Buddhism clashing with and appealing to British youth culture

While some ethical values of young adult Buddhists in the U.K. strongly correlate with broader youth culture—e.g. gender equality—other values do not cohere well, such as reluctance about high alcohol consumption, reported Sarah-Jane Page (Aston University) in her paper presented at the conference of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Lausanne (July 4–7), which RW attended. Regarding sexuality, mindfulness is extended to the intimate dimension of life, stated her co-author Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip (University of Nottingham). The full results of their research can be found in a new book, Understanding Young Buddhists: Living Out Ethical Journeys (Brill, $115). In comparison with other religious groups, fewer Buddhists in the U.K. share the same religion as their parents. The research focused on a sample of 44 individuals between 18 and 25, with 31 of them describing themselves as exclusively Buddhists and the others incorporating Buddhism as part of their identity, e.g. Buddhist-Christian. Only a third had been raised in a religious tradition. Some were children of converts to Buddhism, but their parents had not strongly socialized them in Buddhism. While 60 percent of the respondents are involved in religious communities, they tend to adopt an individualized and deinstitutionalized approach to Buddhism.

Except for those who associate Buddhism with another religious tradition, a god figure is absent from the accounts of participants, despite the theistic context of religion in the U.K. and in the West, and they rarely invoke the divine. Their understandings of Buddhism emphasize three components: mindfulness, flexibility, and ethical principles and guidance for everyday life. The book being based on a broader project on religious young adults and sexuality, an entire chapter is devoted to that topic. Most of the respondents considered Buddhism as positive towards sexuality. While they range from heterosexual to homosexual and bisexual, young Buddhists emphasize as a fundamental principle the avoidance of sexual misconduct or harm in relation to themselves and others. Less than 20 percent think that sex should ideally take place only within the context of marriage. A vast majority of the respondents do not support “the hegemonic status of heterosexuality,” the authors remark. Statements by the Dalai Lama warning against homosexual practices or other similar attitudes are seen as culturally-bound or specific to one Buddhist tradition. Many LGBT participants feel that Buddhism gives them the space they need.

Expectedly, anti-consumerism and environmentalism are seen as corresponding with Buddhist principles and ethics. Vegetarianism or veganism is valued, and even those participants who have not given up meat emphasize a mindful approach toward avoiding what can contribute to harm to animals, such as fast food chains. As the authors observe, broader social narratives, and not only Buddhist principles, have an influence here too. There is a level of criticality towards aspects of contemporary culture, but “our participants were not revolutionaries,” the authors note. The emphasis on the decline of religion among young people in British society derives mostly from the observation of traditional religious institutions, and “it is the decline in Christianity, rather than religion per se, which is being mapped.” While “young people’s spirituality is underpinned by individualization,” religion continues to play a role for a number of young adults. The value system of Buddhism and its pluralistic ethos can thus prove attractive. Young Buddhist adults interviewed during the research appear to be pluralists and pragmatists whose aspirations and ideals are close to those of socially engaged Buddhism, even if they are not politically engaged in the public sphere.