Blue Jean Buddhists

Photos by Jason Bedient
The "Information Age" has brought Buddhism -- in living color and intricate detail -- to the attention of many in today's younger generations.

"We've reached a critical mass," says John Hocevar, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, an international activist organization dedicated to raising awareness of the Tibetan liberation cause among students. "I don't see this interest going away any time soon. There is certainly no slowing. We have requests to register two or three new SFT chapters every day."

Naropa University, located in Boulder, Colorado, is one of two colleges in America founded on Buddhist-inspired principles of education (the other is Soka University in California). Peter Volz, the director of study abroad programs there, notes a trend toward Asian travel.

"We're filling our programs in Asia for both semesters early," he says."The immediate, hard numbers as far as participation in and application for study abroad in Asia demonstrate a tremendous interest,"

"It used to be that you had to travel to learn about Buddhism. Now we have Barnes & Noble," says Jeff Wilson, the author of the recent book The Buddhist Guide to New York and a columnist for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. As a journalist, Buddhist practitioner, and twenty-something himself, Wilson has quite a bit to say on the places where Buddhism and American youth culture intersect. "All of these resources have a double effect," he continued. "They make people want to travel, but because of them people don't have to."
"With the infiltration of Buddhism into popular culture, there are also more people coming into Buddhism with false notions of mysticism and inner peace."

Wilson adds: "There is a big pop culture influence on the interest in Buddhism."

In the age of Eminem, Scary Movie 2, instant messenger, and "Survivor," the sustained interest in buddhism among young people today is somewhat surprising. Most philosophy, let alone a 2,500-year-old faith tradition can be tough sells among the 15-25 age bracket. But some draw a connection between young people's growing interest in Buddhism and the general popularity of the "East." Time Magazine, for example, recently devoted an entire cover story to yoga's movement from New Age sensation to American health fixture. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, with it's Eastern-inspired philosophical core, both attracted millions of viewers. And more and more, advertisements call upon Asian images of serenity and wisdom to sell products as vast and varied as computers, candy, and jeans. And thanks to super-stars like Madonna, it is not uncommon to see kids today sporting bindhis and wearing prayer beads.

But some celebrity involvement does seem to reflect a genuine shift in the way Buddhism can fit into and American lifestyle. Actor Richard Gere is a long-time Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and the Beastie Boys started the Milarepa Fund -- the driving force behind the highly successful Tibetan Freedom Concerts of the last few years.
Regardless of the source of some young people's interest in Buddhism, Wilson is quick to mention that their involvement tends to fall along a pretty broad spectrum."There are people who are deeply committed, there are people who have some connection, and then there are the people who go to a concert or meet a lama and think that they're a Buddhist," he says

But, as Hocevar points out: "It's not always a casual, TV-watching experience. There are quite a few university and high school students who are serious in their Buddhist practice."

I was first drawn to Buddhism during my freshman year of college. At the time, I was experiencing a somewhat unexpected malaise. I desperately wanted to feel good and live my life good, but I didn't know how. What I did know was that I aspired to the same secure and selfless happiness that I sensed most strongly in His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Soon, I chose to make my "seeking" a full-time job. I redirected my studies towards religion and I took up the practice of Vipassana meditation.[See the glossary for definitions of terms like this.] My academic study of Buddhist philosophy became more intense. In 1999, I traveled to India as part of Antioch Education Abroad's Buddhist Studies in Bodh Gaya program in order to dig deeper. I returned and finished my college career, and brought an even stronger sense of my practice home with me.

I should say that I am a member of a white middle-class youth culture that generally avoids look very closely at real problems or the "big picture." Four years ago, I realized that this was a culture in which I didn't know how to live happily. While I know there are other ways to look critically at the world around me, I have found the answers to most of my problems and questions revealing themselves in Buddhism. And, as I have discovered, I am not alone.

Tom Patton, 23, who participated in the Antioch-Bodh Gaya program with me in 1999, is working towards a Master's Degree in Buddhist Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. When he is not working as a full-time student, he does long meditation retreats at centers like the Metta Forest Monastery in California. Patton has also been studying the Burmese language with a community of monks around Harvard and is a member of the Buddhist Community there.

"Buddhism looks at all of the harsh truths of life -- impermanence, the futility of most of the things we do with ourselves -- and shows us that facing these truths head-on can bring a psychological peace and sense of happiness and priority that many find missing from their lives."

"I guess this all started in high school," he says. "I liked religion. I felt this kind of calling to it. I really tried to embrace Christianity, which I grew up in, but I kept running into a lot of dead-ends and that made me feel frustrated. I thought meditation was so practical and calming. It all made sense. It felt like a hand was guiding me through this."

Sumi Loundon has a similar feeling about her own involvement in Buddhist practice. An alumnus of the Harvard Divinity School and a close friend of Patton's, Loundon is also a regular contributor to Buddhist publications and the editor of a major new book of essays by young Buddhists called Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists. Born among a Zen community in New Hampshire in 1975, she has spent much of her life exposed to Buddhist practice as well as to Christianity and Vedanta philosophy. "I have such beautiful memories of my introduction to all of this when I was very young. I remember the Buddha, the smells of candles and incense, and bowing," she says. "But my real connection with all of this didn't happen until I was an adult. As she entered adulthood, Loundon wanted to apply her childhood introduction to spirituality to the rest of her life. This took her on a few detours before she returned to Buddhism. After a brief stint with the campus Christian group at her undergraduate alma mater, Williams College, Loundon founded a meditation group there. "My father said, 'If you can't find it, found it. That began a very long journey."

Are Loundon and Patton the standard for young people involved in Buddhism? Or the exception? There is a sizable and growing community of people who take Buddhist practice as seriously as these two. But with the infiltration of Buddhism into popular culture, there are also more people coming into Buddhism with false notions of mysticism and inner peace. The interest in traveling to Asia and in embracing Asians cultures, for instance, sometimes has more to do with mountain-climbing, and cheap hash than with mindfulness, or a recognition of what some Buddhists refer to as humanity's "interbeing."

"There is a dope-smoking element and a mountain-climbing interest," says Wilson, "but there is also more knowledge."

"My first reaction to the popular Buddhist stuff is to be judgmental and worry that it has bad effects, like that it's going to be sucked into this new age thing," Patton says. "But I guess it"s good that the knowledge is out there, just as long as knowledge isn't seen as practice."temple

Loundon adds, "When you market something, it trivializes it. But when something is more accessible, that many more people are being touched. Say somebody starts out with those superficial power beads. They may start asking questions about them and realizing how important they are in ritual and prayer in certain Buddhist countries. It can lead to something more profound."

"[The popular stuff] gets you started, but you have to meditate and you really need a teacher," Patton continues. "The Buddha demands a lot. You have to aggressively restructure your life in an honest pursuit of the path and of the goal. You have to learn to just be alone and sit. You have to reevaluate a lot."

Of course, some young people may not have the luxury to practice as deeply or thoroughly as myself or Patton and Loundon. Wilson points out that practicing Buddhism in the United States, as well as participating in organized tours to pilgrimage sites in India, Nepal, and Tibet often exclude young people by virtue of their price. "These kinds of programs typically do not have young people participating. The same is true with a lot of retreats and centers. Money can be a limiting factor for many people interested in Buddhism in America--young people included," he says.

The young people you will typically encounter at centers are not unlike myself: They are usually white and from an upper-middle class background. It is true that people from all kinds of backgrounds and different classes participate in Buddhism, but to seriously practice in the United States is often an expensive proposition, making it all seemingly more accessible for the white upper-middle class. Particularly within the different Zen and Tibetan traditions practiced in America, costs are exorbitant for things like retreats or even membership. Some necessary "gear," like meditation cushions and books, also have baffling price tags. In all fairness, however, I have observed in many instances that most Buddhist organizations make an effort to get anyone in the door who wants in, despite of financial barriers.
Want to Know More About Buddhism? Try This Five-Book Reading Cycle (In This Order):

1. What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

2. The Buddhist Religion by Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson

3. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki

4. A Flash of Lightening in the Dark of Night by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

5. The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism edited by Fred Eppsteiner

So why would someone want in to all of this in the first place? The universal appeal, I think, is the same spirit that I sensed in the Dalai Lama. Buddhism looks at all of the harsh truths of life -- impermanence, the futility of most of the things we do with ourselves -- and shows us that facing these truths head-on can bring a psychological peace and sense of happiness and priority that many find missing from their lives.

How deeply people get involved has to do with timing. Some young people are only ready to read Siddhartha or watch Seven Years in Tibet, while others are ready to become monks and nuns. The important thing is to learn about and not bastardize the various traditions. The practice may grow or devolve from these points and either, I think, is all right. It all depends on the person. As I heard scholar Jose Cabezon put it recently, "You have to see the different types of Buddhism as integral wholes and ask yourself, 'Is this for me at this point in my life?"

I tend to be a staunch idealist who used to think of myself as unquestioningly adherent of the faith, but even I am still growing. My formerly strict Theravada Buddhist practice seems to have evolved into a very outside, nonsectarian sort of "seeking" along the Buddhist path that drinks deeply of its many schools and sects.

But Regardless of whether or not people wrap themselves around the whole of Buddhism or simply allow themselves to learn from it, it is as Wilson surmises: "Young or old, people are chasing an intuition--the inward search is going outward."

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