Monday, September 7, 2009

Young Adult Stereotypes and Buddhist Practice

It's difficult, given the variety of ways in which Buddhism is being practiced in the world, from monastics to "digital dharma practitioners," to determine how large the gap is between numbers of older practitioners, and those who are young adults. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests the following about U.S. practitioners:

A plurality of Buddhist respondents (40%) are between 30 and 49 years of age, with another 30% being between 50 and 64. Less than a quarter (23%) are between 18 and 29 years old.

Here's a link to the summary of the study - Buddhism by Numbers

There are at least a few problems with this study. First, it appears that the study primarily addressed "convert" Buddhists, which really fails to give us an accurate picture of Buddhism as a whole in the U.S. Secondly, my guess is that some, if not most of those who primarily are "digital dharma practitioners" (i.e. practitioners who learn of the teachings primarily on-line and who consider their "home sangha" to be primarily other on-line practitioners), are left out of this research. I have no idea how many of these people there are, but given the growing presence of the internet, it's foolish to assume this is an insignificant group.

So, I really don't know what the actual numbers are in each age group. However, I'm going to stake a guess from what I have seen, and read, and hear about from other young practitioners, that there's a fairly large gap between percentages of older adults actively practicing and percentage of younger adults. And I believe this is too large to just dismiss as due to focus on schooling, career, or from lack of interest.

Stereotypes of Young Practitioners

I remember asking a visiting teaching, who was applying for the head teaching job at our zen center, the following question: Why do you think there is a lack of young adult practitioners around here? Her response was basically that we were focused on other things, and that people usually get interested in the spiritual life after they've gotten settled and discovered they're still unhappy. What a curious assumption, one I can understand, but disagree with.

Stereotype #1 - Young adults aren't interested in the spiritual life.

Let's face it, we do live in a culture saturated in stories about how happiness and the good life come from getting a good job, getting married, having children, and putting money away for retirement among other things. There's a strong push to identify our deepest desires with shallow, very fleeting things and experiences. And yes, a lot of us get caught up in those traps, and some stay there their entire lives. However, to leap from an understanding of our consumeristic, often shallow culture as a pressure on young adults, to the wholesale dismissal of young adults as mostly uninterested in spirituality, is way too big a leap. It suggests a kind of elitism, that younger people can't possibly have as much depth and wisdom as their elders. Do older adults have more experience? Sure. Is it important for younger adults to learn from and give respect to their elders? Sure. But I can understand how these truths got translated into younger adults have little or not interest in the big questions in life.

Stereotype #2 Young adults don't have enough experience to appreciate Buddha's teachings.

I've heard this one before as well. I don't get it. It doesn't stand up at all to the history of our practice, filled with young monks and nuns expounding great teachings and doing amazing things. It also assumes that experience is always linked to wisdom, including having enough wisdom to realize the importance of a spiritual path in one's life. This is a false assumption in my opinion, and one that needs to be examined.

Stereotype #3 Young adults are too fickle; they don't have the patience and commitment to stick out the tough stuff in the practice.

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. The same is true of any age group.

Stereotype #4 Young adults just want the practice to be accommodated to their personal whims.

What I find so curious is that some of these views are coming from people who, as young adults, found Buddhist practice. Like those of us in the current younger generation, they stumbled along, suffered a lot, made various wrong turns along the way. Some of them stuck it out, and others dropped it all together. And their teachers recognized that they had to focus on parts of the practice that would most appeal to these young people. In North American "convert" communities, there was a heavy emphasis on sitting meditation because that was what the teachers saw as being most needed at that time, and that was what the students most gravitated towards. There was less emphasis on ritual, and on ethics and the precepts, just to give a few examples. Why is it any different today?

There is a difference between watering down Buddhist practice so that it can be consumed by people who don't want to be changed, and emphasizing different aspects of the practice to meet where a group of practitioners are coming from. Every generation makes the dharma new in some way or another - it's not a static practice, even in the most conservative of places.

I'm not interested in watering things down; I'm interested in discovering the skillful means that will open the gates of practice for younger folks.


Arun said...

Thanks for this great post! I’ve definitely heard these very notions in the Buddhist community! As for the Pew Study (and its flaws), Scott Mitchell has written a response to Tricycle’s article, and I’ve written about flaws with the study both on Dharma Folk (for example, here, here and here) and on Angry Asian Buddhist (here and here).

Nathan said...

Hi Arun,

Thanks for the links. It's good to see that Scott's letter was published. Land-line focused polls really need to be eliminated. Even if they had used better methodology in terms of addressing language barriers, including Hawaii's numbers from the beginning, and maybe asking different questions, there are still too many people that end up being left out. It's like the polling that has been done during Presidential elections using land-lines only. The skewed numbers help skew perceptions, which in turn shifts political behavior, and ultimately impacts outcomes. Not at all a good thing, in my opinion.


Kyle said...

Nathan - I agree with your points about young practitioners for the most part. The only one I'd like to see you expand on is #2.

Stereotype #2 Young adults don't have enough experience to appreciate Buddha's teachings.

I do think that a lot of people, maybe not the majority, find Buddhism through the real life suffering they experience in life. Many times, young folks haven't hit all those shitty outcomes that may push one to seek a spiritual life.

So I guess while I get what you are saying about this point, I think that aspect cannot be downplayed.

Besides that, I think these last two posts you have written are amazing, and should be the kind of stuff the Big Magazines should be publishing. This is the stuff that matters, not the, "My best yoga position" crap.

Robyn said...

Hi Nathan,

Have to admit this isn't an issue at all in my sangha in Brooklyn - lots of people in their early 20s - 30s fact, lots of people of every age. In fact, I have often looked around and thought how lucky the younger people are to have found this great teaching so early in their lives - what great karma they must have! Now I am wondering why, if this so unusual. My guess is that it is the teacher - he speaks well to all ages.

Nathan said...

Hi Kyle,

Yes, number two is a bit of a tricky one, and it's definitely true that experiences with suffering often are big catalysts to getting people into serious spiritual practice. Of course, the shit can hit the fan very early for some people, and others might be very privileged in ways similar to Shakyamuni - and thus don't truly experience deep suffering until they are older.

I'll have to do a little more pondering on this since it's an important part of the issues I'm addressing.

Hi Robyn,

Wonderful to hear of a sangha filled with diverse age groups and good representation of young people. Time to move to Brooklyn :)

But I think you hit on a key point, that the teacher and teachings presented somehow touch everyone. It's really an art, I think, to be able to open the teachings to a broad range of people at different stages in their lives.

More on this later too.