Let’s Go Clubbing with the Buddha

This picture frustrates me over and over again. It’ disrespectful, insensitive, and offensive.

My friend tells me that I’m overreacting and taking it too seriously.

But would they say the same if a Christian person complained about their religion taken out of it’s context and being used for commercial purposes?

Why, for some reason, do some religions in America seem to carry more legitimacy, treated with more respect and sensitivity, over other religions in America?

Can you imagine a scenario in which Las Vegas opened a new nightclub called “Trinity” that themed all it’s decorations and advertising material around Jesus and other Christian icons? Would Christians (and Americans in general) find that disrespectful and offensive? Would their feelings be treated as melodramatic and inappropriate?

Religious nightlife indeed.

I find that this doesn’t only happen with Christians or Americans. I went on a tour bus trip from Los Angeles to Yellowstone National Park. On our way back to Los Angeles, we stopped in Utah to visit their famous Mormon church. We had several tour guides who gave us a brief tour of the church and basics about the Mormon faith.

One of the tour guides was a girl from Korea who is spending about a year and a half studying and volunteering at the Mormon Church. She was younger than the other “Sisters” who helped lead the tour. Halfway though the tour, it became obvious that many of the men on our tour were intentionally trying to talk to the Korean tour guide or get a photograph with her. I heard men around me talkinabout how pretty she was, encouraging their friends to also take a photo with her. In comparison, the other two tour guides who were just standing to the side, apparently not interesting or attractive enough for the tourists to interact with.

I found this to be greatly disturbing – the idea that people were flirting with one of the religious representatives of the Mormon faith. Those men didn’t seem to care or see anything wrong with what they were doing. But would those men treat representatives from their own religion (monks, pastors, nuns, etc) in the same way?

How come we cannot follow one of the simplest pieces of advice taught to us as toddlers – to treat others the way we’d like to be treated?

Democracy’s Dharma and Buddhist Pluralism

Recently I read a really good Buddhist Book: Richard Madsen’s Democracy’s Dharma. I don’t read a lot of really good Buddhist books, because most Buddhist books are dreadful. This is because so many of them fly too close to New Age and self-help and are more concerned with making the reader feel good than communicating something new and vital.

Democracy’s Dharma has something to say. It is a study of four major religious groups in Taiwan: Tzu Chi, Fo Guang Shan, Dharma Drum, and a predominantly Daoist group called Xingtian. The three former groups, all very active in the United States, are often underrepresented in English Buddhist writing, and they each receive in-depth treatment in Madsen’s book. A study and analysis of each of these groups’ founders, culture, and history would be valuable in its own right, but the book is more ambitious: Madsen looks at how each group was fostered by the democractizing and industrializing forces of Taiwan over the last few decades, and how the culture and character of each group serves a specific segment of Taiwan’s changing society. Continue reading “Democracy’s Dharma and Buddhist Pluralism”

Buddha, Buddha, Everywhere

Going along with arun’s last post on branding, Western culture has definitely used the Buddha as a brand, a way to market products of all kinds, most of the time not related to Buddhism in any way. It’s the commercialization of Buddhism and if we take a closer look around us and increase our sensitivity to it, we can see that it’s everywhere. In a way, it’s interesting because in a dominantly Christian society, Buddhism makes appearances quite often – just not necessarily in a Buddhist context. Here are some examples I’ve noticed:

Buddha Balm

more Buddha Balm
Buddha Spa
True Religion Jeans

What is your first reaction when you see these? Is this acceptable, using the Buddha for purely commercial and marketing reasons? Feel free to share what you think about it – I’m curious to know.

A Vietnamese Mendicant Tradition

Nhu Lai Thien Tu

There were six, if not more toilets at Như Lai Thiền Tự, a Buddhist temple in San Diego. I figured six was excessive—until three coaches of pilgrims pulled up in front. Celebrations for the Lunar New Year continue, and this includes the ancient tradition of temple hopping. Apparently the new year is the best time to make merit—and to wait in a long line to pee.

On any given day, there is very little about Như Lai Thiền Tự to distinguish it from the multitude of other Vietnamese temples across North America. There is a main shrine hall, an ancestor hall—even a special stage set up for Tết ceremonies. Statues of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and classic characters from Chinese Buddhist literature meet you at every turn, always accompanied by a incense holder for the devotee. But this is not your typical Mahayana Buddhist temple.

Continue reading “A Vietnamese Mendicant Tradition”

Something Old, Something New

Ordinary_bicycle02This weekend I had the pleasure of listening to Dr. Lancaster, the brilliant and pioneering professor of Buddhist Studies, who gave a lecture at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. The title of his talk was “How Religions Learn,” though in the same way as many of my favorite speakers he used the talk as an opportunity to weave together his most recent thoughts and questions.

But Dr. Lancaster’s topic is a point of interest for me. It points to an uneasy contradiction in any religion’s self-composed history: religions must learn and change to respond to the spiritual needs of the people, but one of these fundamental needs is to have an absolute and unchanging truth to anchor ourselves to.

I worry that this contradiction is becoming increasingly insurmountable, and that religion is entering a place where it can no longer learn.
Continue reading “Something Old, Something New”

A White Buddhist and Privilege

MeditatorI’m writing today’s post as a white male American Buddhist. I shouldn’t introduce myself as a privileged white Buddhist, though. Not because it’s unfair—but simply because it’s redundant.

To be clear, my privilege didn’t come as some sort of elite pedigree. My family lived in the urban projects, neither of my parents held a college degree, and I didn’t spend much of my childhood getting to know them because they both worked more than full-time jobs to cover the bills. My Jewish immigrant progenitors weren’t colonists, settlers, politicians or plantation owners. They were persecuted refugees who didn’t come here until long after the turn of the twentieth century—where, overworked, they continued to endure prejudice and discrimination—and they voted Democrat and Civil Rights all the way. But my white privilege runs even deeper. I am privileged by the very fact that I’m a white American dude.

Continue reading “A White Buddhist and Privilege”

What does Western Buddhism mean for people of color?

Okay, I know the title feels like a continuation of everything before (and it is), Lama Choyin Rangdrolbut it’s not because I woke up this morning itching to write another Angry Asian Buddhist post. Yesterday a student asked me about what it means to be Buddhist, so I decided to forward her a link to a post from a year ago, “What does it mean to not be Buddhist?” When I did a Google search for this title (too lazy to search my own blog!) the top article happened to be “American Buddhism: What does it mean for people of color?” written by Lama Choyin Rangdrol back in 1998. So you can imagine I was curious.

Below are some thoughts from another writer, from the last century (so to speak), that spoke to me today.

Continue reading “What does Western Buddhism mean for people of color?”

So How Many Asian American Buddhists Are There?

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).

Recounting Asian American Buddhists

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.

Continue reading “So How Many Asian American Buddhists Are There?”

Estimates of Asian American Buddhists

West Los Angeles Obon Festival

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.

Continue reading “Estimates of Asian American Buddhists”

Pew Study Doesn’t Add Up

Pew ForumEver 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.

Continue reading “Pew Study Doesn’t Add Up”