One of my recent general observations about religion is that its role in the lives of the younger generation has been deteriorating. While I do not have the numeric data that my fellow blogger arunlikhati is so skilled in collecting to support my claim (I tried to sort out some PEW stats but gave up…), I think many readers will agree with my claim just through each of their personal experiences with the youth, namely children up until high school. I am well aware that this is not the case for all youth and each of us can easily come up with children who do hold their faith close to their hearts. However, I do think that in a society where people share their latest thoughts and status with Facebook and Twitter more often than God, where money and power have become society’s determining factor for success rather than morality, and where Miley Cyrus has become a more influential icon for children than most religious figures, religion certainly has much more competition nowadays especially in finding a place among the youth.
Specifically thinking the problem through a Buddhist perspective, Buddhism seems to be facing problems with how it’s understood among its youth. Technology and media offer extremely effective distractions from and replacements for religion, enticing children with fancy gadgets (i.e. I-Pod, TiVo) and addictive entertainment (i.e. The Jonas Brothers, Grey’s Anatomy). Also, America has so much diversity that Buddhism must “compete” with other, more dominant religions, such as Christianity. Even the ethnic Buddhist, those that are exposed to Buddhism through immigrant parents or parents of Asian ancestry, show either an indifference or misunderstanding of Buddhism. When asked about Buddhism, many identify it as their parent’s religion, not their own. Or, they claim to practice Buddhism through praying to the Buddha – for good grades, good health, and the newest Playstation counsel for Christmas.
Surprisingly, this isn’t something that is only happening in America. Even in Bhutan, a country still mostly undisturbed by Westernization or modernization, faces problems with how Buddhism is understood among their youth. When Bhutanese students were asked why they practice Buddhism, common answers were “To fulfill my desires, get a good job and earn more money,” “Because my parents are Buddhist”, and “Because I was born in Bhutan”. The surprisingly similar responses I hear among the Asian American youth and these Bhutanese children seems to suggest that the misunderstanding of Buddhism is caused by more than American consumerist culture and media.
Even in Tibet, another dominantly-Buddhist country, the Tibetan Buddhist culture experiences the effects of increasing Han cultural presence from China. Tibetans must choose between learning native Tibetan or national Mandarin, wearing padded gowns or fashioned jeans, and eating roasted barley or fried rice. And because of job and education opportunities, many young Tibetans have little choice but to prioritize and set their native Tibetan culture, including Buddhism, aside for the more widely practiced Han culture.
And while the Bhutanese blame the monastic institutions, Tibetans blame the Chinese, and I blame American consumerist culture, maybe the true reason why Buddhism faces such odds in developing faithful, knowledgable youth, even in Buddist concentrated areas, is simply because times are changing. From dating to reading the Dharma, nearly everything can be done on the Internet now. In this generation, the youth communicate through text messages, Facebook wall posts, and AIM instant messages. They express themselves through emoticons and profiles, identify themselves with online communities and Facebook groups, and voice concerns through forums and blogs (like us!). Now surely, with times changing, maybe Buddhism needs to change with it. I find the amount of free Buddhist resources on the Internet and the communities established online amazing but mainly targeted towards an older audience. If Buddhists can use what had been a distraction as a teaching tool or a way to appeal to the youth, maybe things will start to change.