The XX Factor

List of Famous Buddhists Is Mostly Converts

This list from the Daily Beast of “A list” Buddhists shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did, seeing as it is nothing more than a magazine capitalizing on a recent event (Tiger Woods’ Buddhism-laced apology) to show a bunch of glamorous photos of celebrities. But looking through the photo essay, I couldn’t help but notice that out of 17 celebrities profiled, only two were born into the faith, and the rest are converts. There are more people on the list who are or were converted by Orlando Bloom than who were born into a cultural tradition that incorporates Buddhism. While Buddhism is uniquely situated as welcoming to converts-many people who practice it do so along other religious traditions-this exclusion of nonconverts still bugs.

I hated the Tiger Woods apology with every fiber of my being, but did see his discussion of Buddhism as a potential silver lining in encouraging Americans to embrace religious diversity and religious freedom. It’s probably news to a great many American Christians that Buddhism has moral precepts and practices at all; certainly Brit Hume didn’t think so . Woods’ apology was a teachable moment, as softie liberals like to say. Way too many Americans accept without question right-wing claims that ours is a “Christian nation,” and don’t stop to think about how immigration from all over the world has brought an influx of believers of Buddhism and Islam, as well as other, smaller religions. (And don’t forget atheism.) But a list like this one misrepresents Buddhism, implying that it’s more of a Hollywood trend than a long-standing cultural tradition in many parts of Asia.

When one of your two born Buddhists on the list is Uma Thurman-and only two people (Tiger Woods and Keanu Reeves) have any Asian ancestry at all-you’re painting a portrait of Buddhism in America that obscures the reality of Buddhism in America. I’m by no means an expert, but I’m going to guess the majority of Buddhists living in America are not Christian or Jewish converts, but are closer to Woods and his Thai-born mother, i.e., Asian-American. But for some reason, this reality doesn’t seem to have much influence on this list at all. You can hear that teachable moment passing, and nobody learned a damn thing.