As the Triratna Young Buddhist Coordinator for Europe, I’m often asked ‘how can we attract more young people?’. In a way, the answer is simple: we present the Dharma in its most essential, radical, form. In this form, the Dharma simply is attractive – to young and old alike. That said, we often need some more practical guidance on what this does and doesn’t look like. In this piece, drawn from a document I wrote in 2016, Vision, Energy, Action: a guide to inspiring young Buddhists, I explore some of the ways in which we can support young people in our sanghas. Although my experience is inevitably rooted in the Triratna Buddhist Community (henceforth ‘Triratna’), I hope that some of our insights in this area may be of interest more widely.
Many young people respond to boldness, ambition, and a myth of being part of something bigger than themselves. The myth of building a community that has a clear altruistic dimension alongside personal development has been central to Urgyen Sangharakshita’s (the founder of the Triratna) teaching. Themes such as the New Society, Building the Buddhaland, Transforming Self and World, and the Bodhisattva Ideal have been present throughout Triratna’s fifty-year history. And such an emphasis is as attractive as ever. It’s also very attractive to see other people of (all ages) who are passionate about changing the world and are clearly putting it into practice. My view is that the more that Buddhists look outwards at what we can offer the world, the more attractive Buddhism will become to young people.
Dana (generosity) forms a strong part of this vision. Dana appeals to the idealism of young people as an immediate way of addressing the consumerist economic paradigm that is the cause of so much suffering in the world. It also addresses the fact that a lot of young people struggle financially. For example, it is very common for people in their twenties, in the UK at least, to have student debts of GBP 35,000-40,000 (EUR 40,000-46,000) – so publicising that our Dharma events are run on a dana basis removes one obstacle to young people getting involved.
In Triratna we’ve found it helps to highlight on websites and social media that we are part of an international movement whose aim is to make the Buddha’s teaching of personal liberation and social transformation available in the modern world.
We also emphasise that the more contemplative elements of Buddhist practice are conditions for making this transformation possible, not ends in themselves: “To help the world become a better place we need to become a bigger person. We need to train ourselves in becoming wiser, more courageous, creative, empathetic and committed” (Triratna London Buddhist Centre publicity)
It can be inspiring to hear that world-transformation starts with dana because if we want to change the world we need to think more in terms of contributing than consuming. And this goes for the teachers as well as the participants. So rather than talking about dana exclusively in terms of ‘covering costs’, we might say it’s the basis of a radical new way of relating to what we value. “Generosity is of fundamental importance in Buddhism… our aim is to inspire a culture of generosity in the way we share Buddhist teachings.” (Triratna Sheffield Buddhist Centre website)
A lot of young people respond positively to publicity that challenges, and differentiates the Dharma from, the soft, passive, undemanding, individualistic image that Buddhism sometimes has in Western culture. (Just type ‘meditation images’ into a search engine to see what I mean!) Challenging stereotypes can be perceived as edgy and exciting, and there can also be a degree of pride in being part of something distinctive – as well as being truer to the spirit of the Dharma.
So, for example (all from Triratna London Buddhist Centre publicity):
- We can emphasise clarity and the systematic nature of Dharma practice to differentiate from ‘New Age’. E.g.
“These courses are a step-by-step guide that can transform your perspective on the world and provide you with tools you can use for a lifetime”
- We can emphasise the Transcendental to differentiate from ‘self-help’ and therapeutic contexts. E.g.
“This [introduction to devotional practice] takes us through the stages that help us glimpse, move towards and realise our limitless potential”
- We can emphasise altruism, compassionate action, and community to differentiate from ‘lifestyles’ or ‘well-being’. E.g.
“Being a Buddhist and joining the Sangha is not like joining a group, but a radically new way of living and relating to others. With shared practices and ideals, we not only become more of an individual, but form the nucleus of a new society; one that is beneficial for ourselves and the world.”
- And we can emphasise mystery and adventure to differentiate from adult education. E.g. “[These mornings aim at] how to move beyond ordinary, divided consciousness into Samadhi.”
We all tune-in to the energy of an event very quickly, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. Experience within Triratna has shown that a slightly ‘rambunctious’ atmosphere is most attractive to young people. This kind of energy is one of the characteristic features of young Buddhists’ retreats and, I believe, is a major part of their success. In a wider context it can be achieved in a number of ways.
The simplest way is just to have lots of people present – the effect of a buzzing space is attractive to a lot of young people (think: clubs, gigs, festivals, parties…). This can be achieved by lifting the limit on numbers, removing the need to book, and, as I mentioned before, running events on a dana basis. Young people (and men, apparently) are the most likely to leave booking until the last minute – in other words, too late – and even be put off by it. And running events on a dana basis opens them to the widest possible audience. The effect of a crowded space may not be universally popular, but I can’t put it too strongly that we need to become confident and comfortable with large numbers of people being interested in Buddhism!
In addition, it’s been observed that the placement of meditation in an event can make a difference to the energy of a gathering. Placing meditation at the start can set a sleepy, ‘precious’, refined, or even awkward tone for the evening and can inhibit the extent to which people feel at ease and able to connect with one another when they arrive. This is particularly the case if people arrive for the first time into a silent room. Within Triratna– and perhaps many Buddhist groups – a tea break is something of an institution so if a lot of the tea-break is devoted to ‘coming round’ from meditation, this is time that is potentially lost for building connections between people.
It’s also been observed that holding meditation as a standalone activity tends to attract people who are more interested in calm or de-stressing, and remaining in their own ‘bubble’, and as such it doesn’t facilitate the growth of a community. I can recall going along to a regular meditation class in London in the late 2000s and sometimes I would be able to avoid saying a single word to anyone from arrival to exit – needless to say, if we want to encourage a sense of community, we need to counteract this tendency!
Starting off with a lively talk and discussion can help to set a positive tone to the event and also give you a chance to meet and appreciate the newer people who are coming along before everyone goes silent. There is also quite a lot of anecdotal – and scriptural – support for the idea that people are actually better prepared for meditation after a stimulating Dharma talk and discussion than coming straight from the street or work.
Another key message is to convey regularly is that ‘there is still more to learn!’. The Dharma is deep and cannot be fathomed in the course of a single evening or even a series of courses. But how to access those depths, particularly in light of the sometimes bewildering array of events going on in Buddhist sanghas, can be completely opaque to newer people. So, the more systematic and explicit we are in talking about next steps, and personally inviting people to take them, the easier they will find it to pursue the Dharma more deeply. This also conveys the principle that this presentation of the Dharma is systematic and works.
In Oxford where I run a small group, I make a point of encouraging everyone to participate in the running of the Sangha from the very first night of an introductory course. We ask for volunteers to help wash up, put away the mats and cushions, arrive early next time to help set up the room, bake a cake for next week, bring along flowers for the shrine…The idea is to make it clear that dana involves more than money and that everyone’s contribution is valued.
There are as many ways for young people to get practically involved in Buddhist sanghas as there is imagination in the people running them. Asking young people to be involved in the following have been good ways in:
- Designing and/or distributing publicity
- Maintaining a social media presence – websites and beyond!
- Organising Buddhist Action Month activities
- Hosting socials
- Running festival days
- Doing whatever needs doing!
But ‘next steps’ don’t end with practical matters – within Triratna there is a strong emphasis on study groups, going on retreat, living together with other Buddhists, participating in long residential study courses, and even starting up businesses together. All of these provide avenues along which young people (and others) can pursue their Dharma practice, and yet there are so many opportunities for further developments too.
Young Buddhist groups
Depending on the size or organisation of the sangha one may find that the young people who come along don’t know each other very well (though they may be quite ok with not knowing other young people). They may come to different evenings or just not really ‘clock’ age as something significant (and that’s fine too).
But for some young people it can be nothing short of a revelation that there are other young people interested in Buddhism, particularly if your sangha’s age demographic is skewed towards the middle-aged, which many are! Such young people will find it tremendously inspiring to encounter others at their stage of life who are asking the same questions as themselves, and who may even be living out some of the answers.
In Triratna in Europe, there are around 30 young Buddhist groups which are mostly run by young people for young people. They vary tremendously in terms of size and formality: from 40-50 people attending a class at the Triratna London Buddhist Centre to 4-5 people meeting up for vegan pizza in Oxford. The point of these groups is twofold: first, for young people to get experience of responsibility in sharing the Dharma with others and, second, to create peer friendships between those who might be in an age-minority. Whilst the numerical success of these groups has been modest for the most part, one of the major outcomes has been that the facilitators running these groups have got a taste for communicating and serving the Dharma in our community. In fact, many of the younger people entering the Triratna Order over the last five years have come from this pool of facilitators.
In summary, if we want to inspire the next generations of Dharma practitioners we need to communicate a bold vision of human life, organise our events so as encourage a positive sense of energy, and signpost next steps to greater depth. Many of us are already doing things along these lines and yet there is still enormous scope for creativity and innovation. I believe it’s a very exciting time to be a young Buddhist indeed!