A colleague recently took me to task for consulting Jews and Christians on how to keep American Buddhism alive. He didn’t agree with either premise–that Jews and Christians could offer advice to Buddhists, or that Buddhism was in any danger of decline. But he was wrong on both counts. American Buddhism, which swelled its ranks to accommodate the spiritual enthusiasms of baby boomers in the late 20th century, is now aging. One estimate puts the average age of Buddhist converts (about a third of the American Buddhist population) at upwards of 50. This means that the religion is almost certain to see its numbers reduced over the next generation as boomer Buddhists begin to die off without having passed their faith along to their children. And Jewish and Christian models offer the most logical solution for reversing that decline.
The basic problem is that non-Asian converts tend not to regard what they practice as a religion. From the beginning, Buddhism has been seen in its American incarnation not as an alternative religion, but as an alternative to religion. American converts have long held Buddhism apart from what they see as the inherent messiness of Western religious discourse on such issues as faith and belief, and from the violence that has so often accompanied it….
In the contemporary discourse on religion, it is striking how often Buddhism is privileged over Judaism, Christianity or Islam as a scientifically based or inherently peaceful version of religion. Note that the Dalai Lama (rather than the pope) was asked to provide the inaugural address at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, even though, like Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism includes beliefs (think reincarnation) that are anathema to medical science. Likewise, though Japanese Buddhists melted their temple bells to make bombs during World War II, the idea of Buddhism as a peace-loving religion persists as an enduring fantasy in Western people’s minds. And yet, such fantasies are instructive nonetheless.
Though some of my more devout Buddhist associates may balk at the idea, these days I have increasingly come to see Buddhism in America as an elaborate thought experiment being conducted by society at large–from the serious practitioner who meditates twice daily to the person who remarks in passing, “Well, if I had to be something, I guess I’d be a Buddhist.” The object of that experiment is not to import some “authentic” version of Buddhism from Asia, as some believe, but to imagine a new model for religion altogether–one that is nondogmatic, practice-based and peaceful.
This certainly rings true with me. I flirted with Japanese Buddhism after abandoning the Christianity of my youth, but never became a serious practitioner as did some of my friends, including other missionary kids.