Asian American religions have dramatically increased their presence in the United States. Partly, this is a function of the increasing population of Asian Americans since 1965.
Asian American is a name given to the United States residents who trace their ancestry back to the area of Asia from Pakistan in the west to the Pacific islands east of the Asian landmass. There are over 18 million Asian Americans in the United States (about 6 percent of the national population), and Asians are immigrating to the country at rates that far exceed those for any other group.
Other names have been taken, given, or forced upon Asian Americans. Such terms as “Chinese or Japanese imperial subjects” heightened a unity of political and religious obedience to a divine emperor. “Oriental” started as a French idealization of the Confucian state before descending to the level of being an epithet for backwardness.
Immigrants come with nationalities like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and so forth that often intervene into religious discourses (see an example of this process in the Chinese American experience as described by Fenggang Yang (Chinese Christians in America. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). In the 1970s the name Asian American was popularized by West Coast intellectuals in order to gather forces at the barricades of political and racial movements. Some scholars like Michael Omi and Howard Winant (Racial Formation in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994) claimed “Asian American” as a racialized reality, which was the result of racial conflicts innate to American society. Others saw the identity as an ethnic claim to assimilation into American cultural reality.
Asian immigrants and their progeny find ways to balance out the religious, national, ethnic, racial, and other identities from their homeland, new nation, and religion. “Asian American” has also become a common-sense meaning that was institutionalized by the U.S. census. But one should remember that many layers of names sit upon Asian American houses of worship as so many barnacles telling tales of ancestral honors, woes, and self-reflections.
Over three-quarters of Asian Americans profess a religious faith. About a quarter say that they are “religious nones,” that is, either having no particular religious faith or identifying as agnostic or atheist. About half of the “nones” actually have religious beliefs and ethics and practice them as an intrinsic part of Asian American culture, not as something that is “religious.”
Two-thirds of religious Asian Americans are Christians. This is not surprising when we take into account the rapid growth of Christianity in the non-European world. Asian Americans are contributing to the “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity and signal the increasingly religious direction of the 21st century.
Other Asian American religions include Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroasterism, new Japanese religions, and many more.
The history of Asian American religions involves a dynamic interplay of the United States and Asia, global politics, democratic revolutions, persecution in Asia, racism in the United States, Supreme Court cases, and religious innovation.
The largest Asian American groups, those with 1–4 million people each, trace their ancestry back to Japan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Korea. Seven smaller groups have over 100,000 people each: Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Pakistanis, and Thais. And there are many more smaller groups.
The diverse ethnic and national origins of Asian Americans means that their religions have a kaleidoscope of religious styles and cultures.
Avalokiteśvara is one of the most famous bodhisattvas in Buddhism. The worship of bodhisattvas (beings of enlightenment) is one of the most distinctive features of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Whereas early or mainstream Buddhism recognizes only two bodhisattvas—the Buddha in his previous lives and Maitreya, the future Buddha—there are a number of bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna to whom one can appeal for help and guidance. Of the many bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara is identified specifically as the embodiment of compassion and as such has been worshipped throughout Buddhist Asia.
Jeffrey L. Broughton
An extensive printed Chan literature came into wide circulation during the Song dynasty (960–1279). This Song corpus included more-or-less intact texts from the Tang (618–907) and Five Dynasties (907–960), Tang and Five-Dynasties texts heavily reworked by Song editors, and a vast newly created set of Song Chan texts. This printed Chan literature spread among the educated elite during the Song period. In total, several hundred woodblock-printed texts from the Song and Yuan (1271–1368) periods, the classic age of Chan textual production, still exist, but many editions from the Ming (1368–1644) and later have also been preserved. In addition, Chan texts can be found within the Dunhuang-manuscript corpus. There are eight major Chan genres (omitting “rules of purity” or qinggui as too technical): yulu (collections of sayings of individual masters); flame-of-the-lamp records (biographical material and sayings of masters arranged as a series of inheritors of the flame of the lamp); poetry (both prosaic religious verse and highly allusive classical shi poetry); “standards” with attached poetry/prose comments (often called by Western scholars “gong’an/kōan collections”); compendia; collections of letters by Chan masters to scholar-officials, students, and peers; pretend dialogues; and glossary material. The language of the Chan records is a hybrid, a mixture of the written elegant language (wenyan) and a type of written Chinese based on spoken language. In time, the language of the Chan records became a sacerdotal language for Chan insiders, not only in China but in Korea and Japan as well. The language patterns of Chan literature—for instance, its proclivity for using everyday words and phrases as stand-ins for more imposing Buddhist-sounding equivalents—account for a great deal of its power and beauty. However, those language patterns also constitute serious obstacles for the modern reader. In short, the texts are very difficult to read because they are not simply “classical Chinese” nor are they modern vernacular. A stylistic convergence of the Chan records and classical Chinese poetry can be seen, particularly in the context of jueju quatrains of seven or five syllables. The sayings of the records often embody aesthetic ideals of Chinese poetry: lexical economy, emphasis on the imagistic, and minimal use of nonimagistic or abstract words.
American Christianity and commerce are bound together by their mutual history. In colonial America, Puritans excelled at the skills of capitalism, and in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, Christian corporations have tied together religious and corporate culture. Even when corporations and churches have maintained a distinct boundary between faith and the market, American religion and capitalism seem to be uniquely compatible. Ministers and gurus use mass media to disseminate their message (via TV, radio, bookstores). Religious folk in the United States tend to act like consumers, choosing their theologies and churches based on their individual needs and desires, rather than relying on tradition to dictate their religious practices. Selling and buying in the American marketplace share many similarities with Christian categories of piety and evangelization. Further, corporations and religious communities have since the early 20th century collaborated in politics and social movements. In much of the scholarship on Christianity and commerce in the United States, this relationship is discussed as a strategic partnership between two distinct spheres of life: religion and the market. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this neat division, arguing that the fluid relationship among commerce, consumption, and Christianity in the United States emerges from the historical co-development of capitalism and religion. If Christianity and the market in the United States look very similar, or are particularly friendly, it is because they were never separate to begin with.
Sam van Schaik
Dzogchen, often translated as “the great perfection,” is a tradition of meditation practice and poetic literary expression in Tibetan Buddhism. Though its origins lie in Indic Buddhism, Dzogchen developed a distinct form of practice and literary expression only in Tibet. In general, Dzogchen texts evoke and discuss a state of awareness present in all living beings that transcends dualities and conceptual elaboration.
Common terms for this state of awareness are “mind itself” (sems nyid) and “awareness” (rig pa). Dzogchen literature often states that in the presence of this awareness, religious practice oriented toward enlightenment is dualistic and, therefore, not only unnecessary, but also obstructive. Nevertheless, Dzogchen is usually integrated with other forms of Buddhist practice.
The Dzogchen tradition encompasses a variety of literature and practice; the most common way of categorizing this is a division into three classes, the mind series, the space series, and the instruction series. The mind series contains most of the early Dzogchen literature, and more recent material in the same style. The space series enjoyed only limited popularity, and little is known of it today. The instruction series, by contrast, increased in popularity from its appearance in the 11th century and in time supplanted the mind series and the space series, ultimately becoming the predominant form of Dzogchen.
The practice of Dzogchen requires an authorized teacher and the ritual transmission of key texts, as well as an “introduction” to the nature of the mind given by the teacher to the student. The main scriptural sources of Dzogchen practice are texts held to be translations collected in semicanonical compendia, treatises by Tibetan scholars, and revealed texts known as terma, usually said to have been concealed in the 8th century by the tantric master Padmasambhava.
Dzogchen is a living tradition, taught within all of the main Tibetan Buddhist schools, though it remains closely associated with the Nyingma school. Within the latter, Dzogchen is considered to be the most advanced of Buddhist meditation practices, placed at the top of a ninefold categorization of Buddhist practice, the “nine vehicles.” Known in this context as atiyoga, “the utmost yoga,” it is the highest of the three “inner yogas,” the other two being mahāyoga and anuyoga. Dzogchen is also at the pinnacle of the teachings of Tibet’s Bonpo religion, which shares much of its doctrine with the Nyingma school and has in recent years been formally identified as one of the Buddhist schools of Tibet.
“Esoteric Buddhism” and “Buddhist Tantra” are contested categories to begin with in Buddhist studies; within the specific context of the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, they are doubly contested. That is, on top of the usual contestations applying to these categories within the contexts in which they are usually studied—medieval north India, Tibet, and Zhenyan/Shingon in East Asia—there arises the issue of whether and to what extent these categories are applicable to Southeast Asian Buddhism. There are two discrete ways in which the category “esoteric Buddhism” can be used as a lens through which to study aspects of Southeast Asian Buddhism. The first is historical and pertains to the usual referent of “esoteric Buddhism,” namely, Tantra as an aspect or subdivision of Mahāyāna Buddhism (mantranaya). Although Mahāyāna Buddhism is no longer a major force within Southeast Asian Buddhism (aside from Vietnamese Buddhism, which shares more affinities with East Asian Buddhism), Mahāyāna Buddhism did play a significant role in several “classical” Southeast Asian states in the past, and there is some evidence of mantranaya ideas and practices within certain historical Southeast Asian Mahāyāna contexts. The second way in which “esoteric Buddhism” can be applied to Southeast Asian Buddhism is as a (putative) aspect of Theravāda or Pali Buddhism, which continues to be practiced over much of mainland Southeast Asia to the present day. Certain aspects of contemporary (and recent historical) Theravāda/Pali Buddhism have been labeled variously “Tantric Theravāda” or “esoteric Southern Buddhism” out of perceived similarities to the more familiar system of Mahāyāna Buddhist Tantra.
Carol S. Anderson
The Buddhist teaching known in English as the four noble truths is most often understood as the single most important teaching of the historical buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who taught in northern India during the 5th century
Richard K. Payne
The homa is a votive offering involving the construction of a fire in a hearth-altar, and the immolation of offerings in the fire. The altar is homologized with a mandala, and as with other ritual uses of mandalas, the deity evoked in the course of the ritual is located at the mandala’s center, and in this case identified with the fire itself. As a tantric ritual, the practitioner is also ritually identified with both the deity and the fire, and the offerings made into the fire are the spiritual obstacles that impede the practitioner from full awakening. Tantric homas are generally categorized according to different functions or goals, such as protection, subduing adversaries, and so on. As a form of individual practice conducive to awakening, the practitioner’s own inherent wisdom is identified with the fire, and just as the offerings are transformed and purified, the practitioner’s own spiritual obstacles are as well.
Ritualized activities of maintaining and making fire are some of the most ancient forms of social coordination, which is essential to the development of the human species. Such ritualization would seem to be the basis for fire cults, forms of which are known throughout the world’s religions. In the scope of Indo-European religions, similarities of practice and symbolism provide a shared background to the homa per se. More directly, there appear to be both Vedic and Indo-Iranian traditions of ritual praxis that converge in the tantric homa.
The homa is found in all of the Indic tantric traditions: Buddhist, Śaiva, and Jain. Once established as part of tantric practice, the homa was spread throughout Central, East, and Southeast Asia, particularly in its Buddhist form. This transmission of ritual practice engaged local traditions wherever it spread. Tibetan tantric traditions developed an extensive literature of homa rituals, and from there the practice also influenced Mongolian fire rituals as well. In China, interaction between tantric Buddhism and Daoism led to the creation of a homa devoted to the Northern Dipper, a figure unknown in Indian sources of Buddhist tantra. Two similar examples are found in Japan. The Shintō traditions of Yuiitsu (or Yoshida) and Miwa modified the tantric Buddhist form for the worship of a selection of Shintō deities. Similarly, the tradition of mountain asceticism, Shugendō, also adopted the homa and adapted it to its purposes. As a result of the repression of Buddhism in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the Shintō forms are no longer extant, though in the present many Shintō shrines perform rituals of various kinds in which fire plays an important role. In contrast, the Shugendō homa, sometimes as a prelude to fire-walking, remains an active part of Japanese religion into the present day.
The tantric homa has been interpreted in a variety of ways, reflecting the multifaceted character of fire itself. There are two important strains of interpretation. One is the yogic interiorization of ritual found in post-Vedic Indian religion, more as a form of esoteric physiology than as a psychologized understanding of visualization. While closely related to yogic interiorization of ritual, the sexual symbolisms that are attached to all aspects of the fire rituals constitute a second strain of interpretation. These symbolic associations are important for their role in understanding tantric notions of ritual efficacy, which require greater nuance of understanding than can be attained by simply categorizing such practices as magic.
Jamil W. Drake
It is impossible to provide a conclusive definition of the idea of black religion; however, certain themes, tropes, and characteristics are typically associated with the “black” in black religion. These ideas are inseparable from the ideas of race in American history. The ideas of the religious differences (e.g., institutions, theologies, practices, or values) attributed to black people are not objective or neutral. Rather, these ideas about the differences of black religion are value-laden and shaped by larger debates about the moral and intellectual capabilities, social status, and/or political struggles of black folk in the United States. In this sense, the idea of black religion is inseparable from the larger discourse about black people and their place in the republic.
Arguably, black religion was not a formal object of inquiry until the late 19th century, yet it often includes statements about the paganism, idolatry, and/or fetishism used to define “religion of Africa” in the colonial period. By the antebellum period, a cadre of voluntary African associations continued the ideas of pagan Africa that posited a redemptive [African] race that simultaneously sought to purify American religion from slavery and to civilize Africa from the ideas of primitivism. Throughout the 20th century, early studies of “black religion” were associated with ideas of social and moral uplift; race heredity; economic stress; transmission of Africanisms; and protest and liberation. In the end, black religion is intrinsic to U.S. intellectual and cultural history.
Connie A. Shemo
The history of East Asian religions in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the broader history of United States–East Asian relations, and specifically with U.S. imperialism. For most Americans in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, information about religious life in China, Japan, and Korea came largely through foreign missionaries. A few prominent missionaries were deeply involved in the translation of important texts in East Asian religions and helped promote some understanding of these traditions. The majority of missionary writings, however, condemned the existing religions in these cultures as part of their critiques of the cultures as degenerate and in need of Christianity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement in the United States, women missionaries’ representations of East Asian religions as inherent in the oppression of women particularly reached a large audience. There was also fascination with East Asian religions in the United States, especially as the 20th century progressed, and more translations appeared from people not connected to the foreign mission movement. By the 1920s, as “World Friendship” became an important paradigm in the foreign missionary movement, some missionary representations of East Asian religions became more positive, reflecting and contributing to a broader trend in the United States toward a greater interest in religious traditions around the world, and coinciding with a move toward secularization. As some scholars have suggested, the interest in East Asian religions in the United States in some ways fits into the framework of “Orientalism,” to use Edward Said’s famous term, viewing religions of the “East” as an exotic alternative to religion in the West. Other scholars have suggested that looking at the reception of these religions through a framework of “Orientalism” underestimates and distorts the impact these religious traditions have had in the United States. Regardless, religious traditions from East Asia have become a part of the American religious landscape, through both the practice of people who have immigrated from East Asia or practice the religion as they have learned from family members, and converts to those religions. The numbers of identified practitioners of East Asian religions in United States, with the exception of Buddhism, a religion that originated outside of East Asia, is extremely small, and even Buddhists are less than 2 percent of the American population. At the same time, some religious traditions, such as Daoism and some variants of Buddhism (most notably Zen Buddhism), have exercised a significant impact on popular culture, even while a clear understanding of these traditions has not yet been widespread in the United States. Some understanding of Confucianism as well has recently been spread through the propagation of “Confucian” institutes in the United States. It is through these institutes that we may see the beginnings of the Chinese government exercising some influence in American universities, which, while not comparable to the impact of Christian missionaries in the development of Chinese educational institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nonetheless can illuminate the growing power of China in Sino-American relations in the beginning of the 21st century.
While the term “East Asian” religions is frequently used for convenience, it is important to be aware of potential pitfalls in assigning labels such as “Western” and “Eastern” to religious traditions, particularly if this involves a construction of Christianity as inherently “Western.” At a time when South Korea sends the second largest number of Christian missionaries to other countries, Christianity could theoretically be defined as an East Asian religion, in that a significant number of people in one East Asian country not only practice but actively seek to propagate the religion. Terms such as “Eastern” and “Western” to define religious traditions are cultural constructs in and of themselves.