Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Where are All the Young People Again

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!


Robyn said...

I know I have mentioned it before, but the Zen Center New York City in Brooklyn has many younger members, as well a hugely diverse population in terms of class and race, as does the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY. Perhaps some of it is self-perpetuating - young people come and see other young people so they stay around. Also, ZMM has a lively teen program that mostly serves children of older members but results in people staying around in their 20s and older. Further, they work with local schools and colleges: inviting them in and going to speak with classes there. There are many ways to be open to and attract young people but you have to DO them!

Aha! In some ways, we are back to your other topic - educating children about Buddhism.

Also, ZCNYC has a regular program of evening discussions about racism, sexism and other ways we create separation from others. They tackle it head on, which might be why it attracts people who might otherwise feel like an outcasts.

That my little plug for my sangha...

jmcleod76 said...

I'm in a similar situation to Jiryu. I'm 33 and the youngest member of my sangha by at least two decades. While I have a lot of good relationships with both my teachers and fellow laypeople, it can certainly be lonely being the youngest. I'm lucky in that I feel like my teachers and sangha-mates honor my insights and treat me as an equal. I'm never made to feel like the odd one out, but there are definite differences. I've, on occasion, brought friends along to the zendo. None of them have ever come back. None ever gave me a reason why, either, but I think it's mostly been a mixture of lack of desire to affiliate, dislike for sitting still for so long, and aversion to the structured environment. To be honest, all of those were hindrances to me, too, at first, but the pull was too strong, and I couldn't keep away. My need to practice was undeniable.

Another thing about my sangha is that we're a very small, and not particularly affluent, gang of misfits. Even with 20-30 years more advancement in their respective careers than I have, none of the older members of the group are practicing "the Upper Middle Way." Even so, I often feel the strain of economics on my practice. Like so many in my age group, I live paycheck to paycheck, with rarely enough left over to make payments on my extensive, and perpetually deferred, student loans. I work two jobs, and pick up occasional freelance projects when I can, just to keep a roof over my and my partners' heads and gas in my car. On top of that, my Zen center - the only one in my state with resident teachers - is an hour's drive away. I often miss regularly scheduled sitting, either because of my work schedule or because I don't have enough money to put extra gas in my tank during a given week. I have yet to attend more than half of a week-long sesshin because I haven't been at my primary job long enough to have much vacation time. I've been trained in many service positions, and I'm lucky in that I'm often asked to perform them, despite my spotty attendance record. I believe some centers wouldn't allow someone to take on a service position if they couldn't be counted on to be there at least 90% of the time. These are issues that many of the people I practice with don't seem to encounter. Many of them come from an era in which you stayed at the same job for decades, earning progressively more time off. For my part, I've worked my way through half a dozen jobs in the last decade, alone. Even when the sitting schedule doesn't conflict with work, it means giving up what very little free time I get to spend three hours at the zendo and two hours in the car. My partner, who isn't Buddhist, occasionally complains that it cuts into our time together. So far, it hasn't been a real problem for us - she understands this is important to me, even if she doesn't get why -but I can certainly see how easy it would be to just quit if I didn't believe so strongly that I need to be practicing Zen in order to keep my sanity. A Rinzai priest I know once said that you have to be a little bit crazy to want to practice Buddhism. I think I know what he means.

JZ said...

I have also discussed this on my blog...thanks for your insight as well!

Nathan said...

Hi Robyn,

Yep, we're back to the children's practice to some extent. Our center is working on DOING some things, but it's a challenge when you only have a small number of people interested in making changes. I'm hoping to help shift some attitudes in the coming few years.

"Also, ZCNYC has a regular program of evening discussions about racism, sexism and other ways we create separation from others. They tackle it head on, which might be why it attracts people who might otherwise feel like an outcasts." This is huge. Kudos to them for doing this!

Hi JM,

A lot of what you said resonates with me. I'm also fairly, and have a lousy paying job that doesn't a pile of time off (unless I want to go unpaid). I also feel like that free time issue is different for younger people trying to figure out careers, family, and relationship issues, as opposed to older folks who aren't so focused on figuring out long term career paths, who have a stable partner they've been with for years, and who have children that are either in their teens or moving out soon.

I see these issues even for the parents in their late 30's and 40's, have younger children, and who are still trying to stablize their family life.

One could argue that this just isn't the right time for Zen practice, and there might be a bit of truth to that. But if it's completely true (which I don't believe it is), then when is the right time?

jmcleod76 said...

I suppose one could argue that, but for me, there has never been a question of whether or not to practice. That's not to say I never feel frustrated by circumstances or that I don't sometimes feel like skipping service or my daily home practice. Of course I do, and sometimes even give in to those desires. But not practicing at all feels like about as much of an option to me as not eating or sleeping. From the first time I sat zazen, wriggling uncomfortably on my cushion through the whole thing, it felt like a homecoming. Like something disjointed in me clicked into place for the first time. I realize that sounds a bit melodramatic, but I don't know how else to explain it. And, course, a ery Dogen answer to "when is the right time" is that there is really no time but now. I need to practice in every moment, or not at all. Thinking that I'd like to practice in the future is just more attachment to ideas. That means I have to deal with whatever junk I bring with me, including feelings of inferiority because I can't get to the zendo as often as I think I should, or as often as the older person on the next cushion can. That's all my own karma to work through, and it's all part of my practice. I don't like using the word "karma" much, because I think it gets thrown around carelessly, but I think this is as apt a use for it as any.

Kyle said...

Nathan, thank you for a great post as always. I have recently started a local Zen meditation group here, since there are none around, and I thought you might find it interesting the breakdown of members so far. Now mind you, its not a formal Sangha with a formal teacher, but nevertheless interesting.

18 Members (yes we are still small)
Females 11
Males 7
Age 20-30 4
Age 30-40 12
Age 40+ 2
White - 10
Asian-American - 5
Hispanic - 2
Mixed Race - 1

So while the number of 20-30 is small, younger people seem to be attracted here. Now, if we ever get a real Zen teacher and a real Sangha, perhaps it will be a bit different. Who knows.

Nathan said...


I totally agree that no matter what organizations do, we all have to deal with whatever we bring with us. Each of us has that responsibility.

So, I feel the questions I raised and comments you and others have made are about keeping the communal pot stirred, to not get fixed in believing we've "got it," and won't have to adjust to changing circumstances.


That's a pretty cool mix of folks. I think more meditation and practice groups is part of the solution - so kudos for starting one up.


Algernon said...

My zen school is structured so that there are tiers of responsibility of authority starting early enough that younger adults are able to offer their leadership alongside elders. To the extent individuals are open to learning from each other, this works very well.

Firehorse said...

Nathan, yes most definitely a lot of food for thought here... Thanks for continuously raising and exploring these important issues.

Kyle - that's great! You are doing exactly what is needed.

Kevin said...

Good Morning Nathan!

I noticed you did not respond to my comment and I just wanted to apologize if it was out of context for your blog or something you did not feel comfortable answering. I did not mean any offense... I was just bringing up something I deal with on a daily basis here in Carson when trying to meet new people. Hope you have a great day man.


Was Once said...

I have noticed in my Mahayana and Theravada temples that the ratio changes with local job losses or during the latest crash in the market. As it stabilizes some stay when some teachings rang true to their heart.

My latest Theravada meditation on Sunday had 164. A couple of weeks ago, a bold young man(under 30) stood up and asked a question about how to handle heartbreak. The first thing the teacher did a was ask the whole room, "Which of you has experienced hertbreak?" At that point every one of nearly 200 people(at that time) raised their hand. A sign that young or old we all experience the same thing. I think the young/old perceived difference is mainly a western youth oriented culture problem.

JZ said...

Great comments everyone! thank you. I will try to put some of these ideas to work.

MuSsang Jaeger said...

You would not believe how much I got slammed over at Zen Forum International for even suggesting some of the things you said.

I relayed how we'd developed programs at the BZC that fit the needs of the community rather than force monastacism on the young & poor, and people were aghast, going as far to say that Zen could not be practiced this way.

Nathan said...

Hey Shindo,

No offense was taken. I've been busy and not keeping up with everyone's comments. So great to have enough comments coming to not keep up :)


Nathan said...

Was once,

It's true that we all experience similar things, and that in the end, the distinctions tend to drop awy. But do you really think these generational gaps are all in our heads here in the "West"? I disagree. That's way too easy. If it were so, forms would never change because they would always meet the needs of the people.


Nathan said...


I don't know what say. Makes me a bit sad that people are so inflexable and view changes as being akin to destroying the dharma. I hope they'll reconsider, knowing that Zen Forum has a fair number of well known teachers and priests as regular commenters. Something has to give.


Was Once said...

i kind of made myself unclear, sure it is great to have younger version of our sangha, but we already place too much emphasis on this gap. We should be instrumental and not promoting the us(old) vs them(young) idea further...if we can. It is too prevalent in the west. This allows people not to feel guilty when they place old folks in a home, forgetting they will too soon have it done to them. I guess that is where I am going with this.

Nathan said...

Was Once,

I completely agree that there is a lack of caring for our elders in many parts of North America. Collectively, we don't value the wisdom, experience, and simple being of our elders. I listen to a commentary about Granny on CBC radio last night, a woman who at 89 years old, walked across the U.S. in support of campaign finance reform. And at 94, ran for the U.S. Senate. She died yesterday, but her spirit lives on, and is a testament to all elders, no matter what they do in life.

However, I still disagree with you. The simple fact is that, if in 20 or 30 years, there hasn't been a significant number of young people that have joined sanghas, these groups are going to collapse. Maybe that's what is necessary, or maybe not. However, I don't think my focusing, or my sangha teacher (who is almost 60) focusing on young people means either her or I are dismissing the older generations. In fact, both of us, and others online here, as well as others in my sangha, believe that a multigenerational community serves to do exactly what you are concerned about - break down the barriers that allow older folks to dismiss younger people's wisdom, and that allow younger folks to dismiss the wisdom and value of their elders.