Blue Jean Buddha - Preface

Voices of Young Buddhists

Preface

A few years ago, I was working in the kitchen of a Buddhist retreat center settled in the woods of New England. The bright colors of autumn leaves were beginning to speckle the hillsides. I had just graduated from Williams College, where I had been cloistered in a world of perpetual youth. Now twenty-two, I suddenly found myself surrounded almost exclusively by copies of my parents, graying-haired Baby Boomers in their late forties and fifties. Working in the kitchen was a great way to meet these older Buddhists, who came in to scrub carrots, scrape plates, and dry pots. Our onion chopping was often slowed by conversations that started, “When I was your age…” followed by stories of how they got turned on to the dharma twenty or thirty years ago. I loved hearing their adventures about the time that was almost mythical in my mind, the ’60s. Over the months, I became increasingly aware that we weren’t just different in age and historical recollection. We were different in our maturity in the dharma and how we were relating Buddhism to our lives. They were thinking about integrating dharma into dealing with a teenage son, a midcareer change, divorce, picking socially responsible stocks, and retirement. I was questioning what Buddhism meant to me as someone just out of college, with no money and even less life-experience, still figuring out how to relate to my parents and my first real boyfriend, and just trying to get a basic understanding of who I was and wanted to be. Without peers to share my twenty-something stories and discuss issues, I began to feel somewhat lonely and isolated.

Where, I wondered, are the young Buddhists of today who should be inheriting the dharma from the older Buddhists? Are they like me, do they share the same questions and interests? If they exist, what kind of sangha are they creating? What does it mean to be a Buddhist in America today and where will we take it tomorrow? What challenges do we face? Given how few young Buddhists I knew, I became a little concerned that there would not be anyone to inherit the dharma. Who would be my dharma teacher when I was fifty? Who would run the centers and temples? As I finished a year of garlic peeling, lemon squeezing, and tossing burned experimental soups made from leftovers, I longed to discover the new generation of young Buddhists who were emerging in the West.

I began searching for young Buddhists by talking to the Buddhist parents and dharma teachers from the retreat center. Many of them had kids who had grown up with the dharma, though not all chose to keep it as part of their lives. From these young adults and their friends, through the internet and telephone, I branched out to hundreds of others across the country. Accumulating pages of notes about these young Buddhists from interviews, late-night conversations, and email exchanges, I started to see that we had certain questions in common: Should I consider life as a monastic, am I really a Buddhist, do I need a teacher, can I practice things from several traditions, should I try to learn an Asian language or go to Asia, can I just do meditation, what do my parents and friends think? I found myself learning a tremendous amount just by knowing there were others who had the same questions. Given these similar concerns, I began thinking that a book might be of interest, not just to older people wondering what the next breath of Buddhism will be, but also to young people who would like to meet their peers.

I envisioned a book that was some kind of literary sangha—a set of contributors—to serve as the basis for stimulating the larger sangha of both generations. I asked some of the amazing young people I had met over my three-year search to write about how they’ve brought the richness of the Buddhist tradition to bear on their lives. Within a few months, I found little gems piling into my email inbox that were direct, unpretentious, and moving. From the lessons of self-transformation to the variety of life stories to carrying dharma into livelihood, it is my hope that these narratives will inform and affirm the young Buddhist experience in America. In reading them, I found my own feeling for dharma deepening and my understanding of the contemporary Buddhist experience broadening.

From my learning and growth through compiling Blue Jean Buddha springs the Reflections section of this book. Here, I explore some of the questions and issues stemming from the contributors’ essays that I feel are important for young Buddhists to be aware of and begin discussing. I center many of the questions around the social dimension because it is in the context of American society and modernization that I feel young Buddhists face a number of challenges that are critical to personal and communal development. I am reluctant to offer any answers, as almost all the questions are complex and remain unresolved not just for myself but for knowledgeable, long-time Buddhists as well.

Blue Jean Buddha does not reflect every variety of young Buddhist. I have sought to be inclusive in the range of ethnicities and lineages of traditional and newer Buddhisms, as well as to balance male and female. I tried to be sensitive to the fact that America is home not just to citizens but also to permanent residents and aliens who, for however long they are here, leave a lasting mark on Buddhism in America. I had hoped to be more inclusive in age range, touching especially on the teen years, but I found that teens tended to be early in their self-identification. Primarily, this book is composed of essays from people in their twenties, with a few from people who are in their early thirties. Most of the contributors are college-educated and would self-identify as Buddhist.

To fill in some of the gaps left open by this collection, I envision a companion volume that would include, for example, stories of those who practice in prison, teenagers, the queer community, those who wouldn’t label themselves Buddhist but who do Buddhist things, those who’ve blended traditions, such as Jew-Bu’s or UU-Bu’s (that is, Jews and Unitarian Universalists practicing Buddhism), stories from young adults who’ve left Buddhism, those who live in the thriving ethnic Buddhist communities of America, married young couples raising children, inner-city practitioners, and so on. And yet, Blue Jean Buddha surveys a diverse group.

Through this presentation of an astonishing range of experiences, I hope that Blue Jean Buddha becomes as much a spiritual support and reference for others exploring Buddhism as the editing of this book has been for me.

Sumi Loundon
Cambridge, Massachusetts
May 2001

 

How to cite this document:
© Sumi D. Loundon, Blue Jean Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2001)

Creative Commons License
This selection from Blue Jean Buddha by Sumi Loundon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/blue-jean-buddha.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.wisdompubs.org/terms-use.