Buddhist youth

Contribution by: Kim Lam & Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg

Young people are often at the forefront of social and cultural change, and the youth phase in itself represents a period of growth, development and maturation. Strikingly, however, the contributions and perspectives of young people have been largely absent from theoretical developments in Buddhism that have focused on processes of religious change. These include theories of Buddhism relating to modernity, globalization, post-modernity, post-secularism and post-colonialism. To better understand processes of religious change in relation to Buddhism, we suggest that Buddhist Studies should focus more on young people’s re-articulations of Buddhism, and their status as developing religious practitioners to advance new insights on theories of change in relation to Buddhism (Lam, forthcoming). Quite often, Buddhist ‘youth’— both the persons who self-identify as youth and the social category of ‘youth’— are at the center of modern, global developments in Buddhist revitalisation projects (Williams-Oerberg, forthcoming). Take, for instance, the centrality of Buddhist youth organizations, such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) across Asia and in the US, for initiating change within Buddhist organizations. Young people’s frequent encounters with cultural and religious diversity, the rise of ‘non-religion’ among young people, and the decline of Buddhist identification globally (Hemming & Madge 2018; Starr 2019) also raise questions about how the next generation of Buddhist practitioners is navigating the interplay of religious and secular forces in contexts of increasing cultural and religious diversity. What new intercultural and interreligious competencies do young Buddhists need to negotiate religiosity and non-religiosity in their daily lives, and do frameworks for managing religious and cultural diversity adequately support the development of these competencies? To better capture these developments, it will be useful to move beyond the study of intergenerational continuities and differences in Buddhist communities, and look more broadly at how Buddhism is being lived by young people both within and beyond families and religious institutions (Ammerman 2012). This research might look at how young people are negotiating diverse forms of Buddhism in ways that speak to their engagement with competing life priorities, including education, employment, social justice concerns, transnational mobilities, digital technology, as well as their consumption and leisure practices (Smith et al. 2011).


Ammerman, N. 2012. Religious Identities and Religious Institutions. In Michelle Dillon (ed.), Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, pp. 207-224. Cambridge University Press Online.   

Hemming PJ, Madge N. 2018. Young People, Non-religion and Citizenship: Insights from the Youth on Religion Study. YOUNG. 26(3):197-214. doi:10.1177/1103308817711534

Lam, K. (forthcoming). ‘The New Defenders: Youthful Articulations of Buddhism in a Contemporary Age’. Journal of Global Buddhism.

Smith, C, Cristofferson, K, Davidson, H and Herzog, P. S. 2011. Lost in Transition: the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. USA: Oxford University Press.

Williams-Oerberg, E. (forthcoming). ‘Youth Buddhism: The Centrality of ‘Youth’ in Contemporary Buddhism’. Journal of Global Buddhism.