Stereotypes of Asian Buddhists in Canada

I knew the article was going to be bad when I saw the first word misspelled: A-mi-tha-ba. Google could have helped on that one.

This careless misrendering of an Asian name of the Pure Land Buddha is but one of the myriad problems in Douglas Todd’s Vancouver Sun piece on Canadian Buddhism (“As Buddhism grows, two ‘solitudes’ emerge”). Todd attempts to stuff Metro Vancouver’s Buddhist diversity into a Two Buddhisms framework, and in so doing he misrepresents both Asian Buddhists and Pure Land Buddhist traditions by perpetuating common racist stereotypes and sectarian aspersions.

Todd’s Two Buddhisms are dubbed “ethnic Buddhism” and “Westernized Buddhism,” and he describes each group by their usual stereotypes. Ethnic Buddhism, for example, is “practised mostly by Asian immigrants, most of whom cannot speak English.” This assertion is incredible. According to the Canadian Census, the vast majority of Asians in British Columbia speak English, so why does Todd propose that Asian Buddhists are so much more unlikely to speak English than their non-Buddhist counterparts?

Of course, these überforeign ethnic Buddhists “generally meet in large extravagant-looking temples throughout the city.” Another cavalier assertion that can be inspected a little more closely. I went to British Columbia’s listing on the BuddhaNet World Buddhist Directory and ran Google Street View on the addresses of “ethnic” temples listed in Metro Vancouver. Mostly residential and office buildings turned up. I have a hunch that most Asian Buddhist congregants in Vancouver regularly attend services in buildings on the same order of “ordinary-looking” as the Gold Buddha Monastery that Todd described visiting.

Let’s not forget the claim that “‘ethnic Buddhists’ have a more supernatural bent.” I can’t imagine how many Asian Buddhists Todd must have interviewed to find that out, but as I demonstrated previously based on Pew Forum research, non-Asian Buddhists are more likely to believe in Nirvana than Asian Buddhists are. (The Pew Forum surveyed the United States, but Todd has separately stated that his “experience covering diversity issues suggests its findings can be comfortably extrapolated to Canada and Metro Vancouver.”) So perhaps Asian Buddhists are more likely than non-Asian Buddhists to believe in the supernatural, while being less likely to believe in Nirvana. I find that hard to believe, especially when Todd has no surveys to back him up.

Last, but not least offensive, is Todd’s depiction of Pure Land Buddhism in Vancouver as basically a bunch of Asians praying to get to Buddha heaven. The forms of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Vancouver involve much more than just Pure Land practice. They even include meditation—just like those white Buddhists! Even congregations which identify primarily as Pure Land, such as the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada, would probably surprise Todd with their approach to Pure Land philosophy. That’s worth a whole post on its own.

If by chance Todd cares to amend any of the numerous errors in his article, it may be best to start with a spell check. For example, the largest Buddhist school is called Mahayana—not Mayahana. Wow. My iPad’s autocorrect just tried to fix that one.