Can Buddhism in the West survive into the next generation? After the initial burst of sangha-building by Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, will the Buddhist meme propagate into kids coming out of college now? Will this 2,500-year-old tradition finally complete its circumnavigation and build sustainable roots in the West? Over the last few years a series of articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers on the “graying” of American Buddhism and the risks to its continued survival. Of course Buddhism remains one the fastest growing religions (if that definition really fits) in the United States. This comes even at a time when participation in religion appears to be declining.
There are real and serious issues that this line of discussion raises. How do Americans take a tradition with deep roots in contemplative practice and monasticism and broaden it for a society that will mainly be lay parishioners? How are families included? How are the communities of shared values and social action that are so much a part of American religious life to be included? All of these questions will have to be addressed if Buddhism is not only to take root but also to flourish and gain strength from its encounter with America and the Western perspective in general. In that regard, Buddhism’s’ relationship with science holds unique and uniquely hopeful possibilities.
By now everyone has heard the Dalai Lama’s apocryphal quotation on Buddhism and science. When asked what would happen if science discovered something that was at odds with Buddhist belief, he replied, “We would change our beliefs.” While some have questioned exactly what the Dali Lama meant, there does appear to be a very different attitude toward science in Buddhism than in other American religions. This is an important distinction that bodes well for the Buddhist perspective. The future of all religious enterprise will, to some degree, hinge on its response to science.