Having brought up the issue of a lack of young adults in North American Buddhism several times over the past few months, it was a pleasure to see the issue come up somewhere else. Jiryu over at No Zen in the West took up the issue in a current post:
It would be one thing if Buddhism seemed esoteric or fringe (come to think of it, that would probably help), but part of what gets me is that Buddhism is everywhere. It’s penetrating the culture, the language. Basic knowledge of the Dharma, and contact or experience with meditation, seems more widespread among young people now then fifteen years ago when I was first in college. I visited my old college a couple of years ago to lead some meditation, and I was surprised how many people had “sat once or twice” or at least knew someone who did. People even knew who Nagarjuna was! But why doesn’t that translate into young people commiting? Is it because the Dharma can’t tweet? (Apologies to you Dharma tweeters…) Or has the fact of the Dharma having a place in the mainstream blown the mystique, leaving us exposed as just another group of people trying to do right by some Lord?
One friend has wondered if younger people are more anxious about money and making it then even the whatever-we-ares between the Gen Xs and Ys. Less willing to break away, to adventure and take risks. Is that true?
I have written a lot about issues of classism and racism, and how the frequent lack of focus on these in dharma centers not only is a concern, but also a way in which they get replicated within the sanghas themselves. We cannot escape from the troubles of our society - they slip in the door with each of us, and are begging to be paid attention to more closely.
Commitment is an interesting word, isn't it? I sometimes wonder if we're all on a different page with this word, but believe we think the same about it. What does commitment look like for a young adult? For a married mother? For a single retired person? For a wealthy practitioner who doesn't have to work? People love to point to the practice as being the same for everyone, but that's trapped in emptiness my friends. In the everyday, relative world, each of the practitioners above will have slightly, and maybe greatly differing practices (in form). One might sit long retreats, be a monastic in training, and rise up the leadership ladder. Another might chant for five minutes in the morning before the child wake up crying and everything turns to chaos. Notice that privilege plays a role here, which doesn't mean that those who are privileged shouldn't make the effort to dive into meditation and dharma study, but it would be greatly flawed to tell everyone they have to do the same thing all the time.
Maybe this was one of the weaknesses of those wonderful teachers who brought the dharma to North America. Not seeing and/or questioning the economic and social disparities present in these countries that have such vast wealth and ease present on the surface. And maybe the same might be said of teachers going back centuries in Japan, Korea, China, Tibet, and other nations. As the hierarchies developed, and teachings and approaches became established as the way, questions about socio-economic disparities hindering people from gaining access to, and/or developing their spiritual lives were set off to the side. I don't have a list of evidence for this, but I can imagine it has happened at least some of time. The U.S. and Canada can't be unique in that way.
Here is an interesting take from another Jiryu in the comments section:
At 31, I’m generally considered the baby in the room. I practice at the Village Zendo, which is overwhelmingly folks in their 50s. When people around here ask “where are the young people?”, they all seem to be looking at me.
I know two places that attract young folks. First is Tenshin Roshi’s gritty monastery, Yokoji Zen Mountain Center in SoCal. It had a lot of young men when I lived there. It doesn’t surprise me that Daigan, above, says that the other monasteries have young folks, too. I propose that young folks are largely interested in monastic Zen or nothing at all. The relaxed, community-oriented Zen of lay sanghas has trouble holding us.
But second, Ethan Nichtern’s Interdependence Project here in lower Manhattan is succeeding. Look at Ethan to see what the rest of the sanghas are missing. It may not be that hard: start with a core group of young leaders, write some blogs, teach the dharma in an college-style curriculum with texts and a clear sequence of intellectual learning. But don’t neglect meditation. Get out into the streets regularly to meditate in public. Take action: tutor ex-prisoners, work in soup kitchens. Take a political stand and include local politicians in your meetings.
Now that I write this, it seems brainlessly obvious what young folks want in a dharma center. So: Why do the middle-aged lament the lack of young people, without being able to implement the obvious next steps?
I disagree about the proposed split between monastic training and more community oriented centers. Young adults want community as much as anyone. We long for people to talk to, share with our spiritual lives, as well as just our everyday experiences. I also know that many of us long for a healthier, more grounded social engagement and activism, driven less by rage and burnout, and more by patience, kindness, and intelligent creativeness. You can't do it alone, just as you really can't raise a child alone, or make a business run alone. Even those who do it alone for the most part, get help from somewhere at sometimes. Spiritual communities can lift some of the burden in all of this, and help each of us create space, lightness, and joy within our current work. But that only happens when people feel like they have a sense of home in a community. If that's not there, the rest won't come.
The other reason I disagree about the proposed split for young people is that, despite it's current lack of young adults, I love my zen center. The support I have received from countless people there has been wonderful, and the dedication to the dharma I experience has been invaluable. I'm not sure where I would be without these years I've spent in my sangha. That's why I'm so passionate about all this because more of us could have that experience, and I truly think the multi-generational model is where it's at - we need each other to stay fresh and light, but also stay grounded and patient.
One more point from the comments above. I'd argue that the college-style dharma course appeals wonderfully to us college educated types, but really doesn't do much for the plumber down the street, or the restaurant manager up the road. So, that's another place to take a look at because that 20 something struggling in a low wage job, trying to figure out what to do to make his or her's life less hectic might love to experience Buddha's teachings too!
Finally, here's a comment from Will Sherwin, who spent time in the San Francisco Zen Center system:
I felt there was a lot of untapped wisdom and energy in the young people who were already involved in SFZC.
It also goes back to the hierarchy issue. If you have to wait 20 years to get a voice and power in the community than there aren’t going to be any young people with voice and power and that is not that appealing to many young people.
This is a tough issue. Calls for empowering younger people can bump up hard against issues like dharma transmission and legitimacy. Is it watering down to develop lay leaders who are younger, and don't have 20, 30, 40 years of experience? What happens when the Boomers, who make up the bulk of dharma teachers in North America, die off? How do we maintain the integrity of the dharma, while also developing a more diverse leadership?
Big questions. I'm always full of big questions it seems. I suppose that's enough for you all to chew on for now. Enjoy!