Young Buddhists’ Unique Challenge in the 21st Century

Edited by Heng Xuan
Illustrations by Dittha
3 mins read
Published on Jun 7, 2024

Editor’s note: Our co-founder, Heng Xuan, was recently interviewed on BBC radio alongside Venerable Canda and Lama Rod on their perspectives on Buddhism’s challenge in the 21st Century. The content below is a summary for our readers in a rush and follows the flow of the interview.

The Struggle to Stay Relevant

Venerable Canda, Britain’s only fully ordained nun in the Theravada tradition starts by pointing out that many traditional Buddhist countries like Japan are seeing a huge decline in the faith. Young people regard it as irrelevant and old-fashioned.

Kaylee, a young lay Buddhist in Singapore, shares the challenges she faces as a Buddhist: “Buddhism teaches there are more important things to focus on…so that is the bigger challenge where society is telling you to gun for one thing and you going against the stream.”

She feels disconnected from conversations with friends about gossip, TV shows and other modern distractions. “To some extent, I no longer have things to contribute to conversations,” she laments. Though there are these challenges as a practitioner, she takes refuge in the Buddhist community which values peace over the noise of the world.

Mental Health and Finding Meaning

However, Buddhism may offer some solutions to the growing mental health crisis, particularly among youth. Heng Xuan, who runs the “Handful of Leaves” a leading Buddhist platform in Singapore, believes “Buddhism does offer a portion of the solution…it’s the way that we live our lives and not just the way that we live on the meditation cushion.”

Lama Rod Owens, a teacher in the Tibetan tradition based in Atlanta, was drawn to Buddhism in his 20s to address his mental health struggles.

“Buddhism was really the path that I’d been looking for my whole life,” he shares.

Venerable Canda also found Buddhism helped her grapple with existential questions in her teens: “I just felt this immense sadness and distress around the suffering that I could see in the world.”

Staying True to the Teachings

As Buddhism spreads, some fear the teachings are being diluted or misinterpreted, especially through an overemphasis on meditation and mindfulness practices promoted by the wellness industry.

Venerable Canda acknowledges this risk but also sees mindfulness as “A way in for many people…to live a more balanced and calmer life.” She stresses the role of monastics is to “understand what the Buddha taught” to provide context.

Ethical lapses and abuse scandals have also plagued Buddhism, as other faiths. Lama Rod is working to create “an ethical framework” and “really safe communities” by addressing misconduct by teachers.

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Diversity and Inclusion

The Buddhist community faces challenges around diversity and inclusion too. Lama Rod highlights how “the black Buddhist communities are kind of emerging, offering a unique perspective on Buddhism to address histories of racism and genocide and colonialism.”

Venerable Canda’s new monastery aims to be a “very multicultural, very diverse” space welcoming transgender people, and people of colour.

There are also rifts between Buddhist traditions, as Billy from the Young Buddhist Association of Indonesia describes: “We need [to] become bigger by being united [as] one.”

Women’s Voices and Leadership

Venerable Canda emphasised the vital need for women to attain full ordination and leadership roles in Buddhism. “Women need a choice…the impact of women being in leadership is important from an equity point of view,” she argues.

“Without that we miss out on the wisdom of women and that’s tragic.”

Online Spaces and Social Media

Online spaces have become crucial, especially during the pandemic. But they bring risks of short attention spans and misinterpretations of deep teachings, as the Cambodian monk Venerable Sanpisit cautions.

Heng Xuan sees social media as “a double edged sword” that can amplify wisdom or promote greed and hatred if used unwisely for clickbait.

The 21st Century Buddhist Path

So what does it mean to practice Buddhism today? For Venerable Canda, it’s “a commitment to a life of harmlessness as best I can and also to serve.”

Lama Rod aims “to reduce suffering, to reduce harm and violence for myself and thus reducing harm and violence against others.”

Heng Xuan celebrates the access to resources and communities, calling it “probably the best time in human history to be Buddhist” with “the best opportunity to give back…and to show them that peace is possible.”

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