Saturday, September 12, 2009

Young Adult Practitioners: Suggestions for the Path

A few people have asked me, as a young adult practitioner, to offer some suggestions on what I think would attract more young folks to the dharma. What's interesting is that the more I reflect on this, the more I can see how some of the ideas I have, or which others have had, really open the door for all of us, not just young people. At the same time, there are some specific issues that do apply to the current generation of young adults and what they are facing. (I'm defining young adult as 18-39).

As someone who is not married, does not have children, and is not earning a "comfortable" salary at his job, I am especially interested in issues that apply to people that have lives similar to mine. However, I am equally interested in examining issues of race, class, and sexuality as they apply to the expression of the dharma in its newer homes.

I continue to be hounded by the question "How do we makes changes to practice that respect what came before us and allow that history and tradition to continue to inform what we are doing today?" It's a tricky issue, no matter how you slice it. So, with that in mind, I will offer some issues and ideas, with the hope that they will be of value to those reading, writing, and practicing in the Buddhist blogosphere.

Note: Some of what I will write about comes from comments made in the book Blue Jean Buddha, which I mentioned in a previous post on young adult practice Young Adult Practitioners. In addition, other material comes from a discussion printed in the winter issue of Buddhadharma. The rest comes from my experience, and comments others have made to me, or which I have stumbled across over the years.

Large Issue 1. Collectively, Buddhist communities in the "West", especially "convert" ones, need to address issues of race and class more head on.

These are difficult, challenging problems that, I would argue, are present in both "in the flesh" Buddhist communities and in "on-line" forms of community. There are teachings within Buddhism that can deconstruct race and class biases, and some teachers, socially engaged Buddhists, and scholars have shown how these worldviews and practices could move us past these issues. For example, people often point to the fact that we all have buddhanature, suggesting that this understanding should promote a sense of equality and openness to all who want to live a life on the path. However, no amount of "possible" dharmic interventions can currently overcome the fact that the Buddhisms that have arrived and developed in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have done so in cultures dominated by racial and class-based oppressions. We cannot turn our backs any more on this, if ending suffering for all beings is truly our vow.

What does this mean in terms of practice, how it looks and how it might manifest in different, but still authentic ways?

A. We need to change the way our sanghas appear in the physical world.

Scholar John A. Powell has written a lot about issues of white privilege and racial oppression. During a visit to our zen center a few years back, part of what he spoke about was "white space" - how the design, function, and appearance of institutions, including white-dominant sanghas, reinforce the desires and aspirations of the white folks who use them. And he suggested that one of the reasons that people of color don't attend these sanghas in great numbers is that they have had "no say" in the space itself, and do not feel at home in it. For many of you, this might be pretty abstract sounding, but lets bring it into the concrete right now. Have you ever been in places where you felt something was off, but couldn't put a finger on it? Or maybe a place where you almost instantly felt "out of place" right away, despite how the people there acted towards you? In our busy, distracted lives we forget how much physical space effects us. We forget, for example, that one of the main reasons we love our homes (when we do) is that we were able to create it in a way that expressed ourselves, who we are and what brings out the best in us. So, I would suggest that one way to actually open the doors to more people of color is to open the doors on the design and look of the sangha space itself. If a diverse group of people are in charge of designing and recreating the place of practice, maybe a more diverse group of people will also come to use it.

Here is an interesting interview with Professor Powell to give you an idea of his work (Power of Illusion ).

B. We need to address the costs of practice better.

How many young practitioners have gotten excited about finding a community, have become more involved in meditation and dharma study, and then have run up against the cost of classes and retreats?

The commonplace financial instability of the young adult years have barely been addressed by many "in the flesh" sanghas, and I'd suggest this is partly why more young adults are either forming their own little communities and/or using the internet to help guide their practice. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I do think that there's great value in being a part of a multi-generational community, and many of these young people do end up wanting to be a part of a larger group of practitioners at some point. However, it's really challenging to listen to teachers emphasize collective study and retreat practice, and then discover that the price tag for participating is often several hundred dollars and even into thousands of dollars in some places over the course of a year. This gets into the fact that "in the flesh" convert sanghas are nearly all run by members of the white middle and upper class. They are people who have enough income to handle the costs, and are also people who seem to instinctively tie generosity to financial giving to the community. I believe this is a product of being a part of capitalist society; it certainly doesn't reflect the diversity of ways in which Buddhist teachings suggest generosity manifests in the world.

C. We need to diversify how the dharma is structured and taught.

Many dharma study offerings are heavily focused on dense texts and analysis of such texts. This privileges college-educated practitioners, and can be a turn off to those who have less education and have taken more non-traditional paths to learning. One of the suggestions Sumi Loundon made in Blue Jean Buddha was that we need to do a better job of incorporating the arts into our practice. I see this not only as a good thing for bringing out creativity and playfulness, but also as a entry point for people who aren't so into "book study," but who have a strong desire to express their lives through the dharma.

Beyond this, I'd like to drop what could be a bit of a bomb for some people. I think the emphasis on retreat and extensive meditation practice is a huge barrier for many people, and could be one the things that keeps Buddhism in the "West" a small, marginal movement. Even though I have participated in short retreats, and have established a regular practice that, at times, includes a large chunk of meditation in it, I continue to have lots of questions about whether it's the only way. I think there is a lot of subtle and not so subtle shaming that goes on in Buddhist circles around this issue. The "you're not a committed practitioner if you don't meditate everyday and do retreats on a regular basis type" comments. How much of this stems from trying to bring monastic-focused traditions into places where nearly all the practitioners are householders? How much of it also stems from a lack of flexibility around the concept of "commitment"?

Single mothers and fathers, poor people who have to work more than one job and can barely pay their bills, and people who are caring for sick relatives are just some of the examples of those who are, for the most part, shut out of being "committed" practitioners under the much meditation and retreat practice focus. We need to get more realistic about what commitment to practice means, and work from there to help people push themselves and maintain a willingness to challenge themselves within the life circumstances they are living in.

Large Issue 2: We need to integrate technology better into our practices.

This is sticky issue in a lot of ways. On the one hand, I have felt that blogging, listening to Buddhist podcasts, and participating in on-line chat about practice have been beneficial to my practice. On the other hand, I have also seen how it can become a distraction if you don't pay close attention to what's driving your desire to engage in this way.

So, it's going to be a process for all of us to examine how we can best use technology to support our spiritual lives. But I think it begins by having more multi-generational discussions about the use of technology, and for the older generations, this might mean offering younger people an opportunity to lead through teaching about technology as another form of dharma practice. Clearly, given the diversity of ages of Buddhist bloggers I have seen, the use of technology as part of dharma practice isn't just a "young thing." But given that many younger adults have lived most, if not all their lives, in an environment saturated with these innovations, it may be that us young folks should be given the lead on working with these issues in sanghas.

Large Issue 3: We have to develop the "sangha" in more social ways.

The heavy emphasis on meditation, retreat practice, and structured dharma study in many covert sanghas leaves out the social aspect of community. Newcomers are often terribly disoriented by the lack of social interaction, activities, and collective projects present in these communities. Some of this seems to stem from the idealized Asian monastic communities where many of practices came from originally. I say "idealized" because I do not believe that the image of the constantly meditating, constantly in "hard practice mode" view of these places is grounded in reality. Even monastics spend time socializing with each other, working together with each other and being more informal with each other. But beyond this, again the issue of how to transplant these traditions into mostly householder societies is coming up. As householders, we need to socialize. In fact, I'd argue that through socializing with others on the path, we can learn a lot about the spiritual life. And yet, as they are currently set up, many "in the flesh" sanghas are really lacking in social opportunities for their members. And this is also one of the large problems with on-line communities - the people in them never do anything together. They don't play together, work on projects together, talk informally about their lives together.

Even though too much socializing and play can be a distraction, I don't think it's healthy to eliminate it from our spiritual lives, and yet I'd say for a lot of convert Buddhists, it's at best, a weak part of their lives. I think this is one area where "in the flesh" sanghas that are Asian-dominant are stronger. Community seems much more central from the little I have seen and read about, and people know each other better, and thus rely on each other more in both "good" times and in "bad". Maybe this is a generalization on my part, but I think it's worth exploring how communities are manifesting the sangha part of the Three Treasures and seeing how that might impact individual and collective practice.

Large Issue 4: We need to address social issues and problems more directly in our practices.

Another divisive issue, because of the inevitability of politics entering into spiritual practice. But I would argue this: every choice we make has a political element to it. It's unavoidable. If you choose to completely separate politics from your spiritual life, that is a political decision.

So, I'd like to suggest that young adults have, on the whole, more interest in merging their Buddhist practice with social engagement than older generations do. This may be partly due to the place we are in in our lives, being people who theoretically have a long time to live in this world, and want to make a positive impact on it in a broader way. However, I'd also argue that it stems from the questioning many of us have done around what constitutes the spiritual life, and the fact that socially engaged forms of Buddhist practice have become more publicly discussed and practiced during our lifetimes. In addition, many of us have felt a deep desire to address issues of racism, poverty, heterosexism, environmental destruction, economic oppressions, and various other social, collective issues. The vow to "free all beings" seems to imply a social element to more of us, as we live in a world where many of the oppressions have been diagnosed and mapped out, but haven't yet been actually addressed very well through collective action. For poor people and people of color, who are disproportionately effected by these issues, the lack of a social justice drive in Buddhist practice has been both a turn off, and also a spring board to trying to create one.

I, personally, have never been able to separate my spiritual practice from the larger social issues in our world. In fact, I feel that working with these issues is as much of a drive if not more so than striving for "enlightenment." In fact, I'd go further and say that I feel it's possible for some of us to become enlightened through the active engagement of social injustice and planetary destruction. I'm convinced that in really seeing and experiencing the worst of humanity, and working collectively to address that, some of us on the Buddhist path can discover our own original natures. This is clearly not the path for everyone, and also one full of potential pitfalls, but frankly the world is calling for us to be more involved, and I'm one of those who is trying to answer that call.

Large Issue 5: We need to speak more directly about and engage the issues of sex and money, which are huge tripping points in householder practice in general, and in young adult practice specifically.

Discussions of money in many "convert" sanghas tend to revolve around three issues: retirement savings, simplicity in living, and donations to support the sangha. Neither retirement focused discussions, nor donations to the sangha discussions do much for the young adult practitioner. While it's important for young practitioners to give some financial support to the sangha, due to their financial situations, they can often give little and don't feel a part of the larger discussions about financing the institution.

There isn't enough discussion anywhere, in "in the flesh" sanghas or online, about right livelihood. How does a young person choose a career, or even short term job, that might reflect more their spiritual values? How much money is enough? What is money's role in the spiritual life and how does one spend, save, and use it in a manner that uphold one's spiritual values?

Oh, and then there is sex. I have to say that the dominance of monastic driven teachings in many of our communities is fairly disastrous for us householder practitioners. Look at all the sex scandals than have occurred in "convert" sanghas, for one thing. But beyond that, how many of us have much clarity about how to actually be sexual beings who are, at the same time, expressing our spiritual paths? I sure as hell don't. There is way too much emphasis on the negative - don't do this, don't do that - and almost no discussion on how to express sexuality in a dharmic way. And let's face it: this is a huge issue for young practitioners, and collectively, we're blowing it off, pushing it under the rug, and just simply not doing enough about it. In an age where it's fairly easy to get an STD, including the looming potential for AIDS, I feel we have a responsibility to be more forthright about sex and sexuality. The suffering that comes from disease, broken relationships, sexual abuse, rape, and exploitation are simply too great to continue to rely on a prohibition driven model mixed in with some talk about supporting marriage for all people. It's not enough, nor does it reflect the diversity of relationships occurring in the world, and the particular problems that come with being young and learning about your sexuality. I'd also offer it doesn't do much for those older adults who are sexually active in evolving relationships and as people live longer, the reality is that more older folks, well into their senior years are coming face to face with new issues around their sexual lives as partners dies or divorces occur. It's time to get on the ball with this, and to stop separating our sexual lives from our spiritual lives.

I offer these five main issues and their sub-issues as spring boards for contemplation and discussion. I really do believe that even amongst the most conservative of practitioners, every generation of practice looks and manifests somewhat differently. We are no different, and it's time to push some of the issues I and others like me have brought up into the forefront of practice.


Adam said...

There also needs to be a better Buddhist presence in rural or suburban areas.

Kyle said...

I agree with Adam. Also, I think the way the actual physical sangha's are arranged perhaps could use a face lift.

Cost is a huge issue. Wisdom should never come with a cost, ever. We need to focus less on expensive retreats and more on inexpensive local events and services.