The emergence of Western Buddhism has long been chronicled, and I have no doubt that should “Western Buddhism” ever coalesce into a coherent tradition, it will stand apart from all other Buddhist lineages by the phenomenal level at which its early members were so perpetually enthralled in talking and writing about what their new tradition would be. It’s not even clear to me who counts as a Western Buddhist and who doesn’t, but I understand that’s not the point. Western Buddhism will “just happen” by combining the best of East and West, and we’ll all be long gone by then. Western Buddhism is simply the next phase in Dharmic evolution.
I’m going to start posting less here. It’s probably not a stretch to say that my posts on this blog overwhelm the contributions of my very worthy co-bloggers. In addition to writing a lot, my tone and subject matter is also very different. Since the Angry Asian Buddhist post in December, my writing has shifted away from talking about practice towards talking about social issues in the Buddhist community. So I’m going to stop adding Angry Asian Buddhist posts to Dharma Folk. Hopefully that will change the atmosphere (in a positive way) for my co-bloggers, and my writing volume will also be more in line with how much they write. I’ll still continue to write about social issues, especially the Asian Meter, but I’m going to keep them on a separate blog on blogspot, which I’ve called: Angry Asian Buddhist.
There are about 1.5 million Asian American Buddhists in the United States. Or at least, that’s my estimate. My confidence interval is pretty big, but I feel certain enough to start tossing this number around from now on. This figure keeps the data and assumptions of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, but adjusts them to address discrepancies related to the U.S. Census, linguistic preferences of Asian Americans and geography (i.e. counting Hawai‘i and Alaska).
In past posts, I observed that the Pew Forum severely underestimated the size of the Asian American community (by about 56%!), and I also investigated what it meant to exclude Buddhists in Hawai‘i. I even tried out my own deliberately-flawed estimate. But there was one issue that I left off until now: language.
It’s 7:15am in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I’m sitting in the Peet’s Coffee off Brattle Square waiting for some friends to roll out of bed and come grab some breakfast with me. In the meantime, I thought I’d throw up a post about a semi-recent collection of poetry by Wisdom Publications: The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry (2005).
As you might guess, I decided to view this book through the lens of the Asian Meter. How many Asian American Buddhists met the bar for inclusion in this work? I wasn’t surprised to find out that the Wisdom Anthology, at 17% Asian American, fell right in the middle of the other publications that I’d reviewed (The Best Buddhist Writing, 19%; Buddhadharma, 17%; Shambhala Sun, 11%; Tricycle, 8%). But rather than harangue the Wisdom Anthology, as I’ve done for the other publications, I think this is something to be celebrated. Specifically because a quotient of 17% is infinitely more than a certain Buddhist anthology published by Shambhala many years back: Beneath a Single Moon.
Tricycle printed a letter to the editor from Scott Mitchell that criticized their “Buddhism by the Numbers” piece in the Fall 2008 issue. If you can’t read his whole complaint, it’s also available on his blog. There are four specific issues, but in this post, I’m addressing one in particular:
The exclusion of the Hawaiian population is troublesome for a number of reasons: chief among them the continual marginalization of Hawaii as part of the United States, and the marginalization of Japanese-American Buddhists generally. In other words, these Asian-American Buddhists were literally not counted in this report.
That’s one side of the coin. Here’s an alternative perspective: I imagine that the Pew Study did some internal analysis and concluded on excluding Hawai‘i, since the Aloha State’s unique contribution to the national profile would not have justified the extra contract cost in contacting them. Now I’m not saying that excluding Hawaiians is fair, but it’s worth crunching the numbers to see to what extent the Buddhists of Hawai‘i really do change the national profile.
I previously blogged that the numbers in the Pew Study severely underestimated the size of the Asian American community. They don’t hide this fact, either. Their number is roughly 30% to 40% smaller than the 13.2 million Asian Americans that the U.S. Census published for the same time period. (Hapas excluded. I know, it’s unfair.) According to the Pew approximately 675,000 Asian Americans were Buddhist in 2007, but this number is far too small.
How small is too small? Let’s put these numbers into perspective. If there were only 675,000 Asian American Buddhists in 2007, that number would be less than if we said that Buddhism was practiced by a mere 20% of all Americans of Southeast Asian heritage and a token 5% of all Americans of East Asian heritage. And I’m not even counting multiethnic Americans here. That number is too small.
One thing I carried away from this past election cycle was that in certain parts of the country, people refer to their ancestry as “American.” This juicy tidbit about American demographics was gleaned from Nate Silver‘s highly influential blog, where he wrote:
Recently, the Census Bureau has begin to ask for an ethnic classification in addition to a racial one (e.g. “Cuban”, “Lithuanian”). However, about seven percent of Americans decline to check any of the boxes that the Census Bureau provides, and instead write in that they are simply “American”. As you can see, this practice tends to be highly concentrated in certain parts of the country, especially the Appalachian/Highlands region:
To be perfectly blunt, this variable seems to serve as a pretty good proxy for folks that a lot of us elitists would usually describe as “rednecks”. And for whatever reason, these “American” voters do not like Barack Obama. That is why he’s getting killed in the polls in Kentucky and West Virginia, for instance, where there are high concentrations of them.
So what does this have to do with Buddhism? Nothing.
One day I visited with Ben Moore, a fellow “Dharma Brat” (child of American Buddhist parents).
So what then does it mean to be an American Buddhist?
Ever since I started making my Asian Meter graphs (here, here and here), I’ve been trying to find a good measure of the proportion of Asians in the Buddhist American community to use as a sort of benchmark. I’ve used two percentages: 32% from the Pew Forum and 80% from David N. Snyder. Both are flawed estimates, but here I’ll just focus on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey (the “Pew survey” for short).
For the past week I’ve been mulling over two percentages that the Pew survey provided. There is the widely circulated number that 32% of Buddhist Americans are of Asian descent (and not hapa). You can find this in Tricycle‘s Fall 2008 issue. Then there is the less commonly known number, which is ostensibly the flip-side of the first, that 9% of Asian Americans are Buddhist. The problem is that these two numbers don’t add up.
I realize this must be getting tedious. There is so much more to life than counting the Asians in Buddhist publications. I continue to do this count for two reasons. First, I’m learning how to use Microsoft Excel, and these numbers are fun, simple and original data to work with. Second, there is so much that I learn when I plug these numbers into the charts! For example, it never would have hit me that Tricycle had fewer Asian writers (proportionally speaking) than either Shambhala Sun or Buddhadharma. That bar graph really speaks to me. (Update: I also do this because I think someone should find out what the numbers say.)
The Best Buddhist Writing data was still lying around on my antique laptop, so I dug it up and dropped it into an Asian Meter graph. Three points jumped out at me. First, there is the obvious fact that even when it comes to The Best Buddhist Writing, the Asian quotient is still under-representative. Second, there are more Tibetan writers than all the other Asians combined. The third point is something that I only discovered after looking at the graph and comparing what I was seeing with the number I had written down in my previous post on these books.
This is a boring post, beware. It took a while for the local Borders to stock the most recent issue of Buddhadharma, but they finally did. I am going to just bite the bullet and subscribe to these magazines online. Somewhere, a tree spirit is heaving a spontaneous sigh of relief and doesn’t know why.
Anyway, I now have the third piece to plop into my Asian Meter. I also moved things around a little and added some detail to the graphic. Voilà!