Finding Those Missing Hawaiian Buddhists

Tricycle printed a letter to the editor from Scott Mitchell that criticized their “Buddhism by the Numbers” piece in the Fall 2008 issue. If you can’t read his whole complaint, it’s also available on his blog. There are four specific issues, but in this post, I’m addressing one in particular:

The exclusion of the Hawaiian population is troublesome for a number of reasons: chief among them the continual marginalization of Hawaii as part of the United States, and the marginalization of Japanese-American Buddhists generally. In other words, these Asian-American Buddhists were literally not counted in this report.

That’s one side of the coin. Here’s an alternative perspective: I imagine that the Pew Study did some internal analysis and concluded on excluding Hawai‘i, since the Aloha State’s unique contribution to the national profile would not have justified the extra contract cost in contacting them. Now I’m not saying that excluding Hawaiians is fair, but it’s worth crunching the numbers to see to what extent the Buddhists of Hawai‘i really do change the national profile.

The Hawai‘i Non-Effect

Keep in mind that we’re talking about Hawai‘i, the state with the largest proportion of Buddhists, but a population smaller than San Diego. The most recent data for Buddhists in Hawai‘i dates to 1999, where the state data book estimates 110,000 Buddhists or 9% of the islands. If we hold this percentage constant through 2007, then we’re still left with about 115,000 Buddhists. Considering that the Pew study already accounted for about 9,000 of Buddhists in Hawai‘i, then we could say that the study was short some 106,000 Buddhists, or roughly 0.03% of the national population.

How much do 100,000 missing Buddhists inflate the Asian numbers? Not all Buddhists in Hawai‘i are Asian Americans, but I’m using the assumption that they are just to show how little of a difference it makes. By adding the missing Buddhists of Hawai‘i, the number of Asian Buddhists in the Pew Study goes up from 676,000 to 782,000. That’s a large increase in terms of Asian American Buddhists — over 15 percent!

But in terms of the greater American Buddhist community, we’re not a talking about a seismic shift. The chart above underscores the difference. The number of Buddhist Americans moves from 2.1 million to 2.2 million (less than 5% increase) and the increase in Asian Americans as a proportion of the greater Buddhist community is even more modest, from 32% to 35%. Remember: this statistic is making the assumption that all the Buddhists in Hawai‘i are Asian American, which we already know isn’t true.

It looks as though the Pew Forum study is flawed, as all studies are, but some flaws are more distracting than others. The omission of Hawai‘i doesn’t change the numbers that much. When we see criticisms of studies like the Pew’s, it’s important to point out all the potential problems and oversights. But our complaints are worth little if we don’t follow through on them. In this case, that means understanding the magnitude of the Pew’s omission.

There was one other complaint from Scott, which turns out to be more pivotal: the language barrier. This constraint had a huge influence on the study’s proportion of Asian Americans in the Buddhist community. Given the excessive length of this post already, I’ll have to cover this topic another day!

3 Replies to “Finding Those Missing Hawaiian Buddhists”

  1. Thanks for this post Arun.

    To throw more grease on this wheel, so to speak, and to get away from raw data for a second — the numbers from Hawai’i might not change the over all composition of the broader Buddhist community in the United States. But I think it’s worth thinking about something that’s harder to quantify — what is the influence of Hawaiian Buddhists on their mainland brothers and sisters?

    I’m thinking of three specific examples:
    First, in my own community, almost everyone I know in the BCA speaks highly of Prof. Al Bloom. He’s got a website at It could be argued that he has had huge influence through his writings on how mainlanders think about Shin Buddhism.

    Second, I know that Robert Aitken’s Diamond Heart Sangha has had considerable influence in the mainland “convert” Zen community.

    Third, the University of Hawai’i Press is a formidable academic press that has published several groundbreaking and “game changing” books in the field of Buddhist Studies.

    This isn’t meant to challenge your post nor is it meant as a direct critique of the Pew study (because, obviously, these aren’t things the Pew was looking for in Buddhism or religion more generally). Really, it’s just a question. The numbers are important. The numbers tell us concrete facts about what’s happening on the ground. The more complicated question has to do with things that are harder to measure but nevertheless worth thinking about.

    Thanks again for your post and the continuing dialogue!

  2. Pew does have Hawaii numbers now — they added them when they released more data from the same survey back in June. I don’t think they publicized the addition of Alaska and Hawaii, and I haven’t seen the states discussed in any of the reports, but if you go to the interactive map section (, select Buddhist tradition, and click on Hawaii, you’ll get their figures — Pew is saying Hawaii is six percent Buddhist, although they only have a sample of 200 individuals so the margin of error is pretty big. I wonder if these Hawaii figures have been rolled up into their national numbers ?

  3. @Scott: Thanks for your input! I think you’re bringing up another great issue. These questions may seem “harder to measure” or “harder to quantify,” but I like to think of them as “more interesting” rather than harder! In fact, if we want to take a peek at the influence of Buddhists in Hawai‘i on their mainland brothers and sisters, then there are plenty of ways to quantify this curiosity.

    We could look at scholarly influence by how often Buddhist scholars/writers in Hawai‘i are cited by mainland Buddhist scholars, and also vice versa. (Isn’t this how we proved that Gregory Schopen is mainstream?) This method works for scholars and non-scholars alike: how often do mainland Buddhist writings mention Al Bloom or Robert Aitken? You could look at scholarly journals, temple newsletters, reading groups or any other corpus you choose. And we can do this also at the institutional level. How often are books from the UHP cited in Buddhist circles? Who cites them? Who do UHP’s Buddhism books cite?

    Whenever there’s an effect, there is an impression. Granted, sometimes the darkness of history can hide questions that we would really like to know the answer to. Otherwise the data’s usually sitting right under our noses.

    @Allan: Thank you! I was completely unaware of this! Again, the addition/omission of 100,000 Buddhists in Hawai‘i nudges the Buddhist community population by less than 0.04% of the national population. I wonder if and how these numbers are considered in the final online report. It’s really good to know, nonetheless. Thank you for pointing this out!

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