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.”

© 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.

Another problem, well documented among religious scholars, is that Buddhism in America has tended to follow a self-help rather than a religious model in that it has functioned mainly as a tool to meet the needs of the individual (or, in the case of more socially conscious individuals, of society at large). We see evidence of this in the absence of meaningful programs for children and teens at many, if not most, American Buddhist centers.

In essence the problem is this: Buddhism swelled its ranks during the post-1960s era to accommodate the spiritual interests of the baby boom generation that is even now beginning to die off, and yet those Boomer Buddhists, although they might finagle a way to get themselves married or buried as Buddhists, in most cases haven’t birthed their children or raised them as Buddhists (or not effectively, at least). As a result, Buddhism in America will face a serious crisis over the next few decades, when it will be forced essentially to start over, bringing new Buddhists to the fold instead of making them. And who’s to say that those new converts won’t encounter the same difficulties in establishing a meaningful family culture for the Buddhism they practice? This generation owes it to the next to do that work now. For all that, the largest American Buddhist group, the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), is doing a lot better than most at keeping their teenagers happy and their Buddhism in the family. Their twice-daily chanting practice takes place at home—before the altar that virtually all SGI members have enshrined in their houses or apartments. Likewise, because meeting locations rotate among local members’ houses, their children are more likely to be included in the life of the broader religious community than, say, the children of Zen or Vipassana practitioners or Tibetan Buddhists. Children brought along for the ride to the local Zen center are likely to experience themselves as tagalongs unless there are adults willing to forgo their meditation practice in order to make them feel welcome and involve them in activities that offer meaningful parallels to what their parents are doing. Even then, they aren’t usually that visible in the zendo. What healthy six-year-old wants to sit on a cushion when he could be outside running around instead?

Even with their many youth divisions and childrens’ programs, the SGI still hasn’t solved the koan of how to get born, married, and buried as a Buddhist. In many cases they’ve got the ceremonies themselves in place—at least at the community centers in major cities—but those ceremonies are still largely improvisational; they don’t yet have the cultural resonance of kaddish, the sacraments of baptism or marriage, or the mass for the dead. Moreover, like other American Buddhist sects, the SGI doesn’t yet recognize them as being a particularly important part of its Buddhist teaching. So far, almost no one seems to have noticed what an essential role these ceremonies play in Western religious life.

Pre-fabricated Innocence: Anticipation 2004, Adia Millett, Courtesy of mixedgreens.com
Pre-fabricated Innocence: Anticipation 2004, Adia Millett, Courtesy of mixedgreens.com

Time and again, when I share these concerns with other American Buddhists, I am told that in fact they do have welcoming ceremonies, marriages, and funerals at their temples. And of course I know this is true, because I have performed Buddhist weddings and funerals myself, and my daughter was officially “welcomed” as a child at the local Zen monastery. But when I ask how many of the members avail themselves of such ceremonies, I meet a lot of downward gazes. The answer is invariably “Well, not everyone,” and when I push the matter, I find that most have been married as Jews or Christians and buried as the same. And their children? Well, a lot of times they’ve been baptized or bar mitzvahed, but as often as not nothing was done to welcome them into the Buddhist community. “When they get old enough,” one father told me, “my children can decide for themselves whether to meditate or not.” Which is another way of saying, “Zen just isn’t for kids.”

And maybe that is true. Then again, it ought to be for kids if it wants to find a lasting home in America. Along with the various other forms of meditation-based Buddhist teachings that crossed the Pacific during the sixties and seventies, Zen has yet to develop a Buddhist culture that provides the context for a fully lived life—a life lived from beginning to end and shared with all members of the family, through folk tales, festivals, and the daily rituals of Buddhist family life. It has to provide a way of being born Buddhist, married Buddhist, and buried Buddhist. Otherwise, whatever American Buddhism might contribute to the spiritual life of its adherents, it will be severely limited in what it can offer them as a religion. Until it accomplishes this, it is unlikely to reach critical mass in America, but will remain a kind of therapy or life strategy instead.

Though this may sound a little convoluted, in considering the problems faced by Buddhism as it transitions out of the countercultural movement of the sixties and seventies through the self-help methodology of the eighties and nineties, and on to whatever it will become next, I have increasingly turned to the model of the local church to figure out how Buddhism can at last become the religion that, until I had a wife and kids, I didn’t know I always wanted. Consequently, as the expression goes, these days “some of my best friends are Christians and Jews.” They also are trying to make their religion work, often botching it in the process and having to start over, reimagining their programs with an emphasis on welcoming teens and families, offering them an experience that matters, and finding ways of articulating a religious message that are fresh and vital and real.

That’s where some of the most interesting conversations take place—for instance, when a Buddhist gets together with a Christian minister and the local rabbi and all three want to provide their teenagers with a meaningful initiation into the adult religious community. The rabbi wants to make sure it doesn’t degenerate into the usual blowout party, the minister wants to avoid the boring predictability of the same-old, same-old confirmation class, and the Buddhist is looking for some existing Western model to work from because his teacher, now dead, never told him how a Tibetan teenager becomes a Buddhist.

Although I don’t have the same holidays or sacraments my Christian and Jewish friends have to work with, I find I have something valuable to contribute to such discussions. Because spiritual teachings and practices occupy such a prominent place in American convert Buddhism (so prominent that it often consists of little else), there is little discussion of needing to recover the original spirit of the religion. My Jewish and Christian friends constantly speak about the need for spiritual renewal in their traditions and, more often than not, attribute their losing battle of attrition to the lack of meaningful study and practice. “It’s nothing but Christmas and Easter to a lot of my members,” says a minister friend. A rabbi tells me that after the bar mitzvah he won’t see a particular family again until their son is ready to marry. In such conversations it is profoundly humbling for me to see that each of us has something that the other desperately needs.