Sunday, June 24, 2012

YOLO, the anthem of a generation?

At high school graduation Thursday night (I am a teacher), I heard the word "YOLO," no less than three times during graduation speeches. Now in case you aren't up on latest teen parlance, "YOLO" is a bacronym for "You only live once." It's this generation's "carpe diem," used to explain (or more often excuse) rash, daring, or sometimes absurd behavior. It's used in a variety of contexts, ranging from a kid mustering the courage for a prom proposal or bombing a test (see right). While the graduation speakers used this term ironically, it got me to thinking.

It goes without saying that we will in a consumer paradise, a culture of sheer spectacle where everyone and everything is a commodity, and thus has can be bought and sold. And the anthem YOLO perfectly captures this. It expresses teen and young adult angst, apathy, and disillusionment with a retail culture whose promises of fulfillment and success have long since been revealed to be bankrupt and hollow.

Now I don't think the solution is "YOLF," as I joked with a student of mine--"You only live forever"--a pseudo-Buddhist appropriation of YOLO. That's just the opposites game. What kids need, and our entire civilization for that matter, is a realistic way to balance power, freedom, ethics, and responsibility. (Ready? Wait...wait....Here comes my Buddhism plug. GO!)

Personally, I think that Buddhism offers just that. It's a radical path for self-transformation. And if the Buddha story reveals anything, it's that one person can make a difference. Change and hope can begin in one heart, and then spread like seeds on the winds.

Still, is Buddhism a cure-all? I feel naive saying yes, for as Owen Flanagan points out in The Bodhisatttva's Brain, Buddhism has been historically weak on the political and social ends of things. Which is fine; that's never been the purview or focus of Buddhism. It's simply not Buddhism's function, which is why I'm hesitant to offer it as a panacea.

That said, I do think that this generation needs a compass to help guide them through this existential malaise. Rabid consumerism, after all, is not a far cry from frightened or disillusioned nihilism. 

So how do we help, not just as Buddhists, but as human beings who have a vested interest in helping people, not for the perpetuation of the species and this planet, but because that's our inner nature operating at its fullest potential? (There was a question in there somewhere, I'm sure.) In America, education has long been touted as the great equalizer, but in the 21st century schools are quickly becoming yet another field for corporations to wage their colonial expansion. Which in some ways, I think, YOLO is a direct response to. Kids are smart; they know a sham when they see one. So where does that leave us? 

At its heart, YOLO expresses this generation's hopelessness. And can you blame them? The global economy is in shambles, celebrity and sports heroes are as much products as those they endorse, the American political scene is a farce... and the list goes on.

And still, we must try. Bodhisattvas vow to save all sentient beings, starting now. Whether we live once or for countless samsaric lifetimes doesn't matter. Once, forever, these are ideas, more opposites. 

I don't claim to have the solution, because I don't know if there is a solution. This world needs a lot of help, not just spiritual healing. There is work to be done in every imaginable dimension--social, political, racial, personal, judicial, financial, and on and on.

But I firmly believe that the fertile soil for responsible, wise, compassionate action is nowhere but right here, right now. The Buddha's life story teaches us that one person can create a revolution. So let's dig our toes into the loam and help. Any way that we can. 

With open hands and open hearts. 

Photo taken from "faded-jeans" @


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  2. As (perhaps) the youngest member of our order, this resonates alot with me, Do'shim. Interestingly, my local sangha members range (outside of myself) from the youngest at 35 to late 60's range. Even being younger and (somewhat) connected in younger circles of folks, it seems to me that there is often little to no (especially serious) interest in Buddhism.

    The existentialist questioning that often leads one to Buddhist practice is just (seemingly) not a concern of most people who are not at least (so called) "middle-aged". Conversely I do know several people my age who are very active in (usually fundamentalist) Christian churches. I've heard it argued that this is due (at least in part) to the more welcoming, and generation focused environments (with teen groups, and "contemporary" services etc.) fostered in Christian Churches. However, I see it as more of an issue of the basis for belief, wherein Buddhism (especially from the Zen perspective) gives no threat of eternal torture and damnation, nor eternal reward in a cloud palace full of ipods and refer (joking, somewhat lol). Also, that kind of "faith" in Christianity is often accompanied by a strongly rooted background (in other words, upbringing) in the habit (or dare I say indoctrination) of attending Church.

    That's not to say that there are not exceptions to all of this on both Buddhist and Christian sides. But I think in general, Buddhist practice begins with growth great questioning, from a field topped full of shit....errr fertilizer, or rather, um, dukkha ;-)

    The world is and has been since time forgotten an ocean of suffering...Guided by the Bodhisattva vow to wake up and save all of the numberless sentient beings from suffering, there is indeed relatively alot to do...But in the midst of it all, our existence, our world and universe is absolutely perfect!

    So what do we do? Only go straight, dont know ;-)

    Thanks for the wonderful post brother!