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Mapping Buddhism in the San Gabriel Valley


Buddhism in the San Gabriel Valley Mapping Project

The ISHB Buddhism in the San Gabriel Valley Mapping Project is funded by the Luce Foundation through APARRI (Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative). The project aims to collect spatial data on the impressive diversity of Buddhist sites in Southern California. The findings suggest that there are over 100 Buddhist temples in the San Gabriel Valley.

Principal researchers: Jens Reinke, Jane Iwamura

Researcher: Song Wang

1.    Introduction

The Los Angeles metropolitan area constitutes one of the world’s most important “global cities” (Saskia Sassen). At its heart – right east of the City of Los Angeles – lies the San Gabriel Valley, a suburban cluster of cities and unincorporated communities. The San Gabriel Valley hosts the biggest Chinese American community in the US. This new suburban pattern of settlement, or “ethnoburb” (Wei Li), has replaced earlier spaces of overseas Chinese settlement in inner cities, the so-called Chinatowns.

Mostly ignored by studies on Buddhism in the US, the San Gabriel Valley ethnoburb is home to a huge variety of temples, centers, and other Buddhist sites, a majority of which have their roots in different Asian countries. Based on a digital mapping project conducted since the fall of 2022, this project assesses the number, diversity, and patterns of dispersion of Buddhist spaces in the San Gabriel Valley. It contextualizes the data by an exploration of how the SGV forms a layered and complex Buddhist social space that links Buddhism in the US with global Buddhism as a transnational spatial order.

2.    Research Background (Why & Where)

Asian Buddhism is one of the main streams of Buddhism globally. Today, the tradition has expanded far beyond its historical spaces of origin in Asia. We can find Asian temples all over the world. The state of California in the United States of America represents one of the main centers of Asian Buddhism globally. However, academic literature on the topic is still sparse. Research on Buddhism in the US has focused on Buddhist forms that are practiced by Americans of European origin. Asian American Buddhists, on the other hand, are often reduced to the Other of the European American Buddhist experience.

Furthermore, big quantitative studies on Buddhism in the US significantly underestimated the number of Asian American Buddhists in the past. The Pew study in 2007, for example, claims that only a third of Buddhists in the US are of Asian origin, while two-thirds are Euro-Americans. Newer numbers claim that up to 49 percent of US Buddhists are Asian Americans. However, even the corrected numbers seem too low. Taking a first inventory of the remarkable abundance of Buddhist life in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, this paper, and the Mapping Buddhism in the San Gabriel Valley Research Project the paper is based on, aims to address the issue.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area constitutes one of the world’s most important “global cities” (Saskia Sassen). Forming strategic transnational networks, global cities function as important nods in the world economy. They are marked by a high degree of social stratification, and constitute important sites of transnational migration. Just east of the City of Los Angeles lies the San Gabriel Valley, a suburban cluster of cities and unincorporated communities. The San Gabriel Valley hosts the biggest Chinese American community in the US. Not surprisingly, there are many Buddhist temples of Asian traditions in the San Gabriel Valley.

The roots of the San Gabriel Valley as an ethnic Asian American space go back to changes US migration laws underwent in the mid of the last century. From the 1960s on, due to international geopolitical and global economic changes, the demographics of global Asian migration changed significantly. New migration laws in the US targeted highly skilled professionals as well as wealthy populations. In addition, the new laws also allowed family-sponsored migrants and low-skill professionals in areas with labor shortages to move to the US. As a result, the ethnic Asian American community became more socially stratified. 

Taking the ethnic Chinese migrants as example, they arrived at different times from different spaces of origin. The first wave originated from Taiwan and Hong Kong, followed by ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia, and, more recently, from the different provinces of the PRC. As a result, the cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic backgrounds of the ethnic Chinese American community became notably more diverse. These changes were accompanied by new modes of dwelling. While the 19th-century Chinese from the southern coastal provinces settled in inner-city Chinatowns, the new ethnic Chinese migrants moved directly to the suburbs in big metropolitan areas in the US. The biggest of the new ethnic Chinese suburban residential and business clusters in the US is the San Gabriel Valley. US geographer Wei Li has dubbed this development, the “ethnoburb”. Religion plays an important yet understudied role within this new suburban spatial formation. 

3.    Methodology (Sources)

The project is organized through the Institute for the Study of Humanistic Buddhism (ISHB) at the University of the West.  It is funded by the Asian Pacific American Research Initiative (APARRI) through the Berkeley Luce-Foundation.  As the previous director of ISHB, Prof. Jens Reinke served as the principal investigator. The principal PhD student researcher is Song Wang, a Ph.D student at the UWest Religious Studies Department. 

We mainly utilized three data sources for the project. 

  1. Data easily available on the internet, including Google Maps; 

  2. The Chinese Consumer Yellow Pages (Huaren gongshang dianhua bu 華人工商電話簿), a comprehensive local Chinese language business directory; and 

  3. Local monastic informants. 

Source (1) was very straightforward. We developed a set of key terms in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese, that were fed into the usual search engines.  Source (2) was not very complicated either, since the yellow pages contain addresses and contact information of temples in the region. The most valuable source was (3) local monastic informants. The University of the West is at the heart of the Buddhist San Gabriel Valley. As a nondenominational Buddhist-founded university with a Religious Studies and a Chaplaincy Department, UWest has a very international student body. The vast majority of the international students are from Asian countries with significant Buddhist populations. In addition, a large number of the students of the above-mentioned departments are Buddhist monastics, many of whom reside at local Buddhist temples. These contacts were very helpful not only in providing further data, but also for fact-checking the data from sources (1) and (2). 

The San Gabriel Valley is not only a municipal concept, but also a geographic one in terms of its historical development. The San Gabriel Valley derives its name from the San Gabriel River that flows southward through the center of the valley, which itself was named for the Spanish Mission San Gabriel Arcángel originally built in the Whittier Narrows in 1771. The scope of the area has also evolved over time as a result of municipal planning. Therefore, in our actual survey, we did not rigidly delineate the boundaries of this area, but also included some nearby sites that were not within the boundaries of this area.

Over the second half of the academic year 22/23, we drove around the San Gabriel Valley to confirm our data was up-to-date. In this preliminary phase, we were mainly interested in assessing geographic dispersion, basic identifiers (regarding national origin, or lineage, and school), and the different architectural styles. The data was transferred into a preliminary custom map on Google Maps. At a recent stage, we are developing an ArcGIS platform to integrate the data.

•    Temple Dispersion 
We examined the address and dispersion of the temples through sources such as search engines, yellow pages, official websites, Google Maps, and conducted on-site visits to verify the accuracy of the information.

•    Temple national origin, or lineage and school 
Based on the signage, language(s) present, national flags, official websites, further online sources, and informants, we found Buddhist temples from the following countries or traditions.

•    Architecture 
Due to the establishment of many temples following later waves of immigration, a significant number of them have been built by purchasing real estate, resulting in temple structures that deviate from traditional appearances. Through on-site investigations, we have documented and classified several distinctive shapes and structures of temple architecture.

In the fall semester of 2023, our focus is shifting towards ethnic Chinese American Buddhist temples, conducting in-depth investigations into specific details such as the resident monk population, primary languages used, spiritual leaders or their lineages, the founding year of the temples, and other pertinent information.

4.    Results
4.1    Temple Dispersion

In total, we identified 91 valid temple sites out of the preliminary list after the field survey. In terms of municipal geography, our scope also includes part of Los Angeles County, but not all of it. Some of the temples in eastern Los Angeles County will overlap with the SGV's scope. There are more temples in Los Angeles City and Orange County, but at this point we focused on the scope of San Gabriel Valley. The temples are dispersed over the whole valley, with the biggest concentrations being in El Monte, Rosemead, Pomona and La Puente. The next are West Covina and Alhambra, which each host five temples, followed by Monterey Park, Azusa, and Pasadena with each four. Since we have appropriately expanded the geographic scope of the SGV to Los Angeles County, and Los Angeles County is a fairly large geographic area, as many as 13 temples have entered our list. Additionally, it's still not very objective and complete to differentiate the number by city boundaries alone, as the boundaries of many of the smaller cities tend to be super irregular and embedded in each other's shapes. At this point, we can analyze the map from a bird's eye view on a macro level, and find that overall, there is a pattern of low numbers in the east and high numbers in the west. In addition to the downtown area, the Rosemead and El Monte areas serve as the "post-Chinatown" after the downtown Chinatown, and thus radiate outward to gather the largest number of temples.


(Click the "Pop-out" button and open with Google My Maps for more details)


4.2    Temple national origin, or lineage and school

Based on the signage, language(s) present, national flags, official websites, further online sources, and informants, we found Buddhist temples from the following countries or traditions: There were 16 from mainland China, 17 from Taiwan, and 16 from Vietnam, these three categories being the most numerous. They are followed by 11 from Tibetan Buddhism, 9 from Japan, 8 from Myanmar and 5 from Thailand respectively. Finally, there are small numbers from Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia and Australia.


However, there are limitations in distinguishing the lineage and origins of these temples by their countries alone, so we need to mix in elements of their traditions. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, for example, some temples in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are from India, some are from Vietnam, and most of them can be traced back to mainland China. Therefore, the classification of Tibetan Buddhism is more comprehensive to define, while more detailed factors may need to be investigated further to complete a full picture. In another case, for example, temples from some other countries, such as Australia, Vietnam, etc., actually came originally from the Chinese Mahayana tradition, such as the Amida Society (Jingzong xuehui 淨宗學會) of Ven. Jing Kong 淨空, whose nationality was later changed to Australia. There are also temples founded by a monastic born in China before 1949. Later the monastic moved to Southeast Asia where they founded a Buddhist organization. But if we adopt the categorization of the Chinese Mahayana tradition, we will merge too many temples and lose too much information. There are also great differences within a single country. For example, Vietnamese temples might be identified as northern Vietnamese, southern Vietnamese, or Sino-Vietnamese. So, this part requires further refinement in our follow-up work.

What's more, there are more difficulties and ambiguities with the data when tracing the identity of legal persons or founders of the temples. It may happen that a temple has two or more founders, or that a spiritual leader exists above the founders. In addition, many temples in North America have a system that mimics modern enterprises and also have their own board of directors, in which case they have a plurality of identities and countries of board members.  

Another important phenomenon is the shifting of ownership. As mentioned above, the earliest ethnic Chinese inhabitants in the San Gabriel Valley after 1965 were Taiwanese. Many of the earlier Taiwanese migrants, including those who are monastics, have reached retirement age. This development is contrasted by the more recent rise of migration from the PRC. If it is a residential-sized vihara with one person living in it, it is likely to happen that the venerable will sell the temple property when he or she reaches retirement age, and so on. As a result, we can see a drastic change in the demographics of temple visitors and even temple ownership. Further research is needed to deal with these questions. 

4.3    Architecture


In terms of architecture, we assessed five main styles:

(1) Buildings built in a “traditional” Asian Buddhist temple style; 
(2) residential homes turned into temples that possessed recognizable visible markers such as signs, lanterns, and statures; 
(3) churches turned into temples that possessed recognizable visible markers such as signs, lanterns, and statures; 
(4) commercial buildings turned into temples that possessed recognizable visible markers such as signs, lanterns, and statures; and
(5) residential buildings without any such markers. In the future, it could be assessed how architectural style relates to local zoning residential (e.g., residential or commercial) in the different cities.  


Buddhist Temple

Ming Ya Buddhist Association 佛学明月居士林


Commercial Building

Bliss Wisdom Los Angeles(BWLA)洛杉磯福智基金会


Renovated from Residential House 


Residential House

 American Avatamsaka Association


Renovated from Church

Mindfulness Meditation Center (Los Angeles Buddhist Vihara) and Tian Ann Temple (天恩圣道院)

5.    Future Outlook

At this point, the research project is still in its preliminary state, and there are several possible future directions: The first is to get more quantitative data on the temples. For example, when were the temples founded? Are their resident monastics present? If so, how many are the venerables, or what kind of languages they can speak? How big are the temples? How many activities take place? Another important step would be to extend the geographical scope of the project to Los Angeles City, Orange County, San Diego, the Inland Empire, and the Bay Area. Besides temples, what other Buddhist spaces are there (vegetarian restaurants, schools, shops, medical spaces, etc.)

In addition, several qualitative questions arise from our preliminary fieldwork visits. How do the changing dynamics between Taiwanese and PRC Chinese Buddhists play out within the temple spaces? What kind of collaborations take place? Are there tensions? Are there different levels of adhering to monastic discipline? Maybe even more importantly, how do these spaces relate to the flourishing lay Buddhist life in the San Gabriel Valley? What is the role of age and gender? These are just some of many more possible research questions. We anticipate future studies that delve into the exploration of the vibrant Buddhist life in the San Gabriel Valley.



  1. Li, Wei. Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America. University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

  2. Sassen, Saskia. "The Global City: Strategic Site, New Frontier." In Managing Urban Futures, pp. 89-104. Routledge, 2016.

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