Next-Generation Buddhism

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As the baby boomers who embraced Buddhism in the wake of the Vietnam War age, many wonder what American Buddhism will look like in coming years.

Buddhism today is not as counter-cultural as it was in the 60s and 70s; words like karma and zen are part of our vernacular, and meditation and mindfulness practice are mainstream. But while younger generations may include more dabblers in Buddhist thought, there are fewer full-fledged converts and formally trained teachers, pushing American Buddhism further to the Oprah side of the religion to self-help continuum.

The Winter 2008 issue of Buddhadharma includes a forum on “the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world” (excerpt only online). Four Buddhist practitioners of various ages discuss the current state of Buddhism, the future of the dharma when the baby boomers are gone, and ways of making it more relevant and inviting to young people.

A few highlights:

On the tension between popularized Buddhism and its traditional forms:

Norman Fischer: [In America today] there is mindfulness training of various kinds and lots of research on mindfulness and health…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…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?

Sumi Loundon Kim: 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.

Iris Brilliant: But I’m also excited when any group of young people wants to get together and learn just about the techniques of meditation…even if they’re doing it in a secular and detached way.

On efforts to reach out to younger generations:

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.

Sumi Loundon Kim: 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…There’s a pretty strongly antisocial or nonsocial component to dharma centers in general. I don’t understand how anybody…can really feel like they’re part of a community.

Iris Brilliant: I think socially engaged Buddhism will be a strong driving force for younger people…People are using practice, especially mindfulness, in a way that is deeply intertwined with social justice.

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