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Lions Roar : March 2006
The Not-Me Generation THE BUDDHA'S APPRENTICES More Voices of Young Buddhists Edited by Sumi Loundon Wisdom Publications, 2006; 240 pp.; $16.95 (paper) REVIEWED BY ALEXIS SHOTWELL A FEW YEARS AGO, while preparing to teach a college class on Buddhists and Buddhism in North America, I was excited to discover the anthology Blue Jean Buddha, where editor Sumi Loundon had collected first-person stories and reflections from a range of young Buddhists. I assigned the book to my class, pairing the narratives with scholarly histories and primary texts from the appropriate Buddhist traditions. I thought my students would love it, that they'd feel a connection with people the same age, and that these intimate reflections would bring liveliness to our discussions. To my surprise, Blue Jean Buddha was the only text the students disliked (which did bring a kind of liveliness to the discussion). They found many of the stories simplistic and inaccurate in their depictions of Buddhist theory and practice, and the overall tone proselytizing. The cover of the succeeding volume, The Buddha's Ap- prentices, tells you that it's being marketed to a young, hip, interested-in-Buddhism crowd. Now, as a thirty-ish, second- generation practitioner, I should be somewhere on the edge of this crowd, since in most Buddhist communities in North America young means "under forty." And the students in my class should be smack-dab in the middle of it. Perhaps they'll like this iteration better than the last. In Buddha's Apprentices, the contributors bring a broader range of experiences. There is more representation from teens and there is also a selection of narratives from big-name, older practitioners who reflect on their youthful engagement with the dharma. Though many of the stories depict a relatively uncomplicated relation to practice and echo the moralistic approbation toward Buddhism that many of my students disliked in Blue Jean Buddha, others offer genuinely touching and complex accounts of how practice has been important to their lives and self-formations. The thread linking these narratives, and the two volumes, is the notion of giving voice to young Buddhists. Loundon argues that these stories fill a gap in our dharma collections, in that "we have shelves of wonderful books on Buddhism, meditation, and philosophy, but we have little on the actual practices and beliefs of contemporary Buddhists." Since the actual practices and beliefs of contemporary Buddhists lie precisely in the realms of meditation and philosophy-which this book doesn't treat-Buddha's Apprentices must try to fill some other gap. One of Loundon's intentions was to "provide a literary sangha, a community of peers through which one can further understand oneself," offering an antidote to the sense that you're alone-or unusual-in being a young practitioner. In this way, Buddha's Apprentices belongs to the genre of com- ing-out stories. Though it lacks some of the political weight of that category, there are examples here of young people navigating separate spiritual paths than their parents', and of trying to articulate those paths, which are still very differ- ent from the mainstream. There is also richness in the "fresh young voices" offered. And so I hope that The Buddha's Ap- prentices will be taken up as a support by young people who are crafting their own relationships with Buddhist meditation and philosophy. We frequently make a mistake in thinking that young peo- ple are incapable of sophisticated analysis of their world, ded- icated and steady response to that analysis, and creative inno- vation in the face of stagnation. Since the nineteenth -century invention of the child as a social category, it's been hard to take young people seriously. But I am still a little surprised at the extent to which we put "youth" in a separate category from "Buddhist;' as though it's extraordinary to find serious practitioners under thirty. Thinking about and naming young Buddhists in this way is a product only of the last twenty years or so. 1'd also argue that North America is the one place where young Buddhists are a salient category. Before that, and elsewhere in the world, the presence of someone over fifty in a given Buddhist com- munity has been more notable. Imagining a sangha of five hundred people, four hundred of whom are under thirty- five, is hard for us now. The fact is that in many communities in the West, new meditators first come to practice in their fifties and sixties. This is what the stories in Buddha's Apprentices help us un- derstand: in most sanghas today, you are considered young if you're under forty-because most everyone else is over fifty. This can be alienating. If you're a young person interested in the buddhadharma and you're far from a center or Buddhist community, you might feel even freakier. And so this book offers something to the lucky, isolated youth who manages to get her hands on it. However, I would like to suggest that the actual sanghas we create and participate in together are more important than any literary sangha a book can provide. The Buddha's Apprentices SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2006 85