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Buddhist boomers – American Buddhism in decline

14 November 2007

Buddhism in the USA, which grew in the second half of the 20th century, is now in decline.

Hat tip to Far Outliers for pointing to the following article:

clipped from www.opinionjournal.com
American Buddhism, which swelled its ranks to accommodate the spiritual enthusiasms of baby boomers in the late 20th century, is now aging. One estimate puts the average age of Buddhist converts (about a third of the American Buddhist population) at upwards of 50. This means that the religion is almost certain to see its numbers reduced over the next generation as boomer Buddhists begin to die off without having passed their faith along to their children.
The basic problem is that non-Asian converts tend not to regard what they practice as a religion. From the beginning, Buddhism has been seen in its American incarnation not as an alternative religion, but as an alternative to religion. American converts have long held Buddhism apart from what they see as the inherent messiness of Western religious discourse on such issues as faith and belief, and from the violence that has so often accompanied it.

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I became interested in Buddhism at school, first through learning about it in history classes, when we studied Indian history, then in English classes, where one of our set books was Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Later I read Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma bums, which is doubtless not at all typical of American Buddhism, as Alan Watts was at pains to point out in his Beat Zen, square Zen, and Zen. I got a better picture of it reading Rick Fields’s How the swans came to the lake: a narrartive history of Buddhism in America.

All this was of more interest to me when I read the biography of Fr Seraphim Rose, who after a fairly secular upbringing studied Oriental philosophy and religion (under Alan Watts and others), but eventually became an Orthodox Christian and a monk.

I’ve had very little opportunity to observe Buddhism in its natural habitat, apart from fleeting visits to Thailand and Sri Lanka, but it was nevertheless interesting to see what it was like where it was the major religious influence in a society.

The article quoted above was very interesting, and also makes some other interesting points, not necessarily about Buddhism as such, but about Western culture and attitudes to such things as religion:

In the contemporary discourse on religion, it is striking how often Buddhism is privileged over Judaism, Christianity or Islam as a scientifically based or inherently peaceful version of religion. Note that the Dalai Lama (rather than the pope) was asked to provide the inaugural address at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, even though, like Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism includes beliefs (think reincarnation) that are anathema to medical science. Likewise, though Japanese Buddhists melted their temple bells to make bombs during World War II, the idea of Buddhism as a peace-loving religion persists as an enduring fantasy in Western people’s minds. And yet, such fantasies are instructive nonetheless.

One of the insights the fantasy gives is insight into the Western mind. The article makes the point that Buddhists should perhaps learn from Jews and Christians how to pass on their religion to their next generation, but I suspect that Christians who are interested in the re-evangelisation of Western culture (such as those involved in the ‘gospel and our culture’ movement sparked off by Lesslie Newbigin) could also learn a great deal from this.

Another thing is that the same factors  that attracted Americans to Buddhism may also be  attracting them to Orthodox Christianity, and so this is perhaps of interest to Orthodox missiologists as well.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 November 2007 2:36 am

    Fascinating.

    The same growing pains as any religion in the West.

    The Hare Krishnas are going through them as well!

    In the contemporary discourse on religion, it is striking how often Buddhism is privileged over Judaism, Christianity or Islam as a scientifically based or inherently peaceful version of religion.

    Sounds like Orientalism, or ‘what Westerners think Asian cultures are’.

    In the US the native people’s religions get similar treatment from New Age Indian wannabes.

    Regarding Buddhism and Orthodoxy, this is from Usenet a few years ago.

  2. 30 June 2010 1:47 am

    If we start “passing down Buddhism” like how Christianity got “passed down” eventually Buddhism will become the next Christianity, as in, people would just be practicing it because “it’s what my parents did” without truly being able to gain the knowledge it has to offer.

    I think that no religion should just be “passed down” from generation to generation. The next of kin have to explore it, to see if it’s their path to follow. If it isn’t, it is just a waste of time until they find their calling.

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