Young People?


Below is an older No Zen post about young people in the Dharma, and the dozens of first responses to it.  It clearly struck a nerve, and I hope this can be a place for an ongoing discussion about it. 

Please read or skim around and offer your thoughts!  Perhaps all of this talk can even come to something.


 No Young People in American Zen?

(Posted on March 8, 2010 by Jiryu Mark)



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?

Any thoughts?


 47 Responses to No Young People in American Zen?

Daigan says:

March 8, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Hey Jiryu,

I am an older guy who has gone back to college. What I notice is that the young are very interested in the dharma, just not in Zen so much. Partly I think because of the rigors of zen. It’s not an easy, feel good kind of practice the way some vipassana centers go. I also think that there is a lot of confusion about Zen in the West. Meaning there is so little distinguishing between priests and lay folks, and it’s all fine and good, but honestly I think it leaves people wondering where they are suppose to fit in.

I think also people want to see themselves reflected in the practice place. If I walk into a place that is all straight white guys, and I am not a straight white guy, then I am not gonna feel as comfortable. Add to this our general stand off nature or introvertedness and it’s a recipe for not really being that inclusive.

A. Jesse Jiryu Davis says:

March 8, 2010 at 9:15 pm


Thanks for bringing this up.

At 31, I’m generally considered the baby in the room. I practice at the Village Zendo, which is overwhelmingly folks in their 50s. When people around here ask “where are the young people?”, they all seem to be looking at me.

I know two places that attract young folks. First is Tenshin Roshi’s gritty monastery, Yokoji Zen Mountain Center in SoCal. It had a lot of young men when I lived there. It doesn’t surprise me that Daigan, above, says that the other monasteries have young folks, too. I propose that young folks are largely interested in monastic Zen or nothing at all. The relaxed, community-oriented Zen of lay sanghas has trouble holding us.

But second, Ethan Nichtern’s Interdependence Project here in lower Manhattan is succeeding. Look at Ethan to see what the rest of the sanghas are missing. It may not be that hard: start with a core group of young leaders, write some blogs, teach the dharma in an college-style curriculum with texts and a clear sequence of intellectual learning. But don’t neglect meditation. Get out into the streets regularly to meditate in public. Take action: tutor ex-prisoners, work in soup kitchens. Take a political stand and include local politicians in your meetings.

Now that I write this, it seems brainlessly obvious what young folks want in a dharma center. So: Why do the middle-aged lament the lack of young people, without being able to implement the obvious next steps?


Will Sherwin says:

March 8, 2010 at 11:02 pm

It seems like there are a fair amount of young people who dip their feet into SFZC but maybe there’s a “stickiness” problem in being able to retain young people.

I first went to Tassajara when I was 23 and I was surprised and excited that finally I found people my age who were talking about things that seemed deep and interesting to me. I remember hearing Rick Dreher and Noah Jennings debate dharma and thinking that Tassajara was such a unique place because people my age were passionately engaged with existential and ethical issues. But the key was that I heard them speak. If I had just seen them silently meditating or telling me not to leave the knives in the sink I would have been curious but it wouldn’t have been compelling.

Speaking as a relatively young dharma person who is STILL hungry for common forums to befriend and dialogue with people my age about existential issues, I would venture to say that young people need more of a an opportunity to dialogue. I felt there was a lot of untapped wisdom and energy in the young people who were already involved in SFZC.

It also goes back to the hierarchy issue. If you have to wait 20 years to get a voice and power in the community than there aren’t going to be any young people with voice and power and that is not that appealing to many young people.

If I could make a “Young Person’s Introductory Dharma Bucket” for the City Center bookstore I would put in Reb Anderson’s sesshin talks on sex and intimacy, Koji Dreher’s zine about Kodo Sawaki, my zine about dharma discussions I had at Tassajara and Green Gulch, some Paul Reps painting books, Greg Fain’s dharma songs and maybe Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen book. That would have made me want to investigate more.

justin zumbro says:

March 9, 2010 at 7:10 am

I think these points that have been brought up here so far are huge (copied from above 3 comments):

1. It also goes back to the hierarchy issue. If you have to wait 20 years to get a voice and power in the community than there aren’t going to be any young people with voice and power and that is not that appealing to many young people.

2. But the key was that I heard them speak. If I had just seen them silently meditating or telling me not to leave the knives in the sink I would have been curious but it wouldn’t have been compelling.

Partly I think because of the rigors of zen. It’s not an easy, feel good kind of practice the way some vipassana centers go. I also think that there is a lot of confusion about Zen in the West. Meaning there is so little distinguishing between priests and lay folks, and it’s all fine and good, but honestly I think it leaves people wondering where they are suppose to fit in.

3. It may not be that hard: start with a core group of young leaders, write some blogs, teach the dharma in an college-style curriculum with texts and a clear sequence of intellectual learning. But don’t neglect meditation. Get out into the streets regularly to meditate in public. Take action: tutor ex-prisoners, work in soup kitchens.

nathan says:

March 9, 2010 at 7:52 am

I agree with many of the points already made. At 34, I have been a member of my zen center for over 8 years now, and among a handful of younger practitioners that have stuck around for more than a six months or a year. The rigors of Zen might turn some off no matter what, but frankly when every dharma talk references 60′s music, retirement plans, and almost zero involvement in social issues, younger folks have few entry points.

I also do wonder greatly about leadership models – what happens when the Boomers start to die off? Will there even be enough of us left to have seasoned leadership? How do we address the real issues of race and class coming up as well? My sangha is starting to ask these questions, but it’s slow going.

Abby Cunningham says:

March 9, 2010 at 9:36 am

One of the big issues for me is that there is no clear sequence of study, at least in the Soto tradition, for lay practitioners to deepen their practice. The path of study is presented in a haphazard fashion, and this gets especially confusing here in the West, since this is not a Buddhist culture. Also the path of practice is much more clearly defined for priests and than for lay practitioners. There’s even a whiff of exclusivity as priests go off to their priest meetings and lay people stay behind. And at least at San Francisco Zen Center, lay practitioners are not encouraged to share their practice either in the form of social activism, or even by answering simple questions that our friends, siblings, and other family members are asking about our practice.

In last night’s class with Tenshin Roshi at Green Gulch, I asked Reb what we should say to friends who ask us direct questions about our practice like, “What is a Jukai ceremony?” and “What did you do during the January Intensive?” Tenshin Roshi made a strong recommendation that we say “I don’t know” and then invite them to Green Gulch, where they can get instruction from priests, or in rare cases, from seasoned lay practitioners who just happened to have spent several practice periods at Tassajara. This is an extremely high standard for practice, and in my view, not a very compelling way to encourage our young peers to want to learn more. Or maybe it is. Thoughts?

justin zumbro says:

March 9, 2010 at 9:43 am

Maybe Zen centers should take a look at places like Spirit Rock that offer extensive classes, including introductory classes on Buddhism. Maybe stress the importance of producing people who can teach, give talks, help others and not linger forever in the institution. Also, some more engagement in the outside world would be fantastic. Our sangha just recently started a program to cook for and feed the homeless in San Rafael. Things like this are great and rewarding for everyone. I don’t think the “I don’t know” answer is a good one. People need to be interested, not put off.

nathan says:

March 9, 2010 at 4:49 pm


I’m not too impressed with Reb’s answer to that question. It’s a little too cute, if you get what I mean. I also wonder if it’s just another way in which the high formal hierarchy gets reinforced at the expense of the experience and wisdom of younger practitioners, and practitioners who haven’t been around as long in general. How many people will ever spend several practice periods at a place like Tassajara? It makes me wonder if there is a view that deep wisdom only comes from monastic training. If that’s the case, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it, not one bit.

Look, I’ve learned a lot from Reb – both from his wonderful book on the precepts and from his appearances at my center here in Minnesota. However, when I hear a response like that, I’m just not sure what to say. It just sounds like a variation of the crap you see in churches – where the priests and pastors hold all the answers, and the power. And what’s with the secrecy? I don’t get it. When we did jukai at my zen center, I talked to everyone important to me about it as best as I could. It was true, I suppose, that ultimately some of my answers boiled down to I don’t know, but just saying “I don’t know” and suggesting that people attend the ceremony wouldn’t have done squat. Nor is it a really compelling way to attract anyone’s interest, young, old, or in between.


justin zumbro says:

March 9, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Have to agree with Nathan on that one. I have an in-depth discussion (sort of ) of this topic at my blog as well, since it looked like I helped get the ball rolling on this.
Here is the link, enjoy…it doesn’t look like there are any comments or screaming readers yet.

Jiryu Mark says:

March 9, 2010 at 5:13 pm

A couple more thoughts:

Justin’s blog post (above) mentions the big question of “teacher training” vs “transmission” that ties into Abby’s comment and the not-so-good feeling around the idea that you don’t have anything to offer until you’re 20 years in. (Although in that kind of model, 20 years never turns out to be enough either, and at the end of the day it’s only the people at the very top who have the authentic Dharma, and no one can ever catch up.) Something in all of this about the disempowerment of people. In an earlier post I talked about our habit here at SFZC about not listening to new people, which is the same as not valuing young people.

On the other hand, I really do get the value of apprenticeship and the value of monastic practice. Can we honor that without being fixed and reactive and defensive about our long training style? Can we honor the gradual cultivation while letting people step into expressing Dharma sooner? Or creating a culture of mutual education, within apprenticeship and teacher-student relationships?

I’ve talked with some people about the idea of having a gathering of young people – either those of us at SFZC, or something bigger. Has such a thing happened?

(Defining “young” is another problem. I’m 33, and feel less in the “young” crowd than I was when I arrived at SFZC at age 20. If we had a party, could I still come? One SFZC effort ended up somewhere in the 50s as the “next generation” cutoff age!)

How about it? National gathering of young people in Dharma?

Or is it just as “brainless” as the other Jiryu (A. Jesse, above) and others have said, that we just need to engage with the world, get organized about what the hell we’re teaching, and leap forward…

Dosho says:

March 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Thanks Jiryu for bringing this up. It’s one of my major concerns about Zen these days. I crunched the numbers from the Soto Zen Buddhist Association site a few years ago and found the the mean birth year of those with dharma transmission was 1946 and 1952 for priests in training.

It is as bad as you think. Or worse. Sitting out here in the fly-over, I hear that SF is a big exception. I hope that’s true.

I think one of the main causes is identified above – the present “Zen Center” configuration is designed by and for baby boomers. Easy-going schedule, focus on belongingness needs, and volunteering for labor intensive tasks. That’s gotta change.

Katagiri Roshi often exhorted us about our responsibility to transmit to the next generation. Frankly, I often get the sense at teacher meetings that many are more focused on retirement and lateral transmission.

But then I tend to wallow a bit in the gloomy.


Al Coleman says:

March 9, 2010 at 7:32 pm


Thanks for bringing this up. I just posted a long rant over on Dosho’s blog(sorry that’s just where I was at the time) regarding my view of why there aren’t more young people.

I discussed this with you briefly, but I think think this country’s current infrastructure with regards to what a young person must do to “make it” is overwhelming. I for one would absolutely love to devote myself to the dharma and/or live in an environment where I could at least do that and support my kid. As it is I need to work like a dog just to make it. Hell, even just to have the time to spend more time in a student/teacher relationship would be great! I don’t know, this is just my view. It is probably intimidating to enter a practice where all the teachers are 20-30 years your senior and aren’t dealing with the same livelihood requirements that you are.


Mike Carter says:

March 10, 2010 at 12:27 am

It might not be the young people that are at fault.

If you walk into a typical Zen or Buddhist centre what do you find?
Maybe you find a bunch of people pretending to be japanese monks. Maybe you find a bunch of people pretending to be beautific.
Maybe you find a bunch of people that are avoding life in some way.

But maybe you find a bunch of peope who cannot deliver on their promises.

To the question “Zen promise the end of sufferring. Have you ended your own sufferring?”

How many would receive an honest answer. How many would receive an answer that is more “Yes” than “Yes But”.

Why would anyone want to go to a place where after 20-30 years of serious work they’ve failed in their primary goal???

Or worse still “Well Son, the only way that I’ve found to avoid sufferring is living in this little house playing monk and not going outside into the real world”.

nathan says:

March 10, 2010 at 7:39 am

Lots of good points here. A national conference for young practitioners would be wonderful. I’d also like to say that although my comments might have slid away from monasticism, I fully support it as a part of our practice – we need multiple forms. As for Dosho’s comments about zen centers, I agree, except for the schedule issue. If by bringing up “easy-going schedule” he suggests it should be replaced with a rigorous one that mimics a monastery, I’d argue that’s only going to work for monasteries. If you walk into a place as a single parent with little time and support available, you’ll walk right back out if the idea is that practice only means committing to hours and hours of daily training. It’s not realistic. There’s a difference, in my view, between supporting people and coddling them.

I think we have to stop thinking of zen as an all or nothing proposition. That one either has to go deep, hard, and far, or one is not a zen students. Sorry, I just don’t believe that. Maybe I’m deluded by the forms available here in the U.S., but I just don’t see how Zen can survive if the only people who’s practice is considered authentic are privileged, mostly white people who can spend hours a day and months at a time doing zazen and sutra study.

What’s “young”? I’ve always said under 40, but who knows what exactly that would look live in practice.

Mike, zen really isn’t about delivering on promises. Somehow, we have to figure out how to develop dynamic, flexible communities, but not get into the business of promising people anything in particular.

Mike Carter says:

March 10, 2010 at 9:02 am

There is I think still a historic imported attitude that only monks are serious about Zen and there is still this implicit distinctin betwee monk and layperson. The days of “I want to be a monk” “Welcome monk” are long gone.

I don’t think I was sufficently clear on this promises thing. I think it is going to be a pretty rare Zen Center where I can walk in and say “What does a person who has ended sufferring look like and live like” and expect an answer such as “Have you met Ted?”

I feel somewhat strongly that unless Zen is about the ceasation of sufferring then it’s just a quaint hobby. How many western monks have actually completed the work I wonder. How many can lead others from experience. How many have even met Tozan I wonder?

Lots of people can reach the point where they drop body and mind but how many of those can then decide to leave it where they dropped it?

What about “Original Face?” Is it likely that anyone’s original face peeked out of a Kesa?

I think Zen is alive and well outside of Zen Centers; it’s just not always dressed as Zen and not always wearing a robe.

Abby Cunningham says:

March 10, 2010 at 10:40 am

Hi Mike and Nathan,

Great discussion here.

Here’s my two cents. I think we should be able to walk into a Zen Center and say “What does a person who has ended suffering look like and live like?” and expect to hear an answer like “Have you met everyone?”

Young people want to include, discuss, share, and yes, work hard too. So be it. Let’s share. Let’s have an unsupervised meeting of young minds. If old people want to come, that’s fine too, but this time they can be the ones to sit back and listen.

Greg Snyder says:

March 10, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I’m not sure what people mean when they say young, if the magic age is under 30 or 25 or 40. But this feeling of no young people is not my experience at Brooklyn Zen Center. I’m 40 and actually one of the older members of our sangha. I am at least in the higher middle. I’d say that the older tier of our sangha would be the folks in their 40s. We have a lot of regular sitters in their 30s and some in their 20s. Late teens drift in and out, but come back. Families are around too with young children who love rolling around on zafus. We have a jazz mindfulness programs that keeps teens sitting every week. I guess I would just say that the sangha does feel young by comparison to other places I’ve been. Yet they feel like very committed practitioners.

Now the reason this might be the case is what the more orthodox would consider a defect of our community, which is that we are a Zen center with out a seasoned and trained dharma teacher in residence. Consequently the leadership is very young by comparison. Save for a handful who still come, I have actually wondered if people in their late 50s, 60s & up come into our community and don’t feel like their is anyone who can mirror back to them their experience. After all, Laura and I are kind of the face of the place in many ways and we are dharma youngsters when compared to the SFZC system. Now that I consider it, I do think we have more difficulty keeping older practitioners, some who have left us for older teachers in Manhattan.

Maybe that’s the case with a lot of diversity discussions. If people don’t feel mirrored by the community, they leave. I would imagine if you walk into SFZC as a 25 year old, you might feel the weight of a tremendous number of seasoned teachers in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The flip side of that is if you walk into Brooklyn Zen Center, the energy might not feel appropriate to someone 65 years of age looking to work with a sangha that can speak to their experience.

Maybe if we want younger people practicing, then younger practitioners may want to consider committing to long term sitting groups with a more open feeling to them in other places beyond the big centers. “Young” people, whoever they are, might see themselves reflected there and stick around.

Regarding the demands of the country’s infrastructure keeping people away, if this is a problem, I feel it’s a problem with a Zen center’s ability to adapt. If someone can only come once per month because of work, that practice is treated just as seriously as the daily practitioner. When people feel that they are taken seriously and aren’t quietly led to believe that their practice is somehow deficient when compared to residents or older practitioners, I think they come back. That’s my experience anyway. I feel like we need to get very good at loving and supporting every practice always.

That said, others may have experiences that are completely different. I’d be interested in that. This is a very complex discussion. I’d prefer we all be sitting around a long meal table for a few hours. Take good care, friends.

A. Jesse Jiryu Davis says:

March 10, 2010 at 1:02 pm

What an excellent discussion. Hi Greg! I’d like to respond to what you said, that your sangha, the Brooklyn Zen Center, doesn’t seem to be suffering this lack of young folks.

I think you’re right. I’ve been there twice and was immediately struck by the youthful energy when compared to the temple I attend, the Village Zendo, in Manhattan. It’s one of the reasons I so love going to BZC or to the Interdependence Project, on the rare occasions that I do. (To be clear, the Interdependence Project is not specifically Zen, but my teacher Enkyo Roshi is one of their advisers.)

So there *is* a great variety among Zen centers, and I bet these distinctions are self-reinforcing, with a sangha’s character attracting more people who fit its current vibe.

Pilar Teishin says:

March 10, 2010 at 1:04 pm

This is a really interesting conversation. I’m glad to have found it.

I remember a few years ago there was a Tricycle (or maybe a Shambhala Sun?) magazine edition dedicated to this very fear– that the Dharma would not be properly transmitted in the West. And then there was this quote on the opening pages, right away, that I want to attribute to Maezumi roshi (but really, it may have been Eido roshi), saying basically “what’s the rush? It might take 300 years. (laughs out loud)”. I wish I could remember the exact quote, but that 300-year number was certainly the essence of it.

When I was preparing for my ordination (at age 35), I approached a senior teacher in my lineage with the same concern: I can’t let Zen die out. I’ve got to bring it to the next generation. How can I become a teacher? And this sweet man, he laughed and said, “I don’t think you should aspire to anything.”

He wasn’t being cute; he was being quite real. Because it was far less important that I “become” anything as it was that I “realize” right now. And if I couldn’t do that, what was the use of teaching anyone anything?

It’s been my experience that this is where Zen is different from the other Buddhist traditions. It’s slower, more personal, more subtle. I’m not sure it’s possible to package it any other way, you know? And I don’t think it’s possible to turn ‘Boomers into anything other than who they are. The nature of Zen centers will only change as the people who attend them change– slow and steady, and not necessarily by some directive “from the old guy/gal at the top” nor by a meeting of enthusiastic young people. How do these centers fit into the society at large? What is the interplay between generations and traditions? I really agree with the 300-year equation; it’s going to take time to root and flourish.

m. says:

March 10, 2010 at 5:29 pm (Edit)


I haven’t noticed that there is a problem with a lack of young people, as there seems to be youngsters taking up “senior” positions as they are vacated by older people. I say this from the perspective of a once young person who, over my stay in my home temple, became one of the “seniors,” at 25. I value deeply the instruction and support that I was given by both the older members of the sangha and my peers alike.

If it is a question of having a bigger organization to incorporate more people into it, I think that would be unwise.
It seems that it is necessary to create more various and smaller groups to study what we are interested in and that which can serve our needs. The tendancy to confuse the study of the dharma and the making of money to support a very unweildy institution is a dangerous wire to tread.
Also, as a student of farming, I hold this same perspective. I have heard people say “where are all the young farmers?” And yet, every day I meet people my age and younger who are actively engaged with farming. I also meet the old farmers and am filled with gratitude at their willingness to share there knowledge and practice. In my corner of the world I am convinced that there are people coming up to take the place of the older generation as they are moving on, and that this process is one that takes a lifetime. I don’t expect to be young forever, so probably by the time I and my teachers feel I am able to teach what I know, I will probably be one of the older ones.
I appreciate that so many people here in this discussion care so passionaltely about including everyone in their practice.
Thank you Jiryu, keep asking!

Mike Carter says:

March 11, 2010 at 12:32 am

Is this stuff really just playing with dukkha? The manifestatio of Zen in the west is not how everyone wants it to be. Gee!

I think it all depends what game you want to be in. Anyone who wants to can learn to meditate. Lots of people do practice Four Foundations of Mindfulness or Zazen out of the Zendo. Knowledge is freely available for the first time in the west and recently in historic terms.

There are plenty of Yoga studios around with true adepts running them. There are plenty of Martial Arts studios with true adepts running them.

So if you want to sell a ‘japanese church experience’ then it’s always going to be a niche.

If you want to alleviate sufferring then it’s one person at a time starting with yourself. Others will notice and want a piece of the action. That’s how it works.

The demographic of a Yoga studio or a Dojo does not depend on the age of the teacher. They go where the teaching is good and obviously beneficial.

Maybe it’ll take 300 years; maybe never but it’s always struck me that by working on my own stuff other people who want to are encouraged to do the same as they see the results.

Anyone can buy a talking book with a japanese accent!

nathan says:

March 11, 2010 at 7:31 am


It’s fine if you want to dismiss all of this as people wallowing in dukkha, but maybe instead of pontificating, you might listen a bit more to what’s being said. It’s tiring to be told that every time you make a suggestion for change, that it’s your own dukkha, your own ego talking, and that there’s no merit to it whatsoever in the actual world.

I’m fully willing to accept that a lot of what’s been built up in the last 100 years or so in terms of Buddhist institutions could collapse. Or that I’ll be on the younger end of my sangha’s demographic until I’m not. (I’ve already stuck it out nearly a decade being on the younger end.) In fact, I’m willing be pointed at as a fool for trying to bring more young people into communities, if it does nothing in the end.

It’s so damn easy to just tell people to shut up and sit. But it’s much harder to actually try and work with what you see, make some effort at shifting what might be actual barriers to deeper practice, and also let go of knowing for sure if it really will help.

BTW: If you stray outside of the Northeast or West Coast, you won’t find a hell of a lot of young people in dharma centers. (Except in Boulder, CO perhaps) Come hang out in the Midwest for awhile and you’ll understand why people like me are calling for changes.

justin zumbro says:

March 11, 2010 at 9:33 am

I think we can all agree that we are all capable of sitting zazen at home, educating ourselves about the dharma, and working to end all suffering on our own, but part of what makes strong practice is sangha and also, if you are so lucky, a teacher. I think the message is clear that people would like to have some friends their own age to share the practice with. I don’t think this is any way bad, or in any way insulting to our respected and older fellow practitioners.

Mike Carter says:

March 11, 2010 at 9:37 am


” It’s tiring to be told that every time you make a suggestion for change, that it’s your own dukkha, your own ego talking, and that there’s no merit to it whatsoever in the actual world”

I don’t recall writing that.

“It’s so damn easy to just tell people to shut up and sit.”

I certainly haven’t written that.

“But it’s much harder to actually try and work with what you see, make some effort at shifting what might be actual barriers to deeper practice, and also let go of knowing for sure if it really will help. ”

Indeed. In my own way elsewhere that is something I’m doing.

Maybe I need to sit and think for a while myself before writing anything more.

Will Sherwin says:

March 11, 2010 at 10:16 pm (Edit)

These days I think more and more about changing institutional structures to enact change. So here are two concrete ideas to give young people more of a visible presence and voice.

1) At Tassajara anyone who completed two practice periods could sign up to teach a class. There were a fair amount of young people who did just that and got their first taste of teaching the dharma. If this were done on Wednesday nights at SFZC then they could bring their non-resident curious friends and those friends might get interested. There are young people who would put so much energy, time, and creativity into a talk. I spent half my zazen time planning Zen lectures

2) In my experience practioners often really enjoyed hearing others heartfelt dharma questions whether this was in Chosan (sp?) ceremonies or when Q&A sessions got good at Tassajara. When SFZC had open Wednesday nights where residents could ask questions to a panel of teachers it was very alive and exciting. Young people asked creative challenging question and a it generated a lot of conversation after the panel. So I would say less emphasis on a single teacher lecturing and more time spent in public student-teacher dialogue.

Shodo says:

March 12, 2010 at 3:06 pm

It’s my understanding that most religions around the world are having problems with recruting young people. I say lets change the dharma so that young people will inlist, and when they get old they may have to change it again, and again to make it work. We must make this work or Zen will forever be gone. How much more can Zen take? Where do we draw the line? Was the discontinuation of wiping our ass with a stick the start of the down fall?

IMO do what is necessary to make Zen #1. Then we will really have something. Write more books on how teachers kick the shit out of new monks, or lets make Koans harder to solve, and sharpen the edges of the wake-up stick. Debate periferial problems by painting Zen attractive. Anyone can see that Zen will not stand on it’s own in the U.S. We can and must make this work. Just make this work. Just this.

nathan says:

March 12, 2010 at 7:37 pm


I reacted to the following statement “Is this stuff really just playing with dukkha?” It felt like a slight to those of us talking about why we think young people issues should be addressed.

I probably over-reacted to your statement. I apologize for that.

These conversations need to keep happening.


Senpo says:

March 12, 2010 at 8:27 pm


Let’s keep the door open.


Senpo from Buenos Aires

Mike Carter says:

March 13, 2010 at 1:05 am


No slight was intended. I will I think try to write in a different way because I think for now not writing is the bigger error. I think I’m sufferring a clash of cultures here and it’s the same basic scenario that is happenning in the west; I’ve simply no idea why I would want to turn japanese and join a commune to ‘study’ Zen. I don’t see the need to confuse the transmission of Zen with the form that it takes.

I know many people love the forms and I can see they are beautiful in so many ways. I can also see that forms exist for a purpose and that can be forgotten in attachment to forms. I can see many people gain real benefit from following forms but I am not one of them. For me Zen is something that is inseperable from everyday life.

If we ask ourselves “Why did we go looking for Zen” we can find the answer to how to involve young people. They are not a separate species of human, they are not different from us in any significant way.

When I started out I knew that in some way I was dissatisified with life and that this mind-body separation that I felt wasn’t good. I felt that it was possible to meld the two together somehow. I went looking for someone who had already done that. I found a Kung Fu teacher who scared me, who accepted me and who I wanted to be like. He seemed like an ordinary guy who was extra-ordinary.

After several years with him I realized I wanted the mind-body unity stuff and the chan stuff more than the Kung Fu stuff so started to look for Zen Teachers whilst doing solo practice and solo retreats. A consistent problem that I ran into was that the Zen (and Buddhist Teachers) I could find had simply not got anywhere near the same level of integration and depth as my original teacher. Sure they’d seen into their nature a little and could help me to see into mine a little but there was no way that I could look to them and see “where do I go from here” or “how do I ‘finish’ this work?”

When I went to Yoga studios and other places near me I could find people who clearly were if not finished then well-cooked and by spending time with them I could see how it was that I was part-baked.

We have the image of the person walking carrying a bucket. The bottm drops out of the bucket and they carry on walking. Continuity.

My fundamental premise through my own practice is that anything that requires me to go and live in a secure compound is a bit useless. I’ve endeavoured to live the life that I have and practice through it. How I live and who I am has been transformed by that but much of the outward stuff is the same.

The core message of Zen is dukkha and the ending of dukkha. Dukkha is fed by our consumerist culture. Zen can teach us not to eat what is offerred. People already know that the latest gadget will not buy them happiness. They know that a haircut will not buy them happiness.

There is a real risk that we are selling Zen the same way that everything else is sold – “Become a monk, leave your old phone behind, come live on the farm and you might well become happy”. It’s always going to sound like the same call.

It is certainly more difficult to practice Zen outside of a commune but it is also more beneficial.

I’ve learnt from and continue to learn from many people. Ironically many of them are Zen Monks but that’s not a barrier

I’ve consistently found that the thing that motivates me is being around people who are truly, truly OK with who they are and are not striving and not trying to change me. It is that which brings my attention to my own striving and shows me how it’s optional.

I really don’t think the form of Zen is important. Dukkha is a univeral truth.

The quest to make more monks is a doomed one. The quest to show people how to stay married, bring up children and hold down a McJob by recognizing dukkha and how to deal with it is going to be where it’s at. Not everyone can run off to join a commune. Not everyone wants to. Some do. Some need to. I’ll be forever greatful for those who did but I can also see that it’s not my bag.

Hopefully my language has been a bit less emotive and I’ve made myself a little more clear.

Gassho (yeah I do them from time to time)

Abby says:

March 19, 2010 at 8:50 am

Things have simmered down in this conversation, but I still wanted to offer an amended comment to my early post about Tenshin Roshi’s class. I shared with Reb the content of my post and gave him an opportunity to respond online if he wanted to. He hasn’t, so I thought I should.

Basically Reb said that it IS actually OK to tell our friends and family what it is that we think we’re doing, as long as we make it clear that it is coming from our personal experience and not the dharma seat as a teacher. Whew! I’m glad he clarified that…

Shoshin says:

March 19, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Oh my name it is nothing, my age it means less….

Mike Carter says:

March 20, 2010 at 2:46 am

I feel like clarifying things today as well. How spooky is that?

A few years ago I wrote to loo k at how to bring Zen to the west. The main focus of it is about sharing knowledge and finding a way for teachers to work together to refine themselves like pebbles on a beach whilst still honouring lineages and everything else.

The premise of is that people rush into the role of Zen Teacher before they have any direct experience. So it’s all about finding ways for teachers to gain that direct ongoing experience. Everything flows from that.

Over the last 2-3 years I’ve experimented with the need for physicality in Zen to see if transmission can happen outside of face-2-face. My conclusion is that it’s quite possible to teach using the internet and video and skype and you can do so well into the realms of Tozan by using mythological language and misdirection and ambiguity. I’m willing to bet that it’s only in the realm of Tozan ranks 3-5 that physicality becomes a more pressing requirement.

Mild Fox Zenis me starting to look at upscaling some of the things I’ve been doing and playing with mediums. There are some videos on Youtube that I’ve done under the name of “Mild Fox Zen” and they are linked from There are contact details and of course Skype.

Over the last few years I’ve worked with a number of people and together we have refined ourselves. We’ve done that without ever directly appearing to communicate – Zen after all thrives on ambiguity.

The purpose of Mild Fox Zen is to provide a neutral place where everyone wears no robes, has no title, no hierarchy and are there to work together as a sangha. There is no need for anyone to use any name by which they are known.

The existing video and blog content is more than sufficient for anyone to work out if they might gain from it. I continue to look for ways to refine myself and today I fear that might mean talking to Zen Teachers out in the open and I hate that because I’ve never met one who isn’t a total PITA.

Mike Hinsley.

Jesse Wiens says:

March 29, 2010 at 10:58 am (Edit)

Thanks Jiryu and everyone else for such a lively discussion! As the work Catherine and I do brings us into contact with a lot of young people who are otherwise not much exposed to Buddhism, I can share a few thoughts which seem true to me about most people younger than mid-40s who are brand new to Zen:

– most become interested because they are looking for something other than what mainstream culture is selling. If we try to adopt mainstream culture’s trappings too much (i.e. Twitter,Facebook,products and step-by-step programs), we risk both looking and sounding too much like everything else. One of the most powerful things about this practice is that we are offering a clear alternative, a paradigm shift to much of what is out there. We must hold to that as a strength of our work. It’s so rare in modern culture to have a place where even sharing silence for more than 5 seconds is okay.

– Zen has very little meaning to a young person (other than the stereotype of being super-calm) if they haven’t had some context first. This means that if you don’t relate the practice to the context of their lives – if you don’t work with the raw stuff that THEY are dealing with and either support them to have an experience of touching their buddha-nature in the midst of that rawness or model through your own response – then it will remain a stereotype. They will think it’s all about being calm and ignoring what happens in our lives. People must have awakening experiences so they know what it’s all about. If you have any understanding of right view and some teaching experience, it is not so difficult to guide people to these ‘little enlightenments’.

– they want to be heard and understood. Providing ample opportunities for them to bring forward their thoughts, questions and hearts, as well as offering an empathic and listening ear is very important.

– they want to know that they’re not alone. Creating contexts for them to see that their suffering is common, that their dreams are universal, is helpful. (i.e. sharing circles with peers; asking “is this familiar to anyone?” when talking about specific forms of mental affliction)

– they want guidance. No one likes to flounder around wondering whether they’re “doing the right thing”. Offer clear direction, and if you want to support them to have an experience of just sitting with the floundering, then explain clearly that that’s what we’re doing now.

That’s all that comes to me for now,

Jesse Wiens says:

March 29, 2010 at 11:00 am

P.S. Will, I love your idea of the Young Person’s Introductory Dharma Bucket!

Jesse Wiens says:

March 29, 2010 at 11:25 am

One last thing:

Having come through SF Zen Center, I believe the belief that many leaders there hold and act out of is something like, “Practice is ordinary – it’s just sitting. Zazen is everyday life. Any expectations, ideas, or big feelings are just distractions. For some people, Zen or coming to Zen Center may not be their Path or practice. Therefore I’m not going to build it up, talk too much or too directly about it, try to sell it, or reach out beyond what comes naturally to me, lest I mislead someone from their practice. If they’re meant to zazen or come to ZC, it’ll happen in the ordinary course of things.”

The problem here is two-fold:

1. people coming to Zen Center may already be carrying some ideas or feelings about Zen that, if spoken to head-on and dispelled, will offer clarity about their Path and life practice. We can’t assume that not speaking to delusion is the same as supporting buddha-nature to shine through.

2. “what comes naturally” is not necessarily the same as acting from Zen Mind. Sometimes, if we’re honest and committed to meeting buddha-to-buddha, these interactions with young newcomers may feel uncomfortable, awkward, or unfamiliar and will invite us to act and respond in ways that aren’t habitual or “natural” to us.

A belief is a belief, and still not the same as “not-knowing”.

Mike Hinsley says:

April 1, 2010 at 1:05 pm (Edit)

Some good points here but things like Facebook are not necessarily part of the problem. Facebook exists because people want to connect. I use it and it’s helped rather than hindered Zen because I know its limits.

Dealing with young people is going to be envigorating because people who are serious will not take “trust me” for an answer and will call you out when they detect bullshit. Direct personal experience “I have found that” rather than “Thus I have heard” counts for a lot. People can tell the difference. They will pay attention to the difference.

If Zen ultimately is about being truly whatever it is that you are at this present moment without shame or pride then that may well involve discomfort on both sides. People need to see that it’s OK to be open and to be vulnerable that not having all the answers is not a problem. It’s the solution.

I think Zen can be put into a modern western context by people who have the experience of it in a modern western context.

Perhaps the first important messages to convey to western newcomers is:

1. The constant inner dialogue in your head is optional.
2. You don’t have to believe your own thoughts. That too is optional.
3. You don’t have to act on or itnerpret feelings and emotions.

The fundamental heart of the western outlook is that what we think and feel is important and has meaning. The fundamenatal tenet of Zen is that meaning is something we attribute and is optional.

“I want the Ipad” is a thought.
If the thought didn’t exist would you still want an Ipad.
If the thought wasn’t treated as anything special would you still want an Ipad.

“I have found” coupled with “and Dogen found” and “and Shakyamuni found” and ……

Zen practice can be given a context. “We sit still because by doing so we learn that it’s OK to JUST BE”. “We do retreats that are not fun so that we can learn that what we like and dislike is not important. That we don’t have to cling to likes and dislikes”.

We have to work from “I have found that” and we have to sell “don’t take my word for it. You can find out too. This is how.”

The original method was “Trust no-one. Find out for yourself”.

By all means use Japanse rituals but please give a context and explain how the ritual encorages and teaches some of the core tenets of Zen and is not just Japanese Knotweed.

oku jumo says:

April 1, 2010 at 3:53 pm (Edit)

Why don’t we do what the Chinese did, what the Japanese did and translate the word into our own language?

We could call it “Concentration” and let go of the clinging to Japanese culture… I mean no disrespect to the Japanese way of “doing Zen” but we are not Japanese in culture, and certainly have differing intentions for what we want to do with this stuff…

Young people typically, myself included, want newness, want daring, want something to express their youthful vitality. When the good ol’ boys like Reb and Mel and Ed, etc, et al were young, Shunryu, Japanese Culture and Zen were new and daring in American culture, and especially fit in on the whole sixties counter-culture platform…

Now the good ol’ boys are old, and SFZC resembles just another tired religious institution, albeit an esoteric one. The whole thing seems —largely, I know there are many exceptions—like a lot of well endowed white people (with great intentions, don’t get me wrong) winding up trying to be Japanese. It’s archaic Japanese religion, not Zen. We’re American. Let’s make our Concentration practice about this very moment, this very culture, this very life.

As a young person myself, religious and institutional tendencies were what majorly turned me off to GGF. Perhaps the monasteries served a functional or cultural purpose in the thirteenth century, but let’s get our noses out of the Shobogenzo and discover what is most functional for our time, our temperament now.

Pragmatic organization over institution always.

The young don’t want to feel as though their getting lost in another institution. The young want to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”

I went to GGF seeking and expecting a forum for new thought, compassion, artistry, flowering minds. I wound up feeling as if I was back in middle school, quiet in the back by myself reading a book… Trying to figure out where to sit in the crowded lunchroom…

I appreciated Mike’s comments… Zen is life… I sit at home or on the beach, a sangha of one. There are no sitting groups within public transportation distance, and I don’t know if I’d go anyway. I volunteer every Sunday at the local soup kitchen. That’s my work practice. It works for me and I feel much more engaged with living and the world than I ever did when I had an official Buddhist sangha. Some people need it, others don’t. There is no map.

Forehead to floorboards,

Mike Hinsley says:

April 1, 2010 at 11:18 pm

oko jumo:
“Concentration Practice” is probably not the right expression for Zen. “Learning to BE” is probably closer or “Human BEing vs. Human DOing”.

“When you live in the NOW there is no-one who lives in the NOW. Zazen shows you HOW”


“When you live in the NOW there is no-one who lives in the NOW. Stare at a Wall and find out how”

We’ve lost the fact that Koans were strongly bound into the culture and slang of their time. Lot’s of them could be replaced with equivalents.

Bob is dialing his phone and keeps getting an engaged tone.
Why are you dialling your own cell?
I want to get in touch with who I am.
How can you do that by dialling your own cell?

Or something.

Justin Yonten Nyima says:

April 6, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Honestly, In my own honest opinion, its the Temples and the ones who run it. There are many many young people who would love to engage their practice FULL TIME, but they go to Temples for retreat and not only are they full of people 20 or more years older, but they are full of people who look down on us younger practitioners as if we dont know what we want yet, as if we are not completely dedicated and serious about living the Dharma in a practice environment. I for one am 20 and just returned from 2 weeks at Green Gulch, and I disagree with how many hoops these wonderful places make you jump through to enter residency. Since I started studying, Ive wanted to engage practice full time and embody the true teachings of Zen and Buddhism, but the older “senior” practitioners (of ANY practice place) really dont take young people serious enough. In Tibet monks practice Dharma from the age of 4. In places like Sri Lanka and Thailand they take practitioners between the ages of 14 and 16, but in American Buddhism-if it exists apart from the others-it seems Dharma is for those practitioners who have either, 1. Absurd amounts of money to “temple hop” or 2. “Retired” practitioners who have the money and the time to enter residency.
Young people (generally 25 or under) have neither of these. Its honestly not Buddhism, or the Dharma, its the lack of residential practice opportunities dualed with the fact that people underestimate us as a minority, and which is not only discouraging and maddening, but literally frustrating to the point of tears. Ive spent the last 2 1/2 years trying to find a practice place that doesnt require you empty your entire bank account to practice there, and honestly the first words that come to mind is embodied in my favorite part of your book.

Rob says:

April 22, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Here are a few notions that have popped into my head to perhaps explain some of the current disparity between young and old practitioners.

Most of the older (baby boomer generation) zennists came from a fairly unique time period. I think the fact that there were so many youth, coupled with the turmoil of the times lent itself to a greater anxiety, greater search for what the hell is going on. Also, I think in the specific Buddhist arena, Zen may have had the most exposure via books on the subject. So in a mathematical kind of way, I think there was more opportunity for Zen to blossom in the U.S. Kind of a perfect storm.

So we flash forward to today. So the two things I mentioned above (large younger generation and turmoil of the times), haven’t quite matched up to what previously occurred (not that it’s a competition). Comparatively, I think the 80′s and 90′s were milder times.

Another factor that could be affecting Zen interest is also a greater flourishing of the Theravada and Tibetan traditions. And further, I believe those traditions generally present the teachings with a greater philosophical approach. Initially, I think this can pull greater interest. After all, most people like a little explaining, and the Zen tradition is notorious for not explaining things. I’m not suggesting Zen needs to change in that respect, just pointing out a potential obstacle for why some people don’t get involved.

So then, what to do about it? Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a huge concern. It’s not a numbers game. Sure, it would be great to attract more people, and honestly I think many Zen centers are doing things to engage people. I can’t say from personal experience, as there is quite the number of Zen centers scattered about the country. However, perusing the internet, reading books from various teachers, I see quite a variety of approaches. It does appear to me that in many ways Zen is adapting itself to its new container, while also doing its best to maintain some core practices.

matthias says:

May 2, 2010 at 4:03 am

@ Mike and Nathan:
This is a terrific discussion. I actually very much agree with Mikes post above that starts with “Is this stuff really just playing with dukkha? The manifestatio of Zen in the west is not how everyone wants it to be. Gee!” This is an important point to make! As I see it, this in no way is a slight to those who are having an honest discussion here. But does it really matter in the grander scheme of things if japanese style zen is successful in America? What matters to me is exactly what Mike has described above: These days, there is people practicing everywhere in the western world. So much of the Dharma has become mainstream. 40 years ago, the only way to practise was to do so in an exotic environment. To the pioneering types back then this was appealing too. But as the Buddha Dharma penetrates the mainstream, its forms will have to be more mainstream. Not because that would be better (or worse) in any way. but just because you need to transmit the dharma in a way that is accessible to the people. If one doesn’t want to do that it is indeed better to become a hermit rather than wallowing in dukkha and feeling that westerners are somehow no “ready” or not “good enough” for the Dharma. It is my personal opinion that the environment for practising and transmitting the Dharma in the west has never been better. The problem with many zen schools is that they refuse to change, so while there is an enormous amount of people now that have met the dharma and maybe also want to practice it, very few of them will stick around a solemn, hierarchical and in these ways even slightly scary zen center.

Marie says:

May 12, 2010 at 7:02 am

Hmmm. How about REALLY young practitioners? Seriously – what religious tradition ignores the spiritual needs of children and families? This is the biggest area where zen practice centers and sanghas could use improvement, in my opinion. I have no idea (or attachment) to how my daughter chooses to express herself as an adult, but for now, she is being raised “Buddhist” in terms of learning how to take care of her mind and emotions, having the precepts as guidelines for her conduct, and orienting our family life to reflect as much as possible dharma teachings. And, frankly, if you want to attract folks in the 25- 45 year old age range, you have to develop practice models that accommodate people with heavy child rearing and work responsibilities. Seven day sesshins are not very realistic for us.

Thich Nhat Hanh has established a good model – very strong monastic practice (monks and nuns often enter in their late teens/early 20′s, by the way), lay-led practice groups, inclusion of children and teens in retreats, focus on how lay people can integrate practice into their lives. Soto zen communities could learn from this.

Yonten Justin Marbury says:

June 8, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Rob, Im not entirely sure about things from the Theravadan communities point of view anymore, but from the Vajrayana stand point there is no seperation between zen and tibetan buddhism. In tibetan tradition, your primary practice is Calm Abiding, which uses the same approach as Zazen, beginning with counting the breath, until maybe you move on to Shikantaza. They share standpoints on Sutras, Bodhisattvas, and both hold the Prajnaparamita as the root text of study and praise. Sure there are the Sadhanas in Vajra tradition, but all Tantric practices and Sadhanas are essentially rooted in Zazen or Shikantaza. I think Zen just seems more daunting to younger people, because Zen seems to me to be pretty grounded, straight-to-the point, atleast when explaining the basic practices of the tradition. Personally Id like to see more interaction between the Three Vehicles, we share so much, to seperate them, in my opinion, is just doing more harm than good.

will says:

July 12, 2010 at 4:13 am

I’ve visited a local zen center several times. it generally takes me a 2.5 hr bus ride and 20 minutes walking one way to get there. It is as you say. Most of the people there are pretty graying. They get people staying there from all over the world to hear the teachers. They got some kinda new version of zen for westerners that will help ya achieve enlightenment much faster than the old japanese way. Noone says hi to me when i get there or goodbye when i leave. No one said hey youre new here I bet you have questions about buddhism. They do have dharma talks if you have 30 dollars an hr. You can even get a day of working with the roshi for 5000. I understand that they hafta pay the bills tho.
They did give me a tour of the place and i did do about 6 hrs of volunteer yard work for them because their gardener is too old to do much gardening and the people at the retreat did it in such a way that it actually caused more problems than not doing it.
They were nice people. I got offered a lot of rides to the bus. I didn’t really get any instruction on how to start being a buddhist or anything like that and they felt really inaccessable and uniterested so I havent been back and probably wont. Luckily I ran into a guy in Japan that pointed me in the right direction even, tho he didnt speak english and I didnt speak Japanese well an bought me a couple good books to read and let me do zazen in his temple every other day for several months. I’ve been practicing by myself since. So I guess if they had given me some kind of “so youre interested in zen” information and didn’t treat me like the rug when i was there. The local unitarian church in contrast had an introductory course set up and just about everyone there is very friendly and approachable. I think these two things would go a long way to get local people to come to the local zen group.

Michael says:

August 2, 2010 at 8:42 am

There is a koan (about a myth) which goes, why did the Boddhi Dharma come from the west? I think it is concerned with self examination.

All form (self) adapts or/and until it is extinguished.

What is an institution as an adaptable form? I think it is the vessel which carries that which has been found to be use over time.

If the Boddhi Dharma(s) which “came from the west” insist only on self duplication they are well on the way to extinction. I do not think this is happening in the West.

Nicolai Fechin (now long deceased) painted his pictures in a manner which guaranteed their relatively rapid destruction. When questioned about this, he is reported to have said, “Let the next generation paint their own pictures.”

Which was the case.

As Yogi Berra remarked, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

So, have at it. Listening to this discussion is great.

Lawrence Grecco says:

August 2, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I think the issue is a tad more generational in nature than reflective of how one Zen center packages itself over another.

The fact that older folks (and at 42 that adjective applies to me too) tend to be more active in Zen centers is not necessarily something to be alarmed by. Today’s 25 year old will be a 45 in 2030 and at that point in time might be more inclined to get into the dharma and practice. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic, since I didn’t really come around to practice until just about 7 years ago. It took me some 35 years and a couple of major life experiences to get my ass on the cushion.

However, my pragmatic side thinks that youngish people today are just plain reluctant to embrace any kind of structured religion or spiritual system no matter what. That’s what the 2009 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life seems to suggest. Just look at attendance at the mainstream churches and synagogues: there’s been nothing but a steady decline over the past few decades.

The insatiable spiritual quest that young people were on in the 1960s and 1970s just doesn’t exist right now. It was all the rage at the time of the Buddha, and perhaps it will come around again one day in the future. But it sure ain’t happening right now, and we can’t force it. These things are cyclical.

I don’t subscribe to the argument that the most outwardly thriving Buddhist centers are doing something “right” and the rest had better get with the program and do something similar. We in the West are struggling to find a way to adapt and present the dharma in a manner that makes sense to this particular culture at this particular point in history. It will take some time to evolve and most of us will probably not see how this ultimately gets worked out, assuming it ever does. But if and when a distinctly Western form of Zen emerges at some point in the future, it will need to happen organically.

What appeals to large numbers of people is not necessarily indicative of quality. And having said that, we need to be aware of what seems to be resonating with people and to learn from that. The answer is somewhere in the middle I suppose.

My concern is that attempting to bend over backwards to try and please every possible age and cultural bracket would likely result in a watered down, feel-good, love and light approach to Zen practice that makes me want to barf.

All it takes is a few creative individuals with the right intention and means who can inspire interest in the teachings and more importantly, teach people how they can help themselves and others through meditation. We’re already seeing a handful of people like this, and they’re planting seeds for their students and contemporaries.

And the dharma will survive.

Here’s an interesting article about the decline of interest on the part of young people when it comes to anything even remotely religious in nature:

Thank you all for your input on such a complex matter. This has been a great discussion to follow. May it lead to some useful conclusions that can benefit everyone.

Chana says:

August 19, 2010 at 3:47 am

This conversation is a much needed one. I think it is a generational issue. The baby-boomers who experienced the 60′s revolution, also experienced an huge influx of eastern teaching. They were young then and it was new and anti-establishment to read and act like they knew something about Zen, and Buddhism. There were authors, like Alan Watts, Suzuki, and many others that were common place.The next generation followed in their footsteps, and many in their 40′s 50′s know a lot about Buddhism from there elder brothers and sisters. But then generation x arrived, and punk rock, dominated the scene. It was rebelling against their parents way. The music was rebellious, and generation X had very little

7 thoughts on “Young People?

  1. Some other factors that may apply as well:
    our current culture (young and increasingly, older folks too) are addicted to the fast paced world of iphones, internet, fast food, and fast everything. To them, sitting still for any length of time or doing anything contemplative is simply “boring”. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but it is becoming more and more evident that people’s attention spans or thirst for introspective practice may be dwindling. As mentioned by others, the 60’s were a special time indeed, and many of the elders in western Zen came from that special time, when a heady mix of psychedelics, social, spiritual, political and social upheaval were in full force. Younger people who distrust the status quo materialistic outlook and the uber-conservative christian institutions are out there, many who have opened their minds in one way or another, but I think that are very wary of even Zen. It is a tough situation.

  2. Hi everyone,

    I’m 24, and have been practicing Zen (if there is such a thing in the West) for 5 years, 3 at Berkeley Zen Center. I have seen a lot of young people come and go. I have been the youngest that I know of for a long time.

    I feel its a matter of cultural sentiment. Many of the older practitioners in Zen Centers around the country were very radical as youths. Zen seems to have blunted the edge. Or, it was taken up as a comfortable religion. Or, their radical parts are clothed in robes. This is the sentiment, I think. I actually believe that shaving the head and donning the robe is a very radical stand–a stance on the earth, with bare feet and open hands–but most people don’t see it.

    What a lot of youths see, I think, is renunciation. The old Nietzschean discussions of ‘turning away from life’ have reemerged. My friends think it’s just neat that I practice Zen, and wonder how it is that I can be so life affirming in the midst of it. Maybe they see me as having two faces–one to the wall and one to the “world”. Actually, there is just one life to affirm, and its in the wall, too. But this is not perceived. What is perceived is a quiet room with nothing going on. Whats the point?

    I think there are two basic resistances to formal practice in general in my generation:

    1) Institutionalization and 2) Traditionalism

    Both come from a false sense of freedom. We think we are free when no one tells us what to do or how to behave. We do what we want, what ‘feels right’. We choose our own forms–but were not formal. That’s old-fashioned. We are free when all people are equal–when we do it our way, and no one challenges us to go beyond (ourselves). There is some truth in this. But it is ultimately very limited.

    A lot of these sentiments are just attachment to our limited views. Zen, as a religion, or as an institution represents the antithesis of what many in my generation are working towards: an anarchistic ethic of extreme self-determination. This is the result of a very Western sense of Individualism. Separateness. Don’t touch me–don’t tell me what to do–I can do it my self. I don’t need to study your way, I have my own.

    Against Traditionalism, we are entering a very Capitalist and Imperialist sentiment of what I call Eclecticism. Those of us that do want a spiritual path don’t want to follow any specific tradition. We want a little yoga, some Hindu mantra practice, maybe a Vippassana course, some sage to burn, and a little Zen philosophy to kick around a conversation over tea. Who wants to follow ONE path? This is another confused idea of freedom. What most people don’t see is that the mere ability to do this is a result of unprecedented Imperialism: a form of exploitation. I prostrate before the Buddha and the succession of Ancestors–not because I am small and they are big–but because I honor and respect this amazing practice that I have received.

    But my sentiment is uncommon and out of step with current sentiment.

    Perhaps I am jaded. But actually, Zen may just be very hard for Westerners to swallow. Especially those in my generation. Perhaps the initial honeymoon is already over. Do we try and compromise? Maybe it will ‘work’ and maybe it won’t. Maybe Zen in 20 years will be half of what it is now–maybe less. I don’t have the perspective to give advise that way. But my preferences lie in the traditional camp. Maybe it is a foolish aesthetic sentiment. Romantic, or idealistic perhaps. I don’t know. But in the mean time I will hold it down here in Berkeley with the small handful of other youngsters. Thanks Jiryu for this forum. Sorry for taking so much space.

    Peace, Matt

  3. Being one of the old-time zen radicals I have a different slant about young people being interested in zen. The zen teachers who came from Japan in the 1950s and 60s had this idea that zazen should be the core of practice in the USA (zazen is enlightenment). So all the centers followed that form. In fact even now no one would challenge that. Instead I propose a different but equally valid path. Create zen temples. Do what the Japanese, Korean and other asian zen traditions have done for centuries. Have a real presence in the community. Take care of the town or city where you live. Yes, this is very simple but it is also a manifestation of wisdom and compassion. After you do that, see who shows up.

  4. i have often wondered wether acid had something to do with the sixties influx into zen and of course now the young don’t do it the same way !

    i have never done acid, but then i don’t have to ! ; o )

    just a disclaimer, i think LSD can permanently damage the brain and it doesn’t seem to give the right sort of insights

  5. I’m 43. I started practicing Zen in college, lived in zen centers for years, put zen down, picked it up (repeat) and will be ordained as a Soto priest later this year (I practiced with Seung Sahn for years, and with a couple of his heirs, and a few teachers in other traditions.) So – what to make with this ‘young’ thing?
    I get that there seems to be an issue – if you read or talk to boomer accounts of getting into Zen, they pushed so far away from the hierarchy and structure of the preceding era’s paradigm many of them just came back around to what they found to be more grounded and helpful and idealistic versions. It makes a lot of sense. Issan Dorsey very frankly said that he and many others just got so fried from drugs and “trips” that Zen was like the only respite.
    The ‘karma’ of that generation was so ripe that it pulled all those teachers over from Asia.
    I am sooo Gen X, I’ve come to realize. And no, there weren’t that many of my generation that stuck with Zen practice – tho many floated through checking it out; and many have come back to it as they age. I was very skeptical, and remain so, of Boomer idealism, and narcissism, and I think that was true about my peers, who were turned off by a lot of first gen. Western Dharma teachers. I think there will be a gap. There will be fewer teachers for awhile – at least good ones. I practice now at an urban center that opened 2 years ago, and I see a lot of younger (20 something) people checking things out. The teacher doesn’t present practice as a sort of fanatical monastic (or strictly Asian) trip – but rather trying to discover a sustainable method of practice for lay people in a city. I am by nature very drawn to the fanatical monastic trip – but I turned aside the strong impulse to end up in an Asian temple or monastery, to stay here and try to just be the American I am trying to find the Way (which has included some years in rural ‘Zen centers’ that were defacto monasteries).
    If you read the accounts, even the mythical founding of the tradition (Bodhidharma in the cave), it just takes one person with sincere practice and direction. And how much more so for teachers in centuries since, often enough finding one or even no students they considered worthy of being heirs.
    Some teachers will appear with organizational genius. But I think American needs less genius now, less hutzpah, and more simple, dedicated, clear practice, more Bodhicitta. I think people, young or old, will be drawn to authentic Dharma, of whatever stripe works for them, if they need it. I lead a Zen group at a college – of 5 thousand students, about 20 at any one time are in the rotation of actively coming. And that seems about right. To think that it should be more is just extra. That isn’t actually true. Because it isn’t happening. 20 is good!
    I think about the kind of practice that attracted me when I was younger, and it isn’t the kind of practice that I would be drawn to now. I’ve learned some things. Something I perceive is that suddenly, in Zen and in other traditions I imagine, there are many more better translations of source texts, and a less senselessly idealistic view of all this stuff. I think we’re well primed to present Dharma to our worlds less ‘trippy’ and more holistically, authentically, better informed. I see young people increasingly drawn to it – their worlds are full of so much noise, distraction, and deception. Some will want some space, some silence, some clarity. I see my calling as a priest as simply to serve the function of helping to provide that, for 1 or for 100, 18 years old or 80.

  6. Wow, quite the discussion. May I offer one late addition?

    That is that we learn from the burgeoning mindfulness movement that it’s okay to offer more instruction, instruction, and guidance. This appears a few times above.

    And not just more classes and intro programs (so easily the mind goes to program and schedule) but also more words and suggestions all the time, including during zazen (!), on how to work with the mind. How to work with thought. As someone above said believing in our crazy thinking is optional.

    And building a culture where people talk about their experience in practice, including in zazen, in conversation. Not gossip but careful, heartfelt conversation.

    If we make that more explicit that Zen has amazing tools for working with our thinking and our inner life it becomes a lot more useful and interesting to people of all stripes.

    When I started practice at SFZC (late 1980’s) it was entirely possible for someone, especially someone who’s a little shy, to practice for months (years?) with no real clue about how to really sit zazen. And there was a huge taboo about _ever_ talking about what your own experience in zazen was. Good intentions there (not encouraging grasping, comparison) but I think now more harm than help. In trying to protect against bad tendencies a culture of specialness, mystery and just plain ignorance about how to do the practice can come.

    Maybe there more support at this level these days at SFZC. Quite likely – I haven’t been around.

    At our center I regularly offer a few words about returning the present, working with breath or working with thoughts, during zazen. People seem to really be helped by this. Sometimes helped a lot. The feeling in the room usually really shifts. Once in a while an old timer is annoyed or distracted which used to trouble me but now I have more confidence in this so I don’t worry about it too much, just offer support as I can to them as well.

    Maybe we misunderstood something about silence and mystery and forget to actually tell anybody what we’re doing. Maybe part of the fall-out from the idealism about Zen Masters and Enlightenment we started out with in American Zen (thank you DT Suzuki, Philip Kapleau, Alan Watts, et al for helping us get started but we understand a little better now what Zen is, thanks). And does that make the whole scene just too darn opaque and inaccessible for young people?

    I do know that our demographics seem to be flattening out a lot at our center. I used to be the young one when I was late 30’s. Now I’m 45 and we have a pretty good mix of 20-somethings, 30-somethings and up. The mean age is probably still north of 50 but it doesn’t look like a gray group so much.

    And I do know that we really don’t know why people come (and often they don’t either) so it’s an endless thing to try to figure this out and we’ll never quite succeed.

    But my vote is simply be more open and more willing to share together our actual experience of practice. In casual and supported conversations of all kinds (we do a fair amount of small group work in classes and after some dharma talks too). I treasure sesshin and silence and monastic feeling and all that for for a center in a town in America to be welcoming we have to open our mouths and share our hearts a lot more.

    My two cents. Glad I ran into this and I expect everyone else is done with this thread but I enjoyed expressing myself.


  7. I cannot agree more with what was said here. I started practice at 26 and I’m just shy of 40 now and have sat in centers from Milwaukee to Miami and I’m currently in Virginia. This is a huge issue but I don’t see anyone doing much – except for Ethan and the ID Project. There’s a lot of word candy about it though.
    I really hope if you are one of those people who have sat for 20 years and you have some authority, that you will feel moved to take what was said here seriously. This giving mysterious answers, no way for lay to deepen practice and understanding without taking off of work, no outpouring of action in the community and keeping to the “old zen forms” are going to be it’s own cause of undoing. Maybe that it’s what’s meant to happen. But there are groups who are figuring out that you can’t attract people when you look at them like “those young people out there” (which is why “groups for young” never work, so don’t worry about the right age for them) . Go to where they are. Not in your robes, but as a human being. Zen is known for it’s intellectuals – go find your hearts. Look at other popular traditions. They have community social events. They are out there- not in a zendo. Yes, practice will also come first, but the silence, mystery and the fact that lay people are marginalized to more of an extent that other Buddhist lineages says something about why you don’t have people flocking to zendos.
    I facilitate a mindfulness group and there’s a large Zen community here. Zen has really gotten a bad name. It’s cold and unemotional with no explanation of “why” (“Just do it”) and nowadays people actually have options for other groups which *do* have these pieces. Zen talks about “don’t make special”, but unless you have a special job where you can take off frequently and go on month long retreats, you will always be “just ” a lay person. You will never have the voice that comes with a long robe, no matter how long you sit for. The lasting monasticism element leads to elitism, again, with no explanation of how it works behind the scenes.
    How many of you have put down your robes and your experience and tried something completely different? Tibetan, Pure land? Then you might remember what it’s like to be new and not understand what is going on and have to figure out your place in it. That’s what anyone new -not just young people – have to experience in your center. Looking at what new people have to experience on their first visit, compare it with your first time someplace new. Why would someone come back? What do you offer that works for them, in the realities that people will not become a monk and have limited time to practice?

    BTW, I am female. I won’t even get into why women are turned off by zen in larger numbers, but it’s something to think about, while guessing the genders of the posters in this thread.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s