Forum: Next-Gen Buddhism

Sumi Loundon Kim, Norman Fischer, Rod Meade Sperry, and Iris Brilliant discuss the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world.

By Diana Winston

Sumi Loundon Kim, Norman Fischer, Rod Meade Sperry, and Iris Brilliant discuss the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world. Introduction by Diana Winston.

In 1990, attending my first three-month meditation retreat, I had the dubious distinction of being one of three people—in a room of one hundred—under the age of thirty-five. I felt isolated, wondering why there were no others in my age range, but also a little bit proud and “special.” I bemoaned missing the seventies, when all the teachers and practitioners were my age—just starting out in their twenties and thirties. (I also whined about missing the interesting gurus and teachers who had died long before I ever started practicing.)

In an earlier era, it was part of the zeitgeist to go off to Asia to find oneself. But my generation (X), growing up in the Reagan years, was not encouraged to deviate from money-making careers. Spiritual searching seemed so, well, seventies.

The generation of young people after me seemed to pick up steam in the dharma halls, but never quite took to it in the all-embracing way you see in the sheer numbers of baby-boomers. Over the years, the dharma has become grayer, seeming more relevant to older generations, and often intently focused on those heavenly messengers (old age, sickness, and death), most of which seem a little distant from teenagers and twenty-somethings. As centers age, young people often do not see their experience reflected back to them. And affordability (discussed significantly in the panel) has become more of an issue for young people as well, as dharma has become more expensive along with everything else, with prices that are more appropriate to well-established older people.

Nevertheless, there has been a small but important demographic shift. There are more young people at dharma centers than in the late eighties and nineties. Teen and young people retreats have contributed to broadening the dharma, as have a series of books, websites, and communities targeting young people. There is now a teacher-training program at Spirit Rock where many of the trainees are under forty. Young people are practicing, undeniably, but as Sumi Loundon Kim points out in the panel, they still account for a small percentage of the total population of practitioners.

So, here we are. Forty or fifty years after the big influx of dharma to the West, we have a small but active and growing population of young practitioners. But what of the future, when the baby boomers are gone? What will become of the dharma with a relatively small number of young people waiting in the wings? To increase the numbers of young students, does the dharma need to become more relevant to younger people? If so, what will that look like?

This forum offers a dynamic and lively exploration of these questions by a panel that encompasses a wide age range and a diverse set of experiences. It’s clear from what the panelists have to say that the dharma is not dying, but it is morphing. The panel explores new forms that dharma is taking within younger circles, forms that may deviate from the style of practice in their parents’ generation, including more social and environmental engagement. The panel looks at questions of innovation versus tradition. Will technology draw youth in or alienate them from the dharma, and how can its power be harnessed? The panelists offer perspectives on dharma’s integration into the American culture and what will speak loudest and most significantly to youth. They question identity—are Buddhists Buddhist? And they look carefully at issues of inclusivity and affordability, offering some thoughtful suggestions on how to bring more youthful energy into dharma practice and centers. Finally, community features big in this panel, as it is here that young people are finding the most relevant applications to their lives.

Twenty years after my first retreat, I can say that the dharma is absolutely relevant to young people, as this panel shows us. And the inclusion of youth in the future of the dharma will only create a vital, exciting new form of Buddhism(s). The dharma is far from dying out, but its future expressions may take us by surprise. I can’t wait to see what it looks like!

Buddhadharma: The Buddhists in North America referred to as “convert Buddhists”—those who did not inherit it as a part of their ethnic background—are largely baby boomers. Are enough younger people coming up through the ranks to sustain healthy Buddhist communities?

Sumi Loundon Kim: The next generations of Buddhists make up a very small proportion of the current self-named Buddhists. I’d estimate that less than a fifth of all convert Buddhists are under forty.

I don’t think that’s going to grow too significantly over the coming decades, so the Buddhist community is going to shrink considerably. But it’s still going to be large enough to sustain well-established groups long into the future. Communities will also be very well-funded, because the baby boom Buddhists are going to generously donate their life savings to their favorite dharma center.

So our communities may end up being smaller for a while, but they’ll be very well-resourced. And those resources might help with outreach and support programs that will draw more people in. The traditions that have taken root in America will not die with the baby boomers.

Norman Fischer: To get a handle on this question, you really have to change the framework. If you use the framework of convert Buddhists, you’re talking about people who take vows and who are loyal members of sanghas. In that case, what Sumi said applies. But if you change the framework and count all the young people who’ve been influenced by Buddhism; been to Buddhist centers and meditated; who are in dialogue with their friends about Buddhist ideas, concepts, and values; who are hooked into a website like Rod’s that is at the nexus of popular culture and Buddhism, you may end up with a very different picture.

Sumi’s first book showed me that many of the younger Buddhists aren’t following the model of their parents’ generation by becoming a Zen priest or a committed Vajrayana practitioner or what have you. Instead, they’re attending retreats, going to dharma centers, even establishing eclectic meditation groups on their own. They’re putting together a unique package for their lives. If you look at it that way, you see a very large flowering of Buddhism in the culture of the next generations.

At the San Francisco Zen Center, which has two residential practice centers where people can come and work and not have to pay anything, there’s an influx of young people who spend significant time there before they move on. They may not be counted in the Buddhist community per se, because they’re not formally affiliated with any center, but the practice has had a tremendous influence on their lives. As they get older and settle down, they will naturally join groups, which at this point are too expensive for them and filled with older people.

Rod Meade Sperry: It may be healthy for Buddhism to evolve haphazardly into new shapes that probably won’t look like exactly like the shapes we have now. Everything that ever happens in the dharma is an innovation at first—each new sect is an innovation. To some it may be heresy, but for others it’s what works for them in their time and place.

What we’re going to see is new forms of Buddhism that are viable and work for whoever comes next. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I’ve also found that when the student is ready, the sangha appears. People end up finding their own sangha or create their own sangha. They see a need that isn’t being served and say, “You know what? I’ll start a sitting group.” In the future we’ll have the old established communities, but we will have a lot of others too, started by people who are innovating based on their own inspiration.

Iris Brilliant: I think socially engaged Buddhism will be a strong driving force for younger people. Many people my age are very political, and many of them are taking an interest in Buddhism or going on retreats. As a result, Buddhism is being integrated into other movements that already exist, such as the environmental, antiracist, and LGBTQ movements. People are using practice, especially mindfulness, in a way that is deeply intertwined with social justice. Practice is used not only as a way to become more centered but as a tool to become a more grounded activist.

Rod Meade Sperry: We see that kind of phenomenon displayed, for example, in the Interdependence Project, which Ethan Nichtern has spearheaded. It is not officially a dharma center, but dharma and meditation are taught there. You don’t have to self-identify as a Buddhist, which is wonderful because many of us resent labels. While I love Buddhism—its culture, the sweep of it, its teachings and its teachers—I don’t have anything personally invested in whether or not “Buddhism” lives. All I care about is whether or not the practice lives.

Sumi Loundon Kim: I’m not so sure we can easily characterize the next generation of Buddhist or Buddhist-influenced people based on one model alone. It appears to me that there will probably be a split of populations. There will be young people who take a fairly traditional approach to Buddhism, because they’re looking for a religion and everything that comes with that. On the other side, you’ll have the Buddhist-influenced or meditation-influenced people who may not self-identify as Buddhists or be part of what we would generally call Buddhist communities.

Rod Meade Sperry: I agree. There will be an even broader range of types of involvement and identification than we see today.

Buddhadharma: The relationship of practitioners to the wider culture is a sub-theme in what you’ve been talking about. Is it fair to say that those who came to Buddhism in the sixties and seventies were trying to leave their culture and create another one, and that the new generations of practitioners have a different relationship to culture?

Norman Fischer: My generation felt the Vietnam War demonstrated the corruption of our whole society and way of life. We thought Asian society was much better, so we thought let’s be Buddhist, let’s be Tibetan, let’s be Thai, let’s be Japanese. Many people are still acting that out today. The new generation doesn’t seem to hold that concept. It’s pretty obvious now that everybody is screwed up, East and West. The younger people I meet are aware of that, and also aware that values come from their own heart. It’s not a matter of Asia or the West. They’re looking for whatever will help cultivate the good intention in their heart. As hard as the sixties people tried their best to be Japanese or Tibetan, it obviously didn’t really happen.

Buddhadharma: You started by talking about the Vietnam War. It’s interesting to note that many people who were very politically oriented gave that up when they entered Buddhism.

Sumi Loundon Kim: Yes, this is a strong cultural difference that was raised by Iris. A lot of young people today have integrated social and environmental issues with their dharma practice. But this also comes from changes in the older generation. We see a lot of older Buddhists moving toward a more socially engaged vision for their dharma practice.

Iris Brilliant: In the youth retreats I went on at Spirit Rock, the teachers tried to make Buddhism accessible to everyone. They made the practice seem culturally neutral and emphasized the universal nature of the human experience. Most of the anecdotes in dharma talks were about the teacher’s personal life. The focus was definitely on the dharma itself, but it was relateable to a broader framework of life in today’s world. For example, they suggested we text message each other every time we sit, as a way of encouraging each other.

Norman Fischer: That’s great!

Iris Brilliant: So instead of shying away from technology and taking an extremist route, they emphasized that we should try to function within mainstream culture, embrace technology, and try to integrate it into our practice, which is definitely a new, and very American, thing.

Sumi Loundon Kim: Buddhism was, for Norman’s and my parents’ generation, very much counterculture. Now, Buddhism is more what we’d call “alternative,” which means…

Rod Meade Sperry: …marketed.

Sumi Loundon Kim: No. Alternative in the sense of being outside the mainstream but acceptable. Given the fact that the path to India and other parts of Asia is well trodden in our generation, it’s clear that there is still a need for young people to step outside mainstream American culture. Perhaps they already feel like they’re outside of the mainstream and they’re looking for something that feels like home, or perhaps they’re just looking for some perspective. In either case, there is a turning away of some kind. Often kids have grown up in very comfortable situations, and they begin to feel turned off by materialism, and Buddhism has something to say about that. They are willing to step into Buddhism as another point of view to critique mainstream America. To that extent, Buddhism is not fully integrating into the mainstream yet.

Norman Fischer: I’d go one step further. I doubt that there is an actual mainstream right now. American culture has a lot of powerful currents swirling in it. Buddhism is one of those currents, but there is also mindfulness training of various kinds and lots of research on mindfulness and health. Oprah Winfrey is promoting a form of mindfulness. So, a perspective that you can define very broadly as Buddhist is now one of the key streams in our society. Somebody might say that what Oprah Winfrey is talking about isn’t really Buddhism. I wouldn’t argue that it is, but I would say that it’s heavily Buddhist-inflected. Far from waning or atrophying, then, I’d say Buddhism is morphing and becoming more and more important all the time.

Sumi Loundon Kim: As Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and other aspects of the Buddhist tradition become diffused and permeated throughout mainstream society, at what point do we say that it is Buddhism anymore? I take a more conservative view on what it means to preserve Buddhism and carry it into the future.

Norman Fischer: That’s good, because that’s needed too. The dharma is always going to manifest in many different ways. It needs conservatives, innovators, and dabblers. That’s the fabric of the dharma. Even in “deeply Buddhist” cultures, there are people who aren’t practitioners who do something to uphold the monastics or take part in something cultural that makes them feel connected to the Buddhist culture.

Rod Meade Sperry: I see lots of interesting contemporary manifestations of dharma reflected in contributors to my website. Their expression of dharma is a healthy mix of reverent and irreverent. It could be street art influenced by the dharma, dharma tattoos, a death-metal band making music inspired by the dharma. They’re finding their own modes of expression, but they are not knocking down the old guard, either; they’re adding to it, assimilating it into the way they live. Instead of thangkas, they have thangka tattoos.

We’re not people who relate to images of tranquility. We never had it. It’s not the society we grew up in. Tranquility may be something we’re going for, but that’s not what’s going to connect with us. We see the New Age as just marketing. That’s why we go for the oldest, most classic expressions of the dharma, and add a new spin on them.

Sumi Loundon Kim: Are the people you’re talking about, Rod, aware of the meaning of what is on their tattoos, or is it just something cool that floats across their screen and they don’t know whether it’s Buddhist or Bön or Hindu or what?

Rod Meade Sperry: There’s always going to be a guy with a Buddha tattoo who doesn’t even know who the Buddha was, but there are going to be plenty of people who are using traditional dharmic expressions in a way that is their own. It’s not just about tattoos. In fact, the web is a wonderful model for how the dharma is evolving. It’s an incredible gift of skillful means. It allows people to contribute in the way that they can contribute. We see so many new blogs and websites that are not run by teachers. They’re run by practitioners; they’re run by young people who want to talk about dharma, to be part of it.

Buddhadharma: Iris, do you agree with the point that Rod makes about how New Age is viewed in contrast to buddhadharma?

Iris Brilliant: For me, New Age has mainly negative connotations, and it probably does for a lot of my peers as well. It’s probably not as well respected and carries the connotation of being more interested in what is merely popular.

What Rod was saying, though, about people making Buddhism their own and tailoring it to their lifestyle is very important. Young people are coming to Buddhism for a myriad of reasons. There’s no single reason, but it seems to me their reasons tend to be profound and important. Yet, they are very interested in retaining their individuality rather than just becoming a certain Buddhist identity. That’s one of the more interesting phenomena occurring right now.

Rod Meade Sperry: Not just an interesting phenomenon, but a beautiful phenomenon.

Norman Fischer: When the dharma is allowed to flower and express itself in so many different ways, it becomes something more people realize they can enter into. It’s not just for holy people. It’s for regular people like me, or irregular people like me.

Iris Brilliant: But I have to say that the Buddhist community is not quite as inclusive as it could be, and this is a big concern for me. The feminist analysis of things is to constantly ask yourself who is being left out and how can we do something to be more inclusive. That analysis can always be used in the sangha.

Perhaps because of the legacy of Buddhism in the West starting out as part of various intellectual movements and because of the interest of white middle-class people in the East, Buddhism in America has a lot of bourgeois connotations. The retreats I go on are not diverse. They are dominated by white, middle-class, heterosexual people.

One of the problems is affordability and access. In contrast, a place like the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland is a wonderful resource. They have sitting groups designated for queer people or people of color. That’s a very important direction. I’d like to see a Buddhism that doesn’t just shy away from questions of institutional oppression and privilege. Buddhist meditation could be a really important resource for people interested in taking down those forms of systematic oppression.

It’s sad for me to go on retreats and see how exclusive they are—mostly because they’re so expensive but also just because of the connotations of Buddhism being for privileged white people. Meditation is seen as a luxury, something for people who have a lot of free time. A lot of changes need to be made for Buddhist practice to really be open to everybody.

Rod Meade Sperry: There are young people retreats and people of color retreats and queer retreats, and that’s certainly not a bad thing, but it sometimes misses the point. If you’re a young person and your best bet is to join a retreat like that, which means that the practice community doesn’t really include you, it’s like being relegated to the kids’ table at a family function. It’s nice, but it’s also sort of dismissive. What do you do when you’re sent off to the kids’ table? You either sneak off with the other kids and go play, or you find that one cool uncle who will chat you up. What dharma centers need are more cool uncles, more people who will automatically bring younger voices into the everyday life of their sangha.

Buddhadharma: But isn’t a queer or people of color or youth retreat a step in that direction?

Rod Meade Sperry: It’s arguable that it is, but it’s also arguable that it isn’t. Some people have said that sanghas that hold these retreats may not make inclusion an integral part of the way they function.

Iris Brilliant: I disagree that having retreats based on social identities is not helpful, because that’s one of the only ways in which some people can jump into the practice and feel safe and comfortable. If you go into a room full of people who don’t look like you, and you’re supposed to be going into a deep, vulnerable, and kind of frightening practice, especially if you’ve never done it before, you’re much less likely to come back. These special retreats say that this practice does not ignore that there are fundamental differences between us and that there is racism and sexism. Otherwise, it will just continue to be a middle-class white movement.

Rod Meade Sperry: What’s lacking to my mind is the follow-up that leads to the actual evolution of the community itself.

Sumi Loundon Kim: To me that gets to the nature of the whole retreat thing altogether, as opposed to the development of real sangha. I have a beef about the whole dharma scene being so meditation-oriented and retreat- and program-oriented. As a mother of young children, I have no time for retreats, or even to go for a little sitting at the local temple. There’s a pretty strongly antisocial or nonsocial component to dharma centers in general. I don’t understand how anybody—including the white, privileged folks—can really feel like they’re part of a community.

The current dharma scene lacks a social instinct and avenues for social engagement, which is a very big part of what it is to be young. A lot of Buddhist practitioners and would-be practitioners crave a sense of belonging and a sense of being with people who are like them to explore similar issues. There is just not sufficient support for that.

Rod Meade Sperry: The Interdependence Project model is the antithesis of that. It’s about community, discussion, inquiry, asking questions, and interacting with the teacher like the teacher is your friend, because the teacher actually is your friend. Beyond that, there are guest speakers on diverse topics and a variety of events. It’s a place where people can come and get dharmic influence, but they can also get so much more.

How many people don’t go to a center not just because they don’t have the time, but because, on some level, why would they want to?

Sumi Loundon Kim: It’s so lonely there.

Rod Meade Sperry: It is lonely. You’re quiet, you go in, you bow, you sit down, you hear a talk, and then everybody leaves.

Sumi Loundon Kim: And no food. [Laughter]

Buddhadharma: Buddhism came to the West in various packages called Zen, Theravada or Vipassana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, and so forth. It seems that many young people today are less interested in particular traditions. Will the future take the shape of a kind of pan-Buddhism, something that Joseph Goldstein discussed in One Dharma, or will people gravitate to specific traditions eventually?

Rod Meade Sperry: The teachers who interest me are those who find a confluence of their primary practice with something else. Brad Warner is very clearly a Zen teacher, but he also comes out of the punk movement. He has a filter through which to express Zen understanding. There can be modes of teaching that include various traditions without watering the traditions down. As time goes on, you’ll see more of that.

Sumi Loundon Kim: I agree that there are going to be syncretists, who will bring together elements from within the overall tradition, like Zen and Vipassana, or bring something from outside, like punk, into Zen. There will also be people who settle into one path, once they do a bit of searching. There is something appealing about the integrity of a tradition that has liturgy, cosmology, ethics, and practices that have been developed over the centuries so that they work together to transform a person. In the wake of globalization and the dissolution of tradition, there will be people who will seek the roots that come with a tradition.

Rod Meade Sperry: I strongly favor innovation, but sometimes we have to look at what came before and acknowledge that there’s nothing insufficient about that.

Iris Brilliant: Most of the people I know who are interested in Buddhism are open to all of the traditions and are eager to learn about them. But it seems a lot of people put together their own hodgepodge of ideas and facets, which allows them to have something they make their own. Many people are only interested in sitting a little bit every day, learning a bit about the dharma, maybe going on retreat. They’re usually willing to go on any style of retreat.

I may be biased since I come from a Vipassana background, but it seems like Vipassana and mindfulness practice tend to be the most appealing and accessible forms, because they seem less culturally loaded, maybe a little less scary, a little bit less…

Rod Meade Sperry: …dogmatic?

Iris Brilliant: Absolutely. There seems to be more room for making your own practice out of it. It seems like there is a straightforward focus on the psychology of the mind—looking at the mind and the body and developing a healthy relationship with your thoughts.

Rod Meade Sperry: Is it important to you as a young person that the specifically Buddhist strain of that practice exists as opposed to just the general idea of people practicing insight and mindfulness?

Iris Brilliant: I’m really interested in learning more about the dharma itself, its history and its teachings, even in a scholarly fashion, perhaps. But I’m also excited when any group of young people wants to get together and learn just about the techniques of meditation. It’s great to know that people are taking the initiative to become more clearheaded, even if they’re doing it in a secular and detached way. That’s immensely beneficial for them and those around them.

Buddhadharma: Will the tension between the popular, simpler forms and the traditional forms continue into the next generations?

Norman Fischer: There is indeed a tension now, but it’s complex, and it will change over time. People at the so-called popular end of the spectrum—secular meditators, people with Buddhist tattoos, people who are merely turned on by something they heard on Oprah—in my experience actually have respect for the tradition and an appreciation for the need for deeply committed practitioners.

In addition, as you get older, your views generally change and you become more conservative. Many people who have nipped at the edges of the buddhadharma will see the need for a more coherent community and more committed practice. It may turn out that the Buddhist movement is something very broad, lively, and multifarious, but that as people who participate in the movement get older—into their fifties and sixties—they may find themselves having a more narrow focus and more conservative practice regimen, if they can find good teachers who will validate and understand the experience they’ve had over their lifetime.

Sumi Loundon Kim: Yes, but there are a sizeable number of young people who start out wanting a very traditional approach, especially among the Vajrayana people. They’re very inspired by the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, and they really plunge into the smells and bells and Buddhism as a religion. They want to be as traditional as possible.

Norman Fischer: Of course, it’s not this or that. It’s about…

Sumi Loundon Kim: …the full spectrum.

Buddhadharma: What do the Buddhists of today need to do to ensure that the Buddhism of tomorrow is more diverse, and therefore continues to grow, in spite of the eclipsing of the baby boom?

Iris Brilliant: We need to reach people in more places. There are people trying to get meditation taught in a secular way in middle schools and high schools. Reaching people at those ages and in the context of school is very powerful. I agree with Sumi that the focus on retreats is a little too heavy, so it would be good if it were easier for people to start their own sitting groups, maybe inviting one teacher to support them and give dharma talks. The Internet is another wonderful resource for people to connect with practice, including having more talks available for download. Young adult retreats are another great way of getting more young people involved. The people on my young adult retreat became very close-knit and have stayed in touch afterward. And I can’t say it enough: it’s critical that the dharma become more affordable.

Sumi Loundon Kim: Affordability is a key issue. A lot of the young people I’ve met tell me they started on a Goenka retreat. Why? Because it was free. I have to say, though, that this complaint bothers me a little, because a lot of dharma centers do offer scholarships. Having worked on the administrative side of a dharma center, I know that the retreat fees barely cover expenses. On the other side, there can be an expectation in the younger generation that they’ll be supported. There’s not as much nitty-gritty, I-will-do-what-it-takes-to-do-this-retreat attitude that I saw in my parents’ generation, most of whom had nothing either. Maybe my generation and the one after it don’t want to work as hard to get into a retreat.

Rod Meade Sperry: I’ve been the beneficiary of sanghas that have gone out of their way to offer scholarships. It’s important to let people know that if they want to put something in the dana box after sitting, that’s good, and if not, that’s OK too. It’s also important to let people know that a retreat has a suggested charge, but if you can’t afford it, you are still welcome. I know that creates difficulties, but it’s a real gesture toward inclusion.

Iris Brilliant: Absolutely. I’d also add that if you’re talking about being more inclusive of young people, it’s important to be unafraid to discuss issues that young people tend to face, such as sexuality and sexual orientation.

Obviously, it can be tricky. How do you talk to minors about sex on a Buddhist teen retreat without getting in trouble with their parents? But there are ways to talk about sex, drugs, stress in school, and the pressure to succeed. These issues can often be lost when young people are just part of the crowd of adults. If there were places for open discussion about what they are going through, that would draw more young people into the practice. They’d see it as relevant to their lives.

Sumi Loundon Kim: I agree. It seems like the examples in talks of challenges people face, as well as the casual discussions at centers, have to do with things like menopause, caring for elderly parents, or what to do with your investments. Dharma talks and articles and postings that address young people’s issues would make the teachings stick with them.

Buddhadharma: When older people try to connect with younger people, they often stumble. How could centers approach issues in a way that would be useful?

Iris Brilliant: Having more younger teachers, people in their twenties and thirties, would help. I had one assistant teacher at Spirit Rock who was considerably younger than the other teachers, and just knowing that she had started to practice at my age, and wasn’t that much older than me, made me feel so much more comfortable.

In general, teachers could try to push themselves a bit beyond their comfort zone. I don’t think every teacher should be forced to talk about issues specifically related to young people, bu

photo of Diana Winston

Diana Winston

Diana Winston is the Director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center MARC . She is the author of The Little Book of Being, published by Sounds True, and the co-author of Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness. She is a member of the Teachers Council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and is a founding board member of the International Mindfulness Teachers Association.