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. The 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.