NEW YORK — As Mary Reagan folds her hands in prayer, chanting with her friends in Japanese, multihued rubber bands hold her short black curls in eight petite fountains atop her head. A black top tied in a front-bow adorns her pink knee-length dress, accented by rainbow-striped stockings.
In many ways, she’s like other 13-year-olds. But Mary is one of thousands of “Buddsters,” teenage hipsters who are converting to Buddhism.
Home-schooled in New York City until the age of 11 by parents who she says did not speak to each other for a long time, Mary started fifth grade at a regular school and faced a difficult and painful transition.
“She had terrible testing anxiety because I never tested her when home-schooling,” said her mother, Kim Reagan. “She went to bed crying every night for two weeks. So I made her get into a rhythm of chanting for 15 minutes after every 30 minutes of studying, and she scored the highest in her class.”
Today Mary is an active member of Soka Gakkai International, an American Buddhist association that promotes world peace and individual happiness based on the teachings of the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism.
Mary credits Buddhism with helping her through turbulent times and even saving her life.
“I would have killed myself in middle school, but I never attempted suicide because of my Buddhist practice,” she said.
Like Mary, many teenagers are adapting Buddhist practices in their lives as chanting and meditation become avenues for “de-stressing” and finding personal fulfillment.
Teenagers are attracted to Buddhism because it calms their minds, settles the often tumultuous emotions that come with adolescence and addresses their core anxieties, said Judith Simmer-Brown, professor of religious studies at Naropa University in Colorado.
Meditation is a big draw for many. Some teenagers seek out teachers and study books on Buddhism because of the simple tenets it offers, she said. Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths teach believers about the origin of suffering and how to end it by following a “middle way” between overindulgence and self-deprivation.
“Teenagers feel disrespected most of the time and Buddhism makes them feel that someone cares,” said Monte Jaffe, an SGI member and a high school principal in New York.
For Mary, discovering Buddhism has been a dream come true.
“If I really want something, I chant with determination,” she said. “Last year I chanted for an honor roll, and I got it. I even got to touch a dolphin. That has been my childhood dream.”
Young people are drawn to Buddhist chanting as a way to help uncover great potential in their lives, said Paula Miksic, vice-general director of SGI-USA. The organization has 300,000 members, of which it is estimated that 20 to 25 percent are between the ages of 12 and 34.
When Yesenia Pinzon, 17, moved with her mother from Houston to Chicago in 2004, she had a hard time making friends and fitting into her junior class at a new school.
“I used to be a very sad child, as my parents are separated,” Yesenia said. “But when I started chanting seriously two years back, everything changed for me.”
Today, Yesenia wakes up an hour early each morning to chant before she heads for school.
“Teenagers see the chanting as a magic wand for instant happiness and something that can change their lives for the better,” said Kamau Butler, an SGI-USA youth leader.
SGI has 85 culture centers around the country that aim to create a fun place for teenagers to hang out and organize rock and rap music groups, hip-hop dances and a girl’s chorus circle, among other activities.
While many teen Buddhists reject idol worship and meditation, others live the Dalai Lama’s way of Tibetan Buddhism, praying to the Buddha statue and carrying a Buddha charm with them.
Taylor Wayne Sincich, 18, a mechanical engineering major at the University of Florida, attends classes wearing a beaded chain around his neck that carries a mini silver Buddha in a plastic case. A 6-inch-tall bronze Buddha sits on the dashboard of his maroon Saturn. In his dorm room, he lights incense at a Buddha shrine and says his prayers for enlightenment and good luck.
After being raised in a devout Christian environment, Sincich said, Tibetan Buddhist ideas and beliefs have helped him separate himself from what he sees as an egoistical and self-centered society.
“The idea of meditation is to help you open up to yourself so you can help other people,” he said.
Socially engaged Buddhism is a developing trend in the West, and young Buddsters are trying to bring about what they call a “human revolution,” in which Buddhist values can be used to try to solve larger social problems, like environmental degradation.
Many teenagers are successfully straddling the two religious worlds, like 15-year-old Dante Estwick of New York, who was raised a Christian.
“I still go to church, but I like to study Buddhism,” Dante said. “I come to SGI to open up and meet new people and practice hip-hop rap.”
Others are giving up churches and synagogues gradually as they come to embrace the idea that Buddha exists in their lives. However, conversion is not always an easy road for teens.
Last year, as a way to confront problems at home, 15-year-old Charlotte Rendon of Queens, N.Y., moved away from the Christian traditions she grew up with and took up chanting in Japanese instead. She was encouraged to make the switch by her mother, an SGI member.
“It has been the hardest thing to do in my life, giving up going to church every Sunday and not praying to Jesus,” Charlotte said. “It is a complete change of religion for me.”
Charlotte says Buddhist chanting gave her a new self confidence. At an SGI culture center, she found a circle of friends with whom she can sing and play basketball.