June 13, 2022

Lifting and Being Lifted: Reflections on Dharma Transmission

This reflection on dharma transmission is from Jean Esther, IMS’s Teen Retreat leader. This year’s Teen Retreat will be held June 28 to July 3. For more information and to register, click here.


It has often been said that the Buddhadharma adapts to the cultures it flows to. This makes me think of the strength of a river as it forms and is formed by the land around it. Despite the changing landscape, its flow is constant. Such is the Dharma as it changes and takes shape in each generation of practitioners.

I have had the tremendous privilege of supporting the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings to young people for the last 23 years in serving on and teaching the IMS Teen Retreat. When I think about the younger generations practicing the Dharma, including those I have mentored or who have been my students, I am lifted up by their practice and the way they embrace the Dharma. There is a profound joy and sense of strength and continuity in sharing the Buddha’s teaching with young adults, and in receiving it back through them.

At first, I was their parents’ age. Now I am reminded that I am their grandparents’ age. If I am to be honest though, I would say our engagement, younger person to older person through the Dharma, is one of lifting each other up. We drop the barriers of our respective societal roles and meet each other very deeply in this shared human experience. So often when adults on the teen retreat apply to serve as mentors, they are worried they won’t be cool enough. I realize that I don’t need to know these young peoples’ specific music, book, or film interests, nor they mine, for us to “see each other.”

Our young people are dealing with so much these days. A recent New York Times article talked about the increase in depression in teens, particularly since COVID. It also mentioned the profound impact of how sleep deprived teens are.

I think of the words of the poet Ryokan, a Soto Zen Buddhist monk of the 17th century, in response to witnessing the sorrow of the townspeople he visited daily from his hermit cave, “Oh, that my monk’s robes were wide enough to gather all the suffering people in this floating world.”

I fear it may seem rather brash and exaggerated to say that engaging with teens in the Dharma for five days is like being gathered up in Ryokan’s wide robe and his wise heart. However, to be with these young people in the service of the Dharma for five days every year is a gift beyond measure.

To offer the dharma teachings to them in this way is like looking into a mirror. What is reflected back is their light, courage, vulnerability, honesty, appreciation, heartache, laughter, creativity, wisdom, and love. And when they say their parting words at our closing circle, there is always something special shared about their transformation—along with wanting and wishing others they know could have this opportunity too.

Again, the Dharma reminds me of the power of a river. It flows and shapes whatever it touches. As I rest in the transformation of my own heart and mind within this profound interconnectedness, it is irrefutable that lifting and being lifted are inseparable. In those moments, the heart is released.