Lion's Roar

Forum Essays

Buddhadharma readers share their experience of Buddhist practice in everyday life as it relates to the generational divide and diversity within the sangha.

By Lion’s Roar

I was born in 1964—the last “official” year of the baby boom. I have found that, in many ways, I straddle a line between baby boomers and Generation X. When boomer Buddhists speak of first encountering the dharma, I am always fascinated by their stories because it was all was so new. The great teachers arriving in the United States for the first time, the first dharma centers—there always seems to be a spirit of looseness to the stories, a spirit that now seems to be missing. Perhaps that looseness was a product of the optimistic spirit of the era. To the post-boomer, it was already being dismissed as impractical by the time maturity came knocking.

We benefit from the optimism and energy of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s only by association with those who were there to experience those times. Luckily, this is not hard to do since many of those boomer Buddhists are now teachers, authors, and leaders. Though the boomers certainly had their share of obstacles, those of us who came after them grew up in a more cynical time. In our current social environment, expressions of faith and joy are often viewed as fanatic or naïve. As this presents a unique set of obstacles to younger practitioners, it needs to be taken into consideration by boomers attempting to understand where the new generation is coming from. Thankfully, the method to remove those obstacles remains the same regardless of eras or epochs—the dharma.

The younger generation of Buddhists has achieved precious human birth at a time when we are able to gain vast benefits from the progress, example, and foibles of our elders. At the same time, Western Buddhism has barely begun to define itself. In order for it to do so, a sense of cooperation, appreciation, and collaboration must take place between our generations. We all have so much to bring to the table. To let a generational divide create a rift between our communities is to miss out on the benefits of our combined points of view. No matter our age or era, we have as much to learn from each new voice that joins the chanting as we do from the leader of the chant.

Paul Nelson
Seattle, Wash.

I am at least twenty years younger than most of the students who come to practice here at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. I have sat in on conversations between yogis who are basically “thanking the heavens” for their ripe age since, in their opinion, it gives them more wisdom than young folks. I have sometimes felt my copious amounts of energy stifled by what I perceive to be the exhaustion of the aging process.

However, aren’t these age-old conundrums dealt with in every culture and religious community? Why should we be any different just because we follow in the footprints of Shakyamuni Buddha, who smiles so serenely in all the images we make of him? Perhaps we might consider how other communities deal with passing along their traditions from generation to generation? But how much control do we really have over anyone else’s love of our beloved practice?

Despite the generational divide, we all feel intense gratitude for being able to ask questions that begin with a ground of openness, rather than an assumed position of limitation. Since moving to this community six months ago, I have been embraced by a sangha that embraces itself. The most moving and enticing aspect of this for me, as a younger practitioner, is the living love of the practice.

If you’ve ever seen the movie When Harry Met Sally you’ll know the line, “I’ll have what she’s having.” The older generation of practitioners in my sangha have given me the gift of seeing the fruits of practice. They are the serene smile of the Buddha that calls me again and again to realize my true nature, to be free.

Rebecca Kushins
Barre, Mass.

Since I started practicing when I was in college, six years before my now college-age son was born, my own life of practice spans generations. While I still meet people who speak of their “dharma” practice, I don’t speak that way anymore. For a while I thought it was because I wasn’t practicing seriously, despite a solid foundation of early years devoted to intense sitting and study. I thought maybe I was giving in to middle-aged mundane concerns, with dharma practice having been just a youthful fling.

When certain trying situations arose, however, I sometimes noted with surprise that I had more composure and gracefulness than I would have expected. I realized that certain attitudes I took for granted were in fact not so common in our world. I began to think I had unknowingly been transformed into a more patient and less grasping person. I suppose I’d become freer in spite of not thinking about the process—or perhaps in part because of not thinking about it. Something that had taken root was quietly flourishing. This awakening prompted more regular sitting with both mindfulness and visualization practice.

My more youthful concern with being a “spiritual” Buddhist might have derived from my clinging to the practices as if they were my own, as if no dedicated lineages preserved them for me, as if I owed no thanks. I think I felt that I “owned” my dharma practice, and that this possession somehow completed me. Maybe I no longer think of dharma as something else, something separate, but it’s hard to say.

In Genjo Koan, Dogen said, “When Dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When Dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.” I think I do understand that something is missing and I’m getting used to it. Maybe I’ve grown up and become the next generation.

David L. Gardiner
Colorado Springs, Colo.

I’m a second-generation Western Buddhist, although maybe second-generation hippie would be more appropriate. In search of a more meaningful life, my father stumbled across Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and Kopan Monastery in 1975 while heavily influenced by mind-altering drugs.

The dharma seemed to be the answer for him and became a part of his life. He brought it back to a few years later and in 1979 I was born. I remember growing up with Buddhist statues and pictures of the lamas around the house. Sometimes my sister and I would jump on my dad’s lap when he was meditating. When we got a little older, he started to take us to our local dharma centre, Buddha House, to meet with the lama there. In the early 1990’s we went to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I never really knew what it was all about. Everyone seemed pretty happy whenever I went to Buddha House, but there was nothing much for me to do. I was always too young and fidgety to sit though any session.

When I was sixteen I decided I wanted to learn more and ventured to Buddha House on my own. I first attended “Learn to Meditate” classes, followed by “Introduction to Buddhism.” Most of the time I was the youngest person there. Everyone seemed to know so much more than me, and I used to go home and ask my dad a lot of questions after each class. I began to drag my school friends along, which helped to make sure I wasn’t always the youngest there. I even managed to make Buddhism the topic of my major school thesis during my final year, which gave me an excuse to ask questions. While I felt comfortable attending teachings, it was always a bit weird staying for chai tea and conversation afterwards. My life seemed vastly different from everyone else’s. While I was on my way home to finish off homework, everyone else had just finished work and were discussing their marriage and children.

When I attended university I found it difficult to balance the extreme differences between the huge drunken parties and meditation sessions. I couldn’t work out how it all fit together and I felt there weren’t many people that I could turn to for advice. A few years later I attended a course for youth at the Kopan Monastery in Nepal and discovered other people my age from around the world who had experienced similar circumstances. I will always remember that sense of relief, understanding, and community I felt there.

These days, meditation and dharma classes have become a lot more mainstream, and the age groups attending the classes are increasingly varied. I always make a conscious effort to help younger practitioners feel welcome. I’m currently on the Buddha House spiritual program committee, which is composed of people all under the age of thirty. We are very conscious of age issues and try to set programs that will make everyone feel at home, with everything from dharma-kids classes to death and dying workshops. If Buddhism’s aim is to make others happy, it needs to start in the dharma centers.

Shyla Bauer
Adelaide, Australia


Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.