Is Zen For Old People?
Sometimes I wonder about myself. It's recently dawned on me-- and this might seem obvious already to people reading this-- that people my age don't normally do this. In classical Japanese literature, all of the nuns are old. It's usually the protagonist's mother, or nurse, or aunt, who's retired and became a nun to prepare for death. In one story I read, the "Kagero Diary," a young, wealthy woman wants to ordain to escape from her mean husband, but the shame of becoming a nun at such a young age prevents her from doing so. The message from these stories is that in Japan, being a nun is for older women who are preparing for death.
This is what a lot of people tell me in Japan tell me, too. Both monks and laypeople seem shocked by my young age, and often remark that it's "such a shame" I'm "wasting my youth" doing something as silly as trying to understand the great matter of life and death (total waste of time!). This last week at Nisodo, I looked around the room and counted two nuns in their twenties (and me), two in their thirties, and over ten in their fifties and sixties. The youngest nuns are all daughters of monks who will one day take over the family temple. The older nuns are mostly divorced or single women who decided to become nuns once they reached retirement age.
I think this is basically the demographic of Zen in America, too. Although I don't practice there, I often read things online with people lamenting the lack of youth involvement at Zen Centers, and predicting the inevitable doom and decline of Zen in America. When I was in Tassajara this summer, there seemed to be plenty of young people, but I did get the sense that the people who ordain and/or stay long term are all much older.
I've been pretty lucky on this end. I started practicing Buddhism seriously when I was in college, when I was living in a special program house on campus called (appropriately) The Buddhist House. It was a fantastic living arrangement for a spiritually-minded twenty-year old, and so I didn't realize Buddhism was for old people until much later, when it was too late to change my mind about it. The people in the house were a mixture of artists, hippies, yoga chicks, stoners, incredibly sincere and serious Buddhist meditators, and people who fell into all of those categories at once. There was a shared kitchen, and a big meditation hall downstairs, which held meditation open to the public twice a week. The meditation was also open to use whenever we wanted. Upstairs we had individual dorm rooms. We had a small budget and on most weekends we would hire Buddhist teachers and authors to come lead retreats or give lectures. We chose which speakers we wanted to come and did all the organizing and planning. In the two years I lived there, I helped Buddhist House host Krishna Das, Noah Levine, Ethan Nichtern, John Tarrant, Joseph Goldstein, and several Tibetan Rinpoches.
And then after the events we would throw keggers. It was the Best Dorm Ever.
There was never a lack of youth involvement at Buddhist House, because it was only young people, and we ran everything. We voted every week to set community standards, like whether or not we wanted food to be communal (sometimes it was), or whether it was okay or not to throw a rock concert in the meditation room (usually everyone voted "no" on that-- the room was sacred, and we'd do concerts on the stairs or out on the back porch).
Sometimes I wonder if the reason young people generally don't want to come to Buddhist centers is because they have no control over what happens within the institutions that want them to come. In my experience, dharma practice is definitely NOT just for young people. I've seen a group of twenty-year olds raise money to hire a meditation teacher, plan a retreat schedule, and then show up to lead that retreat on their own Saturday morning. It can happen.
Although, now that I'm in "normal society" (i.e not an East Coast liberal arts college or a Buddhist monastery), I have to admit that I'm disappointed with how little young people are interested in spirituality and dharma practice- even on an abstract, philosophical level. Japanese youth are especially uninterested in the Buddhism of their families, and most Western kids I meet here in classes and things don't even want to talk about stuff like what happens after you die, and what it means that good things happen to bad people, or whether or not our actions have repercussions in future lifetimes.
The message I get from my generation is that it's not cool to talk about what it means to live ethically, or to think and talk about kindness, honesty, and the inevitability of death. Sometimes when I go on a tangent about Buddhism or living in a monastery, people will change the subject, saying things like, "Well anyway, life is great!" The implication is that talking about serious things, or thinking about life and death, is sad and indicates that life is not "great." It's just not a fun thing to talk about.
The other day, I was talking to a friend, who is in his twenties, about Dogen. I'd lent him my copy of Shobogenzo Zuimonki, and we were having a nice conversation about it in the common room of my dorm. During a lull in the conversation, a different friend looked at us and said kind of nervously, "Do you guys want to play Mario Kart now?"
So we stopped talking about Dogen and played Mario Kart.
Don't get me wrong, Mario Kart is not the problem. I like Mario Kart. I also like Jay-Z, Beyonce, South Park and Family Guy, and I like to go downtown on a Saturday with friends, go shopping, and eat chicken wings. But there is an inevitable point in that Saturday shopping outing when I want to take my friends by the shoulders, look them straight in the eye and scream DON'T YOU KNOW YOU'RE DYING?! DON'T YOU KNOW I'M DYING?! DON'T YOU KNOW EVERYONE IS DYING ALL THE TIME?????
But I don't say that.
Of course, it's not necessarily young people who want to avoid difficult topics like life, death, and ethics. I think most people in the world, of any age, want to ignore this and focus on stuff like making money. Yet it's unavoidably true that the people I want to talk to most, the people with whom I have the deepest connections, are mostly in their forties, fifties and even sixties. As we get older, as our parents and then spouses and friends die and we face down the inevitability of our own death, I have to imagine that thinking about this stuff starts to seem less uncool.
I wish it didn't take death and tragedy to get people interested in the Dharma, though. I wish my best friends weren't fifty-year olds. I want everyone my age to come over to my dorm, sit zazen with me, read Dogen, and then play Mario Kart. It'll be fun! I would say we can even have a kegger afterwards, but I think at age twenty-eight, I'm getting kind of too old for that.