Buddhist Americans

Ven Jian Dan giving a lecture
Ven Jian Dan giving a lecture (from Awakening Mind Zen blog)

The Pew Forum recently published a survey of American religion, and this sparked an interesting discussion in the Buddhist community. If you want to see PhDs analyze it to death and tear it apart, go visit H-Buddhism. I’m going to refrain from tossing in my opinion on the survey. I’m primarily interested in the Buddhist (blogging) community’s reaction on two points, and what this says about the community.

Many people took the survey at face value. Charles Prebish seemed keen to note some surprises. For some, this survey was proof that American Buddhism is in decline, even dying out, especially due to a lack of children. Some found particular interest in the fact that the Pew survey reported more non-Asian Buddhists than Asian Buddhists in America, and vastly more converts than heritage Buddhists.

The first reaction is one that I’ve heard a lot over the past eight years: American Buddhism is getting old. In fact, Sumi Loundon found her inspiration to compile Blue Jean Buddha based on her experience in a retreat kitchen as the lone twentysomething among a crowd of Baby Boomers. Of course, she eventually found young Buddhist voices. But the reaction on these blogs suggests that Boomer Buddhists still get together in groups where active young Buddhists are a tiny minority, if they’re even there at all.

The second reaction — more of a surprise — is nested in the notion that American Buddhism is predominantly Asian American. According to the Pew survey, it’s not. Some bloggers expressed a bit of satisfaction in this result (see here and here, but also note there is some methodological controversy.) The bloggers’ emphasis on this particular result suggests that the division between Asian and non-Asian Buddhist America is just as real as ever. For me, the force of this reaction means that many Buddhists out there still have a strong insecurity with regards to their American Buddhist identity.

These two reactions are often framed as American Buddhism’s two great challenges. How do we perpetuate our community? How do we cross the cultural divide?

I’d like to think that these questions don’t need answering. Maybe I’m overly optimistic. If John and I (your humble “dharma bloggers”) are a representative slice of Buddhist America, then we have already solved both the issues. We are active young Buddhists, of Asian and non-Asian heritage, who work together in the Buddhist community.

There are many more out there like us. But for some reason, we aren’t noticed.

4 Replies to “Buddhist Americans”

  1. It’s been a while since I wrote that blog entry, but I think I was satisfied in some sense that Americans had converted to Buddhism (if you can call it conversion), especially since Buddhists don’t usually seem to try that hard to convert people. This suggests to me a philosophy that survives more on it’s own merit rather than the ability of it’s followers to persuade people.

    As for the number of Asian vs non-Asian Buddhists, the results did sort of violate my expectations. I would have expected it to be closer to 50:50. I didn’t care too much about that which is why I didn’t boldface that.

    I didn’t really spend much time thinking about any of this though. I posted that rather quickly and just tried to pull out some highlights. I hadn’t really thought about trends over time.

    Overall I’m more of a recluse and don’t think about community that much.

  2. I was admonished for not leaving comments, so here I go, much belatedly!

    Rita, thanks for your comment! There’s nothing wrong at all with being a kid in a group of boomers. But kids like to hang out with other kids, and kids are less likely to hang out in communities without people their own age. When communities lose their youth, they tend to die out altogether.

    Still, I think boomers (or middle-aged folk in general) are an integral part of a religious community. Especially compared with us young’uns, boomers have more organizational experience, greater material resources and larger social networks. But the graying of the American Buddhist community is sometimes interpreted as a harbinger of the end. Whether this is true or not has yet to be seen…

    Robert — I appreciate your point about converts reflecting the merit of the Dharma. I think it’s very true. I feel the Pew Forum’s sampling methods underestimate the size of dense minority communities, but addressing these concerns would require a completely different type of study…

    Rita and Robert, thank you again for your comments!

Comments are closed.