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Religious differences push need for better understanding of Eastern religions

Published: Friday, Aug. 31 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Rev. Jerry Hirano of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — To explain the difference between his Hindu faith and the Christian tradition in which he was raised, Lynn Napper tells the story of a Hindu holy man who visited a grade school in India during Great Britain’s occupation.

Napper said the man, Swami Vivikananda, asked the British and Indian children: "When I count to three, I want all of you to point to where God is. One. Two. Three.”

All of the British children pointed up, toward heaven, and all of the Indian children pointed to their hearts.

The simple but poignant story also illustrates something experts say needs to take place today in the United States, where the religious landscape is becoming increasingly diverse. They say educating children and public officials about the various faiths practiced in their local communities is critical to maintaining peace and religious freedom.

“We are not going to make it as a country unless we do better educating one another about who we are,” warned Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project and a senior scholar at Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center. “It’s clear in history that unless we address the fear and ignorance we have for one another, we are going to have trouble living with each other.”

Haynes and others say schools, the media and government need to foster a culture where religion matters, or violent episodes like the recent shooting deaths of six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and vandalism of mosques around the country during Islam’s recently holy month of Ramadan will continue to occur.

‘Mosaic of faiths’

One of the major contributors to the increasing religious diversity of the United States is the growing Asian-American population, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Since 1965, Asian Americans have risen from 1 percent of the total United States population to 5.8 percent in 2011, or 18.2 million adults and children. “In the process, they have been largely responsible for the growth of non-Abrahamic faiths in the United States, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism,” the Pew Forum reported. “Counted together, Buddhists and Hindus today account for about the same share of the U.S. public as Jews (roughly 2 percent).”

Rev. Jerry Hirano, an ordained priest who heads the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, has witnessed the growth firsthand. He remembers that when he was a youth, the temple over which he now presides was one of just three in Utah, and “99 percent of those who attended were Japanese Americans.”

But since the 1970s, an influx of immigrants from southeast and central Asia brought diverse approaches to Buddhism unique to their cultures and they established their own congregations. “Now there are many temples,” he said, and they have attracted converts who are not Asian-American, which has contributed to the growth.

“About half of my congregation now is not Japanese-American,” said Hirano, dressed in a black satin robe and sitting before the intricate gold altars and shrines of the temple, which symbolize the virtues of truth, enlightenment, impermanence, kindness and humility.

He said the community has come a long way since the time he remembers people thinking Buddhists were nothing more than idol worshippers or martial arts warriors depicted in the 1970s television hit “Kung Fu.”

The Pew Forum’s “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths” study shows how, seen through the lens of a Christian or a Muslim, followers of non-Abrahamic faiths could be misjudged as nonreligious or even atheist.

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