Buddhistdoor View: Involving the Young in Hong Kong Buddhism—No Easy Route
It is perhaps an exaggeration to speak of a Buddhist youth “movement” in Hong Kong. The truth is that there are only a few associations of young Buddhists in “Asia’s World City,” and these communities have sprung up relatively recently in the past couple of decades. Their existence, however, is already a big step forward for Hong Kong’s Buddhist community, which knows it must attract more young people and make Buddhism a vibrant and relevant part of their lives. This, to be sure, is a sober narrative, but it is heartening that the youth groups that do exist are focusing on training the next generation of householders, with an emphasis squarely on lay life and making the Dharma relevant to a larger pool of potential (young) Buddhists.
One such initiative is the Leadership and Communication Skills (LCS) program, an annual course run by one of Hong Kong’s oldest Buddhist organizations, Tung Lin Kok Yuen (TLKY). Each year it picks 60 (out of more than 100) applicants in their early 20s and 30s, who are selected based on the following criteria: they must not be averse to Buddhism, they need to be open to new ideas, and they need to have leadership potential. This last factor is interesting because the purpose of the LCS is to train the future lay leaders of Hong Kong's Buddhist community.
Back in 2008, several lay Buddhists, including Walter Ngai of Tsz Shan Monastery in Tai Po, and Lawrence Chan of the Park Lane Hotel in Causeway Bay, put forward a program that could present Buddhism as a movement comfortable with modernity. They identified the two core problems of Buddhism’s public image in Hong Kong: that it is seen as hard to understand and old-fashioned to the point of being irrelevant for young people.
They also considered what young Hongkongers saw as helpful advice: it has to be practical to their working lives, it has to help them to develop socially, and integrate their profession into their wider spiritual practice (help them to deal with stress and disappointment, ameliorate negative emotions, and deal with suffering). If they are going to participate in Buddhist life, young people want Buddhism to help them make friends and build a like-minded social circle.
It has been almost a decade since the LCS was established. The course consists of a curriculum half-staffed by monastics, and half by laypeople. The lectures are relatively free-flowing and discuss Buddhist philosophy, history, and meditation. Students also go on tours to temples around the city and join tea ceremonies hosted by monastics. Other events include seminars on networking or self-development. One event in 2010, a workshop on fine dining etiquette at the Park Lane Hotel, was telling of the sense of pragmatism informing the philosophy of the LCS.
It’s easy to dismiss such activities as gimmicks to put a “chic” or “cool” gloss over Buddhism. It is not necessarily the approach that would be chosen today. However, at the time, it was very difficult to change the image of Buddhism in Hong Kong without projecting a sense of comfort and ease with the demands of secular life and work. This was part of the LCS’s overall project to “modernize” Buddhism, and to some extent this image problem lingers today.
Despite the broad appeal to a larger pool of applicants, the LCS does seem to attract specific kinds of people. An LCS graduate, Convi Fung, recalled how she studied philosophy in university and felt it would be better to pursue her interest in Buddhism. This led to a more natural openness to the LCS than among some of her peers. Indeed, despite the professional diversity of young people attending the course, all of them share a sense that there is something beyond materialist pursuits. They feel that earning a living, leisure, and even family and friends all need to be viewed in the context of a wider spiritual calling.
Convi met two friends at the LCS and they have maintained contact long after their graduation. Like any other social circle formed in a religious group, they go out and enjoy secular activities as well as spiritual ones, including volunteering at temples or vegetarian lunches. Others have entered into romantic relationships. This factor of meeting friends and having things to do together has been critical to maintaining the students’ ongoing interest in the course.
Since Buddhism is a minority interest in Hong Kong, it is even more important for young people to meet others who share similar ideals. Indeed, back in the early days of the LCS, some who had joined the course confessed privately to not even having told their family or friends that they were involved with a Buddhist institution. This sense of potential isolation or loneliness is a fascinating personal and social dynamic that is worth a separate study.
Due to the novelty of Buddhist youth groups in Hong Kong, it is much too early to evaluate their long-term contribution to the religion in the city. There is simply no real analysis done about shifting Buddhist demographics and this is a gap in the literature that we appeal to interested scholars to consider as potential research. Perhaps the LCS and other initiatives have led to a gentle rise in young people seeking to take refuge as formal Buddhists. We suspect, however, that this number remains statistically hard to pin down.
The results of initiatives such as the LCS, however will be revealed more clearly when our young friends assume leadership roles in the Buddhist institutions that nurtured them. That will be a critical and fascinating time in the life of Hong Kong’s Buddhist circles, when the progress of the youth initiatives of today can be decisively evaluated. Until that day comes, we can only be grateful that the seeds of Buddhist leadership are being sewn in the hearts of some very fine young women and men.
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