Gen X teachers from across traditions are transforming the vision and landscape of American Buddhism.
Six years ago, Jack Kornfield and Noah Levine had the idea for post-baby-boomer-generation dharma teachers to meet, learn from, and support each other. Starting with that simple idea, Noah, Spring Washam, Josh Bartok, Lama Willa Miller, and I organized a conference, held in June 2011 at the Garrison Institute. In assembling a group of Generation X teachers, those born between 1960 and 1980, we focused on ensuring diversity across lineage, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, as well as balance between genders and monastic-lay status.
That first gathering was difficult, transformative, and joyful. We quickly encountered, and addressed, a divide: lineage snobbery. Teachers led the group through practices of their traditions, and many of us came to a new appreciation of the richness of different styles and teachings. Meanwhile, initial resentment and pain around unconscious racism gave way to deeper conversations and sensitivity. Most of all, we were uplifted by creating a community of belonging and by witnessing each other’s dedication to this path. Everyone agreed to meet again in two years at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.
The second gathering felt more relaxed. Even as new teachers joined this conference, the reunion had genuine warmth and delight. Many from the first meeting had stayed in touch and even collaborated on projects. Again, we taught each other our different practices during dedicated sessions—everything from visualizations to chanting to movement. We continued the conversation on exposing racism and other unconscious biases, learned that despite our relative youth, several among us struggled with significant body dukkha, and discovered that most of us wrestled with sustaining ourselves financially. Our time was marked by a feeling of “peership,” with no one trying to be a teacher to anyone else. That peership, as well as many of the same conversations and themes, continued into the third gathering, held in June 2015 at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. Toward the end of that third meeting, we began to discuss how we, as teachers, might create a system of ethical accountability among ourselves.
Assuming this friendly, floating sangha meets frequently for decades to come, we might imagine a number of long-term implications, both for us and for dharma in the West. The pan-lineage and practice-based nature of the gatherings might mitigate sectarianism, prevent stagnation, lead to cross-fertilization, and broaden our individual teaching repertoires. Furthermore, in looking in the mirror to see our collective face, beauty and blemishes both, we are getting a stronger sense of Buddhist identity even as we are diverse within that identity. Going forward, we may have a clearer, more articulate voice in the many conversations around the place of Buddhism in the religious, spiritual, and secular circles of the West. And perhaps most important, the collaborative nature of the Gen X dharma teachers may help us find more resourceful and creative responses to the foremost challenges facing all generations: confronting racism and healing the environment.
—Sumi Loundon Kim
Buddhadharma: The generation of teachers before us is largely reaching retirement age; we’re approaching a changing of the guard. What do you feel that generation has accomplished in terms of establishing dharma in the West? And what do you see as coming next?
Rod Owens: The older generation of teachers in my tradition literally built our monasteries and retreat centers here in the West. My own monastery was built, by hand, by the first group of senior practitioners in my sangha. The first generation of Western lamas had to overcome such tremendous obstacles to enter into training. I’m deeply grateful for that, and awed by it. They made it possible for me to enter into retreat and get exposure to these particular teachings.
While they’ve given us a lot and established a lot, I’m also very sensitive to how this first generation of lamas has reproduced certain kinds of power structures that are very much a part of traditional Tibetan Buddhism but are problematic for Western communities. I think the next stage for us is to interrogate how we have reproduced different kinds of power abuse within our sanghas, and to really question the structures of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism so we can move toward a more liberating, diverse, community-based dharma.
Dave Smith: I think what the earlier generations accomplished that was so good is also what has been limited about it. They’ve preserved these traditional Buddhist containers and really delivered the teachings. I’m very grateful for the early Insight Meditation teachers who brought powerful buddhadharma from Thailand, Burma, and India, like the teachings of Ajahn Chah and the Sayadaws. But the limitations that come with orthodox teachings and power structures have not been so helpful. One thing I love about the Gen X community and the conferences I’ve been to is that when we talk, we don’t focus on our Buddhist lineages or teachers but on ourselves and our lives. I don’t really care what someone’s Buddhist tradition is. I care about who they are and why they’re at the conference. I feel confident that we’re heading in the direction of a wider, more inclusive conversation around what it means to practice.
Tenku Ruff: There are twice as many people in the boomer generation as there are in Generation X, and the enormous force of optimism, energy, and will of the boomers did a lot to establish the dharma here in the West. I’m enormously grateful for that. As far as what’s next, I would say integration. We need to focus more on community-based centers, moving from the dharma as something special and unique to the dharma as nothing special. Of course it has both sides, but we need to emphasize the ordinariness of it for people in their everyday lives. We need to ask more what people want and need from us and really listen to that. See what we have to learn. The main reason I did chaplaincy training when I came back to the U.S. was to find out what Americans want and expect from me as a teacher. Where is the suffering, and how can I be of most use?
Nina la Rosa: Our teachers delivered a version of Buddhism very much colored by Asian cultural origins. None of us here are Asian teachers in an Asian Buddhist community, though of course they are also part of the American Buddhist landscape; some of those teachers who are part of Gen X have also attended the conferences. If we’re talking second- or third- generation Asian Americans who are coming to learn the dharma with us, they’re more likely to share the Western cultural lens, which is often a more psychological approach to practice. As psychotherapy and familiarity with psychological concepts have gone mainstream, it’s more common for practitioners to expect dharma teachers to bring that kind of awareness as well. I was on a call with John Welwood the other day, and he was talking about the difference between unpacking versus cutting through. Unpacking includes being aware of ourselves and how we are impacted by power structures and institutional oppression. I think the next generation is much more aware of these topics and will expect us to use the dharma to help navigate these challenges that face society and our sanghas as well.
Buddhadharma: Do you see yourselves continuing your teachers’ work, or is your task something different?
Rod Owens: Right now I see my role as modeling a new way of being in the world as a teacher. Especially for my Tibetan lineage, I want to model how we can still embody the core of our tradition while being actively involved in helping with people’s suffering. That’s easier for me to navigate because of the communities I’m a part of. My focus is on trying to be a role model and a mentor for teachers who feel like they don’t fit into the traditional ways of being a teacher. Essentially, I’m trying to model authenticity; I have to practice Buddhism where I’m at and where I’ve been put in this life. I’m not a Tibetan—I’m a black man who happens to practice Tibetan Buddhism. That’s a very important distinction for me.
Dave Smith: I love what Tenku said about the ordinariness of the dharma, because a lot of people think of the dharma as something that happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Sometimes it has that air to it. If we want to truly embody the dharma, we have to bring it right into the life that we are actually living.
The Insight tradition spent a lot of time building rural retreat centers, Spirit Rock and IMS, creating the opportunity for people to leave their life to go out and sit retreats in these quiet, beautiful places. While that’s important and wonderful, Against the Stream has community-based centers in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco. We try to provide urban dharma for people who don’t have the time or resources to take ten days off to go sit a retreat somewhere.
Buddhadharma: What does it mean for the next generation of teachers, though, if we step away from that intensive, retreat-based model?
Tenku Ruff: I don’t think there’s a substitute, especially for ordained people, for intensive monastic training. It’s not something that we can replicate with the busyness of our everyday lives surrounding us. We need to experience letting go of the phone and computer and all our day-to-day demands to focus on training in a single-minded way. Another core aspect of that intensive training is learning to work with the disagreements that inevitably arise. You have no choice but to work through conflict when you have to work and sleep next to people you’re practicing with every day.
Dave Smith: I agree that there’s no substitute for intensive practice. I’ve been in teacher training for almost five years. It’s extremely demanding. It’s a very contained and rigorous group. A lot of conflict arises, and there’s a lot of expectation around ethics and integrity. Many people bow out because they don’t want to take on that level of commitment and responsibility. If people are unable to take time away from their daily life to sit long, intensive retreats, dharma teaching is not going to be an option for them. That might be considered a hard view, but that is an important thread of practice that needs to be to maintained.
Buddhadharma: So far, Buddhism in the West has been an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class phenomenon. Do you see that changing? How can we actively expand that demographic?
Tenku Ruff: I was at a diversity training maybe fifteen years ago at which the trainer said that a new religion usually enters a culture through the dominant intellectual class and starts to spread from there. Hearing that made me think, okay, these are the causes and conditions we have to work with in our society. That’s fine for the first generation, but it’s not fine for the next generations. We need to do the work of the next steps.
Rod Owens: I’ve spent a lot of time working on this issue. One thing that I confront pretty constantly is the need for people to stay comfortable in sanghas. When we start talking about racism, or more broadly how we embrace difference in sangha, the dominant group has to embrace discomfort, to look at aversion and its unwillingness to change. Creating a place at the table means you have to get up, scoot around, and get some more chairs. Many sanghas are unwilling to go there. They’re not that serious about diversity.
That being said, we have to confront this issue head-on. We have to acknowledge that Buddhism exists in the West largely as a white upper-class structure. From there, we can ask how we can challenge the way Buddhism has been constructed around the needs and aspirations of white practitioners and how we can shift that bias to create an inclusive environment for everyone. I know of a few centers looking for new locations, and I say to them, “You’re looking for a new place to meet—why don’t you go to a black community or to a really diverse part of town? Why don’t you set up there?”
Nina la Rosa: I’m a teacher of color in Vermont, which is the second- or third-whitest state in the nation. Most of the people I teach are white, and they’re dealing with a lot of white guilt. They’re pretty progressive, but there’s a lot of unconsciousness around racism. It’s a very present issue in our media right now, and people don’t know what to do or how the dharma could possibly help them. Dharma teachers are going to be looked to as the ones to provide the environment where people feel safe, where they can talk about these things explicitly and also be willing to get it wrong and learn together. I think the work needs to start with teachers around our own diversity training and critical consciousness. Without training, there’s a lack of awareness about unconscious biases and systemic structures that have become the dominant lens through which we view the world.
Tenku Ruff: I hear a lot of older teachers ask how can we make our sanghas more welcoming and create more diversity. The common story I’ve heard is “Well, we went into such-and-such community and we put up signs” or “We invited a speaker.” That doesn’t get us very far. It’s crucial to look within ourselves and see where our own unconscious biases are and start to work with those on a core level, deep within. I remember reading the book Blindspot by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald some years ago, which offered an online test to see if you have unconscious bias. I grew up in the South. I know I have unconscious bias. But I don’t like that about myself, so I had to get up my nerve to even take the test, and when I finally did take it, I cheated a bit by using equanimity practices. But once we acknowledge that our biases exist in the first place, as Buddhists we have the tools to work with them.
Buddhadharma: In that teacher role, in dealing with racism, there can be an instinct to want to assert, “I’m not racist.” But we’re also beginning to see teachers with the courage to say, “Well, if I’m honest, maybe I am.”
Rod Owens: There is a lot of unwillingness to talk about difference, to authentically engage it. Instead, most people say, “Oh, we’re all the same.” There’s a conversation in our country right now around whiteness and how it’s a tool that’s been used to devalue other identities. This is happening in our sanghas, and it will continue to happen in our sanghas until we integrate the dharma with these painful issues. This will be one of the next great challenges for our generation.
Dave Smith: No matter how you slice it, the conversation around race is a messy topic, and we don’t like messy. There’s no neat way to package it so everybody feels okay with it. I didn’t grow up upper-middle class, but I grew up white in New England. I know how easy it is to fall into that mind-set of, Oh, I’m for diversity, and now that I’ve said so, I don’t actually have to do anything about it. So how do we address this in a very real and effective way? A lot of times people look to teachers as if we’re supposed to have all the answers. I feel like I should know the answer to this, but I don’t. This is where cultural humility is so important. We need to be willing to constantly educate ourselves and to talk about race in our communities. It’s an ongoing edge for everybody to come up against, with patience and persistence.
Rod Owens: I experience a lot of fatigue talking about race, especially in dharma communities, because there’s such a tremendous resistance to go there. I’m usually the only person of color in the room, and I’m at the front of the room. Trying to push through the dynamics and have that conversation is like trying to push through a mountain. I have a great need to see white-identified teachers start talking about racism. Not necessarily trying to do anything about it, but just to be very vulnerable around some of their feelings of helplessness. Perhaps some wisdom will arise out of that.
Buddhadharma: What do you feel it might mean for Buddhism in the West that young teachers from across traditions are in dialogue and are intentionally building frameworks for supporting one another?
Nina la Rosa: The more diverse perspectives you can get in a room, the fewer blind spots there are. We can support each other in being transparent and making sure that the next generation doesn’t make some of the same mistakes that were rooted in teachers being very isolated from one another. We have the opportunity both to use each other as resources and to be accountable to one another.
Dave Smith: I’m really curious to see what happens. A lot of the good fortune that I’ve had in terms of teaching and practice opportunity has come through people I met at Gen X conferences. Staying in communication benefits us as teachers and practitioners, but it also benefits our students and ultimately dharma in the West by creating a net that is more inclusive of dialogue across traditions and less restricted by lineage.
Tenku Ruff: Dave’s earlier comment about the focus of the Gen X conference being less on your teacher or lineage and more on who you are sums up the most important aspect for me. There was such a strong heart connection, an acceptance and lack of competition, and a willingness to talk about difficult subjects. That’s deeply inspiring to my practice.
Rod Owens: One of the things I struggle with in my tradition is the attitude that we need to remain separate—that if we collaborate, we’ll be contaminated and the essence of the teachings will be compromised. That’s something that I reject, because if we’re deeply internalizing and embodying the essence of our tradition, we shouldn’t have to worry about that. There’s so much wealth of insight that we can share across traditions. This model is so important for us moving forward as a generation of teachers—the future of dharma in this country, I think, will be about collaboration.
Buddhadharma: In what ways do you teach differently from how your teachers taught you?
Rod Owens: My teacher is a realized Tibetan master in his late seventies who escaped from the Communists in Tibet and established our monastery in America. After I finished my training with him, he told me I would be able to reach many people that he couldn’t, and that I should rely on that quality. I think that’s the most important thing he’s ever told me. It really empowered my practice. He knows that I’m teaching about contemporary issues like race, sexuality, gender, and integrating social change back into dharma, and he’s supportive of that.
Tenku Ruff: I received the dharma from a very traditional teacher in Japan, and that training gave me a strong core of practice. But back here in the United States, I’m negotiating a very different training and teaching style. I have to bridge the difference between my seniors in Japan and my seniors in America as well as the generational difference, so it’s a complicated dance. I think the first generation of teachers in the West feels a great weight of responsibility for the dharma that they inherited, and maybe a sense of duty to keep things the way they got them, where our generation feels more freedom to share ideas with each other and integrate those ideas as needed.
Nina la Rosa: The teacher I’ve worked with the most is Shinzen Young. Perhaps uniquely among teachers of his generation, he has encouraged his students to practice in other dharma traditions, to discover the liberative qualities of different techniques and traditions. He expects us to integrate those experiences into our own understanding of the dharma. I’m a psychotherapist, and that knowledge integrates into my practice and influences my teaching as well. I’d say this generation has greater access to a much wider variety of dharma interpretations than teachers in our lineages did previously.
Dave Smith: All of my practice has been in the Theravada tradition, with IMS teachers. I was trained by Noah Levine and Vinny Ferraro in early Buddhist practices, specifically the teachings of the Pali canon. Although what I teach is very similar, how I teach has changed. I’ve been teaching dharma classes for four or five years now, and it’s taken me some time to find my own voice. But I’d say the biggest influence on my teaching has been the students I’ve taught. The majority of my teaching career was in the Deep South, in Tennessee, where I had to speak from a place of relevancy. I still teach from the perspective of asking, “How do I make what I’m going to say relevant for the people who are sitting in this room right now?”
Buddhadharma: Does technology play a role in how any of you are teaching?
Nina la Rosa: I live in Burlington, Vermont, which is too far for many people who’d like to practice with me to travel, so I use email, phone, and Google Hangout for long-distance work. But even in my local community teaching, the sangha meetings I lead are available for people to join in via Google Hangout. I think it’s so important to use all the tools we have available to make the teachings more accessible for people to connect to a sangha and experience community remotely, especially if they can’t do so otherwise.
Rod Owens: Facebook has recently become an important tool for me around practice questions. I’m not sharing dharma itself as much as the issues that I’m struggling to think about in terms of dharma. It’s important for people to see that I’m not just a Buddhist; I also still occupy different identities that are meaningful for me and that help me deepen my wisdom and connections to other people. You won’t see posts about what I’m having for dinner or how my day was—you’ll see posts about how I practice with racism or gender violence or trans violence or poverty, because these are the issues we have to bring into our sanghas and create a space to dialogue around.
Dave Smith: Aside from connecting for this discussion, I rarely use technology for dharma purposes. I’m glad that people take advantage of it, but I try to minimize the amount of time I spend in front of a digital screen. I also don’t learn well that way, so I don’t do online training or courses.
Something that was both interesting and a bit upsetting to me at our Gen X conference was how much everybody needed to be online. All these people came in, registered, and then their first question was, “Is there Wi-Fi?” The addiction to technology is totally insane. I like to stay away from the computer as much as possible but still find myself using one more than I would like.
Buddhadharma: It would seem that there are still very few dharma teachers from Generation X. Why do you think that is?
Tenku Ruff: I think there are many contributing factors. In the West, our Zen teachers tend to take longer to officially authorize students to teach than they do in Japan. Also, priests in the U.S. often ordain later in life, after retiring from secular careers. Finally, we need to take a deep and honest look at what factors prevent younger-generation students from completing priest training.
Rod Owens: Because the training in my tradition is so difficult to complete, we don’t produce a lot of teachers. Many practitioners who attend our traditional three-year retreats do so because they want to deepen their practice, but that aspiration does not necessarily include being a formal, authorized teacher. For those of us who do want to teach, many structures within Tibetan Buddhism make it difficult for Western teachers to be fully authorized and supported. Western Tibetan Buddhists are still very tied to what we call the “culture of origin”; we are deeply reliant on the support of Tibetan lamas and institutions. The only way Tibetan Buddhism will survive in America is if Western teachers become fully authorized and empowered to continue the teachings. The work is underway to develop a form of the tradition that Westerners can truly embody, so I’m optimistic we’ll get there.
Nina la Rosa: I agree, many of the Western Buddhist traditions do have very long paths to becoming a teacher. My tradition offers different ways for people to enter into teaching. One option, our facilitator role, offers a peer model of training to any practitioners who are interested. It gives people an opportunity to share what they know with a degree of structure but without the assumption of expertise. Everyone is expected to be transparent about where they are in their development as a teacher. In traditional Zen and Tibetan models, it can take decades to get to the point where they’re actually teaching. I think those requirements can be barriers to people sharing valuable insights about their practice along the way.
Dave Smith: Actually, I do think there are a lot of younger teachers. Buddhism is still very young in the U.S.; it’s largely taken off in the past forty years, and it seems to have grown very fast within the last ten or fifteen. Against the Stream, an offshoot of Spirit Rock/Insight Meditation Society (IMS), where I teach now, draws a lot of young people.
Like a lot of people in Against the Stream, I have a background of drug addiction and drug abuse. A lot of us got the message very quickly that there is suffering in life and saw that the dharma offered a very pragmatic, realistic way to turn it around. Many people are just dissatisfied with their life or the world and are looking for a place where they can come and practice with like-minded people. There seems to be a pretty big cultural appetite for dharma right now.
Buddhadharma: The majority of Buddhist practitioners, too, would seem to be in their sixties and beyond. In some sanghas, it’s a serious concern. What are the factors that make a community feel accessible to younger people?
Rod Owens: Tibetan Buddhism struggles to be accessible because people walk in the door and are presented with a whole mythology, one that I hear over and over is an obstacle for newcomers. I’ve shifted my teaching style to lead with the essence of dharma rather than with our whole system of ritual and mythology. And since the attention span of younger practitioners is pretty short, the goal is to get to the heart of the matter and help them work with overcoming the intense discomfort that brought them to our door in the first place.
Tenku Ruff: Also, younger teachers tend to draw younger crowds, which in some respects makes sense. A lack of young people in sanghas is not something I’m hearing from teachers who are younger; I’m hearing that from teachers who are older. Buddhist communities should make serious efforts to offer the dharma from teachers of different ages.
Dave Smith: I think there’s been a shift in why people are drawn to the dharma. In the sixties, many people were going to India or centers here looking for enlightenment, for an esoteric spiritual awakening. Now people are coming more through the door of the first noble truth; they’re not looking for enlightenment so much. They’re experiencing a lot of pain and suffering, whether on a personal or global scale. People are disillusioned with capitalism, with the state of the world, and they want to find a better way to manage that.