Asian Meter: Best Buddhist Writing

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.)

Asian MeterThe 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.

Melvin McLeod at least deserves to know that, at a running average of 19%, this selection of writing has the highest proportion of Asians out of all the publications I’ve measured. I know, that doesn’t say much. If you read my posts closely, then you know the previous post on The Best Buddhist Writing stated that these publications averaged out at 15.4% Asian (it’s actually 15.3%; I missed an author). Both numbers are correct, but only because I analyzed the counts differently.

Just in case you’re curious, in the previous count, I looked at the total list of authors who’d ever had the occasion to see their name in The Best Buddhist Writing series. In the more recent count, I simply looked at each book. So on a book-by-book level, about 19% of the authors will be Buddhist. This number decreases to 15.3% when you look at all authors because I take into account authors who appear in multiple books. Hang onto this thought.

Asian Meter: EthnicitiesThe Tibetan bias is probably not shocking to anyone. Shambhala Publications puts the book together, so their stew fits their tastes. I am just shocked at the extraordinary extent. In 2004, there was one Chinese, one Indian and one Vietnamese author. Plus four Tibetan authors. The apparently larger number of Vietnamese authors is simply the result of the  fact that Thich Nhat Hanh appears in each book. In comparison, the poor Chinese, Indian, Korean and Laotian authors almost look like token minorities!

Back to the issue of authors appearing in multiple books. There is nothing wrong with this, but counting this number tells me something that I never considered about the editor(s) of The Best Buddhist Writing. Namely, how few authors they select from. Recall the book-by-book proportion of Asian authors (19.4%) with the overall proportion (15.3%). The book-by-book number for Asians is higher because the editors are double-dipping.

In fact, the editors double-dip with Asians three times more than they do with whites. There are a total of 34 Asian bylines, but there are only 21 Asian authors. Up to three-in-five of the authors were recycled. Compare that figure with a total of 137 white bylines with only 112 white authors, where the recycle rate is just one-in-five. It’s as though they don’t have enough Asians to choose from.

Granted, The Best Buddhist Writing is a selection of the writing that’s already been published in a given year. Unlike the periodicals that I routinely harp on, Best doesn’t have many options to broaden its author base. The writings that appear under its cover may reflect, magnify or minimize trends that are already set in play by the other high profile Buddhist publications. Given these limitations, I give Melvin McLeod some credit for pulling together a higher percentage of Asians per volume than you’ll find in the high profile Buddhist magazines.

Hopefully one day it will also represent.

8 Replies to “Asian Meter: Best Buddhist Writing”

  1. I’ve long meant to do an analysis along these lines and publish it, so I’m glad to see some preliminary work being done here on the subject. I agree very much with most of what you’ve said on this subject here and previously. I do just want to add a few comments that I hope might be helpful.

    First, you need to take a longer sample size for the magazines: Tricycle happened to be on the bottom this time, but next issue it might be on the top–I think these percentages are all so low that they can swing quite a bit issue to issue. Also, I think your insight into re-using Asians applies very much to places like Shambhala Sun which, because they have a guru-relationship with them, feature articles by and about Chogyam Trungpa and/or his son Sakyong Mipham in virtually every single issue (thus driving up their baseline Asian quotient). Yes, they have Asians, but it is the same Asians time and again, so this hardly represents real diversity.

    Also, I was looking at a back issue of Tricycle today from the mid-1990s in order to look up something, and it seemed to me that there were notably more Asians in the pages than we see nowadays. Maybe that seems counter-intuitive, but here’s how I might explain it: prior to the mid-1990s we didn’t have so much publishing on Buddhism, and there were still more first generation Asian missionary teachers alive and teaching in North America. But nowadays there is a huge industry of books on Buddhism (and we know white people have the most access to the publishing industry) AND there are many, many more temples and meditation centers being run by white converts (who often studied with those pioneering Asian teachers). So a sort of white wave of Buddhism has swamped the publishing industry and washed away the Asian teachers who were actually more likely to be represented in previous eras. Does that make sense?

    Another thing to note is that you’re only comparing Asians and non-Asians, but that’s not how diversity works either in America or in American Buddhism. A more nuanced approach might look at, for instance, African-American figures in the magazines vs a) their percentage in the population and b) their percentage in American Buddhism. And so on for other groups. Your main point is that Asian-Americans are under-represented, and you’re entirely correct about it, I just think there are other dynamics worth paying attention to as you go through the trouble of counting. How diverse are these publications REALLY?

    I know you’re giving the Best Buddhist Writing some props, but I’m really on the fence here. The very name is so over-reaching, it suggests that the best writing is produced mostly by white meditating converts, with a little bit from their Tibetan (not Chinese or anything else) teachers. A far more realistic title would be Best Shambhala Buddhist Writing or Great Buddhist Writing. “Best” insults all the groups that have never made the cut–how many Pure Land Buddhists, for example, have you ever see in their pages? Yet this is a community that produces a large amount of writing and has done so for a century. I’d almost like to see an ironic Worst Buddhist Writing anthology full of Asians, Pure Landers, Nichirenists, Westerners who don’t equate Buddhism with psychology, Tibetans unaffiliated with Shambhala, etc. That anthology would be automatically far more representative of actual American Buddhist demographics.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Jeff, good points especially about including other PoC in the statistics.

    arunlikhati, keep up the good work! The graphs are great. Thanks so much for doing this.

    Your voice is much needed!

  3. @Jeff & FrankT: Thanks for your comments. The idea of the Asian Meter is to just keep tabs on the high profile publications, the comparison just adds narrative. The comparison isn’t as important to me as the fact that they are all well below even the lower Pew estimate (which itself claims to underestimate the size of the Buddhist community). I do appreciate Jeff’s anecdote about older issues of Tricycle, but that’s just what it is: an anecdote. Too much about Asians in the Buddhist community is based on anecdotes. I want hard facts.

    Now someone should look into those archive issues (maybe when I have more time). I’m not saying the observation is false, but it’s best to get the actual data. A larger time window would be very valuable, but only so that we can see changes (or the lack thereof) over time. If we averaged all Tricycle issues since 2000, that would tell us hardly a thing about 2009, but if we plotted them all over time, that result would be much more illuminating.

    On diversity, I think a broader discussion is definitely needed, especially considering what I feel is the truly silent Buddhist minority group: Latino/Hispanic Buddhists. Keep in mind that when it comes to Latino and black Americans, they’re harder to count from bylines. I actually do keep track of black Americans (at least from The Best Buddhist Writing), but the numbers are really dismal. That will take a lot more work.

    By the way, do I detect a slight bias towards Tricycle/against Shambhala in Jeff’s comments?

  4. Naw, I’m not trying to argue for Tricycle or against Shambhala, just trying to correct some slight misleading skews that I see resulting from too few data points. Truth is, Tricycle has done a very poor job in this area, something that I’ve been stressing for years in my conversations with them. In my opinion, the truly one-sided nature of these publications doesn’t just reflect the general divide between white and other Buddhists in America, but actually actively acts to some degree to reinforce it, even though that isn’t at all the intention of any of these editors.

  5. I understand that there aren’t many data points, especially considering Shambhala Sun. But keep in mind that these aren’t random samples; you’re looking at all the bylines for the last three quarters, at least for Tricycle and Buddhadharma. I understand that you may feel that if I looked a little further back into the past, then the numbers might turn out differently. The flip side of this argument is that you’d like to skew the present numbers by watering them down with past numbers. I’m not trying to infer what these magazines’ underlying racial bias is or what the trend might be, I’m just tracking the actual bias in terms of bylines.

  6. No, I’m not at all trying to water down the present numbers by looking to the past–I’m saying there may have been _relatively_ more Asians/Asian-Americans in the past, which means there are less today, and that would be a disturbing trend, which was my point. Tricycle et. al. _never_ included a proportionate amount of non-white authors. But if they are ever MORE disproportionate than they used to be then that seems like a significant development, one worth dwelling on. I would like to know why that might be; I made some preliminary suggestions, but there’s no possibility that I’m going to get to this research any time soon since I’m already so busy. And by past, I don’t mean 2007, I mean more like 1991–nearly a generation ago in terms of the development of North American Buddhist phenomena.

    I have full print runs of Tricycle (founded 1991) and Buddadharma (founded 2002), but not Shambhala Sun, which, if you include its earlier incarnation as Vajradhatu Sun, has been around by far the longest (founded in 1978).

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