Whatever one thinks about the politics of gun control in the US, the youth-led March for Our Lives that took place on 24 March highlighted the incredible energy, eloquence, and intellectual rigor that young people are capable of, especially when they are passionate about an issue relevant to their circumstances and futures. As they constitute quite literally the future of our society, we should not underestimate or neglect the young. They are the key to a viable future for any institution, be it a country, a religious community, or a family. It is critical, therefore, that they are provided sound, productive, and empathetic guidance.
Yet counsel alone is not enough. They need to be given the space to explore their vocations, to develop their skills, and to express themselves within Buddhist communities. Only then are young people able to engage with and embrace the opportunities and responsibilities of leadership, and more importantly explore and think about Buddhism in ways relevant to their generation.
The youth action against gun violence across the US coincides with some interesting trends concerning American Buddhism. While it constitutes only a fraction of religious faithful in the country (there are just 800,000 people professing to be practicing Buddhists in California, for example), Buddhism is the only religion managing to attract younger converts—in 2007, 23 per cent of Buddhists fell between the ages of 18 and 29, but 10 years later, that number was a reasonably encouraging 34 per cent (Pew Research Center). An academic at UC Berkeley, Layne R. Little, asserted that Buddhism has gained this new ground thanks to a public perception of the Dharma as a pragmatic teaching, focused on understanding the nature of the mind, the human condition, and alleviating suffering.
It is certainly true that with the world in an ever-more-unstable and uncertain state, a growing number of Buddhist organizations seem to feel that an engaged or humanistic approach to faith and practice, combined with a concern for society, is essential. The advocates of engaged/humanistic Buddhism have carried the torch for many decades. They come from diverse traditions and regions of the globe, from Bhikkhu Bodhi to Thich Nhat Hanh to Master Hsing Yun. But this expression of Buddhism, as many others, needs the passion, creativity, and ingenuity of young people to sustain it, especially as the world hurtles toward new problems. When young people are allowed to grow into their full bodhisattva potential, the benefits returned to greater society are tenfold.
Young people and institutions need to work together to understand and open up to each other. This mutually beneficial relationship could well be the key to healing the suffering and anxieties felt by many youths today, and might inject new life and perspectives into our conventional structures. Young people today, are immersed in a globalized economy of knowledge via the Internet and social media. Since their information about religion won’t simply come from their parents, teachers, or local community, and they will be surrounded by contrasting voices (not all of them favorable to religion), young people will not automatically make the connection between religious faith and institutions claiming spiritual authority.
While we encourage young people to explore the Buddhist tradition, we believe that it won’t necessarily (nor should it be) have the same doctrinal emphases from past generations. This is because Buddhism, despite its unchanging core of Dharma, is constantly responding to the evolving needs of diverse societies across the world.
In 2016, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a detailed letter to young people on the form of religious practice they would not benefit from and, in his opinion, needed to avoid: “Religion, for most people, is little more than a set of customs and rituals handed down from family and society. Out of laziness or lack of interest, many are satisfied with a superficial understanding of their religion. They do not examine the truth of the teachings in the light of their own experience, let alone practice those teachings to better themselves and heal. These kinds of people are more likely to express dogmatism and intolerance.” (Plum Village)
Instead, Thich Nhat Hanh advises young people that while religion is about something greater than themselves, it also signifies an intensely personal journey that needs to be a constant interior conversation. “If you follow a religion, don’t be like them. Study your religion intelligently, in all its depth and beauty, so that it can nourish your spiritual life. A healthy religion is a living religion. It should be able to evolve and learn to respond to the difficulties of our time. . . . Religion must serve humanity, not humanity religion. Don’t let anyone suffer or lose their life in the name of religion.” (Plum Village)
With all these considerations in mind, what should the young people of Buddhism expect? They should be able to expect a Buddhism that is self-aware, one that doesn’t talk down to youth and is willing to explore openly how traditional concepts should be understood. For instance, what does mindfulness mean in the age of social media and instant reactions and judgment? How can one embrace the whole range of emotional experiences one goes through in adolescence (and life in general) while practicing nonattachment authentically? We can’t give the answers here. However, it is those schools and teachers involving the youth and willing to explore such timely issues that will truly express the timelessness of Buddhism.
The world is looking more unpredictable than ever. Climate change threatens the future of humanity. This is the age of the dominance of data technology and gaint corporations. The challenges facing our future teachers, leaders, and healers will be significant. Yet if spiritual leaders and institutions get behind our youth and vice versa, there is nothing they can’t accomplish together.