This post and the many comments struck a strong and imporant nerve.
It has been moved to its own page to better faciliate a conversation.
Please click on the “Forum: Young People in Dharma” tab above & join in.
Where are the young people? What’s wrong with us, or what’s wrong with them?! I know they’re out there, with their fancy inter-webs and free-wheeling morals… and, my god, their “phones,” but why aren’t they flocking to our Dharma centers? Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be sweeping the West? Has it already swept us by? Even in college towns it’s all old folks — a young friend of mine in Oberlin, Ohio was 40 years younger than everyone else in his sitting group; even in Santa Cruz they’re not exactly doing mass ordinations. Is Japanese Zen the problem? Is it the Dharma? Is it us?
I’d understand better if it were just San Francisco Zen Center’s problem — we don’t exactly specialize in empowering the youth, and I get that the weight of any institution can be a turnoff — but I don’t think we’re alone. It seems pretty much across the board, at least in the American Zen places I’ve visited and heard of. SFZC might even be better of than most, with the constant stream of young people especially through Tassajara summers and the Green Gulch Farm apprentice program. But by and large the young people, even if they’re lit up about practice, don’t seem to stay.
It would be one thing if Buddhism seemed esoteric or fringe (come to think of it, that would probably help), but part of what gets me is that Buddhism is everywhere. It’s penetrating the culture, the language. Basic knowledge of the Dharma, and contact or experience with meditation, seems more widespread among young people now then fifteen years ago when I was first in college. I visited my old college a couple of years ago to lead some meditation, and I was surprised how many people had “sat once or twice” or at least knew someone who did. People even knew who Nagarjuna was! But why doesn’t that translate into young people commiting? Is it because the Dharma can’t tweet? (Apologies to you Dharma tweeters…) Or has the fact of the Dharma having a place in the mainstream blown the mystique, leaving us exposed as just another group of people trying to do right by some Lord?
One friend has wondered if younger people are more anxious about money and making it then even the whatever-we-ares between the Gen Xs and Ys. Less willing to break away, to adventure and take risks. Is that true?
An email from another friend has this back at forefront of my mind. Here’s how Justin Z. put it:
It seems like every sangha I have been to is comprised of baby boomers and people that are older, many even my parents’ age. After reading your book and experiencing a lack of younger people from our generation in zen practice (with the exception of Green Gulch and Tassajara where there seems to be lots of young people), I feel sad that more young people don’t practice and wonder what the future holds for zen practice here. I wonder how we could get more young people interested in our sanghas… what do you think? Is the future of zen in the USA as dire as I feel it is? It seems like maybe the future of zen really lies here in the US and that people like yourself and even me are the future of zen. What can we do? What will we do once the old timers are gone?
The lack of young people really is striking. SFZC is on facebook and whatnot, but that doesn’t seem to help that much. I was wondering if there is a conception among younger people that zen is “just a bunch of old people”, so they stay away from it because of that. I have heard someone say that before. Spirit Rock seems to have more young people that go there than at the zen sanghas. Maybe the services that are offered need to be more accessible? I remember the first time I went to GGF there were no signs, no instructions on where to go…it was like they didn’t want new people to know where to go! And what happens to all the younger people that leave? Do they just quit practicing? They certainly aren’t joining other local sanghas. Who knows. Maybe people just get scared of zen and don’t come back. Well, maybe it will just be me and you, staring at the wall 20 years from now, wondering where all the “old people” are…
As a not-quite-so-old person in the Dharma, it troubles me that this troubles me. In part, I confess, because it makes me feel like an old churchman, fretting about the wayward youth and the future of the order. Also, though, because the radical and inquiring energy of the Dharma seems essentially and wonderfully youthful. Just beginning every moment, fresh. Studying the deep recesses of Mind. Finding strength, ground, energy. What could be old and tired about that?