My parents are of the baby boomer generation. Unfortunately, they were not “anti-establishment Beatniks…anti-war peaceniks…antinuke activists who saw the world coming unhinged by assignations, nuclear proliferation and military buildup,” as Perry Garfinkel describes in his book, Buddha or Bust.(1) So when Garfinkel paralleled the Axial Age to his generation of rebels, I raised my eyebrows a bit, ’cause I didn’t follow. It seemed a bit presumptuous to appropriate the head of an ancient religion—even if he did point that out stretch himself.
But even as I geared my arguments for dismissing the relevance of the comparison (and even as I still disagree with the use of the term “baby boomer” for what I see as an entirely different phenomenon) there may well be a useful implication of that observation.
Right or wrong, however, when I think of the baby boomers, I think of their image now, which is only the reference point I have. What I remember hearing of the baby boomers is their discontent, yes, but usually in the context of dissatisfaction. Materialism. Entitlement. Other such, rather less positive, terms.
The “baby boomer” generation was so named because couples fresh after World War II found themselves with far too much disposable income, and lavished most of it on their families. The kids produced in this era found themselves embarrassed by parents spending too much and making themselves foolish in the rush of keeping up with the Joneses.(2)
That kind of situation is where Siddhartha (the Buddha) is supposed to have come from.
So could Buddha be described as the world’s first baby boomer? He was the stereotypical pampered prince, never even allowed outside the palace walls. Unlike the Disney movies, though, he didn’t get out until he was nearly thirty and already married with children. At any rate, he did eventually find his way out of the palace walls—and despite all precautions, was presented with the reality of human suffering. He realized that one day he would grow old, even die. So he became an ascetic. After six years he realized, it really didn’t help. In a move of such profound common sense that it had to be formalized into religion, the Buddha realized happiness might be better found along a “middle way”.(3)
I think this says more about Garfinkel’s philosophy than about Buddha’s—as a baby boomer himself, that particular feeling of disillusionment would be most resonant with him. If anything, I find it irritating only that Garfinkel discounts how often such disillusionment comes to different generations…the Industrial Revolution was hard on people.
But whether the Buddha could be counted as a baby boomer? Maybe that’s not the most important question. Garfinkel seems to use him as a role model—implicitly at least—for the baby boomers who have not yet found a middle path. Like himself. Some people spend years jumping from quick fix to quick fix, and never find the stillness to really have a middle path of their own. Calling Buddha a baby boomer might make him relatable to those people…especially the ones who dismiss Buddhism as just more new age-y claptrap from their misguided youth.
1. Or should I say, there is no evidence for it. You could argue my mom went to Humboldt…but I’m going to Chico, and frankly, I stay home most nights. Also, she’s (mostly) Norwegian. We’re just generally boring people, even if we do chose “exciting” colleges.
2. I made that up as a reason. Kids are always embarrassed by their parents, aren’t they? And the philosophy of generations tends to follow a rather pendulum-like swing of reaction.
3. In no way is this intended to be disparaging. If anything is a misnomer, “common sense” is. It’s not common, nor is it often simply a “sense.” It takes a lot of work, and the Buddha seems to have been a skilled practitioner. Believer or not, that’s admirable work.