Andrew Yip and Sarah-Jane Page: Understanding Young Buddhists | Living Out Ethical Journeys | Chapter 1: Young Buddhists: Locating Difference

Young Buddhists: Locating Difference

The basis for this book comes from a major project undertaken between 2009 and 2011 in the uk entitled Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Explora- tion. This study encompasses young adults aged between 18 and 25 from six dif- ferent religious traditions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism – and those identifying with more than one of these traditions). Overall, around three quarters of the main sample said that their religion was the same as their parents’/caregivers’. Specifically, the proportion saying so hovered around the 90% mark for Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. Christians were slightly less likely to say so. Thus, overall the majority of young people ori- ented their religious tradition to their parents’ religion, with slight movement around the edges. But the Buddhist participants were different. Fewer than 20% of them said that their religion was the same as their parents’/caregivers’. A significant number of these participants were converts to Buddhism, or they had parents who had, at some point, affiliated with Buddhism. Only a minority had been raised within a Buddhist context.

As we explored our Buddhist participants’ attitudes and experiences more closely, we also found that time and again, their responses contrasted with participants of other religious traditions (Yip and Page, 2013). For example, on the issue of sexuality, Buddhist participants’ responses were strikingly differ- ent from those of the other religious groups. In response to the questionnaire statement, ‘My religion restricts my sexual expression’, only 6.9% of Buddhists either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ (see Chapter 4 for further details). Not a sin- gle Buddhist agreed to the statement, ‘My religion is against any form of sexu- ality other than heterosexuality’. In other religious traditions, the results were differentf[1] (see full details in Yip and Page, 2013). On questions regarding per- sonal orientations to sexuality matters, fewer than 10% of Buddhists affirmed that, ‘It is important that I am a virgin when I get married’. In response to the statements, ‘Ideally sex should take place only within the context of marriage’ and ‘Heterosexuality should be the only expression of human sexuality’, few were in agreement (a full range of sexuality issues will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 4).

It seemed that Buddhist participants, compared to those of other religious groups, frequently had a more positive opinion of how their religious tradition engaged with sexuality issues, and they also had a more liberal view regarding what sexual practices were acceptable. For example, they were more tolerant of same-sex expressions, and were less keen to support ‘sex-within-marriage only’ and the importance of virginity until marriage.

Given these views – and the dominant perception that religious individu- als are more conservative on sexual matters compared to their non-religious counterparts (Regnerus, 2007; Yip, 2005) – one may indeed wonder how ‘religious’ our Buddhist participants were – was it the case that they were being fashionable or trendy in identifying as Buddhist, given the increased chatter about Buddhism in broader cultural rhetoric (Baumann, 2001; Rocha, 2012)? Were these individuals not ‘really’ religious, but just experimenting with iden- tities, with Buddhism being one option among many? These assumptions are refuted by our data. For example, regarding the statement, ‘I make decisions in my everyday life with reference to my religion’, the Buddhist participants, out of all the religious traditions we studied, were most firmly in agreement with this statement. Meanwhile when we mapped participation at public reli- gious gatherings, around half of the Buddhists attended at least once a week, eclipsed only by our Christian participants.[2]

The above account evinces that our Buddhist participants’ experiences were different enough to warrant further attention and a more detailed analysis, hence this book. Some may question to what extent we can explore the lives of Buddhist young adults more generally when sexuality was the primary lens through which the Religion, Youth and Sexuality project was undertaken. It is a valid point, and this book certainly does not abandon the theme of sexuality – we devote a whole chapter to it (see Chapter 4). But because our participants had often made an explicit choice to become Buddhist, with particular motiva- tions and reasons for this, this often took some explaining, particularly in the interviews, thus generating more detailed and nuanced data.

Demographically, Buddhism in the uk (especially ‘convert’ traditionsf[3]) con- sists of much older individuals; a product of white Britons encountering Bud- dhism in the counter-cultural context of the 1960s. As Yu explains:

On a material level, in the 1960s and 1970s the West was experienc- ing rampant consumerism, the destructive power of technology, and a collective sense of meaninglessness. Many individuals turned to psychedelic drugs or eastern belief systems such as Buddhism. Situated in this historical background, Buddhist conversion inevitably manifested itself as a deversion process – deversion from existing conventional val- ues and pre-existing belief systems such as Christianity. It bore New Age traits – self-as-divine, a holistic worldview, and no authority higher than the individual self. (2014: 477)

Indeed, Buddhism in Britain and the west today is more broadly described by Henry (2013: 235) as ‘largely white, middle aged and middle class’ (see also e.g. Bluck, 2006; Cadge, 2005; Possamai, 2009; Smith, Munt and Yip, 2016). Mean- while Queen (1999) describes the typical convert to Buddhism in the usa as a white, well-educated middle-aged woman, with a liberal outlook on life. The main contrast in relation to our participants was their ages – they were aged between 18 and 25, making them different to the Buddhist community around them. So not only were they different from other young religious adults, they also seemed to be different from the majority of Buddhists in terms of age. It was therefore interesting to ask, if there are so few young Buddhists in the uk context, what attracted our participants to Buddhism, and through what mechanisms was their belonging achieved? And, how did they manage the ev- eryday realities of being young Buddhists in diverse contexts?

For these reasons, we decided that the time was ripe to focus exclusively on the Buddhist participants, and to explore in further detail the dynamics of their religiosity. We were further committed to this book project when realis- ing the paucity of sociological literature on young Buddhists. Many scholars note that it is very difficult to determine the numbers of Buddhists in the uk (Bluck, 2006; Henry, 2013; Waterhouse, 1997). Henry notes that Buddhism is growing, with a 70% increase in England and Wales between the censuses of 2001 and 2011, while Thanissaro (2014) notes that around 23,000 of this population of 248,000 were aged between 10 and 19, although many within this age cohort would not have personally completed the 2001 census form themselves, making it difficult to determine the number who self-identify as Buddhists.

Indeed, Thanissaro’s (2013; 2014) research is one of few studies considering the experiences of UK-based young Buddhists, focusing on teenagers mainly of Asian heritage. His findings detail the religious practices of ‘ethnic’ or ‘heri- tage’ young Buddhists, how their religious identity was consolidated through parents and religious leaders, and the benefits of identifying with Buddhism. Meanwhile, further afield, Loundon (2001; 2005) has compiled the narratives of young Buddhists of mainly North American descent, detailing their dilemmas and experiences. Loundon’s outputs are a very illuminating and excellent read, but they are non-academic in nature.

Meanwhile, Beyer and Ramji (2013) have undertaken research with ‘ethnic’ young adult Buddhists living in Canada, as part of a larger project that also in- cluded Hindus and Muslims. Their research focuses on the socialisation expe- riences of young Buddhists, how they oriented themselves to Buddhism, and any gender differences which became apparent. Illuminatingly, their findings suggest that although ‘ethnic’ Buddhists living in Canada might be socialised into Buddhism and might continue to identify as Buddhist, their Buddhist identity was somewhat fragile. Many of their Buddhist participants were de- scribed as ‘a little bit Buddhist’ (Beyer, 2013a: 69) to convey an openness to Buddhism that was not necessarily matched by any overt practices or explicit engagement with Buddhism. Women were deemed more responsible for trans- mitting Buddhism to the next generation (Martel-Reny and Beyer, 2013), and the young women in their sample took religious engagement more seriously, indicating that gender differences were important. Their research project is enormously insightful and we are able to draw on some parallels with our data. But their sample was solely concerned with ‘ethnic’ or ‘heritage’ Buddhists, giving a particular engagement to Buddhism that differed somewhat to the experiences of our sample who were mainly ‘convert’ Buddhists. Finally, Lam (2015, 2016) has undertaken important research with young Buddhists in the Australian context. Covering both ‘ethnic’ and ‘convert’ Buddhists, Lam offers observations regarding the differences and similarities between both groups. Although there is evidence of differences, all participants were living out their Buddhist identity within the context of Australian culture, where Buddhism is increasingly visible, but this is coupled with a high level of illiteracy about Buddhism.

[ To Be Continued… ]


[1] For example, 90.2% of Muslims strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, ‘My religion is against any form of sexuality other than heterosexuality’, followed by 61.3% of Christians and 45% of Jews (see Yip and Page, 2013).

[2] We are not assuming that attendance at a public religious gathering in isolation is an ideal proxy for measuring religiosity, as some religious traditions do not put as much emphasis as others on this dimension of religious experience. Rather, we are using this statistic to dem- onstrate the seriousness with which our Buddhist participants took their religious identity. This issue is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 3.

[3] We recognise that ‘convert’ is a problematic term, and go on to discuss this issue later in the chapter (see also Smith, Munt and Yip, 2016).

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