Online forum helps Asian Americans find their way into Americanized Buddhism

(RNS) – Devon’s grandfather Matsumoto helped build the Mountain View Buddhist Temple in the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II. Her father was later in charge of campus buildings while her mother was superintendent of the Dharma school. A few months when he was growing up, Devon, now a 23-year-old social worker, was there every day for Buddhist services and festivals or to play basketball with his friends.

While Buddhism played a central role in his life, Matsumoto noticed that representations of Buddhism in the United States rarely include Asian Americans like himself or his family. He is not alone. Although two-thirds of Buddhists in the United States are of Asian descent, according to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are often marginalized in discussions of religion in universities, mainstream media and Buddhist publications. .

“I remember learning Buddhism in elementary school and middle school, and those interviewed are white Zen priests in the United States who have some sort of retreat center in the mountains – and I thought that this was not my form of Buddhism, ”Matsumoto mentioned.

Last January, while attending a retreat for Buddhist students in Seattle, Matsumoto and his friend Trevor Yokoyama decided to create Young Buddhist Editorial, an online forum where young Asian American Buddhists share their writings, photographs and art. The idea was to provide a platform to amplify Millennial and Gen Z Asian Buddhist voices and let this group engage with their religion, culture and identity on their own terms. About ten others also contributed to the launch of the group.

Devon Matsumoto. Photo courtesy of Young Buddhist

“We have noticed that being Buddhists and Asian Americans, our stories are told for us,” Matsumoto said. “One of our great efforts is to get our stories told to our communities. “

The site is now affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America, which is part of the Jodo Shinshu branch which is also the oldest Buddhist organization in the United States.

The site isn’t dedicated to cheerleaders for demographics: Among articles published in its first year is a candid review of anti-blackness among Asian Americans and healthcare workers Buddhists during the pandemic. And it’s not just writing: “Humans of Buddhism,” a photography project, showcases the diversity of Buddhists in the United States. There is a social justice-themed virtual book club and community workshops on voting and Black Lives Matter.

This work pushes aside Orientalist stereotypes of Asian American Buddhists, said Reverend Tadao Koyama, a 31-year-old minister at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple in Washington and contributor to Young Buddhist Editorial.

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“Sometimes people associate us with these forest monks who sit on a rock all day and meditate,” he said. “Young Buddhist Editorial disputes this and shows that there is a voice, that we have things to say, we get angry, we get angry and that when injustice happens right in front of us, we will say it is injustice and we’re not ‘going to hide behind our teachings and say,’ Oh, well, this is all happening for a reason. ‘ “

The Young Buddhist Editorial is also a way to keep young adults connected to Buddhism at a time when many are rethinking their relationship with the temple, Matsumoto said.

While disaffiliation is common among young adults of all religious backgrounds – more than a third of millennials have no religious affiliation, a share that continues to grow, according to Pew – it is especially high among Asian American Buddhists. According to a study last year, only 56% of first generation Asian American Buddhists and 48% of second generation American Buddhists retained their original religion, a rate lower than that of American Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Hindus. of Asian origin.

Koyama saw this in his temple, which has only six young adults out of around 160 households – a number he says is even higher than in many other temples.

Matsumoto pointed to the historical reasons for this trend, saying American society has long driven a wedge between Asian Americans and Buddhism. During World War II, for example, Buddhist priests were among the first Americans of Japanese descent to be targeted and incarcerated.

Photo by Leonard Laub / Unsplash / Creative Commons

Photo by Leonard Laub / Unsplash / Creative Commons

Chenxing Han, author of “Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists,” said that as a “double minority,” Asian American Buddhists often feel pressure from the mainstream white culture and the Asian American community. to assimilate to Christianity. . (A plurality of Asian Americans are Christians.)

Many Cambodians, Laos and Vietnamese Buddhists have come to the United States as refugees, and their temples often lack financial resources for religious education and youth groups, Han said. Language barriers also prevent young Buddhists from finding a temple once they leave home, she pointed out: A second-generation Cambodian American Buddhist, for example, cannot easily attend a Thai temple, even though the practices would be similar.

Negative stereotypes – for example, that Asian American Buddhists practice superstition instead of “real” Buddhism – also contribute to disaffiliation, Han said, so that many young Asian Americans are reluctant to even “stand aside.” reveal ”Buddhists.

“If all you see is the superstitious immigrant, that’s not a model of empowerment to admire,” she said.

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At the same time, Han said, many other young Asian-American Buddhists see their religion as a source of intergenerational strength and connection.

“Some young people may feel like I may not be as devout as my elders, but there can still be a very deep and sincere connection to this,” she said.

Despite this trend of disaffiliation, Koyama said young people who remain engaged in Buddhism are particularly passionate. Matsumoto, in addition to being chairman of the group, is studying at the Institute for Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, Calif., To become a minister. He also hopes to pursue further training in Japan.

Although groups of young adults have already formed within the Buddhist Churches of America – from local chapters of the Young Buddhist Association, which flourished in the 1990s, to the annual TechnoBuddha conference in Berkeley – Koyama said that he hoped that the Young Buddhist editorial would enable a new generation of Asian American Buddhists to be heard in ways they have never done before.

“Our voices are here too,” he said, “and our voices matter.”