Andrew Yip and Sarah-Jane Page: Understanding Young Buddhists | Living Out Ethical Journeys | Chapter 5: Living Out Buddhism in the Wider World

This chapter will start by exploring how participants felt Buddhism was situated and perceived in broader society. Young adults are navigating a fastchanging world, patterned by risks and costs, as well as opportunities. Young people have more freedom in terms of relationship formation, employment choice, and mobility; technological innovation has brought about significant new possibilities. However, this is undertaken in a context of risk and uncertainty (France, 2007; Mason, Singleton and Webber, 2007; Threadgold and Nilan, 2009; White and Wyn, 2008). Job security has diminished, yet greater demand is now placed on the individual to succeed economically in order to construct her/his identity through consumption. There is therefore a pressure to be able to afford to consume and be a ‘competent consumer’ (Bauman, 1998, 2007, 2009). In an individualising context, traditional means of navigating these risks, such as religious institutions, are declining (Mason, Singleton and Webber, 2007). Instead, the individual becomes responsible for her/his life trajectory, with emphasis placed on individual effort, and diminished attention given to the impact of inequalities such as class, gender and ethnicity (Mason, Singleton and Webber, 2007; Thomson 2009).

It is in this environment that our participants enacted their values and approaches to living as a Buddhist in the wider world. As we shall see, they rejected some of the dominant values of youth culture such as consumerism. But other elements of contemporary life, such as extensive travel and communication, were embraced. These issues were navigated in relation to their own (largely privileged) biographies, which allowed them to minimise the impact of risk and uncertainty, but certainly did not eradicate this risk completely. Indeed, the changing context of the lives of young people indicates that today’s young Buddhists come to Buddhism in a rather different context to previous generations of ‘converts’ to Buddhism (e.g. Gleig, 2014; Possamai, 2009. See also Chapter 2 and Chapter 6).

Our participants concurrently made sense of their Buddhist identity in terms of reference to the past, present, and future. We shall explore the core values they cultivated (namely, a commitment to equality, anti-consumerism, and environmentalism), examining the extent to which these were inspired by Buddhist ethics, but were also embedded in contemporary cultural contexts. This engagement is largely concerned with the ‘past’, in that participants explained how they had formulated these core values. We shall then consider how these values were negotiated within the present in everyday life, exploring the challenges that participants encountered in living out their values in contemporary British society. This formulation of core values allows participants to position themselves accordingly in everyday life and social relations, despite the challenges involved. We shall consider these challenges in relation to popular media, consuming alcohol, and contemporary sexual values.

As lived religion is relationally experienced (Tweed, 2006) we shall also specifically consider how these Buddhists were embedded in broader networks, namely, family and friends. We shall therefore foreground ‘the present’ and the active negotiation of their Buddhist identities in these sections. Finally, we shall explore how their Buddhist identity shaped their future orientations. Given the specific stage they occupied in their lifecourse, discussion will focus on work and employment – an area which prompted much reflection regarding how they would live out their future lives as Buddhists. Unless otherwise stated, quotes are taken from the interviews.

Situating Buddhism in British Society

Unlike other religious young adults that the Religion, Youth and Sexuality project mapped (see Chapter 1; and Yip and Page, 2013), our Buddhist participants were far less likely to report overt discrimination or hostility towards Buddhism in British society. Only 13.2% of them ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement, ‘I believe people from my religious tradition are portrayed negatively in the media’.[1] Indeed, Buddhist practices had received much positive press attention, compared to, for instance, Islam and Christianity (Yip and Smith, 2010). However, some participants perceived this coverage as shallow and misconstrued. Katie, a 24-year-old information technology specialist living in Yorkshire and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, summed up her position clearly when she said:

There is a lot about Buddhism in the media but it’s not really a true representation so that’s why I’m not sure how it actually is represented. Because a lot of what I see, it’s [deemed] trendy… this cool thing that everyone wants to dip into… If you say you meditate or do yoga then there’s some bonus points in how other people think of you… I don’t like that; it cheapens it.

Therefore, instead of Buddhism’s populist status being enabling, Katie felt that this tainted her practice, because it suggested that she was only a Buddhist in order to be fashionable.

Although some shared Katie’s view of how Buddhism was perceived, others did not mind this construction, as it meant that Buddhism was at least being discussed and brought to the attention of a wider audience. However, these participants still argued that to be a Buddhist meant something much more:

[I]f they’re coming into contact with it then I think it’s a good thing and if they are interested in it… they will come to learn the essence of Buddhism | tim, a 24-year-old administrator living in the northwest of England; affiliated with Theravada Buddhism

[The perception is that Buddhism is] more to do with meditation to reduce stress. Which I think is totally fine, but there’s obviously a reason for why it reduces stress and you should look deeper for why it does. I think they know about meditation because a lot of my friends’ parents do it, like yoga… But if you call yourself a Buddhist, there’s a big difference. | jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student living in the southeast of England; affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

I don’t want to say that anyone’s engagement with Buddhism is superficial, if it gives them what they need. | zara, a 24-year-old therapist living in the southeast of England; affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

Zara was most open to the idea of other individuals pursuing a more casual and cursory engagement with Buddhism, especially if it benefitted them in their lives. Meanwhile, for Jessica and Tim, such an engagement was not ‘real’ Buddhism, although it could be deemed one step on the path to engaging with Buddhism more deeply. Others were far more critical of what they perceived to be a middle-class monopolisation of Buddhism:

I had saved up to go on a retreat and it was my first retreat after being a Buddhist. And I was amazed that the people there weren’t Buddhist; they were mostly people who considered themselves very spiritual, like middle-class… I was hoping that maybe I would meet fellow Buddhists… How can you get proper teaching from someone who is just like you?…

And retreats in this country costs [money]… It was £300 for a week… that is a huge sum of money which a lot of people can’t afford. | emma, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in Scotland, associated with nonsectarian Buddhism

Emma was hoping that she would gain spiritual insights from more experienced Buddhists, but was disappointed to discover that her retreat comprised individuals who did not even define themselves as Buddhist, and from whom she felt she could learn little. She was also critical of the way such spaces priced people out, making it an exclusive, and indeed exclusionary, middleclass engagement. This also links to concerns about Buddhist ideas, values and practices being mainstreamed into broader culture, to be appropriated by a fee-paying public. As Loundon (2001) notes, the proliferation of expensive Buddhist retreats indicates a commercialisation of Buddhism, which has caused much debate and contention within the broader Buddhist community. The concern is that populist perceptions of Buddhism undermines the spiritual dimension of practices like meditation, framing them simplistically as secular practices that promote physical and emotional well-being to enhance one’s highly individualised management of the vicissitudes of life (see also Chapter 6 and Lorentz, 2008).

The participants seemed to experience varied perceptions about their faith. Elisabeth, a 23-year-old undergraduate living in the midlands of England and identifying with Chan Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, wrote on her questionnaire that ‘My religion seems exotic to other people’. In her interview, Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student living in the southeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, concurred:

[There is] so much ignorance in England. You think the total orange robe, bald head thing. That is definitely what most people think… They’re shocked because they think that you’re a monk… also because I’m white as well. They think it’s like an eastern religion… There’s a lot of ignorance which means I don’t discuss it so much.

Jessica’s religious identity was seen as boundary-crossing, especially as she was engaging with a religious tradition that has been ethnicised as non-white. Her claim to a Buddhist identity was thus deemed suspect by some of her associates; her legitimacy to identify with Buddhism was questioned. This highlights the complex ways religion and ethnicities are intertwined (Khattab and Modood, 2015). When one’s expected ethnicity and religion are disaggregated, confusion ensues. Meanwhile Ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, who defined himself as an Anglican-Buddhist, argued that although in the intellectual circle he operated in Buddhism was not understood especially well, there was still a positive perception, but this was bolstered through his middle-class social network:

[P]eople don’t really understand it particularly well… I haven’t encountered that many people who’ve been really stumped by it; maybe that is just because… I tend to move in fairly middle-class circles so most people are attracted to the idea of Buddhism even if they don’t know very much about it.

Therefore, not only ethnicity markers, but also class markers, become important in gaining credence when one identifies as a Buddhist. Ralph’s identity as a student at a prestigious university gave him particular cultural capital that enabled him to confidently assert himself as a Buddhist, and to receive a positive response in the process.

Others connected Buddhism’s positive perception with its construction as a peaceful tradition represented through figureheads such as the Dalai Lama:

[People] just sympathise with Buddhism I think. It has a good fame. The Dalai Lama and things like that. They think it’s a peaceful philosophy. | josé, a 21-year-old charity worker living in the east of England; affiliated with tbc/fwbo

I think because of the high profile of certain people, such as the Dalai Lama, because he pushes for compassion and non-violence for the cause of Tibet, people have that view that Buddhism is all about compassion and mediation. Whereas I suppose, if you asked somebody ‘Who is the most famous Muslim you could think of?’ a lot of people would say maybe Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden and those are obviously completely different personalities and they are associated with completely different things. And that’s really unfortunate because obviously Islam does not stand for what [those individuals] stand for. | tim, a 24-year-old administrator living in the northwest of England; affiliated with Theravada Buddhism

Indeed, it was this contrast with other minority religions (especially the negative coding of Islam – see Modood, 2010) that enabled Buddhism to be benignly perceived, which was buttressed through drawing upon images and narratives that positioned Buddhism as connected with a 1960s notion of the counter-cultural, but not the subversive. This was achieved through the frequent link made between Buddhism and the hippie movement, with ‘hippie’ being used to denote the eccentric and unconventional but not the dangerous:

[Buddhism] is still associated with the hippie culture. | emma, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in Scotland; affiliated with nonsectarian Buddhism

[Buddhism] can be associated a bit with like New Age and like hippies and a bit of madness. | ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England; affiliated with non-denominational Buddhism

There was a period where a lot of people are like, ‘I’m a Buddhist’ and it’s more maybe like just a fad for people to associate themselves with. Since the ‘60s, when it first became well-known, it has left the mark of being associated with a hippie culture. Which of course it’s not really anything to do with that kind of thing. | tim, a 24-year-old administrator living in the northwest of England; affiliated with Theravada Buddhism

This highlights the lasting legacy of perceptions of Buddhism which emerged when Buddhism came to prominence in the context of the 1960s. This visibility positioned Buddhism as counter-cultural, offering a counter-point to the cultural currents of the time. Although these perceptions are regularly encountered by our participants, they do not reflect how they themselves understood Buddhism in the 21st century context. Instead, over time, Buddhism has become embedded and enmeshed with many contemporary cultural currents such as individualisation and commodification, impacting on how our participants perceived and appropriated Buddhism for themselves.

Ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, affiliated with non-denominational Buddhism, outlined that, ‘You get Buddhist preachers and you get Buddhist fantasists, like you do in every religious tradition’, but fundamentalist forms of Buddhism rarely made it onto the radar of the broader population.

As Bubna-Lilic and Higgins (2007) note, Buddhism has been adapted and divergently perceived in many different contexts. But this is always hinged on how surrounding religious traditions are globally constituted. As Halafoff, Fitzpatrick and Lam (2012: 19) note regarding the Australian context:

Buddhism, [is] commonly (mis)understood to be an entirely peaceful and passive religion… Buddhism is perceived to pose little risk or threat to Australian society, compared to Christian or Islamic extremism or New Religious Movements.

Similarly, Barker notes how although both Islam and Buddhism are minority religions that are not native traditions in the west, ‘one is embraced and the other is demonized’ (2007: 77). But despite the fact that, compared with other minority faiths, participants found Buddhism was favourably perceived, this positivity around Buddhism was also tempered when compared with majority faiths, as Ralph, a 20-year-old degree student living in the southeast of England, who defined himself as an Anglican-Buddhist, explained:

I slightly waiver before saying I’m Christian because most people think that means I’m evangelical. I… hesitate much less before saying that I’m Buddhist because people basically go ‘I’m not religious but if I were, I would Buddhist’. I hear that sentence so, so often and everyone says that Buddhism makes sense basically because they feel it’s non-committal and it doesn’t bring the other problems of religion.

Therefore Ralph encountered much more support when identifying as a Buddhist than as a Christian, due to the particular kind of Christianity that was often popularly envisaged. But the peaceful image of Buddhism socially accorded to our participants also constructed their engagement with Buddhism as somewhat fleeting and superficial. This belied their own deep commitment to Buddhism and the impact it had on their everyday life. Although our Buddhist participants did not encounter the hostility and negativity received by other religious young adults in our broader study (Yip and Page, 2013), they were still misunderstood to some extent, with their religious identity not necessarily taken as seriously.

Buddhism, therefore, as practised in the west is often understood as a benign and pleasant religious tradition, which helps individuals to cope with the everyday pressures of contemporary life through techniques such as meditation and chanting (Barker, 2007; Halafoff, Fitzpatrick and Lam, 2012; Loundon, 2001, 2005; Thanissaro, 2014; Wuthnow and Cadge, 2004). Such techniques are seen as perfect antidotes to the demands of contemporary society, enabling people to be healthier, wiser and stronger in order to take on the challenges of a competitive contemporary world (Batchelor, 2012; Bodhi, 2011; Olendzki, 2000). But our participants critiqued these dominant assumptions about Buddhism, and argued that Buddhism in wider culture had been misunderstood. Indeed, as the next section will elaborate, many articulated that Buddhism cultivated an alternative set of meanings that could actually furnish much critique of broader culture.

Cultivating Buddhism-Inspired Ethics in Contemporary Culture

Across the data sets, at various points, participants gave insights into the ethical values and principles that they endorsed. Although these ethics may not simplistically be labelled as ‘Buddhist’, they were certainly Buddhism-inspired, and crucially, were grounded in a broader contemporary context. Some of these ethical values were clearly in line with dominant contemporary cultural norms, such as a strong commitment to gender and sexuality equality. Others were less pronounced, indicating divergence from such dominant norms. The main ethical values we shall discuss in more detail here are: gender and sexuality equality, anti-consumerism and environmentalism.

Gender and Sexuality Equality

Gender and sexuality equality is paramount in the European context, buttressed through legislative efforts as well as attitudinal change (Bracke, 2012; Perrons, 2005). Although the securing of gender equality rights and rights for sexual minorities has been constituted differently, occurring in different time periods, the issues are inextricably linked. Heteronormativity – where heterosexuality becomes the normative – has gendered consequences; the premising of heterosexuality is underpinned by dominant constructions of masculinity and femininity (Page and Shipley, 2016; Yip and Nynäs, 2012). While gender equality has been on the agenda for longer, equalities rights for sexual minorities are now prioritised and are bound up with how many nations perceive themselves as progressive (Bracke, 2012). Supporting and endorsing equality views therefore becomes normative, even if gender and sexuality discrimination persists (Bracke, 2012; Bygnes, 2012; Page and Shipley, 2016; Shipley, 2014).

Participants were keen to emphasise their equality stance in relation to gender and sexuality. As Chapter 4 has demonstrated, they were critical of the privileging of heterosexuality, and strongly endorsed sexuality equality. Similarly, participants were strong advocates for gender equality, and this was understood in relation to their Buddhist perspectives. In their questionnaires, Elisabeth said that, ‘My religion treats men and women as equals’, while Rashmi, a 21-year-old undergraduate living in the midlands of England and practising Theravada Buddhism, said that, ‘Men and women should be treated as equals under any religion’. Equality discourse was explicitly utilised by participants in articulating their views. Some participants emphasised that Buddhist perspectives on gender had not always been positive in all times and spaces, but they strongly endorsed the egalitarian credentials of their own Buddhist tradition:

I know there are a lot of struggles with the whole ordination of nuns and that tradition, and I am aware of that happening in Buddhist societies but for me personally [Buddhism] feels very gender neutral. Buddha would have been very cool about that stuff. | caroline, 23-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England

Buddhism in the west is a pretty egalitarian religion – women and men have equal rights – but I’m aware that in the more conservative eastern traditions women are not equal: with some texts stating that women must be reborn as men before they can proceed to enlightenment. | rory, 20-year-old undergraduate living in the midlands of England; quote from the questionnaire

Therefore any known examples of gender inequality within Buddhism were quickly displaced by participants onto other spaces and locations, which were often premised on a division between Buddhism as experienced in the west and Buddhism as experienced in the east. Such positioning allowed participants to align themselves fully with a gender-egalitarian space, and to highlight that they personally were not negatively affected by any gender disadvantage (Page, 2016b). Nevertheless, as Cadge (2004), who has studied the Theravada tradition, has argued, Buddhist organisations, whether consolidated around eastern or western forms of Buddhist practice, are usually gendered, with men dominating in leadership positions. In the British context, Starkey (Forthcoming) highlights the controversy surrounding gender inequality within the Forest Sangha, embedded in its ordination structures that privilege monks over nuns, which precipitated the exit of many adherents.[2] Specifically, Starkey explored the attitudes to gender equality amongst ordained Buddhist women from a range of traditions. Gendered discriminations were apparent. Even in instances where support for gender equality was expressed, Starkey encountered issues around women’s access to leadership positions and the failure to use gender-neutral language in ceremonies. Starkey’s participants were divided into three categories: those who recognised patriarchal structures and challenged them; those who recognised gender inequality but did not campaign against them (especially if inequalities did not directly impact on them); and those who did not recognise any gendered issues. Our participants largely fell into the last category – they simply did not see gender inequalities as being relevant to their experiences of Buddhism. They simply assumed that gender equality would be subscribed to and practised. As participants who were only just beginning their Buddhist journeys, it may have been the case that they had not participated for long enough to encounter any such gender discrimination. But given their view that Buddhism should absolutely endorse gender equality, if they were to encounter evidence of gender discrimination, it would likely cause much confusion and uncertainty, and they may, like the members of the British Forest Sangha previously mentioned, choose to disaffiliate. Gender equality was non-negotiable for our participants.

Similarly, within the American context, Cadge notes the ways in which practitioners within the ‘convert’ Buddhist organisation she studied failed to recognise the ways in which their centre was gendered, instead insisting that their organisation was ‘gender-blind’ (2004: 780). In explaining the inconsistencies concerning gender within Buddhism, Gross articulates that, ‘Buddhism is characterized by an intolerable contradiction between its gender-neutral, gender-free view and its institutional male dominance’ (2015: 474). Meanwhile, some participants articulated rather radical perspectives on gender, not only arguing that women and men should not be constrained by their gender, but offering a full critique of the way in which society organised itself on gender lines. Emma, a 20-year-old degree student living in Scotland, who identified with non-sectarian Buddhism, articulated that society would be far better were gender itself eradicated; she instead endorsed a genderless position:

I never used to understand why the boys wouldn’t want to play with me if I am playing the same game as them… The physical aspects aren’t enough for me to say that you should divide humanity against each other… It always makes me cringe when people say ‘men, they are so stupid’ and vice-versa because it’s just really blatantly not true. It calls for such generalisations which blind them to how amazing people really are. So [the] person [should come] first for me and then I don’t care what gender I am. I would rather [endorse] genderless completely. [Gender binary is] a game I don’t want to play.

Emma disrupted taken-for-granted gender categorisation that asserts a binary between men and women, and she actively deconstructed entrenched terminology. This questioning of categorisation like those associated with gender and sexual orientation was very common among our participants (as we also indicated in Chapter 4). As Loundon (2001) argues, labelling oneself in a particular way conflicts with the Buddhist idea of ‘no-self’ (see e.g. Harvey, 2000, 2013), as the labelling articulates a sense of self, so Emma’s questioning of labels can be understood in this context.

It was important for participants to emphasise both their sexuality-equality and their gender-equality perspectives. More broadly, religious spaces have been monolithically constituted as sites that are oppressive to both women and sexual minorities, giving impetus for religious young adults to challenge this construction (Page, 2016b; Page and Yip, 2016). Equally, our Buddhist participants were keen to emphasise their own equality-bearing positions, as well as how this was fully congruent with their interpretation of Buddhism. This fits in with a much greater emphasis on gender and sexuality equality in broader culture in recent decades (Bracke, 2012; McRobbie, 2011; Perrons, 2005).


Many of our participants were highly critical of contemporary consumerist practices. This is reflected in their responses to a questionnaire question, asking whether there were any aspects of British culture which made it more difficult for them to live as religious young people. Katie, a 24-year-old information technology specialist living in Yorkshire and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, wrote that one of the challenges she experienced was ‘The demands of consumerism’. Ralph, a 20-year-old Anglican-Buddhist undergraduate living in the southeast of England, emphasised the problem of ‘Endless choice in a consumerist world’. In Buddhist teaching, craving is the cause of suffering, and the root cause of craving and suffering is ignorance. Therefore, even when a craving is temporarily sated, this will simply result in more craving, leading to greater unhappiness (Harvey, 2000, 2013; Queen, 2000a, 2000b; Wilson, 2003). Consumerist practice is centred on craving – desiring the latest technology or the most up-to-date fashion items. As Loundon articulates, advertisements ‘are aimed at propelling a consumer culture of increasing desire and satiating it. Buddhism, on the other hand, advocates reducing possessions so as to reduce desire, and reducing desire to reduce attachment, the well-spring of most suffering’ (2001: 211). Consumerism is not premised on need, but on wants and desires, with craving being the source of unhappiness. Therefore, consumerist practices contradict a Buddhist way of life, as it is explicitly based on a model whereby individuals crave more and more things, in order for the consumer cycle to continue.

This perspective is consistent with scholarship which has radically questioned consumer-oriented societies, arguing that the values underpinning such societies are ethically and morally lacking (see Bauman, 2009; Dawson, 2005; Sandel, 2012; Wehner, 2010). Although it was common for participants to convey an anti-consumerist stance, only a minority cultivated a full-scale critique of capitalism as a whole, such as José, who wrote on his questionnaire that ‘capitalism’ was problematic. But few made this leap in critiquing the organising economic structure.

Many participants associated an increased focus on consumerism with a decline in family and relationships. Ralph, a 20-year-old Anglican-Buddhist degree student living in the southeast of England said:

As for living in Britain, yes I’m broadly very, very pleased to live in Britain for all sorts of reasons. [But] I think in the west we have a tendency to kind of be consuming a lot more and tend not to focus on something that [is] actually really important. Taking time to be with family and be with friends and to love one another and to, you know, do things like volunteering and to give up our money to charity and all sorts of things like that. I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else, and I don’t think our society encourages that.

Therefore Ralph was grateful for the advantages of living in Britain. But this was tempered by a value system that marginalised friends and family, because the valuing of other things (such as consumer goods) took precedence. This also negatively impacted on broader citizenship, as being a good citizen through volunteering one’s time or giving money to charity, was side-lined. Similarly, in the questionnaire, José emphasised the cost of such an excessive focus on consumerism, saying there was ‘much more importance [placed on] consumerism than on personal development’. Therefore, participants were inferring that humanity itself was stunted by the enormous emphasis placed on consumerism, as it curtailed the opportunity for the individual to recognise what was really important in her/his life. These participants were engaged in a reflexive critique of their lives, endorsing a simpler – but richer – way of life underpinned by core values such as connectivity, as evidenced in anti-consumerist movements such as voluntary simplicity (see Doherty and Etzioni, 2003; Elgin, 2010; Soper, Ryle and Thomas, 2009).


The previous sub-section articulated how the participants critiqued consumer society, noting the ill effects that certain lifestyles had on their personal lives.

Another core issue for participants was a commitment to environmentalism. Ellis, a 19-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England and following non-denominational Buddhism, articulated that his commitment to environmental interests emerged well before he became a Buddhist:

[At school] we learnt quite a lot about environmental problems, and it’s something that I had been interested in. And I think I probably got [interested in environmentalism] before Buddhism. Although I think they’re kind of interwoven in the sense that all things that are good tend to be amalgamated; they’re not wholly separate at all. I think Buddhist ethics on the environment would have a lot to do with preserving it.

As Ellis noted, Buddhism emphasises the interdependence of living things, which cultivates an ethic of compassion for both animal and human life (see King, 2012; McMahan, 2012). Ellis’s Buddhism complemented his ethical values he had cultivated over many years, but he emphasised how this commitment had intensified more recently, and directly changed his practice:

My vegetarianism is in part kind of pragmatic, for kind of environmental reasons and a whole load of other reasons, but also I can kind of see Buddhism as backing that up, and the kind of centric element of nonharming and just helping to reduce suffering that comes to that, I think it probably shows itself in action.

Many participants spoke of their commitment to vegetarianism or veganism which was explicitly linked to their Buddhist principles relating to animal suffering as well as craving. As Fox and Ward (2008) note, although there are many reasons why individuals become vegetarian, harm caused to animals is a key motivator, as well as the negative environmental impact of meat production. Therefore, vegetarianism and environmentalism were intrinsically interwoven values that manifest themselves in everyday practice. Poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate living in the northeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, discussed the gradual shift which encompassed a change in orientation to the environment:

I went vegetarian and then I went vegan, and I went on an ethics retreat… I had two weeks of really thinking about my behaviour and my speech and my thoughts… When I came back I started little changes… so I started thinking about environment ethics and things like that, and it’s about making those little steps but in a way that feels natural.

The shift cultivating environmental awareness and changing practice was a gradual one, which was a common sentiment among our participants, as Tim, a 24-year-old administrator living in the northeast of England and affiliated with Theravada Buddhism explained:

After having developed habits, it’s difficult then to just reject them. It’s a bit more like a gradual change. I think that’s how I became vegetarian last year… There’s nothing in Buddhism that says you should be a vegetarian but it’s left down to the individual and I think it’s been a process of gradual change. I think mainly after having lived in India last year, through the summer, I think that affected me and pushed me over the final hurdle really to embrace vegetarianism because it felt like I didn’t have the need to eat meat anymore. I was at the point where it wasn’t even difficult to say no to having meat in my meals. So I think that must be the point where you change your perspective on things because it means you don’t suffer any more because of craving. I don’t have any desire to eat meat or fish, which I used to love – that’s why I couldn’t give it up easily – but obviously something has changed and I don’t touch it at all anymore.

These narratives emphasised gradual change in daily practices and habits. They emphasised the fluidity of participants’ Buddhist practices and how this changed over time, fitting with Tweed’s (2006) concept of religion as a form of ‘crossing’, or journey (we shall develop this more fully in Chapter 6). What is significant is that these altered habits were not deemed hugely transformative; participants did not set out to change the world with their newly-developed behaviours, but their practices did emphasise a day-to-day reflective engagement with ethical issues that captured change at a micro level.

Not all of our participants were vegetarian, but even those who were not vegetarian emphasised their mindful practice, such as purchasing ethicallysourced meat, and avoiding places (e.g. fast food chains) that they felt perpetuated suffering and harm to animals. As Kaza (2000) notes, environmental movements have been extremely prevalent within Buddhist communities, with key figureheads such as the Dalai Lama and Thích Nhâ´t Hạnh supporting them. Indeed, Kaza (2000) notes how broader environmentalist movements in the west have occurred in tandem with the growth in western Buddhism, and despite there being no coherent affinity between Buddhism and environmentalism, these ‘isms’ have been linked together and have galvanised action. Indeed, Keown (2012) notes how the focus on environmentalism within Buddhism is a particular manifestation in the contemporary west, for traditionally, Buddhist ideas on nature and animal life have been somewhat ambivalent. Similar to anti-consumerist rhetoric within Buddhism, the concept of interdependence has been utilised (between humans, animals and plants) to promote environmental activism. And there was much evidence of our participants taking direct action in their own lives to cultivate environmentally-friendly practices. However, similar to Berger and Ezzy’s (2007) teenage Witches, who were also strong advocates for environmental practice, this rarely translated into concerted political activism, and was instead maintained at an individual level.

Overall, participants developed their ethical values in conjunction with multiple overlapping, and at times, competing sources. As they navigated contemporary culture, their Buddhist approach to an ethics for life became paramount. Some elements of their ethical reasoning were fully congruent with dominant cultural norms, such as the emphasis on gender and sexuality equality. Environmentalism has been more ambivalently positioned. Despite the propensity for environmentalist values to be endorsed in the mainstream, this has tended to be reduced to recycling endeavours, rather than more affirmative action (Markle, 2014). Therefore, participants’ ethical views enabled a more proactive stance than may be in evidence in the broader population. Meanwhile, the strong anti-consumerist sentiment running through many accounts was at odds with broader cultural values where consumerism is prioritised. These values of equality, anti-consumerism, and environmentalism were underpinned by Buddhist ideals such as avoiding craving, cultivating mindfulness, emphasising interconnectivity, minimising harm and reducing suffering. These Buddhist ideas were specifically translated to relate to contemporary issues regarding how contemporary life was ordered and organised; our participants were very critical of contemporary society. This critique often led to certain behavioural changes, such as consumption reduction, or becoming a vegetarian. Circlová (2012b) describes such Buddhists as ‘engaged consumers’. This was not about completely opting out of consumerism, but was cultivated around a deep reflection of how goods had been produced and the extent to which this process had been ethically sound. So although our participants may not be described as countercultural, they did cultivate a radical edge to their values. They tended to critique society at a personal level, through specifically applying Buddhist concepts in cultivating a different viewpoint. This meant that they were more likely to critique the effects of certain systems (e.g. battery farming and consumerism) rather than the broader systems causing these problems. Only a minority took this critique further in problematising the whole economic order of capitalism. Our participants were less articulate at critiquing underpinning structures of society, and rarely did their viewpoint lead to political activism.

A valid question emerges regarding how our participants differed (or not) from secular counter-normative sections of society. Buddhist ethics as understood in the western context map quite readily onto broader contemporary concerns around consumption and the environment (Keown, 2012). Indeed, many of the critiques expressed by our participants can also be recognised in counter-normative movements that emphasise ethical living, espoused by a mainly middle-class and well-resourced demographic (Zukin, 2008). Therefore, such counter-normative emphases are not solely the preserve of western Buddhists.

Our participants are undoubtedly influenced by these broader societal narratives. They have often encountered these ideas (e.g. Ellis’s introduction to environmentalism at school) before becoming committed Buddhists. But it is apparent that their values were self-sustaining and long-lasting because they were supported by a robust ethical value system (Buddhism) which allowed them to critically reflect on their attitudes and behaviour. No doubt the way they were living out their Buddhism in contemporary Britain is contextually understood, thereby giving resonance to broader counter-normative encounters, and allowing them to latch onto these ideas that are in broader currency. But rather than, say, a desire to do good being fleeting or momentary, their Buddhist commitments ensured that ethical living became part and parcel of everyday life, and was generated through those Buddhist principles. But although one may argue there is a certain level of congruence with the values held by our Buddhist participants and some counter-normative strands of society, there are many points of contention, too. What is noteworthy is the extent to which the values our participants had put them at odds with many of the values subscribed to by others in their age cohort, and this had to be actively negotiated, as the next section will demonstrate.

Navigating Buddhism in Contemporary Culture

We specifically asked participants in the questionnaire about the challenges of living in British society as religious young adults. A high number of responses were centred upon dissatisfaction with certain codes of behaviour and ways of living that conflicted with their aforementioned commitment to certain ethical values. A plethora of issues were mentioned, including ignorance, greed, a lack of altruism, fast living, not being encouraged to do things of worth, consumerism, drinking cultures, sexual promiscuity. Facing these issues meant that participants had to construct a response in certain aspects of their life. Here we shall consider three primary issues, relating to popular media, alcohol consumption and contemporary sexual values/practices.

Popular Media

Participants deemed many forms of popular media trivial, unworthy, and time-wasting. In response to the questionnaire question which asked them to name any aspects of British culture which made life more difficult, Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student living in the southeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, found ‘Watching extensive amounts of telly’ problematic, and Ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, who defined himself as an Anglican-Buddhist wrote about an ‘oversaturation of the media and distraction from all sorts of new entertainment’. Meanwhile in the interviews, participants were able to more fully explain their views, with the centrality of tv-watching becoming a core contention. For example, Katie, a 24-year-old information technology specialist living in Yorkshire and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, argued:

I don’t really watch tv. I’ll only watch odd things like Newsnight[3] but I can’t stand standard tv programmes like soaps, Hollyoaks[4] and when Big Brother’s[5] on and all that kind of thing I can’t stand it. If I do watch it, I just end up feeling like I wasted a tonne of time… It winds me up that all across the country houses are tuned into it and I just despair. One thing that I try to do is abstain from intoxicants. So I take things like Eastenders[6] to be an intoxicant so that’s why I won’t watch it because it kind of just clouds your mind and puts crap in your head that shouldn’t be there.

Of note was the way in which Katie critiqued television programmes specifically aimed at her age demographic, which have been created with young people in mind. Critiquing populist tv, Katie instead aligned herself with a more serious current affairs programme, aimed at a much older demographic. Meanwhile Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student living in the southeast of England and associated with the tbc/fwbo, was aware that tv could become a distraction that she did not want:

tv is difficult because it’s just easy to switch it on… It’s going to affect you in your subconscious. But you won’t know. I just wish everyone was able to, even though it’s there, if you were able to control [it]. Not let this input… leaking into our brains, because it’s going to affect you.

Despite the critical engagement that our participants had with media, especially tv, very few said that they limited the types of film and television watched. Indeed, 73.7% ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ that they limited the types of film and television they watched due to their faith[7] and even more (81.6%) ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ with the statement, ‘I limit the types of music I listen to due to my faith’.[8] Therefore, it seems that our participants did not want to align themselves with any notion of censorship, emphasising choice instead. Although they asserted their critique of tv and films, they did not want to position themselves as being restricted by religion, especially as this is the way religion is dominantly perceived in society at large. In this way, our participants could cultivate their identities as aware and critically engaged young adults, rather than any sense of being controlled through religious rules and regulations.

Consuming Alcohol

Alcohol was another core issue that required careful negotiation. The 5th precept advocates abstaining from intoxicants; this is varyingly interpreted within Buddhism, with some Buddhists arguing this implies a requirement to abstain from alcohol completely, while others argue that alcohol can be consumed in moderation (Bluck, 2006). Only one participant ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement, ‘Drinking alcohol is wrong’. Indeed, 55.3% either ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ with this statement.[9] The qualitative findings revealed a complex negotiation of alcohol, especially as many of our participants had reflected on the benefits of not drinking any alcohol, or drinking alcohol in moderation. Indeed, drinking cultures and their management was a core issue that put them at odds with others within their peer group, as Katie, a 24-yearold information technology specialist living in Yorkshire and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo highlighted:

I’ve not completely given up alcohol but I don’t go out drinking like I would have once done. So there is the pressure, especially living in [university town] because it’s all students. There is that massive pressure to be always going out, getting drunk and just being awful so that’s the main pressure there. But then I don’t really associate with people that would make me do that.

Katie, like other young Buddhists, did not completely abstain from alcohol; Stefan articulates that it was easier to take the route of drinking in moderation so as to comply with norms within youth culture, such was the pervasiveness of alcohol consumption:

I am very flexible in what I do in terms of fitting in. I do go to parties. I don’t keep to the 5th precept about not drinking absolutely any more. I slightly wish I did… alcohol is intrinsically bad, reduces your mindfulness and your sense of carefulness, [they’re good reasons] to give it up. [But] in my particular case I don’t find it makes me particularly careless… one large part of the reason why I do drink now is because it gives me, to some extent, more access to social connection with other people. But I would value the social connection with a kind of an actual practical living moral community far more than social connection with people who don’t have that kind of uniting communal ethos. So it would be far more worthwhile to give it up in order to be a member of that community than to compromise and go along with it and drink a little bit… I drink very little, very rarely, anyway.

Therefore, Stefan’s willingness to drink alcohol was premised on the heightened importance he gave to connecting with others, and cultivating friendships. He had a more liberal interpretation of the 5th precept, and this enabled him to sustain his friendships. But he also pondered whether this undermined the whole goal, and whether he should instead seek out a likeminded community where alcohol was not the main focus. But Stefan’s dilemma points to the active negotiation our participants undertook in living out their ethics in everyday life. Stefan’s and Katie’s negotiations of drinking cultures may help explain why participants were reluctant to fully endorse the statement ‘Drinking alcohol is wrong’ on the questionnaire. Evidently, some had moulded their Buddhist philosophy to accommodate moderate amounts of social drinking. But there was also a sense that other people’s drinking should not be judged too harshly, and whereas at an individual level, one may feel it wrong to consume alcohol, this should not cultivate a need to censure others.

Elisabeth articulated in her interview, however, that her decision to abstain from alcohol was met with incredulity from those around her, indicating that participants’ views on alcohol were not necessarily respected:

Many people who are not religious don’t understand that I follow certain rules, or find me ridiculously boring (laughs). For example if I refuse alcohol, I have to refuse three times and in the end I have to say ‘I’m sorry, it is for medical reasons’. Because they won’t let me refuse it for religious reasons.

It became a battle for Elisabeth to articulate a tee-total position; religion was not given legitimacy as an appropriate excuse. This meant that participants’ friendship networks evolved and changed over time to be more accommodating to an alcohol-free environment. For example, Poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate living in the northeast and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, noted how she had grown apart from her university friends:

I had a core group of friends from uni… and they are drinkers and so that was quite a difficult thing… They weren’t staying in touch with me. They weren’t responding when I texted them. But then I realised that whenever they asked me to do anything I would say no because it would involve going out and drinking… I realised that actually it’s just a natural kind of movement away.

Meanwhile, George, a 21-year-old undergraduate living in the midlands of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, felt well-resourced to navigate the drinking cultures of his friends, while affirming his Buddhist beliefs:

I can go out clubbing with my friends who do drink and not drink very much and still enjoy myself. So if some of my friends are smoking weed which they might do, that would [have] an effect on me but my religious beliefs would make me think about whether I would want to do that or not and I would decide not [to] because I would think how does it affect you. I think it steers the other influences and allows you to choose which way to go…if you have got precepts and rules… there is less choice. But I feel it has given me more choice because before when I went out with my friends I didn’t really have any choice 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.

Therefore compared with Elisabeth, George was much more successfully able to use religion as a means of resisting particular elements of youth culture, developing a robust response regarding why he did not drink alcohol. Currently, he felt happy to maintain friendships with individuals whose practices and values were somewhat out of synch with his.

Alcohol consumption was affected by the types of spaces our participants frequented, with the space of the university having the potential to influence their experiences. Tim, a 24-year-old administrator living in the northeast of England and affiliated with Theravada Buddhism, had engaged enthusiastically with particular university cultures, from which he later distanced himself:

In [my university town] it’s so notorious really and the drug culture and the hedonistic lifestyle – I was drawn into it for a while… I think I really enjoyed myself. I just didn’t really behave like a Buddhist should do… [But] I got it out of my system… I was living with some great friends and we all had a really good time… but it really didn’t do anything for me after a while. It’s fun for a while… I think having left university and doing different things gave me the impetus to not go back to it… I now have just a different lifestyle really.

As Tweed (2006) highlights, spaces are crucial to the cultivation of religious practice; although religious practice is dynamic and changeable, practice also ‘dwells’ in a space. Being at university was a hugely formative experience for many participants, which engendered a variety of responses. Participants ‘dwelled’ differently. Some used university as an opportunity to develop their Buddhist ethics and practice. Others, like Tim, reflected on that period not in terms of regret, but certainly with a sense of relief that it did not reflect his current life experience. Such experiences encapsulate the dual role of religion as ‘crossing’ and ‘dwelling’ (Tweed, 2006). As Tim moved through the lifecourse, the spaces that were important to him changed, having an impact on how he navigated his religious identity.

Contemporary Sexual Values

Another challenge that participants emphasised was the portrayal and experience of sex in broader culture. Participants articulated the positive changes that had emerged around sexuality (such as more open discussions, and the legal and social recognition of sexual minorities – see Chapter 4), but they remained very critical of how sexuality was experienced more generally:

Our very liberal attitude to sex in some ways is very good, but I see a lot of suffering amongst young people around casual sex. | ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, who defined himself as an Anglican-Buddhist

The idea that you can talk about sex and it’s ok to experiment with things, that’s all kind of fantastic. But the culture that’s come with that of more casual sex and sex as losing any deeper meaning is obviously its negative side. | ellis, a 19-year-old degree undergraduate living in the southeast of England; affiliated with non-denominational Buddhism

[I]t’s good that people can be true to themselves, and I think our culture now permits that, to a much greater extent than what it has. But at the same time I think there’s a definite risk that people are becoming objects, rather than people | zara, a 24-year-old therapist living in the southeast of England; affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

As the last sub-section indicated, spaces mattered. The types of spaces participants frequented could heighten some of these issues, particularly those participants in certain educational contexts. Danny, an 18-year-old A-level student living in Northern Ireland and practising Theravada Buddhism, was finishing his A-levels. He recalled his experience of Sixth Form:[10]

A lot of my year would go out and have sex every weekend… I don’t know; something about it makes me feel really strange… It’s scary how much sex goes on. I mean there are people [who] have been caught in school having sex… sometimes it’s just between friends, you know, just friends who are like, ‘Oh come on, we’ll just have sex, sure, it doesn’t really matter’.

Danny described this as an all-encompassing school culture from which it was hard to escape (see also Page and Yip, 2012; Warwick, Aggleton and Douglas, 2001). Meanwhile, those currently at university also noted the propensity for sexual activity, but felt better-positioned to reject any expectation to participate:

There is definitely much more heightened sexual activity at university and loads of people who I know do engage in casual sex, but I’ve never felt pressure or I just think it’s ok, good for you but I’m just not interested in it. So it’s ok I’ll just do my own thing… When I first came to uni, there was some groups that were very sexually active and after that I just chose to not really hang out with them because they were really quite wild and crazy and I was like, ‘Oh ok never mind, just not for me’… I just don’t hang out with the super extreme people who sleep around a lot. | caroline, a 23-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England

Meanwhile some specifically emphasised the negative implications of this sexualisation of culture for women:

I think sex has its place like everything else but in this kind of…sex being such a part of mainstream culture, I feel ultimately that it is women who pay the price. You don’t see men’s penises on tv, very rarely. [It turns] women’s bodies into objects. | anya, an unemployed 24-year-old who identified with Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, living in the midlands of England

[Y]ou might say that watching pornography… is not really hurting anyone… [But] it is important to recognise that it has an effect on your psychology and how you view women and relationships. I think so much is in the media, even just advertising, a car advertised by a woman… Part of my Buddhist practice recognises that effect and realises that is not how women are… In the media it is made out to be the be all and end all of being happy; you won’t be happy if you don’t have lots of attractive women around you… You can say that is not actually how things are. | george, a 21-year-old undergraduate living in the midlands of England; affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

Indeed, 60.5% of participants ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement, ‘I believe there is too much focus on sex in mainstream media’[11] Participants offered a sharp critique of the broader sexualisation of spaces such as advertising, which was often linked to their negativity around consumerism as endorsing craving. Participants cultivated mindfulness to critique the perceived negative effects of sexualised cultures, but in doing so, they remained committed to liberal sexual values and sexual freedom, so long as these freedoms were exercised with self-responsibility and an ethic of care (see Chapter 4).

Cultivating Relationships 

Participants were often navigating their Buddhist practice and values amongst non-Buddhists, and this could be significant regarding how relationships with others were cultivated and maintained. We shall consider two groups: participants’ relationships with their families, and their friendship networks.


The way broader kin and family networks responded to participants’ Buddhist ethics was important in how their values were consolidated or challenged. In general, parents were very accepting of their children’s turn to Buddhism, and Buddhism itself was positively perceived. This contrasts with Berger and Ezzy’s (2007) young Witches, who often encountered negativity from parents when they disclosed their affiliation with Wicca or Witchcraft. This links to the very different ways religions are constituted on a broader scale (Beyer, 2013a). Despite Witchcraft and Buddhism being minority religions, they have both experienced much exposure in popular culture in recent years (Berger and Ezzy, 2007; Mitchell, 2012). But the broader stereotypes and caricatures of each respective tradition differs. While Witchcraft and Paganism have garnered much negativity, with some of Berger and Ezzy’s participants being accused of eating babies, being Satanists, and being told they would burn in hell, Buddhism has had a rather different conceptualisation, being strongly connected to peacefulness and passivity (Halafoff, Fitzpatrick and Lam, 2012; Keown, 2012). This is not inevitable. As Keown (2012) notes, when Buddhism is accorded positive attributes such as being eco-friendly, anti-war and being accepting of same-sex relationships, this is an ‘anachronistic construction of Buddhism… [which] seems to owe as much to the rejection of certain traditional Western values as it does to the view of Buddhism itself’ (2012: 217). Therefore, Keown (2012) notes how the construction of Buddhism in the west is far more complex and multi-layered, despite the overall perception of Buddhism being peaceful and harmonious. But the pervasiveness of the view that Buddhism was indeed peaceful and moderate, did mean that our participants encountered little overt resistance to their Buddhist affiliation from family and friends.

Despite not experiencing any hostility from parents by becoming Buddhist, when we carefully analysed the nuanced accounts of our participants, it was evident that for some of them, tensions with parents were apparent. The most frequent cause for contention was around consumerist practices and eating habits. Katie and Zara discussed how they struggled with their mothers’ very different approach to consumerism:

[W]e do clash because I think she’s got a problem with how much crap she buys. [It’s] me saying that she has a problem with buying too much and me being anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist. So we clash a little bit… [it’s] not even spending [the] money but just crap everywhere in her house. So some of time I wonder whether I’ve become, because I’m really quite minimalist… I have this aesthetic code, this minimalist thing – I don’t know whether that’s a reaction to my mum | katie, a 24-year-old information technology specialist living in Yorkshire and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

I come from a family of people who consume quite a lot… I know I can’t change the world with it, but I can make small choices about it… My mum’s shopping style is basically, go to Asda and fill the trolley, and a week later a lot of it will not have been used and it’ll get thrown out. Whereas I tend to write intricate lists, and try to use everything in my fridge. There’s a massive difference. And only recently have I managed to convince [my mum] to buy free-range eggs; until then she just didn’t see the point, so I’ve worked on her for years and years and years of trying to get her to buy happy chicken eggs and things! But she’s started doing it I think just to shut me up… she still buys unhappy meat and things like that, and it’s not my place to tell them what to do, but I mean I suppose I go there and I just don’t eat the meat | zara, a 24-year-old therapist living in the southeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

Katie and Zara experienced conflict with their mothers. These participants had tried to encourage their mothers to see things from their point of view, but this became very draining and time-consuming, cultivating little positive response. Mothers and daughters were operating on different aesthetic lines. They differed on what consumer goods they deemed to be of value, ascribing negativity to seeming over-consumption or purchasing ‘wrong’ environmentally unfriendly goods. Both Katie and Zara were formulating modes of ‘distinction’ through their orientation to consumption (Bourdieu, 1984). Embedded in their narrative is value judgments on their mothers’ taste practices, thereby creating taste hierarchies. Although their values are cultivated through their Buddhist orientation, these conflicts with their mothers also reflected a desire to convey a different kind of cultural capital, tied to their individual projects of social mobility (Bourdieu, 1984; Lawler, 2000). Both Katie’s and Zara’s mothers showed irritation rather than concern about the values that their daughters had cultivated. Meanwhile, Ralph’s parents did express some anxiety over the life he was living:

I went through quite an extreme phase of being very anti-consumerist and very kind of, you know, healthy eating and all sorts of things. And I think [my parents] wanted me to find this slightly more middle ground or slightly less ascetic… side. They were slightly worried that I wasn’t really having enough fun. But no, they were quite supportive… Basically my Buddhism has fitted in quite well with their kind of fairly liberal slightly left wing views anyway so it’s all worked; there has been no huge kind of controversy there.

A 20-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, who defined himself as an Anglican-Buddhist

Again, Ralph’s parents had few issues with the values he had cultivated, but they were concerned that he was taking these values to extreme lengths.

Another important dimension was how ethics were lived out in the context of intimate relationships. Poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate living in the northeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, discussed the negotiations over what her and her boyfriend ate, especially as she was a vegan:

[My boyfriend] is really supportive bless him… He’s stopped eating chicken because that is the thing I’ve got most issue with because, you know, most chicken is battery. So if you get a chicken sandwich, it will be battery farmed; it won’t be free-range. And he stopped, which I think is really cool. But yes, mostly he just eats what I make him. If we shop together, he sometimes cooks, but it’s more a case of convenience than it is ethics [but] I think something is shifting a little bit in him… When I’m away, will he rebel and start eating steaks every night, or will something have trickled down?… Time will tell.

The gendered division of labour, whereby Poppy cooked vegan meals which her boyfriend ate, enabled her to have control over eating practices. Poppy’s boyfriend had no motivation to cook himself a non-vegan meal. As she acknowledged, the litmus test would be what her boyfriend chose to eat when she was not around, and she was keenly hoping that he would continue to engage in ethical eating practices. The gendered division of labour, whereby women become mainly responsible for household tasks and cooking, may help explain why the young Buddhists tended to be in conflict with their mothers over food and consumption practices, as it was mothers who, in the main, carried the burden of managing family eating habits and the resulting food shopping. As Aldridge (2003) notes, mothers (especially working-class mothers) are castigated for their consumer habits; their consumer practices are deemed irrational, with women constructed as being duped into buying poorquality convenience food for their families rather than cooking from scratch. Therefore, this is not simply about gender; it also intersects with class. Idealised middle-class food practices involve the eschewal of mass-market forms of food consumption, to instead emphasise organically-derived, fresh and unusual products premised on healthy living (Zukin, 2008). But this invokes taste hierarchies and value judgements (Bourdieu, 1984; Lawler, 2000).


We specifically asked participants in the questionnaire whether the majority of their friends were religious or not, and whether their religious friends were of the same faith. Only 16.7% had friends mainly of the same faith; 47.2% had friends who were mainly not religious, and 36.1% had friends who were a variety of faiths.[12] The most common reason for having friends of the same faith cited was socialising with them regularly at meditation and retreat centres. For example, Francesca, a 24-year-old primary school teacher living in the midlands of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, wrote on her questionnaire, ‘My friendship group has moved from predominantly no faith to a variety [of] faiths and as I have become more involved in the fwbo my friends are mostly from this context’. Such narratives emphasised how friendship networks were constantly evolving and did not stay static. A few participants also lived within a Buddhist community, thus enhancing this possibility. But 76.3% either ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ with the statement, ‘The majority of my social life is within religious groups and meetings’.[13] While some said that having friends of a variety of faiths enabled participants to cultivate friendship networks comprising those with shared values and attitudes, an equal number argued that they had friends from a variety of faiths because they were unconcerned about their friends’ beliefs.

Lucas, a 24-year old-unemployed teaching assistant living in the northwest of England and affiliated with Theravada Buddhism, wrote on his questionnaire that ‘I have many friends – both religious and non-religious – but those who are [religious], I admire greatly. I believe that you become like those you spend your time with so this influences who I choose to associate with on a regular basis’. Lucas’s comments further demonstrate the deep reflective component evident in many of our participants’ accounts.

Meanwhile Elisabeth said on her questionnaire, ‘I am tolerant towards any other religion and enjoy discussing it with my friends who are all from different countries. However, I seem not to get on so well with people without any moral values at all, thus most of my friends are at least to some extent religious’. This coheres with Berger and Ezzy’s (2007) research – they note that it is often the case that religious environments foster close connections between youth cohorts. Indeed, Abraham’s (2013) research, focusing on Christian evangelical subcultures in Australia, notes the close-knit bonds forged around music interests and shared values. But for Berger and Ezzy’s Witches, and our Buddhists, it was often the case that their worldviews were not sustained by like-minded young people in their cohort; indeed, it was far more likely that they had a wide range of friends, with only a minority coming from their religious background, and fewer still who were within the same age cohort and were Buddhist.

Participants could be somewhat ambivalent about friendships with those who were also Buddhist, as many experienced an age gap that they had to directly address. For example, Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student living in the southeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, said:

[I]t’s a nice [Buddhist] group but it’s all older people. It makes it difficult for me… I went on another young person’s Buddhist retreat and that was really good because you were with young people… You can talk about what’s relevant to you and your age group. When you’re with older people, you might explain your experiences and they might be like ‘I remember what that was like for me’ but when you’re with your own age group it feels that you can talk about what it feels like to be young, to do with drink and all this kind of stuff.

Jessica felt that experiencing the Buddhist youth retreat was quite different to her normal sangha consisted of older people, and she thought that older people, despite having much life experience, just didn’t really ‘get’ contemporary youth culture. But this was also tempered by a strong valuing of Buddhist friendships, as she felt they offered her something that was deeply connective and profound:

I haven’t got Buddhist-Buddhist friends. Like when I went on retreat you do have those conversations with them. I wouldn’t call them my friends but you’re instantly connected with them because you’re all focused on the same thing so you do have philosophical conversations with them. And it’s different to anything you’d have with anyone else… Even if you have a conversation about the weather, the connection there is deeper because you feel like you’re being understood, you’re being understood because you’re not [speaking] to someone who has their own completely uninformed judgments on Buddhism.

Therefore, connections with fellow Buddhists, whatever their age, gave Jessica an important orientation to her faith. This is especially pertinent as 26.3% of participants said they found it difficult to talk about their faith with nonbelievers.[14] Over time, Jessica was able to break down her reservations about older people being able to understand her life, which she discussed in her video diary. However, this also resulted in a new set of negotiations, as she developed a friendship with an older man. In her video diary, she discussed how this friendship might appear to those on the outside, with the potential for it to be misconstrued:

[H]e is an older man and I am younger… There is going to be that slight question there but I feel like I have got a good deeper friendship than that. I hate it when that thought arises. It brings things down so much sometimes. I really wish you could have a friendship with a man and not have that [sexual] component sometimes… When you just really respect somebody and he really helps me and gives me loads of advice and stuff. | jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student living in the southeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

Jessica’s friendship was constituted in a broader environment where oppositegender friendships would be commented upon, and innuendo experienced. This was further complicated by the age difference between them. Indeed, some participants were attempting to re-consider norms around behaviour that was typically understood in sexualised terms, such as José’s wish to hug his friends, without this being presumed as a sexualised act. Similarly, Jessica was keen to cultivate this friendship with an older man, but was cautious given the broader way this would be potentially sexually framed by others.

Other young Buddhists were comfortable with older people from the start, and the fact that Buddhist communities mainly consisted of older individuals did not faze them:

Everyone seems to be older… I’ve always seemed to get on better with people older than me so it’s not a problem. | katie, a 24-year-old information technology specialist living in Yorkshire and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

Apart from the recent kind of young people’s events that have been set up which has been happening in the past year or so, I have been the youngest… but it’s always been ok… I have never found the age thing a problem. I have actually got a friend from the centre who is in her 50s; her daughter is 18 and we always sit and talk and we will talk about our mothers because she is having difficulties with her mum who is in her 80s and I have difficulties with my mum who is in her 40s, so it’s like you’re older than my mum but you’re my friend, so it’s not an issue | poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate living in the northeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

Overwhelmingly, participants talked about how those in their Buddhist communities, whatever their age, were better-able to understand them and connect with them. The real conflicts around friendship tended to emerge not with older Buddhists, but with friends in their peer group who were wedded to values that were at odds with their Buddhist ethics. Similar to conflicts that could emerge with family, Ellis emphasised how ‘I’m quite repulsed like if I go near McDonald’s and kfc and stuff’ so he tried hard to steer his friends in a different direction. We have already noted participants’ disenchantment with consumerism; as Soper (2008) notes, fast food is readily connected to negative consumption practices, which links to broader concerns around individual wellbeing. Indeed, Soper (2008) argues that anti-consumer projects are connected with a re-spiritualising of the self, which complements the ways in which our Buddhist participants were endeavouring to locate a meaningful spiritual path.

Meanwhile Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student living in the southeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, was critical of the way her friend put much energy into her part time job to spend her wages and tips on frivolous items:

When you don’t have [money], it makes you see that what you really want to spend it on is travel to see your friends. Some of my friends do have money – one of my friends works in a restaurant and she gets loads of tips. She would spend a lot of her money on clothes… She’s not really enjoying it… It’s not making her any happier in any way. Say if I was in the position where I had money, I would probably go out and consume a lot. But because I don’t, I’ve got a better perspective on what’s important to me.

Jessica pondered hypothetically what she would do if she was her friend and actually had money, and decided that a worthier way of spending her money would be to cultivate friendships through spending money on travelling to see them, rather than purchasing consumer goods. Jessica saw herself as having the ethically superior position as she was more fruitfully able to live out her Buddhist practice without the distraction of money – and even if money became part of the equation, travel was seen as a good in and of itself, whereas purchasing clothes was not. Indeed, by the time she recorded her video diary, Jessica was preparing to spend her gap year in China, emphasising the ways in which Jessica’s ‘lack’ of money was not experienced in terms of impoverishment or being poor; she had the familial resources to enable this long-haul trip.

Indeed, even though her visit to China was a form of consumption, Jessica never framed it in that way. Instead, her trip to China became a worthy enterprise that allowed her to contemplate and consolidate her Buddhist practice, through encountering how Buddhism was lived in another part of the world. She was thus positioning her trip as a religious pilgrimage rather than an extended holiday (Loundon, 2001), thus allowing her to construe her journey in terms of spiritual authenticity and cultural engagement rather than enjoyment. This also enabled her to cultivate high levels of cultural capital, providing her with the resources to consolidate her middle-class identity. Therefore, although participants often talked critically about consumption practices and could be damning of how their friends and family spent money, there was less critical evaluation over travel as a form of consumption (and its associated environmental effects – most participants’ travel comprised of long-haul destinations). As Carfagna, Dubois, Fitzmaurice, Ouimette, Schor and Willis (2014) note, middle-class groups embracing environmentalist ethics (what they call, drawing on Bourdieu [1984], an ‘eco-habitus’) do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint compared with working-class groups. But because their environmentalist credentials are bound up with esteemed practices, their endeavours (such as purchasing organic products; buying food locally) become a source of value and a means of cultural capital; meanwhile, working-class consumption practices are viewed disdainfully, such as the negative attitude Ellis had towards fast food restaurants. Therefore, despite Jessica’s travelling having a negative environmental effect, she is able to construct it as an unambiguously ethical endeavour.

Ethical Planning: Finding Congruent Occupations 

Thus far this chapter has explored the dominant values our participants cultivated, and how they lived out these values both in their everyday lives, and in relation to significant others. But while their Buddhism-inspired values were important for reflecting on the decisions they had already made, they were also important in cultivating their future plans, such as in relation to what types of employment they wanted to embrace. Many participants were yet to embark on a full-time occupation, or were at the very early stages of this endeavour. But participants were cultivating workplace plans that cohered with their Buddhist values. The types of work and employment participants undertook was often linked back to their desire to help others, as these quotes indicate:

I want to do something that is helping people and is progressive and is not to do with just me making a lot of money… it’s just somehow genuinely helping people and transforming society in whatever [way] that may be. | ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, who defined himself as an Anglican-Buddhist

I want to go into counselling and do therapies for depression, helping people to help themselves. Helping people to be more receptive to the Dharma, so that is a by-product. Helping people to spread the Dharma… I do really feel like being a counsellor is what I want to do with my life. It actually feels really important… it feels like it is of value | poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate living in the northeast of England; affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

I don’t like that kind of work, just sat at a computer. I felt like it wasn’t actually benefitting anyone and it made me feel quite soulless. Felt like I was getting paid a very good wage for doing, for clicking the mouse and going to a few meetings… Career wise, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I need to go away and think about it… I’m going [travelling] 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 6 months. | katie, a 24-year-old information technology specialist living in Yorkshire; affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

These narratives put great focus on types of work that prioritised others, rather than employment that was highly remunerated. Linked to their anti-consumerist ethos, there was a disdain for any types of employment that would encourage greed. But while some participants, like Poppy, had a clear plan regarding how they would prioritise others in their employed lives, Katie was far less certain, and instead emphasised how her planned year of travelling abroad would allow her the space to give this deep thought. Indeed, the experiences participants cultivated through extensive travel, especially when this was undertaken in Buddhist-dominant cultures, enabled greater reflection on how to concurrently be an employed Buddhist. As Tim, a 24-year-old administrator living in the northeast of England and affiliated with Theravada Buddhism, explained:

Since graduation, I’ve done various things, mainly voluntary work actually. For seven months I was doing voluntary service in Italy which was for an environmental organisation. And then I went to do a development project in India which was basically teaching English and helping with construction in the Himalayas in a small village and then I was lastly working for [an organisation] in China as a language assistant. It kind of does influence me, mainly because of the destinations, especially Asia; Buddhism has heavily influenced my choices of where I wanted to go and also the nature of the work as well.

The opportunity to gain from such extensive experiences and worldwide travel evidently positioned these participants as privileged beneficiaries of cultural, social and even future economic capital (Bourdieu, 1984). Although they were very reflexive of their lives and these opportunities, they were less reflexive about their relatively privileged position to do this; instead, long-haul travel was normalised as part of a typical youthful life-experience, connected to the growth in gap-year travel for this age and social class cohort (Hopkins, Olson, Smith and Laurie, 2015).

Part of this critique of traditional understandings of work also involved undermining routine terminology around employment, with an aversion to words such as ‘career’, as Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student living in the southeast of England and affiliated with the tbc/fwbo, explained:

I don’t think ‘career’ is like a big thing in my life. I don’t see that as an important word. I know it is definitely a big thing in this culture – that word – ‘career’ – it’s a big thing. What is your career? What are you going to do when you grow up? But I don’t see it as the most important thing. And I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on it… Any decision I make about a career I want it to be focused within the context of Buddhism… I think that’s definitely one of the main aims in my life… I will do everything with Buddhism in mind.

All participants interviewed expressed a desire to do something worthwhile that helped others, and did not prioritise money or having a career. Many explicitly mentioned how Buddhism had shaped their professional choices. Our participants were at different occupational stages in this endeavour, but all had a similar narrative. This is very similar to Cirklová’s (2012b) findings of Buddhists in the Czech Republic; they too had sought congruence between their employment and their Buddhist value system, with some participants even changing career directions when a contradiction in values was experienced, which coheres with Katie’s experience, who had also taken decisive action to change her career path. It was clear that, at whatever stage our young adults were in terms of career development, they were carefully thinking through and reflecting on their employment choices, with most being determined to locate congruence between their Buddhist values and their working lives.

But what was also apparent was how their perspective was weaved through educational privilege and experience, cultivated through university education and gap year travel. These young adults were already privileged in the choices that they could make, and they seized the opportunities available to them (e.g. ensuring travel was undertaken in Buddhist-majority countries).

Although our participants foregrounded many worthy values, with a commitment to social justice issues such as helping others in the work that they chose, their orientation to work was still underpinned by a commitment to middle-class professionalism, as these quotes indicate:

Maybe [I’ll] be slightly more kind of high flying to start with… I have done care assistant roles before and I think it’s very worthy but I think I want to try using my intellectual skills for a bit and see how that goes. | ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate living in the southeast of England, who defined himself as an Anglican-Buddhist

There are so many different ways that you can express the Dharma and express your practice that isn’t about you know, living in a community or working in a gift shop. Which I’m not knocking that, that is great, but it’s not for me… With all the will in the world, I am a couple of months off a [higher degree] – I think I can do better than work in a gift shop. Whereas I think things like doing stuff like counselling like within the centre that can (a) raise money for the centre and (b) provide support for others who are suffering. I think that would be part of my practice and also a way of living | poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate living in the northeast of England; affiliated with the tbc/fwbo

These participants explicitly advocated the good work they wanted to do, but they were reluctant to bear a personal cost in this endeavour. They still wanted to benefit from the advantages accorded by a middle-class profession, such as professional autonomy and engaging in interesting work. These participants did not mention the higher wages that would also accompany this type of work, but they were still seeking out work-based opportunities that would cohere with their middle-class identities and maximise their opportunity to be materially comfortable.

A minority did, however, forgo the trappings of middle-class comfort to engage in a very different way of working. Some, such as José, a 21-year-old charity worker affiliated with the tbc/fwbo and living in the east of England, worked for a Right Livelihood business, developed in accordance with Buddhist values. He articulated how difficult it was to live as Buddhist monks did in Buddhistmajority countries, where their livelihood was depended on alms. As José said, ‘In a capitalist world… you have to work. I have to work to feed myself and have a home… Our movement [is about] how to live in this modern world and be an effective Buddhist’. He worked in the warehouses for tbc/fwbo, packing items to be distributed to ethical gift shops. The working environment was very different to that of a secular warehouse:

They have little shrine rooms for each team and they have a big shrine room for lunch time or for people to meditate… In the middle of the warehouse, we have a stupa…. [it’s] 8 metres or something… [You] work with people who worry about you. They care about you. They try to care as well as part of their practice. It makes a huge difference. That you can stop and really talk about how you’re really feeling in that moment. Or just share and talk… That’s nice.

José was not paid a full wage; instead, the organisation provided him with housing, fuel costs and food, and he was given a small stipend to purchase personal items. The profits generated from his work would be distributed to various charitable causes, as José explained:

I don’t have to worry about paying the light or the water or the gas… I don’t have too much money but I can buy clothes and go to the theatre from time to time. But I love that, I don’t have to worry every month to pay the bills. The philosophy is like, ‘Take what you need and give what you can’… So [it is] on that basis which we work. And in that way the business saves money as well. Saves money to the business and support the projects… the money this year will go to one school for people with incapacities in Africa.

Therefore José was one of the few participants who had radically revised expected working styles to contribute explicitly to the Buddhist cause. He was contributing to a socially-engaged form of Buddhism advocated by tbc/fwbo, that was inspired in the counter-cultural ethos of the 1960s, and that sought new ways to live out Buddhism in the western context (Baumann, 2000). Such initiatives by tbc/fwbo prioritise meaningful work that is not exploitative, is communally focused, and involves participating in Buddhist rituals as a routine part of the working day (Baumann, 2000; Henry, 2013). Furthermore, tbc/fwbo Right Livelihood businesses are deeply reflexive of the products they endorse, being engaged with fair trade endeavours, and avoiding goods that are needless and dispensable (Baumann, 2000; Henry, 2013). But this still creates a tension, for the Right Livelihood businesses are still embedded in a capitalist system. Although they have cultivated a niche market within capitalism that complements ethical approaches, it can be deemed complicit with, rather than a radical critique of, western systems of capitalism and consumerism (Henry, 2013).


This chapter has highlighted the ways our participants navigated living out Buddhism in contemporary society. We started with a broad overview regarding how participants felt Buddhism was collectively understood, emphasising that although Buddhism engendered a largely benign interpretation, this worked in tandem with many misconceptions about Buddhism, which participants encountered and had to cultivate a response to. We then considered how participants negotiated Buddhism in terms of the past, present and future. Firstly we examined the dominant values that they had cultivated over time, and how these values were accomplished both in relation to Buddhist values and contemporary society. Some ethical stances fitted neatly into contemporary values such as a commitment to gender equality. Others operated more radically and counter-normatively, such as a critique of consumerism, and some elements of their commitment to environmentalism. Their principles were inspired by their knowledge of Buddhism, with participants constantly reflecting on how best to live in the contemporary world as a Buddhist.

Their engagement cohered with the notion of being a Socially Engaged Buddhist. This has become an enormously important concept which King describes as ‘a modern application of traditional Buddhist values and principles to contemporary social problems’ (2012: 196, emphasis in original). Henry (2013) describes Socially Engaged Buddhism as existing on a continuum, from radical activism at one end, to personal engagement at the other (see Chapter 6 for a fuller discussion of this). In light of Henry’s continuum, our participants were situated at the ‘personal development’ end, rather than the ‘radical activism’ end. This coheres with general trends in youth demographics, where activism and political engagement are low (Mason, Singleton and Webber, 2007). Despite having strong values that might promote activism, our participants were instead individualising their socially engaged tendencies, in order to facilitate their individual biographies, rather than to enact societal change.

We then considered how these ethical stances were explicitly navigated in participants’ everyday lives. We explored three areas that our participants found challenging: how they related to popular media, how they navigated the consumption of alcohol, and how they negotiated contemporary sexual values. We also examined everyday negotiation in relation to participants’ relationships, focusing on family and friends. Finally, we emphasised some future orientations our participants cultivated in relation to their expectations and hopes regarding creating fulfilling work lives that were underpinned by Buddhist ethics. This navigation of everyday life occurred in a context of increased risk and uncertainty for their generation. Unlike Buddhists who converted in the 1960s and 1970s, our participants were engaging with a very different world, patterned by job insecurity and heightened consumerist expectations (Mason, Singleton and Webber, 2007). Participants purposefully deployed their Buddhist values to manage these tensions. This was achieved not only through critiquing dominant values like consumerism, but also by aligning themselves with self-actualised forms of employment that both ensured middle-class status and cohered with their Buddhist values. They therefore utilised Buddhism to manage their individual biographies, and in the process, embodied the idea that ‘successful’ trajectories were the result of individual effort and responsibility. Like Mason, Singleton and Webber’s research, who found that ‘Most young people… believed that it is up to them to forge their own path in life’ (2007: 237), our participants downplayed the role structured advantages (in their case, being predominantly middle-class and white) had on their individual biographies (see also Chapter 6).

Throughout this chapter, we have engaged the idea that religion ‘crosses’ and ‘dwells’ (Tweed, 2006); religion is processual, moving between moments, spaces and through time. At certain moments, certain spaces were hugely important for participants; this then changed as other spaces took centre stage. Indeed, participants’ future orientation to the world of work emphasised the spaces that were yet to become important, and how they were already planning for what they might encounter. Meanwhile, religious engagement is fluid, as things such as friendship networks change, and participants engage with changing landscapes through travel.

In sum, Buddhist principles and ethics galvanised our participants to critically question late modern assumptions about what it means to live a good life. As Bubna-Litic and Higgins (2007) note, despite Buddhism’s institutionalised and orthodox connections in certain places, in many western contexts, Buddhism has been associated with the radical and counter-cultural (e.g. Batchelor, 1994; Bluck, 2006; Coleman, 2001; Harvey, 2000, 2013; Henry, 2013; Konik, 2009; McMahan, 2012; Possamai, 2009; Queen, 2000a, 2000b; Smith, Munt and Yip, 2016). Our participants were not revolutionaries, but their Buddhist reasoning enabled them to cultivate a level of criticality that could at times, put them at odds with others within their networks (e.g. in relation to consumption practices or norms around alcohol). It is this counter-normative energy that is seized upon by our participants, to give credence to an alternative worldview. At the same time, participants’ criticality only went so far. There were elements of their lives that they did not reflect on, such as their relative privilege brought about through relative financial security and a middle-class status (see Chapter 6 for a more detailed discussion of this). Although we found much evidence of mindful practices and critical reflection of their lives, we also encountered ‘unmindful’ practices, such as being environmentally conscious but not reflecting on the damaging effects of air travel. This emphasises how reflexivity is always undertaken from particular standpoints, so is always partial, and is never complete (Tweed, 2006).


[1] The total number of valid cases is 38.
[2] The privileging of monks over nuns within the Theravada tradition has a global dimension. For more information about this controversy, see e.g. Gross (1994), Tomalin (2006, 2009, 2014).
[3] A current affairs programme broadcast on the bbc.
[4] A popular soap opera, aimed at a youth demographic.
[5] A reality tv show, aimed at a youth demographic.
[6] Another popular soap opera, but aimed at a mixed age-group.
[7] The total number of valid cases is 38.
[8] The total number of valid cases is 38.
[9] The total number of valid cases is 38.
[10] The last two years of secondary school when students normally study for their A-level qualifications.
[11] The total number of valid cases is 38.
[12] The total number of valid cases is 36.
[13] The total number of valid cases is 38.
[14] The total number of valid cases is 38.

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