Zen is Going to Hell and It’s the Boomers’ Fault!

Well, that’s one voice – my crabby-old-man-yelling-at-the-neighborhood-kids-to-stay-off-his-lawn voice.

Before I really get into this voice, first let me praise the Boomers for all they’ve done for Zen. Really. The Boomer Generation has been a great generation for Zen, instrumental for the Zen transmission to the West and important also sparking a revitalization in the East.

That said, here we are in 2012 and in Soto Zen, 22% of the respondents to a recent survey of dharma successors were over 70 years old. Almost 50% were between 60-69. Only 7% were in their 40s.

Now I like old people as much as the next person. I’ll be one soon myself. So I’m not hating old people here, just saying that when you’ve got 70% of your denomination’s priests over 60 years old (aka, Boomers and beyond), then you might have a problem.

It looks like the Boomer Generation did a wonderful job receiving Zen transmission, but to date, have not done such a great job handing it on.

Another possibility is that Boomers have been really careful with their transmissions and only given authorization to a very select, highly qualified group. That seems unlikely.

What does seem clear is that the Zen brand in the US – at least in most places – is a generational expression of the dharma that does not speak clearly to younger people.

Young folks were lined up at the Palisades Cliff on Lake Superior yesterday, annoyed that they couldn’t get their turns quickly enough to jump off a cliff 300 feet above the lake. If that kind of self-regard is at all typical of young people, there’s gotta be a lot more of them around who would also think jumping into Zen would be a good idea.

Now the sparsity of 20 and 30 year-olds in Zen does seem to be changing some in a few places and we’ll have to sit still for a couple decades to see if it’s too little too late or not. The question now seems to be how big the Great Contraction will be.

That gives me a little time for speculation.

So here’s my current theory: in the effort to reduce the intensity of Zen training and avoid some of the nasty issues that tended to come up in the intense practice containers like Zen pioneers Maezumi, Katagiri, Kapleau, etc., the Boomers threw the baby out with the bath. Out went realization and in came over-emphasizing  community/belonging needs.

This shows up in the rather intense ambivalence to awakening that we find in the Zen whirl today. When the above group was asked to rate the following for priest training, “Experience of attaining insight/breakthroughs or openings/understanding of the Great Matter” (just the way that’s framed is so odd!) about a quarter didn’t think it was important.

I found that baffling until it occurred to me that this large hunk of dharma-transmitted priests view priest training akin to training Protestant ministers. For them, maybe, being a Zen priest isn’t about clarifying the Great Matter (even though it’s capitalized in the survey), but about getting down with the forms of being a priest. Not so much about the Great Matter but a career.

So the next generation will be required to study a little Dogen, deal with their psychological problems, sit a little sesshin, master elaborate systems of community consensus so that no one is ever even a little pissed off … and then will be able to roll out their credentials, gather a few followers and then sit back and watch the Zen dharma go to hell in one or two generations.

Like I said, it’s the Boomers’ fault.

And now you’ll have to excuse me. I think there are some kids on the lawn that I’ve gotta yell stuff at.

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