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Western Buddhism is Dying

I'm what most people would call an "elder millennial".  In other words, I'm old enough to remember a childhood without the internet and smartphones, but I'm young enough to know the difference between Tik Tok and Twitter.  

I'm old enough that if I tell someone, "I'm a grown man, don't talk to me that way," they'll listen.  But I'm still young enough that anyone over 50 is my elder, and I bow respectfully to their wisdom.

In other words, I'm at an age where retirement planning and "settling down" aren't abstract ideas; an age where people ponder life's big questions like dying, the loss of old friends, and how to live a purposeful existence.  

These are questions that Buddhism has answered successfully for 2,600 years.  So, I'm wondering why there aren't more people my age in Buddhist temples.

Some people chalk this up to a lack of spirituality in my generation.  But I don't think that's correct.  When I did my certifications in breathwork and meditation, the classes were packed with people my age and younger.  And those classes aren't cheap; ranging in cost from 1000-3000 dollars.  Meanwhile, I'm always the baby in the room when I go to Buddhist centers that teach meditation and mindful breathing for free.

As we head into a new decade, this is an issue that Buddhist teachers need to address. As the hippies who first populated American Dharma centers start to die, we'll need to find new members to replace them.  Or, maybe we won't, maybe Western Buddhism is like a rave party in the woods; beautiful while it lasts but destined to die as soon as the sun comes up.

But if we do choose to look at this issue; working to keep Dharma alive in the west, there are three things that we need to contend with:


The attitude I generally experience at Dharma centers can best be described as, "We won't kick you out, but we don't really care if you stay."  I walk in and stand around awkwardly with other people milling around, making a point to not make eye contact with me.  

If I'm lucky, someone will tell me where to put my shoes, and then we all shuffle into the meditation hall where I have to look at the person standing next to me in order to know what to do from one moment to the next.  After the service, there's more awkwardness while people continue to not make eye contact with me, and then we all go home.

I've spoken to other people who've had similar experiences when they've walked into new centers. And I'm wondering why that's the case. It probably goes back to the old Zen stories of pupils having to prove themselves by cutting off body parts before they could sit with a teacher. I think there's a place for that. I think there's a place for making people fight for things; even if that fight is just standing alone in the zendo while everyone else goes about their business.

But that's not a helpful attitude if we want people to become active members of our sanghas. It's especially not helpful when people can go to the yoga studio down the street where they'll be offered bottled water and a Groupon as soon they enter the door.

That difference in attitude is important. I imagine it's the difference between someone saying, "I love everyone," vs. that same person saying, "I love you." Yes, the former includes the latter. And there's no logical reason why both statements shouldn't work. But they don't, and they never will because we're human.

And a human being will never respond to "I love everyone," the same way they respond to "I love you."

We need to make people feel wanted and cared for when they come into our centers.  It doesn't need to be all hugs and kisses, but is it too much to ask for newcomers to be greeted at the door and offered a tour of the meditation hall?  Yes, I know the beginner's class is on Friday, and they foolishly showed up on a Wednesday, but why can't someone walk them through the forms before class begins?

Frankly, a lot of problems could be solved if we got off our high horses and treated newcomers with respect, and not just cold politeness.


For Buddhist centers to be relevant and dare I say useful, they have to give us something we can't find on Facebook or Youtube.  They have to make us feel something, teach us something that we can't learn anywhere else.  If they can't do that,  what's the point?

This is especially true for a tech-savvy generation like mine.  Huge swathes of Buddhist scripture are available online, we can listen to Dharma talks on our smartphones, and new apps are created every day that offer guided meditations.  So, what can Buddhist teachers offer that can't be found somewhere else?

As I ponder that question, my mind wanders to the Christian church of my youth.  The pastor was an older gentleman; charismatic and well-versed in scripture.  I can't remember a Sunday where he stepped behind the podium and I didn't feel something be it fear, joy, or awe by the time he'd finished his sermon.

I remember one lecture where he was explaining how we shouldn't be afraid to be Christian in a world that's bent on our destruction.  We were constantly being told that non-Christians were out to get us, so that wasn't a new topic.  But when he went on to explain that God would protect us if we were faithful, he stated:

We worship a god who loves a good fight. We worship the god of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; a god who reached out his hand against the Edomites and said, "By my vengeance, you will know my name is The Lord!"

Those are strong words, passionate words.  Those are the type of words that make you get up and go to church on Sunday when you'd rather stay in bed.  And when I was a child they were the type of words that kept me up at night, wondering if I'd upset a vengeful deity.

So, the sermon was problematic, to say the least. But the fact that I still remember it more than two decades later means something.  I wonder if Western Buddhists are offering sermons that people will remember, or are we just rattling off lists and reciting koans in the hopes that people will take our opacity for wisdom?

Passion is the one thing that teachers can offer that people can't find somewhere else.  If we aren't passionate about our work, if we don't make people feel something before they walk out the door, why would they bother coming back?  


For theologians, praxis is religion made flesh.  It's where the high-minded philosophies of faith leaders become practical and useful in daily life.  Praxis is a Buddhist teacher explaining how the practice of Right Speech can heal family relationships.  It's a student doing prostrations in front of the altar so they can learn humility.  And it's a teacher walking a class through loving-kindness meditations because they're struggling with anger.

In short, praxis in the Buddhist-context consists of using specific Dharma teachings to solve real-world problems for our students.  Buddha did precisely this in the Pali Canon, which consists largely of monks and laypeople coming to him with problems, so he could give a teaching that would help.

Sadly, this common-sense approach is becoming rare in Western Buddhist sanghas.  In fact, I've seen teachers smile while telling students that Buddhism is a useless practice!  Yes, this is correct teaching in terms of the absolute and everything being resolved in the unborn.

But people don't just live in the absolute.  They also live in the conventional world.  They live in phsycial bodies, and in the words of Rev. Lyvonne Picou we can't care for a spirit without caring for a body.

Buddha understood this, so why is it so hard for us to comprehend?  We need to be able to draw a straight line between our teachings and their application in daily life.  If we can't do that for our students, they'll leave Buddhist centers and find someone who can.  Many people my age are already doing that.

But in our defense when we go to secular meditation centers, they explain the primal stress response and design meditation templates that are designed to meet our specific needs.  When we go to Buddhist meditation centers, we're told that if we practice for thirty years, everything will become clear.  For anyone who's not already in love with the Dharma, it's only natural that the former would be more appealing than the latter.

Buddhism has grown and changed countless times over the past 2,600 years.  It has survived wars, persecution, and natural disasters.  And each time it has sprung up in some new corner of the world; stronger and more beautiful than before.  Now it faces a new challenge; our apathy.  And it will be the job of western Buddhists to decide what happens next.

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Western Buddhism is Dying


  1. I think that a lot of it also has to do with time. Why should I go to a buddhist temple if I can youtube videos about buddhism? I think millenials don't have an incredible amount of spare time, and commiting to anything new is daunting.

    1. I think the younger generation, having been in the thick of social technology all their lives, can come to appreciate the value of social accountability and creating a positive routine; The only difference is, for them it will be some kind of revelation. A revelation that would dovetail well with practice.

    2. I think that you touch on this pretty heavily in the article, this argument of community. If anything, from my interactions with people my age and younger is that people want a community. And they are disillusioned with doctrinal beliefs. You are right though, change is hard to spark without revelation.

  2. Western Buddhism is evolving. If we follow the example of the Six Perfections (among other things) it will continue to grow in the West.

  3. I couldn't agree with you more. After many years of practice in the US and Korea, i'm going to be starting my own Zen group here in Taipei soon and I have been thinking about all of your points recently. I have had those same issues and I have seen how the old fashioned way of managing sanghas in the US and Asia is alienating a generation that is open to and in need of this practice. I hope that more like minded practioners can take on these issues more as well. _()_ Best of luck to you!

  4. I think we should see some difference between casual meditaion and yoga classes that are meant to be casual and welcoming on the one hand and on the other hand life-changing, truth seeking environment of authentic Zen temples where people are supposed to realize who they truly are, in other words wake up and see reality for what it is. Two very different things.

  5. Interesting article. Thank you.

  6. Fantastic blog post. Thank you for sharing what I tend to feel when seeking, awkward and sort of lost with no direction for the immediate.

    I have complex ptsd and with that the anxiety I so desperately want to heal. Standing awkwardly, not knowing what to do sends me running home.

  7. Visit Nalanda Malaysia if u have a chance.

  8. Thank you, Sensei Alex. So called Western Buddhism is mostly a translation of the buddhadharmasangha by people who come from a destructively individualistic culture. Perhaps they were unable to see how sangha and inter being were enacted because it was everywhere in the societies where they were. Anyway, narrowness of that POV has brought us to a Buddhism that treats sangha as an afterthought. That Buddhism should die so that all Three Jewels can flourish. Miss you, Sensei. Lisa Moore

  9. I know i would go if i knew where there were a center where people had actually read the Tipitaka... Im not the typical "religious type". I only care about absolute truth. If i could go somewhere and it wasn't shook full of wacky types but down to earth people who didnt learn buddhism through some book by some asian who learnt it from another asian which unfortunately has nothing to do with the tipitaka... and could even be hinduism or some other ism that is already dealt with in the tipitaka... tipitaka, tipitaka, tipitaka. I seem to be saying this a lot.

  10. Looking at your own experience, do you find doubt in the path? Are you unsure about the Buddhist teachings? Be kind towards your doubt now and look for the wisdom that already exists around you, that you do not need to seek out or mine or force out of the world by making it the way you think it should be. Then when you have received this abundant truth, offer it to everyone you meet in whatever way is simply skillfully.


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