Understanding Young Buddhists aims to do just as the title indicates: to provide an understanding of Buddhists, in this case those aged between eighteen and twenty-five, living in the contemporary United Kingdom. For this book, narratives of forty-four young adults who self-identify as Buddhist were analyzed in an attempt to give insights into their lived Buddhist experiences. The analyses of the narratives are based on survey research, in-depth interviews, and video diary analysis. Almost all of the forty-four participants in the study were white, British, highly-educated, and middle-class. The study was part of a broader research project on religion, youth, and sexuality conducted between 2009 and 2011.
The subject of the book, religion and youth, is a timely one. It engages with 21st century post-secularist British society, which is characterized by a dwindling number of young people associated with Christian churches but an increasing interest in spirituality and non-institutionalized religions. It also ties into the changing, multi-religious environments in which youth nowadays live due to migration and globalization flows, especially within cities. Another relevance to the book, as the authors attest, relates to the particular research group. Young adults who self-identify as Buddhists are so far underrepresented in religious studies literature. This can be attributed to the fact that this group is relatively small compared to, for example, young adults who identify as being “non-religious” or belonging to monotheistic religions. However, studying this particular group brings crucial insights into 21st century religious experiences.
The book consists of six chapters. After an introductory chapter, four empirical chapters follow. In these, statistical insights based on questionnaires are combined with sociologically analyzed excerpts from interviews and video diaries. The chapters respectively describe how research participants became acquainted with Buddhism, how they understand Buddhism and Buddhist ethics, how these understandings relate to ideas regarding sexuality, and how Buddhism is used to navigate broader culture, including relations with family and friends. According to the authors, Buddhism helps young adults get through personal crises, answers their desire to find accepting sacred spaces, and introduces them to alternative worldviews and life ethics. As such, the book takes a rather functionalist approach to religion, indicating why, in post-secular and multi-religious contemporary British society, religion remains a positive source of identity-construction.
The final chapter of the book relates the empirical data to theoretical frameworks, introducing four conceptual themes: the salience of religion for young people, Buddhism as offering specific ethical frameworks, the essence of studying “lived religion” to capture religious experiences, and the impact of social and cultural capital on Buddhist practice. This chapter, combined with chapter 5, are the most interesting in terms of offering analytical insights into the subject matter. In addition, these chapters elaborate on the contemporary movement of socially engaged Buddhism. Interestingly, the authors relate this movement to the emphasis placed by their informants on individual practice and responsibility, regarding, for example, sexuality and environmentalism. Their research subjects engage with and try to positively influence contemporary culture in individual ways, not through political action. They do this in ways that relate to their middle class and privileged mindsets and aspirations. This is a crucial insight into the study of contemporary socially engaged Buddhism, both in the West and in the East, and invites more critical research. Relating to this is the interesting insight that these Buddhists are middle-class young adults who use Buddhism to relate to and navigate contemporary popular culture. As such, they are different from Western Buddhist converts of the 1960s, for whom Buddhism was a counter-cultural “hippie” movement. Indeed, the young Buddhists who are central to this study are anything but counter-cultural, being instead very much embedded and enmeshed within popular culture.
Aside from these interesting and timely insights, the book leaves some room for improvement, especially conceptually. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that participants to the study are adherents (or even “converts”) to a particular kind of Buddhism, namely Western Buddhism. At different points it is acknowledged that this Buddhism is different from Buddhism as lived in “Eastern” contexts, for example regarding notions of gender equality. A thorough conceptual description of differences and similarities between Eastern and Western Buddhism is not provided. As such, the book lacks the theoretical insights that might make it useful for scholars seeking insight into 21st century Buddhism as lived in a Western context.
Second, the authors fail to engage with the question of whether their participants regard Buddhism as a religion. In the introductory chapter, the authors ask themselves how “religious” their Buddhist participants are. They answer this question affirmatively (“they are religious”), based on data gathered from a questionnaire item in which most participants agreed to the statement “I make decisions in my everyday life with reference to my religion.” However, the etic concept of “religion” was in this case given by the makers of the questionnaire. Consequently, there is no consideration of whether informants would have used this concept themselves. The same relates to the methods of sampling used in the research. The researchers acknowledge that due to their framing of Buddhism as “religion,” they might have not been able to contact Buddhist practitioners who do not regard Buddhism as a religion. Based on these observations, I would argue that both the book and the research would have benefitted from a clear definition of “religion.”
In spite of these shortcomings, the book is an interesting read for anybody interested in Buddhism as lived by individuals in a 21st century context. Based on the insights of this study, interesting research questions can be constructed that can lead to more research on young adults within multi-religious and post-secular Western societies.
Mariske Westendorp is lecturer in the development of cultural anthropology and development studies and the department studies and the department of comparative religious studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands.
Date Of Review:
November 16, 2017
Sarah-Jane Page is lecturer in sociology at Aston University. She has published extensively on religion in relation to gender and sexuality, in journals and edited collections. She co-wrote the monograph, Religious & Sexual Identities: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Adults (Ashgate, 2013).
Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip is professor of sociology at University of Nottingham. He has published numerous monographs, edited volumes, and journal articles on religion and sexuality, including the co-authored Cosmopolitan Dharma: Race, Sexuality, and Gender in British Buddhism (Brill, 2016).
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