Sunday, September 6, 2009

Young Adult Practitoners



I've been reading the book Blue Jean Buddha,a collection of essays written by young Buddhists about their experiences as practitioners. BJB ed. Loundon It's already eight years old, but many of the issues presented in it, from lack of young adult practitioners in Buddhist sanghas to how the practice exists differently in the lives of younger adults, continue to be very pertinent.

Having just returned from Sunday morning service at my zen community, I was reflecting again on how, even with a small influx of people from 20-40 years old in my community, the majority by far of active members are of the Baby Boomer generation. I have heard that even in Asian dominant Buddhist communities in North America, this gap still exists to some degree. And I know that we Buddhists are not alone - I have friends in Christian communities who are experiencing similar issues.

Now, age in and of itself, isn't too important. However, what is important is an awareness of how the dharma unfolds differently in people lives at different stages. And also how some people never fit into the conventional stages of life, and thus manifest a practice in different ways than the rest of the practitioners.

What am I talking about? Well, I am talking about the issues that come up when you are young, not married, financially unstable, and still finding a direction in life, just to name a few. You know, issues of right livelihood, for example. Or issues about relationships, for another example.

When you hear yet another dharma talk filled with comments about 401k's, retirement, and spending weeks on end in meditation retreats, you begin to wonder how it applies in your life.

Now, I've gotten used to this feeling, and don't have too much trouble finding ways to apply teachings to my life, regardless of examples and context. I can take Dogen's Instructions for the Zen Cook and apply that careful attention and preparation without attachment to outcome in other areas of my life beyond cooking. But I've stuck it out. I've made my commitment and am willing to be part of the minority of younger adult practitioners.

At the same time, I have watched so many young adults like myself pass through the doors of the zen center and never return. Or others who stayed for awhile, and then faded off. Clearly, some of this is the basic attrition that occurs when people are trying things out, and either don't take the practice seriously, or, more likely, just find it doesn't fit for their lives. However, now that I'm slipping out of young adulthood, and getting closer to middle aged, I really am wondering how many people simply left because they didn't feel what was being said included their experience. That this practice, somehow, didn't apply to them. That it was for older people, struggling with different issues, yet somehow more settled in their lives.

In addition to reading the book I mentioned above, I have also been listening to some recent podcasts from the Buddhist Geeks, including this one Episode 132, a dialogue with Reverend Danny Fischer that touches heavily on some of the challeges and opportunities for young practioners.

I have asked a few teacher about this lack of young adults before. One said to me what I have heard a few other older practioners say "Oh, they're busy establishing their lives. They will be back when they get older." Yeah, that's a nice story, but is it true? And what about this 15-20 year period when many major life decisions are being made? Is is really intelligent to just assume that many young people are too busy to care enough to have a spiritual live?

Clearly, the number of younger Buddhist bloggers, as well as the attendance at young adult retreats at places like Spirit Rock suggests otherise.

This is sort of a preliminary post, and I'd like to really dig into these issues more in the future. It seems to me vital that we learn to go beyond simply inviting all people into our practice, and actually start looking at what skillful means might be necessary to truly open to the doors of practice to anyone who might arrive at the doorstep, or virtual doorstep for those who are primarily on-line.

Otherwise, we might start looking like the barn in the photo above - kind of stately, but basically a structure in slow decay.

13 comments:

Kyle said...

Nathan - This is an excellent observation and one I have thought of as well. I think it is imperative that, as a practice, we make some attempt to connect on a more personal level with young adults and teenagers. We need more attraction, more reason for them to stay and learn, even if that attraction is things other many consider crass or even a bit juvenile.

Excellent post, thank you.

DQ's Windmill said...

My feeling is that young people today are accustomed to instant gratification, and together with their unrealistic visions of what enlightenment is, are apt to get bored quickly, when rainbows and unicorns fail to arrive while on their zafus.
~Donna

Kris said...

"I have watched so many young adults like myself pass through the doors of the zen center and never return. Or others who stayed for awhile, and then faded off."

Just because someone leaves your zen center, doesn't necessarily mean they have dropped Buddhist study and practice. In fact they may be taking their practice to a deeper level. Community organizations are notoriously centers of "busy-ness" and that can significantly distract and dilute one's practice.

Jack Daw said...

I think it depends on whether or not you are born into the tradition or converted to it.

I see temples that are primarily Asian have very strong youth groups while temples with a wider cultural-base don't seem to have the same groups (I've seen them called Dharma School). Very similar to "Greek School" at Greek Orthodox Churches where the ages range from K-12 and then a drop-off at college.

I think that, when you consider groups made mostly of converts, the individuals usually don't make that step until they are somewhat more mature. In my case, I didn't practice until I was 21 and I didn't make an effort to become part of a sangha until I was 30.

It is a large step for any convert to openly "come out" to family and friends.

My 2 cents

Cheers,

Nathan said...

Donna,

I'd have to disagree because I have seen young adults, teens, and even young children practicing meditation. I've taught some of them myself. Even the most bouncy, scattered kid can find stillness for bit if you find the right entry point for him or her.

Sure, there's a lot of issue with attention span, instant gratification, etc. but that doesn't mean there's no interest when teachings and meditation instruction are presented. Young people want to understand the world and live a full life as much as any of us.

Jack - it's those years between 20-40 that are, across the board lacking. I've had discussions with people, and read articles by others, from all over the place about this issue.

"It is a large step for any convert to openly "come out" to family and friends." I definitely think this plays into some of it. Good point.

Kris,

"Just because someone leaves your zen center, doesn't necessarily mean they have dropped Buddhist study and practice." True. I thought what I wrote didn't convey an assumption that everyone left in such ways, but maybe it wasn't clear.

"Community organizations are notoriously centers of "busy-ness" and that can significantly distract and dilute one's practice." Distractions are everywhere. I see distractions as dharma gates for practice. What does undiluted practice look like anyway?

Marcus said...

"We need more attraction, more reason for them to stay and learn, even if that attraction is things other many consider crass or even a bit juvenile."

If you want to put on crass and juvenile shows to attract young people to Buddhism, one can only wonder what it is you think they'll be learning there.

ZenDotStudio said...

Interesting post and discussion, one I've dropped in for a bit late. I belonged to a Sangha that had young folks come and go. And they always injected such wonderful energy. The inter-generational mix was really nice.

I do think there is truth to the fact that the draw of practice is just not strong enough for most at that age. In my experience it is some form of suffering and dissatisfaction with our experience of life that brings us to practice and at a young age people are still looking for other ways to deal with the experience of dissatisfaction. Perhaps they haven't run out of options yet?

And I agree that we can reach out to them in whatever way seems good. I am a believer in a less traditional form of the Dharma because I often find the traditions a bit old world and dogmatic, personally (and I am far from young)

I also agree that you never know what people take away when they visit a Sangha even briefly. We make that offering and then let it go.

But I am a firm believer if this issue "niggles" you as my teacher would say, it is something to follow up. Perhaps there are changes that can be made to a Sangha that encourages young people to stay. Generally there are lots that pass through, young and old. What do you think are good things to do, Nathan (as someone in this age group?)

The Interdependence Project looks like a wonderful, thriving group of young Dharma practitioners so they are out there.

Nathan said...

"In my experience it is some form of suffering and dissatisfaction with our experience of life that brings us to practice and at a young age people are still looking for other ways to deal with the experience of dissatisfaction. Perhaps they haven't run out of options yet?" A very interesting point. And probably true to some extent. But I really think that we underestimate the amount of older adults who use the same methods of escape from suffering younger people do - overworking, drugs and alcohol, sports fanaticism, romantic relationships, etc. It might be that more older folks have burned through those options, but I'm not convinced that the small number of younger practitioners represents those who have given up those same approaches.

"What do you think are good things to do, Nathan (as someone in this age group?)" I want to address this in future posts. It's interesting; I have been talking with a few others in my own community, including our teacher, for long enough now that I'm sliding out of the age group. I'm still part of it, but at 33, I'm moving towards the older end of the group. Maybe my own experience over several years has inspired the level of interest?

Kris said...

Undiluted practice? ZAZEN.

Kyle said...

@Marcus If you want to put on crass and juvenile shows to attract young people to Buddhism, one can only wonder what it is you think they'll be learning there.

Dukkha, the cause of Dukkha, the end of Dukkha, the true nature of self and acceptance.

@ZDS - Very good points!

Marcus said...

Marcus: "If you want to put on crass and juvenile shows to attract young people to Buddhism, one can only wonder what it is you think they'll be learning there."

Kyle: "Dukkha, the cause of Dukkha, the end of Dukkha, the true nature of self and acceptance."

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And here's an example lesson, Kyle style:

http://buddhareform.blogspot.com/2009/09/going-commando-buddha-way.html

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Sorry Nathan to bring this little spat into your blog. But if attracting young people to the Sangha means idiotic foul mouthed disrespectful giggle-fests over a Venerable's testicles, then I want no part of it - and I suggest that such nonsense brings nothing but shame upon those that think this is the Dharma.

Marcus

Nathan said...

Hey Marcus and Kyle,

I'll write more about some of these issues - ideas for attracting/retaining young practitioners soon. I do think that whatever is done, it's best to try and appeal to deeper aspects of peoples' lives, to tap into those places that were tapped into when we discovered Buddhism.

A line from the Buddhist Geeks podcast I think I posted really struck me as important - let's hope the dharma isn't reduced to having less attachment to your Blackberry. Whatever is done, I hope it digs deeper than that.

Bows,
Nathan

Kyle said...

Out of respect to Nathan, I'll answer Marcus on my blog. But just fyi, my new blog isn't meant to attract young people to Buddhism.