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.

Here’s another reworking of the Pew numbers. They claim that 9% of Asian Americans were Buddhist. Now when we take 9% of the Census’ Asian American estimate, we get just under 1.2 million as a new estimate for Asian American Buddhists. But this number is still too small! Using the same scale as last time, this number equals only 30% of Americans who have origins in Southeast Asia and only 10% of Americans who have origins in East Asia. Again, this just feels too low. (That’s not a scientific conclusion, but bear with me.)

There is yet another statistic in the press. In response to Tricycle‘s “Buddhism by Numbers” piece, David N. Snyder wrote in with a competing opinion. His letter bluntly states that “the numbers given for Buddhists are completely false.” He refrains from criticizing specific parameters in the Pew report, but goes on to inform us:

For several years, my own poll of polls has shown that approximately 2% of the U.S. is Buddhist and that only 20% of these Buddhists are non-Asian. This calculates to 6 million American Buddhists, including 1.2 million convert Buddhists or children of convert Buddhists. But the Pew Forum study reports only 2.1 million Buddhists, 1.1 million of whom they claim are converts. Therefore, according to my own studies, the Pew study can be seen as accurately representing the number of convert Buddhists in the U.S. but greatly missing the mark on the number of Asian Buddhists in America.

I think he’s right about missing the mark. I’ll also admit that some part of me wants to start thinking that Asian American Buddhists comprise an overwhelming majority of Buddhists in America. But at 4.8 million Buddhists, this number is too big. Way too big.

How big is way too big? At over 36% of the Asian American community, Snyder’s number amounts to more than 90% of all Americans of Southeast Asian heritage and 55% of all Americans of East Asian heritage. This number is clearly too large — even more clearly so than the Pew Forum’s estimate is too small. It’s unreasonable to claim that over 90% of Vietnamese Americans are Buddhist, or that over 55% of Korean Americans are Buddhist. The numbers just can’t add up.

Although too big and too small, both the Pew Forum and Snyder’s estimates are still very useful. They provide upper and lower bounds for our estimate of the Asian American Buddhist community: somewhere between 1.2 and 4.8 million. That’s a broad spread, so I thought I’d throw my own hat in the ring. I’d cut down the upper bound a bit by providing my own flawed estimate of the number of Asian American Buddhists. Call it Dharma Folks’s flawed estimate (or DFFE).

From the State Department’s Office of Religious Freedom, I was able to gather statistics on the proportion of Buddhists in Asian countries. I then applied those proportions to the respective communities in the United States, based on 2007 population estimates. For example, if the ORF said that 93% of Cambodia is Buddhist, then accordingly I calculated that 93% of Cambodian Americans (or 203,000 of them) are Buddhist. In total, the DFFE estimates 2.6 million Asian American Buddhists. To line this number up with my previous comparisons, I’m talking about 57% of Southeast Asian Americans and 27% of East Asian Americans. But remember this number is flawed.

In fact, the DFFE is designed to overestimate the number of Asian American Buddhists. I personally assume that the Buddhist proportion of most Asian American communities is smaller than the proportion in Asia. Maybe some converted out, maybe some profess no religious affiliation. This assumption is verifiably true for at least the Vietnamese or Japanese communities, perhaps also true for the rest. I would be certainly surprised if a community’s proportion of Buddhists were higher in the United States. In short, I deliberately overestimated in order to provide an upper-bound.

I understand that these numbers may be difficult to wrap your head around, so I provided a graph below to help. The bar chart compares my overestimate with the Pew Forum’s underestimate. For the Pew Forum, I chose the greater of the two underestimates that I considered above. Although the Pew Forum didn’t break down Asian Americans by ethnic community, I represented it by applying the two percentages that I threw around above: 30% of Southeast Asian Americans and 10% of East Asian Americans.

Two Flawed Estimates

Remember, this is my interpretation of the Pew study. You won’t find the above breakdown in any of its pages.

If these weren’t both pretty flawed breakdowns, I’d love to talk about them more. (Could it be that Vietnamese make up the largest Asian American Buddhist community?) Another problem with the DFFE is that it uses proportions that are not at all scientific. The Office of Religious Freedom simply collects and reprints other people’s numbers without verifying them. Still, for all the things wrong with the DFFE, I still consider it a useful overestimate.

What the DFFE attempts to show is that, at most, the number of Asian American Buddhists is about 2.6 million (for 2007). Between this estimate and the modified Pew study estimate, we can say that Buddhists comprise between 1.2 and 2.6 (or between 9 and 20%) of the Asian American community. This is a great deal larger than the Pew Forum’s original estimate, and also quite a bit lower than David N. Snyder’s poll of polls. Admittedly, it’s also smaller than I had previously guessed.

3 Replies to “Estimates of Asian American Buddhists”

  1. I thought you choice in pictures was excellent. That’s probably Bonodori at a Jodo Shinshu temple. Notice the variety of Japanese-American, bi-racial, and non-Japanese American Buddhists. A nice image, wouldn’t you say? 😀

  2. Assuming that the picture is indeed of a Bon Odori festival, that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in the picture is a Buddhist. Bon Odori is open to the public and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to participate in the dancing! Some Jodo Shinshu temples offer tours, and sell food as ways to raise funds for the temple during the Obon season, usually from mid-July to August.

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