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Graying Buddhism? November 14, 2007

Posted by tricycleblog in Random Notes.

Clark Strand, a contributing editor to Tricycle, has raised some hackles with his recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Buddhist Boomers,” which more or less follows up on his piece “Dharma Family Values” from the pages of Tricycle. Strand argues that Buddhists in America (referring primarily to converts from the Baby Boom) are getting older and Buddhist ranks are not being filled by young people. Buddhists should emulate other religions in getting children involved, he argues. This means using whatever churches and synagogues and mosques use to get young people involved: youth camps, holidays, home altars, and the rituals that bring us to our holy places, instead of silent meditation retreats and reading esoteric sutras.

Tom of the Progressive Buddhism Blog interprets Strand’s latest piece as an out and out attack on Buddhism. I think this is wide of the mark: Strand genuinely wants Buddhism to survive the Boomers. Diana Winston, speaking to Buddhist Geeks, says there are plenty of young people interested in Buddhism so the issue is more or less moot.

I think many Western Buddhists, being converts, believe that it is wrong to force religion on your children, and Strand’s arguments seem to sidestep this concern, or else he is interested in getting children at a slightly older age, when they have some choice and agency. But in that case why not wait until they are adults, when our society generally says people are entitled to make their own choices and mistakes in terms of intoxicants, sex, and other big issues, with religion being the biggest issue of all? But there’s no denying his point: The Shakers were celibate, and no sex means no children, and no children eventually means no more Shakers. (They filled their ranks through adopting and converting orphans, but many of these orphans left the Shaker communities once they grew up, or so it seems, since Wikipedia says there are four Shakers left.) So maybe Buddhism should provide more enticements to young practitioners so it doesn’t go the way of the Shakers, but it may never become as efficient at producing new Buddhists on these shores (that is, among the convert community) as Christianity seems to be.

– Philip Ryan, Web Editor


1. Tom Armstrong - November 14, 2007

One part of Strand’s argument that hasn’t been addressed is his thesis, which I would call ‘Buddhist Boomers as lemmings.’ We Boomers are between the ages of 43 and 61. Most of us have 40% or more of our lives ahead of us and we aren’t going to be dying off enmass. Scary as it may seem to the young, my generation is going to be around for a while yet.

While we Boomers are distained nowadays because we hog much of the limelight and are the ones most responsible for the pending ruin of the US economy and disappearing icecaps, in a decade or two we’ll come back into fashion because of our charm and groovyness.

In the next thirty years or so the world will change in ways that will startle us. Many people believe that one of the ways the world is sure to improve is via an evolutionary uptick in consciousness or worldview. Tribal thinking, the basis of fundamentalist religions, will decline and thinking that is more inclusive, respectful and loving will gain a greater hold.

Western-style Buddhism is simply situated where the future is headed. We needn’t worry so much about headcounts and demographics; the future is coming to us.

2. Loden Jinpa - November 14, 2007

>We Boomers are between the ages of 43 and 61. Most of us have 40% or more of our lives ahead of us and we aren’t going to be dying off enmass. Scary as it may seem to the young, my generation is going to be around for a while yet.

Perhaps but dont forget who will be pushing your wheelchair Tom 😉

Seriously though, I do a number of lectures to teens through a school program and they seem very interested in Buddhism.

I also believe there is a case for more media aimed at younger people but, we also need to be mindful that it is not being percieved as conversion.

3. Tom Armstrong - November 15, 2007

It sounds great what you’re doing, Loden Jinpa.

I think it is good to have young people learn about Buddhism and if they are mature enough and not too impulsive then it is spectacular if they do convert.

It is just that we seem to be thinking of “Buddhist Membership Rolls” as needing to fit some sort of demographic profile. TV programs generally want younger viewers because they are the ones still formulating their spending habits and are more easily susceptible to advertising pitches. But Buddhists shouldn’t suppose that an old meditating head is any less valuable than a young meditating head.

There will be plenty of people in the pipeline to keep the religion going for the next 2500 years without anyone needing to worry. I’m not afraid of Philweb’s scary Shakers story, no sir! I’m not going to wake up forty years from now and be one of the last four Buddhists on the planet, no way. Why, there’ll be dozens of us in 2047 to carry on.

4. Loden Jinpa - November 16, 2007

I agree with you totally Tom, in fact, as with most things, there will be times when Buddhism is fashionable and times when it is not.

5. Blog Blowback « Tricycle Editors’ Blog - November 21, 2007

[…] New York Times blog commented on Clark Strand’s WSJ piece a while back. (See this post as well if you like.) There are many interesting comments following the NYT post: You certainly […]

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