American Buddhism, which swelled its ranks to accommodate the spiritual enthusiasms of baby boomers in the late 20th century, is now aging. One estimate puts the average age of Buddhist converts (about a third of the American Buddhist population) at upwards of 50. This means that the religion is almost certain to see its numbers reduced over the next generation as boomer Buddhists begin to die off without having passed their faith along to their children. And Jewish and Christian models offer the most logical solution for reversing that decline.
I’m really sorry I missed this article when it came out almost a month ago. But, better late than never!
You may remember Mr. Strand from an earlier article he wrote and I critiqued here, sparking a lengthly dialogue. So, here we go again. And this time, I’m sorry to inform you Mr. Strand, I’m going to take you to task on several of your most central points.
My first gripe is this: in the very first paragraph, quoted above, he makes the claim that American Buddhism is at the risk of declining because “one estimate” (which he doesn’t bother to cite, I hate that!) claims that the average age of Buddhist coverts is fifty-plus. This is a deeply flawed argument for the following reasons:
1) He says that “American Buddhism” is in risk of declining because “convert” Buddhists are getting old. This assumes that “American Buddhism” is equal to “convert” Buddhism. Does anyone see the inherent flaw in this line of reasoning? When we define “American” anything in terms of specifically white America we necessarily exclude a huge portion of the population from the debate. And I’m not talking about just post-1965 Asian immigrants. I’m talking about Asian-Americans whose families have been here longer than some Irish and Italian American families. Some Asian Americans who are just as relevant to the overall story of American history as white folks. Like, oh, I don’t know, the guy who designed the World Trade Center towers. Or the American Buddhists who were the first Japanese to be elected to Congress or fly in the Space Shuttle. To name just a few. So, to claim that “American Buddhism” is at risk of dying out because “convert” Buddhists are getting old and not passing their Buddhist practice on to their kids is to claim that the Buddhism practiced by non-white converts isn’t really “American Buddhism,” which is just irrational.
2) According to this survey (hey look, a citation!), the actual number of self-identified Buddhist in America increased from 401,000 in 1990 to 1,082,000 in 2001. In other words, it practically doubled. Now, unless there’s been some mass die-off or Buddhist genocide in the lower forty-eight over the last six years that I was fortunate enough to have escaped, it seems to me that this statistic would support the idea that Buddhism is actually spreading in America, not declining. If that’s true, how can Mr. Strand continue to assert that American Buddhism is in decline?
Here’s my second gripe, and it’s the same basic gripe I had about his other article: why does he insist on using Jewish and Christian models for creating American Buddhist religious ceremonies and rituals?
Let me be clear: I’m not prepared to argue his point about whether or not white convert Buddhists came to Buddhism to escape “religion.” I have always felt that that’s a pretty hefty claim and I’ve never seen a good, thorough academic study that really supports it; but I also know of a fair amount of anecdotal evidence to support the idea. So while I’m not convinced of its veracity, I’m also not convinced of its inaccuracy. Furthermore, if it is true, and if baby boomer Buddhists aren’t passing Buddhism on to their children like Mr. Strand claims because they want their kids to decide whether or not they want to be Buddhists, I agree with him that this could be a problem. Religions don’t generally fair well when they’re not passed on to succeeding generations.
But to solve this problem, again, why look outside the Buddhist tradition for ideas and inspiration? What strategic advantage does this have? What do Jewish and Christian traditions offer that Buddhism doesn’t? In short, what world is Strand living in where he does not see what is in plain sight: that Buddhism has, and always has had, a deep and rich tradition of ritual and ceremony with which boomer Buddhists could pass their religion on to their kids.
Here’s some examples:
1) Dharma Schools within any Buddhist Churches of America affiliated Shinshu temple
2) the Kid Kendo at the Berkeley Zen Center (aha! a “convert” community!) [by the way, that link is a PDF. watch out!]
3) this crazy list of resources of Buddhist Studies for primary and secondary students from Buddhanet
4) Buddhist wedding ceremonies can be hard to find, but The Google helps with that, too
5) or if you don’t wanna send your kid to temple, how about just picking up a book?
All of that took me about five seconds to find. So, what I’m saying is, the Buddhist tradition has a plethora of home-grown responses to this issue which is of deep concern to Mr. Strand; but for some reason he (a) doesn’t acknowledge it and (b) wants to look outside the tradition for solutions while (c) not saying why he’s doing this or (d) what practical solutions he’s actually gotten from these sources. Which really bugs me. (There. I said it.)
Here’s my last gripe. (Okay, that’s not true. I have other gripes, but this entry’s getting long in the tooth so I’ll end with this one.) I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the problem of how to pass Buddhism along to your children is not a problem for baby boomers. It’s a problem for their children. It’s a problem for me. It’s not a problem for baby boomers because, in case you hadn’t noticed, baby boomer’s children are already adults and are having their own children. Whether or not boomers should be forcing Buddhism down their children’s throats isn’t an issue because those children are all grown up. So this really should be a non-issue for boomers. You’ve made your beds. You’ve chosen not to give Buddhism to your kids. So now we have to make the decision about whether or not give Buddhism to our kids.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be discussing the issue. This is not to say that generation x-ers and next-ers or whatever the hell we’re calling ourselves these days shouldn’t listen to your advice or think about your experiences. This is just to say that Mr. Strand is a day late and dollar short. He should have been making this argument about fifteen years ago.
As it is, there’s a whole new generation of Buddhists in America, both “convert” and Buddhists by birth, who are negotiating a completely different kind of Buddhism than the one of baby boomers. The kind of Buddhism that’s on the American cultural scene today is not limited to the fringe and counter-cultural movements of the Beats and hippies and intellectual elite of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This is a Buddhism that’s seemingly everywhere. Just check out the little nuggets over at the the Worst Horse. Nowadays, when I tell someone I’m a Buddhist, I have to spend fifteen or twenty minutes explaining to them that I don’t mediate, I don’t do any martial arts, no, I’m not a vegetarian, I don’t know the Dalai Lama personally, and even though I really like Yoda, I don’t consider him my guru but hey, guess what? I’m still a freakin’ Buddhist.
I’ve said it before and I’m going to keep saying till I’m blue in the face: American Buddhism whatever the hell it is is not just white convert boomer Buddhists. And if Mr. Strand is right (that boomer converts are dying off) and if I’m right (that the overall number of Buddhists is increasing), what exactly is he fighting for? Buddhism? Or Boomer Buddhism?
I’ll take the former.