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Posts Tagged ‘minority’

I don’t want to sound like the Angry Asian Man, but I’ve had a hard time finding articles about Asian American Buddhists.

This is one of the classic issues for Asian Americans. The underrepresented minority caught between two worlds. Asian Americans born and raised in North America must continually confront a mainstream perception that they aren’t American enough. At the same time, Asian Americans face pressures from both within and outside the Asian American community of not being Asian enough.

The real issue for young Buddhists in the Asian American community is that there are very few Buddhist communities that they can go to without having to suppress part of their identity. Culturally Asian temples emphasize language and culture, which can be really intimidating for Asian American youth who feel excessively high cultural expectations placed on them. There is probably no coincidence that the virtually all Asian American Buddhists who are active in their communities are also fluent in their parents’ native language and culture.

But on the other hand, culturally American Buddhist centers often feel impersonal when stripped of culturally Asian (but maybe spiritually-lite) practices. And it’s hard for these American centers to understand the perspective of young Asian Americans, who may be intimately familiar with Buddhist symbolism and ritual, but don’t know what it all stands for. An iconoclastic emphasis on philosophy often smacks of inauthenticity.

Then again, there are organizations like the BCA that have really, in my opinion, managed to forge a unique Asian American identity. But cultural divisions in the Asian American Buddhist community continue. BCA Youth are more likely to play basketball with Japanese Methodists than with GĐPT youth (who also have basketball teams).

So is there a place for Asian American Buddhists in today’s Buddhist community? Maybe this is why the Pew study said that 50% of Buddhists choose not to keep the faith…

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Ven Jian Dan giving a lecture
Ven Jian Dan giving a lecture (from Awakening Mind Zen blog)

The Pew Forum recently published a survey of American religion, and this sparked an interesting discussion in the Buddhist community. If you want to see PhDs analyze it to death and tear it apart, go visit H-Buddhism. I’m going to refrain from tossing in my opinion on the survey. I’m primarily interested in the Buddhist (blogging) community’s reaction on two points, and what this says about the community.

Many people took the survey at face value. Charles Prebish seemed keen to note some surprises. For some, this survey was proof that American Buddhism is in decline, even dying out, especially due to a lack of children. Some found particular interest in the fact that the Pew survey reported more non-Asian Buddhists than Asian Buddhists in America, and vastly more converts than heritage Buddhists.

The first reaction is one that I’ve heard a lot over the past eight years: American Buddhism is getting old. In fact, Sumi Loundon found her inspiration to compile Blue Jean Buddha based on her experience in a retreat kitchen as the lone twentysomething among a crowd of Baby Boomers. Of course, she eventually found young Buddhist voices. But the reaction on these blogs suggests that Boomer Buddhists still get together in groups where active young Buddhists are a tiny minority, if they’re even there at all.

The second reaction — more of a surprise — is nested in the notion that American Buddhism is predominantly Asian American. According to the Pew survey, it’s not. Some bloggers expressed a bit of satisfaction in this result (see here and here, but also note there is some methodological controversy.) The bloggers’ emphasis on this particular result suggests that the division between Asian and non-Asian Buddhist America is just as real as ever. For me, the force of this reaction means that many Buddhists out there still have a strong insecurity with regards to their American Buddhist identity.

These two reactions are often framed as American Buddhism’s two great challenges. How do we perpetuate our community? How do we cross the cultural divide?

I’d like to think that these questions don’t need answering. Maybe I’m overly optimistic. If John and I (your humble “dharma bloggers”) are a representative slice of Buddhist America, then we have already solved both the issues. We are active young Buddhists, of Asian and non-Asian heritage, who work together in the Buddhist community.

There are many more out there like us. But for some reason, we aren’t noticed.

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