A Protestant minister I know recently lamented that his congregation seemed to be aging. It’s just too hard to keep teenagers in the church, he explained. They fall away, usually around fourteen or fifteen, after which you’re lucky if you see them on Easter and Christmas. “After that, you’ve basically got only three opportunities to get them back—when they get married, when their children get baptized, or when someone in the family dies.”

“But what if your church doesn’t have Easter and Christmas,” I asked, “or if it doesn’t have those marriage, birth, and funeral ceremonies to draw them back in?”

He looked at me a little incredulously, then remembered that I was coming from a Buddhist background. “Well,” he said after a moment. “In that case, I guess you’re screwed.”

family
© Benjamin F. Fink Jr./Brand X Pictures/JupiterImages

Birth. Marriage. Death. Those are typically the  three great milestones any human life. They’re the moments when we tend to stop and take stock of things, when we come together as extended families to consider the past and future in a spiritual or religious light. A sociologist might tell you that those are the moments when the social fabric is torn and therefore in need of the kind of repair offered by religious liturgy and ritual—quite literally because someone is entering, or departing, from the fabric of family life. Whatever spiritual life we seek for ourselves as individuals, the religious life truly begins and ends here—with the life of the family. To the degree that American Buddhism recognizes that truth and embraces its demands, it will flourish. If it ignores it, it’s just a matter of time before it slips into serious decline.

The problem today, of course, is that with few exceptions, Buddhism is not being passed down in families by members of the convert community. There are many reasons for this. One is that, not having grown up in the religion themselves, convert Buddhists don’t have the preexisting cultural templates to work from that Jews and Christians do in passing their religion on to their children. Imagine having to learn as an adult how to sing Christmas carols, dye an Easter egg, or play dreidel. The truth is, you probably wouldn’t do it, or if you did, it would feel forced or phony when it came time to offer those same rituals to your kids. The problem, in most cases, is that children aren’t ready for the kinds of Buddhist rituals that adult converts have mastered—like meditating, going on silent retreat, or reading difficult Buddhist texts.

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