Building Buddhist Communities

This article at Salon is broadly similar to a number of others that have appeared in Tricycle and other publications, discussing the creation of Buddhist-themed study groups and practice groups geared specifically at Gen-Xers and their ilk. Lurking in the background of a number of these pieces is the specter of the dharma groups and practice centers created in the 60’s and 70’s, institutions that have, in most cases, failed to attract and sustain the attention of the next generation.

I wrote a bit about this on Salon’s editorial page, but it’s an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a while. The Buddhist centers created by the first generation of Western converts have, somehow, failed in many cases to make the transition into complete religious communities- specifically, multi-generational communities that will be able to endure turnover in their membership, and particularly the graying and eventual departure of their senior leaders and organizers. Why did this happen? A few reasons:

  • Pruning Buddhism: Many practice centers, in a quest to keep new members from feeling “uncomfortable”, have shorn Buddhism of any of its ritual or cultural trappings. However, ritual gives familiarity and structure, and helps bind a community together by giving order to important stages of life. There are many Western Buddhist practice centers; there are few Western Buddhist weddings, funerals, or coming-of-age ceremonies.
  • Mono-generaltionalism: A made up word used to describe the way that Western practice centers have tended to crystallize around a relatively small cohort of people of the same general age and background, and then age with them. Groups that started in the 60’s have tended to morph into “Buddhism for Baby Boomers” centers, with few attempts to incorporate older or younger members. The modern “Dharma Punx” groups seem to be simply an updated form of the same phenomenon, creating groups tightly focused on the desires of a particular demographic without building ties to the wider community.
  • Leadership stagnation: Centers that started in the 60’s and 70’s immediately put the young people who started them into leadership roles, despite, in many cases, a relative paucity of experience as teachers, meditators, organizers, etc. Today, those roles are often still filled by the same people, as the group has aged together. 20-somethings in the 1960’s and 70’s were the leaders of their community; today, they’re implicitly being told that it will be 20-30 years before they have a strong voice in guiding their community.
  • Boring as Hell for Kids: An extension of the reduced role for ritual and culture is the tendency for Western Buddhist groups to become either cerebral or therapeutic. Neither discussions about the Abhidharma nor how meditation brings out your issues about your father well-serve the cause of integrating families into a community.
  • No challenge, no change: Buddhist groups in the West often go out of their way to avoid offending or discomforting their membership. It’s an admirable goal, in some ways: the intention is to make Buddhism available to as many people as possible. But in removing some of the thorns from the rose- particularly teachings on morality and right behavior, ritual practices that encourage respect for teachers and the teaching, and teachings that touch upon the supernatural- Western interpretors sometimes remove those aspects of the teaching that challenge the practitioner to live their life in a better way. I’m OK-you’re OK interpretations of Buddhism can encourage a self-satisfied complacency, ultimately doing a disservice to the student.

The Buddhist institutions created in the West by the converts of the 60’s and 70’s were, in many cases, the work of individuals in rebellion against the religious institutions of their era. The virtues and flaws of that rebellion persist to this day: on the one hand, Western Dharma centers and practice groups are non-judgmental, frequently loosely-structured places that ask little of their members. On the other hand, they are also in many cases guilty of neglecting the wisdom regarding building religious institutions that will persist for multiple generations that the churches and synagogues of the US long since acquired.

So what do these Western centers have to learn, if they intend to outlive the Baby Boomers?

  • Rituals give structure to life and community. Buddhist groups can’t be so afraid of their ritual heritage- which has developed in a variety of loosely related cultures over thousands of years- that they dump the entire lot in order to avoid offending the supposedly fragile sensibilities of their members. Has anyone who went to a Buddhist temple or gathering really been offended or made uncomfortable by statues of the Buddha, bowing, or chanting? If so, is it really reasonable to cater to that demographic exclusively? Would you be offended if you went to a mosque, and someone read from the Koran? An invocation of Jesus at a Catholic church? Of course not. It’s simply ridiculous to claim to be drawing from an ancient tradition, and then bend over backwards to avoid acknowledging it.
  • Make a place for many age groups. But don’t let them stay there. Clearly, the needs of children aren’t the same as those of teenagers, adults, and senior citizens. These groups need their own space- Dharma Sunday schools, youth groups, singles and family groups, etc.- in which to explore how the teachings of the Buddha impact the challenges of their particular stage of life. At the same time, strict segregation by age results in a variety of dissociated semi-communities, instead of a coherent whole. Protestant churches figured this out more than a generation ago. Services can begin with a period of collective worship- simple songs, devotional readings, short meditations, offerings, etc. The group then breaks into individual classes for study at age-appropriate levels: kids get digestible teachings that hold their attention, and their parents and grandparents are free to explore more (or less) intellectual pursuits for a while. The entire body then reconvenes before the end of the service. Additional, not strictly religious activities- pot-luck meals, social gatherings for particular age groups, outings for single people, rotating dinner groups- create a sense that this is a community that extends beyond the walls of the temple or church. Community members are encouraged to look to each other for social supports that extend around the family.
  • Create leadership roles for younger members. No one needs to be running a Dharma center for forty years. There needs to be a structured path in place to encourage young members to take leadership roles- first among their peers, and , ultimately, among the group as a whole. Mentoring and “young leaders” programs can help with this- as can term limits for institutional offices.
  • Teachers can’t back down from challenging their students. Buddhism does have particular things to say about what is and isn’t skillful behavior, and what behaviors lead to good and bad outcomes for people. To neglect these teachings does favors for no one. The sutras teach that ethical behavior is the foundation for everything else- all this business about counting breaths and noticing moments can only do so much to reduce your suffering if you’re constantly adding to the total with unskillful actions. Asking little or nothing of a devotee doesn’t necessarily mean that they will remain engaged. While attitudes of excessive condemnation and guilt-tripping drive people off, we all know what happens to the kids of parents who refuse to set boundaries.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is one of resources and size. The plurality of Buddhist traditions represented in the West, and the confusion that surrounds the differences between them, has resulted in a variety of small autonomous communities, many without sufficient resources to do much more than keep the lights on. On the other hand, in many urban areas there are significant pockets of interest, and communities that could grow beyond their traditional limits if they were willing to make a concerted effort to broaden their own identity. This leaves out, of course, the issue of the so-called “ethic” communities- immigrant Buddhist communities that tend to organize on national lines. They have their own challenges, and it’s likely that both groups- converts and traditional ethnic Buddhists- have things to learn from each other about how to hold a community together, and how to hold the attention of their members in the uniquely American environment. But that’s another post.

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One response to “Building Buddhist Communities

  1. I agree with most of what you’re saying here.When it comes to ritual I take a balanced approach. I see the benefit of statues of the Buddha, bowing, or chanting as you mention.However, I think it is o.k. too to challenge some rituals/ideas such as the supernatural claims that are a big part of some schools. Investigation and experiencing things for oneself is also an important aspect of what Buddha taught. This can be seen in the Kalama Sutra.

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