February 20, 2008

"Dive-bar Dharma" in Salon

Statler and WaldorfSalon 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.

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Buddhist Americans « Dharma Folk's picture

[...] first reaction is one that I’ve heard a lot over the past eight years: American Buddhism is getting old. In fact, Sumi Loundon found her inspiration to compile Blue Jean Buddha based on her experience in [...]

Al Billings's picture

Tricycle seems to worry a lot about generational gaps in Buddhism or why Buddhism doesn't have those things necessary to raise families in it (which isn't true unless you're part of one of those Buddhist groups that have excised such things over the last 30 years).

I think this is a whole lot about very little. These "splits" will be reconciled or they won't. I know, though, that if I was 15 years younger (21) and interested in Buddhism, most Buddhist groups or centers that I have personally been to in the past probably wouldn't get a second visit. They don't seem relevant or even welcoming to people that aren't white, middle aged, boomers. This is the very issue that I mention above.

If the Dharma is going to survive in the West as a full and healthy tradition, it needs to actively work with people of all sorts of background, ethnicities, and generations. Most groups don't seem to bother.

Philip Ryan's picture

There's a generational split in Buddhism without a doubt, and the Salon article presented the Buddhism of Dharma Punx and the ID Project in such a way that made me think, What if the split is never reconciled?

I think Rev. Barry Graham (see link above) suggests that Buddhism being hip (what he calls 'cafeteria Buddhism' where we can pick and choose what we want and don't want) means that, denuded of "religion", Buddhism can conveniently fit the role of just another interest in one's life, like one's interest in Italian cinema, etc. rather than as a serious endeavor in and of itself. But what if many people feel the ritual really is unnecessary? And if it is an old Tibetan lama who chooses to drop a few items and pick up some new ones, why should this be more legitimate than a Westerner doing the same?

Anyway, according to Ethan it definitely seems the Buddhism of these two groups had to be hipsterized up a few notches in order to get published on a mainstream site, which makes sense.

And yes, this post was about this article rather than a commentary on Ethan and Noah themselves.

Al Billings's picture

The commentary here kind of reminds me of the two guys in the box seats at the Muppet Show (thus proving I'm not as young as most of the people that we are discussing).

I would suggest reading Noah and Ethan's books or listening to the podcasts from the Interdependence Project that Ethan runs. I get the feeling that you are reacting to things that you didn't like in an article instead of what the two of them (and others) are actually doing.

I know that I had a moment of clarity at a Nyingma center a few years back around some of these issues. It was on Capitol Hill in Seattle, which was or is one of the two Bohemian/Gay/Young oriented parts of the city. Looking around the group, I realized that I (jn my early thirties then) was the youngest person in the room except for the child of one of the people there. If you removed me and the next person older than me (in his early 40s), everyone in the room was in their late 40s or 50s. Strangely, we were two blocks from the main street through Capitol Hill where there were hundreds of young people (college age and older) all over the place. Not one of them was in that room. I wondered why that was and why whatever that group was doing was not seen as either relevant or interesting to those hundreds of people (especially over the course of months).

So, you can wonder at the shallowness all that you want but it is nice to occasionally go to a Buddhist group and find you aren't the youngest person in the room by a decade or two and to know that your own age group is being spoken to (or the one following yours).

Philip Ryan's picture

Thanks, pdxstudent, I read your post on Progressive Buddhism. It's very hard to say what makes something "real Buddhism" or not, but if I were forced to say what is real, I'd think it should have something to do with wisdom and compassion, and the Four Noble Truths. Modern culture is so heavily laden with irony, cynicism, and sarcasm that I wonder, bringing that full-force into the dharma center, is there room for the serious and real work of ending suffering?

There are many great comments below the Salon piece as well. I think part of the appeal of an article like this one is that the "American Buddhist" is such a typecast creature, stereotyped, cliched, and all the rest of it, so that anyone outside that narrow field looks very fresh and new and different, and of course they may well be.

pdxstudent's picture

I'm glad I'm not the only one who had this kind of reaction to the article: on the one hand, appreciative, but on the other hand, concerned about the deeper implications. I'd be interested to see how far our similar views go.

One thing that's off-putting about some younger Buddhists involved in these kind of pop-movements, but also new comers of many ages as well as some hippies, is the way they act about their practice after probably only ever hearing or thinking "it's no big deal; all you do is sit and breath." Of course, it is, but practice doesn't revolve around this as much as the other way around. It isn't about being unserious about how big of a deal it is, but being dead serious about exactly what it means for perhaps the most important thing in our lives to also not be a big deal. It's in this sense that I wonder if some people take up what they call Buddhist practice precisely in order to avoid it, the way in other spheres of our life we busy ourselves just so we can avoid what we need to be doing.