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  • Who Is a Buddhist?
  • James William Coleman

As a sociologist who has done a lot of work on Western Buddhism, the question of exactly who is a Buddhist and who isn't is a big one. The answers to such fundamental sociological issues as how many Buddhists there are, their age, ethnic group, marital status, social background, and place of residence all rest on that fundamental definitional question. There are, moreover, a number of reasons that question may be harder to answer than for the Judeo-Christian religions from which most of the working assumptions of the social sciences about religion are drawn. To take only a single example, almost all the survey research on religion in the West assumes that one can have only a single religious affiliation. Someone is a Mormon or a Muslim or a Jew, not all three. That assumption makes perfectly good sense when working with the Western hegemonic traditions, but of course, as we can see from the articles in this journal someone can identify with more than one religion at the same time. In fact, it may be more common for people in Japan to identify as both Shinto and Buddhist than to identify as either one or the other. If left undiscovered, hidden Eurocentric biases can obviously lead to a very distorted understanding.

The usual sociological approach to such questions as who is a Buddhist, or an African American, or a Republican, has its theoretical foundations in labeling theory.1 According to this view, if you define yourself as a Buddhist and other Buddhists accept you as such, then you are a Buddhist, if not, then you aren't. One obvious issue with this approach is how to handle people who define themselves as belonging to a particular group but are not accepted as a member by others in the group. For example, people of mixed racial ancestry may identify with their more privileged ancestors but be excluded by that group because of their physical appearance. But this isn't generally a big problem in the research on Buddhism, and I won't pursue the issue further here. But another more important problem comes up when we apply this approach to Western Buddhism, for there is an interesting reluctance among many people to label themselves as Buddhists, even when they are deeply involved in Buddhist practice.

When my book The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition first came out in 2001,2 journalists and scholars asked me one question over and over again: "How many Buddhists are there in the West?" The answer to this question [End Page 33] obviously rests on how we define who is a Buddhist, and an examination of this issue is actually an excellent way to explore the definitional problems we run into in deciding who is a Buddhist and who isn't. At that time, all I had to offer were a few educated guesses from various sources, which surprisingly turned out not to be so very far off the mark. But since then, several good surveys have helped clarify the issue.

The best of these was the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey of more than thirty-five thousand Americans.3 It was a phone survey, which isn't much of a methodological problem these days, but there are other reasons for believing that it underestimated the total number of Buddhists. For one thing, it didn't include Hawai'i, which because of its large Japanese American population in all probability contains a much higher percentage of Buddhists than most other states. Further, it was conducted only in English and Spanish, which would therefore exclude immigrants from Asian Buddhist countries who do not speak either of those languages. But whatever its weaknesses, the Pew survey is the broadest, most reliable source of data we have. Of those who were questioned by the Pew survey, 0.7 percent said they were Buddhists. If we multiply that by the adult population of the United States for that year, there were about 1.6 million American Buddhists at that time. If we multiply 0.7 percent by the total American population, thus including children as well...


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pp. 33-37
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