Friday, June 10, 2011

Maha Council - Meet Some Asian Buddhist Statistics

Over at the blog Dhamma Musings, Shravasti Dhammika writes today on the decline in Buddhist affiliation amongst younger folks in Singapore. What's interesting to me is that some of the reasons I, and others, have suggested as to why younger folks North America and Europe aren't coming into Buddhism at the same levels as their older counterparts appear to be at play in parts of Asia:

Sorry to say statistics from Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan show a similar trend. Buddhism is failing to speak to young, well-educated, modern people. A visit to a good number of temples and Buddhist societies will show the reasons for this trend; commercialized spirituality, absence of Dhamma education, lack of social engagement, poor leadership, etc. The almost complete absence of networking between Buddhists also doesn’t help either. ‘You do your thing. I’ll do mine’ is the norm for Buddhist groups, temples and organizations.

I made a comment on David Chapman's blog related to the Maha Council conference that fits in here. In part, the comment went as follows:

I currently am the board president of a Zen sangha in the Midwest, and am also amongst the Gen X practitioner crowd, for whatever that’s worth. My experience as part of the leadership here is that for the most part, each sangha is on it’s own. We had a teacher scandal several years back. Got help from some teachers of other sanghas, but the lion’s share of debate, discussion, policing, and moralizing was internal. It was a much smaller version of what happened with Trungpa, Baker, Shimano, Genpo, Maezumi, etc.

My point in mentioning this is that I don’t think there’s ever been a strong collective effort to do much of anything in Western Buddhism. We don’t have a large-scale ethics body to appeal to when teachers abuse power. We don’t make collective public statements about anything, political, social, or otherwise. In fact the “we” has always – in my view anyway – been largely about individual groups that are loosely associated with each other, partly in religious name only, and partly through some form of teacher lineage.

Furthermore, when I think about some of the major natural disasters in North America in recent years, I'm hard pressed to come up with any significant Buddhist-driven aid and/or support effort. At least amongst Certainly, individual Buddhists have helped, and certainly individual sanghas have done things like given money to the Red Cross and whatnot. However, the kinds of efforts that regularly come from, for example, teams of Christian churches working in tandem to raise money, bring in supplies, and help people rebuild houses and other structures just isn't easily found amongst convert Buddhist communities.

Why bring that up? Well, because we don't seem to be to good with being part of a larger community. And this plays out internally, where groups of individuals sanghas can exist within 50 miles of each other, and yet rarely, if ever, collaborate on major projects and endeavors. And it exists externally, where a given sangha might be located within a particular community, but has membership that primarily is from outside of that community, and also doesn't do a whole lot of connecting with others in that community, regardless of their affiliation.

Now, from what I have seen, organized religion in general is tottering on the edge of oblivion. It might be a slow death, but it is possible that holding this stuff together may be like practicing on a sinking ship. However, at the same time, there are plenty of people longing to be a part of more vibrant communities, ones that acknowledge and even aid in uncovering the deepest, richest parts of our lives. So, there's kind of a push-pull going on between individualism and community, one that seems to offer the best of each side (while condemning the worst of the opposite side), but which fails to bring any fruitful reconciliation.

I don't know where any of this is going to go in the future. It does seem though that those statistics from Asian nations about Buddhists are linked, in some way, to the some of the struggles sanghas are having here in North America and other parts of the "West." And certainly, whatever the goals of the Maha Council (and other meetings like it), there's a desire to address said struggles.


David said...

Nathan, I not sure that younger people in North America and Europe are not coming into Buddhism at the same level as their older counterparts. It would be interesting to see some statistics. I doubt any exist, though. I’ve been around awhile now and it seems to me that folks are coming to Buddhism at about the same levels they always have, and that would be fairly small numbers. The exception would be the Soka Gakkai. Here’s an interesting statistic: In 1985, the Soka Gakkai in the US converted 65,000 Americans to their form of Buddhism. Now, the majority of these people did not come into Buddhism as much as they were dragged into it due to the SGI’s aggressive propagation efforts. And the vast majority did not stick with it. But the organization certainly had the support structures in place to handle numbers that big. On the whole, the retention rate in the SGI is much greater than the majority of other Buddhist groups.

Why do these other groups fail to attract more people and keep them? Part of the problem is as you point out, their insular nature. I think a change of attitude from seeing things as this kind of Buddhism or that kind to seeing things as just Buddhism might help. Even when people break off from the traditions they still tend to splinter into somewhat segregated groups, as Dharma Punks, Geeks, Engaged Buddhists and so on.

Frankly, I don’t think most of these groups are very interested in reaching out. I think most people come into Buddhism for self-centered reasons, which is only natural. They want peace of mind, to be happy, etc. The groups just reinforce this and isolation becomes the norm. Even within many of the groups I have practiced with, there is little comradeship or sense of community. That’s a problem, too.

What I am getting to is that I believe that is possible to bring many more people into Buddhism without resorting to the same tactics as the SGI. But, again, I don’t think there’s much interest in it.

And Nathan, also note that this time I did not call you Richard.

Anonymous said...

@ Nathan, Thank you very much for the mention! I agree with what you say here.

@ David, Here are some statistics:

These are from the Triratna Order (formerly FWBO) is one of the three large Buddhist groups in Britain (with SGI and NKT). They show that new members are getting about a year older each year. In other words, the Order is recruiting from the same cohort it always has, with almost no one born after 1970.

I have seen similar statistics from several other groups. There are exceptions; SN Goenka's organization does particularly well with under-40s, for instance.

Jeff said...

The Buddhist Churches of America collect and donate significant amounts of money to help with all manner of disasters and issues as they arise in the U.S. That's been true for generations, going back to before WWII, and continues (they do overseas work too: they just donated $1.1 million to the Japan tsunami relief work). Tzu Chi USA also does significant work in the U.S. But you're right that most Buddhist groups don't make a significant effort in this area, sad to say. Given the numbers involved, it may be asking too much, of course.

Nathan said...

David, the stats meaningess provided concerning Triratna represent what I have seen in Zen. More people seem to appear on the scene in their 40s and 50s, which isn't to say that younger folks aren't coming, but the numbers are smaller for the most part. Plenty of Zen teachers around the country have commented on this phenomena; Norman Fischer immediately comes to mind as one who has actually spoken in depth about it.

I have heard a few exceptions to this from readers of this blog. There are Zen sanghas in New York, and in California that have pretty substantial young adult memberships. But once you get beyond those two places, it's less likely to be the case.

Jeff, thank you for bringing up the BCA, and Tzu Chi. I tried to emphasize the convert Buddhist communities when discussing this because from what I have seen, the Buddhist sanghas like those of the BCA, founded by Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries, tend to be more involved in the community, and place service more centrally in their missions.

Ji Hyang said...

Nathan, I always appreciate your posts.
My experience and the checking in I've done with other sanghas suggests that the skew of incoming members varies greatly sangha to sangha, depending on the local demographic and what energy is available for outreach.

Just came back from the Maha Council myself, where Bhikkhu Bodhi was discussing Buddhist Global Relief
( and there was great energy around engaged buddhism/environment/diversity outreach.

more news soon...

Blogger said...

I find it very interesting to see in this article, that someone speaks of buddhism, but purely from a typical american standpoint, or point of view.
Buddhism is NOT supposed to do those things, like rebuild people's houses lost to floods or quakes or whatever. It was supposed to teach you LIVE ALONE and still be ONE with everything, and organizing, meeting with other buddhist with the scope of charity... I hate to tell you but that's just stupid. It's got nothing to do with buddhism. A buddhist would recognise the USEFULNESS of someone loosing their home, especially due to the forces of nature, and NOT DO ANYTHING to change that.
What you guys speak of is the typical, americanised, disrespectful towards nature and its forces kind of fake religion. It's not buddhism.
Be wel.

Nathan said...

"A buddhist would recognise the USEFULNESS of someone loosing their home, especially due to the forces of nature, and NOT DO ANYTHING to change that."

Hmm, perhaps, or perhaps not. Our practice, as I understand it, is to learn to see things clearly, and respond accordingly. You're view is just as one-sided as the view that you accuse Americans of holding.

I doubt there is anything in the Buddha's teachings suggesting that the correct response to natural disasters, for example, is to do nothing.

You seem quite certain you've got the sense of what the Buddha taught, and that what I and others are offering constitutes "fake religion." So, what is Buddhism, then? Tell us, cite examples from the teachings as to where I and others are going wrong, if you think we are.

Calling what I wrote stupid and fake does nothing for any of us.