This roundtable was conducted in July 1996 by Helen Tworkov in Rochester, New York. The participants, all in their twenties, were residents of the Rochester Zen Center at the time of the conversation.
From left to right:
Tim Collins was born in Oneida, New York. He is twenty-two years old, and has been practicing for a little over a year.
Lhasa Ray, twenty-two years old, was born in San Francisco and has been practicing for under a year.
Kim Holder was born in Toronto, Ontario. She is twenty-eight yeas old and has been practicing for about three and a half years.
Rich Lopez is twenty-four and was born in Caster Valley, California. He has been practicing Zen for almost two years.
Abby Levin, twenty-one, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but lived in Toronto for most of her life. She has been practicing for about six years.
Cecily Fuhr grew up in Walla Walla, Washington. She is twenty-eight and has been practicing for two years.
Tricycle: Do you have a generation name for yourselves?
Cecily: The only thing we could come up with was Zen X, but it sounded like an antidepressant.
Abby: It’s probably a feature of Generation X to not want to be referred to as Generation X.
Kim: I don’t mind the label. There’s always going to be some things that a generation has in common. It’s true that we grew up with a certain set of common factors that shaped our lives and it does no harm to recognize that.
Tricycle: What are they?
Tim: For one thing, everyone here has divorced or unmarried parents.
Lhasa: We share a common sense of powerlessness or despair that has been with us since the very beginning. As early as I can remember, my parents would tell me about nuclear war and how it was this looming threat. I spent a lot of time in fear of these huge powers out there that I had no control over and which were going to determine my fate somehow. So I didn’t have a sense of a bright future on a global level.
Tricycle: Is this, in part, what accounts for the increase of people in their twenties coming to the dharma now?
Cecily: I think economics has a lot to do with it. We share the breakdown of structures: like the idea of being married with a family, or the idea that if you’re an intelligent person and you are willing to work, you will get a good job that you can have for your entire life and you’ll retire and move to some nice warm place with a swimming pool. For my generation, those things are just blown out the window.
Tricycle: Did your parents present the world as a place that you may want to participate in?
Kim: Not in the usual sense. Basically the option was to do something outside of the normal sphere. A strictly professional future wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to be something normal like a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. You might have to work in an environmental-type field or something.
Cecily: I got that same sense of “the world is falling apart, the world is going to go to hell.” But my parents’ thing was “the world is going to hell, so go to law school.”
Rich: My parents never really suggested any ideas about what I might want to do with my future. I just spent so much time not communicating with them, lost in my own little world—which, when I was probably about twelve or thirteen, was nuclear war. That was also when my mom sat me down to tell me that she and my father were going to separate. At first I thought she was going to tell me the world was going to end. You know, she started off saying, “Sometime after this Christmas….” And I was thinking, “Oh my God! The world’s going to explode!” And then she said, “Your father and I are going to separate.” Phew! [Laughs. ]
Tim: Yeah, l developed a real pessimistic outlook early on in my life. I thought that everything, every institution, every relationship was somehow corrupt. So I guess I grew up thinking that no matter what I did, eventually it wasn’t going to work out anyway.
Tricycle: Do any of you have a very clear sense of what attracted you to Zen in the first place?
Cecily: A lot of what appealed to me about Zen was the concreteness of it. Okay, maybe the world is going to hell, and maybe there’s nothing solid that you can do to make a difference. But here’s something that’s simple, but it can still affect your life and it can affect other people’s lives too.
Tim: I always felt that nothing in my life was sincere. It was always so plastic, so artificial. It’s like I had a formula growing up for how life played out: You went to school, and then you went to college, and then you graduated and got a job, and got married, and you worked, you retired, and then you died. Zen is the first thing I’ve ever done where I am happy to wake up in the morning. And I feel excited. And I feel like there is life here.
Kim: I remember feeling when I first went to the Toronto Zen Center that finally there was a community that l could actually trust because they were not part of the society that I was in. They were not aligned with any political group or agenda. They just said that if you work hard and concentrate on immediate things—which made a lot of sense to me, you know, immediate things that I had some control over—you could get somewhere. And I went into that community with the kind of trust that l had never experienced anywhere else.
Abby: My oldest memories are of lying in bed, wondering what everything is all about and feeling totally overwhelmed and just trying to figure out what I was doing here. From age five to sixteen I was trying to connect to people and ask, “Do you wonder about these things too?” And I was having no luck, and I had friendships that were totally dissatisfying and superficial and affected. So for a long time I felt like a fraud, like there was nothing sincere in my life, and that nobody thought the way l did, that nobody would ever understand me. But from the minute I got to Rochester Zen Center I had this overwhelming connection with the place and with the people, and I just knew that l had to be here.
Lhasa: I remember feeling for many years of my life—especially during high school—just a general unhappiness, a feeling of being discontent or dissatisfied with the options ahead of me in terms of college and professional careers. I was very excited about college, I thought it was going to have some meaning, give me something to really dig into. I wanted to be a doctor for women because I thought that doing women’s health was something that I could devote my life to. But then I became disenchanted with Western medicine. I didn’t know where to go, nothing had any meaning. My parents were Buddhists, and so it was always kind of there.
Actually, though, the ideas that I knew about Zen upset me. They scared me. But I began to learn that things that scared me were actually very true. They shook up my world and that’s why they scared me. And when I started practicing, those feelings of meaninglessness and unhappiness just went away. And I knew that Zen was beneath everything, that this was the only thing that could give meaning to my life.
Tricycle: Do you feel that there are some differences between those of you who practice and your friends who don’t?
Cecily: The only reason that I am not going completely nuts is because I have sort of a ground for all of the uncertainty. And there’s so much of it in our age group, the economic problems we face, and for the first time the fact that having an undergraduate degree means squat. It’s a great relief from that despair to have the practice.
My friends who aren’t practicing know that they need to make a difference but they don’t know how and they don’t know what. They’re very frustrated about that.
Kim: The friends I have who do not practice put up with the life they’ve been dealt, but they really aren’t happy about it. They kind of go around doing things halfheartedly. And if they do something that they believe in, they find that most of society is pitted against them. And almost every single one has a lot of respect for the fact that I do have a practice and wishes that they had one too. But they just can’t quite make the investment. Actually, they can’t make the leap of faith.
Tricycle: What does taking a leap of faith entail?
Kim: Even though they’re not really happy with their lot, the idea of wiping the slate and starting with no assumptions at all is pretty scary. That involves a lot of work, and they have so much anger inside them and so much confusion about other things that they can’t pull enough of their being together to make that kind of commitment to something they know is going to be hard.
Cecily: People make a lot of groaning noises when I tell them I get up at a quarter to five in the morning. For people our age, it’s scary to take something seriously in a public way, particularly religion. You can’t just say, “I care about this enough to stare at a wall for four or five hours every day” and say “this is important to me.” It’s really hard for a lot of people to make a kind of public admission that (a) there’s something wrong, and (b) there’s something I can do about it.
Abby: There’s a goal of not wanting to make any effort, to look like everything is coming easy and to look like you don’t really care, because if you care and you get screwed it’s more embarrassing that way. It’s just a defense.
Cecily: You’re allowed to be serious about some things, like rock climbing. But I’m not serious about something, I am serious about figuring out the meaning of life.
Lhasa: Yeah, if you get involved in something which is defining your lifestyle, it’s like you’ve been taken in—like somebody is using their little philosophy machine to bend you to their will.
Tricycle: What about the general perception that your generation is cynical?
Cecily: Lies, lies, lies. There’s a saying that a cynic is just a disappointed romantic. This isn’t a romantic world, and we’re just savvy enough to know that it isn’t the world that we would love it to be.
Lhasa: There’s nothing apparent in our world as it stands that draws our faith. Because we’ve grown up in a world where we were never offered something where we could say, “Yes, that’s it, I am going to commit to that,” we feel a kind of ache. We feel the absence of that in our lives, and so maybe we value finding something meaningful much more now, as adults.
Rich: I remember reading about Zen when l was in the army. Everything had just reached a point where it was all meaningless to me. It just kind of struck me. Nothing was important. And I thought l could make myself happy by working on my self-image—to make myself better than others. And when l read about Zen, I was like, “Oh my God. It’s so obvious that I’m making things worse, separating myself from everybody.”
Abby: A lot of my friends understand my practice but don’t practice themselves, don’t look for a practice. I think, in a sense, they are dishonest about the apathy or the hopelessness that they feel.
Tricycle: Why dishonest?
Abby: Apathy is a cover for despair. We all come with this despair, it’s part of our generation. We have found Zen, we have found the practice. That’s one way of responding to it. Another way of responding to the despair is pretending that it doesn’t exist, and what comes from that denial is apathy.
Rich: I’ve always, in a way, since my nuclear war days, felt a sort of pessimism about the future. Every time someone says, “What’s this world coming to?” I think, “An end.” [Laughs.]’ Sometimes I joke around that the world would be better off without us. Nowadays the world is far more populated than it has ever been, and technology is just raping the earth of its natural resources, resources that, as far as we know, we need to survive. Some sort of bad thing has to happen eventually. But the predominant attitude is, “Wait till it gets really bad, then we’ll try to do something about it.” And it just doesn’t seem like that’s going to work all the time.
Tricycle: And is there any way in which Zen practice is a kind of antidote to that?
Rich: I don’t know, I’m doing the best that I can in the situation that I am in. I don’t think I can save the world, but I’d like to do as little as possible to harm it. So I try to be less materialistic and I practice Zen.
Cecily: I still feel an undercurrent of despair, but because of Zen I think that gets channeled into compassion. There’s despair and the world is in terrible shape, but I feel like I can deal with that more and more. But I see all the people I know—my friends, all the people around me—who can’t deal with that, who are doing these incredibly destructive things because they don’t know what else to do. It’s like my practice is the starting point for me to go and help those people. And that’s small, you know. It’s not the kind of sexy political action you imagine when you think of saving the world. But at least it’s something I know I can do. And Zen is funny. That was very appealing to me too. I mean Zen is deadly serious, but it’s very serious in a very funny way. Also, a big part of what feels different about the Center is—it’s like our whole culture is so obsessed with making people comfortable. You know, everyone we know is on Prozac.
Tricycle: They are?
Cecily: Yeah, lots of people. People feel like, “If you’re comfortable, you’re okay.” And it doesn’t matter whether you have a kind of solidity on a deep level. All that matters is that you feel good about yourself and about the way you run your life. And so for me, part of what’s different about being in the Zen Center is the attention to what’s very solid and concrete. When people ask me what l do at the Zen Center, l usually just say I am a cook. You know, if they ask me about meditation, I’ll talk about meditation. But to me that’s a big part of what I am: I chop vegetables and I sauté them in a pan and then I put them on a plate and give them to people. And it’s very rewarding for me to just be able to do that and not go into a whole thing like, “Oh God, I’m just a cook, this is such a waste of my education….”
Abby: In my case, I’ve been accepted to a Ph.D. program for the fall and if I don’t take it, then I have to go back to professors two years after the fact trying to get letters, and they won’t remember me. Still, right now I want to be here, so I am here and that’s cool.
Cecily: When I left graduate school I realized that by coming here, even if I were to just stay for a year, I would be just basically forfeiting any chance at a four-year position because the market is so competitive.
Lhasa: I should have been doing internships in hospitals during my summer breaks, making connections and that type of thing. Still, I don’t feel like coming to the Center was a sacrifice.
Tricycle: Are there things that you would change at the Zen Center that would reflect your generation?
Abby: There’s a sense among older members that we haven’t given up much to be on staff. You know, “You’re twenty, you didn’t have a life anyway.” Whereas it seems that someone who quit a career to come here gets more respect for what they’ve given up. I think in a way we’ve given up a lot more because we don’t have these killer resumes already. We’re going to be in the position of trying to get a straight job and trying to cover for the last two years of living on staff, but it’s not seen that way. There’s a seniority structure and we are on the bottom of it, which is fine. It’s just that, in this Center, when you’re on staff you have to wait a year before you get paid or get health insurance. And so for that year you have to raise your own money, which makes it more difficult for young people, as opposed to somebody with savings. Nobody looks at it through the lens of a twenty-year-old.
Kim: They seem to have this need to be hard on us. Some boomers in the administration have this parental-type approach to Gen-Xers that causes them to lecture us in a finger-wagging, shaming kind of way. You know, “We took our knocks when we were your age, now it’s your turn.”
Tricycle: Do you feel you are in the shadow of the baby boomers?
Cecily: There’s a sense that everything we do gets interpreted through someone else’s cultural filter. And because there are so many of you, and because you tend to publish the magazines and do the advertising campaigns, there’s this kind of nervousness that if my generation decides we like certain songs, then those songs are going to get used to sell us station wagons at some point.
Tricycle: What is it about the boomer generation that is problematic for you?
Kim: Boomers don’t stop and listen very much. I have nothing against the boomers talking about what they used to do and what they do now except that you never just stop and listen. You always seem to be doing things. You are a very active generation, and when you come to us about who we are, you tend to keep on trying to say, “Is this what you are? Is this what you are? Maybe you’re this, maybe you’re that.” It’s like you have a finished theory about us and just want us to confirm or deny it. If we don’t have anything we need to say, you lose patience. We’re taking things slowly, and that seems to make a world of sense. Buddhism is working for us, sure, but that’s a very quiet, immediate thing. There are no speeches to be made.
Cecily: I think our culture is so boomer-oriented that any kind of boomer-generated thing is the only thing around. I identify with it whether it contains images of me or not.
Tricycle: What’s the response from your family to your being here?
Tim: At first I think they were worried it was a cult. There was a belief that I was running away from life. But now they’ve seen the place and they’re getting interested in learning more about it. I tell them about things, sesshin and whatnot, and they make an effort to understand. Now I think my practice has actually improved my relationship with them, because I try to be more responsive and caring.
Kim: My family was a bit concerned at first when they weren’t entirely sure that it was the genuine article. Pretty much across the board my family has a lot of respect for the amount of time and effort I’ve committed to this, and I get the feeling that they think this is a very valid pursuit, although they would never do it themselves.
Abby: My parents are supportive in a strange way—they think it’s funky and cool. When I was living here a couple of summers ago, my dad came to a workshop and after this whole day of introductory stuff about Zen, I said, “So what do you think?” and he said, “[Bodhin] Sensei has such a great voice. He should have been a news anchor.”
Lhasa: I think this is an issue whether you’re practicing or not—who am I going to have to become, what am I going to have to do in order to fit this model of success? Is it really worth it? And a lot of people are saying no, it’s not worth it, because there is no guarantee that goes along with it.
Kim: We can’t really admire that model of success, either. There’s no redeeming feeling of doing something worthwhile, that makes it worth all that work and all those personal sacrifices. For what? So that in the end you can retire with a little bit of pension?
Lhasa: Maybe, maybe! We don’t even have the “retire with that little bit of pension” anymore. What about that statistic about how more twentysomethings believe in UFOs than believe that Social Security will be around for them!
Photos by David Sachter.