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Andrew Yip and Sarah-Jane Page: Understanding Young Buddhists | Living Out Ethical Journeys | Chapter 2: Journeying to Buddhism

The majority of the young Buddhists we studied had not grown up in Buddhist families. For most, then, their embracing of Buddhism was part of an ongoing, reflexive and shifting religious journey. However, we do not suggest that affiliating with Buddhism became an end point to their faith journeys. Rather, their connection with Buddhism was constantly developing and being re-made, as the following chapters will show. We shall start by exploring participants’ upbringing and the role that religion did or did not play. We will then detail the different ways participants encountered Buddhism, in particular, the role that school played. We shall then explore why Buddhism was embraced, and conversely, why other religious traditions (such as Christianity) were usually rejected. Finally, we will look at the specific reasons underpinning our participants’ identification with Buddhism, focusing on three factors: experiencing a life crisis, locating an accepting sacred space, and finding an ethics for life.

This chapter will therefore explore why participants chose Buddhism, arguing that in order for Buddhism to be a viable option, access to Buddhism as a potential possibility (‘Buddhist resources’) needed to be available in some form or other. Collectively, these narratives will provide a fertile discussion about religious change, and the transformation of youthful religious identities in contemporary society. All the quotes cited are from the interviews, unless otherwise stated.

(Non-)Religious Upbringing

Across the sample, only a third (33.3%) said that they had had a religious upbringing.[1] Therefore the majority had not specifically been raised within a religious tradition, although they may have encountered religious ideas elsewhere (e.g. school). In addition, only 23.3% either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that their religion was the same as their parents or main caregivers.[2] This indicates that most participants had moved away from the beliefs and commitments of their parents (whether these were of a religious nature or not). If few were currently following their parents’ (non-)religious identities, it also indicated that few had been raised as Buddhist. We shall now explore the various (non-) religious backgrounds of our participants, using the more detailed data gleaned from the interview narratives, covering those who had been socialised within Buddhism to some extent, those raised within Christianity, those not raised in any religious tradition, and the specific dynamics of being socialised outside of the uk.

Participants with Buddhist Parents

When asked about their religious upbringing, only four out of our 16 interviewees had a parent who had an interest in, or had affiliated with, Buddhism. The clearest example of this was Emma, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in Scotland, whose mother had converted to Buddhism. Emma spent some of her childhood living in a New Kadampa Tradition monastery. Despite this early socialisation, Emma did not automatically define herself as Buddhist, arguing that her self-identity as a Buddhist emerged much later:

I wouldn’t have called myself Buddhist. I only became Buddhist [in] my teenage years when I thought back over my earlier experiences of childhood.

In Beyer’s (2013a) study of Canadian young people raised in Buddhist families, Buddhist socialisation was not consistent or intense in such families. Buddhist practices were often infused with cultural practices from where the participants’ parents had migrated (e.g. Sri Lanka, Cambodia). Beyer argues that socialisation into Buddhism remained weak for such young people. Emma’s mother was a convert to Buddhism; she had not inherited a cultural heritage associated with Buddhism. But similar to Beyer’s (2013a) participants, Emma did not recall any intense Buddhist socialising experiences. Furthermore, Emma encountered little expectation from her mother or anyone within the New Kadampa Tradition to personally identify as Buddhist. Indeed, despite her mother’s strong affiliation at that moment in time (to the extent that she lived in a Buddhist community), Emma’s mother’s affiliation with Buddhism had since changed. Although her mother still described herself as a Buddhist, she was not practising. This indicates that any socialising impetus was somewhat inconsistent in Emma’s case. Her mother’s affiliation was shifting and changing: at one point her mother kept a shrine at home, but then failed to maintain it. Emma’s mother’s connection to Buddhism was tenuous. But this early introduction to Buddhism became of paramount importance when Emma later affirmed her own Buddhist affiliation.

Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student in the southeast of England, had also been raised by converts to Buddhism, but while her mother had relinquished this affiliation long ago, her father continued to live in a Buddhist community within the tbc/fwbo. Therefore, her socialisation into Buddhism was mainly transmitted by her father, with whom she had maintained contact since her parents’ separation. Her father encouraged her to explore Buddhism and to attend Buddhist events, as she explained:

I’ve never been a practising Buddhist myself until I went on a few young person retreats with my dad. I don’t know why I went. I went because dad said it might be nice to come along and I went along and I really enjoyed it. Then I decided to become Buddhist myself, like practice. Before I believed it all but I didn’t practise at all. I didn’t practise the meditation, didn’t practise any of the precepts or anything like that. So I went along to that and then I decided to go home and get in contact with a local branch of the fwbo.

Although Jessica had maintained a connection with Buddhism throughout her childhood, it was only in the last few years that Jessica had started to explore Buddhism more explicitly, even joining a tbc/fwbo group close to where she lived. Because her father lived in a Buddhist community some distance away, Jessica’s affiliation with Buddhism needed to be self-directed. Therefore Jessica’s affiliation was not automatically confirmed by virtue of her father’s affiliation. Instead, it had to be cultivated, and Jessica had to be extremely motivated to make this step by contacting a tbc/fwbo group independently of her father’s group. Undoubtedly, her confidence in doing this had been increased by having a father who was active in the community, but this movement into a Buddhist group was specifically self-directed.

Only a minority of our participants had any connection to Buddhism through their parents. These parents were part of an increasing number of individuals living in the west who had explored Buddhism, which started with vigour in the 1960s (Yu, 2014). These ‘convert’ Buddhists have gone on to have children. But this leaves a question mark over how their children (some of our participants) identified religiously. As our narratives reveal, this is a complex and ongoing process. Therefore, their experiences make it very difficult to assert a dividing line between something encompassing ‘ethnic’ Buddhism and something one calls ‘convert’ Buddhism. If those raised in ‘convert’ families go on to affirm a Buddhist identity, do they remain a convert too, because their parents converted, or do they move into the category of an ‘ethnic’ Buddhist? This is far from clear cut, making such distinctions very difficult to operationalise in the lived reality of people’s lives.

Participants raised in families with Buddhist connections experienced quite sketchy and inconsistent socialisation into Buddhism. None of these orientations to Buddhism had much impact in consolidating a Buddhist identity among our participants, because they were not designed to fulfil this role. Participants whose parents had converted to Buddhism did not describe an upbringing where Buddhist rituals and ideas permeated their lives. These participants had not been explicitly socialised into Buddhism – there was little parental expectation for their own children to define themselves as Buddhist. This may also be a consequence of these parents’ own decisions to convert to Buddhism – being spiritual seekers (Roof, 1999), they, too, were accommodating of their own children’s seeking, and encouraging their children to make decisions about their religious affiliation on their own terms, and in an individualised manner. In short, ‘convert’ mothers, fathers or parents had less of a desire to expect or even encourage Buddhist affiliation amongst their children. Buddhism itself may also be a factor to take into account. Beyer (2013a) has noted that among young people within Buddhist immigrant families living in Canada, the processes of religious transmission within Buddhist families were markedly different to other religious groups. He described Buddhist families as promoting a ‘“secularized lay” orientation to their religion’ (2013a: 71); practising Buddhism ‘properly’ was connected to Buddhist monks and nuns who had formally affirmed their commitment. For Beyer’s participants, Buddhism was a ‘background resource that was always available when needed and somehow informed aspects of life practice in an indirect but still avowed way’ (2013b: 71). This is consistent with our participants who had been raised within Buddhist contexts.

Participants with a Christian Upbringing

Some participants had been raised as Christian. Danny, an 18-year-old A-level student living in Northern Ireland, explained how his mother was a Methodist and attended church every week:

My mum is very religious… She’s like a big church-goer and everything but she’s not really strict. She’s very open-minded about everything, and my dad, I think my dad’s agnostic, so he doesn’t really count. He lives in the next town, so he doesn’t count.

Danny deemed his father’s religious identification to be irrelevant; it was his mother’s religious attitudes and practices that mattered most to him, especially as his mother constituted his immediate familial context. Living in Northern Ireland, Danny recounted that Christianity was part and parcel of his upbringing, permeating most of his early life:

religious upbringing in Christianity [was] my entire childhood, basically. We had Sunday school and then the school re [Religious Education] as a curriculum subject… We had a religious reading every Monday from our headmaster in our assemblies… I think [my mother] still expects me to go to church every Sunday, but I can’t be bothered.

Danny had been raised in an exclusively-Protestant environment, patterned through segregation from Catholics, evidenced through separate schooling and housing experiences (Hughes, Campbell, Hewstone and Cairns, 2007). The totality of Christianity as the ‘sacred canopy’ (Berger, 1969) in his socialisation experiences led him to declare that: ‘I had thought Christianity was the only religion in the world’. As Mitchell (2006) notes, religion is hugely significant in Northern Ireland, being important in defining one’s identity and political allegiances, to the extent that religious identification becomes a boundary marker that underpins group membership and belonging. Indeed, Danny emphasised the significance of affiliating with either Catholicism or Protestantism, saying, ‘People will always say, “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”’ But in the last few years Danny came to identify as Buddhist, so when he retorted that ‘I’m neither’, this induced an incredulous and confused response. Danny’s experience of an exclusive school-based focus on Christianity was not isolated from the highly religious contours of the Northern Ireland context.

It was very rare for our participants’ socialisation into Christianity to intensify. One exception to this was discerned within a small number of participants who self-defined as Christian-Buddhist or Buddhist-Christian. Ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, described himself as an Anglican-Buddhist. He explained his religious upbringing:

I went to a Church of England primary school and then just a normal state secondary school. My parents sent me there. We went to church at Christmas and Easter and I was taught to say my prayers before bed when I was a child but nothing more than that really.

Ralph described his early socialisation into Christianity, characterised by churchgoing at Easter and Christmas, as well as attending a church school, as leaving him with only cursory knowledge about what Christianity was about, ‘I didn’t actually know very much about Christianity… but yes it gave me, I think it was good to have some feel of the tradition, feel of the kind of church calendar as well… [It was] not something alien’.

Ralph consolidated his Christian identity at the age of 16, after the death of his grandmother, who had been a ‘very strong Christian’. Because his familial background was Christian, he was motivated to honour this link and became affiliated with a conservative Evangelical youth group for a short time. His Christian upbringing had given him confidence to explore different Christian traditions and intensify his Christian involvement. But this broader interest in religion precipitated further research. Prompted by learning about Buddhism in Religious Education classes, he started to explore Buddhism in more detail. Ralph can be understood as a spiritual seeker, who, armed with a rudimentary knowledge of religion and a high level of curiosity, embarked on discovering a spiritual path he felt comfortable with (Roof, 1999). Beyer (2013d: 196) argues that seekers are:

Experimenting with or engaging in a variety of practices, testing out different beliefs or religions, or having the ‘big questions’ or life’s meaning and purpose, death, afterlife, or the existence of a spiritual/transcendent realty occupy them in a more or less constant fashion.

It was apparent that the death of his grandmother had had a profound impact on Ralph, hence prompting such self-discovery. Armed with the knowledge mainly generated in the school context, he actively sought out a religious path. If participants mentioned a dominant religious tradition that featured during their childhood, it was ordinarily Christianity that was referenced (e.g. Loundon, 2001, 2005), though the intensity and place of exposure differed significantly. Place made a difference. For example, in Northern Ireland, Christianity permeated every element of Danny’s life, where church attendance remained an expectation. Equally, schools became an important site for embedding Christian norms, as we shall further explore.

Participants with a Non-religious Upbringing

Many participants described being raised as nominally Christian, but with religious socialisation mainly occurring within the school context, rather than within the family. For example, Katie, a 24-year-old information technology specialist living in Yorkshire disclosed that she and her family had briefly attended church so that she could attend a prestigious faith school:

I didn’t really have a religious upbringing. I went to a Church of England high school so my family became a bit religious in order to get me in there… I got confirmed, started going to church until I got in to High School, and then we stopped.

Around one-third of schools in Britain are faith schools, with the majority being affiliated with Christianity (Davie, 2015; Ward, 2008). Faith schools have a reputation for producing excellent examination results and competition for a place in them is therefore fierce. Families in catchment areas for popular church schools often do all they can (including becoming regular churchgoers) in order to secure the child a school place (Davie, 2015). As a high proportion of these schools have a Christian identity, there was much opportunity for our participants to experience Christian socialisation within the school itself, especially when coupled with the legal requirement in England and Wales for all state-funded schools to have a daily act of collective worship which is, theoretically at least, to be mainly of a Christian character. Ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, for example, explained that his understanding of religion mainly came through the specific attention given to Christianity within the school context, rather than from the familial context:

I had a good upbringing but I don’t think it was religious to any extent really. I think the first [time] I talked about god or whatever was from school and having it mentioned in assembly, primary school assembly in a hymn or something, and mentioning that to my parents. But I don’t think they ever kind of instilled anything like that, but then I was brought up with morals I guess.

Therefore, for participants raised within non-religious families, schools were their first point of contact with religious ideas, and this orientation was usually based within Christianity. But this very loose connection to religious ideas was not supported by any sustained religiosity within the home (bar sporadic attendance at a church wedding or funeral). This meant that it was unusual for these participants to convert to Christianity on this basis. For example, Poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate living in the northeast of England had absorbed Christian ideas and stories conveyed in the school context, but she said her mother quickly undermined this affiliation, ‘I used to come home and tell her all about the baby Jesus and it used to annoy her’. Therefore, promoting Christian ideas was not necessarily popular or desirable among the parents of religiously unaffiliated participants, perhaps highlighting how participants’ parents themselves had at some point disengaged from Christianity in their own lives.

Participants Raised Outside of the uk

Not all of our participants were raised in the uk, and this had an impact regarding the processes of religious socialisation. José, a 21-year-old charity worker living in the east of England, was raised in Mexico and had come to the uk to live in a Buddhist community. He described Mexico as underscored by Catholicism:

Everyone in Mexico [would] call themselves Catholic, but [my family] never practised. We used to go to the church and actually I made my first communion… But it was to please my grandmother… I never liked the idea of repeating things… without understanding it. So it was something that I’d never liked.

José’s parents were not overly religious but some religious rituals were enacted in order to satisfy older relatives. Utilising the work of Hervieu-Léger (2000), who theorises religion as a chain of memory, Arweck and Nesbitt (2010a, 2010b) emphasise the crucial role that grandparents can play in cultivating the ongoing chain of religious memory, especially in contexts where parents have ‘broken’ the chain (see also Davie, 2000, 2002). As can be seen in the case of José, the chain of memory continued purely because of his grandmother’s interests and needs. But this transmission of the chain of memory proved unsuccessful, as José was very critical of the form and content of Catholic services, which he felt was premised on mere repetition. For José, like Danny mentioned earlier, Christianity was very much present in the surrounding culture, and permeated his early life, but it was also something he was able to dismiss relatively easily.

Meanwhile Elisabeth, a 23-year-old bisexual undergraduate living in the midlands of England had been raised by her grandparents in a predominantly Catholic area of rural Germany. Her mother had converted to Buddhism, but Elisabeth’s everyday life was patterned by the conservative religious practices of her grandparents. This had a huge influence on her upbringing:

My grandparents were strict Catholics and my parents weren’t but when I was a child… I grew up with my grandparents and they took care of my religious upbringing as a Catholic… I went to church with them every Sunday and did the evening prayers, prayed in the morning, prayed before meals. So it was like there was no thought process involved… Because people never explained to me why [there were] all these rules, and what they meant… And I often had huge difficulties with these rules.

Again, we can see that grandparents were influential in religious transmission, although Elisabeth later became disillusioned with Catholicism. She was especially critical of the practice of confession, and what the personal implications were for her as a bisexual:

[Where my grandparents live] everyone goes to confession still. I would have had to confess only thinking about women while having sex with my boyfriend. And that would have been… no. And the priest knows my family, my entire family, my grandmother, everybody in my family. And he probably would have told them because officially, he has to keep it a secret, but nothing is kept a secret there.

It was around the issue of sexuality that Catholicism became problematic for Elisabeth, especially the humiliation of offering a narrative of her sex life to a priest she was convinced would then disclose this to her wider family (the issue of sexuality will be covered in more detail in Chapter 4). But Elisabeth’s critique of Catholicism was much easier to make given that her parents had disaffiliated, and her mother’s identification with Buddhism gave Elisabeth alternative resources with which to work.

Becoming Acquainted with Buddhism

We have articulated the (dis)connection our participants had to religion during their upbringing, and the sketchy and inconsistent nature of any faith transmission, in many cases. We have noted that even participants with Buddhist parents were not expected to adopt a Buddhist identity for themselves. Their socialisation into Buddhism did not seem to be undertaken with the expectation that they would become Buddhist. This meant that their early understandings of Buddhism could be quite minimal and fragmented, requiring further study and engagement. Nevertheless, this background instruction, however brief or superficial, became an important ‘hook’ to work with, especially for those who faced challenges and adversity, and at which point Buddhism was drawn upon as a significant resource (we shall discuss this in more detail shortly).

Meanwhile, those with no familial connections to Buddhism had to encounter some sort of spark or connection to Buddhism. As previously indicated, Danny was located in a Christian-dominant environment, with Christianity underpinning most of his experiences to the extent that he believed at one point that Christianity was the only religion that existed. The puncturing of this ‘sacred canopy’ (Berger, 1969) was achieved through seizing upon any opportunity to explore other belief systems. This occurred almost by accident. Danny’s friend was knowledgeable about Paganism, and offered an alternative viewpoint to the Christian-dominated landscape of Northern Ireland. This new knowledge was readily absorbed:

The Christianity we were brought up in was ‘god has a plan for you; everything in your life will be set out by god’… Paganism was a very, very old religion, and from what I could tell it was much older than Christianity and the fact that it was so old sort of suggested to me that it would have had more truth to it… [It advocated that] your life is yours to control… you work with your life to make it better and stuff like that.

The older provenance of Paganism was taken to imply it had more truth or reality to it. This was twinned with the different emphasis on control. Danny’s interpretation of Christianity was that god was in control. In Paganism, control was given to the individual. He subsequently defined himself as a Pagan for two years in his early teens, facilitated by his involvement with a small friendship group of like-minded young Pagans living nearby. Danny would participate in home-based Pagan rituals, and would undertake much book-based and internet-based research on Paganism. This seeker impetus (Beyer, 2013d; Roof, 1999) led him to encounter Buddhism, as he explained:

[I came across] a book on Buddhism from the first western convert to Buddhism, and I was just out of interest reading through it. I was looking at a lot of the tenets that this man had discovered and [what he] was writing about were things that I was already practising. And a lot of the stuff that he was saying that he had discovered in his travels were things that made an awful lot of sense to me.

His study of Paganism led to the discovery of Buddhism; Buddhism became more appealing because of its explanation of suffering, which deeply resonated with Danny, as he was experiencing a personal life crisis at that point in his life, as we shall later see. He therefore came to define himself solely as a Buddhist.

Another key means through which our participants discovered Buddhism was classes on religion in school. For example, Ellis, a 19yearold undergraduate living in the southeast of England, undertook a module in Buddhism as part of his Religious Education gcse qualification. As he recounted:

I’ve kind of been interested in eastern culture and aspects of it since I was quite young, like martial arts films and that kind of thing. Quite enjoyed religious studies at school… We studied Buddhism as one of the modules, which was the first time I learned quite a lot about it and our teacher… was like a practising Buddhist… I went on a meditation retreat which was just a weekend long one for young people, and there were a few of us who did religious studies in the class that went on it… and really enjoyed that, and kind of continued since. And it’s something that I’ll quite happily read about… reading teachings and stuff I find really interesting.

In the same vein, Maddie, a 23-year-old Quaker-Buddhist-Pagan undergraduate, living in the midlands of England, said:

I think I first really became interested in Buddhism as an offshoot of studying Hinduism at A-Level because I did Hinduism as part of my religious studies A-level and one of the things I did sort of supplementary to that was to go up to the British Museum and look for Hindu artwork and then found myself in the Buddhist galleries.

For both Ellis and Maddie, school became a crucial context for consolidating interest in Buddhism, but learning about Buddhism in school was not enough. Consistent with the narratives of those who had no kin relationship to Buddhism, both Maddie and Ellis had to undertake their own independent and self-directed learning in order to engage with Buddhist philosophy and action. Ellis perhaps had slightly more school resources to draw upon, especially as his teacher was a Buddhist. This teacher was an important mentor for Ellis, and had some impact in enabling those in his class who were interested, to attend a retreat. But Ellis still had to supplement this with his own engagement through reading about Buddhism. He therefore had to translate his interest into practice. In this learning context, it was not just books that were used as a resource – the internet was a crucial site for learning about Buddhism, particularly when it came to learning Buddhist practices such as meditation and bowing, as Danny explained:

[My meditation] was a sort of self-guided thing… There was a great YouTube series by this guy who lives in California, who just explained Buddhist meditation. He’s a monk who lives out there and he just went through all of the different forms of Buddhist meditation that you can do.

The internet became an important resource for participants, especially for those who were geographically distanced from Buddhist centres and other Buddhist practitioners, which typified Danny’s experience in Northern Ireland. Similar to Ostrowski’s (2006) findings, we found that the internet became a key source of communication in areas where Buddhist communities were few and far between.

These findings, of the strong propensity for participants to undertaken independent engagement and study, resonate with Berger and Ezzy’s (2007) study of teenage Witches, and how their participants developed their knowledge of Witchcraft and Wicca. They too note that using one’s initiative to source out relevant material, and using the internet as a key resource to develop their ideas and meet like-minded people, was crucial in embedding teens’ competence and confidence with Witchcraft. Similarly, our participants demonstrated a high level of commitment to independent investigation, through engaging with a variety of texts, including printed and online resources. But it is evident that this engagement was premised on broader contours of privilege and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984). The opportunities for Ellis to attend a weekendlong retreat, and Maddie’s visit to the British Museum, were based on having the cultural and economic resources to enable participation (see Chapter 6 for a fuller discussion on economic and cultural capital).

Meanwhile, although the school context had an impact, Poppy’s spark was not school-based; rather unusually, she decided to go to a meditation class after seeing an advertisement:

When I was about 17, I had seen a meditation class advertised and I don’t know what it was that drew me to it, whether it was just kind of being idealistic and young or memory from a past life or something like that, but I went along and I was being bullied at school and stuff at the time and it was one of those things it all made sense… The teachings on suffering and all this, it was like, oh right it makes sense, and then I ended up studying religious studies for A-level and there was a bit about Buddhism in there and you know I got an A [grade] and [got] really into it.

Therefore, although the school context later became important for Poppy, it was not the initial point of contact. To attend an unknown religious space as a 17-year-old, alone and with no prior knowledge, must have entailed much confidence and boldness, and was an unusual step to take compared with our other participants, who usually had some cursory knowledge about Buddhism before attending a class or event.

It was apparent that for those who did not have a Buddhist parent or relative, school became a crucial context for exploring Buddhism, and its significance. Nevertheless, the school context was not enough, with students having to draw on their own resources to explore Buddhism more deeply in their own time. This entailed purposeful self-directed engagement. This may help explain why, in general terms, relatively few young people adopt a Buddhist identity. As can be discerned from the narratives of our participants, it takes much effort and hard work – young people have to be especially motivated to go above and beyond mere classroom engagement, to fully explore what Buddhism can offer. And in the school context where Buddhism is marginalised, this spark may not even have the potential to be lit, especially when Christianity is prioritised in the school context (Benoit, 2016).

This also indicates that there may be key differences between how ‘convert’ and ‘ethnic’ Buddhists consolidate their Buddhist identity. Beyer’s (2013b) research on young people born into ‘ethnic’ Buddhist families who migrated to Canada revealed that few young Buddhists were explicitly involved in Buddhist practices, and many were not that knowledgeable about Buddhism. Beyer (2013a) notes that ‘ethnic’ Buddhists experience a latent Buddhism. Buddhism is always in the background, ready to be activated if needed. This coheres closely with our participants who were the children of converts to Buddhism. Meanwhile, as detailed in this section, ‘convert’ Buddhists do not have this cultural backdrop, and have to work hard at cultivating their knowledge about Buddhism, often through independent study. This coheres with Lam’s (2015) research, who detailed the lengths participants would go to in order to cultivate their knowledge of Buddhism. One ‘convert’ participant in her research even learned Sinhalese to accompany her engagement with Buddhism as practised in Sri Lanka.

Buddhism as Different

The previous section articulated the central place school played for helping to initiate participants on their Buddhist journey, particularly for those who knew of no other Buddhists and had not experienced any socialisation into Buddhism. But what we also articulated is that for many of our participants, school was often experienced as a heavily Christianised space, so it was actually quite remarkable that schools could become catalysts for Buddhist-based exploration; a totally unintended consequence, so to speak. Indeed, one may ponder, given the preponderance of Christian rhetoric within much of the school space, why our participants did not find Christianity appealing?

We have already begun to address this question, but to articulate the point more clearly: the participants considered Christianity to be less relatable compared to Buddhism. For some, this was because Christianity was perceived as falling short in scientific terms. For others, it was more about the explicit expectation to believe in a divine being. Meanwhile, others specifically focused on conservative and rule-bound aspects of Christianity which seemed out of step with contemporary sexual norms (Loundon, 2001; Mellor, 1991; Yip and Page, 2013).

Katie, a 24-year-old information technology specialist living in Yorkshire, discussed her experiences of being educated in a Christian school, and challenged the belief systems she encountered:

I didn’t feel any connection. I didn’t feel like the other people were actually connected to it; it was just words that we said. I mean we did the grace. I can’t even remember the words now but we would always just stand there with the chairs on the tables and we would just race through it so we could leave… I was really quite angered by them because they didn’t mean it, so I wouldn’t say it and I refused to carry the cross into worship when it was my turn and I got told off for being difficult… The [Religious Education] teacher would say, ‘Why?’ and I would say, ‘Well, I’m not sure that god exists and I don’t understand’… You could just tell that it was a formality and that it was a church school and this is what we did. You didn’t ask questions about why you did it; you just said the words and that was it… [When I came to Buddhism] I already knew that Christianity wasn’t really my thing.

Here Katie articulated her disappointment with the habitual and unreflexive nature of Christian rituals in the school context, which she felt were performed for their own sake, and thus stripping them of meaning and purpose. This led to a lack of opportunity to discuss the meanings behind Christianity within the school context. Underpinning all of this was Katie’s lack of belief in god. We have mentioned above that Katie’s family were not religious, but had attended church briefly in order to obtain her a place in a well-performing church school. Therefore, her socialisation into Christianity was mainly within the school context, and as Katie recounted it, this was a very negative encounter.

Katie’s narrative pinpoints two crucial elements regarding why Buddhism appealed to the participants. Firstly, they felt that Buddhism was much more open to questioning, scrutiny and debate; secondly, it did not require having to believe in a divine being (see also Chapter 3). Ingrid, a 24-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England and practising Tibetan Buddhism, wrote in the questionnaire that, ‘[Buddhism] is not a belief religion and therefore it makes me think very critically and [makes me] open towards new things’. Similarly, Ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, argued that Buddhism is ‘kind of empirically looking at experience and working out there’s no kind of doctrines or higher beings or anything… Buddha’s words are really truthful and actually they’re quite down to earth’. These responses implicitly argue that Buddhism follows a rational path that is open to debate and discussion. Its truthfulness is based on evidence, and not reliant on belief in a divine being. So, for them, the belief in a divine being induces a reliance that militates against the development and exercise of self-responsibility and reflexivity. This also highlights the way participants perceived Buddhism as compatible with scientific ways of knowing the world, through critique, exploration and rationality (Batchelor, 2012). Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student based in the southeast of England and connected with the tbc/fwbo, articulated how she understood Buddhism and what made it different to other religions:

[Buddhism] doesn’t ask you to believe in anything you don’t already know. It doesn’t ask you to have faith in anything which isn’t completely and utterly obvious once you think about it. When you read about Buddhism, it feels familiar. It feels like common sense… To me it’s about understanding, having insight into the truth, the true nature of things. And the true nature of things is what we already know, but we try not to think about it because it’s difficult to deal with and it’s easier just to plod along… With Christianity, Islam, all the other stuff, it does feel like they’re asking you to believe in something that… [is outside of] your conditioned existence. And it’s like an external thing. I don’t see how that is going to help you get to the truth.

Therefore for Jessica, there was a truth underpinning Buddhism – but this truth was self-discovered, and directed through her own knowledge and understanding. In short, Buddhism made sense. It was relatable and understandable within her social world, highlighted through her use of the phrase ‘common sense’. This also links to Ellis’s argument that Buddhism was ‘down to earth’. These phrases indicate a level of comfort with Buddhist ideas, even in an environment where Buddhism is a minority religion, lacking embedded cultural roots (Barker, 2007). This also brought into focus another common idea – that Buddhism was so unlike other religions that it was not deemed a religion at all:

I don’t personally see Buddhism as equally the same as other religions. Not because it is better but because it is different. It doesn’t have a god, you don’t have a faith and beliefs.

george, a 21-year-old undergraduate living in the midlands of England, associated with the tbc/fwbo

It is also a bit more of a philosophy sometimes, and I’ve often debated this with theology students, whether Buddhism is more of a philosophy or a religion

elisabeth, a 21-year-old undergraduate living in the midlands of England, an adherent of Chan Buddhism as well as Roman Catholicism

It’s almost non-religious as such, in that it’s not so much an institutionalised religion as a kind of personal journey

ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, and identifying with the Vipassana Tradition

They say that Buddhism’s not a religion, but a way of life. They say that a lot. It’s completely different

jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student, living in the southeast of England and affiliated with tbc/fwbo

Many participants explicitly rejected theism, as this was bound up with notions of hierarchy and control. They not only understood hierarchy and control as residing with dominant concepts of the divine, but also embedded in the religious institutions that they associated with theism. Buddhism was constructed as being very different to other religions participants were familiar with. But their understanding of Buddhism was cultivated in a particular western context. As Bubna-Litic and Higgins (2007) explain, hierarchical and institutionalised formulations of Buddhism can be located, across time and space. But this was not how participants understood the Buddhism with which they were familiar (see also Chapter 6).

For some participants, the rejection of Christianity was much more personal and related to particular experiences in their lives, often to do with sexuality. For example, Elisabeth whose religious journey we have already recounted, contrasted Buddhism with the negative experiences she had had in relation to Catholicism. Elisabeth had been raised by her Catholic grandparents for much of her childhood, but she resisted the restrictiveness she felt within this religious context which also compromised her own sexual identity as bisexual:

One thing that I never quite understood about Church, were all these rules that were imposed on me… Because people never explained to me why all these rules, and what they meant. It was just like yes there is this rule and there is this rule, and follow it. But they never told me why. And I often had huge difficulties with these rules and as a teenager it got even worse. It wasn’t like that at 11 I said from one moment to another, ‘Sorry guys I don’t believe in god, bye-bye’. It was a gradual process of moving from one thing to another… [The Catholic Church’s] stance on gays and women, I couldn’t understand it and I still can’t understand it, and for me personally it is even harder obviously.

Elisabeth took particular issue with the way sexuality was understood within Catholicism, causing much internal conflict, given that her personal view and identity was far removed from the official Catholic view (sexuality will be discussed in further depth in Chapter 4).

So far, we have articulated why Christianity did not appeal to our participants, and, conversely, what attracted them to Buddhism. However the story is more complicated than that, again reiterating the point that our participants did not live static religious lives, but were rather underscored by fluidity and movement as they journeyed through life (Tweed, 2006).

Indeed, as previously highlighted, there were a number of our participants who were concurrently practising as Buddhist and Christian. The religious starting point for most within this group was Christianity, but they adopted Buddhism as a significant practice in their everyday living out of their religion. Therefore, rather than an outright rejection of Christianity, as we have already seen, Buddhism instead was combined and incorporated into their religious practice. This notion of movement could be noted in Elisabeth’s narrative. Despite her negativity towards Catholicism, noted above, another life event – a near-death experience – led her to re-assess her religious affiliations. This prompted her to recalibrate her identity as Christian and Buddhist, rather than solely Buddhist, as she recounted:

I was riding in the mountains… I was behind a hilltop and I had an epileptic seizure… I fell off the horse and was unconscious and in a coma behind the hilltop. So a car wouldn’t have seen me, and normally if you fall off a horse, it runs off. My horse stood there on the hilltop guarding over me…. A car came straight away after I had fallen off and they got me in a helicopter just in time to save myself… Normally they should have found me there dead. It was also straight after that a thunderstorm came up, so soon after the helicopter wouldn’t have been able to come in anymore. I was, well, either the luckiest person on earth, or god helped me. And I think it was god helping me that day.

This life-changing event impacted on Elisabeth profoundly, and as she recovered, she started attending a local church. But in order for her to express a coherent and sense-making religious identity, she had to respond to some of the misgivings she had about the Catholic Church relating to her sexual identity. Indeed, she argued:

I have decided just to follow my own conscience because I am quite sure that god is going to forgive me. Because I am sure that god wants me to be happy.

Therefore, Elisabeth had not necessarily changed her view that Catholicism was a rule-bound institution and system; rather, her experience had changed her orientation to religion. What now underpinned her Christianity was having a personal relationship with god, rather than adopting and absorbing the teachings of the Catholic Church per se. Although she continued to attend a Catholic church, this affiliation was motivated by a love of god, rather than following the rules and (sexual) regulations of the Catholic Church. But because she still identified as Buddhist, and saw the benefit of Buddhist approaches, this led to some confusion in her Catholic community regarding how she defined herself, as Elisabeth felt they would not tolerate her identity as either a Buddhist-Catholic or Catholic-Buddhist, unsurprising given the edict issued by Cardinal Ratzinger at the end of the 20th century (before he became Pope Benedict xvi) forbidding Catholics to practise Buddhism (Yu, 2014). Elisabeth was therefore actively trying to make sense of her new religious worldview, and whether any label could be attached to it, or be publicly disclosed.

The other self-defined Buddhist-Christians or Christian-Buddhists were much more comfortable and confident in seeing themselves through the lens of two religions. We have already discussed Ralph’s religious upbringing, but in short, his parents were occasional churchgoers, and he had attended a church school. His Christian identification intensified when his grandmother died, after which he joined a conservative Evangelical youth group. But he quickly became disillusioned with some of the teachings he encountered. As was typical with other participants, he had encountered Buddhism at school, and undertaken online and book-based research into Buddhism. Despite his socialisation into Christianity, Ralph articulated that, ‘I didn’t really know much about Christianity at that stage’, so he was concurrently researching both Christian and Buddhist practices. He eventually found a home both within liberal Anglicanism, and the teachings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh,[3] whom he felt offered a compatible way of combining Buddhism with Christianity. Similar to the accounts by our Buddhist participants above, Ralph articulated that bringing together Buddhism and Christianity felt very natural to him:

Thích Nhâ´t Hạnh has written books on Buddhist Christian dialogue and is very, very happy for people who practise with him to be Christians. And [he] actually encourages you to go back to your spiritual roots… I’ve never actually felt a conflict between the two. I mean obviously, doctrinally at several points, but in my heart I’ve never really felt any sort of conflict.

Ralph therefore defined himself as an Anglican-Buddhist and was very happy to discuss his Buddhist practice with the Anglicans at the liberal church he frequented; he encountered little resistance to, or critique of, his dual-religious approach.

Maddie’s parents were Quakers, and her socialisation experience was consolidated through the Children’s Meeting every Sunday. She remembered her childhood as being ‘open-minded, quite diverse so I was encouraged to explore different religions and to ask questions’. This upbringing also encompassed attending the worshipping spaces of other denominations within Christianity, and the religious buildings of other faiths. This background set Maddie up well to further her knowledge of interesting religious ideas when she encountered them. We have already noted how Maddie experienced Buddhism through her A-level Religious Education classes, but through her Quaker network she encountered individuals identifying as Quaker Buddhists, with the result that she spent some of her gap year attending a Buddhist temple. This wider sense of engagement and exploration had also resulted in her identifying as a Pagan; indeed, both her Pagan affiliation and her interest in Buddhism started with feminine iconography, as she explained:

[In the British Museum] I was really intrigued that there were feminine images in the Buddhist artwork and you know, the Bodhisattvas[4] who are portrayed as women. I found [that] really intriguing and that was one of the things that made me say perhaps there’s something to follow up here. And that sort of feeds in because some of the mantras I might use for chanting are dedicated to female Bodhisattvas. And that plays into other things I’m interested in as well. I’ve sort of explored some bits of Paganism and the Goddess movement as well for the same sorts of reasons.

As noted in a previous section, Maddie’s interest was piqued in Buddhism when she encountered the Buddhist section of the British museum while on an A-level fieldtrip. What captivated her was encountering the feminine Bodhisattva statues within the museum space. This resonated with her broader interest in images of the goddess, and led to her using Bodhisattvas within her devotional Buddhist practice. Despite the amalgamation of many different resources and elements to her religious outlook, Maddie did not perceive these to be in conflict, as she reflected:

You don’t have to commit yourself to any sort of theology to practise Buddhism and that’s quite attractive. It gives you a bit of thinking room, breathing room. That’s similar to Quakerism in a way that you’re free to make up your own mind about things and I like that.

All of the religious practices Maddie adopted consolidated her open-minded approach to life, so that her religious practice made sense to her. She was a ‘Quaker-Buddhist-Pagan’, with Quakerism, Buddhism and Paganism all being important to her.

The pathways that those who can variously be described as BuddhistChristian – or more accurately (as Christianity seemed to be the primary identification) Christian-Buddhist – were diverse, but what they all had in common was a non-hierarchical view of both Christianity and Buddhism.

Turning to Buddhism

We have articulated that despite the fact that Christianity was the most dominant religious tradition in many of our participants’ early lives, many were very critical and sceptical about it and did not choose to affiliate with it, bar the minority who came to identify as Buddhist-Christian or Christian-Buddhist. So far we have detailed our participants’ experiences of religious socialisation, and their general approaches to religion. We would now like to focus more explicitly on why they came to define themselves as Buddhist. Those raised within ‘convert’ Buddhist contexts had at best minor encouragement to consider Buddhism as a potential pathway. Those raised within intensely Christian contexts had often dismissed Christianity for its authoritarian character, or considered it a belief system that simply did not make sense to them. But this did not explain why they then turned to Buddhism. Meanwhile, those raised in the absence of any religious tradition had seemingly little reason to seek out a religious worldview at all. More broadly, research on Buddhist individuals reveals that Buddhism mainly comprises a much older demographic, and would not typically be encountered within our participants’ age cohort (Henry, 2013; Queen, 1999; Yu, 2014). Nonetheless, all of them came to actively define themselves as Buddhist. The question is: why? This section will detail the three dominant reasons: helping them through a personal crisis, a desire to locate a congruent and accepting sacred space, and a desire to find an ethics for life. We shall now consider these in turn.

Personal Crisis

For a significant number of our participants, exploring Buddhism was precipitated by some form of a personal life crisis. Such a crisis took a number of forms, varying from drug dependency, near-death experiences, death of friends and/or family, bullying, or caring for a parent with mental health issues. Whatever the crisis moment, all had had a lasting and devastating impact on the individual. Loundon’s (2001, 2005) narratives from young Buddhists also emphasise that life crisis could result in conversion.

Caroline, a 23-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, had been raised in Singapore by a Buddhist mother and a Christian father. She moved to the uk to study, but experienced a traumatic event in her first year at university:

I got into a lot of bad habits… I nearly dropped out… I ended up in hospital and it was terrible, and after that I woke up. I just said to look more into Buddhism and to try and find answers in life. But I’ve always been interested in it… it feels quite stupid but I was basically feeling quite anxious and depressed and I was taking a lot of drugs… I sort of nearly had an overdose (laughs). It was a strange experience but I couldn’t tell anyone; nobody knew, so I was keeping it to myself and then after that I looked at my life and thought I really need to get on track. I need to find a way.

Initially Caroline did not want to disclose exactly what had happened. She felt embarrassed and ashamed. She felt unable to disclose these events to her family; if she did, after so much money had been spent on her university education in the uk, she anticipated much pain and heartache. Therefore to avoid hurting her family, she was motivated to find an individual coping strategy. She utilised the Buddhist teachings and practices from her mother that she had already been exposed to as, in Beyer’s (2013b) terms, ‘a background resource’, explicitly drawing on this resource as a means of dealing with her personal crisis.

Meanwhile, Stefan, a 25-year-old undergraduate living in the southwest of England and currently affiliated with Early Buddhism, had had a very difficult upbringing, as he described:

One of the original stimuli for becoming interested in Buddhism, mediation and monastic life, was because I had a very difficult family background. My father killed himself when I was 11 and my mother was extremely ill with manic psychosis… She had full nervous breakdowns about every six months, and was extremely mad. And I was living alone with her from about 11 onwards to 16, and I basically needed some kind of inner stability and inner refuge. That’s one of the things that originally I think I was needing and therefore seeking for something like meditation and Buddhism.

Like Caroline, Stefan was emphatic that his traumatic experiences and his turn to Buddhism were linked. Despite coming from a nominally Christian background, he had dismissed Christianity, saying:

I didn’t believe in god… [T]he way that it is traditionally interpreted and talked about didn’t make any sense to me at all and it just seemed like wishful thinking.

Psychologically, the death of Stefan’s father perpetuated fears of his own mortality and demise, and his broader reading led him to explore Buddhist philosophy:

Buddhism has at least… it very easily resonates with the very morbid, you could say, pessimistic view of life. There is more to it than that ultimately but it certainly has a lot that resonates with that state of mind.

Buddhist teaching corresponded with and responded to how Stefan was feeling, and through encountering the New Kadampa Tradition, Stefan learned the practice of meditation and began meditating throughout his teens. Therefore, his affiliation with Buddhism was not just about finding a like-minded philosophy; it was also about engaging with practical techniques to cope with the stressful experiences he was encountering on a day-to-day basis.

Danny was reluctant to go into specific details about the factors leading up to feeling intensely suicidal, but it was evident that despite being one of our youngest participants, at 18, he had already experienced much personal anguish:

I don’t really remember… a lot of it was all about friends leaving and not wanting to talk to me and arguments with friends… [I got] really distressed, and I wound up in counselling and all sorts of weird crazy stuff… A lot of my life up until recently I’ve had really bad depression, gone through really bad suicidal stages, stuff like that. And then [encountering] the idea that Buddhism just through working with your mind that you could put an end to all that, like I thought that was brilliant and that I should really go for it. Ever since I converted to Buddhism I have been a much happier person and had people tell me lately you’ve just been a really happy person… it was the idea of ending suffering from Buddhism, and the idea of helping others [that appealed]. I was like, that’s brilliant; I will go and take a look at it.

Buddhist beliefs on suffering and the practical application of meditation were attractive to him, giving him the theoretical and practical means to address his life crisis. Like Caroline, Danny was self-directed in his path, taking an individualised route to reorient his life.

These participants saw a direct relationship between impactful events and their subsequent turn to Buddhism, but for others, they did not see any connection between the two. In her late teens, Emma, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in Scotland and following non-sectarian Buddhism, had a formative experience, where she nearly died after suffering a sustained bone infection:

No one told me at the time but I found out a year later I flatlined on coming to the hospital and had to be resuscitated… They told my mother that I wouldn’t walk again. Obviously here I am, fine, pretty much. It took a few years for my back to get back in shape. Last year I fell over and couldn’t get up for a month. This year I fell over… But it healed up fine; it is getting better with time… I didn’t realise how much of a miracle recovery it was, but I wouldn’t put on any extra understanding during that time or after that time on any sort of religious awakening. I am more of a scholar at heart… That is the way I see it. I think my revival of Buddhism came more from understanding it more clearly.

The details surrounding Emma’s crisis moment were not revealed to her until sometime afterwards; meanwhile, she was processing the possibility that she was permanently paralysed. Emma was adamant that there was not a causal link between these experiences and her turn to Buddhism, and indeed, there is much in Emma’s story to take this claim seriously. Unlike other participants, Emma had experienced direct Buddhist socialisation as a child – she had spent some of her childhood living as part of a lay community attached to a Buddhist monastery, so was familiar with Buddhist ideas and practices. She described her association with Buddhism as:

something that I grew up with. So the images that are foreign for other people seem very homely to me. That is something I have trouble getting my head around and something I wanted to look into, and caught my interest more in understanding what Buddhism is really about. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t doing it because either I grew up in it or I didn’t fully understand it.

Unlike being raised in a dominant religious tradition such as Christianity which would engender little curiosity from others, Emma had to defend her religious upbringing and articulate a minority status where she was, in effect, a second generation Buddhist. Her mother was part of the 1960s and 1970s generation who turned to Buddhism in ever-greater numbers. As a daughter of a convert, Emma had to make sense of her own religious orientation, even if only as a means of managing how others perceived her. This led to intensive Buddhist study, and ultimately, identifying as Buddhist. Nevertheless, this process of study and articulation of being a Buddhist took place within a very uncertain health context, and the fact that she was actively undertaking this learning throughout must have had an impact on the way she made sense of events as they unfolded in her life. So it was true that Buddhism was not necessarily utilised as something to help Emma to cope, but she was sufficiently resourced for this Buddhist identification to come easily to her.

Indeed, it is important to reiterate that the link many made between personal trauma and finding Buddhism is not an automatic one. Evidently, many young people in the uk suffer tragedy – and as Berger and Ezzy (2007) note, distressing experiences are part and parcel of youth experiences, especially those relating to depression, suicide, abuse, and bullying. Despite such problems being relatively routine within the youth population, only a tiny minority then go on to embrace Buddhism. Emma’s story gives a clear indication that socialisation into Buddhism as a child could make a difference. Her childhood knowledge of Buddhist ideas and practices gave her the impetus to explore further. Therefore, for those in crisis to seize upon Buddhism, they had to know about it in the first place. Caroline, too, was able to draw on her mother’s Buddhist identification and utilise this to strategic effect when she underwent personal upheaval at university. It was relatively simple for Buddhism to be utilised as a resource in her moment of need. Meanwhile, others, such as Stefan and Danny, had to use broader resources, often by sparks they encountered that led to independent study and learning. Encountering Buddhism unexpectedly could engender much scope for studious exploration, but this route entailed much personal effort and determination, especially in contexts where Buddhism was barely audible. For example, Danny’s conviction that Buddhism was the way forward was articulated in the context of Northern Ireland where he knew of no other Buddhists.

Accepting Sacred Spaces

As indicated in Chapter 1, fewer than half of our participants identified as heterosexual; a significant number described their sexual orientation differently. This had an impact regarding how they interacted with Buddhism, and why they found Buddhism appealing. We shall expand on the specific experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans participants in Chapter 4, but here we shall emphasise that Buddhism appealed to some participants – regardless of their sexual orientation – because Buddhism was understood as accepting towards sexual minorities. This enabled lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans participants to cultivate a religious identity in a space that they found welcoming. Caroline, a 23-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England was raised in Singapore by a Buddhist mother and Christian father. She explained that Christianity was much more dominant in her socialising experiences:

My uncle was a pastor so basically they were really religious. They insisted I went to a Catholic school… But my father was very moderate… We only went to church on special occasions like Easter, Christmas… My mother never really talked about Buddhism… It was more like a formal Christian upbringing until I was about 16… I had more exposure to Christianity but the thing is I never felt connected to it. I always felt really scared. It’s so dogmatic… When I was more exposed to Christianity, I was very, very afraid to come out as gay or bisexual. I could not accept it. It was something that I had to hide and not tell anyone… [I] couldn’t be myself… That was at the back of my mind, that I was doing something wrong or I was evil… [There was] a lot more conflict, internal conflict I think. I would definitely have been more repressed and more depressed, yeah [had I stayed within Christianity]… I think Buddhism has helped me accept myself… I feel more comfortable. It is not an awkward fit. It is a good fit.

The understanding of sexuality Caroline encountered within the context of the Catholic Church left her with a conflicted identity. Unable to sustain this, she rejected her Catholic upbringing, and turned to Buddhism instead.

Caroline identified Buddhism as offering a coherent, non-conflictual self that accommodated diverse sexual identities (See Chapter 4 for a detailed discussion of this). Buddhism offered an accepting space that could not be located within Christianity, enabled through her mother’s connection to Buddhism. Therefore, for Caroline, there was something fundamental about achieving a spiritual congruence where her sexual identity was fully accepted, and not curtailed by the negative views of religious communities and religious leaders. As Thomson (2009) argues, sexuality has become connected to how one’s identity is defined in the contemporary world; sexuality becomes a source of meaning. Therefore, if this is not affirmed within a sacred space, this can be a motivator for young adults to seek out spaces where their sexuality will be accepted. As Munt argues, ‘spaces are political, multi-faceted and continually being re-created’ (2010: 2); spiritual spaces are being made and remade. Her study of a variety of queer spiritual spaces highlighted that these spaces varied in type, and may only be queered for a short time. Within the contours of Munt’s project, Yip and Smith (2010) highlight that Buddhism does not unambiguously offer a space where a lesbian, gay or bisexual identity is unequivocally accepted. Within western Buddhist spaces which are commonly understood as accepting of sexual difference, LGBT Buddhists can encounter marginalization. At the same time, Yip and Smith (2010) argue that because Buddhism rejects essentialist understandings of sexuality, this can assist in cultivating supportive queer spaces (see also Smith, Munt, and Yip, 2016). For example, José explained that he had little sexual desire, and therefore described himself as asexual. But this was commonly misunderstood by those around him; the prevalence of labelling individuals with a sexual orientation premised on desire (e.g. ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘heterosexual’) meant that articulating a non-desirebased identity was difficult. But within his Buddhist tradition, his asexual identity was supported; José emphasised that his Buddhist community was ‘very open… [there’s] definitely something in Buddhism [where] I feel more free to just explore’. Therefore, he was able to cultivate a ‘queer spiritual space’ (Munt, 2010) that challenged the dominant view that all identities were premised on sexual desire. We shall explain José’s story in more detail in Chapter 4.

Finding an Ethics for Life

Another influencing factor was the appeal of Buddhism in offering an alternative worldview, especially with regards to managing the complexities of contemporary life (see also Chapter 5). George, a 21-year-old undergraduate living in the midlands of England and associated with the tbc/fwbo, for example, came from a typical background of having religious grandparents (who strongly encouraged church attendance) but unaffiliated parents. This lack of parental affiliation gave George the impetus to ‘have a look around and Buddhism seemed to appeal to me’. He saw no reason to tie himself to Christianity, despite his family’s heritage, and instead embraced considering all possible options. Indeed, he argued that his scientific mindset meant that Christianity did not appeal anyway:

I am very scientific and do bio-chemistry so that was my mindset and there are a lot of things in Christianity that don’t fit with me. You don’t have any evidence which as a scientist you look for. Just out of interest I had a look round for other religions to see if they were the same or different and found that Buddhism didn’t have beliefs that you have to take on to follow. And it also had a lot of things I agreed with.

It is worth asking at this juncture why George was exploring religious worldviews at all. Indeed, his parents had evidently lived their lives with only cursory links to Christianity. George’s scientific stance also meant that he was not looking for a belief system per se, but something based on evidence – it was clear that the requirement to believe in a supernatural being would not be persuasive:

I don’t think you can completely explain something through science but to be told to believe something without being able to see it for yourself… [Buddhism] seemed to make sense.

So George was explicitly looking for a rational understanding of the world that complemented his scientific outlook; his scientific approach could not explain all dimensions to life. Indeed, what really mattered to George was having an ethical code to follow, a code which he located in the Five Precepts.[5] He felt by following these Precepts his life became more fulfilling, which inadvertently gave him particular resources in articulating alternative ways of being a young person:

I don’t particularly drink a lot… you spend the day afterwards feeling rubbish. So I can go out clubbing with my friends who do drink and not drink very much and still enjoy myself… My religious beliefs would make me think about whether I would want to do that or not… I feel it has given me more freedom because I think I could drink if I wanted to but I can actually make that choice.

Buddhism gave George alternative codes of action, helping him think through the consequences of particular decisions. He did not have to automatically coopt into the intoxicant-fuelled cultures of his friends; instead Buddhism envisioned alternative ways of being: enabling greater autonomy and decisions based on ethical reasoning but without having to align himself with a belief system that seemed out of synch with scientific rationality. As Waterhouse (1997) notes, it is predominantly rationalised forms of Buddhism that have emerged in the west, precisely because they complement the dominance of western rationalised worldviews, hence George feeling that Buddhism cohered with his scientific stance. In addition, Walton (2001) notes how elements of the Buddha’s story are utilised to buttress Buddhism’s scientific credentials, such as the way in which the Buddha advocated questioning all forms of knowledge and to never unquestioningly accept received wisdom, leading Walton to argue that Buddhism ‘fosters individualisation and empiricism within its adherents’ (2001: 211) – these being tenets of scientific approaches.

Ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England and associated with non-denominational Buddhism, was remarkably similar to George. He too had non-religious but tolerant parents, and wanted a scientificallysupportive but ethically-based approach to life:

Ethical rules in Buddhism are not commandments; rather they’re kind of guidelines… my vegetarianism is in part kind of pragmatic, for kind of environmental reasons and a whole load of other reasons. But I can kind of see Buddhism as backing that up, yeah, and the kind of centric element of non-harming and just helping to reduce suffering.

Ellis had learned about environmentalism at school and this had had a lasting impression. Although his school-based orientation could explain the science behind environmental problems, it did not offer an ethical solution, and this is what he sought (see also Chapter 5). For George and Ellis, Buddhism offered a scientifically-compatible, psychologically helpful and non-deity based ethical approach to life. Both were born to parents who although had rejected religion, were nominally schooled in Christianity, hence they could draw upon elements of ‘golden rule Christianity’ (Ammerman, 1997). This can be understood as using broadly Christian sentiments to emphasise how one can be a good person and live a good life, such as being helpful to others and being a kind person. This tangential connection to Christianity would allow Ellis and George’s parents to have a self-directed ethical code to draw upon, even in the absence of a Christian belief. But Ellis and George did not have this anchor, and felt somewhat at a loss regarding how to navigate issues and problems they encountered ethically. For them, although they were wedded to scientific world views, science was not seen as offering meaning to why things mattered to them. Buddhism gave them what they needed, offering a scientificallycompatible ethical framework which they could draw upon in their day-to-day decision making. Therefore, Buddhism gave them an ethics for life (we shall return to this theme in Chapter 3).


Our participants’ background orientation to religion was diverse, and included those with a parent who had some connection or lasting commitment to Buddhism, those for whom Christianity was a dominant presence in their childhood, those experiencing non-religious family backgrounds (although religion was often encountered in school), and the specific experiences surrounding being raised outside of the uk and the difference this made to religious socialisation.

We have outlined various means through which participants encountered Buddhism, and why other belief systems (such as Christianity) were rejected. As most participants had had some connection with Christianity as they were growing up, it may be assumed that Christianity would be the religious resource they would gravitate towards. But as we have revealed, participants generally held a negative attitude towards Christianity, often holding the perception that it was dogmatic and authoritative. Therefore Christianity was not usually an appealing choice (except for the minority who affiliated both with Christianity and Buddhism). Institutionalised versions of Christianity (such as Catholicism) were problematised and compared unfavourably with Buddhism, which was conversely deemed as anti-hierarchical and individuated. But as scholars have noted, this is a particular construction of a western formulation of Buddhism, and it is not to say that institutionalised and authoritative forms of Buddhism do not exist (Bubna-Litic and Higgins, 2007; Mellor, 1991). However, participants’ awareness of Buddhism was rooted within a particular context that allowed them to emphasise the dynamic and fluid elements of their religious identity.

Significantly, in order to cultivate a Buddhist affiliation, participants needed some sort of link to Buddhism. In one way or another, they had encountered Buddhism, and they embraced this connection. For some, this was motivated by a museum visit or seeing a poster for a meditation class, thus prompting much individual engagement and personal study. For others, they had a parent who had links to Buddhism, and provided the background resource they needed (Beyer, 2013b). Waterhouse (1997), too, notes the necessity of Buddhist symbols and ideas being accessible in order to be utilised. There is no clear or singular path for encountering Buddhism. Many participants had to be highly motivated to learn more about Buddhism, and to engage in independent study. This was therefore often an individualised engagement with Buddhism, at least in these early stages. These participants made an active and dedicated commitment to Buddhism. We resonate with Phillips and Aarons’ reflections of their own Buddhist participants: ‘Instead of regarding Buddhism as a light cloak that is easily discarded, the bulk of participants were distinguished by the enduring nature of their involvement’ (2005: 228). Like Phillips and Aarons’ participants, our participants also took their Buddhist affiliation seriously.

Finally we detailed the explicit reasons given by participants for exploring Buddhism, encompassing experiencing a life crisis event, locating an accepting sacred space, or searching for an ethics for life. The specific issues and challenges that participants faced in their lives, whether that was about finding coping strategies, locating inner meaning, or finding congruent spaces to inhabit, all precipitated identification with Buddhism. Whatever the challenges experienced, our participants were open to exploration, or seeking (Roof, 1999). But many of the issues that participants faced are typically experienced by young people in general. These issues relating to identity affirmation, and finding the resources to cope with life’s problems, are negotiated by most young adults. So we are not claiming that our participants were significantly different in orientation to other young adults who are making sense of their lives and their identities; just that our participants had a slightly different set of resources that they could work with. It is helpful to think about our participants’ experiences of identifying as Buddhist with Yang and Abel’s (2014) consideration of the micro, meso and macro factors surrounding new religious identifications. Our participants were heavily motivated by the micro – by issues occurring in their personal lives, and finding individualised techniques to comprehend and manage these issues. Meanwhile, the meso – those links just beyond the individual – aided their connection to Buddhism. So the internet, texts, friends, teachers and parents were all important in this regard. Meanwhile, the macro – how Buddhism was located in wider culture – also had a relevance, which will become even more apparent in later chapters (particularly Chapter 5).

This chapter has introduced our participants, and given a broader understanding of where they were coming from. Subsequent chapters will build on this, to delve more deeply into their lives.

[1] The total number of valid responses is 42.

[2] The total number of valid responses is 43.

[3] Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, has an enormous international following. The founder of the Order of Interbeing, he lives in Plum Village in the south of France. Practising ‘engaged Buddhism’, his teaching emphasises involvement in social and political affairs, reflected in his own work as a peace activist. He is an author of numerous books, such as The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation (1999), The Miracle of Mindfulness (2008), and Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting through the Storm (2012). More information can be found at:

[4] Bodhisattva literally means ‘enlightenment being’. The career of a bodhisattva begins by her/ his generation of the aspiration to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings, from when she/he embarks on the path to enlightenment (see Harvey, 2013; Keown, 2003; Smith, Munt and Yip, 2016).

[5] The Five Precepts are: (i) Not killing or causing harm to other living beings, (ii) Not taking the not-given, (iii) Avoiding sexual misconduct, (iv) Avoiding false speech, and (v) Abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind (for more details, see e.g. Harvey, 2013; Henry, 2013; Keown, 2003).

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