What Do the Numbers Tell Us?

James Shaheen

Over the years, we’ve received countless inquires from media outlets, foundations, and the merely curious about Buddhist demographics: How many Buddhists are there in the United States? How many are converts? How many are immigrants or Americans of Asian descent who continue to practice in the traditions of their parents?

We’ve never been qualified to give answers, and Census Bureau statistics have been less than satisfactory. Americans report variously and inconsistently on their faith, and among Buddhists, the Census Bureau allows for few or no distinctions. (Christians, on the other hand, are segmented in the census by denomination.) And although sundry attempts have been made to compile numbers, the statistical growth of Buddhism in the second half of the last century among Americans born to other faiths has not been statistically tracked to anyone’s satisfaction. More recently, however, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s “2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” sheds some light on Buddhist demographics. Of 35,000 calls made nationwide, 0.7% of those who answered self-identified as Buddhists and revealed some interesting facts—from marriage and divorce rates to household income to geographic distribution to the number of children in the typical American Buddhist home.

For readers of Tricycle, some of the Pew survey results will be surprising, others expected. And while excellent portraits of Buddhism in America have been drawn— Richard Seager’s Buddhism in America and the late Rick Fields’s How the Swans Came to the Lake, to name just two—until now we have had few reliable sources to look to when it comes to the numbers. Many may find the survey incomplete—for instance, all surveys were conducted in English or Spanish—but the Pew Forum’s study is a good and welcome start. For a nice summary, take a look at Jan Karnegis’s “Buddhism by the Numbers.”

Of course, a survey cannot convey the complexity and breadth of Buddhist teachings and practices in America, but anecdotal cases indicate that far from being distinct, Buddhist groupings are often blurred and hybrid. Describing the typical Buddhist, it turns out, is no easier than describing the typical Christian, Jew, or Muslim. And this seems to be true abroad as well. In this issue, for instance, journalist Nissara Horayangura describes her own mixed experience of pursuing the dharma (here). The daughter of Thai parents who raised her in the Catholic Philippines, Horayangura moved to America to attend college. Raised a Buddhist, she took up meditation at a Vipassana center in New York City; yet she sat with the nagging suspicion that she was missing out on a deeper experience of Buddhist culture, one she associated with images of “the gilt-covered temples of [her] ancestral homeland.”

For Horayangura, a visit to Thailand (where she now lives) yielded plenty of surprises. Not long after her arrival, for example, she discovered that communities of practitioners in Bangkok often seemed to be more influenced by models developed in Western Vipassana communities than by traditional Thai culture. In fact, Thai Buddhist culture as she’d imagined it seemed to have all but disappeared. The more we attempt to describe Buddhism—or Buddhists themselves, whether here or abroad—the more likely we are to fall into the trap of generalization. Still, the tradition, however it defies easy description, continues to be passed on from generation to generation, and in this issue’s special section (here), contributing editor Mary Talbot tells us how the transmittal of tradition is happening here— at home, at school, and in community. Again, the approaches are as varied and evolving as Buddhism itself. ▼

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—James Shaheen, Editor & Publisher

 

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