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Journal of Asian American Studies 3.2 (2000) 251-256

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Review Essay

The Growing Literature of Asian American Religions: A Review of the Field, with Special Attention to Three New Books *

Following Jesus without Dishonoring Your Parents. By Jeannette Yep, Petter Cha, Susan Cho Van Riesen, Greg Jao, and Paul Tokunaga. Downers Grow, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Many Petals of the Lotus: Five Asian Buddhist Communities in Toronto. By Janet McLellan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

New Spiritual Homes: Religion and Asian Americans. Edited by David K. Yoo. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.

Until recently, Asian American religions were out of the sight of most scholars in Asian American studies and other academic disciplines. In Asian American studies, as pointed out by David K. Yoo (p. 8), the influence of Marxist philosophy and the anti-colonialism discourse underpinning the Asian American movement relegated religion to an unworthy or even reactionary status. In religious studies, Asian American religions were "doubly marginalized by virtue of race and religion" (Yoo, p. 6). In social sciences, past theories failed to provide adequate tools to analyze religions of Asian immigrants and their descendants. For example, the sociological categorization of church, sect, and cult made it impossible to analyze immigrant Buddhism. Studies of Buddhism in America commonly treated Buddhism as a cult or "new religious movement" and thus focused on European American converts from mainstream religions to the "exotic" Buddhism. Similarly, secularization and assimilation theories, which once dominated sociology, blinded researchers from perceiving the importance of religion and ethnicity.

However, religion has been a vital force in Asian America. Between the mid-nineteenth century and World War II, Chinese and Japanese immigrants built hundreds of temples along the West Coast or wherever they settled. In the second half of the twentieth century, Asian new immigrants established hundreds of [End Page 251] Buddhist temples and thousands of Christian churches. These and many other religious institutions--Hindu and Sikh temples, Muslim mosques, etc.--have provided much needed religious and social services to the immigrants and their descendants. There are also many other religious groups, religious practices within the home, and individual spiritualities in various Asian American communities.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, new thinking in several academic disciplines arose. Consequently, the literature of Asian American religions began to emerge. In the sociology of religion, for example, a new paradigm gradually came forth that rejects classic secularization theories. 1 Instead of treating religion as a vestige of the ancient past, more and more scholars now regard religious diversity and vitality in modern or postmodern society as normal phenomenon; religion continues to play important roles in both private and public spheres. Informed by the new thinking, augmented by the increasing scholarly interest in post-1965 new immigrants, research projects focusing on immigrant religions have been carried out and many more are undergoing. These projects have resulted in some journal articles and books, 2 which include ethnographic studies of Asian immigrant religious communities. Some studies in fact exclusively focus on certain Asian immigrant religions, and Raymond Brady Williams is truly a pioneer in this regard. 3

Janet McLellan's book, Many Petals of the Lotus, is the latest addition to this growing list. Buddhism is an Asian religion. Many old and new immigrants from Asia adhere to this ancient tradition. However, only recently have some studies turned the attention to Buddhism of Asian immigrants. Numrich presents two Theravada Buddhist temples, one is Thai in Chicago and one is Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) in Los Angeles. 4 The book edited by Prebish and Tanaka includes chapters covering various ethnic Buddhist groups and Buddhist sects from Asia. 5 Janet McLellan's work focuses on five Asian Buddhist communities in Toronto: Japanese, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese Buddhists. These immigrant groups speak different ethnic languages, follow diverse Buddhist sub-traditions--Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana, and various sects, and have very different experiences as immigrants or refugees. The book is a remarkable accomplishment as a mostly one-person endeavor...


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