BeliefWatch: Budding Buddhists

The post is typical teenage angst, but with a twist. Mother is a zealous new convert to Roman Catholicism. Father is along for the ride. "Silentmist" wants an answer to this question: "How should I go about telling [my mother] about my Buddhism?"

We should have seen this coming. The baby boomers experimented with everything; they left their childhood faiths for other faiths or nothing at all; they intermarried and raised their children to be "spiritual but not religious." Now a small but growing number find themselves in the uncomfortable but not necessarily unhappy position of driving their high-school-age kids to Buddhist retreats. Diana Winston, the author of "Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens," has been teaching Buddhism to youth for more than a decade, and she says she's seen it change from a fringe practice to something normal and accepted, especially on the coasts. (In the middle of the country, Winston says, kids sometimes practice Buddhism in secret; they write to her, looking for someone to talk to.) Mahagony Gamble, who oversees the high-school and young women's division of SGI-USA—the Buddhist sect known for the chant "Nam myoho renge kyo"—says membership has exploded in the past two years, and a growing number of the new members are kids from non-Buddhist families who show up at meetings with their Buddhist friends from school.

One such member is Allegra Fonda-Bonardi, 18, the daughter of secular parents from Santa Monica, Calif. She discovered Buddhism six years ago, during "a very middle-school boy drama." She turned to her best friend for help, and the friend suggested chanting. "I felt better almost immediately, and I said, 'This chanting stuff is pretty cool'." Now chanting twice a day, she meets regularly with other local SGI Buddhists, and she plays the trombone in a Buddhist band. Sumi Loundon, author of "The Buddha's Apprentices," thinks the new enthusiasm among teens is related to the ubiquity of Eastern religious and pseudo-religious practice: so many people meditate, chant and practice "mindfulness" that Buddhism no longer feels alien. But Fonda-Bonardi has another idea. "Honestly?" she says, before she rushes off to a rehearsal with Jackson Browne's band. "I think this generation is looking for a philosophy of hope ... We're going to be inheriting this place. How will we create hope and peace in this new time?" Her parents, she says, are happy to drive her to meetings.