Buddhism: For Adults Only?

James Shaheen

“How did you come to Buddhism?” It’s a question I’ve asked plenty of Buddhists I’ve met over the years. People often answer that they came to Buddhism because they felt their churches or synagogues had lost touch with their faith’s spiritual ground. Or that they felt they could no longer abide by mores or live by tenets that did not sufficiently address the realities of their day-to-day lives. Attending ritual after empty ritual, they associated key dates of the religious calendar more closely with holiday sales and seasonal vacations than anything else. And yet, when it came to weddings and funerals—and, even among the more secular-minded, baptisms—they found themselves seeking out the local rabbi or priest. In this issue’s “Dharma Family Values,” one pastor tells contributing editor Clark Strand that parishioners usually fall away at fourteen or fifteen, after which “you’ve basically got only three opportunities to get them back—when they get married, when their children get baptized, or when someone in the family dies.”

Still, they do come back—even many Buddhists. Without such rituals to provide the cultural framework for continuity across generations, Strand argues, Buddhist sanghas in the West, populated with baby boomers gone gray, will leave future seekers to reinvent the dharmic wheel.

On the other hand, who among us came to the dharma in order to raise our children as Buddhists? Many of the elders in Western sanghas converted to Buddhism against the backdrop of a counterculture that held a bias against institutional life—precisely what child rearing requires. They became Buddhists in spite of their upbringing, and in spite of a consumerist culture that at nearly every turn opposed core Buddhist tenets. And many, if not most, came to Buddhism before they had children or considered how to raise them.

So it’s no surprise that raising children “Buddhist” was an afterthought and, in the absence of a supportive culture, even a long shot. The individualistic spirit that motivated so many to leave their own traditions and become seekers is not necessarily compatible with hearth and home, let alone institutional life. And that same spirit—or at least its extreme—has been decried by thinkers like sociologist Robert Bellah, who claimed in his Fall 2004 interview with editor-at-large Andrew Cooper (“The Future of Religion”) that “a purely private Zen is a contradiction in terms.” According to Bellah, what we often call spirituality is often little more than this “purely private” pursuit, as opposed to religion, which evokes community and institutions. Bellah pointed to the pitfalls of spirituality and its self-help ethos:

Spirituality in this new sense is a private activity, though it may be pursued with a group of the like-minded, but it is not “institutional” in that it does not involve membership in a group that has claims on its members . . . [that] expects that they will stick it out even when the going gets tough, and will not leave at the first indication that their needs are not being met.

What Strand points to in his essay for this issue is thus symptomatic of a broader problem, one that Bellah would describe in part as an undervaluation of community in American society at large. At a time of general institutional decline, forms of spirituality that exalt individualism at the expense of the collective might contribute to our self-serving conceits rather than alleviate them.

Lifting Buddhist practice out of its cultural context challenges us to create a context of our own. Here, many voices need to be heard. Strand’s is one, Bellah’s another. As Vipassana teacher Gil Fronsdal told me in an interview for the Winter 2002 issue (“Living Two Traditions”), in some ways incorporating more traditional Buddhist rituals into a stripped-down American practice makes sense because “ritual is helpful in better integrating our lives, as well as in building a community that supports practice. It’s very hard to practice Buddhism, especially all the way to enlightenment. A community can help us integrate our Buddhist practice with all aspects of our lives.”

But it’s important not to forget that there is still room for the traditional monastic view and that of the solitary yogi—the independent spirit that led American elders of Buddhism to find the dharma to begin with. As the quintessential American poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”


James Shaheen, Editor and Publisher

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