GARRISON, N.Y. — Crosses still adorn one wall of this former Roman Catholic monastery, but a 6-foot golden Buddha now anchors the main room. The meditation hall, also used as a meeting space, is where the luminaries of Buddhism in the West recently gathered to debate.
The issue they were facing had been percolating for years on blogs, in Buddhist magazines and on the sidelines of spiritual retreats. It often played out as a clash of elders versus young people, the preservers of spiritual depth versus the alleged purveyors of “Buddhism-lite.” Organizers of the gathering wanted the finger-pointing to end. The future of American Buddhism was at stake, they said.
So on a sweltering day at the Garrison Institute, a Buddhist retreat overlooking the Hudson River, the baby boomers who had popularized the tradition in the West met with younger leaders to tackle their differences.
“How can those of us who were pioneers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, support them without getting in their way and let them know that they have our blessings and support?” said Jack Kornfield, a prominent Buddhist teacher who helped introduce mindfulness, or insight, meditation to the U.S. four decades ago.
Buddhism in America is at a crossroads. The best-known Buddhist leaders, mostly white converts who emerged from the counterculture and protest movements of the Vietnam era, are nearing retirement or dying. Charlotte Joko Beck, a pioneer of Zen practice in America, passed away in June.
The next generation of teachers is pushing in new directions, shaped by the do-it-yourself ethos of the Internet age and a desire to make Buddhism more accessible. Informal study groups are in; organizing around a single teacher is out. Unsettled elders worry that the changes could go too far and lose touch with tradition.
“It seems to be one of the facts of life right now, not only in Buddhism, but in religion in general: it’s about mixing and matching,” said Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a longtime Zen priest, scholar and poet affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center. “The freedom people feel that they have to experiment — how do you prevent that from becoming consumerist or completely superficial or dangerous?”
It is a complex problem for a spiritual path with no ultimate worldwide authority such as a pope.
Within the United States, Buddhism is even more decentralized. Practices and beliefs that had developed in isolation from each other for centuries around Asia are side-by-side in North America, leading to sampling from different traditions. In Asia, monastics generally lead Buddhism in roles shaped partly by their monarchical societies; in the U.S., the teachers are mostly lay people. Beyond the Dalai Lama, Buddhism is best known in the United States not for any particular clergyman, ritual or liturgy, but through mindfulness-based stress reduction, which adapts strategies from vipassana, or insight meditation.
Yet, a vein of conservatism runs through American Buddhist communities.
Many American Buddhist pioneers spent a decade or more studying with masters in Thailand, India, Burma and Nepal before returning home to take on students. On their Web sites, U.S. teachers post photos of themselves as young women in saris, or young men draped in robes, their heads cleanly shaven, on the steps of overseas monasteries. They are handing over leadership to the first convert Buddhist generation that was trained almost entirely in the West.
“The prior generation was modeled after the monastic model, where the old guy was the abbot,” said the Rev. Jay Rinsen Weik, a recently ordained Zen priest, who leads the Toledo Zen Center in Ohio with his wife, Karen, who is also a Zen priest. “The last generation suffered from not being able to distinguish the personality of the guy and his dharma (teachings).”
At Weik’s center in Toledo, he said, “people would never make that mistake,” because they aren’t conditioned to defer to one revered teacher.
For younger Americans, spending several years cloistered abroad, absorbing the cultural traditions of another country, seems not only unnecessary but counterproductive for reaching Westerners. Spring Washam, 37, a founding teacher of the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, Calif., which has brought Buddhism to poorer, more diverse neighborhoods, said the attendees at her center want support, connection and friendship.
“These people want to be happy in their lives,” Washam said. “They’re not going to be monastics.”
One of the most startling developments for elders has been the formation of the Dharma Punx, who participated in the conference. The relatively new, popular movement mixes punk rock-inspired rebellion and Buddhism, seeing both as seeking freedom from suffering. Amid the grey hair and muted clothes of the attendees, the Dharma Punx stood out, with their tattoo-covered arms and T-shirts the color of traffic cones. The movement emerged from the work of Noah Levine, the son of American Buddhist author Stephen Levine. The younger Levine rediscovered Buddhism after a troubled youth; he and his colleagues have built a reputation for successfully bringing Buddhist practices into juvenile detention centers — a sign of the social activism that young Buddhists tie to their meditation practice.
“I’m all about adaptability,” said Vinny Ferraro, a Dharma Punx teacher, who said it would make no sense for him to “go off to a cave” and meditate for years.
“What attracts people is relevance,” he said. “Youth is suffering. These are prime suffering years, but I need it in my language.”
Whatever the elders think of these new approaches, they know they need the energy young innovators are bringing to the communities.
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, few twenty- and thirtysomethings took up Buddhism. Leaders attributed the problem to a 1980s’ backlash against spiritual seeking and society’s focus in that era on accumulating wealth. (One western convert at the Garrison Institute, who became a Tibetan monk, said that when he wore his robes in North America in the 1980s, he was treated like “a nut case.”) Interest among young adults slowly grew in the last decade or so, but a still common complaint is that American Buddhists, outside of immigrant Asian communities, have been overwhelmingly older, wealthy and white.
Weik said he doesn’t want Buddhist parents to feel they must leave their family behind when they practice. He and his wife started a Sunday dharma school for children as young as 4 years old, and they are trying to develop rites-of-passage for young adults so they feel included.