A colleague recently took me to task for consulting Jews and Christians on how to keep American Buddhism alive. He didn’t agree with either premise —that Jews and Christians could offer advice to Buddhists, or that Buddhism was in any danger of decline. But he was wrong on both counts. American Buddhism, which swelled its ranks to accommodate the spiritual enthusiasms of baby boomers in the late 20th century, is now ageing. One estimate puts the average age of Buddhist converts (about one-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.
The basic problem is that non-Asian converts tend not to regard what they practise as a religion. From the beginning, Buddhism has been seen in its American incarnation not as an alternative religion, but as an alternative to religion. American converts have long held Buddhism apart from what they see as the inherent messiness of Western religious discourse on such issues as faith and belief, and from the violence that has so often accompanied it.
In its pure, idealized form (which, admittedly, exists mostly in the minds of Western converts), that practice is relatively free of dogma and superstition. Sadly, it is also free of folk tales, family and—dare I say—fun.
For the most part American converts don’t see this as a problem. When I suggested to my colleague that he might want to think of ways to integrate his Buddhist experience into his family, and that he might look to existing religious models, like his local synagogue, for ideas on how to do that (rather than to the out-of-state monastery where he goes alone on retreat twice yearly), he answered, “When my kids get old enough, they can decide whether to meditate or not.” It’s an argument I have heard before. Having left the religion of their birth, often with good reason, American converts tend to be wary of anything approaching religious indoctrination, even if it means failing to offer their children the basics of a religious education. This has the advantage of giving Buddhist children the freedom of religious expression, with the disadvantage of not giving them any actual religion to express. The result is a generation with a Buddhist parent or two but no Buddhist culture to grow up in.
Though some of my more devout Buddhist associates may baulk at the idea, I increasingly see Buddhism in America as an elaborate thought experiment by society at large—from the serious practitioner who meditates twice daily to the person who remarks in passing, “Well, if I had to be something, I guess I’d be a Buddhist.” The object is not to import some “authentic” version of Buddhism from Asia, but to imagine a new model for religion altogether—one that is non-dogmatic, practice-based and peaceful. But to keep that experiment running (as it must if it is ever to yield practical results for the broader religious culture), it has to get itself grounded in the realities of American family life. That is why I tell every Buddhist I meet to make friends with a local priest or rabbi and ask what programmes he (or she) offers for children and families. For if Buddhism has much to offer the West, it has much to receive as well. Whatever new religious model is going to emerge over the next 100 years as the result of the inevitable cross-pollination of religious cultures in America, one can only hope that it will preserve the best of East and West.
©2007/The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Clark Strand is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and the author of How to Believe in God (Whether You Believe in Religion or Not), forthcoming from Doubleday Religion. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org