Recently I was sitting in a musty old church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, waiting for Jack Kornfield to arrive for an evening dharma talk. As I looked out over the packed pews, I surveyed the sea of graying hairs and found only a handful of young adults. Where were the rising tides of GenNext Buddhists? I had the uncanny feeling of sitting with three hundred versions of my parents: middleaged Buddhist practitioners. And I had to ask myself, When the baby-boom Buddhists are meditating in their wheelchairs, will there be anyone left to be my dharma teacher? Since then, I’ve been wondering where I, a 23-year-old raised for eight years in a small Zen community, fit into the grand scheme of Western Buddhism. Reflecting on the counter-culture my parents adopted in the early seventies, what am I inheriting from them and how is Buddhism in America changing in my generation?
The good news for GenNexters is that Buddhism is becoming more acceptable to mainstream society. I remember my grandparents looking vexed when their children chose scrubbing garden carrots and Zen practice over business suits and professional vocations. Today, the response is positive when I e-mail my parents with the news that I’ve taken up yoga, dig Sanskrit class, and think about starting a Buddhist children’s school. Even society at large doesn’t roll its eyes anymore when I say I’m a Buddhist.
In addition to being more socially acceptable, Buddhism seems to be less opposed to Judeo-Christian culture. In college, for example, the Chaplain’s Office offers Buddhism alongside traditional faiths. Although Buddhists are clearly still in the minority, they’re no longer considered fringe. Perhaps one reason for this change is that many young people have not been raised in a religious tradition. Consequently, their sense of rebellion may be diminished in relation to the many lapsed Catholics and Jews of the previous generation who rebelled against their parents’ religions.
Another distinguishing feature of GenNext dharma is a freer dialogue between academia and practice. When I applied to graduate school in Buddhist Studies a few years ago, I was advised to stay in the closet as a practitioner. I was told that the admissions committee might think my practice would create a subjective spin on my studies. But when I arrived here at Harvard, I was surprised to find that the majority of my fellow academics in Buddhist Studies were either highly sympathetic to Buddhism or Buddhists themselves. Perhaps the official gap between academia and practice is slowly narrowing.
The gap between middle-class practicality and ascetic-monastic idealism seems to be closing also. In their early twenties, my parents took nonmaterialistic ideals so seriously that they didn’t plan for retirement and had no typed resumes. Today, both my parents are trying to catch up professionally for the decades they skipped in favor of an asceticlike lifestyle. In my early twenties, I feel less idealistic, as I buy lipstick for a job interview, track the stock market, and check out dental plans.
The flip side of Buddhism’s present accessibility is that it has made me a flabby practitioner. As an heir to foreign words predigested into English, an abundance of refined how-to books, and ancient customs made familiar, I have been handed American Buddhism on a silver platter. I have taken for granted that my parents joined community friends at 5:00 every morning to meditate by candlelight, to bow to the Buddha, and to chant in that incense-fragranced zendo. Because it’s been with me all along, meditation doesn’t hold the same urgency that I’ve heard older practitioners describe.
Maybe I’m not the only GenNexter who takes the dharma for granted. Could it be that for the very reasons the dharma is more acceptable, accessible, and popular than ever, so few young adults bothered to show up for Jack Kornfield’s talk? Knowing that the dharma may not always be in print and in vogue, I want to appreciate the ripening of the dharma in my parents’ generation while taking my own practice more seriously as groundwork for the future.
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