There's been a very interesting discussion for the past few months at No Zen in the West - A blog and Dharma forum from Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler.
It certainly does appear that Zen centers aren't attracting large numbers of younger people, and this is causing some people alarm. What I thought would be a brief response to a thread about this at No Zen in the West turned into this:
I think the issue is a tad more generational in nature than reflective of how one Zen center packages itself over another.
The fact that older folks (and at 42 that adjective applies to me too) tend to be more active in Zen centers is not necessarily something to be alarmed by. Today's 25 year old will be a 45 in 2030 and at that point in time might be more inclined to get into the dharma and practice. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic, since I didn’t really come around to practice until just about 7 years ago. It took me some 35 years and a couple of major life experiences to get my ass on the cushion.
However, my pragmatic side thinks that youngish people today are just plain reluctant to embrace any kind of structured religion or spiritual system no matter what. That’s what the 2009 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life seems to suggest. Just look at attendance at the mainstream churches and synagogues: there’s been nothing but a steady decline over the past few decades.
The insatiable spiritual quest that young people were on in the 1960s and 1970s just doesn’t exist right now. It was all the rage at the time of the Buddha, and perhaps it will come around again one day in the future. But it sure ain’t happening right now, and we can’t force it. These things are cyclical.
I don't subscribe to the argument that the most outwardly thriving Buddhist centers are doing something "right" and the rest had better get with the program and do something similar. We in the West are struggling to find a way to adapt and present the dharma in a manner that makes sense to this particular culture at this particular point in history. It will take some time to evolve and most of us will probably not see how this ultimately gets worked out, assuming it ever does. But if and when a distinctly Western form of Zen emerges at some point in the future, it will need to happen organically.
What appeals to large numbers of people is not necessarily indicative of quality. And having said that, we need to be aware of what seems to be resonating with people and to learn from that. The answer is somewhere in the middle I suppose.
My concern is that attempting to bend over backwards to try and please every possible age and cultural bracket would likely result in a watered down, feel-good, love and light approach to Zen practice that makes me want to barf.
All it takes is a few creative individuals with the right intention and means who can inspire interest in the teachings and more importantly, teach people how they can help themselves and others through meditation. We’re already seeing a handful of people like this, and they’re planting seeds for their students and contemporaries.
And the dharma will survive.
Here’s an interesting article about the decline of interest on the part of young people when it comes to anything even remotely religious in nature.
Thank you all for your input on such a complex matter. This has been a great discussion to follow. May it lead to some useful conclusions that can benefit everyone.