Andrew Yip and Sarah-Jane Page: Understanding Young Buddhists | Living Out Ethical Journeys | Chapter 1-D: Our Sample of Buddhist Young Adults

Buddhism for Young Adults Group in Mexico City, Mexico | Photo: FPMT

Our Sample of Buddhist Young Adults


All participants were aged between 18 and 25, with the mean age being 21.75.[1] We successfully recruited across the whole 18–25 age spectrum, which may be due to the efforts we undertook to recruit participants, focusing not just on the university environment (where a number at the lower age range would sit) but also Buddhist organisations listed in the Buddhist Directory for Britain. This meant we were also able to capture those outside of and beyond the education system.

In terms of gender, 25 (56.8%) identified as women, 18 (40.9%) as men, and one (2.3%) identified as trans.[2] These figures are typical of religious identity of the uk, where women tend to be more present and visible in religious milieux than men (Trzebiatowska and Bruce, 2012).

The majority classified their ethnic origin as ‘white’ (77.3%); other ethnicities included ‘mixed’ (9.1%), ‘Indian’ (6.8%), ‘Chinese’ (4.5%) and ‘other’ (4.5%).[3] The majority defined their nationality as ‘British’ (75.0%); a variety of other nationalities were identified, including German (9.1%), Malaysian (2.3%), and Mexican (2.3%).[4] What we have achieved is a sample that mainly comprised young people from other religious backgrounds or of no religious background who have converted to Buddhism in the recent past, or young adults who have chosen to affirm a Buddhist affiliation linked to their parents’ conversion. Some scholars have distinguished between ‘convert’ Buddhism, and ‘ethnic’ or ‘heritage’ Buddhism – i.e. those individuals who have been raised specifically within Buddhist cultures such as Sri Lanka and Thailand, and have then migrated to western countries such as the usa (e.g. Cadge, 2005; Queen, 1999), Canada (e.g. Beyer and Ramji, 2013; McLellan, 2000), Australia (e.g. Barker, 2007; Bucknell, 2000; Halafoff, Fitzpatrick and Lam, 2012) and the uk (e.g. Bell, 2000; Bluck, 2006; Thanissaro, 2013). Now that Buddhist communities have been established in the west for some time, this has implications for those born into the families that migrated, who have no experience of Buddhism in any other context but the west (see Chapter 2 and Chapter 3).

Our study was less successful in recruiting young people within families who had immigrated to the uk from Buddhist-majority contexts, and it is worth thinking through why few from immigrant communities participated. Even when raised within an ‘ethnic’ strand of Buddhism, it is less likely that young people define themselves as Buddhist when they become adults – as Beyer and Martin (2013) indicate, ‘ethnic’ Buddhists may be unwilling to define themselves as Buddhist in adult life. Another aspect relates to Baumann’s (2001) discussion regarding how ‘ethnic’ Buddhist traditions are represented in Europe. ‘Convert’ traditions tend to be more visible and have a greater physical presence than ‘ethnic’ traditions, especially when compared with the absolute numbers involved. Finally, we need to consider the research topic. For some groups and communities, sexuality is a hugely sensitive topic; numerous authors note how western interpretations of Buddhism tend to be somewhat different to Buddhism as practised in Asia, especially regarding attitudes to homosexuality (Keele, 2012; Wilson, 2003). There may therefore have been higher levels of discomfort about our research topic amongst gatekeepers within ‘ethnic’ Buddhist contexts.

Conversely, we can consider why young people from ‘convert’ families, or who had converted themselves, were keen to participate. This may have something to do with their active identification as Buddhist. As they had typically affirmed their Buddhist identity, this may have made them more receptive to a study that was asking them not only to reflect on their Buddhist identity, but also how this related to sexuality. Therefore, quite simply, this group may have been more enthusiastic and engaged with the topic of the research, and felt that they had something to say. We may be asked whether we tried hard enough to attract young people from ‘ethnic’ Buddhist families into the research. We certainly tried hard, not only recruiting directly through religious societies and groupings, but also cultural and nationality-based groups such as the Sri Lankan Society and Thai Society on university campuses. We recognise the limitations of this sample. It was purposive and aimed to capture diversity. It was oriented around a sensitive topic. All this will have an impact on the resulting sample. What we can say is that we have obtained high-quality detailed data on a much-overlooked group: principally, adult young Buddhists (of various ethnic backgrounds and national identities, but primarily white British) who have converted to Buddhism or whose parents have converted.

When we asked about the specific Buddhist tradition with which individuals aligned, 16 participants did not provide this information. Meanwhile, of those remaining, a variety of Buddhist affiliations were captured, with the largest number belonging to the Triratna Buddhist Community and Order, previously known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (tbc/fwbo).[5] Other participants associated themselves with a variety of traditions, including Theravada Buddhism, Soka Gakkai International (sgi), Mahayana Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Some of these categories overlap. For example, Vipassana is a meditative practice associated with Theravada Buddhism. But it captures how our participants defined themselves (Tweed, 1999).[6]

In terms of educational attainment, 32.5% had a degree or a postgraduate qualification (e.g. a Master’s degree). Meanwhile, of those remaining, 63.0% had completed A-levels, one person had completed gcses (2.3%) and one person had undertaken a btec/nvq qualification (2.3%).[7] In terms of occupation 63.6% self-defined as students.[8] Many of those who had ticked ‘A-levels’ as their highest qualification specified that they were now pursuing degrees at university. This makes for a highly-educated sample, and although, unlike other studies (e.g. Beyer, 2013b), we did not concentrate our recruitment efforts solely on university campuses, the result was still to recruit many young people who were either about to go to university, were at university, or had left in the recent past. This resonates with other research identifying Buddhists as a highly-educated group (J.W. Coleman, 1999; Henry, 2013; Waterhouse, 1997). Indeed, Cirklová’s (2012b) research on converts to Buddhism in the Czech Republic reveals that most of the participants had degrees, with university being a key space where Buddhism was encountered. When our participants specified their degree subject, the majority were undertaking law and social science or arts and humanities subjects. Far fewer were undertaking scienceand medicine-based subjects.

For those in paid work, occupations were diverse and ranged from those working in the legal profession, voluntary work, the retail industry, research, the education sector and the charity sector. In the interviews, we were able to glean further information about social class. Many spoke of their parents’ expectations for them to attend university, and they also discussed how some parents were disapproving of the subject they had chosen – for example, a number undertaking humanities subjects such as Religious Studies and Theology were criticised by parents for choosing this degree. This gives some indication of a middle-class milieu within which many young adults were raised, where education was prioritised, with specific attempts to steer children onto clearly defined educational paths that were perceived to generate the maximum benefit in terms of professional success. Those who had moved to the uk from other countries tended to come from highly-educated, well-resourced families. A number were here to study in uk universities. Others had come to the uk with a specific mission to engage their Buddhist practice.

In terms of sexual orientation, the majority (19; 44.2%) identified as heterosexual. Eight (18.6%) were bisexual, seven (16.3%) were gay or homosexual. Five (11. 6%) chose not to define their sexual orientation[9] and two (4.7%) were lesbian. The categories ‘heteroflexible’ and ‘asexual’, created by the participants themselves, generated one response each.[10] What this depiction reveals is that the sample was very diverse in terms of sexual orientation. Heterosexuality remained the largest – but not the majority – category. This also set up an interesting environment in which to explore the specific contours of sexuality and religion, and whether these diverse identifications were due to the specific orientations that Buddhism has to sexuality, as later chapters will highlight. None of our participants had children, and none were married or in a civil partnership.[11]

Overall, our participants fitted the profile noted in other Buddhist research projects – this was a well-educated, middle-class grouping. The main difference compared with other projects on Buddhists was regarding age – our sample was far younger than would be typically expected.

To Be Continued… ]


[1] The total number of valid responses was 44.
[2] The total number of valid responses was 44.
[3] The total number of valid responses was 44.
[4] The total number of valid responses was 44. The full list of nationalities were: British (75.0%); German (9.1%); American (2.3%); Danish (2.3%); Singaporean (2.3%); Malaysian (2.3%); Mexican (2.3%); British-Polish (2.3%); and Thai (2.3%).
[5] During the course of our research the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (fwbo) was renamed the Triratna Buddhist Community and Order (tbc) (see Henry [2013] for further details). When discussing this Buddhist tradition, participants, in the main, tended to use the old name rather than the new one. Throughout, we will use the term tbc/fwbo. However, participants’ quotes will not be changed.
[6] Readers who are interested in the philosophical and theological aspects of these tra- ditions should consult the rich corpus of literature in this area, such as, Bluck (2006), Dalai Lama xiv and Chödrön (2014), Goonewardene (2010), Harvey (2000, 2013), Heine and Prebish (2003), Kay (2004), Keown (2013), Konik (2009), McMahan (2008, 2012), and Queen (2000a, 200b). Some of these texts are scholarly, and some are written for a general readership. We decide to reference both types of writings to reflect our participants’ own engagement with these writings, and to offer what we think are helpful texts for the non- academic readers of this book.
[7] A-Levels, also known as Advanced Levels, are qualifications undertaken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, usually when students are aged between 16 and 18. gcses, also known as General Certificates of Education, are qualifications undertaken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, usually when students are aged between 14 and 16. nvqs, also known as National Vocational Qualifications, are undertaken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and are vocationally-based; btecs, also known as Business and Tech- nology Education Council qualifications, are practically focused, related to specific voca- tional sectors. The total number of valid responses was 43.
[8] The total number of valid responses was
[9] ‘I do not define my sexuality’ was a purposeful category that attempted to undermine the idea that sexuality can always be mapped through identifying with a particular cat- egory or sexual identification. It therefore allowed participants who felt uncomfortable in labelling their sexuality to still participate and register this choice (without having to leave the question blank). This also taps into a broader sociological understanding that the categorisation sexuality is contingent and changeable, varying between societies and across societies over time (Jackson and Scott, 2010; Machacek and Wilcox, 2003; Plummer, 2015; Rahman and Jackson, 2010; Weeks, 2010, 2011).
[10] The total number of valid responses was 43.
[11] At the time of the research, same-sex marriage was not available in the uk, although civil partnerships were. In 2013, same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales, followed by 2014 in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, same-sex marriage is not yet legislated, and civil partnerships remain in place.

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