Researching Young Buddhists


Studying Young Buddhists

This book focuses on 44 individuals in total who either identified exclusively as Buddhist (31), or who incorporated Buddhism as part of their religious identity, such as ‘Buddhist-Christian’ (13). The Appendix details all the participants featured. Following Tweed (1999), we used self-identification with Buddhism as the recruitment criterion, without privileging any particular factors (e.g. membership to a Buddhist group, explicit subscription to Buddhist tenets).[1]

So how was this project devised and how did we go about finding young Buddhists to participate in our study? The project began in 2009. The key idea behind the project was to map religion, youth and sexuality, through using a range of sociological methods.[2] The first method we employed was a questionnaire, containing 38 open and closed-ended questions. Organised into various thematic sections, the questions covered a range of issues such as demographic information; religious practice and participation; views about religion; attitudes and experiences of sexuality, gender, and religion; as well as experiences of being religious in the uk today. The questions varied in type – some elicited opinions (e.g. how far participants agreed or disagreed with a statement). Others were open-ended, asking participants to provide free-text comments. Therefore, at various points throughout the questionnaire, we facilitated opportunities for participants to express themselves qualitatively. Indeed, the very last two questions simply asked, ‘What does your religion mean to you?’ and ‘What does your sexuality mean to you?’ Participants could write as little or as much as they wanted. The questionnaire was hosted on Survey Monkey (see Keenan, Yip and Page, forthcoming).

The second method we employed was an in-depth interview. All questionnaire participants were given the option to leave their contact details to be invited to take part in subsequent stages of the research. We devised a sampling frame consisting of those willing to be interviewed, premised on key information such as religious tradition, gender, sexual orientation, relationship status, geographical area, how religiously active they were, and whether they were sexually active. We then chose individuals on the basis of participant variability.

We found that questionnaire-generated data worked best when it was accompanied by data from the qualitative data sources. This was because methods such as the interview allowed us to probe opinions more deeply, and appreciate the context for that opinion. Participants did not necessarily express clear-cut viewpoints; instead, their responses were complex, and drew on a variety of influences that were difficult to capture on a questionnaire (despite having open-ended questions). Therefore, the interviews allowed us to understand the complexity of an individual’s opinion, and to understand how that opinion had been formulated. Interviews also enabled our participants to explain in their own words what their lives are like, and what experiences have been pivotal to them.

Each interview lasted between 1.5 to over two hours, thus generating detailed data. The interviews were devised to discuss significant issues and events that have impacted on participants. So for instance, a participant who experienced bullying at school because of their sexual identity would reflect on this as a moment of significance that factored into how they approach and experience their life today, even if this happened some years ago. Thomson, Bell, Holland, Henderson, McGrellis and Sharpe (2002) call these ‘critical moments’ – events in one’s life that are significant enough to have ongoing impact on people’s identities. This mapping of the ‘critical moments’ helped participants to signal important events that have shaped their identities, and allowed them to narrate a coherent sense of self, shaped over time. But this was contextual. Participants were motivated to express this identity coherence due to particular western expectations to convey a solid sense of self-identity, narrated consecutively through time (Lawler, 2000).

Although we found that interviews offered greater opportunities for selfexpression than questionnaires, we engaged with a final method that participants themselves directly managed and controlled. This third method was the video diary. The participants were again selected, based on the interviewing stage, on the basis of willingness to participate and on generating diversity. We posted a video camera to each participant and over the course of about a week, they recorded their everyday reflections on the themes of the research. This meant that the video diaries were much more diverse than the data from other methods, were centred around the issues most pertinent to the participants themselves, and illuminated various facets of their everyday lives. Indeed, diaries are not interviews. Whereas the interviews captured the seismic moments that had patterned an individual’s life, with some everyday moments mapped too, the video diaries captured life in miniature, emphasising the very specific issues an individual had faced that day. So they told us about a poignant film watched, or a book read. They told us about the places they went and the people that they met. Video diaries generated a lived approach regarding how religion and sexuality was being experienced in their everyday lives (Ammerman, 2007, 2014a, 2014b; McGuire, 2008; Orsi, 2005). This therefore captured the mundane elements that could feed into larger issues.

Thus, this data gave insight into the lived realities of our participants’ lives, and how mundane issues could become critical moments. This method captured the building blocks of individuals’ lives, and how the larger, significant moments came to be realised. But this method could also result in quite fragmented data that could be hard to compare across the sample. Some video diary participants discussed a single issue in every video diary entry, which, although extremely illuminating, gave fewer opportunities to compare the data across the sample. Thus like questionnaires, deploying video diaries in isolation may not facilitate the range of data needed. Therefore, as researchers, we strongly advocate a mixed-methods approach, drawing on a number of methods from across the qualitative/quantitative research divide in order to generate a multi-dimensional data set that captures the research in question from a number of different angles.

As we have mentioned, this book covers 44 young adults who all completed the questionnaire, comprising 31 individuals who identified solely with Buddhism, and six who defined themselves as Buddhist-Christian (or ChristianBuddhist). We also recruited one each of the following: Buddhist-Hindu, Buddhist-Hindu-Jain, Buddhist-Spiritualist, Quaker-Buddhist-Pagan, BuddhistSikh, Buddhist-Christian-Hindu, and Buddhist-Christian-Hindu-Sikh. Of the 44 participants, 16 were interviewed, and seven participated in a video diary (see the Appendix for more details about each participant’s involvement in different stages). In this book we intentionally want to privilege the voices of the young Buddhists themselves, emphasising the rich qualitative data over statistics. Although relevant statistics will be highlighted, the chapters that follow will prioritise the stories and voices of our participants, to emphasise the richness, complexity and diversity of their religious journeys.

Finding Young Buddhists

This project engaged with a multi-faceted sampling strategy, which comprised numerous strands targeting national and local groups – places of worship, religious organisations, organisations concerned with religion, youth organisations and cultural societies. We also sent information to university societies about religion (we canvassed all the Buddhist societies at universities across the uk) as well as sexuality. Organisations were either e-mailed about the project and/or sent information about the project in the post (e.g. postcards and posters). We created a project Facebook page and website (hosted by the University of Nottingham; this site included the online questionnaire link) and encouraged those interested to access these sites, generated through people ‘liking’ the Facebook page.

Buddhists were an especially hard-to-reach group and we went to great lengths to ensure wider participation. We utilised the Buddhist Directory (2007), which is a UK-based directory covering the majority of Buddhist organisations and places of worship. We wrote to every organisation listed, and sent postcards and posters for display. Gatekeepers of these organisations were enthusiastic about the research, but they often did not know any young Buddhists in the project’s targeted age demographic (18 to 25 year olds).

Sarah-Jane visited Buddhafield (a summer festival that occurs in the South West of England, which attracts Buddhists) to advertise the project. However, it was still very difficult to find people of the right demographic – individuals approached were either too old (late 20s) or too young (under 18). On attending sessions targeted at young adults, Sarah-Jane located the right age bracket but found no one there who actually identified as Buddhist. Indeed, Buddhafield draws on a broader religious milieu, for example, New Age and Pagan spiritualties. One session for young people on sexuality was led by a Pagan, rather than a Buddhist, for example. Other young people said that their parents were Buddhists, and they were there to explore their spirituality more generally (or to meet up with old friends) and they did not identify as Buddhist themselves. Although many people took a project postcard, the publicity there did not generate many participants.

Finally, we used Facebook as a recruiting tool. We located Facebook groups specifically for young Buddhists, and sent project information to the administrators. Most were very generous in passing our details on, and through these links, we were also able to send postcards to events that were taking place for young Buddhists. Using these various strategies enabled us to generate a respectable sample of 44 individuals.

Recruiting young Buddhists was challenging. As the Buddhafield experience indicated, although some young adults expressed some interest in Buddhism, this did not mean that those same young adults actually identified as Buddhist. Such individuals could be described as ‘searchers’ or ‘seekers’ (Roof, 1999), and looking for alternative ways of living their lives – but this did not mean that they saw themselves as Buddhist. This experience revealed some of the difficulties in finding young Buddhists and some potential remedies. For example, project advertisement needs to be multifaceted. While online forms of recruitment were more successful, offline techniques also generated participants. Recruitment took longer than initially anticipated. We had to be flexible and adaptable in finding participants, and this is where the advice of advisory committee members who are embedded within the specific religious tradition becomes invaluable. Finally, Buddhists did not necessarily see their practice as religious. They might therefore have considered themselves ineligible for this research project.

Our Sample of Buddhist Young Adults

All participants were aged between 18 and 25, with the mean age being 21.75.[3] We successfully recruited across the whole 18–25 age spectrum, which may be due to the efforts we undertook to recruit participants, focusing not just on the university environment (where a number at the lower age range would sit) but also Buddhist organisations listed in the Buddhist Directory for Britain. This meant we were also able to capture those outside of and beyond the education system.

In terms of gender, 25 (56.8%) identified as women, 18 (40.9%) as men, and one (2.3%) identified as trans.[4] These figures are typical of religious identity of the uk, where women tend to be more present and visible in religious milieux than men (Trzebiatowska and Bruce, 2012).

The majority classified their ethnic origin as ‘white’ (77.3%); other ethnicities included ‘mixed’ (9.1%), ‘Indian’ (6.8%), ‘Chinese’ (4.5%) and ‘other’ (4.5%).[5] The majority defined their nationality as ‘British’ (75.0%); a variety of other nationalities were identified, including German (9.1%), Malaysian (2.3%), and Mexican (2.3%).[6] What we have achieved is a sample that mainly comprised young people from other religious backgrounds or of no religious background who have converted to Buddhism in the recent past, or young adults who have chosen to affirm a Buddhist affiliation linked to their parents’ conversion. Some scholars have distinguished between ‘convert’ Buddhism, and ‘ethnic’ or ‘heritage’ Buddhism – i.e. those individuals who have been raised specifically within Buddhist cultures such as Sri Lanka and Thailand, and have then migrated to western countries such as the usa (e.g. Cadge, 2005; Queen, 1999), Canada (e.g. Beyer and Ramji, 2013; McLellan, 2000), Australia (e.g. Barker, 2007; Bucknell, 2000; Halafoff, Fitzpatrick and Lam, 2012) and the uk (e.g. Bell, 2000; Bluck, 2006; Thanissaro, 2013). Now that Buddhist communities have been established in the west for some time, this has implications for those born into the families that migrated, who have no experience of Buddhism in any other context but the west (see Chapter 2 and Chapter 3).

Our study was less successful in recruiting young people within families who had immigrated to the uk from Buddhist-majority contexts, and it is worth thinking through why few from immigrant communities participated. Even when raised within an ‘ethnic’ strand of Buddhism, it is less likely that young people define themselves as Buddhist when they become adults – as Beyer and Martin (2013) indicate, ‘ethnic’ Buddhists may be unwilling to define themselves as Buddhist in adult life. Another aspect relates to Baumann’s (2001) discussion regarding how ‘ethnic’ Buddhist traditions are represented in Europe. ‘Convert’ traditions tend to be more visible and have a greater physical presence than ‘ethnic’ traditions, especially when compared with the absolute numbers involved. Finally, we need to consider the research topic. For some groups and communities, sexuality is a hugely sensitive topic; numerous authors note how western interpretations of Buddhism tend to be somewhat different to Buddhism as practised in Asia, especially regarding attitudes to homosexuality (Keele, 2012; Wilson, 2003). There may therefore have been higher levels of discomfort about our research topic amongst gatekeepers within ‘ethnic’ Buddhist contexts.

Conversely, we can consider why young people from ‘convert’ families, or who had converted themselves, were keen to participate. This may have something to do with their active identification as Buddhist. As they had typically affirmed their Buddhist identity, this may have made them more receptive to a study that was asking them not only to reflect on their Buddhist identity, but also how this related to sexuality. Therefore, quite simply, this group may have been more enthusiastic and engaged with the topic of the research, and felt that they had something to say. We may be asked whether we tried hard enough to attract young people from ‘ethnic’ Buddhist families into the research. We certainly tried hard, not only recruiting directly through religious societies and groupings, but also cultural and nationality-based groups such as the Sri Lankan Society and Thai Society on university campuses. We recognise the limitations of this sample. It was purposive and aimed to capture diversity. It was oriented around a sensitive topic. All this will have an impact on the resulting sample. What we can say is that we have obtained high-quality detailed data on a much-overlooked group: principally, adult young Buddhists (of various ethnic backgrounds and national identities, but primarily white British) who have converted to Buddhism or whose parents have converted.

When we asked about the specific Buddhist tradition with which individuals aligned, 16 participants did not provide this information. Meanwhile, of those remaining, a variety of Buddhist affiliations were captured, with the largest number belonging to the Triratna Buddhist Community and Order, previously known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (tbc/fwbo).[7] Other participants associated themselves with Theravada Buddhism, Soka Gakkai International (sgi), Mahayana Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Some of these categories overlap. For example, Vipassana is a meditative practice associated with Theravada Buddhism. But it captures how our participants defined themselves (Tweed, 1999).[8]

In terms of educational attainment, 32.5% had a degree or a postgraduate qualification (e.g. a Master’s degree). Meanwhile, of those remaining, 63.0% had completed A-levels, one person had completed gcses (2.3%) and one person had undertaken a btec/nvq qualification (2.3%).[9] In terms of occupation 63.6% self-defined as students.[10] Many of those who had ticked ‘A-levels’ as their highest qualification specified that they were now pursuing degrees at university. This makes for a highly-educated sample, and although, unlike other studies (e.g. Beyer, 2013b), we did not concentrate our recruitment efforts solely on university campuses, the result was still to recruit many young people who were either about to go to university, were at university, or had left in the recent past. This resonates with other research identifying Buddhists as a highly-educated group (J.W. Coleman, 1999; Henry, 2013; Waterhouse, 1997). Indeed, Cirklová’s (2012b) research on converts to Buddhism in the Czech Republic reveals that most of the participants had degrees, with university being a key space where Buddhism was encountered. When our participants specified their degree subject, the majority were undertaking law and social science or arts and humanities subjects. Far fewer were undertaking scienceand medicine-based subjects.

For those in paid work, occupations were diverse and ranged from those working in the legal profession, voluntary work, the retail industry, research, the education sector and the charity sector. In the interviews, we were able to glean further information about social class. Many spoke of their parents’ expectations for them to attend university, and they also discussed how some parents were disapproving of the subject they had chosen – for example, a number undertaking humanities subjects such as Religious Studies and Theology were criticised by parents for choosing this degree. This gives some indication of a middle-class milieu within which many young adults were raised, where education was prioritised, with specific attempts to steer children onto clearly defined educational paths that were perceived to generate the maximum benefit in terms of professional success. Those who had moved to the uk from other countries tended to come from highly-educated, well-resourced families. A number were here to study in uk universities. Others had come to the uk with a specific mission to engage their Buddhist practice.

In terms of sexual orientation, the majority (19; 44.2%) identified as heterosexual. Eight (18.6%) were bisexual, seven (16.3%) were gay or homosexual. Five (11. 6%) chose not to define their sexual orientation[11] and two (4.7%) were lesbian. The categories ‘heteroflexible’ and ‘asexual’, created by the participants themselves, generated one response each.[12] What this depiction reveals is that the sample was very diverse in terms of sexual orientation. Heterosexuality remained the largest – but not the majority – category. This also set up an interesting environment in which to explore the specific contours of sexuality and religion, and whether these diverse identifications were due to the specific orientations that Buddhism has to sexuality, as later chapters will highlight. None of our participants had children, and none were married or in a civil partnership.[13]

Overall, our participants fitted the profile noted in other Buddhist research projects – this was a well-educated, middle-class grouping. The main difference compared with other projects on Buddhists was regarding age – our sample was far younger than would be typically expected.

[ To Be Continued… ]


[1] In Yip and Page (2013), we made a distinction between those identifying with a single tradition, and those we called ‘mixed-faith’, who combined two or more religious traditions. Therefore, in our previous book, Buddhists comprised the 31 who identified solely with Bud- dhism. A participant who, for example, professed her/his identity as ‘Christian-Buddhist’ would be considered ‘mixed-faith’. For a full and comprehensive account of Buddhist prac- tices among young adults, this book, however, has included not only the 31 with a singular Buddhist affiliation, but also the 13 participants who combined their Buddhism with some- thing else. The statistics generated in Yip and Page (2013) on Buddhists will therefore not exactly match the statistics generated in this book.

[2] Full details of the research methods can be located in Yip and Page (2013).

[3] The total number of valid responses was 44.

[4] The total number of valid responses was 44.

[5] The total number of valid responses was 44.

[6] The total number of valid responses was 44. The full list of nationalities were: British (75.0%); German (9.1%); American (2.3%); Danish (2.3%); Singaporean (2.3%); Malaysian (2.3%); Mexican (2.3%); British-Polish (2.3%); and Thai (2.3%).

[7] During the course of our research the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (fwbo) was renamed the Triratna Buddhist Community and Order (tbc) (see Henry [2013] for further details). When discussing this Buddhist tradition, participants, in the main, tended to use the old name rather than the new one. Throughout, we will use the term tbc/fwbo. However, participants’ quotes will not be changed.

[8] Readers who are interested in the philosophical and theological aspects of these traditions should consult the rich corpus of literature in this area, such as, Bluck (2006), Dalai Lama xiv and Chödrön (2014), Goonewardene (2010), Harvey (2000, 2013), Heine and Prebish (2003), Kay (2004), Keown (2013), Konik (2009), McMahan (2008, 2012), and Queen (2000a, 200b). Some of these texts are scholarly, and some are written for a general readership. We decide to reference both types of writings to reflect our participants’ own engagement with these writings, and to offer what we think are helpful texts for the nonacademic readers of this book.

[9] A-Levels, also known as Advanced Levels, are qualifications undertaken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, usually when students are aged between 16 and 18. gcses, also known as General Certificates of Education, are qualifications undertaken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, usually when students are aged between 14 and 16. nvqs, also known as National Vocational Qualifications, are undertaken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and are vocationally-based; btecs, also known as Business and Technology Education Council qualifications, are practically focused, related to specific vocational sectors. The total number of valid responses was 43.

[10] The total number of valid responses was 44.

[11] ‘I do not define my sexuality’ was a purposeful category that attempted to undermine the idea that sexuality can always be mapped through identifying with a particular category or sexual identification. It therefore allowed participants who felt uncomfortable in labelling their sexuality to still participate and register this choice (without having to leave the question blank). This also taps into a broader sociological understanding that the categorisation sexuality is contingent and changeable, varying between societies and across societies over time (Jackson and Scott, 2010; Machacek and Wilcox, 2003; Plummer, 2015; Rahman and Jackson, 2010; Weeks, 2010, 2011).

[12] The total number of valid responses was 43.

[13] At the time of the research, same-sex marriage was not available in the uk, although civil partnerships were. In 2013, same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales, followed by 2014 in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, same-sex marriage is not yet legislated, and civil partnerships remain in place.

Soruce: BRILL


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