Le bouddhisme en Amérique

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.)

I just read this little nugget of made-up wisdom over on the Tricycle blog: Buddhism is France’s 3rd-largest religion, according to Wikipedia.

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!)

6 thoughts on “Le bouddhisme en Amérique

  1. Thanks for this post, Scott! Yes, “third largest” is a very misleading statistic. (Islam is Canada’s second largest religion!) I do love your point about the diversity of Buddhists. I feel that certain Buddhists out there are very eager to call every other person and their mother Buddhist for mere the sake of boasting about the size of the “Buddhist community.” And then they’ll turn around and tell us that we’re practicing wrong.

    Okay, it’s not that extreme, but I’m typing fast as I need to run for an eye appointment.

  2. my 2 cents: I do feel that part of the reason is similar to what arunlikhati mentions, in which lies also a type of reaction contra Christianity; if you can claim that Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein were Buddhists, or at least influenced by Buddhism, that must be reassuring to have such great historical personages on “our side.” Buddhism is, in a way, to represent or embody the OPPOSITE of Christianity, i.e. superstitious, irrational, violent, sectarian, etc. I think certain Asian Buddhists have also been responsible for this perception, especially in the late 19th-early 20th-century. I’ve also seen the (very!) stunned reaction of people when they learn that Buddhism has quite a few “denominations”. But I think it’s especially tragic when people learn that the history of Buddhism hasn’t been squeaky clean (remember the reaction when Brian Victoria’s book Zen at War was published?) and there was a recent op-ed piece in a news magazine (sorry can’t remember which) about some journalist’s shock at recent political riots in Thailand (aren’t Thais supposed to be Buddhists? Why aren’t they all peaceful pacifists?) People end up feeling like they’ve been fed a bunch of b.s. (“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – catch the punk movie reference!) If you’re going to be teaching Buddhism, it just makes for more jaw-flapping trying to explain historical context, and no, Charles Darwin never wrote ANYWHERE that he was a practicing Buddhist.

    So no I don’t think using pop-cultural references to help explain Buddhism is helpful; it may be easy and fun to make a point that way, but in the long run it’s more likely to be unhelpful and likely to cause disillusionment and confusion :0

  3. Not only do I typically surprise people when I tell them this large, tattood white guy is Buddhist but invariably the second thing they say (after ‘really?!’) is ‘so you chant and meditate and all that?’. In a sense it’s hard to blame them since I tend to lump most Chistians together.

    As far as the star/movie claiming, I think part of it is the natural human tendancy to look for similar people coupled with Americans’ cult of celebrity worship.

  4. Pingback: Renegade Buddha » I am Not a Western Buddhist

  5. Hi Scott,

    It’s been a while since I posted here (this is “Gerald Ford”, though I ditched that name a while ago). Having lived in Europe now (Ireland in particular) for a year now, I feel that there is some truth to the growth of Buddhism in Europe. I recently found out that one of my co-workers is Buddhist, and he’s from Poland. He knew a number of other Polish Buddhists too, went on meditation retreats, and so on.

    Of course, we can argue over whose the real Buddhists, but I was just really surprised to hear about Buddhist communities in the former Soviet Bloc, not 20 years after it fell.

    Ireland’s Buddhist community is quite small, mostly immigrant communities and lots of Tibetan temples for some reason, but elsewhere, in places like the UK, Germany and evidentially in Poland, there is a tangible sense of people breaking out of Euro-Christian-centric culture and exploring the world.

    The world’s getting smaller, my friend. 😀

  6. P.S. I agree that statistics can be inflated (love the Simpsons quote by the way), but the fact that Buddhist communities now exist in Europe is quite amazing. Ireland, for example, had *no* immigrants from other parts of the world until 20 years ago, save for a small, small Chinese community in Dublin. Now, Dublin is rapidly becoming very cosmopolitan. As evinced by my co-worker, the same holds true for Prague and other Soviet bloc countries. Immigrant communities here are very new compared to the 4th-5th generations worth we see in the West Coast, but things are changing rapidly, and I think the numbers do pick up on this trend, exaggerated or not. 🙂

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