The Buddha’s Apprentices - Preface
by Sumi Loundon
Seven years ago, while cooking and cleaning as a volunteer at a small New England meditation center, it dawned on me that I was surrounded by people of my parents’ generation. Our conversations revolved around reminiscences of the ’60s, children leaving for college, and retirement plans. Where were all the people my age, the twenty-somethings? I certainly wasn’t encountering them here—so I went looking for them. I set out on an email and telephone journey leading to the discovery that, happily, Buddhism would not pass away with the baby-boomer generation. I met hundreds of young adults who were not, as I imagined they might be, superficial in their exploration of the Buddhist tradition. Rather, their energy for transforming their lives and the world’s communities was sincere, fresh, and unbounded.
I was struck that most of these young spiritual seekers felt as alone and isolated in their Dharma path as I had. If they were fortunate enough to live close to a meditation center or temple, they, like me, were often the youngest by decades. Yet most weren’t even that fortunate. The majority lived in families and communities that had little connection to traditions other than Christianity. Young adults had to figure out for themselves what they were spiritually hungry for and find what they needed. We found that being in conversation with even one person, each other, opened up a rich world of peer learning. Simply to be affirmed in our questions was encouraging.
We discovered that we all struggle with the issue of our own identity. Identity issues around personality, profession, and lifestyle typify the young adult years. But these young people are also wrestling with stepping into a spiritual world that, while not exactly counterculture, is not mainstream either. For many, there are few ways of exploring and forming their religious identity outside their own personal study. Looking back on it, I realize that one of my own motivations for reaching out to other young seekers was that I also was wrestling to find who I was and who I wanted to become. Getting to know my generation has helped me discover a sense of identity in the context of the larger Buddhist community.
Seeing that we had loneliness and the search for identity in common, I realized we needed to form a support community for ourselves. If sharing stories had done so much for me, then why not offer these stories to other young adults, too? Giving expression to these explorations in Buddhism gave rise to an anthology, Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists, in 2001. Through their own personal stories, young Buddhists reflected on how Dharma teachings addressed depression, drugs, relationships, living in the city, and technology. Some wrote about spiritual practices, such as sitting a meditation retreat, praying with Tibetans in India, calling on Amida Buddha, and being assisted out of danger by the active compassion of the bodhisattva Tara. Others explored their unfolding path as social activists, hospice workers, athletes, and monastics.
As Blue Jean Buddha brought me into contact with greater numbers of young Buddhists both here in America and in other parts of the world, it became clear that there were many other rich, wonderful stories to be shared. Most especially, and perhaps because I was still getting a basic orientation for myself as an early twenty-something, I had overlooked the stories of teenagers. A few teenagers emailed with some variant of, “I liked your book, but what about us?” I had assumed teenagers would have little to say, with necessarily just a few years of the spiritual journey behind them. Yet, as I began truly engaging teen-aged Buddhists, it became clear that they have an interest in and ability to thoughtfully explore a spiritual path.
I also received letters from older Buddhists. The essays by young Buddhists stimulated some to reflect on their own early years. I found these retrospectives compelling because in many respects they mirrored the stories from my generation. It was affirming to hear that those older adults had gone through the confusion and questioning I was experiencing. Taken together, their stories provided the perspective that what I and other young adults were going through were not permanent states of uncertainty, as many of us feared, but necessary stages in the unfolding of a life. What a relief! And so the third section of this book comprises the stories of longtime Buddhists looking back on their early years.
As I have gotten to know more young Buddhists over these past few years, one of the most frequently raised topics of discussion has been about relationships. Actually, make that the most frequently discussed topic. While Blue Jean Buddha had a few stories about boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and teachers, it became clear that young people wanted to hear more. The young adult years are marked by tectonic shifts in our relationships, as we leave our parents, search for partners, consider commitment and perhaps marriage, leave home towns and find new communities through college, workplaces, and temples. Those who are taking up a Buddhist path naturally think about how Dharma teachings guide us in changing old relationships and forming new ones with skill, wisdom, and compassion. For that reason, this book devotes half a section to exploring the interface between relationships and the Dharma life.
The second half of the section from those in their twenties and thirties addresses the dimensions of Buddhist practice. The essays are not in any way meant to be a “how to” of Dharma practice, but rather, these are a portrayal of what actually happens in a young person’s spiritual life, the kinds of questions we encounter, and how we tackle problems. The contributors explore the path of practice, how it twists and turns, takes us into unknown territory, and challenges our expectations.
These first three sections are arranged by age group, beginning with essays by teenagers, followed by stories from those in their twenties and thirties on practice and relationships, and concluding with the reflections of longtime Buddhists on their youth. Through this arrangement, I hope to provide a rough sketch of how the spiritual life matures and the Buddhist path ripens. One point of this arrangement is to reassure younger readers that everything they’re going through builds on itself and is necessary and useful.
I have wondered whether some readers might be compelled to compare themselves against the stories. Perhaps it is helpful to recognize that most of the contributors in this anthology, while young, are not beginners and have been invested in Buddhist practice for a number of years. In some ways, these writers do not represent those young people who are presently beginning to explore Buddhism (although most describe how they got started on their path). At the same time, the essays represent some of the major issues that we all think about growing up and finding our spirituality. I hope readers will simply start from where they are, take what’s useful, and leave the rest without comparing.
With each piece, the given age is the age at the time of writing. Because of the necessarily long process of bringing a book into being, many of the contributors’ biographies, and dispositions towards Buddhism, have changed. For this reason, the writings here can be understood as a snapshot of each contributor’s views at that particular period in his or her life.
In the fourth and final section I step back from the world of young Buddhists to look at larger issues. Reflecting on my own experiences as a young Buddhist, and drawing from the thoughts of many others, I would like to address how we can better support young people in Buddhism. Organizers in Buddhist communities have recently begun to think about actively engaging young people. What is needed to help the next generation develop? What can young Buddhists themselves do to encourage each other? How might longtime Buddhists play a role?
This book begins to fill what I see is a gap in today’s Dharma literature. We have shelves of wonderful books on Buddhism, meditation, and philosophy but we have little on the actual practices and beliefs of contemporary Buddhists. For some, this is a powerful way of learning. It is also an especially important way for young people, who are naturally inclined to learn through mutual exploration with peers. Many young people are not able to connect with local Dharma communities in person: they might be in an area without a group, such as a rural, Midwestern town; they may not be able to drive or have access to a car; they might not have parental support; or they might feel shy about entering a group on their own. A book like this can, I hope, provide a literary sangha, a community of peers through which one can further understand oneself.
Someone told me recently that a current fad on some college campuses is “slacklining.” “What’s that?” I asked, imagining it as a combination of, somehow, being a slacker and mainlining. “It’s like tightrope walking, except the line is slack. It develops concentration and feels like meditation,” my friend explained. I immediately thought, “I should have had an essay on slacklining in this anthology. I wonder if I’m missing any other trends.” This moment pointed to the impossibility of capturing every demographic and sentiment of the young Buddhist experience in one, two, or even ten anthologies. Blue Jean Buddha in some way laid out the breadth of young peoples’ experiences. This book is intended to go into greater depth about how we young people think about our Buddhist life.