February 20, 2008
Salon has an interesting article called Dive-bar Dharma about Ethan Nichtern and Noah Levine and the new generation of Buddhists (or at least one of the new generations) in New York. The article mentions the graying of American dharma centers, and we should note this is true of all -- or maybe we should most -- churches and religions across the industrialized world, so the solution to this problem is by no means unique to Buddhism or even Buddhism in the West.
The article describes young New Yorkers who are stressed out and looking for peace and relief from their crackberries, the 24-hour news cycle, and Facebook pages, so they're heading to dharma centers run by hip young people who speak in terms young Americans can understand (i.e. celebrity-and-technology-obsessed pop culture). The article is fun and inspiring, but after a little reflection, it struck me this way: Does Buddhism have to be packaged as cool in order to survive? Is speaking in pop culture babble a skillful way to get young people interested (then when they least expect it, wham! You hit 'em over the head with the Diamond Sutra!) or a shibboleth designed to repel the old folks? Are generations of Buddhists doomed to remain forever separate because the minutiae of their cultural experiences are different? (That is, the difference between being cool now vs. being cool in the 60s is very small compared to the real cultural gap that exists between American young people and old men from Tibet and Japan.) Will the young folks eventually graduate to dharma centers for old, boring people? (Are we all doomed to turn into our parents?) Or will the people going to the hip new centers stick with the places and teachers that speak to their specific cultural preoccupations, so that the centers and students will all age together? This latter way seems unsustainable, and maybe it's far-fetched, too.
We can all understand why foreign words and rituals might be off-putting, especially to us insular Americans, and even why many of the cultural riders that come with Buddhism seem extraneous to the core of the religion, or, as some prefer to avoid that dirty word, the practice. No matter what cultural clothes you dress it in, from Asian rituals to exaggerated uber-hip pop-culture technojargon (which is nothing if not an updated form of the hippie feel-good yeah-man peace-and-love talk of the old folks that's mocked in the article) the underlying truths should be the same. There are dangers in reductivism, but there's also danger in clinging to cultural baggage that has nothing to do with wisdom compassion or the end of suffering and that only serves to push people away who could benefit from the practice. Isn't this really the big discussion of Buddhism in America at this point?
Thanks to the Worst Horse for pointing us to this one.
UPDATE: Seems Barry Graham is discussing this issue now as well.
UPDATE THE SECOND: Ethan responds to the article on the One City blog, and in the comments section, he and other I.D. Project members discuss how they feel the article over-represented the "hipster" angle of their group and missed the more serious side.