While just about everyone is pouring over the numbers regarding "nones" and "Christians" in the newest Pew Research Center "Religious Landscape" Survey I am taking a look at a few of the "other" numbers and data tables here at KenChitwood.com. The story of religion in the U.S. is not only about Christianity and the "nones," but the growing plurality of faiths that are becoming, and already are, thoroughly American religions in many ways -- including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and neo-Paganism to name a few.
This time around I am interested in what the survey has to say about Buddhism. It seems that Buddhists have not grown much over the last decade, maintaining their hold on about 0.7% of the population. While they have experienced growth, many Buddhists have also become part of the nebulous "none" category as well. Buddhists seem to be the most diverse when it comes to interfaith marriage and are also racially diverse. What is also evident is that Buddhism is still largely an immigrant faith. Finally, while nearly half of all Buddhists in the U.S. (45%) reside in the "West" region of the country, the next largest contingent live in the U.S. South (23%).
These latter two points lead me to share the story of the people who orient their lives, culturally and religiously, around the Vietnamese Buddhist Center in Houston, TX. Their story starts not in the Bayou City, but huddled in darkness, hungry, cramped in a damp and dangerous fishing boat on the South China Sea.
Venerable Master Thich Tue Uy was one of those who sailed on the open sea without food or water for ten days and nights fleeing Communist rule in Vietnam. In his own words, it is a miracle he even survived.
Master Uy, today a Buddhist monk in El Monte, California, escaped Communist Vietnam in 1990. He is one of the so-called, “Boat People,” a group of some 2 million refugees who fled Vietnam from the time of the fall of Saigon in 1976 until the mid-1990s. Approximately 800,000 of those refugees settled in the United States, some 65,000 in Houston.
Many of the “Boat People” are practicing Buddhists, and during their treacherous journey they found comfort and solace calling on Quan Âm, a Buddhist bodhisattva— an enlightened individual who continues to aide humanity — revered throughout Asia as ‘Guanyin,’ (or by other names) who is believed to be a compassionate mother to all who call on her for help in time of need.
Every year in the spring, over 10,000 Vietnamese Buddhist monks, laity and practitioners – many of them “Boat People” – make the pilgrimage to southwest Houston’s Vietnamese Buddhist Center (VBC) to celebrate the annual Quan Âm Festival at the feet of what is claimed to be the largest Quan Âm statue in the Western Hemisphere. It is this festival that acts as the pinnacle point of the Vietnamese Buddhist calendar in the United States, a moment when they not only celebrate their Buddhist heritage, but also their theologized transnational identity.
Indeed, in my paper on the people, and the place, of the VBC I make the case that the VBC in Houston could be considered the centrifugal node of transnational sentiment among Vietnamese Buddhists in the U.S. in that it is one of the central locations where Vietnamese Buddhists in diaspora not only make sense of their Vietnamese-Buddhist identity, but also their journey across the waters and their new home in the U.S.
They do this primarily in reference to, and in veneration of, Quan Âm. To make this argument, I briefly trace Vietnamese Buddhist devotion to Quan Âm from its locus in Southeast Asia across the waters to the U.S. and eventually to Houston. Furthermore, I describe the VBC Quan Âm festival and highlight those elements that contribute to a shared Vietnamese Buddhist transnational identity that moves with the flow of the people and in relation to their multicultural milieu in Houston. Along the way I compare this location and festival to other centers of Vietnamese Buddhist religious revival in the U.S. and integrate notes concerning the second generation of Vietnamese Buddhists and integrate theory from other works on diasporic religion and American Buddhism to make a salient point of how the VBC and its festival help Vietnamese Buddhists in the U.S. “make homes and cross boundaries” all the while maintaining a bifocal emphasis on the homeland.
*If you would like to learn more, read the full paper at Academia.edu.