Is Zen For Old People?

Buddhist House
Last week the college where I'm taking intensive Japanese had a recess from classes. Most of my friends took the opportunity to travel; some went to Kyoto, or the Sapporo Beer Museum. A few friends of mine visited Okinawa and went to a snake museum and "Okinawa World," which I gather is kind of like Disney Land. I, on the other hand, spent the week freezing in a monastery, staring at the wall. Actually, I went to not one but TWO different monasteries and TWO different Nehan sesshins! Spring break 2015 WOOOOO!

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.

Maybe I should start though. Because I don't think talking about life and death is boring and sad. Okay, sad maybe, but it's also true, and whatever is true is what's most interesting to me. 

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. 


  1. I thought "talk about stuff like what happens after you die" and "whether or not our actions have repercussions in future lifetimes" were decidedly things that Dogen and even Buddha himself were not much about? Nobody knows what happens after we die and I would think it's much more important to talk about what to do in this lifetime than ponder about hypothetical future ones.

    1. Found it satirical and VERY funny. Gassho

  2. We all die. There is no cure. I like Papa John's more than Domino's.

    1. Oh dear. I hear Papa John is in league with the Koch brothers.

  3. I found Zen when I was 19, but that was 1991. There was no internet, so the only info I got from books. I saw it as more of an approach to life than a tradition--I had no idea that people still DID that stuff and that were institutions to support it.

    I also don't know if it's uncool to think about those things, but as a young person it was scary.Because I had all these years ahead of me, and if I was just going to die anyway, what was the point of going after the things I wanted? I needed to believe the pursuit of my goals would bring me...something because the alternative was unimaginable.

    A third difference between then and now is that having lived more years has brought with it more opportunities to lose things I thought would last forever and to gain things and find having them didn't bring me what I thought they would.

    I'm having the thought now that the heart of buddhism is that it has helped me learn how to grieve.That's been a great joy to me even though it's a joy that holds a lot of sadness in it.

  4. Dear Gesshin,
    I LOVE reading your blog. Thank you for sharing with me! (and others)
    As a 50 something I can relate to your frustration of having friends in their 50's.
    I had a friend when he was 33 say to me, "I seem to be popular with the 50s group" and feeling very unsatisfied with that. Where was his girlfriend/life partner? And soon enough I introduced him to his future partner whom is in her 20's. So, I guess there are advantages.
    That being said I have thought about this a lot and think it is awkward/frustrating because of the dissemination of inter-generational living brought on by white European colonizers and the church. Other cultures don't seem to have this problem. As a 50 something I don't find it surprising that 50' s and 20/30s have a connection especially 20/30s who are "awake" (right? don't you know you are dying?") Most people don't think that way but some 50 somethings are looking directly at death as their parents die. I have also experienced that my friends whom are 20/30 somethings look at me more like an "elder". Someone whose been thru the ringer concerning relationships and they are just starting out learning to navigate. This is a good thing to be able to let them know this worked and this definitely did not! Also, I learn a lot from my "awake" 20/30 friends as they are WAY MORE mindful than I ever was at that age and learn it is possible to, say, be in a relationship and use wise speech or non-violent communication. Not on my radar when I was that age.Perhaps there is a thought that wakefulness has no generation to it and we all learn from one another.
    Also thx for your insight for teens/young adults to create their own sanghas and run them! I am helping our Dharma Center start a teen sangha and this is MOST helpful. Thank you for your "awake" wise wisdom at 28! May it continue!!!
    I am looking forward to more of your adventures and insights. Deep bow to your kind heart.

  5. That's interesting how the world is changing. In the 90s when I talked about Buddhism and philosophy with my peers, mostly American people in their 20s, we thought it was cool to think and study philosophy and try to understand the world around and inside us. Actually I didn't talk or meet anyone who wasn't interested. We would go to pariies, drink, eat, have sex and at the same time we were busy discussing Nietsche, Zen and Kierkegaard. We though people who were not interested in such stuff were sooo boooring. And mentioning a philosopher was a frequent part of a pick-up line... like, hey, so you're into existentialism, cool, now would you like to play chess with me? I swear. This is what it was like when I was young.

  6. At 66 I'm somewhat puzzled by our tendency to persistently view what is a 'serious' aka 'dharma' focus of activity or conversation from a single perspective. All of the focuses of activity that (from a 'serious' point of view) are 'frivolous' seem only a hair's breadth from practice if not the same. I don't want to list here everything you cited above as disappointing behavior on the part of youth. You might find some of this in every age group. But from the point of view of tantra and mahasandhi (as opposed to that of sutra), just consider the paramitas (I'm going to translate 'paramita' as 'thoroughgoing') and using a full list: dana, śīla, kṣānti, vīrya, dhyāna, prajñā, upāya, praṇidhāna, bala, and jñāna; I won't translate as you can sit down and work up a list of meanings from various languages, I only really know English and even there you get a short list, with the caveat that the most obvious meaning will not be the most telling in any one situation. To this add some concepts worked up by the buddhist school of tantra: lila, rasa, rasalila, vajralila, etc. (rasa meaning 'taste or juice, nectar, emotion' and lila meaning 'act, play, or dance') So consider the paramitas as the warp of practice falling against the weft of the moment, with the warp of the paramitas also falling against the weft of rasalila. And this may be a somewhat tedious exercise, but when you are really enjoying something you are closer to its point. Is it not possible that no generation is really so 'misguided' in their perceptions and choice of activities (given the range of opinions about 'xing/sho')? But our 'religious/spiritual' perceptions and choice of activities can be. So at the moment we want to scream, “Don't you know...?” Guanyin may be laughing and clapping her hands. --Tokudo

  7. Thanks for the post, Gesshin! I got into Zen when I was 24 and got ordained when I was 29, and it's been a lonely road at times (I'm 43 now). I trained in the U.S. and at times I had a handful of young male peers, but the young women who were "going whole-hog" were few and far between.

    I wonder if there will be younger monks and nuns (that is, people who essentially renounce everything else in order to absorb themselves in practice completely, whether they're ordained or not) when our world goes through the next really tough spot. When there aren't so many options and distractions, and when the impermanence of life is made painfully obvious even to young people living in first world nations.

    I don't really believe in multiple lifetimes, but sometimes the concept works as a pretty accurately descriptive metaphor. You might wonder whether some of us experienced something in a previous life that planted a seed we can't ignore in this one. Why simply enjoying ourselves is not an option. Damn, sometimes it feels like a disorder.

  8. Mark Foote here.

    "Life is much too important to take seriously!" (Shunryu Suzuki and possibly others)

    I hope I find a way to get out on the floor at my local karioke establishment tomorrow night, for some serious fun; it's important!


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