Asian Religions in BC: A Review

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Asian Religions in British Columbia (Edited by Larry DeVries, Don Baker, & Dan Overmyer; University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2010) provides a sociological overview of communities, places of worship, teachers and traditions in British Columbia whose background is Asian. For a detailed description of the book and its contents, please see our associated post. In this post, we will review the book and its particular focus on Buddhism.

Like the two other titles on this subject, Wild Geese (McGill-Queens University Press, 2010) and Buddhism in Canada (Routledge, 2006), this book is a rarity; very little work has been done or published in the area of scholarly investigation into the development and nature of Buddhism in our country. As such, the importance of its publication, ten years in the making, cannot be overestimated. Adding a different dimension of investigation to those two books, ARiBC does not present a primarily historical perspective, focusing instead on a structural analysis of sociological data.

The structure of Buddhism in Canada is marked by three major issues: ethnic identity and acculturation; establishment and sustenance of authentic practice; and interaction – both between Buddhist communities and the larger society and between Buddhist communities of different backgrounds.

Ethnic Identity and Acculturation

ARiBC does an excellent job of explaining this first issue, since the authors of the various papers conducted extensive field research to gather the information. The approach is structural, using institutions as the basis for analysis. Discussions center on the immigrant experience, establishment of religious institutions and the organization of those institutions, and the changing needs of the constituent communities. There is a wealth of detail for any scholar, which may also provide a unique window into other communities for Buddhist practitioners affiliated with one tradition or another. Perhaps the most distinctive theme running through this perspective is that of linguistic boundary-making. Values transmission from one generation to the next (or lack thereof) is also a constant theme. Gender politics are discussed, but not dealt with in as great detail. In sum, it would appear that the experience of Buddhists coming to British Columbia mirrors that of most immigrants at any time period in question.

Establishment and Sustenance of Authentic Practice

Practice is approached in terms of the founding and economic support for temples and teachers, as well as in terms of the creation and operation of religious schools, social welfare and cultural agencies, generational challenges, community politics and so on. On this front, the book does a commendable job as well. However, it must be remembered that this is a sociological analysis. Describing the actual practices of the various Buddhists in the book would be a much more elusive goal and it is not the focus of these papers. Main ritual events are listed, as are lineages and focus texts, but beyond that there is little context. The approach, remember, is structural. Details of doctrine, motivation, psychological benefits and so on are not part of the content. For example, while an entire chapter is devoted to Korean Christians, there is never any answer to the question: “Why did so many Koreans become Christians in the first place?” Similarly, the predominance of Pure Land practices over other sects within the Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese communities is mentioned, but the reasons for it are not. By the same token, the reasons why western Buddhists have taken to some traditions more than others is only touched upon. These are areas crying out for further research.

Given that the focus of the book is on a wide variety of religions, it is understandable that each group receives limited coverage. Perhaps in future some enterprising scholar of Canadian Buddhism will attempt something on the scale of Holmes Welch’s three-volume classic, (The Practice of Chinese Buddhism 1900-1950, Buddhism Under Mao, The Buddhist Revival in China).

Interactions

With regard to relationships between Buddhist groups, and their relationship to the wider society, ARiBC makes a great start. I wish the authors had delved more deeply into the relationships between various Buddhist centres/communities and their counterparts in other provinces since none of these groups functions in a vacuum even if their relationships are informal. Similarly, amplification on how those centres have contributed in various ways to public discourse, social action and the greater good, would have been a welcome addition. Some attention to this topic is given, especially with regard to the Tung Lin Kok Yuen Canada Foundation and the Tzu Chi Foundation, but the efforts of other organizations is either scanty or absent. Reactions from the larger non-Buddhist community are also absent, as is any detailed analysis of the normative influences it has created in Buddhist communities (beyond, say, wanting to blend in and be good neighbours). Interfaith dialogue and the evolution of academic approaches to Buddhism in British Columbia’s universities are also missing.

These are not failings on the part of the authors; rather, they are invitations to further research. One could not expect this relatively general book to contain that level of detail, especially considering that Buddhism is merely one of the religions it covers.

ARiBC also contains a superb list of suggested readings for anyone interested in other sociological analyses relating to this topic. All in all, it is a must-have for any respectable library and a welcome addition to any university course dealing with the sociology of religion.

Karma Yönten Gyatso, July 2010

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