Adolescent Buddhism

· Essays ·

by Rachel Yuho Rider
Originally published in Mountain Record journal: “Spirituality and Education” (2001)

During my childhood, religion was not a major part of my family life, nor was it a part of the life of anyone around me. My life revolved around my fam­ily and friends; the people who loved me. I saw no need for religion and didn’t under­stand the importance of its presence until I came into adolescence. 

However, throughout my childhood I was exposed to Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. My mother’s side of the family is Jewish and my father’s side is Christian. Of the three religions, Buddhism appealed to me personally. Though it is not necessarily the case, my exposure to Christianity and Judaism gave me the impression that it was separate from one’s life. My friends went to Church every few Sundays and would be holy in church, but as soon as they left the building, their holy feelings and their religious values seemed to evaporate. This was similar at my home. We would be Jewish on Fridays if we were invited to my aunt’s for Shabot dinner and Christian if we were celebrating Easter, but after the holidays religion was forgotten. On the other hand, Buddhism was the way we lived our life. In our family the precepts, though never directly mentioned, were strongly implied in the way that we respected all life and were taught to be compassionate for the suffering of others. 

At the age of thirteen I became seriously interested in Buddhism. Up until that time my parents were my precepts in the sense that the morals and ethics that they professed and modeled were my morals and ethics. When I came into adolescence, my simple black-and­-white world suddenly collapsed, shading into grays. I discovered a freedom of which I had been unaware existed; this was the freedom of my own free will to make my own decisions. I became faced with difficult situations in painful social relationships and uncomfortable activities with friends that could not be solved by the teachings of my parents alone, but with my own head and heart. This was, and is not, an easy thing to do. I was witness to and sometimes a participant in, cruel and devastating behavior toward girls who were called friends. I was a party to and a victim of betrayal and deceit, hardly understanding why it was happening or the suffering and pain it caused. At times we all were disrespectful of the feelings, the possessions, even the bodies of others. I was frequently in uncomfortable situations in which I played a part, confused by these uncomfortable experiences and feeling helpless about the way I felt. I found it difficult to be secure about what I knew to be right when it differed from how other people felt, and so I felt unable to stand up and act upon my feelings. I sensed that I needed a reference point that would help guide me through life with an open heart. This confusion and longing led me to more deeply seek to understand the Buddhist teachings and beliefs. Two of the head teachers at Zen Mountain Monastery offered to meet with me over the course of a year. During that year, we discussed Buddhism, the precepts and their relevancy to my daily life as an adolescent girl. As a result of these decisions, I decided to accept the precepts in a coming of age ceremony; a public acknowledgment that I was making them a part of my life. 

It was only after I started meditating that I truly began to understand that the precepts were not something I studied, but something that I lived. Until I began to meditate, the precepts were only a book of rules that I knew in my mind to be right. It was as if they were separate from me. Through sitting, they became a part of me; I believed in them with my whole heart and being. The melding of the precepts and meditation help me listen to my heart. 

A major part of my life entails attending the public school in Garden City, the town in which I live. (I’m going into my junior year of high school). It is a white upper middle class suburban high school. There is an intense preoccupation with achievement in sports and academics. Ironically though, both these activities are done with a complete lack of passion. It is the goal that is important; the process of achieving it is regarded only as the long road of getting there and not as an accomplishment itself. It is viewed as tedious and boring. It seems that not only I, but most of my peers, find this method of education empty and exhausting. This process only reinforces disconnectedness because we are not intimately involved with our work. It seems that there is a bold line distinguishing happiness from school. 

This is expressed through the actions of my classmates. They drink heavily every chance there is to be had (which is a lot more often than one would expect). There is also an excessive amount of sexual activity and drug use. It seems that it is only during the use of sex, drugs and alcohol that my peers ever feel connected. The reason that I do not participate in these activities is not that I am any less unhappy, but that I have found a way to be connected to people who I care about and who care about me. The teachers, the monks and the sangha are of huge importance to me. They give substance to my life. When I feel a complete lack of connection in my life, I can turn to this net of connection and get “refueled.” They give me security, warmth and support that replenishes me, enabling me to be connected in my life. As a result I am not enticed by drugs, sex, and alcohol for a false connection. 

During the past summer I spent two weeks at the monastery, because I felt the need to deepen my practice. During the time that I spent at Zen Mountain Monastery, Buddhism was completely transformed for me. It became personal. Each morning and evening there were two thirty-minute meditation periods to begin and end the day. This practice was a significant aspect of my experience. I felt I was able to center myself and clear my mind of the noise of the day. The meditation led me to face whatever feelings and thoughts that had come up during the day. I recognized that I was part of a community that consisted of people of all ages working together, people who shared the goal of finding a rewarding way to live. The feeling of being accepted and welcomed was a very powerful one. There is no question that my meditation practice and understanding of Buddhism deepened during the two weeks I spent at the Monastery. 

For me, adolescence is a period of emotional turmoil, where the waters are being tested in relationships, whether of the same or of the opposite sex. I am surrounded by peers who deal with the same painful issues as I do but who have received much less support and guidance. I feel that it is not only the Buddhist precepts that have helped me listen to myself and trust what I feel to be right and true, but all that comes with it—the community, the teachings, the teachers, the practice. Instead of turning away from the difficult issues that come up in my life, I have been given a way to handle them with an open heart and mind. I don’t experience Buddhism simply as the lectures given by the monks or as a set of rules, but as a way to help me listen to my heart. For me, Buddhism is a way of life. It is my life.

Addendum 2018

It is very difficult for me to re-read the article I had written almost twenty years ago as a 16 year old. I cringe at my self righteous, over confident voice. Adolescent memories wash over me and I wonder if any of my assertions about being less mean or less involved in intoxicants were really true. With that said, I also have reverence for this 16 year old woman who had such a deep trust in her relationship to the dharma. How remarkable that she listened, trusted and followed her calling to practice. How lucky that she had practice in her life at such a young age. 

When I think about that young girl of 16, I am in awe of her. I have no idea what made her attend week long meditation retreats or find such devotion and resonance for the dharma. But I am grateful to her following her insecure, self righteous adolescent heart. I am grateful that she was able to listen to the whispers of the dharma in the midst of adolescent struggle and angst. I am grateful that I have continued to listen to those whispers and watch them evolve into a strong voice that has helped guide me in my practice and that Zen Mountain Monastery has been a place that I can continue to come back to explore and strengthen that relationship.

Rachel Yuho Rider continues her practice with the sangha and with her own young family, and lives in Westchester, NY. She works as an executive coach and leadership consultant.

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