190 attendees, so as long as as there were at least 95+1 White participants, Kaleem’s statement is exactly accurate.) In the words of Rev. James Ford, there were “but a bit more than a smattering of people of color.” I counted20 People of Color (on a recount just now with a newer list, I counted 26); one distinguished conference participant took issue with my numbers, but even her suggested estimation proposed fewer than 50 People of Color. I have seen no evidence from any conference participants to suggest that this first assertion was inaccurate.

The second assertion, that “many [participants] were men” is so uninformative that it would be terribly difficult to pin down as inaccurate. Even just forty male participants could qualify as “many” simply because “many” is so subjective, unlike a term such as “most.” (For the record, I counted five men to every four women.)

Kaleem’s third assertion was that “the average age skewed toward the 50s.” Again, this statement is so imprecise that it’s hard to prove wrong, given the numbers we already know. About a quarter of the participants were under age 45, so if even the rest of the participants were 46 (which they were not), one could easily argue that the average age then skewed “greater than 45.” Maybe it was toward the 50s, 60s or 70s—who knows—but the average age itself was never asserted.

So what’s the point of all this nit-picking?

The Buddhist Teachers Council was a truly momentous occasion, but it was simply not that diverse. This conclusion wasn’t unique to the Huffington Post piece. I separately verified the lack of diversity with my own count of attendees—no matter how many times I review the list, I can’t find even 30 People of Color—but in any case, our criticism was dismissed. Some commenters even suggested that Buddhists of Color were to blame for the lack of diversity. That’s a shame.

I can only imagine that this defensiveness stems from the fact that many of the organizers and participants are individuals who personally value and cherish diversity, so this criticism must feel bitterly personal. But in order to progress, we must measure where we stand and how much we can improve. If the organizers want a more diverse council next time, they must accept both that this council was not as diverse as it could have been and that the necessary outreach was not as effective as it could have been.

Fortunately, I saw some of that responsibility in Rev. Fisher’s interview with Lama Surya Das, who wrote, “Needless to say, we can continue to strive to do better and be more conscientious regarding gender equality, diversity and inclusiveness, and form and structure as well.” It’s that sort of talk which gives me hope.

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.