Daihonzan Chozen-ji is a Rinzai Zen temple nestled deep in Kalihi Valley. Imagine is a Christian church that meets in the Entrepreneurs Sandbox in Kakaako.

Though distant in space and tradition, both communities are led by millennials. Each fills a niche within the modern spiritual landscape.

I visited them to learn how their leaders think about building community.

A Temple in Bloom

Chozen-ji is deep in Kalihi Valley, a 10-minute walk beyond the last bus stop on Route 7.

The temple grounds are immaculate. Weedless gravel paths wind between buildings. A kolea struts on a manicured hilltop. Ferns and moss adorn a rock wall outside the dojo.

The dojo and its kitchen are the center of activity at Chozen-ji. In the dojo, monks and students gather to meditate in the morning and evening.

Chozen ji temple located in Kalihi valley.

The teachings of Chozen-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple located deep in Kalihi Valley, are receiving new attention from millennials.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The core of Zen training is zazen, the seated meditation. Students sit lotus, half lotus, or cross-legged on cushions, posture upright and eyes half open. Most wear martial arts training clothes: gi with pants or hakama.

Students must practice 45-minutes of zazen before attending any of the classes offered at the temple. Chozen-ji offers martial arts instruction in kendo, archery, aikido, karate and tai chi. Fine arts classes include flower arrangement, tea ceremony, calligraphy and ceramics.

Michael Kangen and Cristina Moon live at the temple and manage its day-to-day affairs. They’re “monks,” but you wouldn’t recognize them as such on the street.

There are no sermons at Chozen-ji. Just meditation, martial arts and fine arts.

The monks don’t preach. Instead, their role is to safeguard the community and maintain the intensity of the training.

“There have to be rules and there have to be consequences if you break those rules,” says Moon.

I encountered the consequences firsthand. One evening, I arrived 10 minutes late for meditation. As I entered the dojo, the jiki (the monk directing the meditation) projected across the room “wait outside!” I sat zazen on the bare wooden floor for the remaining half hour.

The dojo is not a place of explicit moral instruction; it is a space to sit and develop strength and sensitivity. The training in various arts inspires humility and discipline.

“The goal of training is to embody the principle, not to fill someone’s head up with concepts,” says Kangen. People may come asking existential questions, but there isn’t a one size fits all answer.

“We don’t have a single answer; it’s different for everyone. But at the dojo, everyone is asking together.”

Established in 1972, Chozen-ji is experiencing renewed interest as millennials come of age. Kangen likens this to a spring after winter.

But the addition of new students presents both an opportunity and a challenge.

There are no sermons at Chozen-Ji. Just meditation, martial arts and fine arts.

Courtesy Cristina Moon

Kangen and Moon say their challenge is to make the training available without watering it down. They are trying to re-envision what monastic life looks like, what it means to train deeply while being in the world.

How can working professionals experience serious zen training without sacrificing work and family life? How can the monks communicate the enduring relevance of Zen training?

Millennial Christianity

The question of relevance is central to Kevin Sweeney’s approach to preaching.

“I try to put the scriptures in conversation with everyday life,” he says. “But there’s a creative tension between style and substance.”

Sweeney is wearing a LeBron James Lakers jersey over a white T-shirt, distressed white jeans and white Reebok sneakers. He talks with the slang of a hip-hop emcee.

This casual appearance masks a complex background in theology.

Sweeney attended a conservative evangelical bible college, but gravitated toward liberation theology and critical theory. After graduating, he earned two master’s degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary: one in theology and another in international studies.

He’s ready to discuss the conflict between the historical-grammatical method and postmodernism. But he’s more interested in the relationship between religion and daily life.

Imagine’s urban location is an expression of that relationship. The church meets on Sundays in the Entrepreneurs Sandbox in Kakaako, just across from the John A. Burns School of Medicine. The Sandbox is a 13,500-square-foot facility with event space, co-working space, meeting rooms and small offices.

Kevin Sweeney, the millennial founder of Imagine, a church that meets in Kakaako, says “I try to put the scriptures in conversation with everyday life.”

Courtesy of Kevin Sweeney

Nearly 100 people sit in folding chairs, facing a large projector screen. A guitarist, cajon player and singer are off to the side. There are no pews, no song or prayer books.

The service starts standing, with a collective breath. The worship band leads the congregation in singing “Build My Life” by Passion, lyrics projected on screen.

A congregation member reads a short prayer off the screen, and Sweeney asks the group to consider Romans 4:18 (“Against all hope, Abraham in hope, believed …”) as an instruction to hope even in dark times. Then, the group sits.

Today’s sermon is the first in a series about the Book of Revelation. Moving through a series of PowerPoint slides, Sweeney explains that conventional interpretations of Revelation have left a lot of Christians with anxiety. To counteract fears of the rapture and end times, it’s necessary to read Revelation as apocalyptic literature. Literal interpretations won’t work because “apocalyptic storytelling is about more than just conveying the facts.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, Sweeney jokes throughout the sermon. At one point, he acknowledges the complexity of the text. He then flips through a few memes in his slide deck to loosen up the audience before continuing.

The service closes with song, an opportunity to receive communion and a benediction by Kevin’s wife, Christine. It’s her birthday, and 30 members of the congregation stay after the service to share cake. They gather in a circle and express their appreciation and well wishes for Christine.

Afterward, I ask Sweeney about his use of humor and pop culture references. He says the gospel should be good news, so he avoids harshness. He also recognizes that young people have short attention spans, so he carefully manages the energy of the room.

Sweeney notes that “belonging is one of the core longings that people have.” But many religious congregations exclude certain people or force them to conform. In contrast, Imagine lets people “belong before they believe.” There’s no pressure to participate, no rigorous indoctrination.

This welcoming approach seems to work for Imagine. Most of the congregation members are millennial, a generation that’s less religious than its predecessors.

Many Ways Through

Chozen-ji and Imagine are working in the context of low levels of religious participation among millennials. However, despite their absence in church, millennials are still seeking spiritual fulfillment.

Two students at the Harvard Divinity School researched the decline of conventional churches and the rise of new organizations that provide for social and spiritual needs.

Their report, “How We Gather,” examines some of the new alternatives, including meditation groups, gyms like CrossFit and SoulCycle, and dinner parties.

The authors argue that millennials “are decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and feel they can’t lead a meaningful life without it.” They just aren’t very attracted to traditional religious creeds.

The new organizations “use secular language while mirroring many of the functions fulfilled by religious community … fellowship, personal reflection, pilgrimage, aesthetic discipline, liturgy, confession, and worship.”

Millennials haven’t abandoned religion; they’ve personalized it. They cobble together a unique spirituality, drawing on diverse sources. A bit of yoga here, some meditation there, a dinner party at the end of the day.

Chozen-ji and Imagine each fill a niche. They’re not designed to appeal to everyone, nor to satisfy all the social and spiritual needs of their members.

Instead, they provide community and space to seek spiritual fulfillment. The rest is left open.

Support local journalism

Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases. Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor. We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our Honolulu Civil Beat with a tax-deductible gift.

About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.