Tricycle By Numbers

I haven’t been giving Phil Ryan enough credit for standing up for Buddhist diversity, both in this recent post and also in comments elsewhere where he points out Tricycle’s recent interview with Daisaku Ikeda. TricycleThe interview highlights Soka Gakkai, a group that is both very diverse and very underrepresented in mainstream Buddhist media. Good job!

That said, Tricycle is still a bad model of Buddhist diversity. I recently read last issue’s sangha spotlight, “Buddhism By Numbers”, and I was amazed at how seriously (and inaccurately) they quoted the Pew Study. It’s tempting to rehash Scott Mitchell’s arguments, and I went even further and wrote up a list of ways that the Pew’s sampling assumptions and weighted corrections probably skewed the final numbers. But when I tried explaining this to a (Buddhist Asian American) financial analyst, she promptly fell asleep. I needed a sexier idea.

So this is plan two: Tricycle By Numbers.

Methodology. (Oh and I thought the years of tedious data collection and surveys were long behind me!) I went online and grabbed every by-line from the last year of Tricycle magazine. For issues earlier than 2008, the by-lines aren’t so easy to get off the website without a subscription, so that became my survey limit.

From these four issues, I found a total of 88 unique writers and (with the help of Google search) coded them by race, ethnicity and birthplace. This list includes interviewers and interviewees, but it doesn’t include the subject of a piece (e.g. Mira Tweti).

I will admit some bias. If I was unable to ascertain the race of a particular individual, I took an educated guess and when in doubt, chose “Caucasian” (e.g. “Aaron Lackowski”). So the results indeed are skewed towards Caucasians, who I didn’t bother to categorize by ethnicity. To Buddhists of other colors: I’m sorry, this survey left you out. My focus is, as you might have guessed, on Asian writers.

Results. A total of 14 writers were Asian. That’s 15.9%! Certainly, that’s more than the proportion of Asian Americans in the United States, but it’s far less than the 32% that even the questionable Pew Study reports for the Buddhist community. There was quite a bit of variation in ethnic composition in the Asian crowd, with writers from Burma, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Tibet and Vietnam.

Now the disturbing facts:

  • None of these Asian Buddhists were born in North America.
  • Eight of them were ordained as celibate monastics.
  • Two are dead.

Discussion. To get to the point, if I were to use Tricycle as a map to the ethnic makeup of the Buddhist community, this is what I would think of Asian American Buddhist writers. Firstly, the only Asian Buddhist writers — or at least the only ones whose work merits publication — are those who came here from Asia. In fact, I’d bet that the only real Asian Buddhists are the immigrants.

Secondly, Asian Buddhist writers should be ordained. If you’ve got an Asian Buddhist who’s not a monk or a nun, it’s less likely they’ll have anything interesting to say that some white Buddhist couldn’t have said better. If the writer happens to be a long-dead Asian monastic, then you can be sure that their words will connect much better with the Tricycle readership than the impenetrable prose of a native-born Asian American New Yorker.

For anyone who’s raised Asian American, it’s easy to just accept society as it is. Our absence from the media tells us that we either don’t belong or don’t exist. Maybe Asian American Buddhists just don’t write. Maybe Asian American Buddhists don’t care about the same things white people do. Maybe there just aren’t that many Asian American Buddhists.

These speculations might be true, but I can’t validate them just by looking around my neighborhood. I’d have to go out and do my own research because the alternative is to rely on the mainstream Buddhist media. You know, the media that projects an image where the only worthwhile writers are white folks and their distant Asian teachers.

In response to Phil, I really did enjoy reading the interview with Daisaku Ikeda and also the post about Meditate NYC. These are great pieces. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that these pieces in any way negate my complaints that the mainstream Buddhist media are marginalizing Asian American Buddhists. Just look at the numbers.

15 Replies to “Tricycle By Numbers”

  1. Whatever you do, don’t run this same exercise on the “Best Buddhist Writing of [2008/2007/2006/etc]” series that Shambhala puts out. You’ll blow a gasket once you learn that year in and year out the absolute best Buddhist writers are white people who meditate a lot, with a few of their revered immigrant/dead celibate monastic teachers (and a tiny smattering of wise black people looking to help white Buddhists with their spiritual growth). Clearly, as an Asian-American writer you need to realize that you don’t say anything worth printing and go drink some tea. Just don’t get angry, because we all know Buddhists don’t get angry.

  2. I’m curious because I don’t know. Beyond blogs such as these, have Asian American Buddhists created any media of their own?

    Also, as a commercial enterprise, I don’t see why Tricycle has any obligation to present a constellation of viewpoints in line with the numerical percentage of…whatever. Its main consideration will be publishing editorial content that appeals to the broadest subscription base and newsstand buyers. If Asian Americans, as you say, are less than 15% of the general population, well…there may be some cold, capitalist calculation going on.

    Again, I’m genuinely curious: who are the Asian American writers you feel are being ignored/underrepresented?

  3. Konchog, its really quite simple. Tricycle and Buddhadharma explicitly claim to represent all of Buddhism. They say they are non-sectarian and seek to include all kinds of Buddhism. But in actual practice they only present a very narrow slice of new white Western Buddhism. If they were “Tricycle: The While Buddhist Review” or “Buddhadharma: The Western Convert’s Quarterly,” no one would have any problem with them. But they themselves claim a mantle that they are very poor at maintaining. That’s why the criticism arises.

    Again, with the Shambhala “Best Buddhism of the Year” books: they themselves claim to accurately represent the best writing in English on Buddhism, but they do NOT read Asian-American sources for their collections. Therefore, they are actually directly shaping public opinion in a dishonest way that is detrimental to the many people and groups they never even consider for their influential books.

  4. OK, I tried an experiment. The Worst Horse was touting Elephant Journal (http://www.elephantjournal.com/) so I went and clicked through all their categories looking as if I were Asian.

    Wow.

    They might as well call it “Spiritual Stuff White People Like.” The only Asian face anywhere was Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (they seem to be quite Shambhala connected), with Obama and Toni Morrison the only other faces adding any ‘color.’ It was overwhelmingly white, affluent young people. An eye-opener.

  5. Buddhist Reader: Thanks for your comments! I actually did the Best Buddhist Writing of 2004-2008 first (it was much easier to grab the data), and the post for that data set is still in the works because the results are just so much more fun to talk about!

    Ven. Konchog: Thank you for making this point! You must realize that you never heard of Asian American Buddhist writers because either they don’t exist, they aren’t qualified or they’ve been marginalized. (Okay there are more reasons, but I’ll stick with those.) For whichever answer you choose, make sure you properly list the assumptions that led you to that choice.

    I have met qualified Asian American Buddhist writers (you know, poet laureates and the such), so that led me to the marginalization option. These writers may not be famous for writing the sort of articles that you see in Tricycle, but I doubt they’ve ever been asked to. There’s also a list of Asian American Buddhist writers in a previous post, but your question has given me the excuse to republish an email by a Shambhala editor from 10 years ago, where he basically said that these authors in this list just weren’t qualified.

    I’m going to have to do all this later though (sigh) because I’m teaching a brand new course next quarter and I still haven’t filled out all the lesson plans!

  6. I really appreciate this post and the work you put into it, Arunlikhati. It’s one thing to rant against the Man; it’s another thing entirely to perform a survey to get statistical evidence about how the Man is marginalizing people. (As XKCD famously put on a T-shirt, “Science: it works bitches!”)

    I’d also like to reiterate something some other commenters have said here (and elsewhere) on this issue. It bears repeating. A common response to this complaint that Tricycle, et al, don’t include more Asian/American voices seems to be “Maybe Asians don’t submit material.” As “Buddhist Blogger” pointed out, if you make the claim that you represent all of Buddhism, you’d better represent all of Buddhism. It is not the responsibility of the marginalized to force themselves into the mainstream. It is the responsibility of those already in positions of power to include the very people they claim to represent.

    Thanks again for speaking truth to power!

  7. There is some very good writing coming from Jodo Shinshu ministers like Taitetsu Unno, Patricia Usuki, and others in recent years, and I find the English-language material from Buddha’s Light Publishers very stimulating and easy to read. These books may not be readily available at the local big-box bookstores, but not impossible to find, thanks to the internet. There is quality material out there. I read what I like, and personally I don’t find top-ten-type lists helpful anyway.

  8. Thank you for this post. The post itself and the discussion are excellent. I hope the publishers of Buddhadharma, Tricycle, et all read it and work harder to create some change.

  9. Scott, Yuinen and Ven. Yeojun: Thank you for your comments! I don’t want this to be seen as statistically-driven science — I’m simply reporting a survey. More on Asian American Buddhist writers soon!

  10. Don’t know if this has been discussed before but I just looked at the Shambala Sun masthead picture and all the staff appear to be white. I like the magazine and appreciate the coverage of bell hooks and Alice Walker as somewhat unconventional teachers. I don’t doubt the sincerity and dedication of the the staff, but somehow it just feels wrong…

    Perhaps a more diverse staff would bring more diverse perspectives and coverage.

    Be the change…

    Yes we can…

    http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3305&Itemid=82

  11. This from “Making the Invisible Visible Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities”

    Taking the Path Together by Mushim Ikeda-Nash

    In 1992 I was visiting a Buddhist friend, and saw a copy of Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala Publications, 1991) sitting on the table. Intrigued, I picked it up and scanned the table of contents to see which American poets had been selected for inclusion in the anthology’s 358 pages. I remember dropping the book as though it had burnt me.
    It was an instinctive response, something I didn’t even think about or try to explain to myself at the time. After that I just purposefully forgot the book even existed.
    It wasn’t until three years later that I understood why I had been so shocked. In the afterword of Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (Kaya Production, 1995), editor Walter K. Lew writes that “the 45 American poets [in Beneath a Single Moon]…
    are all Caucasian, and the book only mentions Asians as distal teachers, not as fellow members or poets of the sangha…. When one considers the relative obscurity of some of the poets included in the book, one wonders how it was possible not to have known of the Buddhistic poetry of such writers as [Lawson Fusao] Inada, Al Robles, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, Patricia Ikeda, and Russell Leong.”

    I felt such relief when I read that list of names, mine included. Yes, I thought, we Asian American poets are here. Under the name Patricia Ikeda, I have become known as one of the “pioneers” of Asian American poetry ¾ although there would be no need of pioneers if Asian American poets had been accepted as, simply, American poets, along with African American, Latino/Latina, etc.
    poets. Of course, this may sound merely like sour grapes on my part, but it is the complete exclusion of Asian American poets from Beneath a Single Moon that still fills my heart with grief and pain. Another incident occurred in the spring of 1998. I was invited to be a speaker on a panel of “Asian and Asian American Women Buddhists” for the conference on North American Buddhist Women. Since one of the conference’s stated aims was to especially welcome Asian American Buddhist women, I was nonplussed when the program was printed and my name was not included on the list of presenters. Although I am now convinced that this was simply disorganization, I
    inquired into it, and in the process was assured by one of the conference’s organizers, a European American college professor, that I should not worry, because “many, many Asian American women are coming–Asian American women from Burma, from Thailand, from Nepal–” “Excuse me,” I broke in, “I’m confused! Are you talking about Asian American women who are living in Burma and Thailand, and coming home at the time of the conference?” There was a silence on the other end of the phone. I was dismayed to realize that this American college professor did not know that Asian Americans are…. well, we’re American. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and though my grandparents came from Japan, the only language I speak
    besides English is French. I’ve never been to Japan.
    Like many Asian Americans, I have been treated as an “other” my entire life. Not accepted as being truly American in my own country, I also know I would be extremely uncomfortable were I to visit Japan, where my American way of speaking, dressing, even walking or making eye
    contact might seem improper to the Japanese. Throughout my more than 30 years in the American midwest, I have also been “invisibilized” –a form of unconscious racism in which people simply look past or through you–and marginalized.

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