How Many Asian Buddhists Never Meditate?

This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which I’ve decided to celebrate by asking a daily question on Twitter about Asian Buddhists in America.

If you tweet me an answer—even if it’s only an attempt—then I’ll post the answer on this blog. You’ll also get a postcard from me if you’re the first to answer correctly.

Last week, @onceinchbuddha responded to the following question:

The correct answer is 39%.

It’s important to provide some context, especially if you remember the report saying something different. When you read the Pew Forum’s “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths” report, you’ll quickly come across this statement: “A solid majority says they seldom or never meditate (60%).” This statistic is often repeated, such as in the Huffington Post, and so I’ve been concerned with the Pew Forum’s decision to lump together “seldom” and “never.”

The simple difference between my answer (39%) and the alternative (60%) is that I separate “seldom” and “never.” You can find these numbers buried in the appendix, where the survey questions are presented along with the proportions for each response. The question of interest here was: “How often do you meditate as a religious or spiritual exercise?” The following seven answer choices were given: several times a day, once a day, a few times a week, once a week, a few times a month, seldom, and never. The first five responses totaled 39%, while 21% responded “seldom” and 39% responded “never.” (One percent either chose not to respond or didn’t know.)

Those who responded “seldom” include all those who meditate some amount less than about 40 days a year. When we cite the statistic about Asian American Buddhists who “seldom or never meditate,” we’re effectively saying that someone who meditates, say, only on full-moon days is in the same group as someone who never meditates at all.

The Pew Forum’s choice on how to deal with “seldom” ultimately influences the popular narrative of how Asian Americans practice Buddhism. A key comparison is that there are as many Asian American Buddhists who say they never meditate (39%) as there are Asian American Buddhists who say they meditate “a few times a month” or more (39%). Depending on how you decide to group those who say they “seldom” meditate (21%), then either “a solid majority says they seldom or never meditate” or a solid majority says they meditate to some degree. The Pew Forum chose the former, which Ariana Huffington eventually interpreted to mean that Buddhist Asian Americans “place little emphasis on meditation.”

The best way to combat stereotypes about Asian American Buddhists is to listen to what we have to say. Sometimes that means digging into the details of an otherwise reputable study. If you want to learn more about Buddhist Asian America, then I encourage you to take a stab at answering one of my questions. I’m already learning a lot from the responses so far!

Photo credit: Panditarama Melbourne.

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)

The Pew Study Marginalizes Asian Americans

At the heart of my exhortations that Buddhists should ignore the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey is that the study tragically misrepresents Asian America. Past critiques, such as those cited by Rev. Danny Fisher, focus on the Pew study’s methodological problems of potentially undercounting immigrants or omitting the state of Hawai‘i.

Fair points, but the impact of these methodological errors is hard to gauge. In other words, we can rail against the study’s methodological flaws until we’re red in the face, but in order to demonstrate (rather than speculate) that the outcome of the study is flawed, we have to look at the numbers. I’ve done this before, but given James Coleman’s ingenuous reading of the study, I feel obliged to do so again.

This exercise uses the estimated population of the United States during the year the Pew study was conducted—301.6 million (courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau)—in addition to three statistics from the Pew Study: 0.7%of Americans identify as Buddhist, 32% of American Buddhists identify as Asian, and 9% of Asian Americans identify as Buddhist.

Apply the first percentage to the total American population in 2007, and you end up with some 2.1 million Buddhists in America.

Now if 32% of those American Buddhists are Asian, then there are a mere 676,000 Asian American Buddhists.

The Pew study tells us that 9% percent of Asian Americans identify as Buddhist, and since we know the Pew estimates there are about 676,000 Asian American Buddhists, we can combine these two statistics to reveal the size of Asian America in the eyes of the Pew study. It’s simple algebra: if 9% of x equals 676,000 then you just need to divide 676,000 by 9% in order to find x (i.e. the number of Asian Americans). This yields 7.5 million Asian Americans, or about 2.5% of the American population.

But wait a moment! The U.S. Census estimates there were 15.2 millionAsian Americans in that year. That’s more than twice the estimate we came to from the Pew study’s numbers.

Slice the numbers another way, and you arrive at the same dilemma. When Coleman writes about a very white liberal middle-class face of Buddhism, he bases his entire understanding on a set of numbers that are irredeemably skewed against Asian Americans. Take the Pew study’s Buddhism statistics at face value, as James Coleman does, and you partake in the racial marginalization of Asians in Western Buddhism.

I just can’t say it enough. Stop using the Pew study!

Why Shouldn’t Buddhists Use the Pew Study?

The Face of Western Buddhism” (Buddhadharma Fall 2011) is a perfect case study of how to marginalize Asian American Buddhists in print. Sociologist James Coleman depicts Buddhist America using the effectively racist dichotomy of immigrants versus converts and he whitewashes American Buddhist history by ignoring several decades of Asian American Buddhist pioneers. Most problematic is that the author presents his case as one based on sound empiricism.

Coleman paints the picture of an affluent White Buddhist America where “roughly three-quarters of American Buddhists are converts,” where “Buddhists are more likely to identify themselves as liberals,” where Buddhists “are more likely to have a higher income and better education than the average American” and where “Buddhists are the fastest-growing religious group in American today.”

The meat of this analysis comes from the U.S. Religious Landscape Surveyby the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life—a study that no self-respecting academic could use to describe American Buddhism without being guilty of racial marginalization. As I demonstrated before, the Pew forum can only come to this sort of conclusion because its survey is skewed toward White middle-class Americans.

The Pew study itself even admits that the survey deserves “caution” when looking at religious groups with large numbers of immigrants:

English-only surveys, and even English surveys with a Spanish option, are likely biased in that their samples do not sufficiently represent the full spectrum of Latinos, many of whom are recent immigrants and are unable to complete a telephone survey in English. […] This suggests that caution is also in order when estimating the number of adherents of other religious groups that are disproportionately composed of immigrants, such as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and members of other world religions.

According to U.S. Census surveys, there were 14.9 million Asian Americans in 2007. If you follow the Pew study’s numbers, there were only 7.5 million. (You can do the math.) That’s a big difference and ample grounds to question any of the study’s findings on Buddhist America.

Honestly, people. Stop using the Pew study.

Stop Using the Pew Study

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life) came up today amid Danny Fisher’s thoughts on the American media’s reaction to Tiger Woods’ Buddhist identity. I’ve discussed my objections to this study before, but here’s a shorter version of why I find it resolutely objectionable when Buddhists take it at face value.

I borrowed a couple numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, namely the 2007 estimates for the total U.S. population (298.8 million) and the number of Asian Americans (14.5 million). Then I took two percentages that Danny Fisher pulled from the Religious Landscape Survey. With some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic, I arrived at the following figures.

If 0.7% of Americans are Buddhist, then there are about 2.1 million Buddhists in America. 

If 9% of Asian Americans are Buddhist, then there are about 1.3 million Asian American Buddhists in America. 

Now let’s do some basic division: 1.3 million Asian American Buddhists out of 2.1 million American Buddhists means that 62% of American Buddhists identify as Asian.

But wait a second! According to the Pew Forum, only 32% of American Buddhists identify as Asian. Why don’t these numbers add up?

Well, Pew takes a lower estimate of how many Americans identify as Asian. Their survey responses are skewed toward white middle-class Americans—even after they try to correct for bias. Their estimate leaves out about 40% of the Asian Americans that the U.S. Census Bureau includes. All else being equal, if we continue to sincerely describe our community by citing a study which ignores 40% of Asian American Buddhists—that’s 500,000 Americans—we are then likewise complicit in the racial marginalization of the largest part of the American Buddhist community.

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!

Reassessing Buddhists in Hawai’i

Thanks to helpful comments over at Dharma Folk, I was alerted to two issues that I overlooked. I’ve since changed my number yet again. The new adjusted figure is still 1.9 million Asian American Buddhists (current estimate: 1.862m; previously: 1.902m) out of 3.3 million Buddhists nationally.

First, I’ve been using the word “count” interchangeably with “sample”, and this practice is misleading. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey wasn’t a census. A sample of the American demographic was taken and then weighted according to national parameters using a type of regression. Proper samples often get a pretty good look at demographics, but sometimes the sample is skewed in favor of one demographic over another, as is the case with the Pew’s Survey. My goal has been to adjust the Pew numbers to compensate for this skewedness. When I said “undercounted” what I meant to say was “the underestimated population of a certain demographic.”

Second, in at least one of my adjustments, I made an assumption I’d like to take back. I assumed that the underestimated number of Buddhists in Hawai‘i (106,021) were all Asian American. I’d like to be a little more conservative and assume that this underestimated number be proportioned according to Hawai‘is racial/ethnic makeup, leaving 61,693 in the Asian American box (that includes multiethnic individuals). The end result doesn’t change much, but I hope it’s some comfort to know that I made the effort to take these issues into account.

All feedback is great. Thanks Marcus and Rev. Danny Fisher!

I Found Some More Buddhists

Back to blogger I am. I couldn’t understand how to use the “Compose” option on Blogger and quickly went back to blogging on Dharma Folk. Every time I added/changed text or a photo, everything else changed in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and I decided to throw it all out the window. But after Dogo Barry Graham’s comment, I realized I decided to try again with HTML…

I previously provided what I felt was a reasonable estimate of Asian American Buddhists. But thanks to some comments from Rev. Danny Fisher, I decided to rerun the numbers. The new figure points to a total of 3.3 million Buddhists in the United States, 57% of whom are Asian American.

Rev. Danny Fisher pointed out that at least one figure was highly suspect. So, upon reading even more closely than before, I noticed that the Pew Forum found that in a purely bilingual survey, 65% of Latinos identified as Catholic, but in an English-only survey, a mere 43% of Latinos identified as Catholic. The graphic above illustrates what happens if we add to the Pew Forum the missing numbers for Hawai‘i (106,000), expand the number of Asian American Buddhists by the proportion by which Asian Americans in general were undersampled (76%) and also by the proportion by which Latino Catholics were undercounted in an English-only survey (51%). This brings the size of the Asian American Buddhist community to the sizable number of 1.9 million.

Take Two

Last year, I began a blog called Dharma Folk with a friend who goes by the online nom de plume John. I’ve had a great time writing on that blog and exploring issues in the Buddhist community. But Dharma Folk is a group blog, and I get the feeling that my posts have been drowning out the voices of my cobloggers, notably John, Oz and kudos. A couple of them would likely be much more happy to write on the blog if they knew their words weren’t going to be hidden between posts by the Angry Asian Buddhist.
So I’m moving all that rubbish over here.
As of today, I’ve got 27 Angry Asian Buddhist posts over at Dharma Folk. It all started when I was trying to find resources for Asian American Buddhists, followed by two periods when I lashed out against the hegemony of white Buddhists, first in the blogosphere and then in print. Most recently, a rant that began about the exclusion of Asian American Buddhists in a Buddhadharma piece has developed into Asian Meter, an analysis of the under-representation of Asian American Buddhists in high profile Buddhist publications, which in turn has sent me reviewing the statistics in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The idea for “Angry Asian Buddhist” comes from Phil Yu’s Angry Asian Man blog. The name combines the irony of “Angry Asian” and “Angry Buddhist”, which are terms meant to counter the notion that all Asians are polite and submissive or that all Buddhists are calm and detached. As the Man himself explains it:

I’m not as angry as you think. Yes, racism angers me. But I’m not here sitting in front of the computer, hating whitey and plotting revolution. This is just a subject that has always interested me — pointing out racism and noting any and all appearances of Asians in mass media and popular culture (the good and the bad). It’s something I care about. So I’ve created a little space on the web for it all… I suppose the angry part sometimes scares people, but rest assured, I’m a pretty civil, reasonable guy. Just don’t cross me.

The main difference is that Phil Yu is funny, while I can get pretty snarky. I’m not doing this for money or for fame, I just want to share my thoughts and my occasional research.