Andrew Yip and Sarah-Jane Page: Understanding Young Buddhists | Living Out Ethical Journeys | Chapter 3: Understanding and Practising Buddhism

In the previous chapter, we have explored the participants’ journeying into Buddhism. We have shown that there were a host of significant push and pull factors that underpinned this experience. They included significant moments and events that precipitated the profound re-evaluation of existential and ontological security, as well as perceived empowering and enriching features of Buddhist ethics and practice. If the previous chapter has focused on their past, then this chapter goes further into their lived experiences, by exploring their present understandings and practices of Buddhism, over four themes. We shall begin by illuminating the participants’ diverse understandings of Buddhism, followed by an assessment of their views on the important issues pertaining to their everyday living as Buddhists in contemporary British society. The third theme will examine the participants’ private and public practices of their religious faith. In the final theme, we shall present accounts about the sources of inspirations from which the participants drew to sustain their spiritual quest. In sum, this chapter will shed light on the participants ‘being’ Buddhist and ‘doing’ Buddhism in the present, when our research crossed paths with their life journeys.

Diverse Understandings of Buddhism

As we have shown in the previous chapter (see also Appendix), most of the participants associated themselves with different Buddhist traditions, such as Theravada, Zen, Nichiren, and Tibetan. As we have stated in Chapter 1, the primary aim of this book is to offer an in-depth account of how young Buddhists live out their Buddhism in diverse everyday contexts. In other words, the focus is sociological. Therefore, we only mention these different traditions when they are featured in the participants’ accounts, relying heavily on their own interpretations. Readers who are interested in the philosophical and theological aspects of these traditions 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).[1]

The first feature of the participants’ accounts of their Buddhism was the absence of a god figure. This is particularly striking within the British – and more generally the western – context, in which religious discourse is traditionally underpinned by the theistic theology of Christianity. The divine (e.g. a creator god) – whether in singular or plural – was rarely invoked in the participants’ rationalisations; and this was often an appealing characteristic of Buddhism to them, as we have discussed in Chapter 2. Overall, the participants’ understandings of Buddhism emphasized three key components: mindfulness (as a state of being and ongoing practice), flexibility that facilitates self-reflexivity, and ethical principles and guidance for everyday life. To many of them, the combination of these components constituted the indispensable foundation on which a meaningful Buddhist life could be constructed.

Mindfulness: Being and Doing

Mindfulness, an approach to life that emphasises the cultivation of awareness in – and the non-judgmental observation of – the here and now, has given rise to a burgeoning body of literature and activities that aim to provide a counterpoint and counter-cultural strategy to the management of increasingly stressful and fast-paced contemporary life. Central to the practice of Buddhism (e.g. Bodhi, 2011; Goldstein, 2013; Nhâ´t Hạnh, 2008), mindfulness has gradually entered into mainstream understandings and practices of self-improvement and personal well-being, at times with celebrity endorsements (e.g. Germer, 2009; Greenhalgh, 2015; Halliwell, 2016; Heaversedge and Halliwell, 2010; Nemara, 2015; Thanissaro and Kulupana, 2015; Wax, 2016). In has also been incorporated into some health care interventions such as mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy and psychotherapy for treating depression and addiction. The practical application of mindfulness has often been cultivated through the practice of meditation (e.g. Crane, 2009; Harvey, 2013; Shonin, Van Gordan and Singh, 2015; Shonin, Van Gordon and Griffiths, 2015; Williams and Kabat-Zinn, 2013; Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn, 2007).

Many participants emphasised the centrality of mindfulness in their Buddhist practice, developed primarily through meditation. This emphasis reflects the developmental history of Buddhism in the west (e.g. Bluck, 2006; Harvey, 2013; Loundon, 2001, 2005; Possamai, 2009; Smith, Munt and Yip, 2016), as we shall discuss throughout this book. Tim, a 24-year-old administrator in the northwest of England who was drawn towards the Thai Forest Tradition, explained in the interview the importance of mindfulness, and how this was connected to his commitment to meditation:

And the mindfulness that you develop in meditation is observing that as a non-judgmental watcher, silent watcher, and that’s key to how you develop the wisdom to deal with your daily life and everything really that goes with that… Mindfulness is the key because that is how you change your attitude and perspective towards the vicissitudes of life… But also, not just focusing on the negative aspects; even the positive aspects – you can watch them change as well. It’s about maintaining a practice of stability, not being thrown by the extremes… They call it the middle path between the two extremes.

Tim’s account demonstrates the substantive and functional dimensions of mindfulness. It is as a state of being (characterised by equilibrium and evenness), achieved through the practice of meditation.[2] Consistent with specialist and populist understandings (e.g. Nhâ´t Hạnh, 2008; Heaversedge and Halliwell, 2010), Tim considered a mindful life one that inhabited the middle path, avoiding extremities. Furthermore, to him, mindfulness also facilitated detachment from not only the negative, but also the positive, because negativity and positivity constituted unavoidable and interweaving aspects of life that were regulated by the principle of change and interminability. This understanding is also reflected in some qualitative narratives drawn from the questionnaires, such as the following:

My religion is a daily practice for me to become myself more and more. It is a practice of awareness, of what I am feeling and how to cultivate a feeling of lovingkindness[3] unconditionally for all sentient beings. It is a practice that helps me move away from a reactive response to life to a creative response to life. It is a way of training the mind to naturally become more ethical in everyday circumstances. It is a framework into which everything else fits e.g. change, death, love, mystery. | francesca, a 24-year-old teacher in the midlands of England, associated with the tbc/fwbo

[Mindfulness] provides a path to truths that transcend the endless intellectual squabbling both within one’s mind and within those of others. It offers the only true foundation for the qualities of peace, love and wisdom that are embodied by that which is good in the world, as essentially everything is created by one’s own mind. | ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate in London, associated with the Vipassana tradition

The narratives above further demonstrate the significant difference mindfulness could make to everyday life. The aspired outcome is for mindfulness to promote a clear and even mind, generating peaceful and loving social encounters. Thus, mindfulness is not just a theology, a religious precept. It is a practice, with significant positive effects on lived lives. To live mindfully, therefore, was part and parcel of the participants’ quest for enlightenment in life – even if it is momentary – because a mindful life is a more examined and reflexive life; in other words, a more ‘lived’ life. Given their commitment to deploying mindfulness as a state of being and a practice, it is not surprising that 75.0% of the participants ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the questionnaire statement, ‘I am on an active search for enlightenment’.[4]

Flexibility that Promotes Self-reflexivity

Many participants admired the lack of authority structures and religious strictures within Buddhist communities that policed and regulated, and demanded uncritical conformity and compliance. In other words, Buddhism, to them, offered space for individualized reflection and development which respected individuals’ different spiritual journeys and the authority of the self in the fashioning of those journeys (see also Martel-Reny and Beyer, 2013). Maddie, a 23-year-old postgraduate in the midlands of England, was one of our mixed-faith participants, defining her spiritual identification as ‘QuakerBuddhist-Pagan’. In the interview, she articulated clearly the importance of this space for self-exploration:

I think there’s an attraction to the sort of very simple focus on the breathing style of [Buddhist] meditation. And sort of as a practical tool for everyday life as well as a spiritual practice… There’s something attractive in the forms of Buddhism where they’re more interested in doing something now than in having heavy debates about the afterlife and that sort of thing. I’m aware obviously there are those sorts of debates around in some branches of Buddhism. But you don’t have to commit yourself to any sort of theology to practise Buddhism and that’s quite attractive. Because it’s sort of, it gives you a bit of thinking room, breathing room. That’s similar to Quakerism in a way that you’re free to make up your own mind about things and I like that.

Highlighting the similarity between Quakerism and Buddhism, Maddie was clearly attracted to these traditions because of the freedom they offered her to make up her own mind about her life strategy. Indeed, this kind of freedom also opened up the possibility for an individual to use diverse resources – religious and secular – to formulate her/his orientation and navigation in her/ his life’s journey (see also Loundon, 2001, 2005). In fact, the line of demarcation between the religious and the secular at times collapsed in the construction of an ethical framework that meaningfully informed one’s life. Emma, a 20-yearold undergraduate in Scotland, who practised the Vajrayana tradition, and the Gelugpa and Rimé approaches in Tibetan Buddhism, wrote the following in the questionnaire:

There is so much to discover about the world, and so much left to learn about how to lead our lives that it seems silly to limit my ethical intake to just one religion, so I don’t. I see Buddhism as a path through paths – using Buddhist, secular, Christian etc. texts, scientific knowledge, philosophy, debate, contemplation and most importantly my own mind – all of these things are my faith, and my method for finding enlightenment, whatever that may be. Using my own intellect and ability I hope to be able to find the cure for everything bad in this world, just like the historical Buddha.

One of the positive effects of this flexibility is the promotion of choice, in terms of the augmentation of resources one could use to navigate everyday life.

George, a 21-year-old undergraduate in the midlands of England, who leaned towards the Theravada tradition, articulated this clearly in the interview:

But I feel it [Buddhism] has given me more choice, because before when I went out with my friends I didn’t really have any choice [but] to drink, because there was no reason not to. I feel it has given me more freedom because I think I could drink if I wanted to but I can actually make that choice.

We would argue that the intersection of generation and religion/spirituality is particularly salient in the stories thus far. Research has convincingly demonstrated that there are striking generational differences in the construction and practice of religion and spirituality, with the younger generation generally emphasising a more individualised, de-institutionalized, and de-centralized approach (e.g. Berger and Ezzy, 2007; Collins-Mayo and Dandelion, 2010; Gleig, 2014; Loundon, 2001, 2005; Madge, Hemming and Stenson, 2014; Savage, Collins-Mayo, Mayo and Cray, 2006; Turner, 2011; Yip and Page, 2013). The flexibility and freedom that promotes self-reflexivity, self-problematisation, and choice, which in turn facilitates the exercise of self-responsibility, constituted a primary attractive feature of Buddhism to our participants. We would assert that this reflects the confluence of Buddhist ethics and dominant values embraced by contemporary youth.[5] We shall develop this point fully in Chapter 6.

Ethical Principles and Guidance for Everyday Life

Research has consistently shown that one of the greatest values of religious faith to religious actors is the normative framework it can provide for not so much determining, but informing, life decisions in the everyday context (e.g. Beyer and Ramji, 2013; Berger and Ezzy, 2007; Flood, 2011; Madge, Hemming and Stenson, 2014; Pace, 2011; Page and Yip, 2016; Yip and Page, 2013). Consistent with this, 75.0% of the participants ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the questionnaire statement that, ‘I make decisions in my everyday life with reference to my religion’.[6] Indeed, the fact that their religious faith offered them ethical principles and guidance in the negotiation of everyday life cannot be denied, as reflected in the following questionnaire narratives:

I try to make my religion (going for refuge as we call it) the centre of my life and make all other decisions based on it. I do not always succeed in this but am always happier when I do. | poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate in the northeast of England, associated with the tbc/fwbo

It is a guidance through life, it does not claim things to be ultimately true even though it cannot be proved. It allows for evolution to continue. | gary, a 25-year-old unemployed cashier in Scotland, associated with the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism

In the same vein, Caroline, a 23-year-old undergraduate in London who defined herself as Buddhist-Christian, acknowledging her mixed religious heritage and her origin from the multi-religious Singapore, asserted in the interview her attraction to Buddhism – especially in comparison to Christianity – in its capacity to offer ethical principles and guidelines for life without undermining personal responsibility:

[The] Buddha never said that he was a god… He was like, ‘Go find… this is what I have got to say and you go see for yourself’… I think it seems like if it works for you then you take it and don’t get too caught up with the things that are unexplainable… I just think about the principles that are applicable to me and my day-to-day life… Basically Buddhists recommend meditation which I find has been really helpful, in like getting me to calm down and be more in touch with myself and my surroundings. It is just a helpful practical religion and… the whole [thing] of finding for yourself what the best path is and just trying to be the best person you can be. It feels like in Christianity, I can commit all the sins I want and I’ll just say I’m sorry I’ll repent and say 20 Hail Marys, OK, and God forgives you. I don’t think it works that way… The more I look at it, the more Buddhism appeals to me and the less Christianity is playing a part in my life. I somehow feel a little bit guilty [because of her mixed-faith heritage]… But Buddhism is more appealing to me than Christianity right now. I associate Christianity with my grandmother and [at] Christmas, I’ll go to church and things… in memory of her. I don’t think I could be a Christian [exclusively].

Tim, a 24-year-old administrator in the northwest England who was associated with the Theravada tradition, outlined even more clearly in the interview these indispensable ethical principles, namely, compassion and non-violence to oneself and others, as the foundation of Buddhist ethics:

I think that the baseline of Buddhism for most people is practising generosity. That immediately makes you feel happier and from that platform you gradually raise that up consciously, thinking about how you can make other people happy… [I]t permeates the rest of your life really and you notice a change in your behaviour and generally you are happier I guess. I think that one of the things that most people notice when they have been practising and if they don’t notice it then they tend to tell them that they seem different but that’s after a while of practice. Yeah, and obviously high profile Buddhists, like the Dalai Lama, they always push the compassion aspect, like not harming people, non-violence.

We conclude this section by presenting a narrative extracted from the questionnaire, which argues the combination of the cognitive, spiritual, and social benefits which Buddhism offered to many participants:

[Buddhism] brings me hope every day, and leads me along a path to enlightenment, and my life’s purpose. It teaches me to respect everyone, be humble and understanding and following the practice of meditation, I am able to de-stress. It also leads me to different places in the world, and different people where I always learn more about my combination of religions. | gertrud, 19-year-old, an unemployed cashier in the midlands of England, mixedfaith: Buddhism and spiritualism

In sum, we can see that the participants generally conceptualised Buddhism as non-theistic.[7] They emphasised mindfulness, self-reflexivity, and ethical principles, all of which were firmly grounded in not only the attainment of a higher spiritual plain, but also everyday lived relationships with themselves and others. For many participants, meditation played a significant role in facilitating this. There was a clear emphasis on the here and now. This focus on the present is crucial because, ‘in shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present, it demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope’ (Batchelor 1997: 38). In the next section, we shall expand this ‘lived’ dimension by exploring their views on living as a Buddhist in contemporary British society.

Living as a Buddhist in Contemporary British Society: What Really Matters?

It is clear from the stories we have told so far that the participants generally adopted an individualised and de-institutionalised approach to Buddhism, emphasising the here and now, and an action-oriented spirituality. This approach is further illustrated in their responses to an open-ended questionnaire question, in which they were asked to list up to five aspects that they deemed important as people of religious faith in contemporary society. The list below presents the top five responses:[8]

  1. Practice of religious virtues and ethics (e.g. honesty; generosity; love; care for people, animals, or the environment; non-violence; hope; tolerance; 53 responses);
  2. Self-development (15 responses);
  3. Participation in religious rituals (12 responses);
  4. Connection to religious communities (8 responses);
  5. Adherence to religious rules and teachings (6 responses).

The list above shows indisputably that the practice of religious virtues and ethics was by far the most important aspect of living as Buddhist. Here, the emphasis was placed on the aspirational values that underlined social actions in relation to not only other human beings, but also animals and the environment. Again, the individual was constructed as the fundamental basis from which such virtues should emanate, precipitating a virtuous social whole (e.g. Beyer, 2013a, 2013b; Madge, Hemming and Stenson, 2014). To facilitate the effective and consistent practice of such virtues, the individual must also assume the responsibility to develop herself/himself in this respect through, for instance, meditation and mindfulness, which we have discussed in the preceding section. There was certainly much less emphasis on the institutional dimension: the rules and strictures. The two questionnaire quotes below further demonstrate this approach:

Love is the heart of it all really. But religion is one of the best ways to receive this love and express it in human form. Religion for me is one of the best ways to be a human and to be part of a human community of people alive, and of traditions past and future. | ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate in the southeast of England; followed the teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh and Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism (as practised in the sgi [Sōka Gakkai International][9]) is a kind of religion that cannot be separated from philosophy or from ordinary living. Therefore, nothing I do is not inspired by Buddhism. I have become a different and stronger person because of my practice and I would not have been able to achieve what I have without practising. At the same time, Buddhism cannot make one a different person, as it teaches one to become what one really is. In such a sense I have become more myself. Therefore, the distinction between similar and different has vanished. | hans, a 24-year-old undergraduate in Greater London; Mixed-faith: Buddhism/ Hinduism/Jainism

In view of the significance of their religious faith in motivating the ways they aspired to live in relation to themselves and others, it is understandable that 81.4% of the participants ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the questionnaire statement, ‘I have made an active decision to accept and affirm my faith’.[10] Furthermore, 78.0% of them also ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement, ‘My faith makes me a better person’.[11] In the next section, we shall illuminate in greater detail the multifarious ways the participants practised Buddhism privately and publicly.

Practising Buddhism Privately and Publicly

In order to develop their religious faith, most participants combined private and public practices, acknowledging the benefits they generated respectively.[12] In total, 60.5% of the participants reported that they were involved in religious communities.[13] In addition, 22.7% attended explicitly religious public gatherings more than once a week; and 18.2%, once a week.[14] In terms of the types of public and private religious activity, almost all participants (94.6%) engaged in private religious rituals, while 45.9% engaged in public religious rituals. Furthermore, 18.9% also engaged in reading religious texts, and 16.2% participated in pilgrimage/retreat/festival.[15]

However, a minority of the participants were not involved in any offline Buddhist communities due to the lack of availability of such spaces where they lived, or personal choice. Their participation was instead enabled by access to online spaces. Caroline, a 23-year-old undergraduate who defined herself as Buddhist-Christian, is a typical example of the latter. As she explained in the interview, she relied on the internet, email communications and books to develop her Buddhist practice:

Basically I do listen to talks online from Buddhist monks and things like that. Ajahn Brahm[16] on YouTube. He has a whole series and I try to listen to them once a week. Also I meditate as well, 10 minutes a day, and otherwise I just try to read more about Buddhism. I haven’t really gone in depth but I do try to read about the teachings and… I try to apply it in my day-to-day interactions with people and how I view problems. Like the way I solve problems in my head with negative thoughts, I change them, but I have not really been involved in a community. I find it more of a private thing. I don’t really like to attend social religious functions… Sometimes I email [a Buddhist monk] and we might have a chat about it, we still keep in contact, or else when I’m back in Singapore I might go to the temple and have a chat with the monks there… I might consider getting more involved but at the moment I am quite fine doing it by myself, but if I have questions I will ask probably a monk at the temple or a Buddhist friend. Yeah I’ve got some books in my room right now, three or four introductory books.

Continuing with the point on private practices, the vast majority of participants exalted the importance and value of meditation and mindfulness practice, a point that we have discussed above in relation to the essence of being a Buddhism practitioner. Ralph was a 20-year-old undergraduate in the southeast of England who defined himself as Christian-Buddhist. An admirer of Tibetan Buddhism, Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teachings, and Anglican rituals, he explained in the interview the tangible benefits of such private practices in his everyday personal life:

I think meditation has many aspects. I think to some extent I use it as a tool to kind of just calm down and feel good in certain ways and to kind of make life a bit easier… I kind of have a slight tendency towards depression and so I use it in conjunction with cognitive behavioural therapy, and learn to kind of work with that. I see it as a kind of a very spiritual practice as well… that it allows me to sort of draw closer to god in many ways… I feel that when I’m more mindful then I can bring that into my daily life. I can kind of bring much more of that kind of heavenly reality into my sort of daily, earthly life, so that when I’m more mindful I can have better relations with people. That is kind of part of meditation as well. I feel it improves my kind of ethical… my morality and how I am able to deal with people. So I guess through that as well I feel I’m drawn closer to god and if I can love people better and if I can be in more fellowship with them and laugh with them more then I feel kind of god working through that very much as well, and in my ability mindfulness gives me a much greater ability to appreciate what is going on around me, and I feel that god is very much there in that as well.

Capitalising on his Buddhist-Christian identity, Ralph connected his mindfulness with the supernatural realm. This was unusual and was not invoked by participants who self-defined as Buddhist exclusively. He continued to explain how Buddhist meditation and Anglican rituals were mutually-supportive, which helped to enhance and deepen his spirituality:

I feel they serve slightly different purposes. I think [Buddhist] meditation is more like a particular technique for me, in which I can I learn how to look at my breath and how to draw closer to the inner psychological reality of what is going on. But ritual is completely indispensable in both Christianity and Buddhism and so my preferences to have Christian rituals in which I feel more deeply connected to them than I do to Buddhist rituals. [But] I can incorporate a sort of meditative approach into [a Christian ritual] and so in following my breath whilst being engaged in a ritual is particularly wonderful. And yes it enables me to sort of feel the Eucharist as something bigger… I think ritual always has to be there and then it’s very helpful if we can have a technique in which we can incorporate into ritual. But then on a personal level, on a daily practice, I think meditation can be a good thing just without much ritual, as kind of sort of almost a secular sort of technique, but then I also try to do, try to say some of the Anglican office every day but incorporate meditation into that so I usually have a time of silence within that in which I meditate. So they kind of flow in and out of each other a lot.

Ralph’s narrative reiterates a significant point we have mentioned earlier, that many participants were highly drawn towards the flexibility and freedom that Buddhism offered, which some comfortably interweaved with appropriate elements of other religious – and even secular – approaches to enrich and deepen their spirituality. In Ralph’s case, his adept and creative blending of aspects of Buddhism and Anglicanism certainly enhanced his spiritual life, unusually using Buddhist techniques to connect with the supernatural. Overall, the participants emphasised what worked for them; in other words, what they considered experientially and emotionally authentic, rewarding, and enriching. This is highly consistent with scholarly arguments about the complex and pluralistic nature of how religion is lived in everyday life (e.g. Ammerman, 2007, 2014a, 2014b; McGuire, 2008; Orsi, 2005), a theme that we shall elaborate in Chapter 6.

In the same vein, Zara, a 24-year-old therapist in the southeast of England, also acknowledged her positive experience with meditation as an ongoing private practice:

I got quite into the meditation… I’ve had patches where I haven’t meditated every day, but at this point now I’ve been meditating every day for about a year and a half… [It is] just so simple, like just sit down and give yourself space. It just seems to work, and I can see the effects on my life otherwise I wouldn’t have kept with it. I can see myself feeling calmer. I used to be a lot more ‘grabby’ [materialistic] than I am [now]…. I think if I hadn’t have noticed the effects I don’t think I would have kept it up.

Zara’s account illustrates that meditation not only enhances personal wellbeing, but also promotes change in behaviour and worldview. This indicates that meditation is far more than a therapeutic exercise for our participants. While the importance of private practice is undeniable, many participants also argued that it was crucial for that to be complemented by an involvement in public religious spaces, to benefit from collective energy. Poppy, a 25-yearold postgraduate in the northeast of England, was living and working in a tbc/fwbo community with several women. In different entries to the video diary which we have re-arranged to enhance discursive clarity and flow, she highlighted the fact that both private (e.g. mindful walking) and public (e.g. group discussion in mitra[17] study, retreats, puja[18]) practices of different kinds were crucial for the enrichment and development of her spirituality:

I do generally enjoy meditating with other people; it is great to have that supportive atmosphere of people who are doing the same thing and have the same goals… [Last night] I had mitra study… there was three of us with an order member and another mitra, which is a really quite engaging… We have been studying aspects of Buddhist psychology and looking at positive and negative mental states. Looking at wrong views, indecision, arrogance and lack of awareness and different types of wisdom. So it was a lively discussion, and lots of energy, which really helped me get a sense of faith and a sense of gratitude towards the movement [tbc/fwbo] in a sense of how fortunate we are being in contact with the dharma,[19] and being able to practise the dharma. So that was really great, really positive… [Another talk] was on integration and mindfulness… talking about how the role of mindfulness is in enabling us to become more integrated. And then the role… the way in which integration is essential to achieving that. A lot of what [the speaker] said was really inspiring…. After supper I had quite a restless feeling… and ended up going for a walk, [saw] lots of baby rabbits and a pheasant. Just being in nature is really important for me. It is really grounding. So I was out listening to the birds and things like that, maybe for about an hour. And yeah, I got this real sense of appreciation of my life. I often when I have this real in-the-moment appreciation it makes me think about death and… it makes me appreciate how transient it is and how… I think what it would be like to be at the end of my life looking back and thinking… That is interesting that this kind of sense of happiness is often [intertwined] with this transience, this sense of death. Then… I have just got back and probably am going to do some more reading, really quite enjoy reading… Puja… is a devotional practice: full body prostration and offerings and things like that, mantras, and that is great. I really enjoy that. I really got a sense of perspective… I would see the world differently and wouldn’t be getting so upset, trying to see the bigger picture. And also suffering is part of existence and actually there isn’t much you can do about it other than just be with it sometimes. Holding that and this sense of something bigger.

Poppy’s multiple video diary entries are very helpful in illustrating the personal and the social in religious practice. While she valued her own private practice, she relished, and indeed thrived in, her in-depth involvement in the religious community – a form of ‘community of practice’ with shared norms and common interests, providing significant social and cultural capital (e.g. Clark, 2011; Hildreth, 2010; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Sauntson and Morrish, 2012; Queen, 2005; Wenger, 2000). In the same vein, Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student in the southeast of England who participated actively in her local tbc/fwbo community, wrote in the questionnaire:

[Buddhism] is incredibly important to me, as it has brought about so much positivity. Every decision I make is affected by my beliefs and values as a Buddhist. Being involved with Buddhism means I have a deeper understanding of my everyday experiences. The friendships that have stemmed from involvement in Buddhism has made my religion incredibly close to my heart, and motivates me into knowing what a good movement the fwbo really is.

In line with Poppy’s reflection, Jessica’s own positive experience indisputably demonstrates that the religious space, as a community of faith, also functioned as a ‘moral community’ that provided values for individual behaviour, reinforcing one’s personal religious beliefs and principles (e.g. Hill, 2009; MagyarRussell, Deal and Brown, 2014; Sinclair and Milner, 2005; Smith and Snell, 2009; Wald 2009; Whitney and King, 2014; Yip and Page, 2013). Smith (2003) and Smith and Denton (2005), for instance, have argued that participation in a religious community can develop moral directives (e.g. values such as discipline), social capital (e.g. social networks and ties) and cultural capital (e.g. skills and competencies).

Choosing the Sangha that Worked for Oneself

Given the diverse traditions and schools in Buddhism, the participants aligned with particular approaches that appealed to their spiritual journeys. At times, they exercised their choices based on what they perceived to be a more ‘authentic’ tradition. Danny, an 18-year-old A-level student in Northern Ireland, explained in the interview why he gravitated towards the Theravada tradition:

In Northern Ireland, there’s a really, really small Buddhist community, they have a centre in what’s called the New Kadampa tradition up in Belfast, but that’s not a form of Buddhism that I follow… I mean like I’ve heard people say that they’re all the same and I can see that all the different types of Buddhism they make deep and insightful spiritual realisations, but I don’t agree with [some] traditions… I would practise the Theravada one, as to me it would represent the most intact former knowledge, because it’s the one that they just follow the Buddha’s original teachings in the Tripitaka.[20] The Mahayana would follow the teachings that were recovered after the Buddha, I always think this is really silly… You see, I have never really made a distinction between different traditions. I always would have thought of Theravada as just its own one direct, all-encompassing, tradition with just different approaches in how to meditate. I would have seen Mahayana as the more fragmented one with the different teaching, or the different schools of thought.

In addition to using ‘authenticity’ as the criterion for choosing a sangha, some participants prioritised the anti-hierarchal and anti-authoritarian nature of the sangha. Stefan, a 25-year-old undergraduate in the southwest of England was heavily involved in the Theravada Forest tradition, until he became disappointed with what he considered its hierarchical and institutionalised structure, leading to his current personal exploration of ‘Early Buddhism’. He had since withdrawn from Buddhist communities. He explained this journey in great detail in the interview:

I was in Thailand overall for three-and-a-half years and in Australia for three years in different branch monasteries [of the Theravada Forest tradition]. I learned Pali which is the economical language for Theravada Buddhism and also studied… the earliest kind of core set of texts… [I also learned] a lot about early Buddhist history, a lot about monastic law and especially communal legal procedures. And I gradually became very, very disillusioned with the actual modern institution and that was basically the main reason I ended up leaving. Because even though idealistically I still wanted to be a monk I realised that the institution was so radically totally different from how it advertises itself to be, how it should be, how I needed it to be… I basically found it untrustworthy… It seems that the original Buddhist system was very anti-hierarchical and was explicitly run on similar lines to the tribal republics in the northeast of Indian at the time, which were typical egalitarian tribes basically, and the sangha is explicitly based upon the same political structures with no head and very specific communal legal procedures so there would be no need for a head… But the modern sangha is the extreme opposite. It is extremely hierarchal and authoritarian and the abbots basically have total absolute personal power in each monastery. So it tends to become more like the cult of the abbots [rather] than actually the scriptural religion. And I just found that extremely un-trustable and because I never trusted any of the abbots enough, and that situation of having no control over my life at all and yet not trusting the person who does have control over me and being in that very enclosed kind of community. I just found it made me continually insecure and anxious… There aren’t many segments of the [Buddhist] community which I feel I can fit in with, and those people, those Buddhists who I do fit in with are too scattered to actually form a living community… The things which do cause a lot of contention are issues which relate to the authority that should be the basis of the community and what is the valid source for the kind of ethos that is the basis for the cohesion of the community… So, yeah, there are definitely very different camps and I’m basically with the radically scriptualist orthodox faction… So far I guess I don’t manage [it] very well. I kind of feel quite distant… I don’t feel very practically or tangibly Buddhist when I’m not involved in the Buddhist community, and I feel ideologically alienated from most living Buddhist communities… because I feel they have compromised their own roots they are hardly even Buddhist anymore. So yeah… it is… I don’t really have much, I don’t feel any sense of belonging to a living moral community that is Buddhist.

While Stefan was in a minority, his story is significant because it reinforces a point that we have discussed above: that, for many young people, spiritual spaces need to demonstrate certain dominant characteristics that are very close to youth identity, and one of these values is equality and the lack of centralisation and institutionalisation of religious power.

Transnational Experience of Buddhism

The internet and new media have undoubtedly had a profound impact on the representation and experience of spirituality (e.g. Bobkowski, 2014; Campbell, 2010; Dawson and Cowan, 2014; Gleig, 2014; Grieve and Veidlinger, 2014; Han, 2016; Højsgaard and Warburg, 2005; Lynch, Mitchell and Strhan, 2012). The globalisation of such technological developments has indeed made religion and spirituality more transnational in nature. While such experience could be obtained electronically, a small number of our participants had also taken their spiritual pursuits abroad for a variety of reasons. We have just told the story of Stefan who spent over six years in Thailand and Australia, wanting to train to be a monk. In addition, we also encountered Katie, a 24-year-old information technology professional in the northwest of England who practised Zen meditation and actively involved in tbc/fwbo activities. In the interview, she told us excitedly about her imminent plan of transitional spiritual pursuit, covering multiple Asian countries:

I’m going to Mongolia, then to China and Nepal to go in a monastery for a bit, and then Japan to look at some more monasteries for ages. And then I’m going to India to work in a Buddhist place for six months… I’ll finish that job [in one year’s time], so I’m going for a year… [I most look forward to] Japan I think because I spent quite a lot of time at a Zen abbey in this country and I’m quite interested in what it’s actually like because I’m very wary about how the west has taken Buddhism and it will have misappropriated quite a lot of the stuff. So yeah I think it will be an eye opener for me.

It is clear from Katie’s narrative that the key motivation for her plan was to experience what she expected to be a more authentic form of Buddhism that had not been mediated through western cultural forces. This search for the more authentic also applies to Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student in the southeast of England. A week after she had compiled the video dairy for our project, she went to China for six months with the intention to deepen her practice. Her video dairy entries were understandably filled with her reflections about the imminent trip: her excitement and anxiety. We have re-arranged the entries to enhance discursive flow and clarity:

These past couple of days have been a big period for me with coming to some understandings about Buddhism, and how I want to take it to me with China and develop as a Buddhist in China. I needed to think about it because I won’t have the same support as I do here, the sangha, and other Buddhists, or my dad. I’m going to be the only person supporting myself within this kind of Buddhism. I am going to go out there and hopefully come across different types of Buddhism and other different ways of practising, and I am looking forward to being challenged, and the way I choose to practise Buddhism. I want that to be challenged and to explore a few other ways. There is one other mitra in the whole of China and I think there are two order members or maybe one. [Name] who leads [her local] Buddhist group. He is going to email the order member out in China and give him my email and tell him that I am coming because it would be nice to connect with someone who is having the same experiences as being a practising Buddhist as part of the Triratna Buddhist community… They might be able to give me some insights into how to practise and be a part of that culture and be engrossed in that culture. So, I have been thinking a lot in the past couple of days about what I want to do and how I want to progress, and I don’t want to keep… I don’t want it to not develop. I don’t want to go to China and come back and be at the same level as I am now. I feel I have been lazy. Intellectually I understand a lot of the Buddhist ideals and ways of practising… Rather than reading books and thinking about it… I don’t know if I am making total sense but I want to go to China and go and do everything I do with all of my being, my full force of my being. Practise Buddhism, interact with all the new people, interact with my new surrounding and have commitment to what I am doing and it is only possible if I am using my rational mind and my emotions and considering all parts of my being… When I first started planning to go to China I remember really being excited about it and now I can’t remember why. But I am sure when I get there things will become clear. At the moment I am feeling really sad to leave people behind, and I am panicking about what happens when I come back, will everything be the same, which of course it won’t. And change, and accepting change and accepting that everything is in a constant flow and a constant state of impermanence, is what Buddhism teaches and is what I am trying to accept and truly believe. I know already, but just wish I wasn’t so scared of change.

All the narratives above reflect an ‘idealised and imagined authenticity’ these participants associated with Buddhism in the east. Therefore, undertaking such a journey became a pursuit to deepen their spirituality; in other words, to be a more ‘serious’ and a more ‘authentic’ Buddhist (e.g. Loundon, 2001, 2005). However, embedding oneself in a transnational spiritual experience could lead to diverse outcomes. While there is evidence of western spiritual seekers deepening and enriching their spiritual practice as a result of such an experience, stories such as Stefan’s, as we presented in the sub-section above, shows that the enthusiasm and aspiration for such an experience might not be as rewarding as expected. As we have seen in Stefan’s case, his long-standing engagement with the sangha in Thailand was met with disillusionment and disappointment. Equipped with values of egalitarianism and expressive individualism informed by British culture, he ventured into the Forest tradition in Thailand expecting the practice of such cultural values in the sangha. His disappointment escalated gradually as he observed what he considered blatant gender inequality and authoritarianism that permeated the sangha.[21] This led to his drastic decision to leave the sangha, and he was clearly still nursing the wounds when we met him in the research. His experience highlights a significant point about the mediation of religion through culture; in other words, the gap between religion as a belief system and religion as a cultural practice. There could be a gap between what some religious actors believe to be the essence and core of a religious faith (e.g. being accepting of sexual diversity and difference and upholding gender equality) and religiously-justified cultural practices that contradict such an essence (e.g. heterosexuality-hegemonising and male-privileging practices) (e.g. Bolognani and Mellor, 2012; Jaspal, 2012; Page and Yip, 2012a, 2016; Yip, 2010). We shall develop this point further in Chapter 4 (specifically when we tell stories about the experiences of lgbt participants), Chapter 5, and Chapter 6.

Another notable observation we would like to make about these participants’ experiences is the convergence of capital of different kinds (Bourdieu, 1984) that enabled their transnational journeys and explorations. First and foremost, they had the economic capital (i.e. financial resources) for such an undertaking. They also mobilized social capital (i.e. social networks in Britain, and in some cases, abroad) to facilitate the organization of their journeys, and the adjustment process in the host countries. Finally, they were also enabled by cultural capital (i.e. the subscription to the value of self-exploration and self-development in life journeys). This observation raises the issue of social class in young people’s journeys of exploration of their religious faith. We shall elaborate this point conceptually in Chapter 6.

Learning from Others: Sources of Inspiration

As we have discussed thus far, in order to develop their Buddhism, the participants emphasised the importance of private practice and/or involvement in the Buddhist sangha. In addition, they had also reported a wide range of specific sources of inspirations – role models – to whom they aspired. This list – composed from responses to an open-ended questionnaire question – ranged from explicitly Buddhist public figures, to non-Buddhist and secular individuals known for their humanitarian contributions, and to even celebrities such as Beyoncé and Shakira who were considered the embodiment of empowerment. In terms of specific Buddhists, the questionnaire quotes below show not only the key figures, but also the inspirations that the participants drew from them. In this respect, the Buddha was undoubtedly the often-cited figure, for obvious reasons. But there were others, such as those included in the quotes below:

Daisaku Ikeda – President of the sgi. A Buddhist philosopher, peacebuilder and educator. He actively engages in various dialogues with prolific religious leaders, political leaders and activists. | chi, an 18-year-old undergraduate in the southwest of England; associated with Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism and sgi

Thích Nhất Hạnh and Pema Chödrön[22] – because their views on sexuality/love and gender are the most progressive within Buddhist community I think. | jeremy, a 24-year-old unemployed medical assistant; associated with the Karma Kagyu Tibetan tradition

The Dalai Lama, because he seems to be enlightened already and even though he lost his home country never gives up hope and tries to help others and make peace. Pema Chödrön, because she was one of the people that made Buddhism accessible for Westerners and lives it even though there were many obstacles. | elisabeth, a 23-year-old undergraduate; mixed faith: Buddhist-Catholic

Significantly, members of the sangha – in both an ordained and lay capacity – were also often considered as sources of inspirations:

Female and male order member within the fwbo. I look up to these people because they have had a lifetime’s spiritual experience and can help me develop as a person. However, I don’t see the division between men and women so clearly, as the aim of the spiritual life is to transcend ‘male’ and ‘female’. | francesca, a 24-year-old teacher in the midlands of England; associated with the tbc/fwbo

Yes, many people from the religious community (the sangha) who take the time to teach the dharma to those who wish to learn such as myself. I look up to them because when I listen to them teaching I can see for myself that what they’re saying makes sense and I feel that I become a calmer, more patient, happier person for their teachings. | george, a 21-year-old undergraduate in the midlands of England; associated with the Theravada tradition

Yes, dharma teachers and senior practitioners within the community, awakened religious teachers of all other traditions, anyone who is able to live in mindfulness and bring the qualities of love, compassion, equanimity, wisdom and dedication to work actively within their lives as a force for positive change. Those people who stand up against corruption, authoritarianism, multi-corporate franchising and unsustainable resourcegrabbing etc. | ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate in London; drawn towards the Vipassana tradition

As mentioned above, the participants also found inspiration in individuals whose humanitarian and political work have changed – and continue to change – the world, regardless of their religious or secular leanings. The central component here is impact. Key figures on this list include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Aryan Hirsi Ali, and Barak Obama; and others reflected in the quotes below:

I have many role models who come from many different backgrounds or religious traditions: Mother Theresa of Calcutta for her selfless devotion to the alleviation of poverty in India. Mahatma Gandhi for his determination & commitment to his cause. I quote ‘we must become the change we want to see in this world’, I try and live my life by this very maxim. Aung San Suu Kyi, the [previously] imprisoned leader of the National League for Democracy political party in Myanmar (Burma) for her limitless compassion for the people of her country living under the brutal military dictatorship there & her dedication to her Buddhist principles. | lucas, a 24-year-old unemployed teaching assistant in the northwest of England; associated with the Theravada tradition

Babasahib Ambedkar for his work helping the untouchables of India using Buddhism. Ayn Rand for her dedication to understanding the self and the power of the single human being. John Stuart Mill for his politics. Walter Benjamin for showing me that inventive genius is still alive. | emma, a 20-year-old undergraduate in Scotland; associated with Vijrayana and Gelugpa Rimé schools of the Tibetan tradition 

Reflecting on the narratives above as a whole, we would contend that often the line between Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and that between religious/ spiritual and secular, was immaterial. These sources were inspirational to the participants because of their contributions to humanity in diverse ways, and to different degrees of noticeability. What they emphasised was the positive impact of their action on the common good, regardless of the manifestation of the impact and the originator. This seems to evince once again the eclectic and flexible nature of the participants’ spiritual orientations, intertwined with social and political concerns. The other significant observation we would like to make in this respect is that such sources of inspirations did not necessarily constitute official religious authority figures. While the religious elites did play a significant role, other everyday human beings who used their humanity to enriching and empowering effects were also held in high esteem. This is reminiscent of the Buddhist belief that the propensity for good and compassionate deeds and actions is embedded within all human beings, regardless of whether one has received specialist intellectual and theological training to teach Buddhism officially. In other words, the practice of lovingkindness and compassion to all sentient beings is a privilege and responsibility for us all. This is the foundation of ‘socially-engaged Buddhism’, a practical spirituality that is not only individually, but also socially, transformative (e.g. Henry, 2013; Queen, 2000a, 2000b; Yu, 2014; See also Chapter 5 and Chapter 6).


This chapter began by presenting three essential elements of the participants’ diverse understandings of Buddhism. They are: (1) mindfulness as a state of being and an everyday practice, which emphasises the here and now, and induces calmness and equanimity; (2) inherent flexibility in Buddhism that promotes self-reflexivity and responsibility; and (3) ethical principles and moral guidance for everyday life. Notably in these understandings is its nontheistic character. In addition, the participants stressed an individualised, deinstitutionalised, and action-oriented spirituality, the central tenet of which is the practice of Buddhist virtues and values in everyday contexts. In Chapter 6, we shall expand this observation by arguing that this scenario is a particularly apt illustration of youth religiosity and spirituality in contemporary society, closely connected to the prominent forces of individualisation, media technological advancement and commodification of social life (e.g. Savage, Collins-Mayo, Mayo and Cray, 2006; Turner, 2011; Woodhead, 2010).

To enhance their spiritual pursuits, the participants were engaged in a host of private and public, online and offline, rituals and practices. Meditation was central to many participants’ engagement. Often, they drew from Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious/spiritual and secular, sources to enable this process. A small minority of participants also undertook, or were about to undertake, transnational journeys (especially to the East) in search of a Buddhism that they deemed more authentic, as a strategy to deepen their spirituality. In addition to specifically Buddhist leading figures, the participants also considered nonBuddhist and secular – prominent and ordinary – individuals, as sources of inspiration, with the emphasis on the impacts of their deeds. The pluralistic and pragmatic nature of their spiritual outlook is reminiscent of the features of ‘lived religion’ and ‘everyday religion’ (e.g. Ammerman, 2007, 2014a, 2014b; McGuire, 2008; Orsi, 2005), which we shall expand in Chapter 6. In the following chapter, we shall further develop the examination of their spirituality, with specific reference to sexuality.


[1] Some of these texts are scholarly in nature, and some are written for a general readership. We decide to reference both types of writings to reflect our participants’ own engagement with them, and to offer what we think are helpful texts for the non-academic readers of this book. We also acknowledge that there are diverse schools of thought and perspectives within Buddhism. However, as we have argued in Chapter 1, our focus prioritises the narratives and lived experiences of the participants as religious social actors, rather than those of religious elites and scholars.
[2] While the benefits of meditation are undeniable, evident in our participants’ accounts, it is not without its critics. Batchelor, for example, argues that, ‘While Buddhism has tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms, today it is in further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. If these trends continue, it is liable to become increasingly marginalized and lose its potential to be realized as a culture: an in- ternally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life. The challenge now is to imagine and create a culture of awakening that both supports individual dharma practice and addresses the dilemmas of an agnostic and pluralist world’ (1997: 20). We would contend that the development of socially engaged Buddhism, discussed later on in this chapter and in Chapter 6, could contribute to the construction of ‘a culture of awakening’.
[3] For a detailed discussion of ‘lovingkindness’ (mettā in Pali), see e.g. Harvey (2013).
[4] The total number of valid responses is 44.
[5] For a detailed discussion of contemporary youth identity, see, for instance, Bennett and Robards (2014), Buckingham, Bragg and Kehily (2014), France (2007), Furlong (2013), and Wierenga (2009).
[6] The total number of valid responses is 44.
[7] Of course, the picture is more complex for participants who were also associated with a the- istic non-Buddhist religion, such as those who self-defined as ‘Buddhist-Christian’. We shall tease out the specific views and experiences of such participants in appropriate contexts throughout the book.
[8] The total number of valid cases is 35.
[9] The sgi is a lay organisation based on the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism that originat- ed in Japan. The Movement was founded by the educationalist Tsunesaburō Makiguchi (1871–1944) as Sōka Kyoiku Gakkai in 1930. Its current president is Daisaku Ikeda. More information can be found at: See also Dobbelaere (2001), and Smith, Munt and Yip (2016).
[10] The total number of valid cases is 43.
[11] The total number of valid cases is 41.
[12] In their Canadian study on ‘ethnic’ young Buddhists, Beaman, Nason-Clark and Ramji (2013) found that women were more actively involved in private and public Buddhist activities. This gender dimension is not evident in our study which focuses on ‘convert’ Buddhists.
[13] The total number of valid cases is 43.
[14] The total number of valid cases is 44.
[15] The total number of valid cases is 37.
[16] Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera (popularly known as Ajahn Brahm) was born Peter Betts in London, United Kingdom in 1951. He is a Theravada Buddhist monk currently based in Australia. In addition to online resources, he has also published several books, including Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond (2006) and The Art of Disappearing (2011). More details can be found on:
[17] A mitra (Sanskrit for friend) is someone who wants to practise Buddhism seriously ac- cording to the approach of the tbc/fwbo and intends to do so for the foreseeable future. She/he also makes and expresses, in a ceremony, a formal commitment to this effect (see also Harvey, 2013; Keown, 2003; Smith, Munt and Yip, 2016; Vajragupta, 2010).
[18] Bowing, prostrating, offering, and chanting to express devotion. See e.g. Harvey (2013), Keown (2003), Sangharakshita (2008), and Smith, Munt and Yip, (2016).
[19] The totality of the Buddha’s teachings. See e.g. Harvey (2013), Keown (2003), Rao (2014), and Smith, Munt and Yip (2016).
[20] Tripiṭaka is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘Three Baskets’. It refers to the various canons of Buddhist scriptures. See e.g. Ganeri (2003).
[21] Indeed, gender equality – and the associated issue of religious women’s agency – is a perennially contentious issue in religious spaces, reflected in debates such as women’s access to religious leadership and religiously-endorsed gender-specific role specializa- tion. See, for example, Alcoff and Caputo (2011), Aune, Sharma and Vincett (2008), Beyer (2013b), Bracke (2008), Gross (2015), Houston (2012), Mahmood (2005), Nyhagen and Hal- saa (2016); Page (2012), Page and Yip (2016), and Yip and Page (2013). For literature specifi- cally on gender and Buddhism, see e.g. Cadge (2005), Collett (2006), Gross (1992, 1994), Starkey (Forthcoming), Swanepoel (2014), Tomalin (2006, 2009, 2014), and Tsomo (2014).
[22] Pema Chödrön is an ordained Tibetan nun. She is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her publications include: The Places that Scare You (2002), Start Where You Are (2001), and Always Maintain a Joyful Mind (2007). More details can found at:

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