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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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“Change or Die:” American Buddhism When Baby-Boomer Converts Are Gone

In the current issue of the quarterly American Buddhist magazine Tricycle, contributing editor and former Zen monk Clark Strand makes a provocative claim: that American Buddhism must “change or die.” American converts to Buddhism have focused on spiritual practice to the exclusion of concerns like creating rituals and passing along the tradition to the next generation. “With few exceptions, Buddhism is not being passed down in families by members of the convert community,” he writes in his article, “Dharma Family Values.”Although Strand praises the American Buddhist group Soka Gakkai International for better incorporating children and families into their practice of Buddhism, he writes that even that group “still hasn’t solved the koan of how to get born, married and buried as a Buddhist.”

I called Strand at his home office in Woodstock, NY, to find out why he thinks American Buddhists have failed to develop their own religious culture, and how this gap might be filled.

Andrea Useem: When you write that American Buddhism faces the possibility of extinction, are you exaggerating?

Strand: It’s not an exaggeration, though by “death” I mean that American Buddhism becomes so completely marginalized as to not exert any significant impact on society. Buddhism in this country has a good start, and it has developed a fair amount of vitality and visibility; words like karma and nirvana are part of the popular lexicon now.

But if American Buddhism doesn’t come to see itself as a religion, or at least as addressing religious needs, sometime over the next generation or two, it’s going to run afoul of the generational bias of Baby Boomers, who tend to think that anything they embrace in numbers is here to stay. In fact their large numbers create an illusion, and as they begin to die off, what seemed like a significant movement may go back to a baseline number. I think that’s what’

s going to happen, unless American Buddhist wake up and approach Buddhism as a whole life enterprise.

Useem: One often hears American Buddhists say things like, “You can be a Christian or Jew and be a Buddhist. It’s not a religion.” Do you think that idea, appealing to many, that Buddhism is not a religion has also caused these problems you’re outlining?

Strand: When you hear statements like that, keep in mind that Buddhism entered the American scene when the traditional moral and spiritual authority of the Christian and Jewish communities were being called into question. Buddhism came to this country through the Academy, through people like [Buddhist author] D.T. Suzuki and [philosophy professor] Paul Carus, so from the word go, Buddhism was in slightly disembodied state. Ethnic Buddhism had been here for a while, of course; Chinese railroad workers, Japanese sugar cane cutters and others brought the religion with them but they didn’t proselytize. Americans were interested in meditation or philosophy or other aspects of the Buddhist experience, but they didn’t get the whole cloth.

This happened right about the time modern life was going ballistic, becoming very stressful. People were starting to think about the relaxation response and meditation and how to slow down. Buddhism fed into the craze for self actualization and self help. Now American Buddhists have to figure out a way of appropriating it on a more significant level. They can’

t call it a religion because it doesn’t feel like a religion to them. As an alternative, American Buddhists tend to say they are “spiritual:” That seems to express the middle ground between religion and self-help.

Useem: How many Buddhists are there in the U.S., and what percentage of that number are converts like yourself?

Strand: The numbers are notoriously unreliable. The numbers tossed out there over the last few years range from six million to 600,000. The percentage of converts is hard to judge. Is a convert a person who has a few books by the Dalai Lama on his or her night stand? If you ask them what religion they are, they might say, “I’m more Buddhist than anything.” Buddhism has become a kind of default religion for American seekers.

Useem: Do those people with a casual involvement in Buddhism matter in the larger scope of American Buddhism?

Strand: A lot of people will deemphasize that as a trend, but I don’t. [Academic] Thomas Tweed used the term nightstand Buddhists to describe people he felt weren’t Buddhist at all but liked to keep Buddhist books as an inoculation against anxiety, or to have some contact with spiritual tradition in their lives. Tweed didn’

t take such people seriously as Buddhists, and his term reflects that. But I think when people say, “If you held a gun to my head, I’d say I’m Buddhist,” they are expressing their dissatisfaction with existing religious models. They know enough about Buddhism to know it doesn’t have the congenital defects of their own religious traditions, but they don’t know enough about it to see that Buddhism has its own congenital defects. Embracing Buddhism becomes a way for people to project their hopes for a sane, global religion for 21st century.

Useem: It seems like there’s a conflict here. You want American Buddhism to be more like a religion, with child care on Sunday mornings. But one of the main attractions to Buddhism for many Americans is that it is not a religion. Can you explain?

Strand: That conflict has been there before. The oldest Buddhist organization in the U.S. is the Buddhist Churches of America. It was formed mostly by Japanese field workers who first came to California and Hawaii almost 100 years ago. It is faith-based, rather than meditation-based. When the group started in the U.S., it still had many earmarks of being culturally Japanese or Asian. But after Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II, they tried to assimilate more quickly; they adopted American customs like having pews and wearing suits and calling their priests “ministers.” When a lot of Americans were looking for alternative religious experiences in the 1960s and 70s, the Buddhist Churches of America had the best infrastructure and the most feet on the ground, but nobody was interested in them because “they look too much like us.” And they were — the religion was very Americanized.

One of the big questions for converts to American Buddhism is: What happens when the exoticism wears off? When you’re like I am, and you’ve been at it for a while, and you’re married and you have kids, you are no longer going off for week-long or month-long meditation retreats. How do you work with that? How do you pass along your practice? If there is not some weekly gathering you can go to with your whole family, the chances you’re going to pass along Buddhism to your children is almost nil. If all you have to work with is a monastery and retreat system, and a leadership of celibate or semi-celibate monks and nuns, not much is going to happen with the next generation.

Useem: Why are ethnic Buddhist and convert Buddhist communities so separate?

Strand: The communities have different needs and different values. Ethnic religious communities are hugely interested in two things: They want the rights and opportunities and protections of being members of American society — assimilation — and at the same time, they want to conserve their religious tradition and density. American converts are interested in appropriating religious teaching and fashion and ideas, but they’

re usually not so interested in conserving traditional ethnicity and ritual. There is a fair amount of incompatibility there.

Useem: Given that many Americans came to Buddhism as young people in the 1960s and 70s, why wasn’t there a gradual, organic growth of American Buddhist culture as those people, like yourself, matured and had families?

Strand: My most honest response is that you cannot import a religion the way you import a product. Religion purports to connect us to the deepest level of our beings. You can’t just go to another country, meet a teacher, go on a retreat, buy some cushions, bring it all back and suddenly the religion is here. It takes a long time to transmit teachings and adapt rituals. It takes a long time to develop a culture to support a religion. That’s the big problem: When you import a religious teaching to a country, you get the teaching but not the culture, and a lot of Asian culture doesn’t work in the U.S. without being adapted.

Useem: What would you like to see American Buddhists doing more of?

Strand: I think Buddhists need to hold weekly or, at the very least, monthly discussion groups. They need to get together and talk to one another, not just practice together or listen to a teacher, but just talk to one another about their lives. Buddhists need to ask honestly: “What kind of Buddhism addresses the questions and needs of my life?” If I’m a Zen Buddhist, and therefore spend long periods in meditation, I should ask myself: “Is this meditation really helping me? Is it addressing the issues of my whole life? Or only part of my life?” If you have kids or a stressful job or a difficult marriage or financial problems, Buddhism should be able to address those issues. If it can’t, then it’s not functioning.

The second thing Buddhists have to ask themselves is: “Do I compartmentalize Buddhism in my life?” Very few observant, devout Catholics would dream, for example, of being married in a secular service. Yet Buddhists routinely get married by justices of the peace, because the culture is not there to support them in being Buddhist; it has not yet evolved. I wrote my article to point out that Buddhists in this country aren’t as concerned about developing this culture as they should be. I’m afraid they won’t see the need until the numbers go way down.

There Are 13 Responses So Far. »

  1. [...] in the latest Tricycle has struck a chord. It was written about (and Strand was interviewed) in Religionwriter.com and this was noticed in On Faith, an online conversation on — you guessed it — faith [...]

  2. This is a good interview, and Strand has interesting things to say. He does mischaracterize Tom Tweed’s usage of the term “nightstand Buddhist,” however. Tweed is not dismissive of such people at all. In fact he coined the term to help academics see that the Buddhist phenomenon in the West _includes_ people who have only a partial interaction with the tradition, and that these people have to be taken into account. His definition of a Buddhist is “A Buddhist is someone who decides they are Buddhist.” Thus if someone only reads a book or two by the Dalai Lama every now and then, but they consider themselves Buddhist, Tweed would urge scholars to take that claim seriously.

  3. To speak of “American Buddhism” is to speak of separateness, of division. This is not Buddhism — and whatever it is, if it dies out, so much the better.

    To quote from Azuki’s Zen Jottings:

    “I’m a Pure Land Buddhist;
    I’m a Theravadin Buddhist;
    I’m a Tibetan Buddhist;
    I’m a Zen Buddhist;
    In the midst of all this ego and attachment -
    Buddha never says a word.”

    As for who is and isn’t a Buddhist, it might be worthwhile to remember the words of Shunryu Suzuki:

    “If you’re not a Buddhist, you think there are Buddhists and non-Buddhists. But if you are a Buddhist, you realize everybody’s a Buddhist - even the bugs.”

    Strand might also contemplate Suzuki’s comment: “To have some deep feeling about Buddhism is not the point, we just do what we should do, like eating supper and going to bed. This is Buddhism.”

    Or Dainin Katagiri’s comment, “Buddhism is not a matter of discussing metaphysical questions like whether we should deal with our lives as real or unreal. Buddhism is about accepting life totally and handling it with compassion.”

    In short, “American Buddhism” is an oxymoron.

    And instead of wasting a moment’s awareness on such futile pursuits as projections about the future of Buddhism in America, why not instead follow the words of Ch’eng Tu?

    “Be like an imbecile, twenty-four hours a day,
    Be spontaneous, and buoyant, your mind like space.
    Be beyond light and dark, no Buddhism, body, or mind, year in and year out.
    If anything is not forgotten, you’ve spent your life in vain.”

  4. very interesting observation. My personal understanding is that all religions Emanated from Ancient India, we call It Land of spiritualism, “The MAHABHARATA”, are not a religion per say, but an *Art of living*, a cultural dimension been practiced by Indian civilizations, and such practices have been perfected by countless teachers and Yogi masters and saints , through more than fifteen thousand years [though a conservative estimation of the time scale]. I can say, they [ Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism etc.]are true cultural by products of those ** Art of living** practices as we see today. These cultural establishments, and their doctrines and their whole philosophical perspective, have offered us one thing- “How we the mortals should conduct our lives in a peaceful, prosperous, with total health and knowledgeable ways, so long we going to survive on our Mother Earth. These ancient practices also teach us how to create an ambience of Ecological harmony and healthy atmosphere in which we eat, breathe, and breed, plus how to respect and preserve our precious flora and fauna [ Plants, animals and inanimate objects]. All these practices are truly based on social science, and fundamental knowledge of Physics and metaphysics.
    Therefore- Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism all are based on total philosophy of how he should conduct our lives. So in that sense, they are not religions, but an cultural entities, are still relished and raised by countless Indians and other intellectuals of various countries.

  5. The situation of Buddhists today as depicted here may be very similar to what we’ll see for American atheists in a generation, unless we do better at building a supportive community and enriching cultural institutions for Humanists and atheists. I find the parallel fascinating, especially given that in my early college years I was considering a career in Buddhism, and now I am a Humanist chaplain for atheists and agnostics. Some more thoughts on the Buddhist/atheist comparison at my blog. Thanks for the great piece!
    Greg M. Epstein
    Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University

  6. I appreciate what Strand has to say and understand—I think—what he is driving at. In my humble opinion as a former Christian deeply steeped in the teachings contained in the Christian Bible, all I can say is that Strand has a point; however, if Buddhism is to survive in America, we must find a way to include entire families in the life of the temple—ways to include children and young people in the life of the temple—ways to include women in the life of the temple—ways to make the liturgy more meaningful to Americans. To try to change anything else would be very unfortunate and, in my opinion, disasterous for Buddhism.

  7. Over my ten year involvement with Tibetan Buddhist from Vancouver beginnings to Korea and Taiwan and beautiful Thailand, I have run the aggressive western gamut of trying to forge ahead on my “Path”. I have worried about how fractured modern buddhists are today - especially with two competing Karmapas within my own Karma Kagyu refuge school of thought. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all got together on a clear path for humanity and the future of Buddhism.
    Chen’ Tsu sounds about right in being an “imbicile” 24 hours a day. Be like the fool in the ancient tarot - it too easy to be jaded and civilized. Have no ambitions - forge no aggressions even in the Buddha’s name. Buddhism has has own karma to fulfill and it would seem that it’s not going to be a western style adaptation of the family gosple hour and Sunday social. Buddhism is an internal process of becoming before it’s a social community . The buddhist community has formed dozens of schisms over the past 2 thousands years and I’ve given up worrying about communal endeavors. When the people want to congregate ernestly enough, I’m sure they will.
    Thankfully, ours is not a philsophy/religion that has much future for a missionary’s zeal. They only thrive in the fervent shackles of dogma. Metta

  8. How can the teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma flourish in the future?
    The Buddhist community needs to support their Teachers, Dharma projects, and the Monks and Nuns. Buddhist practitioners need to really practice virtues and be good examples! Merit will cause teachings of love and wisdom to remain in our world, and will cause a safe world for us to live and grow in to remain!

    His Holiness The Dalai Lama said:

    In Dharma practice it is necessary to always keep an attitude of love toward others, for this is the basis of Bodhicitta. Love is a simple practice, yet it is very beneficial for the individual who practices it as well as for the community in which he lives, for the nation and for the whole world. Love and kindness are always appropriate. Whether or not you believe in rebirth, you will need love in this life. If we have love, there is hope to have real families, real brotherhood, real equanimity, real peace. If the mind of love is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue. Beings will continue to deceive and overpower one another. Basically, everyone exists in the very nature of suffering, so to abuse or mistreat each other is futile. The foundation of all spiritual practice is love. That you practice, this well is my only request. Of course, to be able to do so in all situations will take time, but you should not lose courage. If we wish happiness for mankind, it is the only way.

    Here is an excerpt of a talk by Lama Yeshe of FMPT.

    Guru Shakyamuni Buddha revealed the path to enlightenment so that all beings would be happy and free from suffering. Therefore, starting with the four noble truths, he began to give teachings according to the various levels of mind of those who came to him for instruction.

    The viability of the Dharma in a certain country is determined by the lineage of the monastic ordination. Suffice it to say that wherever one cannot be ordained, Buddhism is dead. If it is to survive, let alone flourish, in the world today, sincere practice that must be done in order for the as yet unbroken lineages to continue.

    When we talk about Buddhism, we have to remember that there are two types of teaching—the words and the realizations. It is easy for the words to continue for centuries. But without the living experience of the meaning of the words that comes through purification, creation of merit and effective meditation, the words are dry and cannot be a vehicle for Buddhism to continue into the distant future.

    Another interview with His Holiness -

    Robert Thurman: Is there something about America that makes so many people seek out and practice Buddhism?

    His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I don’t know. Why are you so interested? [Laughs] I feel that Americans are interested because they are open-minded. They have an education system that teaches them to find out for themselves why things are the way they are. Open-minded people tend to be interested in Buddhism because Buddha urged people to investigate things — he didn’t just command them to believe.

    Also, your education tends to develop the brain while it neglects the heart, so you have a longing for teachings that develop and strengthen the good heart. Christianity also has wonderful teachings for this, but you don’t know them well enough, so you take interest in Buddhism! [Laughs] Perhaps our teachings seem less religious and more technical, like psychology, so they are easier for secular people to use…..

    Then, of course, the democracy, freedom, is, I think, one of the most important conditions for humanity. For progress, for development, for happiness, what is it, democracy and freedom is very very essential. Without that we cannot utilize the human creative nature. Without that, no progress, no development, either in spiritual or in material, in any education, in every field. So therefore, the democracy and freedom is so sacred for humanity. Now, the freedom of movement, everywhere, it is really worthwhile to support….

    As a Buddhist, from… , and also, you see, sometimes, I introduced myself as a Buddhist psychologist. So, from the Buddhist psychologist, from that viewpoint, I consider the motivation is the most important factor. So every human action, whether it has become positive or negative, must depend on motivation. So therefore, they must take every care about the problem of motivation. For that is the Buddhist messagekaruna, compassion. It’s the basic thing for sincere motivation. So with the realization, all (word indistinct) being, if not at least all human being, as brothers and sisters, as a member of one human family. With that, it’s the sense of responsibility, the sense of concern for all others. It’s the key thing. So the promotion of the human compassion and the sense of involvement, sense of global responsibility. Now that I feel the entire of our future very much depend on this motivation. So here the various different spiritual traditions have special responsibility, and particularly the various Buddhist, we have our special responsibility the Buddhist message, the message of love and compassion, and the message of Buddhism (word indistinct). Now these two things are very very relevant in modern time. And I think the future of humanity, I think, for that, these two Buddhist messages can be very important role….

    So under these circumstances, it becomes quite clear that we need some kind of sense of global responsibility, not only taking care of one’s own family, or one’s own community, or one’s own nation, but having a sense of caring for humanity in its entirety. Because the interests of oneself and the interests of the other are always interconnected, I therefore sometimes feel the very concept of “we” and “they” are no longer there. So in order to have a happier life, or a happier future oneself, you have to take care of others’ interests….

    Realistically speaking, the majority of humanity will remain non-believers, and it doesn’t matter. No problem! The problem is that the majority have lost or ignore the deeper human values, such as compassion and a sense of responsibility. Then we really are faced with a problem. That is our big concern. Wherever there is a society or community or family without these good human qualities, then even one single family cannot be a happy family. That’s perfectly clear….

    Buddha Dharma means ‘mental quality.. So mental quality must develop through training your mind. Those people who have great merit, they may find it more easier and less obstacles, otherwise only through training your mind.

  9. Mr. Strand - On your questions: Buddhists need to ask honestly: “What kind of Buddhism addresses the questions and needs of my life?…Is it addressing the issues of my whole life? Or only part of my life?” When you’re like I am, and you’ve been at it for a while…If you have kids or a stressful job or a difficult marriage or financial problems, Buddhism should be able to address those issues. If it can’t, then it’s not functioning.

    No religion can change the nature of the two realities(conventional and ultimate) and the nature of karmic law. The answer to your questions are in the Lam Rim Teachings.

    Here is a quote that might help:

    “Western psychology is all about one’s own happiness, doing what makes oneself happy; that is the main thing. So, if there is something you need to express, you do it. But Buddhism is completely the opposite. It is not about one’s own happiness, it is about the happiness of others. By practicing this way, thinking about the happiness of others, working for the happiness of others, you achieve two things: the happiness of enlightenment and temporal happiness—happiness in the future and happiness now. When you are working for your own happiness, you do not get either. You do not get happiness in the future, and you are not happy now. When you work for the happiness of others, are concerned about the happiness of others, you get both. Happiness and suffering are dependent upon your mind, upon your interpretation. They do not come from outside, from others. All of your happiness and all of your suffering are created by you, by your own mind,” Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

    So, those who want a Buddhist community, start one yourself and invite people to your house!

  10. What attracted people to the Buddha? Was the Buddha even Buddhist?

    The answers to these two questions may surprise many. Buddhism is an institutionalized handle that developed much later. The Buddha practiced Dhamma, and simply encouraged his followers to do the same. To let go of the irrelevant, never ending craziness of the world not to run to some new world dominating agenda or even think about one.

    The Buddha embodied the middle way namely those eight mindful steps to happiness. He did not have any “image” by the modern expressions of Buddhism but he definatly had “substance.”

    I have observed that the quiet beauty of a principled person is the loudest most awe-inspiring beauty there is. In my opinion Buddhism or any religion spreads when the substance or “Gold” is there for people to see.

    Religious “image” may have the flashiness and show but upon receiving trials and hardships cannot stand. Even though the candy it offers may be delicious it is after all only candy and can be nothing more.

    If you stumbled across gold would you still prefer your candy? Christianity has weaved a very loud image of ceremonies, rituals, holidays and such but church attendance is only 10% of those labeling themselves believers. In Asia similar temple attendance is dropping.

    I think that is because life is hard, impermanent and stressful. Even though those candies may be giving the loudest image of strength there is nothing there and people sense it.

    As long as Dhamma practitioners stick to the precepts, develop solid concentration and mindfulness. Then the quiet beauty of that “Gold” will work its own magic.


  11. I wonder what the birth rate of Buddhists compared to non-Buddhists is. I have no statistics, just anecdotal evidence that a lot of American Buddhists, even if they marry, don’t necessarily have children. If converts to Buddhism have fewer children to begin with, it would make harder for the Buddhist community to gather momentum for child-focused programs.

  12. [...] at times even outright discriminating against women, children, and family concerns. In her article, Change or Die: American Buddhism When Baby-Boomer Converts Are Gone, Andrea Useem talks about Zen monk Clark Strand’s recent article in Tricyle, “Dharma [...]

  13. The problem of baby boomers failing to transmit spiritual teachings to their children is not confined to Buddhism. I am a mainline churchgoer and in my own church as well as most others I have knowlege of, the pews are emptying out with time.
    I think this has to do with a belief in the 60s counterculture that everyone should be free to do their own thing and as a result the idea that parents expose their children to their own religious beliefs (thus predjudicing their children to favor them) is viewed in some way as immoral. My own feeling is why force each generation to reinvent the wheel when proven spiritual practices are readily available.

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