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Ethnic vs. Convert Buddhism - 2002-12-15

Officially, there are about a million Buddhists in America. But because questions about religious identity are voluntary on any U.S. census survey, most experts believe the actual number may be as high as five million. What isn't a subject of debate is the fact that the overwhelming majority of American Buddhists are so-called "ethnic" Buddhists, immigrants, or the descendents of immigrants who came to this country from Asia. Yet, the overwhelming amount of media attention has been focused on converts to Buddhism, nearly all of whom are of European ancestry. The two groups are very different.

Americans first flirted with Buddhism in the 1950s, when poets and novelists like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac started delving into Zen meditation and incorporating their experiences into their writings. Later, in the 1960s and 70s, at the height of the Vietnam War, many young people started gravitating toward meditation as a safer alternative to the psychedelic drugs running rampant in the so-called "counter-culture".

And again, in the 1990s, Buddhism became chic, when Hollywood celebrities like Richard Gere and Sharon Stone converted, and the exiled Dali Lama was asked to deliver commencement speeches at several prominent universities. But Charles Prebish, a professor of eastern religions at Penn State University, says Buddhism was in America long before it became trendy. "There have been Buddhists in America, oh, I guess for the better part of a 150 years," he says. "Beginning with the Chinese that came after the discovery of gold in California. But for the most part, they were really utterly minimal in the United States population. Now, there are probably between five and six million Buddhists in the United States, about 80 percent of which are Asian-American Buddhists, and another 20 percent are American convert Buddhists."

And the two groups of Buddhists don't really associate with one another, says Charles Prebish. That's because they have different understandings of what Buddhism is… understandings that, in many respects, are incompatible. Paul Numrich is a professor at Loyola University in Chicago who's been studying ethnic Buddhist communities for more than a decade.

He says among Asian-Americans, Buddhism is primarily a way for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants to remain connected to the cultures of their ancestors. "Buddhists who come from Asia, their Buddhist identity is a big part of their cultural, or ethnic identity, and when a community organizes temples, for instance, usually those temples run along ethnic lines," he says.

Professor Numrich says a Japanese-American Buddhist, for example, will attend a Japanese temple, even if he's three or four generations removed from the person who first immigrated to the United States from Japan. He may engage in some Thai Buddhist or Chinese Buddhist practices… something his ancestors wouldn't have done, simply because they wouldn't have been exposed to these practices in Japan.

But what he won't do, according to Paul Numrich, is associate with the European-Americans who've converted to Buddhism. That's because many Asian-Americas resent the attitude expressed by converts that ethnic Buddhists defer too much to their priests, and don't try to attain spiritual enlightenment on their own, the way Buddhism's founder, Siddartha Gautama, intended. "I think ethnic Buddhists, I know ethnic Buddhists don't appreciate that, and in many ways feel that they are the bearers of traditional Buddhism, as it's been practiced in an unbroken stream from the Buddhist time 2,500 years ago," he says. "So there is some tension between the two groups."

Paul Numrich believes convert Buddhism isn't a priestly religion, the way ethnic Buddhism is, precisely because the hundreds of thousands of mostly white Americans who've converted don't depend upon Buddhism for their sense of cultural identity. "You go to an ethnic Buddhist temple, and you find Sunday schools for the children. Families come and do religious practices. It is tied into a community identity," he says. "On the other side, for the most part, converts are individualistic. It's kind of a 'seeker religion.' Those who are seeking a path, seeking a religious identity that they have not had."

Professor Numrich's colleague, Charles Prebish, is a bit harsher in his evaluation of the convert community in America - a group to which he, himself, belongs. Mr. Prebish says the individualistic orientation of convert Buddhism misses the point. "A significant amount of the Buddhist movement in the United States is really profoundly 'ego' based on the part of the practitioners. And that's precisely the opposite of what the whole emphasis of the Buddhist tradition is," he says. "It's a tradition that's designed to get you past the limits of your ego."

Both scholars point to the divide between ethnic Buddhists and convert Buddhists as a uniquely 'western' phenomenon… a product of the pluralism that has characterized life in the United States since the time of the country's founding. And they say in some respects, ethnic Buddhists in America are almost as different from Buddhists in Asia, as they are from converts in the United States. Because Buddhism in Asia isn't really about preserving one's cultural identity, either. Buddhists in Japan, after all, don't need to be reminded of the fact that they're Japanese.