An in-depth look at the trend of American men following a modern Buddhist path to serenity – while women flock to churches. What’s going on?
“Life is bigger than you,” sang R.E.M. in Losing My Religion, a title that rings more true now than ever when it comes to men swapping organized faith for Buddhism.
Call it the new black when it comes to spirituality. The modern Buddhist path, which has long had inroads in the West, is attracting a new wave of male practitioners seeking wisdom to navigate the Prozac age – a daunting and often bleak time distinguished by affluenza, economic and environmental mayhem and the no-escape reality show Blitzkrieg. Those quiet nature retreats stilling the mind offer the alchemy for exhausted egos seeking to shrug off superficial attachments.
Online dating sites reflect the moral Zeitgeist. In their profiles, it seems one in five available men describe themselves as “spiritual but not practicing” in the religion category. Even an overwhelming number of those affiliated with Judaism and Christianity clarify that they ascribe to Buddhist philosophies and answer to a higher calling which connects them to humanity.
Online Buddhist Leanings
One such match seeker is J. Ren who tells a common story. The 50-year-old Berkeley man looking for love on Match says he was raised Lutheran but has an affinity for Buddhism. “I enjoy riding a bike almost everywhere and enjoy pondering that all religions are similar and that Buddhism speaks to that really well.” He adds that “goodness is everywhere except on the local news.”
Another Match seeker, 39-year-old Sirius of Mountain View, California says everyone in his family is Christian but he explores Buddhism and Zen philosophy and “it would be great to find someone who is spiritually aware along with being very tolerant of all beliefs.”
Meanwhile, 36-year-old Okay I’m Already Stuck is an entrepreneur in Santa Cruz who is spiritual and has studied Buddhism for 15 years, attending teachings and meditations weekly. “I’m motivated and stay pretty busy and don’t lead a materialistic lifestyle, and prefer to focus on non-material things,” he says. “I’ve learned already that a lot of money won’t make me happy and want a lifetime student and someone who values health, fitness and whole food.”
These reinventions of self as Buddhist in midlife seem wildly attractive to men as a way to stay grounded and identify with others outside of their born faith. If you are going to identify with a faith, this one seems to offer intellectual exploration and stimulus while avoiding the need to attach to cultural distinctions or a shared heritage.
Making Buddhism Their Own
“If you take the non-self and compassion notions taught by Buddha, you get rid of separation between egos and realize we are part of one whole, which is a more accurate picture,” explains 47-year-old Scott Adelson, a Jewish Marin County writer and EcoSalon contributing editor, who has been practicing Buddhism for the past five years. As an atheist, he found that the idea of God as creator in Jewish doctrine never spoke to him, but continues to be drawn to the idea of community-based faith and enjoys that with fellow Buddhists in the Bay Area.
“You can go to hear teachers and join group sits and retreats,” he explains. “There are talks on Monday nights at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and we spend time together in meditation. It varies from a very structured tradition – hearing the gong and everyone comes to meditate – to a less structured environment.”
But is the environment a true brand of Buddhism or a hybrid concocted by Jew-Bu’s like Adelson? Buddhist scholars argue western converts to the teachings and tenants have contributed to the “Protestantization” of modern Buddhism as they minimize the orthodox elements of monks such as ritual, mysticism and the devotional worship of Buddhist deities, focusing instead on meditation and philosophy.
As Adelson sees it, this is simply reflective of the Indian philosophy reaching the west in the last century and interpreted by a melting pot culture.
“My sense is that it is an amalgam drawn from different schools and takes on the colorations of the culture it penetrates and encounters. A lot of people are practicing in different ways, some adherent to traditional Tibetan of Thai and an increasing number of practitioners integrating it into their own broader, philosophical and religious sensibilities, so it gets altered through the lens of the practitioner. There’s a flexibility that lends itself to a modern culture that demands flexibility.”
It is also a culture that demands psychotherapy.
The ability to work on yourself without a shrink is another reason Buddhism is attracting an increasing number of men, according to Bay Area therapist Dana Iscoff, who says women make up the bulk of the clientele regularly visiting therapists. “Men are much less comfortable seeking therapy than women and through the Buddhist teachings they are able to do the work on themselves in a very personal and non-threatening way.”
For men already grappling with intimacy issues, feeling safe being locked in a room with a therapist for fifty minutes is also a struggle, while women are accustomed to divulging personal problems whether in therapy or over a small plates dinner with a group of pals. Opening up can be vital to working through these problems, getting past anger and pain and thriving, but as Iscoff tells us, many men have been socialized to believe harping about work and marriage is a sign of weakness.
It is this touchy-feely sensibility, or the perception of it, that is also turning men off to conventional houses of worship. That’s according to congregation leaders in the United States who link the so-called “feminizing” of the church and synagogue culture to an alarming decline in male attendance. Meantime, women are flocking to organized affiliations as never before, gaining dominance just about everywhere but the priesthood.
Is Church for Sissies?
Buddhists don’t have to sport ties, link hands and eat jello molds with chatty neighbors to form a relationship between the individual and the divine. In fact, the whole social aspect of worship is seen as inherently feminine by many observers of the hold women now have on congregations in the U.S and abroad.
Television writer and producer David Murrow signaled the need for the church to call men back to the fold in 2005 in his book, Why Men Hate Going to Church. Murrow, a Presbyterian elder in Anchorage, argued the church has become a hostile environment for manly men who are turned off to the feminized atmosphere of the typical house of worship. Murrow cites alarming statistics showing women comprise more than 60% of the adults in the typical worship in America.
Other quick facts cited by Murrow’s Manly Mission:
* On any given Sunday, there are 13 million more adult women than men in America’s churches. This Sunday, almost 25 percent of married, churchgoing women will worship without their husbands.
* Over 70 percent of the boys who are being raised in church will abandon it during their teens and twenties. Many will never return.
*Churches overseas report gender gaps of 9 women for every adult man in attendance.
*Christian universities are becoming convents, the typical college in the U.S. enrolling almost 2 women for every 1 man.
“From the decor to the rituals, the ministry opportunities to the language, churches are designed to appeal to their greatest constituency – women,” observes Murrow. He adds that while the leadership is often male, women constitute the backbone of most churches and even more of the volunteer force.
Murrow started the website Church for Men to call attention to the trend as a harbinger for a gender gap in organized Christianity, blaming it on the trappings of contemporary culture. He says what drives men away are the very aspects which lure women to what he terms “spiritual sorority houses.”
What makes it girly? “Church is sweet and sentimental, nurturing and nice,” he insists. “Women thrive in this environment and men do not. Everything from the compulsion to participate in singing to the pastel tones, frilly accouterments, the modern sanctuary spells trouble for keeping men in the fold.”
Synagogues Also Missing Patriarchs
The notion of feminine frills driving men out is echoed by Stephen S. Pearce, D.D., Ph.D., the senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in San Francisco, who argues men have been displaced by the feminization of liberal churches and synagogues as opposed to more male-dominated congregations.
“I think we need to focus on making the religious experience more meaningful for men,” says Pearce. “Our society is not nurturing men the way they ought to, beginning with boys who experience education that is more geared towards girls. If I were running a school, the boys would have recess every hour in a half and get their energy out. Now, boys have to sit in a chair and not wriggle even though they have a lot of energy at an early age and when forced to conform, they don’t succeed. It goes against their natural instinct. I’m not against women, I think they’re terrific, but not to the exclusion of men.”
Pearce has started a men’s group at his temple for members ages 20 to 70. They meet monthly to study Torah and bond socially and also attend weekend retreats which advocate a stillness of the mind to better allow a connection with the human experience – the suffering, the euphoria, the attachments and the constantly changing world around us. Did the rabbi take his cue from Buddhism?
“I once gave a sermon comparing Buddhism and Judaism and I got ripped apart because I said that the end goal in Buddhism is extinguishment- never to come back again – and in Judaism it is to perfect the world,” remembers Pearce. “We are diametrically opposed theologically, but most people don’t give a damn about theology. They care more about ritual and what makes them feel good.”
Countering the Feminization Argument
Seeking what makes men feel good has less to do with being turned off to feminine surroundings and more to do with a generational focus on self, according to Rev. Dan Christian of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in San Rafael, California, who boasts a thriving and progressive congregation including male filmmakers and heavy metal band leaders. He says people born in 1960 and after have had little religious exposure and focusing on the self is endorsed by society.
“Churches are by and large primarily run by women so the emphasis is on feminine issues and ideas, but this isn’t going to push men away from the Christian faith, ” figures the pastor. “Any tendency towards Buddhism comes more from the connection to the self which is a generational philosophy embraced today. Buddhism is a place you can go where the whole emphasis is on you.”
This makes Buddhist teachings a no-brainer for atheists. Christian points out that unlike Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Buddhism makes no claim on a higher power. “If you are in conflict with that or an atheist by default, the issue won’t be challenged in the Buddhist setting,” he says.
But is that the best place to be? When we are serving ourselves rather than a higher power or a community, are we more in harmony with the planet or moving further towards isolation, the same phenomenon of spending countless hours with the computer for social interaction?
“In my opinion, it works to the detriment when there is such emphasis on the self,” Christian says. “Any migration to Buddhism is a reflection of that. The emphasis is not on your connection to the greater community and an expression of your faith to your neighbor but solely on you and your own satisfaction.”
Even if that’s true, it seems to have followers succumbing less to corporate brainwashing which has taught men they can elevate their spirits through distractions like expensive toys, legal drugs and flawlessly beautiful soul mates. Depressed? Take a pill. Bad relationships? Buy a high performance car. Research now shows meditation cures depression better than many pharmaceuticals. And while accumulation and big spending once defined success for men, simplicity and restraint are now associated with sustainability.
Buddhists, like Adelson, are thinkers who are after much more of what life has to offer.
“What I’m after on some level is clarity, self-awareness and a certain level of serenity, a better sense of what is going on around me and a more accurate view of my life experience and my relationships, how I travel through this world, and certainly, a level of peace,” explains Adelson. “At the end of the day, that’s what we’re all after, right?”