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Upstairs, the lama sleeps


Downstairs, in a house on McCaul St., about 30 people stand, talking, laughing, eating veggie dip.


Most are in their 20s.


Everyone wears a name tag that says "Buddha in Training."


Alex Travnickova steals into her backyard for a quiet moment. The 35-year-old leans under a porch-lamp and takes a drag from her cigarette.


Her house is the headquarters for the Toronto Diamond Way Buddhist Centre. And tonight, they hosted a special visitor - the founder of the chain of centres, which now number more than 400 worldwide. Lama Ole Nydahl (who is in a different city almost every day) has not been to Toronto in 30 years. The 62-year-old is one of the first Westerners accredited as a lama.


"Ole strips the culture and traditions. He brings to the West, clean teachings," Travnickova says. For example, worshippers don't wear robes and all of the incantations have been translated into English.


Travnickova says Tibetan Buddhism appeals to today's youth because "you're free to choose what you're going to believe."


"I don't like it when people tell me, 'You have to believe this.'"


Religious groups have long lamented falling numbers in youth attendance. They say the twentysomething crowd is cynical and skeptical. As a daily essential, prayer can rank lower than an MSN chat with a new Lavalife friend.


And they struggle with the idea that to instil spirituality, you can't just stand at Yonge and Dundas and push flyers at teenagers. You can't just befriend strangers on campus and then invite them to "hang out" at casual get-togethers where you read from the Bible.


This is where may religions have found themselves today, trying to attract the young by getting with the times - but all the while maintaining a consistent spiritual message.


When Nydahl arrived, he walked through the group and kissed hands. Everyone went inside the meditation hall, settled on cushions and meditated.


"It's like a dinner party without the drama," says Shannon Balaniuk. The 23-year-old has been coming for about a year.


Buddhism is one religion sharply increasing in popularity. According to Statistics Canada, in 1991, 163,000 Canadians were Buddhists. Ten years later, the number had nearly doubled to 300,345.


Reginald Bibby, a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge, says he sees renewed interest in religion among young people. They're still hard to reel in, though.


"A Catholic priest will look at me with a straight face and say, 'I don't know why young people don't come here.' I'm thinking, 'I just sat through that sermon and I was bored to tears. The sermon was from another sphere.'"


In his new book, Restless Churches, Bibby argues young people value relationships, freedom of expression and music.


"If you're going to attract the young people, you have to create environments that are sensitive to those themes," he says. "The young people want to raise all types of questions."


He says religious groups are creating places for youth to hang out. For example, Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C., changed one room in its church into a 1950s diner, complete with a juke box and the front end of a '55 Chevy coming out of the wall.


To get young people, Pastor Craig Canning at the Community Pentecostal Church in Oshawa packaged the message in a steel cage. Last year, the church held a wrestling match in its sanctuary with professional wrestlers, including Ted DiBiase and Buff Bagwell.


About 2,200 people showed up - two-thirds of them people who never went to church, and half were young, Canning says.


"Some people were shocked that a church would bring this in but they said, 'If my church was this relevant, I'd go all the time,'" he says.


After the match, a dramatized crucifixion scene was performed and the Road Warriors wrestlers gave a testimonial.


"Doing the church the same old way either wasn't speaking to our young people or it wasn't resonating. It's an audio-visual age. They want to see it on the big screen and they're looking for excitement. Something that will stir them up."


Other religions are going back to the basics. That approach argues it's the purity of the message that matters most.


"If we say God said it, (then) we try to stand by our principle," says Robert (Muhammad) Heft. The 32-year-old is the director of the New Muslims, a group for new converts. "Being a Muslim isn't easy - especially in this society. No matter what people say, we still don't bend the principles. We are the people we say we are. Do you know how disappointed people would be if we attracted people with hip-hop and then said 'Don't listen to hip-hop?' We're not going to sell the religion on false pretences."


Bibby says many religious groups will be forced to evolve though.


Minorities frequently secure their identities through their religion. The children of immigrants tend to hold the religion strong.


But even in these cases, it will be interesting, Bibby says, to see what happens with future generations How will it affect them to grow up in a greater non-spiritual society?


Melissa Leong is a Toronto-based freelancer.


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