For many Latinos, religion is a touchy subject. Whether it’s growing up in a Catholic household or being brought up Christian, many find themselves questioning religion altogether. That may be why there is a growing number of Latinos seeking other venues of religion, notably Buddhism. According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos are 12 percent of the American Buddhist community and has seen rising numbers specifically among millennials. But why Latinos and why now?
Many people seek Buddhism as an alternative to other religions because of the freedom you get to find yourself spiritually.
— The Daily Pilot (@TheDailyPilot) October 16, 2018
Buddhism was introduced to the United States near the beginning of the 20th century, but over the past 30 years or so, Buddhism has crept into the cultural consciousness of many in the U.S. The basic concept of Buddhism is learning to accept life and find fulfillment within oneself through various forms of prayer and meditation. Rev. Jon Turner, a minister at the Orange County Buddhist Church (OCBC), says many young people, particularly Latinos, are seeking new alternatives compared to what they are accustomed to, like Catholicism. He says Buddhism also has many similarities to Protestant practices like readings and use of candles.
“When I think of Buddhism, I see it as an alternative if you don’t feel like you fit in other practices,” Turner says. “What many people like about Buddhism is that we don’t have a lot of rules about how you should live your life and many like that freedom.”
Buddhist organizations are reaching out to new communities, which has resulted in more diverse temples.
CREDIT: Akuppa John Wigham / Flickr
Turner and the OCBC have made efforts to reach out to new groups of people in the community which in return has seen a growing and changing demographics at the church. The historically Japanese temple in Orange County has grown increasingly diverse, Turner estimates one-quarter of OCBC congregants are not Japanese. He says over the years he’s seen more Japanese couples marrying outside their communities which has resulted in more diverse families.
“A lot of the families in the area are growing increasingly diverse which is opening up Buddhism to new communities,” Turner says. “It’s gaining popularity in the U.S. and our outreach shows that many are converting either at a younger age or in their late 30’s and 40’s.”
Turner is an example of this conversion as he began following Buddhism at 38 years old. He says he’s heard countless similar stories of people who convert to Buddhism when they’re looking for something new. The OCBC has helped many young and older groups of people when it comes to learning and converting to the practice of Buddhism.
The church primarily operates in English, unlike other Buddhist temples in Orange County that serve older immigrant communities and conduct services in languages such as Chinese or Vietnamese. Turner says having the services in English is key in breaking through to a fourth-generation Japanese person and a Latino coming to the temple for their first time.
For some, Buddhism is a perfect balance between self-learning and religious empowerment.
CREDIT: Tharum Bun / Flickr
Hector Ortiz, who grew up Baptist, faced struggles as a gay man because of his church’s teachings on sexuality. When he looked more into Buddhism he found more similarities between his Mexican heritage and Japanese culture. Ortiz said both religions are family-oriented which helped him when he started attending the OCBC more than a decade ago.
“For me, spiritually, what makes sense is that I’m responsible for my own actions and how I interpret the world, [as] opposed to looking to others for happiness or seeking it outward,” Ortiz told the LA Times. “I was drawn to the personal responsibility, seeking happiness inward and the acceptance. It felt like a place I was arriving home to, spiritually. It was a nice crossover for me.”
Buddhism is growing across the country which means new generations are practicing and spreading the religion’s message.
CREDIT: carol mitchell / Flickr
Soka Gakkai International, one of the largest Buddhist institutions in the U.S., is at the forefront when it comes to Latino outreach. Since 2001, the organization has hosted annual Spanish-language conferences, which gives a chance for new people to learn Buddhism and for longtime practitioners to build community with one another. This has led to many growing Buddhist communities across the country that are teaching a new generation of young practitioners that might have never been exposed to the religion.
As Buddhism grows in popularity, so does the need for more organizations and churches like Soka Gakkai and OCBC to do outreach and be the bridge for Latinos and others who’ve never practiced the religion.
“I like to think of Buddhism as the best-kept secret and for those that are even the slightly interested, I always welcome them to attend a service,” Turner said. “If you want a deeper meaning to your life or just want self-reflection, Buddhism might be for you.”