Note: The original publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Membership and Outreach Committee of the Buddhist Churches of America and is also available at


Pieper J. Toyama

In our work with teens, we see the “outreach” process as two basic parts. The first part is the one we all think about in terms of outreach—to get the teens in the door. Once in, the second and most challenging part is to develop the kinds of interactions in which the Dharma touches their lives. In this piece, I would like to focus on the second part of “outreach,” the part that I refer to as “in-reach” by covering four important components of the process.

Understanding the Background of Teens
The “in-reach” process begins with understanding at least three aspects of the backgrounds of teens. First, it is important to understand where they are in terms of their physical, emotional, and intellectual development, which determines a great deal of their interests, priorities, and motivation. A teen in the 9th grade has very different priorities than a teen in the 12th grade. So understanding adolescent development is part of our planning process.

The second aspect to understand is the culture in which the teens live. This means understanding their music, the TV shows they watch, the games they play, the books and magazines they read, their language and the ways in which they interact with each other, and the values to which they gravitate as a result of their interaction with popular culture. The more we understand this aspect of their background the better we can draw upon it to plan encounters with the Dharma in ways that are relevant and immediate to them.

The third aspect to understand is the individual teen. Planning for in-reach activities becomes more effective when we understand the teens’ family backgrounds, personal interests, personal histories, strengths, and even learning styles. And, by the way, understanding the backgrounds of teens is an on-going process. We are always trying to know them and who they are more deeply.

The Encounter
With an understanding of teens in the areas that I have listed above, we plan for ways in which the Dharma can intersect with their lives. The planning template we use is best articulated in Reverend Seigen Yamaoka’s MAP (Meaning and Process model, from Reverend Seigen Yamaoka’s presentation of “Jodo Shinshu in the Western World” made at the Federation of Dharma School Teachers League Conference, held on May 2–4, 2003).

In this model, we start with developing and planning an “encounter.” The encounter is an experience in which teens engage with a stimulus and then reflect upon their engagement. The stimulus should prompt the teens to wrestle with and explore their values, beliefs, and priorities. The encounter should also appeal to multiple senses and capture the teens’ attention. It should take into consideration everything you know about the teens’ background to ensure its relevancy to their lives. Reverend Yamaoka’s List of Polar Events of Life is excellent for guiding the selection of topics for encounters. The Polar Events include:

• Life/Death
• Success/Failure
• Good/Evil
• Health/Illness
• Happiness/Sorrow
• Victory/Defeat

To this list, I add the following suggested topics:

• Friends/Enemies
• Loneliness/Connection
• Purposeful/Purposelessness

Encounter–stimuli, are how we deliver the topics. Examples of encounter–stimuli may include the following:

• Poem or a quotation read aloud
• Movie or TV show
• Popular song
• Role playing of a family situation
• TV news cast
• Newspaper article, magazine article or essay
• Novel or short story
• Discussion and sharing of personal problems and issues
• Physical challenge such as a strenuous hike or backpacking trip
• Simulated group problem or challenge as those found in “ropes courses”

Reflection and Interrelationships
Following engagement with the stimulus, the teens are asked to reflect on the topic and their experiences in relationship to the topic through a series of questions. The first set of questions asks the teens to recount what happened, what they saw, what they heard, and what they felt as they engaged with the stimulus. This practices establishes the literal context and the emotions the stimulus drew. The second set of questions asks the teens to consider the social, moral, ethical, and personal questions and issues that the stimulus raised. The third set of questions directs the teens to identify the people and the things that are fundamentally involved in the questions and issues. Once these factors are identified, the teens are asked to describe the interrelationships between those persons and between those persons and things that lie at the heart of the encounter. The fourth set of questions then asks the teens to assess the interrelationships in the light of Jodo Shinshu Buddhist beliefs. This is an important part of the reflection process, for it is here that teens have the opportunity to understand the importance of relationships in their lives and then to struggle with the role that Jodo Shinshu can play in growing those relationships. As Reverend Yamaoka points out, it is when one understands the gift of relationships that one can begin to truly feel gratitude and find meaning and happiness.

Gratitude and Meaning
Concluding discussions focus on the appreciation of relationships and how that gratitude can be expressed and shared. It is out of the expression of sincere gratitude can teens hope to find meaning in their lives.

In our efforts to “in-reach,” to bring the relevance of the Dharma touch the lives of teens, we use the following process.

• Understand the background of the teens with whom we are working
• Physical, emotional, and intellectual development
• Cultural context
• Personal background
• Plan and execute an encounter
• Engage teens with a stimulus activity that address Polar Events of Life
• Make the stimulus activity multi-sensory, relevant, and interesting
• Encourage reflection through questions that facilitate understanding
• The context of the encounter (what happened)
• The issues and questions stimulated by the encounter
• The people and things involved and the nature of their interrelationships
• Jodo Shinshu teachings that shed light on the gifts of relationships and the importance of gratitude for those relationships
• Discuss the expression of gratitude and explore the possibilities of shaping meaning for one’s life

Next article:
Jodo Shinshu Outreach Efforts and Results, by Rich Wolford

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