The Unexpected Return of the Hippies?

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Photo by Andreas Wagner on Unsplash

Ancient spiritual lifestyles and practices have a way to return to our contemporary society unexpectedly, albeit in a modified form.

There is no question that Buddhist practices such as sitting meditation and mindfulness are gaining in popularity in America. I am a teacher who is in and out of classrooms every day. I know for a fact that mindfulness is taught in many American classrooms within the public school system, starting from the elementary level.

Thus, the number of American youths and adults who are influenced by Buddhist practices is growing. But what about the number of people who actually identify themselves as Buddhists? According to a 2015 Pew Research report, the Buddhist population on a worldwide basis is projected to be declining after 2030. This projection is purely based on demographics. Yes, the world population is projected to grow substantially. The report says that “The projected decline in the share of the world’s population that is Buddhist is a result of Buddhists’ aging population and low fertility rate relative to other religious groups.”

The main theme of the current issue of our Buddhist magazine, Wisdom Voice, is “Buddhism and the Next Generation.” The graying of the Buddhist community has been a major cause of concern. In Japan, there is a real possibility that Buddhism will die out. There is simply no new blood. The prospect for growth of Buddhism in China is not optimistic either. A friend recently informed me that out of the many religions in today’s China, Christianity has the highest growth rate — it is at 7% per year. I am also well-aware of the fact that a big percentage (over 25%) of the Chinese students who came to the US for higher education have become Christians. Compared to the Buddhist population, the Christian population is considerably younger and has a higher fertility rate.

Will China eventually become a Christian-majority country? Christianity has always been a much more aggressive religion than Buddhism. It is also very adept in conversions. In the eyes of young Chinese, I am sure that traditional Buddhism does not look very exciting. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism does not offer any fellowship or social networking opportunity. Worse, Buddhism is skeptical about desire of any kind — desire for material goods, desire for wealth and fame, desire for sex and romance, etc. Buddhism prizes inner peace and frowns on passion. How can we expect Buddhism to be popular among young people? In a globalized world where Western values dominate, I expect Buddhism and other Asian religions to be big losers. Yet, as I will explain later, my conclusion is premature and incorrect.

It is interesting not only that I have been proven wrong about this. It is even more interesting how I got things so wrong. In short, I predicted wrong because I did not take into account the effect of economics. More precisely, I have not taken into account the impact of de-industrialization (and the consequent disappearance of manufacturing jobs in industrialized countries), the offshoring of production, automation and the resulting disappearance of the middle class in the “developed world.” Due to these global megatrends, our society has become highly polarized. It continues to be bifurcated into the haves and the havenots. The middle class has been emptied out. This is commonly referred to as the “M-shaped society” by economists and sociologists. In the developed world, the millennials and those who were born later are caught in the short end of the stick. My own children were born in the Eighties. It is clear that, compared to me, my children’s job prospects are much worse. In the meantime, housing cost has skyrocketed. There is a good reason why today’s younger generation feels frustrated and discouraged.

I visited Hong Kong, my place of birth in 2015. During that visit, I found the book, Low IQ Society, in prominent display virtually everywhere I went. I saw it in the bookstores and in the public libraries. Its author is famous Japanese social critic and previous management consultant, Kenichi Ohmae (大前 研一). The book singled out the today’s Japanese youths for criticism. But his criticism can also be applied to Asian youths in the developed parts of East Asia. Mr. Ohmae is annoyed that the Japanese youths seem to lack ambition and the competitive spirit of his own generation. More recently, he published another book titled Low Desire Society( 低慾望社會). I have not had a chance to read this new book. But I would think that it is based on a similar theme.

Mr. Ohmae is already in his seventies. It is easy for him to criticize young people. He was able to make a very successful career out of management consulting decades ago. The 90s was an era where Japanese power was at its peak. I was a senior banker and a vice president of a major Japanese bank during that time. But the economic reality today is much different than that of the 90s. We now live in a M-shaped society where the middle class has largely disappeared, due to the success of international corporations in cutting head count, transferring production to the developing countries and automating many jobs through the use of robots, computers, the Internet and artificial intelligence. The factory jobs are long gone. We now live in an economy where the vast majority of the new jobs come from the service sector. The service sector jobs are typically low-paying and they carry no benefits such as healthcare, pension and paid sick days.

In Mr. Ohmae’s eyes, the Japanese youths look decadent. He is probably using the economy of the 90s as a reference point. It is true that many of today’s Japanese younger generation lack the ambition of their fathers’ generation. They don’t seek the high-paying or glamorous jobs, but such jobs are much more difficult to find in today’s Japan. To cope with the current economic reality, many young people keep their living expenses low by living with their parents, being reclusive, remaining single, not having children and adopting a simpler way of life. Instead of adopting a consumerist lifestyle, eating out, buying houses and automobiles, many of Japan’s younger generation are content with staying home, cultivating their own hobbies and interests. They want to do things they are genuinely interested in doing, not those that mainstream society wants to see them do. Facing an economy with poor job prospects, many Japanese youths adopt a countercultural lifestyle. In a sense, this is young people’s way to protest an economy which has failed them. But it is also their way to adapt to the new economic reality. In the extreme case, they become modern day hermits, hikikomori. Yes, there are pathological cases — some teenagers and adults become totally withdrawn from society and seek extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. Some of them never leave their rooms for years. Ruling out the extreme cases, however, we must say that simplifying one’s life and downsizing one’s desire and possessions is a rational coping strategy. It offers us a glimpse of what life might be like if we ween ourselves from materialism and consumerism.

The hermit/recluse lifestyle is nothing new. It has a long history in Chinese Taoism. By and large, we can divide Chinese philosophy into two main branches — the Confucian branch and the Taoist branch. They are like the yin and the yang. Confucian thinking emphasizes active participation in civil society, social engagement and involvement with government and politics. Traditionally, Confucian scholars took high-stake public examinations, hoping to make a name for themselves and win entry into high government offices. Of course, things might not work out as planned. Some never managed to dazzle the world in such public examinations. Others managed to get a high official position, but later became burned out or lost the emperor’s favor. The role of the Taoist recluse has long been a kind of Plan B for those who lost in such high-stake games. It is also an option for artists and poets who are not interested in playing the competitive game of worldly success. Thus, the modern hermits of Japan can be seen as following the footsteps of their ancient predecessors. It is both a way to cope with “failure” and a creative way to seek an alternative lifestyle which stays away from social pressure and creates space for individual expression.

The term “Buddha-esque youths” came originally from a Japanese magazine in 2014. It is later adopted and gained popularity in the Chinese world somewhere around 2017. There is much similarity between the Buddhist lifestyle and the Taoist lifestyle. While modern Western culture prizes competitiveness and the “pursuit of happiness” (which is often interpreted as a pursuit of worldly goods and success), Buddhists and Taoism prize moderation and relaxation. While modern capitalism encourages the aggrandizement of desire, greed and consumption, both Buddhism and Taoism teach simplifying one’s life and putting a restraint on greed, desire and consumption. Also, both Buddhism and Taoism have an otherworldly orientation — otherworldly in the sense of not chasing after what the mass culture is crazed about. The Tao Te Ching says, “Don’t value what is rare or hard to get.” Similarly, Buddhism teaches that suffering is often caused by our grasping of things. But otherworldliness does not necessarily have to mean the desertion or escape of the world. Among Chinese young people, extreme cases of world avoidance is rare. Rather, the term Buddha-esque youths is used to describe the members of the younger generation who are more relaxed in their life goals. They score low in their competitiveness and ambition. They don’t seek the “American dream” of high-paying job, big house, and beautiful spouse. They realize that such worldly pursuits often come at a high cost in terms of physical and mental health. They would much rather “think small” and be content with little. They are skeptical of society’s pressure. They would rather pursue things and hobbies which are of genuine personal interest, not goods that “everybody wants.” Some of them are not even interested in romance or marriage. They find such intimate relationships too tiring and high maintenance.

In the eye of Mr. Ohmae and other elders, perhaps these young people are decadent and unbecoming. But we can perhaps look at these Buddha-esque youths as the new Taoists and new Hippies. Young people have a right to decide what to do with their lives and not conform to mainstream society’s standard of success. In the meantime, a simplified life away from consumerism is also environmentally friendly and sustainable. In light of today’s reality of climate change and deteriorating job prospects, such lifestyle of reduced desire, low-consumption and reduced expectations should be seriously considered as a valid option.

Instead of viewing the Buddha-esque youths as contemptible low-life type, we may consider them as the pioneers of environmentally-friendly living. The capitalist/consumerist lifestyle should not be the only option. I support young people’s right to find alternative ways of living which suit their temperament and personality.

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