Asian Meter

It took me a while to get my hands on the latest issue of Tricycle because they hadn’t restocked it at the Borders across the street. I ended up grabbing a copy at Barnes & Noble downtown. I have plenty of things to say about the issue, such as the Big Sit (I have much good to say) or “Why Buddhism Needs the West” (or: David Loy summons the Angry Asian Buddhist). But I thought of something that would be a little bit more fun. I bring you the Asian Meter.

Asian meterIn a previous post I tallied Asian demographics in Tricycle. I was disappointed with the relatively low rate of 15.9% Asian writers, but I got to wondering about how Tricycle compares with Shambhala Sun and its little sister Buddhadharma. I don’t know much about the internal workings of these organizations (and hopefully I never will). But I wonder if there’s any competitive spirit between them, and so I thought I’d compare to see who’s doing the best at representing the Asian folk. For this year’s issues of Shambhala Sun and Tricycle so far, both have featured a measly three Asian writers each. For Tricycle, that’s Ven. Master Sheng Yen and Revs. Taitetsu and Mark Unno. (I’m quite happy to see them there, by the way.) For Shambhala Sun, we’ve got Tulku Thondup, Sakyong Mipham and Pico Iyer. But since Tricycle has more authors (40 versus 27 for Shambhala Sun), the award of “most Asian mainstream Buddhist review” goes to Shambhala Sun, with a (not so) whopping 11 percent. (Tricycle is at 8 percent.)

Congratulations Shambhala Sun!

Why the Asian meter? I admittedly have the chutzpah to imagine that the few people who read this blog might just spread the information, and perhaps over time there will be enough buzz over how ridiculously unrepresentative these magazines are with regard to the community that they might actually try to change their groove.

Today I thought back to when I first moved to rural Illinois before high school. I was stunned by the difference between San Francisco (more than 33% Asian American metropolis) and this small town (population of 8,000 with no sidewalks, street lights or fire hydrants). But I remember one of the more jarring shocks was noticing that all janitorial duties were done by white people. Up until then, I could only remember seeing non-whites doing that sort of work. Discussing this with my father, I was aghast to realize that I’d unknowingly imbibed a discriminatory racial judgment simply by growing up in a city without white janitors. It was the sentiment of “that sort of work isn’t for white people.”

The issue I have with Tricycle and Shambhala Sun is related to the situation of encountering white janitors for the first time. The relative absence of Asian Americans from its pages suggests “that sort of work isn’t for Asian Americans.” We are the silent majority. Whether this negative message is intended or not, it’s the message being sent. These magazines can change their message, but they will have to reach out. They will have to try to change, and to do that, they will have to want to change.

Until then, keep your eye on the Asian Meter.

16 Replies to “Asian Meter”

  1. Thank you for doing this Arunlikhati

    It is disappointing to witness the silence of many teachers I respect and seem so wise on other matters…

    Keep up the struggle!

  2. I’m sorry for putting it this way, but you are being quite racist!
    So what if there aren’t many Asian voices in ‘Shambhala Sun’ or
    ‘Tricycle’ magazine? They do not proport to being Asian-centric, only dharma-centric, and isn’t the dharma for all to learn and teach?
    Basically, it sounds to me as if you are saying that only people of Asian descent have an ‘in’ when it comes to learning and helping others to learn about Buddha and the dharma. Have you ever heard of Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron or even Lama Surya Das? None of them — along with many, many others who I have not mentioned — are, as far as I know, of Asian extraction. And they are all quite learned when it comes to the dharma and teaching it to others.
    The lack of Asian voices, while not being very representative I admit, is in no way a statement of any kind, at least to me. To quote you, “The relative absence of Asian Americans from its pages suggests “that sort of work isn’t for Asian Americans.” Admittedly, this quote is confusing in that it might be saying that you think the publishers of ‘Shambhala Sun’ and
    ‘Tricycle’ magazines are making a statement that Asian Americans are either too good or not good enough to write in their magazines.
    I have to say that I’m very disappointed in your blog entry, and need to consider if I will ever visit it again in the future.

  3. Chris,

    Actually Jack Kornfield is a big supporter of bringing more diverse voices to articulate the dharma.

    He often cites people of color both Buddhist and non-Buddhist to illustrate and elaborate on points he is making.

    Spirit Rock has shown institutional commitment to diversity.

    You also don’t substantively address any of the points Arunlikhati has brought up. I think disagreeing is fine but perhaps you might want to more carefully consider what Arunlikhati (and many others) is saying about the lack of representation in Shambala Sun and other publications claiming to represent American Buddhism.

    With palms together

  4. Very interesting that you choose to post as ‘anon’, mmm ….
    Sorry to be so frank, but you may want to spend time reading both my comment and the post I’m commenting on again. Diversity was never mentioned by either one of us. I did, however, say that a lack of Asian voices was never very representative. And I simply commented how poorly reasoned the blog writer’s logic was when she was being racist to make her point that others were being racist. (Although, admitedly, she never used the word ‘racist’).
    Maybe I didn’t express this very well in my original post, and if I didn’t do so then I do apologize.
    I am also truly sorry at how you, anon, have choosen to decide what both I and the blog writer meant when we wrote what we wrote. I hope that you are able to become enlightened to all of the facts, refrain from ‘interpretation’ in the future, and are able to realise the knowledge presented to you.
    ps — replying to my comment is fine because this is the last time I’ll visit this blog and will get notification emails if you reply to me. I do want to let you know that I may not be notified immediately after your reply so please be patient if you don’t receive a quick reply from me. C.F.

  5. arunlikhati:

    I like you. Really. I admire your passion & energy, but I have to ask you: why do you think these publications are representing people of European descent? Because they have a preponderance of writers for them?

    Just because that’s true doesn’t mean they actually speak for Western Buddhists.

    They kind of don’t. Not for me at any rate.

    And a more interesting question one might ask is: where and how is the Dharma represented?

  6. anon: Thanks for your support. It keeps me going.

    Chris: Thank you for your comments. I object most strongly to the following three points, but I sincerely appreciate your frankness.

    First, in response to: “So what if there aren’t many Asian voices in ‘Shambhala Sun’ or ‘Tricycle’ magazine? They do not proport [sic] to being Asian-centric, only dharma-centric.” Never did I claim that they should be Asian-centric, but I did notice that Tricycle does indeed purport to be “the most inclusive and widely read vehicle for the dissemination of Buddhist perspectives.” Inclusive. As you can tell, from this Buddhist’s perspective, the Tricycle bylines are about as racially inclusive as the US Senate. And as far as Asian Americans are concerned, Shambhala Sun wins this round in being the “most inclusive.”

    Secondly, there is absolutely nothing in what I have said that says that “only people of Asian descent have an ‘in’ when it comes to learning and helping others to learn about Buddha and the dharma.” I have written about my appreciation for the writing in both magazines and have recurringly blogged about Buddhist teachers who I have deep respect for who happen to be white. Your baseless criticism is a projection of your own independent experiences.

    Thirdly, you are observant to note the ambiguity in this sentence: “The relative absence of Asian Americans from its pages suggests “that sort of work isn’t for Asian Americans.” However you were apparently not observant enough to link this to what I wrote two sentences later: “Whether this negative message is intended or not, it’s the message being sent.” Now you may disagree with my opinion, which is that the lack of Asians in bylines sends an unintentional message about what the mainstream Buddhist press thinks of Asians in the Buddhist community. But that’s just your entitled opinion. You might also think that America’s election of Barack Obama likewise conveyed no message.

    Mumon: As I’ve mentioned before, all my topic-of-race blogging is “about race issues that happen to occur in Buddhist communities,” not about the Dharma per se. As to why so many white people, read the comments here, and this post has thoughts that address your questions. I’ve never said these magazines speak for all Western Buddhists, but they are surely the most influential Buddhist mouthpieces in North America. Please don’t think I represent all Asian Americans. I don’t. And that’s part of the point. With so few Asian Americans represented in these high profile Buddhist mouthpieces, it’s easy to caricature us and forget that we follow Buddhist traditions that represent dozens of different cultures and histories — and that we are also Western.

  7. “it’s easy to caricature us”

    Can you give is some examples of how either of those magazines negatively caricature Asian Americans?

  8. Marcus thank you for asking! I wasn’t directly referring to the magazines when I said “it’s easy to caricature us.” I was specifically thinking of Rev. Danny Fisher’s comments around the time of the Angry Asian Buddhist post, where he characterized the Asian American community generally in terms of immigrant issues (Ven. Rinchen Gyatso had a post about this, which he later took down). Indeed, many Asian American Buddhists are immigrants, but to collectively refer to our community as an immigrant community is a negative caricature. I feel that, for example, the fact that all the Asian contributors to Tricycle in 2008 were Asian immigrants contributes to this mistaken perception.

    This is yet another reminder that I need to write more clearly 😛

  9. Hi Arunlikhati,

    I know we’ve discussed this a little before, but I have two questions:

    1) If you were not refering to the magazines, then what do you think the negative impact is of these magazines not employing more Asian-Americans?

    2) You see, I really don’t get it. Are you looking for some kind of positive discrimination in these magazines in favour of Asian-Americans?

    3) This isn’t meant to be sarcastic or anything, it is a serious point, why not start a magazine made up of the kind of writers you’d like? I know that’s a bit ambitious, but a blog would be possible! There are four writers on this blog, how many are Asian-American? Does the higher percentage of Asian-American writers on this blog make it a higher quality publication than the magazines you have issues with? If so, have you thought about transfering to a magazine format?

    Just an idea.


  10. Hello Marcus: One word why I think it’s wrong: marginalization. That’s just to keep this comment short; I’ll be sure to write more another day. And yes, I’m totally looking for positive discrimination, or what we Americans like to call: “Affirmative Action!” Hence my obsession with mentioning the Rooney Rule. I have no time for (3), though I appreciate the thought. Whether this blog happens to have a majority/minority Asian American authors (I’ll let them disclose their backgrounds on their own terms), it doesn’t make the blog better or worse; it just makes it over/more/less representative of the community demographics. (Likely less so, because I tend to blog a lot more than the rest.)

  11. Hi,

    Okay, I see. Thank you. I still disagree, but I understand your point.

    I disagree because I don’t think that a magazine should be attacked for not setting quotas for its staff (such a percentage of Asian-Americans, such a percentage of black-Americans, such a percentage of gays, women, differently abled, etc etc).

    But, I have no wish to further impose upon your kindness by continuing this debate on your blog!

    All the best,


  12. Heavens, Marcus, we have phenomenal miscommunication! Affirmative action doesn’t entail staffing quotas, as you seem to suggest. Hence my obsession with mentioning the Rooney Rule. I think you can at least agree that our different cultural backgrounds and upbringings make our discussions very difficult.

  13. hello arunlikhati,
    thank you for the post. i have to say that when my partner sent it to me, i was very pleased. i am a shingon buddhist, and i am asian american. i have much difficulty practicing. part of it is because there are no shingon temples/etc. in my area. but another part of it is a cultural thing. i have tried attending (non-shingon) buddhist events in north america and aside from events held by asian american/asian immigrant communities, i was quite distracted and even disturbed on several occasions. while i don’t think that people of asian decent have a monopoly on buddhism, i get very anxious when i enter a buddhist space with no asian americans, or any other people of color for that matter. perhaps it is my predisposition to suspect the “o” word. i am working on becoming more accepting and less suspicious. but i recently took part in a mexica (indigenous to mexico/central america) sweat lodge ceremony with a group of mostly latinas. it was an amazing experience and a way in which i actually felt quite buddhist. and it made me wonder why i felt so energized and in-tune taking part in a spiritual experience that is not in my own tradition and teaching, yet i have such a difficult time taking part in rituals of my own faith/religion/spirituality. your post has helped me think on it. thanks.

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