Durgesh Kasbekar is an Executive Committee member of the Religion in International Relations Section, International Studies Association (ISA).
There is a dichotomy in the Western perception of Buddhism. Many perceive Buddhism as an ancient Asian religion. On the other hand, some perceive it as an American religion. Professor Diana Eck, an expert on contemporary American religions at Harvard University, declared in 1993, “Buddhism is now an American religion (WGBH Educational Foundation, 1993). Prof. Eck made that statement because Buddhists have been in America since around 1850 and there are more Buddhists in America now than ever before. It has been a long journey for Buddhism in the US. The Chinese Buddhists arrived in the United States for the Gold Rush and built the first temple in San Francisco in 1853 (The Association of Religion Data Archives, 2022). Similar to the US, Chinese and Japanese Railroad workers and miners were the first Buddhists to arrive in Canada. However, there are no traces of their Buddhist activities. Japanese Canadians first established Buddhism in Canada by gathering at each other’s homes during late 1800s. Although adherents of Jodo Shinshu traditions would have resided in Canada since 1889, the first recorded assembly of Japanese Buddhists occurred in 1904 in Vancouver (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2022).
Canada shares the longest international land border in the world with the US with 90% of its population living within 100 miles of the US border (Beauchamp, 2016). Each country has some of its small regions on the other side of the border. Hence, due to physical, socio-cultural, and economic entwinement with the US, Canada cannot be studied in isolation.
Canada and the US – Differences and Similarities
There are four major differences between Canada and the US:
1) Although a democracy, Canada is not yet a Republic. All Canadians are subjects of the Queen of England.
2) Unlike the US, Canada does not have a significant population of African – Caribbean and of Hispanic/Latino descent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021).
3) Canada’s population is one-tenth of US population, and,
4) Unlike the US, Canada has a significant French speaking population (Statistics Canada, 2016).
However, Canada and the US share similar socio-cultural and religious landscapes. According to Ed Grabb, a leading scholar on American and Canadian similarities, Canadians and Americans are surprisingly similar on key issues including attitudes to health care, religion, individuality, and government (Waugh, 2011). Using World Values Survey in his study, Grabb infers that Canadians are like Americans on various measures of individualism and related values, including acceptance of individual merit/effort based economic inequality (Waugh, 2011). The difference on religion between the two countries has shrunk.
1n 1991, Americans were 16 % more likely than Canadians to attend religious service once a week or more. By 2006, this difference had reduced to 11% (Waugh, 2011). 65% Americans and 63% of Canadians think that people determine their own success in life – a value not much shared by Europeans where pluralities concur that people have little control of their destinies (Pew Research Center [PRC], 2004). As compared to Europeans (91%), both Canadians and Americans are less inclined to a social safety net. 73% of Americans and 77% of Canadians believe that government should take care of the poor (PRC, 2004). As the two countries are similar in their socio-cultural, political, and religious values, there is an overlap between studies of Buddhism in both countries. Apart from non-emergence of a unique Canadian Buddhism unlike a perceived American Buddhism by some, studies/observations on Buddhism in America can be safely applied to Canada.
Beauchamp, Z. (2016). Canada is a huge country. Most of it unfit for habitation. Retrieved https://www.vox.com/2016/5/5/11584064/canada-population-map
Harding, J. (2014). Leslie Kawamura: Nothing to add, nothing to take away. In Flowers on the Rock: Global and Local Buddhism in Canada-Edited by Harding. J, Hori, V.S. and Soucy, A. McGill- Queen’s University Press
Pew Research Center (2004). Americans and Canadians. Retrieved https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2004/01/14/americans-and-canadians/
Soucy, A. (2014). Buddhist Globalism & Canadian Buddhism. In Flowers on the Rock: Global and Local Buddhism in Canada-Edited by Harding. J, Hori, V.S. and Soucy, A. McGill- Queen’s University Press
Statistics Canada (2016). The demographic picture varies by province or territory. Retrieved https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/services/official-languages-bilingualism/publications/statistics.html
The Association of Religion Data Archives (2022). First Buddhist Temples Built- Timeline Event. Retrieved https://www.thearda.com/us-religion/history/timelines/entry/?etype=1&eid=354
The Canadian Encyclopedia (2022). Buddhism in Canada. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/buddhism
U.S. Census Bureau (2021). Quick facts: United States. Retrieved https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219
Waugh, B. (2011). Canadians and Americans are more similar than assumed. Retrieved https://news.ubc.ca/2011/07/07/canadians-and-americans-are-more-similar-than-assumed/
WGBH Educational Foundation (1993). Video titled, “Becoming the Buddha in L.A.”