Forum: How Millennials Are Reframing the Buddhist Path

In this Buddhadharma Forum, five millenial Buddhists take a look at where Buddhism is, and where it’s headed.

By Gesshin Greenwood

Photo by Julio Rivera.

I’m a millennial Buddhist, and growing up queer and transgender, I bore witness to a lot of suffering. I was called a cross-dresser and stared at with anger for wearing a suit. I was laughed at in center field while playing softball in high school. I knew early on how much our bodies carry, and that we wound easily and heal slowly—if at all.

The world that I and other millennial Buddhists have inherited is not an easy one. The recession of 2008, the inundation of student loan debt, and the current economic and health crisis resulting from the coronavirus all capture the struggles and uncertainty millennials endure. We have witnessed communities suffering from climate change and must confront the fact that we may not have a safe and livable planet much longer. These are some of the collective generational traumas we live with—and that weigh on our hearts and minds.

In this Forum, I talk with four millennial Buddhists who are deeply aware of the problems the world faces and conscious of the suffering involved (and to come). They talk about Buddhism in the same breath as taking care of the world, and they also—though they had just met—take care with one another in the course of our conversation. In these truly difficult times, times in which we are all inside, it is so hard to feel heard, and held. Alone in my apartment, I listened to these millennial Buddhists try to envision what a more peaceful, intentional, and enlightened Buddhism might look like. And suddenly, I was no longer alone. We had each other.

The Forum takes a close look not only at how Buddhism can serve the world but also at how it can repair itself and expand to include a diversity of people and perspectives, as well as practices and wisdom from other traditions. We explore issues such as sexual violence, race in American Buddhism, and questions of community. We discuss our love for Buddhism, and grounded in that love, we discuss how we hope Buddhism might change, and where it might go. We share our vision for a Buddhism grounded in hope, creativity, and liberation for all beings.

Millennial Buddhists are concerned about making our world more inclusive and safe for all, and they’re asking: what does it look like to hear and honor another person’s experience? How do we see ourselves in the suffering of another? How can I make my sangha more inclusive and equitable, so that we might all find refuge on this path? How might this path engage all bodies? When it forgets a body, how might the path meet this moment and body with compassion, intention, responsibility, and understanding?

I believe millennial Buddhism is about discovering these answers, together. It’s about achieving liberation, and the seeds of home, safety, and belonging, together. It’s about addressing oppression and the suffering of our world, together. It’s about forging a new, intentional, and hopeful path, together.

—Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner: The frame for this conversation is simply that we’re millennials, although our generation is still pretty invisible in the Buddhist world. I’m curious: is “millennial” an important part of how you understand yourself? Do you think it informs how you understand Buddhist practice?

Gesshin Greenwood: We are a generation that’s been shaped by economic and environmental forces beyond our control. We were handed a broken system. My practice was inseparable from things like the economic recession. The stock market crashed when I graduated from college, and that was one of the main reasons I had time to spend my twenties in a monastery, because there were no jobs. So you can’t separate those forces from practice. That may be a difference from older generations—I think older generations might have felt more driven to make some sort of rarefied, pure Buddhist space that is separate from political and economic forces. But we can’t separate from something like the climate crisis. The world is going to be changing so much, and the suffering will be changing as well. So I wonder if maybe we’re better suited or more enthusiastic about seeing how these economic and environmental problems are showing up, and quicker to see Buddhism as a way to address them, not as something separate.

Ray Buckner: The night after the Pulse shooting in Florida in 2016, I went to a dharma center in California, and that night the teacher basically tried to convince the mostly older white people why, right after the shooting, they should care about the LGBTQ folks. I don’t think it’s a solid difference between millennials and older Buddhists, but in that moment it occurred to me that of course we would be talking about the Pulse shooting the night after it happened. Of course in a dharma center, after queer folks of color had been killed, we would take up their suffering, explicitly. That, to me, feels generational.

Lama Bryn Dawson: I began my path in the dharma with older generations, and my community, up until a few years ago, was predominantly middle-class and middle-aged, or older. That made me appreciate when I was introduced to people who are younger or who had spent their twenties not in a monastic setting. We’re thinking of the parts of our lives we have yet to live—can we have a family, for example? I wonder if people nearing the end of their life more readily accept the irreversibility of catastrophic effects. I seem to notice younger generations keep in mind that things will continue. I think there’s a real inspiration in younger generations. Because we perceive ours and our children’s lives as just beginning, we are mobilized to enact the vision of this world and human communities continuing. We see ourselves carrying this responsibility—not as a choice but as an inevitability.

Chenxing Han: I know I’m technically a millennial, but I feel a kind of productive ambivalence with the label. To what extent is it just a narrative? Do Europeans of our age, for example, think of themselves as millennials? I haven’t heard the term used very much in Asia, though I do think younger Buddhists in Asia are also questioning the Buddhism of older generations. So what does it mean if we look at these generational categories more transnationally? I do think these categories may be relevant outside the US because we’re in such a globalized and connected world, as COVID-19 is teaching us in a stark way.

We were handed a broken system. So maybe we’re more enthusiastic about seeing how these economic and environmental problems are showing up, and quicker to see Buddhism as a way to address them, not as something separate. —Gesshin Greenwood

Ray Buckner: Yes, and there’s so much to be anxious about today: climate change, COVID-19, detention of immigrants, and the US election. And now there’s a new global economic uncertainty, even more profound than what many had been experiencing already.

More and more, it seems that Buddhism is in conversation with other perspectives: Buddhism and critical race theory, for example, or Buddhism and feminism. What, besides Buddhism, is informing your thinking about the world? Are those things in sync with Buddhism, or is there a tension between them?

Gesshin Greenwood: Since I was a teenager I’ve been informed by intersectional feminism. That’s always been there. And it’s definitely in conflict with Buddhism in some ways, especially in how it relates to hierarchy and power. I’m really interested in equalizing power imbalance. But I’ve talked to a lot of older Buddhist teachers who say power imbalance is kind of inevitable. At least in a therapeutic dyad, there’s always going to be power imbalance, and you can’t entirely get rid of that, but you can work to acknowledge it, to make it visible, so that it has less of a harmful impact. I would like to see Buddhism take up the tools and principles of radical feminism more seriously—it definitely needs it. If this were a PR meeting for Buddhism, I’d be like, “We definitely need some feminism now—we’re not looking good.”

Ray Buckner: Could you say a little more about intersectional feminism? What do you think it offers to the Buddhist world?

Gesshin Greenwood: I know I’m not going to give a correct definition, but intersectional feminism recognizes the various ways in which power and identity can come together in a particular situation or person, and how race and gender and class are informing power differences. But underlying that is an explicit turn toward power in and of itself. Whereas I think second-wave feminism was kind of focused on how white women could get more high paying jobs, now I think feminism is looking at equality in general, and the different ways power is working to create inequality.

Chenxing Han: I think Buddhism has always been in conversation, and perhaps tension, with many different systems of thought or “non-Buddhist” ideas. It gets to what Buddhism means—is it really a thing distinct from all of these other things? For much of the past four years I’ve been primarily based in Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, and that’s given me a little bit of distance from the experiences of being Asian American in America, and what all of that means. It’s not that the issues go away, but the context shifts. Race and racism register differently in Thailand; maybe there, we’d talk about ethnicism or colorism. Issues of gender and sexuality issues register differently too.

It’s also been interesting to be based in Asia and to witness the rise of polarization in the US, this attachment to being right. What really draws me to Buddhism isn’t necessarily the answers it has, but the kinds of questions it asks. Asking questions, finding different answers to these questions, and then trying to sit with that difference, trying to understand that difference—I find that to be a really fascinating and meaningful process.

Matthew Hepburn: One thing that has been a huge part of my own practice has been dialogue around gender—exploring gender privilege and how I cause harm for myself and others, looking at systems, expectations, and cultures of harm, and understanding my own psyche and mind related to conditioning I’ve received around gender expression, internally and externally. So it’s been important for me to be in relationship with people of all genders, but particularly with men who are interested in seeing how patriarchy shows up in our minds and hearts, how that turns into action in the world, and what the impacts are.

Lama Bryn Dawson: Buddhist institutions neglecting critical race theory or intersectional feminism risk recreating systems of oppression and exclusion. There are a few tremendous examples of sanghas dedicated to illuminating these areas of ignorance and their impacts, but many communities have yet to address it as a moral imperative. I find this heartbreaking because it so completely contradicts my understanding of what is essential to the dharma: to see things as they are. It’s taking a vow to see that all life has intrinsic value and committing to upholding that every day.

I’m grateful for everything that happened to bring buddhadharma to the West, including all the mistakes that were made, so we can look back and say, “Oh, we shouldn’t have done it that way. Let’s do it a different way.” —Lama Bryn Dawson

Something that has occurred to me over the last few years, as I’ve begun to integrate other worldviews and perspectives, is how fortunate we are to have access to so many other wisdom traditions, in particular so many caring and moving Indigenous wisdom teachings. There are other communities, perhaps not as accessible as Buddhism is, that have profound teachings and ways of engaging with the world in stewardship and care. I feel a commitment to keeping those voices and perspectives in mind.

Ray Buckner: And even many Buddhist voices have been left out. It seems part of what our generation has inherited is an incomplete story about Buddhism in the West, one that leaves out Asian Americans. Chenxing, you’ve written about young Asian American Buddhists and the so-called division between “ethnic” and “convert” Buddhists—a narrative that’s grounded in racialized and orientalist assumptions. How can we as a generation move beyond this idea of convert versus ethnic Buddhists? What kind of grappling do you think we need to do to address narratives of Buddhism in the West?

Chenxing Han: Oh, I love this question. And this conversation has been so exciting because I feel we’re doing precisely this—listening to the voices that aren’t heard as much. I hear a lot of us in this conversation trying to move away from binaries: male/female, Buddhist/non-Buddhist, whatever it might be. Racial discourse in America has always been very black and white, and that leaves out many other groups. And then, in the context of Buddhism, there’s a polarization of Asian and white. I am not the first person who has written about this, but this idea of ethnic versus convert is another false binary. We all have ethnicity; we’re all ethnic Buddhists. And when people conflate convert Buddhism with white convert Buddhists, they leave out many other people, not just Asian Americans.

For my thesis project, I interviewed eighty-nine young adult Asian American Buddhists. One of my interviewees told the story of how they got into Buddhism: their Hindu parents started going to a Mahayana Buddhist temple in Canada just because it was close to them. And their parents still go there—they like the people, and they like the food. I think of a story like that, which is intergenerational and goes against our understandings of “ethnic” versus “convert” Buddhist, and I think, oh, there’s so much more complexity than we can imagine. It pluralizes the “two Buddhisms” narrative.

Ray Buckner: Thank you, Chenxing. I think what you say gets at the danger of having a binary, both in what it leaves out and in what it reinforces. And it leads nicely into my next question: what do you wish earlier generations could have done differently in cultivating Buddhism in the West? And what are you grateful for in what those generations offered?

Matthew Hepburn: It’s so important that we’re having this conversation in a group, with multiple perspectives. As Chenxing said, we don’t want to tell just one story. I can only speak from my own limited perspective; I only know a little bit. It brings to mind a time when I sat in on a high school class called “Global Buddhisms”—plural. That awareness itself—that there is more than one Buddhism—was not part of my original understanding. It took some time before I understood the diversity of traditions and teachings and Buddhist cultures and orientations that were happening, even here in America.

Whatever suffering I come into contact with, I’m going to ask how I can be engaged. It may look like activism from the outside, or it may not, but it’s that engagement, I think, that is Buddhism’s fundamental call. —Matthew Hepburn

One thing that’s missing for me, speaking personally, is music. It’s one of the things I admire about the Jodo Shinshu tradition, that there’s incredible music involved. In the centers I came up in—Western Insight centers of different kinds—even the chanting of the Theravada traditions, which had been so strong in the places where the founders of these centers had practiced, was not emphasized. Finding practices that bring community together in that way, through devotion, through chanting, through music—those things to me are quite precious, and I wish that they had been more central.

The thing I really appreciate from those previous generations is the message of liberation. In every practice I’ve encountered, liberation has been at the core. I’m grateful that that’s been protected.

Gesshin Greenwood: It’s such a big, intricate question—I have five different thoughts going at once. It’s like two sides of a coin: the things that I’m grateful for—the emphasis on meditation and liberation—are also the things I wish had been done differently. And sometimes I wonder, what would American Buddhism look like now if, when it had been imported, it had incorporated ancestor worship? What if people had been doing that practice in their home for the last thirty years, in the place where they live, connecting with their family stories?

Lama Bryn Dawson: My first thought is that I’m grateful for everything that happened to bring buddhadharma to the West, including all the mistakes that were made, so we can look back and say, “Oh, we shouldn’t have done it that way. Let’s do it a different way.” I notice how previous generations were so much emulating what the master was doing: dressing, eating, walking. Now we can look at that, and the relevancy of that, and recognize things like, yeah, maybe we should have music. We also need to incorporate questions and discussions about inclusivity, of gender and race and bodies. We’re just beginning to examine what inclusivity is within sanghas.

Ray Buckner: And safety, too—revelations in the last few years have made clear that sexual violence is still a very real issue in Buddhist communities. What do you think needs to happen in our communities now so that these problems don’t repeat in the next generation?

Lama Bryn Dawson: It’s been my experience that people enter the dharma through suffering; often, they’ve been wounded through relationships of power. Out of desperation for something that promises the end of suffering, or the desire to belong to something reliable, people become vulnerable to manipulation by leaders and their surrounding circles. Whether we’re talking about acts of sexual violence, the unskillful use of language, negligence, or seeking financial gain through deceit, these harms stray so far from the vows we take in the buddhadharma.

Power in whatever form—in a teacher–student or therapeutic relationship, between a parent and child, between a doctor and a patient—needs to be seen and understood. Whether you feel you possess power or not, the questions must be asked: how do we as a community protect each other from abuse of power? Where are we neglecting our commitment to uphold the nobility in each of us? Unless leaders—and those facilitating their reach to congregants—create and revisit protocols aligned to our vows, we are all complicit. How do our relationships in community embody a respect for all life as worthy and noble? What about the guides who betray our trust—can we see them as worthy of confrontation and forgiveness for the harms they commit, so that they too can awaken? And for the victims of these harms, can we see them worthy of the time, the effort required for a full healing of the individual and transformation of the community?

Gesshin Greenwood: I think there are structural issues that need attending to, as well as personal and psychological issues. A lot of therapists and teachers have written about the need for recognizing transference and countertransference in communities, and I definitely agree. My work in the last year in grad school, and my own experience of therapy, has really shown me just how powerful transference can be, which is the feeling that a client has for their therapist. Much of that comes from unmet childhood needs. Unfortunately, meeting the full ferocity of those needs is something I feel I didn’t get to do in a safe way in Buddhist communities. Unmet childhood needs are kind of let loose in communities; they run rampant and cause all kinds of harm. And they’re different for everyone, right? The unmet childhood needs that show up when somebody is a male teacher or someone in power will look different from those of a female student. So I would like to see more self-awareness and more acknowledgement of how unconscious need plays out between students and teachers. Then, structurally, I’d like to see a lot less consolidation of power at the top. I think we are moving toward this, to be honest.

Chenxing Han: It seems to me that certain traditions have fewer problems with sexual abuse and sexual violence. What are they doing right? This is a place where religious communities can learn from each other.

You know, we live in a society that still has not really committed to ending sexual abuse. It grieves me to wonder, how can we not repeat this in the next generation? It’s a bit like the aspiration to save all beings—how can we face this problem when we know it won’t end? Another question I’ve been grappling with is, for the many people who are victims of sexual abuse and sexual violence, how can they continue to have a really rich or positive relationship with Buddhism if they’ve encountered abuse, particularly in the context of their sanghas? People are trying to live the answers to these questions; do those people have enough support? I think we need to be asking that.

Matthew Hepburn: We have a cultural inheritance of a vision of justice around sexual harm that doesn’t even include the victims. When we resolve this at a societal level, we go to the courts—it’s the state versus the perpetrator, and the victims’ experiences are consumed by those in power in order to decide what’s best. There’s so much that’s so wrong with that model. I think the first thing we need to do is to learn how to be in community with one another to make healing and prevention possible. That happens, I think, by centering victims. And on the other side of things, since men overwhelmingly are the transgressors of sexual harm and sexual violence, men need to come together to support other men to be held accountable and to be seen as whole, both in the harm they’ve caused and in the healing they need. I’m particularly inspired by the men who hold space in our communities to be accountable around actions of sexual violence or harm.

There’s inherited wisdom from Indigenous peoples through circling and restorative justice—I wonder if our Buddhist centers can take a page out of this radical centering of community as healing. We tend to, in Buddhist centers, orient waking up from suffering as people working in their own mind, but we can’t bring collective liberation if we’re all doing it in our own swim lanes. Most of our dukkha is interpersonal and relational, so I’m inspired and wonder what role our centers can play. Can they be more like how temples and churches are in other cultures or in other religions, where people bring in their interpersonal conflict and acknowledge that the majority of our dukkha comes from the interpersonal realm? Can centers open their doors and say, “Bring your interpersonal conflict—how can we meet you and help heal?”

Ray Buckner: In hearing all of your answers, I also wonder about the question of disposability. Judith Butler asks, “What makes a life grievable?” Thinking of trans experiences, whose lives, whose bodies are disposable? You know, 47 percent of trans people have been assaulted, not in Buddhist centers but in general. Whose bodies do we care are hurting? We choose what suffering to address.

Does Buddhism call on us to fight injustice in our society? What, for you, is the relationship between Buddhism and activism?

Matthew Hepburn: I’ll rely on the others to fill in the missing puzzle pieces, but what comes to mind is that Buddhism asks us to see that all suffering is the ground for liberation and compassion and wisdom; it calls us into dynamic relationship with the suffering that we witness, internally and externally. For myself, when I see suffering internally, I ask, do I have the tools to meet this? And then I look to the teachings, particularly on how to work with the mind, on how to meet that suffering. I don’t have all the tools on my own without the teachings. In the same way, when I see suffering externally that I’m a part of or connected to, then if I’m going to meet that in dynamic relationship, I have to ask, okay, do I have the tools to meet that? And because of the tremendous complexity that exists in the world, usually the answer is no. I need tools, and the tools that I reach for don’t only come from Buddhism—they come from all the resources we’ve developed as a collective, as human beings over generations. Whatever suffering I come into contact with, I’m going to ask how I can be engaged. It may look like activism from the outside, or it may not, but it’s that engagement, I think, that is Buddhism’s fundamental call.

Gesshin Greenwood: I’ve been asked this question a couple of times, and how I answer is always a reflection of what’s been on my mind. What’s on my mind right now is that I want to think about, and problematize, what it means to be an activist. That word gets used a lot, but often we don’t know what it means. It doesn’t just mean going to marches. It can mean an infinite number of things, because it is simply the right response to injustice in the moment. And there are infinite ways injustice can crop up in our lives. So “activism” is always asking us, “How do you want to respond to inequality? Can you envision and enact a right response, a corrective response?” I don’t think Buddhism is synonymous with activism per se. I think Buddhism can offer activists self-awareness, compassion for self and other, wisdom, comfort with the unknown. And also acceptance of failure—my Zen practice has shown me, and so has activism, that many of my efforts will probably fail. But that’s okay, because failure and success are interconnected.

Chenxing Han: This question of what activism means really resonates for me. It’s a term that can be politicized or used to say, “Oh, you’re not sufficiently Buddhist because you’re not sufficiently activist.” I’m wary of that. I think about what Matthew said about generosity as a basis for Buddhist practice, a deeply inspiring basis—is that a form of activism? I mean, why not? We know the Buddha’s life story, but why don’t we focus much more on Sujata, who gave the rice milk for him to be enlightened? Sometimes I hear or read sentiments like, “Oh, these Buddhist women in Korea only are shucking peas.” Actually, we all need to be fed. As far as I’m concerned, the people who may not be as visible are just as activist and engaged as some of the people on the quote, unquote, “front lines.”

Even the term “socially engaged Buddhism” can be problematic. Recently, I heard a talk in Singapore by an Asian American nun, and she was talking about how “socially engaged Buddhism” has come to be racialized and politicized, connoting something specific about a uniquely “Western” approach. But in Chinese Buddhism you have humanistic Buddhism—why isn’t that as widely talked about? Perhaps I’m getting caught up on terminology, but what’s intriguing to me is that everyone, every Buddhist will have a different answer to this question. I think that’s wonderful. Some people will feel more called to more visible forms of engagement than others. And there’s also a broad way of thinking, well, maybe we all are playing our part.

Enlightened community looks like so many things. It looks, for example, like the conversation we’re having right here—this incredible diversity of voices and perspectives, and this taking care and listening. —Chenxing Han

Lama Bryn Dawson: I see a dilemma here in myself. If I think of activism as the eradication of something or making a dramatic shift in the present culture, then I can become caught up the limits of my position and perspective, perpetuating a narrative and oblivious to the ongoing change underway. I think fighting injustice begins with a posture of awareness. We bear witness, we seek knowledge, we try to know ourselves and our part in the whole. Mindfulness fosters this awareness and helps me see that all actions of body, speech, and mind are significant. In fact, they create the world I inhabit.

Activism begins with the immediacy of what’s present: my relationship to all forms of life, even myself. When I reflect on my actions and see the opportunities I missed to love more deeply and courageously, I feel remorse. At the same time, when I offer care to someone, it confirms our inseparability and deepens my resolve. I become aware of my influence. I find inspiration and strength knowing that my actions carry consequences beyond my single life.

Ray Buckner: Listening to all of you, I’m reminded of the first time I was called a boy and made fun of, and how that was such a turning point for me in recognizing how much people suffer by the words and treatment of others. That moment of being called a boy was the impetus to learn about all these other forms of suffering: racialized suffering, for example, or ableist suffering. What does it mean to be a Buddhist who cares? What does it mean to say I’m not going to wash my hands in this moment “because everyone’s just going to get the coronavirus anyway” as opposed to saying that what I do matters to myself and to others, that it extends outward?

I feel like we’re talking about enlightened action—but what about enlightened community? What does that look like?

Chenxing Han: I asked a similar question to my interviewees, and one of them began with “This is a beautiful question.” It is a beautiful question. Enlightened community looks like so many things. It looks, for example, like the conversation we’re having right here—this incredible diversity of voices and perspectives, and this taking care and listening. It also looks like a refuge; I would love for it be a refuge for all people. And I think that doesn’t preclude conflict and challenge. I would love for it to be a place where many emotions can be present: anger and grief and rage and everything, the whole spectrum of the human experience.

Gesshin Greenwood: I think about this a lot because I’ve been so vocally critical about Buddhism, and people often ask me how I’d like it to be different. But I always draw a blank. Utopias are hard—I’m wary of any kind of utopian thinking, of the idea of this enlightened community we don’t have, that doesn’t have the problems we have now. I don’t know. Maybe it would look more like sitting in a circle than sitting in a line. Maybe there would be more singing and music. Maybe more collaborative uncovering of truth rather than a one-way stream.

Lama Bryn Dawson: The first thing that comes to mind is that an enlightened community is constantly changing and adapting to those seeking refuge. It is community based on transparency and humility—it joyfully embraces our limitations, even as we aspire beyond them. Everybody is looked upon as a teacher, as carrying a jewel that is worthy of being shared and cared for. It’s a refuge for coming together to honor life in all of its forms. It’s a celebration of life, with stories and music and art. It’s the reliance on one another for support of our freedom of mind, and freedom from fear. It nurtures children and parents. And there’s space, a tremendous amount of space.

Ray Buckner: I also think about refuge in terms of space and how so often, certain experiences in American Buddhism are not allowed any space. Certain teachers, if they heard me say I’m transgender, might label me as not seeing Buddhism correctly. Wearing certain things to meditation or having certain identities—they’re problems. So what does it mean to be able to create a space where you can just exist freely and in conversation with the dharma?

Matthew Hepburn: What comes to mind is access—we could alte

Gesshin Greenwood

Gesshin Greenwood

Gesshin Greenwood is the author of Bow First, Ask Questions Later and Just Enough: Vegan Recipes and Stories from Japan’s Buddhist Temples.