Lion's Roar

Smells like Teen Spirit

Todd Stein on how Buddhist communities are tailoring programs specifically for teens and young adults, making a big difference in some young lives.

By Todd Stein

Todd Stein on how Buddhist communities are tailoring programs specifically for teens and young adults, making a big difference in some young lives.

While the search for nirvana remains more Grateful Dead than Nirvana, a number of Buddhist communities are tailoring programs specifically for teens and young adults. As Todd Stein reports, the numbers aren’t large but they’re making a big difference in some young lives.

When the great Burmese vipassana master Sayadaw U Pandita visited the Insight Meditation Society to lead a three-month retreat in the fall of 1989, none of the all adult participants knew that his visit would mark a turning point in Western Buddhism’s approach to youth. Certainly Michele McDonald didn’t see it coming.

Now a well-known vipassana teacher in her own right, in 1989 McDonald was a thirty-seven-year-old instructor at the Barre, Massachusetts, center. Like many residents at IMS, McDonald and her husband—IMS instructor Steven Smith—were juggling Buddhist practice with raising a teenager.

And yet, like everyone else at Barre that fall, McDonald was caught off guard when, at the end of the retreat, U Pandita suddenly asked the society to start a meditation program for teens.

“He could see that we didn’t have a vision for including children and young adults in our programming, or even in our thought processes,” recalls McDonald. “We had started a family retreat but we hadn’t thought of focusing on teens.”

Today, it’s easy to wonder at this statement. Dharma programs catering to teens and young adults are not yet as commonplace as youth programs at mainstream churches and synagogues, but their numbers are growing. Though most dharma centers limit their youth offerings to modest Sunday school style programs that attract a mostly nomadic population, some of the programs are ambitious. San Francisco Zen Center supports a coming-of-age program for middle school youth that lasts two years and tackles subjects like sexuality and cultural awareness. Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, offers everything from solo vision quests to weekend stays at a Thai-style monastery. And in Nova Scotia, Gampo Abbey’s Youth Dathün is a monastic-style retreat where participants shave their heads, take temporary ordination and commit to a strict schedule of meditation, study and work that lasts from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.—for thirty days.

Though this small wave of youth programs seems to have come out of nowhere, it may actually have begun with what Michele McDonald and Steve Smith did, with the support of many volunteers, after U Pandita’s surprise announcement. Lacking a road map but trusting that teens had the interest and ability to complete a meditation course modeled on IMS’s adult programs,they launched the first of what would become annual meditation retreats for teens aged fourteen to nineteen. The five-day residential program featured five daily sessions of meditation interspersed with walking meditation, discussion groups, dharma talks and work practice. And just so no one would mistake this for an adult program, McDonald and Smith threw in some games and fun activities—mindful arts, poetry, improvisation, music—though even these had dharmic overtones.

Today, McDonald’s and Smith’s early foray into youth programming has blossomed into a full-scale effort that includes outreach to college-aged youth, a new teacher-student mentoring program for youth aged nineteen to twenty-five and the continuing annual teen retreats. Over fifteen years, the IMS programs have inspired other youth programs at dharma centers across the continent. In retrospect, though, the couple’s early faith in the ability of teens to absorb dharma was surprising, considering the initial reaction of their peers at IMS.

“When U Pandita suggested they hold a retreat for teens, pretty much all the teachers said, ‘No way,’” recalls Diana Winston, an IMS-trained instructor who has been leading teen vipassana retreats on both coasts since 1993. “It’s because teens are a hard population to work with and very challenging. There’s this raw energy and sexuality and people not wanting to be controlled.”

Winston believes this fear explains why many dharma centers have delayed starting their own youth programs. She worries that some dharma teachers may believe they cannot translate Buddha’s insights to a generation raised on MTV and video games, or—and this is the more dangerous assumption, she says—they are convinced that most youths are too distracted or too superficial to grasp the truth of dharma. Winston’s new book, Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens, is partly a response to those fears. Rather than water down the dharma to make it palatable to youth, she took a cue from McDonald and delivered it straight up.

“I’ve worked with kids as young as eleven or twelve and I find they understand the vipassana technique right away,” she says. “After we taught a group of kids to bring their attention back to their bodies and feel the sensations in their bodies, one kid came back and said, ‘I can’t believe how great that’s been. Whenever I’m feeling any strong emotion, I just check in with the body.’ And I thought, Oh my God! Adults don’t do this! They try, but to incorporate it into one’s life after just five classes, to me is quite extraordinary.”

Few modern dharma teachers have been less guilty of underestimating teenagers than Ane Pema Chödrön. In 1996, the famed Tibetan Buddhist teacher, author and director of Gampo Abbey created a month-long dathün, or retreat, especially for youths called, appropriately enough, the Youth Dathün. She took her inspiration from her teacher, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had been fascinated by the practice of temporary ordination among Burmese and Thai children. Each year, hundreds of these young people take formal vows and spend up to twelve months studying and practicing with monastics before returning to their families. Why, Trungpa Rinpoche wondered, couldn’t American youths do the same thing?

“Trungpa Rinpoche thought it would be very good to catch the young people who are open and give them a good dose of dharma and then let them go into the world,” says Ane Tsultrim Palmo, Gampo Abbey’s seventy-year-old dathün director. “He had the idea and Ane Pema started it by combining dathün with youths.”

Tsültrim Palmo describes the Youth Dathün’s participants as “amazing, just amazing.” No wonder. Not many seventeen- to twenty-five-year-olds would be willing to shave their heads for their spiritual practice, to say nothing of abandoning blue jeans, DVD’s, CD’s, computers, television, piercings, perfume and jewelry for a month of seclusion, extended bouts of sitting and too little sleep. The Youth Dathün schedule, which is based on the adult dathün schedule, looks like this:

6:00 a.m. wake up
6:30 chants and walking meditation
7:15 oryoki (ceremonial meal in the meditation hall)
8:00-8:45 personal time
9:00-11:30 meditation and contemplation of the five precepts
11:30-12:00 circumambulation of the stupa
12:00-12:30 oryoki
1:15-3:15 work period
3:15-4:00 personal time
4:00-5:15 meditation
5:15-5:30 walking meditation
5:30-6:00 oryoki
6:00-6:30 personal time
6:30-8:00 meditation
9:00 lights out

Some concessions to their age are made, of course. The month is interspersed with special events like birthday parties, dharma talks in lieu of meditation, and surprise days off (highlighted by events like whale watching). But generally the atmosphere of the dathün is “rigorous but not gruesome,” says Jaku Kinst, who has co-led most of the Youth Dathüns since 1996. A Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, Kinst says she was invited by Pema Chödrön in order to lend the dathün “a degree of Zen discipline.” Work-practice is traditionally emphasized in Zen as a central element of monastic training and Kinst has succeeded in transmitting that teaching, according to Tsultrim Palmo, who is full of praises for the cleanliness of the dathün kitchen. Kinst says the experience is “sometimes like herding puppies,” but she is constantly inspired by “the love they show each other” and the depth of their commitment. She recalls one especially moving demonstration of this commitment when a young teen with long, beautiful blonde hair asked her to cut it off the night before the opening ceremony. The girl had already made plans to donate her hair to a service that makes wigs for cancer survivors.

“Standing there in the courtyard, cutting those beautiful braids off, we were both in tears at her willingness to renounce this important part of her life and freely give it to someone who needed it,” says Kinst. “That was very inspiring for me.”

Like most youth dharma teachers, Kinst believes young people today are hungry for the dharma, and perhaps more in need of it than previous generations. “I feel that the level of dunzi [Tibetan for “distraction”] is really, really high, and the level of cynicism in our culture is really high. So I think young people today have to come to terms earlier with a sense of no-gaining idea. Because everywhere you look, the rain forest is being destroyed, the ozone layer, wars…it’s just so easy to say ‘Oh, screw it,’ and just give up.”

On the other side of the continent in affluent, liberal Marin County, California, IMS-affiliated Spirit Rock Meditation Center puts a premium on translating buddhadharma into the vernacular of today’s youth. “I don’t know if a lot of them realize they’re getting Buddhism,” says twenty-eight-year-old family program director Heather Sundberg. “What they’re learning about is meditation.”

Meditation, that is, mixed with a good dose of classic youth development training. In addition to the Four Noble Truths, Spirit Rock teens—and the older youth in the center’s seven-year-old Young Adult program (eighteen to thirty years old)—receive training in mindful listening, yoga, rudimentary somatics and the Native American community-building process known as Council. During weekly meditation classes, which last for six weeks each spring, winter and fall, teens are introduced to the fundamentals of mindfulness practice and encouraged to maintain an atmosphere of non-judgmental acceptance. A typical “dharma game” involves placing two bowls on the floor in the middle of a circle of youth. In one bowl, teens place a piece of paper describing one quality they enjoy about themselves, and in the other, a description of what they would change about themselves. The teens then take turns fishing for paper and reading the notes aloud, with the permission of the author. Then the author is asked to share more, if they care to.

“Teens lack a basic level of support and listening in their lives,” explains Sundberg. “Everyone’s in their own scene—they’re jockeying for position and just trying to figure it all out. And here they can come and figure out who they are and practice expressing that truth, and have it reflected back that, ‘Hey, who you are is okay.’ We like to call that ‘basic enoughness.’ It’s not a vipassana teaching, per se, but I think of it as really honoring our buddhanature.”

Rosa Langely, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at UCLA, began attending the Spirit Rock teen program when she was thirteen. Her first event was a vision quest, during which several teens spend twenty-four hours alone and fasting on Spirit Rock’s rural property. Afterward, inspired by her experience, Langely began attending weekly meditation classes and one-day retreats at Spirit Rock and Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Northern California. She kept coming back until college drew her south. The experience, she says, provided more than a grounding in Buddhism.

“I think it was so important for me in my development as a person—just to know that I wasn’t alone, and to know that my peers were going through the same things that I was. I know it sounds like something that people should know—that human experience is similar—but when you’re a young teen in our culture, people really think ‘I’m weird and no one knows what I’m going through.’”

Elsewhere in Marin County, at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, and across the Golden Gate in San Francisco, the San Francisco Zen Center operates a youth program of a different sort. Like Spirit Rock’s program, Zen Center’s Coming of Age program emphasizes life skills that are enhanced by Buddhist practice. But practice is not the central theme of Zen Center’s program. Norman Fisher, founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, laid the program’s foundation in 1994, when he was abbot of Zen Center. In his new book, Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, Fischer describes how it all began when the parents of four boys in residence at Zen Center asked him to help guide their children into young adulthood. The mentoring process that Fischer devised with the aid of the boys had as its organizing topic the question, “What does it mean to be a grown-up?”

“Of course, that question involves spiritual values,” says Fischer. “So we talked about ethics and morality and what we believed about reality and our lives. But we specifically didn’t want to make it into a Buddhist Sunday school, which would have been a kind of loaded issue since a lot of the kids grew up with Zen Center and didn’t want to feel coerced into that. So we didn’t say, ‘This is going to be Zen Buddhism.’ We said, ‘This is going to be about our real lives and our spiritual lives and if we can use something from Zen to help us, then we’ll use it.’”

Today, the Coming of Age program that Fischer started has grown under the leadership of longtime community activist and lay practitioner Barbara Wenger into a formal organization with a finely honed curriculum. Between eight and ten boys and girls, all just entering seventh grade, make a two-year commitment to meet up to three times a month. In sessions ranging from two hours to a whole day, the youths take part in events including meditation, council circles, journal writing, art exercises, drama, community service, physical training and wilderness experiences. Rituals mark their progress through the program, culminating in a formal coming-of-age ceremony at the end, during which each youth publicly takes his or her own version of the Buddhist precepts and commits to continuing to practice what they’ve learned.

“The basic thing is that they find out what their strengths are in body and mind, and how they can follow the precepts,” says Wenger.

The Coming of Age program’s current participants are nearly all from families outside the Zen Center sangha. Their parents’ ignorance of practice has Wenger rejoicing at the odd reversal, where “parents are coming to practice because of their kids,” and she speaks of the program as a new form of outreach to non-Buddhists. Besides the Coming of Age group, though, Zen Center has mostly shied away from youth programs. This may be partly due to the formal nature of the student-teacher relationship in Zen practice. While other Buddhist centers such as IMS are just beginning to experiment with teacher-student mentoring programs for adults aged nineteen to twenty-five, that relationship is built into the practice at Western Zen centers, where students have frequent face-to-face dokusan with a teacher who feels responsible for their progress. So Zen Center does not sponsor any group for young people older than thirteen, though teachers at its three practice centers (including Tassajara Zen Mountain Center) have occasionally invited teens to create a sitting group—with mixed results. Abbess Jiko Linda Cutts encouraged her son, David Weintraub, to join one of the first Coming of Age groups. But while she strongly supports teen programs, she feels it’s best if the youths are motivated by their own interest, rather than cultural or family expectation.

“I don’t want to coerce,” says Cutts. “I don’t want people to have to go to dharma events as a kid, in the way that some of us were brought up, where there was no question—you had to go to Sunday school, you had to go to church. I feel that deciding to sit zazen is an adult decision. It’s got to come from the person or it’s totally counterproductive and actually a disservice to the person.”

The typical Zen aversion to proselytizing hasn’t kept Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, from fashioning what may be the most complete youth program at any North American dharma center. What began as occasional babysitting for the preschool-aged children of sangha members has blossomed into a biweekly “Dharma School” serving those aged three to eighteen. The volunteer staff of twelve adults teaches more than forty youths—a remarkable showing for a relatively small center. Limited resources restrict their activities to Sunday school style dharma classes separated along age lines, plus occasional summer camping trips, service projects, and a monthly sleepover at the center where young people mostly “eat pizza, watch a video, do their own services and sleep in the zendo,” says Gyokudo Carlson, Dharma Rain’s co-abbot. Gyokudo, like her husband, co-abbot Kyogen Carlson, was ordained by Roshi Jiyu-Kennett at Shasta Abbey in Northern California.

When the Carlsons first arrived at Dharma Rain in 1982, the tiny temple had just twenty members, recalls Gyokudo. “It was very poor and the members were all our age— mid-thirties—and I could just see this whole demographic group doing zazen right until we fell into our graves.”

Working with children was hardly the Carlsons’ primary mission, but almost immediately they began to notice that many of the lay adult practitioners had a problem. There was nothing for their children to do at the temple. Years went by until an energetic new mother in the sangha encouraged the Carlsons to visit places with successful family programs—local churches, synagogues and also Asian-American Buddhist temples, which decades ago had adopted formats based on Christian churches. “We just started cribbing shamelessly from all these other programs, and doing some reading on religious education,” recalls Gyokudo.

The Dharma Rain youth programs were an immediate hit with young children but there was a steep fall-off in attendance at age twelve or thirteen, once the participants started getting a taste of teen peer pressure. Soon, though, the trend reversed itself. “As we got better at this and we got more kids, they became their own peer group,” Carlson says. “The teachings we were giving them on virtues and precepts were starting to take hold, so we were cultivating a culture that actually made them feel safer and more accepted, with all of their differences, than the public schools.”

Though only a sampling of North American dharma centers, these programs describe the range of available Buddhist youth outreach and services. Over time, more dharma centers may adopt these models, rework them or create their own programs, and start working with youth in their own sanghas. To the extent that they do so, however, they will have overcome the most common barrier to beginning youth work—fear. Most dharma teachers who now teach youth admit they began with trepidation, afraid that the youths would view them as uncool or repressive or out of touch. Many simply feared the challenge of relating to an audience whose cultural references and maturity levels were wildly different from the people they were accustomed to teaching.”

“I think the fear of teaching teens is very real and very widespread,” says Michele McDonald. “It’s really creating in one’s mind a separation that isn’t true. It’s just an assumption that isn’t being tested by adults. The root of that difficulty, I think, is the loss of family community. We don’t live in villages anymore, which is how Buddhism began. So we create a false separation and we’re each cut off from the other age groups. And yet elders need the children as much as they need us. It’s a very rich, reciprocal relationship with deep spiritual value. It deepens my spiritual practice to have these relationships because the level of investigation that young people require of me is extraordinary. They push me to deepen my practice and my articulation of the dharma. It’s great!”

Which isn’t to say that teaching youths ought to be the primary focus of dharma centers. But ignoring them is also wrong, for youth training represents something unique in the vast matrix of sangha—an opportunity to shape the future direction of Buddhism in the West and, ultimately perhaps, to shape Western culture itself.

“Let’s not forget that we need to cultivate and support teachers, and we need to cultivate and support everyone,” says Jaku Kinst. “But we need to include young people. I do believe there’s something really wonderful about that period of time. It’s like an opening, a willingness to engage. You can just see that they’ve got the rest of their lives to lead and they’re going to be making choices that affect all of us and generations to follow.

Todd Stein

Todd Stein is a freelance writer and former Sacramento Bee reporter who lives at the San Francisco Zen Center.