Before settling down on a long retreat and averting my eyes from other practitioners, I like to scan the crowd for the under-thirty yogis. I check for overalls, Doc Martens, concert T-shirts, even body piercings. And usually I take stock of the five or so of us, sigh, and then forget about it as the real work of the retreat begins.
I thought Buddhism was hip. Adam Yauch, Laurie Anderson, Richard Gere, and Tina Turner are all Buddhists. Mainstream media like New York magazine and The Wall Street Journal say it’s cool to be a Buddhist. Even the McNeil-Lehrer Report is proclaiming a boom of Buddhism in America. But if Buddhism is the hot, trendy, new religion, why isn’t it attracting more younger folks? I wonder about this because I love dhamma, and I want people, particularly those my own age, to open to its beauty. My teacher Sayadaw U Pandita has said that it is extremely rare for people to come to the practice at a young age, but when they do, they progress extremely rapidly.
In the sixties large groups of predominantly white middle-class young people protested the war, formed communes, tripped on psychedelics, pioneered therapy movements and took off for India. When vipassana came west, it came to, and often through, the youth.
For me, the eighties and nineties tell another story. Although the experience of one white, upper-middle-class young woman cannot possibly speak for everyone, it may offer insight. I graduated from high school in 1984, and went directly to an elite New England university, which is exactly what many kids like me did during the Reagan Era.
Few chose to take time off to travel to Asia or otherwise explore the mind. In fact, I remember a bit of scorn for the “hippies in the sixties” who went off and neglected their responsibilities. Look at us, we announced, we’re serious. If we want to live in the style to which we’ve become accustomed, we need to get good grades, get accepted into college, and eventually score a high-paying job. How did so many hippies manage to “drop out”? Didn’t they have similar pressures to succeed? We couldn’t take time out or we’d fall behind.
Two years ago at my fifth-year college reunion, the almost unanimous response to the question: “What do you do?” was “I just finished (or started) law school.” Some spoke of marriage, kids, suburbs. Nobody quite knew what to make of my response: “I’ve been living in a yurt in the mountains of Arizona. Before that I was traveling across the country helping to research a book on alien abductions. Oh, and in between, I don’t speak for three months at a time.”
When I reflect back to my college years, the dhamma had either gone underground, been relegated to various communities outside mainstream culture, or been commodified. “It’s so zen!” was commonspeak on my college hallway. Meditation had become a business. Yuppies wore tie-dyes. Instead of pursuing dhamma, people my age spent a lot of time indulging in sense pleasures, in spite of the moral (“just say no”) campaign of the times. Almost every teenager I knew had sex and lots of it. We were taking drugs (not the mind-expanding sixties kind, but the “fun” ones like cocaine and ecstasy). Kids from my class background had computers, stereos, cars, expensive clothes and these “things” were equated with lasting happiness. As we went through college, we interviewed for jobs that would keep the money coming to sustain us in our desires.
From an early age, the media hosted a teach-in on buying happiness, starting with images of sugar-coated cereals along with our Saturday morning cartoons. No media message taught us to look into the mind as a source of happiness. Conditioned to pursue an endless array of worldly distractions, why would young people go against the current and choose to turn inward rather than outward?
Last year I went to see Pulp Fiction. I try not to go to too many Hollywood movies, but this one was such a central monument to American culture that I felt a kind of responsibility to see it. I was amazed by a scene where John Travolta (my grade school idol) and Samuel L. Jackson were driving to a hotel to murder the occupants. On the way, they were discussing various kinds of Big Macs. At the shoot-out, they didn’t even blink. I was stunned. The act of killing (and it didn’t matter that these two were the good guys) was horrific on its own, but there was absolutely no sense of remorse displayed by the characters, no acknowledgment that what they were doing might have been wrong. Why would young folks, brought up in a culture that thinks itself exempt from kammic results, gravitate to a tradition based in understanding kamma and upholding certain ethical precepts?
Instead, the media conditions us to deify two semi-moronic teenage cartoon characters who talk in monosyllables, spit on people, and set fire to houses (MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, for those of you blissfully unaware of this reference); a figure skater with a demonic desire to win the Olympics; and an alleged wife-murdering football player. In fact, it seems that the more perverse and adhammic, the more air-time.
Maybe young people are not turned on to practice because it’s just not exciting enough. It’s not passionate (forget about the passion for and within the dhamma, that takes some time to discover), it’s not sexy or dramatic, it’s just about what is. Practicing in order to see more deeply into the nature of reality somehow doesn’t have the appeal of the rave scene. And being good, kind and compassionate, well you know, it’s just not that cool.
As young people, we grow up in a culture where suffering is hidden and sanitized. A trip to India finally brought me into contact with filth, sickness, old age and death. Profound moments occurred on the banks of the Ganges River as I watched body after body be cremated. How strange to grow up twenty-two years and never see a dead body, except for ten minutes at the open casket of my grandmother, when, in fact, as the teachings put it, there are countless more dead than there are living.
The other day I had a conversation with a friend in his late twenties, a singer in an underground band and a sometime artists’ model. I was trying to explain to him that an awakening to suffering in my life has helped me to embrace Buddhist practice. “What suffering?” he said. “My life’s great, I’m really happy in it.”
Why would we be interested in a practice which talks about freeing ourselves from the endless cycle of suffering when we’re smack in the middle of our prime? We so often feel invulnerable. In our twenties, we’re still beautiful, most of us haven’t gotten sick (or dead) yet. When I feel good, when life is exciting, fun, interesting, sexy, frankly I have much less interest in practicing dhamma.
Part of the reason lies in my upbringing. While I did grow up in the midst of Reagan-ethics in a conservative New England town, I was raised by a seventies-hippy mother. Recently I’ve felt vaguely disappointed that I missed all the good gurus and spiritual hedonism of the sixties, but I got my share growing up. When my cat was hit by a car, my mom told reincarnation stories; our next cat was named Rama. I received a TM mantra at age eight, and I was blessed by several gurus before the age of twelve. My house was filled with incense smoke, a crystal ball, mandala paintings and altars. My mother force-fed me and my brother tofu, in various disguises.
Teenage years brought the desire to be as normal as possible; so I hid my odd upbringing from both friends and myself. It wasn’t until a trip to Asia at twenty-two that I encountered the dhamma in a form I was ready to hear. I was living in Dharamsala, India, working ferociously for human rights in Tibet, and searching for something even if I wasn’t quite sure what it was.
I encountered the teachings on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat. Some sort of subterranean shift occurred in the mind upon hearing the second noble truth—that the cause of suffering is attachment. Yes, of course, I am attached. I saw the mechanism of the mind wherein so much of the personality I had created was based on receiving praise. I saw how deeply I craved what was pleasant and how much of my life was centered around getting it. I also saw the inevitable pain that came when I didn’t get it. It was revolutionary to learn that I could be free from unhappiness if I unhooked myself from this attachment. Several months later I found myself sweating in the south of Thailand on a vipassana retreat, regularly checking my concrete-slab bed for scorpions. After experiencing ten days of this simple, direct and utterly profound technique, I was convinced. This experience was followed by a series of three-month retreats interspersed with telemarketing Disney books and sushi restaurant waitressing.
In some respects, as a young practitioner, I’ve had it pretty good. I haven’t had a family to support, a fabulous career I couldn’t bear to interrupt, a child just entering preschool. I own few “things.” I also haven’t run into a lot of health problems. This absence of worldly responsibility allowed me to sink fully and quickly into the practice.
Over the years I’ve been frustrated by the lack of practitioners my age and by the lack of understanding shown by non-practicing friends for my interest in dhamma. But most deeply, I’ve been torn between the pull into the mainstream culture and the pull towards intensive practice. Sometimes my life feels split.
On one hand, I am pulled into the world by Coffee Toffee Crunch ice cream and Star Trek (The Next Generation) and flirting. I love late night telephone gossip sessions and subversive art. I love sexual expression. I love being in wild nature and I love wandering the streets of San Francisco. I love new clothes and new friends. I also love the planet and feel drawn to sticking around to do something about its rapid destruction from human hands.
Perhaps because I am young and new to these pleasures, I don’t have the perspective of someone twice my age—I haven’t seen for myself that sense pleasures are empty and eventually end. Instead I feel pulled to experience the fullness of life.
On the other hand, my dhamma-heart is drawn again and again toward the depth of silence and solitude. I love figuring out how to unhook the mind when it is painfully caught on some hindrance. I love when insight bursts out of the stillness. I love seeing the mind let go again and again. I love equanimity, when the mind doesn’t move, where it doesn’t matter what comes up because the mind isn’t caught. And finally, I love this tradition that offers the possibility to chip away the greed, hatred and delusion enough to result in permanent unconditioned freedom.
Knowing how much I love the practice, I sometimes question why I spend so much time thinking about my job or my love life. If I really want to become liberated, I wonder why I am not an ordained nun. I seriously question the message in American Buddhism that “you can have it all”—that you can be free without giving anything up. I’m just not convinced that teachings on dhamma in the context of family life, jobs and sex aren’t a distortion of the practice. Is America’s “Buddhism Lite” really Buddhism?
At this point I’m not yet ready to ordain. Instead, I’m exploring how to be in the world in a dhammic way. My search has led to the BASE program. I coordinate the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE), a kind of domestic peace corps with a Buddhist twist. It places a group of volunteers in service and social action positions and provides Buddhist retreats, training and mentorship for them.
Because I am young and without others to support, I can put lots of undivided attention and energy into this idealistic job—both coordinating the volunteers and working directly with homeless people in a healthcare clinic and at a domestic violence shelter. What I learn at work bleeds over into practice, strengthening dana (generosity) and sila (ethics). And practice helps me develop skills to face the dukkha (suffering) in the often heart-wrenching lives I encounter at work.
Although BASE integrates daily life with dhamma practice, I still question whether through leading a dhammic worldly life alone I can reach nibanna. Long retreat is essential. It’s only through intensive practice that I can maintain the continuity of mindfulness that can lead to liberation.
I am often relieved that I am a young practitioner with time to go slowly and experiment. I have the flexibility to retreat for three months and then go back out into the world to notice the effects. Then I go back into retreat and deepen my understanding of what leads to freedom and what leads away from it. When I notice a small desire to ordain in Asia arise, I let it sit and watch to see if it will grow. When I notice a small desire to have a child arise, I let that be what it is too. I know my ultimate goal; I just don’t know the specifics of how to get there. Mostly, I’m just learning how to hold the question with equanimity.
The one thing I do know is that a great benefit of being a young practitioner is having the opportunity to put on dhamma-eyeglasses so early in life. Viewing life through the lens of practice helps me to make sense of the world. When I really stray from the practice (and of course I have, countless times), the dhamma pulls me back like a rubberband—thunk—straight into the heart of it.