Journalist Katherine Ozment’s new book, Grace without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age details the author’s attempt to answer her 9-year-old son’s question of “what are we?” after he witnessed a Good Friday ritual. After Ozment realized that she couldn’t decide what her “religionless” family might be missing, she set out to answer these questions for herself, and interviewed the nation’s faithful Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, as well as members of non-denominational spiritual and ethical communities.

Even though the number of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans continues to rise, the need for organized faiths hasn’t disappeared. People still crave the things that religion once provided—the feeling of community, a moral blueprint, opportunities for ritual practice—and in wake of their absence, have begun designing practices that serve similar purposes. Drawing upon traditions from Zen Buddhism and Judaism, one group at the San Francisco Zen Center created a ceremony to mark their teens’ coming-of-age.

—Marie Scarles, Editorial Assistant


Religions have long provided coming-of-age ceremonies marking the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Adolescence is a difficult time, and yet in America today if you don’t go through a religious coming-of-age program, transitioning into adulthood consists of getting your driver’s license and graduating from high school. We mark this transition by letting young adults drive and continue their studies. Where is the opportunity to state values and commit to something beyond academic achievement and material success? Religions provide structures to acknowledge this passage, but parents who don’t want their kids to profess a creed and pledge allegiance to a faith tradition have to create meaning themselves.

As fog lifted off the Pacific coast on an unseasonably cold Mother’s Day, sixteen families gathered under the rustic roof of the Green Dragon Temple at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, California. Incense filled the air, and ritual bells alerted the group that the ceremony—a culmination of nine months of study by a group of teenagers—was about to begin. Sixteen girls and boys would pass from adolescence into adulthood before their mentors and families. Even though the event was being held in a zendo with a statue of the Buddha near the center, the ceremony itself was a secular one. Many of the parents who had signed their kids up for the yearlong program were seeking a meaningful coming-of-age ritual that differed from Christian confirmation or a Jewish bar mitzvah.

Kathryn Guta was sitting beside me on the raised platform along one side of the room. As we waited for the official ceremony to begin, she told me she had been raised Catholic but left and hasn’t looked back. When she adopted her daughter, Lakpa, from Nepal, she knew that she wanted her to be grounded in basic morality, and to learn tools to quiet her mind and examine her experience in a nonjudgmental way. She decided to let her choose her framework, so when Lakpa was young, Kathryn took her to all kinds of religious communities, searching for the right fit. At first, Lakpa didn’t like any of the groups they tried. Then Kathryn found the Zen center and started attending public lectures there herself. She learned about the coming-of-age program and liked that it was a structured approach and focused on important virtues while being free of religious dogma. Each month the students explored a value, such as listening, persistence, and connection. Through the study of these values, the mentors hoped to help the teens explore what they stood for and what they would seek to give to the world.

Lakpa had been sick that morning and wasn’t sure she could make it, but her mother encouraged her to come. She wanted her to see the program through because she wanted to give her daughter something, as her own parents had given her the Catholic faith. “Soon she’ll be on her own,” Kathryn said. “This is the last chance I have to do something like this for her.”

The ceremony began with the students walking in from the back of the room in two lines, one of girls and one of boys. They streamed past the large wooden Buddha set on a platform-like chair and came to sit on cushions in front. Though their hair was neatly combed, no one was formally dressed; they wore plain white shirts and dark pants. Then the mentors took turns asking the girls and boys rise and tell the group one word that sums up what they stand for and one gift they will give to the world in their lifetime.

The mentors then called up the parents to speak directly about the qualities they most appreciated in the children and their hopes for them. The ceremony was sealed when the mentors gave each student a new name that combined the quality they saw in him or her and their hope for the student in adult life.

When Lakpa stood, her hands tucked into her light-colored hooded sweatshirt, she coughed several times, cleared her throat, and said, “I stand for friendship, and my gift to the world is humor.” Kathryn came to the front of the room and spoke about Lakpa’s struggles, comparing them to the recent Nepali earthquake and calling her daughter a mountain. “You came from the mountains and you have become a mountain. Your feet are planted in the sweet earth. You have also experienced earthquakes.” At this point, both mother and daughter began softly crying. Kathryn closed by saying that, despite all the difficulties, it has been her honor to be Lapka’s mother. The mentors instructed Lakpa to take her gifts into the world as she moves into adulthood and presented her with a card bearing her newly given name: Mountain Humor.

Other students rose and recited what they stood for (change, kindness, compassion) and what gift they offered the world (acceptance, honesty, joy). Their parents walked up and, standing about six feet from their children, told them how profoundly they had touched their lives and what they hoped for them: that you will be happy, that you will be at peace with yourself, that you love yourself as much as we love you. One father told his daughter, “I’m a bow and you’re the arrow. As much as I’d like the arrow to go far, I’d like the bow to be stable.” He ended by saying, “Thank you for everything you’ve given us.”

The parents’ stories were at once unique and universal. They were as different as the kids, each of whom stood and proclaimed an identity and purpose, and alike in their love for their children. The ritual called on them all to put forth their best selves, the ideal of what it is they see in themselves. It was the epitome of the “as-if” world Michael Puett says ritual gives us, that ceremonial situation in which all is aligned so that when we go back out into our chaotic lives, we can remember this touchstone and return as needed to the sense of what is best in us.

The program began about 20 years ago when several parents approached the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center at the time, Norman Fischer, and asked for his help guiding their sons through adolescence. The parents wanted a Buddhist ceremony similar to the bar mitzvah Fischer had created for his twin sons. Fischer obliged, spending two years meeting regularly with the boys. Over the course of that experience, he developed a program based on nine qualities of maturity, or virtues, that they explored together. Today’s program follows that model.

How do we become who we are meant to be? This is a question religion has long engaged. But just because we lose religion, we don’t have to lose the question, or the rituals that help us answer it. Coming of age is a human transition, not a religious one. We all leave childhood for adulthood and take up our places in the world.

Before the ceremony, the students and parents attended a dharma talk. “Today is one of those days that’s never happened before,” the teacher said by way of opening. He laughed and went on to explain: “It’s boundless and unpredictable. What will you do with today?” He said that the Zen tradition is about finding your place. “Can you stand your ground, speak your truth, and honor your gifts?” he asked. He encouraged listeners to seek a life based not on image but on a felt sense, on what we know in our “heart brain.” He said material wealth and exploitation would not bring an extraordinary life. In fact, that would be an ordinary one. Instead, “what is extraordinary is to settle down in what is ordinary and bring it alive.”

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