Times are Changing – and so should Buddhists

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.

8 Replies to “Times are Changing – and so should Buddhists”

  1. This is an important topic and I wondered what was your age?

    They say that one of the reasons buddhism has stayed so strong in the world is it ability to transform itself to the needs of the culture… it is fluid and adapts, it is not rigid. But that said, I wonder how good communicating on FB and twitter are, like just in general? I think not so good? i think that is worth thinking about, for everybody, young and old, buddhist and non-buddhist- Live a analog life a little more?- Lol

  2. I’m always in favor of a balanced approach myself. I think Westerners have a tendency to fixate on the exotic and ancient, so when they see Asian Buddhists not following this image, they tend to complain Asian Buddhists aren’t following Buddhism. Quite ironic to me in a way.

    So, through my wife, I’ve seen examples of Buddhists in Japan adapting their faith to the modern life just fine. I saw temples that were more like old museums, and I saw temples there that “got it” and adapted well. You can guess which ones will last longer. 🙂

    Anyways, point being, I like the idea of drawing upon the old traditions, since we wouldn’t have a religious foundation without them, but at the same time giving them a modern twist like I saw in the more successful, thriving temples.


  3. This is a slippery slope if we try to change too much with the times. So much of our culture in America today is pretty much just scientific materialist philosophy, consumerism and moral relativism, all things that hardly fit in with the Dhamma taught by the Buddha. If you mean that certain things can be done to freshen up the image of Buddhism while maintaining the Noble Customs and the moral aspect of things then I say yes to that, but if you mean Buddhism has to just simply adapt to the cuture and give up some of it’s principles in the process I say a loud and resounding “no”.

    I think Ajahn Thanissaro has given several talks about this sort of thing and all of them come down to practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, not according to the current trends and whims of whatever culture Buddhism tends to pop up in. He said that all Buddhist cultures have real Dhamma practicioners but the point where the practice gets molded into the culture is the point where it becomes something other then Buddhism. In America we must all tread very carefully in this regard.

    After all, how can the empty materialism and anihilationism of current scientific paradigms and the moral relativism of many secularists really fit in with the Dhamma? Both fall under wrong view. I’m not a master nor enlightened at all, I just think certain things should stand alone. The Buddha closed out the possibility of adding or taking away from anything set out in his teachings prior to his death and considered his path to be complete so why try to change it. Like the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it.”

    If Facebook and Twitter can help foster growth in the Dhamma then that is another story altogether and ultimately a good thing. I’m not above using technology or other means to try and get the youth interested in the Dhamma. This is a challenging culture to work with since religion is pretty much a pariah according to many of the elites in this country. They are all atheists or secularists with no place for religion, including Buddhism.

    It’s interesting to think about how Buddhists could reach the youth and get them interested though, and I think the social networking sites are a promising thing as far as that is concerned. I applaud anyone who can actually get people to consider the Dhamma instead of Miley Cyrus, American Idol or the Superbowl since it’s probably not easy and I’m quite a solitary fellow who doesn’t really speak of Buddhism outside the blogosphere. I wish you and your readers well. I always enjoy Dharma Folk even if I don’t always have much to say.

  4. I think you’re making many of the same mistakes here that many westerners make when you use the term ‘Buddhist.’

    For example.
    Buddhists do not shave their heads and wear robes.
    Monks do that.

    Buddhists do not live in temples and ring bells.
    monks do that.

    Buddhists do not consider the Dali Lama the highest ranked living Bhuddist. Tibetan (and a couple of other groups) Buddhists do that.

    Buddhists all over the world are embracing technology. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes on twitter.
    Popular and controversial Soto Priest Brad Warner both blogs and posts on twitter.
    his own teacher who is now ninety publishes a blog.

    My own Soto Zen teachers (of Suzuki Roshi’s lineage) Record their Dharma talks and publish them online, our Sangha communicates events through yahoo groups.

    Heck the Dali Lama himself has a blog.

    One problem we have is that when we talk about christianity we often note the difference between Catholics, protestants and more however when we talk about Buddhism we say ‘Buddhism’ when the reality is that the similarity between Tibetan Buddhism and Zen or Pure land Buddhism is about the same as the similarity between Judaism and Protestantism.

    Thes groups are wide spread and diverse. Buddhists in this country are very technology savvi. Buddhists in Burma where their practitioners are not likely to have an internet connection are less so.

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