If I know you as well as I think I do, my dear readers, I know how much you like statistics. (Okay, that’s my silly attempt at sarcasm. I know that not many of you like statistics, so I’ll do my best to jump over them and get to the point as quickly as possible.)
That may or may not be true. I don’t really know; I don’t really have the time or inclination to fact-check Wikipedia. And, frankly, I don’t care. What I do know is that according to Wikipedia there are 600,000 to 650,000 Buddhists in France (which seems wildly inflated), which represents just shy of 10% of the total population of 65 million French folks. That does seem like a lot. Compare this to the scant less-than-one 1% of American Buddhists (depending on who you ask, don’t get me started), and you can see how this might count as “news.”
But then again, let’s all remember how easy it is to use statistics to lie to people. (Forty percent of all people know that.) For example, did you know that Islam is the fourth largest religion in the United States? And that Buddhism is also the U.S.’s third largest religion?
You probably didn’t know that because you, like most folks, like the Pew Center, probably made the distinction between Catholicism, mainline Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, and Mormons. If, like the Pew, you make subtle distinctions between different types of Christianity, then Muslims are a distant eleventh largest religion in the U.S., and Buddhist come in slightly ahead at tenth.
I am quite sure that there are Catholics and Evangelicals in the audience (well, maybe not Evangelicals; but, who knows) who would love to go toe-to-toe with me about how different Catholicism is from Protestantism. And let’s not even get into the whole “are Mormons really Christians” thing. And they’re right, of course. There are real, lived differences between the various faith traditions within Christianity. So my point here is not to suggest that all Christians look alike and that Buddhism is, just like in France, this nation’s third largest religion. My point is actually just the opposite.
Not only do not all Christians looks alike, but not all Buddhists look alike. Or Jews or Muslims for that matter. Or, my god, Hindus. It is a perpetual thorn in my side that people like to split hairs on the Christian side but seem unwilling to acknowledge the wide array and diversity of Buddhist traditions. I can not tell you how many times I have told someone that there are of four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism (five, depending on how you count them), only to have the listener’s eyes widen and jaw become a bit slack before they ask me, slowly, “there’s more than one school…?”
Now, I am prepared to accept the fact that most of this, particularly in the States, has to do with the fact that non-Christians are a very small minority. If we were to lump all Christians and “Christian-derived traditions” into one category, they’d make up 78.5% of the population. Me and my fellow non-Jesus-worshipers make up a sad little 21% (and that includes the 16% who are unaffiliated, agnostic, or atheists). So splitting the hairs on the subtle differences between American Nishi Hongwanji Shin Buddhists and American Higashi Hongwanji Shin Buddhists has a much smaller, more limited audience than those out there who may want to split the hairs between Seventh Day Adventists and Anglicans.
But those differences are real, and the fact that many people assume that all Buddhists look alike has certain consequences on how Buddhism develops in this country. At the very least, it speaks to the great need we have to help educate folks about the wide diversity and unique approaches to the Dharma implicit in the variety of traditions in this country. So that’s my first point. It’s that familiar refrain of mine: not all Buddhists meditate, diversity is a good thing, yay Buddha!
The other thing that came up for me in that little bit of made-up wisdom over on the Tricycle blog was this: there seems to be a recurring trend among some Buddhists to claim (certain) people or media or movies or whatever as one of ours, as Buddhist. We seem to have an unusual fascination with looking for celebrities who have “discovered” Buddhism. We’re constantly counting how many of us are out there. We like claiming every movie from Groundhog Day to Star Wars as a “Buddhist” movie. And so forth.
What’s the deal with that?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not rejecting the impulse or making the claim that we shouldn’t be doing this or that there’s anything wrong with it. I’m just curious. What’s the deal with that? Does it provide some legitimation for us? Does it help us feel somehow less exotic and more acceptable? Or, as in the case of claiming movies as “ours,” are we merely looking for pop-cultural reference points to help explain Buddhism to others?
(See. I got through the statistics and ended up someplace interesting. There’s your reward for sticking it out!)