THE BLOG
11/09/2012 07:53 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Is Meditation Buddhism Booming or Fading?

I have often written that we are approaching the 50 year mark of Buddhist meditation practice in America. In many ways this style of Buddhism has become well established and familiar to the mainstream culture. Meditation, dharma teachers, retreat centers and monasteries, as well as some core terms (dharma, karma, mindfulness, zazen, bodhisattva and metta, to name a few) have become well known and understood. The influx of Tibetan Lamas has provided a fresh Asian presence to a scene that otherwise is increasingly westernized.

But from another point of view it may seem as though all this activity is plateauing or even fading out. Magazines dedicated to Buddhism (there are only three or four) have a small and static circulation, and often seem to feature photos of the same aging luminaries (Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh) month after month. With some exceptions, attendees at Buddhist centers are grey-headed baby boomers. The top 20 Buddhist bestsellers on Amazon are mostly reissues of top sellers and authors from 20 years ago. Only a handful of Buddhist authors still sell their new books widely; many trade publishers see the Buddhist market as having peaked 10 or 15 years ago.

Which of these trendlines is true, or are they both representative, though in different ways?

When I look to the past for possible models of what is happening with Buddhism now, I think of two: Vedanta in the 1920s, and psychoanalysis in the 1930s and '40s. Both movements began with a splash. Both spawned a proliferation of practitioners, teachers, books and centers. Vedanta and Theosophy faded out after a while, though it still survives. Psychoanalysis has had a different trajectory, beginning as an innovative path of self-knowledge and healing, and developing over time to become thoroughly mainstream with scores of derivative schools and methods.

If Buddhism follows the Vedanta route, we should see its retreat centers gradually attract fewer paying customers over time, its teachers combining traditional Buddhist teachings with commercially more attractive options: yoga, Chi Gong and dharma for professional CEUs. If it follows the trajectory of psychoanalysis, we should see increased integration of Buddhism with other mainstream disciplines such as psychotherapy, neuroscience and hospice, to the point that Buddhism as a standalone religion begins to fade out, except within Asian-American enclaves (where it is already long established). The current evidence is that retreat centers are booming, so if the Vedanta route is to happen it hasn't happened yet, though it might in another 20 or 25 years.

There is another epicenter of Buddhist activity that is important, and that is the broadening field of Buddhist studies as an academic discipline. Some Buddhist academics argue that their rigorous scholarly approach is the one with the most robust long-term future. Scholarly translation and analysis in the last few decades has indeed provided an invaluable contribution to a modern understanding of this ancient wisdom teaching. However, there is tension between the scholar and meditator communities, and both sides contribute to the tension. I was at a conference a few years ago that brought together Buddhist scholars and meditation practitioners. The scholars presented their papers (which I found quite illuminating) but in the discussion that followed it was clear that some of the meditators felt that the scholars' views were abstract, intellectual and irrelevant to their meditation work. The scholars in turn suggested that the meditators' views might be a bit uninformed, even ignorant. Privately, one scholar complained to me, "These people don't know anything!"

Some scholars, of course, are also practitioners, though they may sometimes need to be discreet about it. There has been prejudice. One professor of Buddhist studies told me that when she was in graduate school she and her colleagues had to keep their meditation practice secret or their theses were likely not to be approved.

In the end, I think the biggest question in Buddhism's long term future will be how much a new generation of practitioners, teachers and scholars come forward to carry on the work. There are definitely younger Buddhist teachers coming up, and they are attracting a younger following. At the same time, meditation Buddhism has not been primarily a family affair. I get the impression that many children of aging Buddhists tend not to remain Buddhists as they become adults.

In the end, I have no crystal ball and no bias as to which of these scenarios is most likely to come about. I do think we baby boomer Buddhists we need to give it some serious thought. In 25 or 30 years, we will all be gone, and what will we have done in the meantime to secure a succession to future generations? Whether we are scholars, practitioners or both, that should be something we pay attention to.