April 18, 2012

Practice for Young American Buddhists

This is part three of a three-part guest blog series by Charles Prebish, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Utah State University. In the current issue of Tricycle, Prebish is interviewed by Linda Heuman (read "Pursuing an American Buddhism" here), but they had so many topics to cover in such a short time that there were many items Prebish would have liked to discuss more fully. Last week we featured "Scholar-Practitioners in American Buddhism." Join the discussion of this blog post, and the two others, on the interview page.


Practice for Young American Buddhists
What is rarely mentioned in discussing Buddhist practice is the issue of Buddhist family life. To the best of my knowledge, the only Buddhist publication that devotes a regular column to Buddhist family life and parenting is Turning Wheel, published by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Fortunately, we now have books like Sandy Eastoak's volume called Dharma Family Treasures: Sharing Buddhism with Children and John and Myla Kabat-Zinn's book called Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. The issue of Buddhist parenting and family life cannot be overlooked because many of the young North American Buddhist converts, and many of the latest generation of Asian immigrant Buddhists, now find themselves having given birth to yet another generation of American Buddhists.

Until quite recently, almost nothing had been written about the Buddhist practice of young Americans—"Dharma Brats"—or about concerns within individual Buddhist communities regarding the future religious lives of the children of their American Buddhist members. Initially, ethnic American Buddhist communities began to express anxiety over decreasing membership, and especially so among the youngest members of their communities. As a result, many began planning ritual services aimed expressly at youthful American Buddhists, and expanding the scope of their traditional practices in order to include those which might be most interesting to young people. American convert communities, which primarily engaged in meditative practices, began adding kids’ programs, and programs for young adults, into their overall activities. These are especially visible in the Zen communities throughout America.

There certainly is not much literature on this subject, but one new book is particularly pertinent: Sumi Loundon’s edited book called Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists, published in 2001. Her interest in this topic was stirred while working in the kitchen of a Buddhist retreat center in New England. The older folks were fond of telling stories that began, “When I was your age . . .” and went on to explain how they got turned on to Buddhism a couple of decades ago. It also occurred to Sumi Loundon that these older folks had very different reasons than she did for continuing to practice Buddhism. They reflected on infusing Buddhism into their careers, marriages, retirement plans, and so forth. This didn’t make much sense to someone just out of college. Sumi was concerned with boyfriends, relating to her parents, and finding out who she was and who she wanted to be. So she set out to find other young Buddhists, collect their stories, and publish them in order to help others with their own personal quest as young American Buddhists. It paints a superb panorama of practices, viewpoints, social groups, and ethnicities. As Thich Nhat Hanh notes on the book cover, “These young people offer all of us something extremely precious.” In 2006 Sumi followed with another book titled The Buddha's Apprentices: More Voices of Young Buddhists, and she actively continues her work on family life in American Buddhism in her community in North Carolina, and beyond.

Is Sumi Loundon's approach working? One of the contributors to her first book was Noah Levine, now notorious for his work with Dharma Punx, one of the most visible Buddhist organizations today, despite its unusual focus. Another was Jimmy Yu, now a Buddhist Studies professor in Florida. Still another was Venerable Yifa, a Fo Guang Shan ordained nun since 1979. Another notable contributor was Jeff Wilson, one of the brightest new voices in the study of North American Buddhism.

Read "Pursuing an American Buddhism," an interview with Charles Prebish here. Discussion of this blog series will take place on the interview page.

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