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.

The survey found that Asian-Americans are less likely than Americans overall to believe in God and to pray on a daily basis. But measures such as belief in God, frequency of prayer or even attendance at worship services aren’t reliable indicators of a religion’s role in a mostly non-Christian population because faith is practiced and lived in a different way.

For example, Buddhists often view their religion in non-theistic terms — a path toward enlightenment rather than a path to God — so, it would be expected that fewer Asian-American Buddhists would say they believe in God or a universal spirit. And in fact, just 71 percent of them do, compared with 92 percent of the overall U.S. public.

Similarly, the Pew report found that ritual recitation of mantras (in both Buddhism and Hinduism) is not viewed as the equivalent of prayer to a personal God in the Christian tradition, which could explain why a smaller number of Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus than Asian-American Christians report that they pray daily.

Attendance at religious services is also higher among U.S. Asian Christians (61 percent) than among U.S. Asian Buddhists (12 percent) and Hindus (19 percent). But many Buddhists (57 percent) and Hindus (78 percent) report that they maintain religious shrines in their homes, the Pew study stated.

While most Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus maintain other traditional religious beliefs and practices — some 95 percent of all Indian-American Hindus say they celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights — many have also incorporated western traditions and holidays. Roughly three-quarters celebrate Christmas and more than a third of Hindus reported attending a religious service other than their own.

Pew researchers said that U.S. Buddhists and Hindus tend to be inclusive in their understanding of faith. Most Asian-American Buddhists (79 percent) and Asian-American Hindus (91 percent), for instance, reject the notion that their religion is the one, true faith and say instead that many religions can lead to eternal life (or, in the case of Buddhists, to enlightenment).

Where religion matters

“It is very important to understand and know the basics and how these different faiths might express their religious commitment,” said Cary Funk, senior researcher for the Asian-American study. “There are many, many religious groups in U.S. society, and the more we understand these differences the better that is.”

To reach that understanding, researchers need to formulate questions that capture the nuances and stark differences between faith traditions. Funk said asking about the salience or experience of one's faith is relevant in all religious traditions.

For John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron and a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, understanding the nuances of various faith traditions and the practices of their adherents is important in determining the impact followers have on society.

“One reason someone doing political polling would want to measure religious commitment is that it turns out to be a very powerful factor in explaining people’s political attitudes and views on social issues,” Green said. “People who have high levels of religious commitment tend to be more engaged with their faith, and we know that type of social engagement can have an enormous impact on people’s attitudes and their behaviors.”

According to the Pew study, most Asian Americans lean Democrat, with the exception of evangelical Protestants. However, more than half those same politically conservative Asian Americans support a bigger federal government offering more social services compared to 20 percent of white evangelicals in the general public.

As American society becomes more religiously diverse, the possibility of having a neighbor, student, patient, military comrade, voter or elected official from a minority faith becomes more likely, and it raises the importance of having at least a familiarity with other faith traditions.

“It’s not that we have to know everything, but certain basic information is certainly useful,” said Green, noting that most calls he receives seeking insight on the religious impact of a certain issue are from the media.

“And that’s a good thing because a lot of people get their information through the media,” he said.

But the most effective place for that education to take place is in public schools, said Haynes, who spearheaded the initial guidelines for teaching about religion in public schools without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

He said progress has been made in the past 20 years to offer more religion courses, but it is not keeping pace with the country’s changing religious landscape, where minority faiths are increasingly clamoring to be heard in the public square.

“Religious literacy for the sake of education is a start,” Haynes said. “But my motivation is for religious freedom and peace among people and preparing young people for a world where religion matters.”

Hirano said that increased awareness and acceptance of other faith traditions in a community also makes it easier for children in minority faiths to integrate into American society.

He recalled growing up in a predominantly Mormon culture and often participated in LDS Church youth activities taking place at the local church across the street from his home. But he also had a separate social network among his Japanese American friends at the Buddhist temple.

He senses those walls have come down more in the past 10 years, and he sees his daughter visit her friend’s church and the friend visit the Buddhist temple.

“My daughter once asked, ‘Why don’t they realize that we are not that different from them? We just try to be kind and gentle to everybody,’” Hirano said.

And in some cases former Christians embrace the new faith tradition. For Napper, his journey toward Hinduism started when he was 15 years old in a karate class where he learned to meditate. He eventually founded the Ogden Meditation Center, and his interest in the practice took him in 2001 to India, where meditation and Hinduism were born.

The retired Homeland Security supervisor at Salt Lake City International Airport grips a string of large beads in his right hand while patiently explaining some of the aspects of his practice to this reporter, who interrupted his weekly Monday visit to the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan to meditate. He says what sets Hinduism apart for him is the internal rather than outward nature of worship.

“It feels good,” he says, succinctly explaining why he makes the trip from Ogden. “It’s a feeling of deeper-than-normal peace.”

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