Bringing together people to practice the dharma

If, like a number of other people from around the world, you’re considering setting up a secular buddhist group in your community and you’re wanting to talk with someone who’s done it already about how best to go about doing this, do get in touch. The first thing I will recommend to you is this: think small and start simple. And keep an open mind. As the months go by, all kinds of changes will be needed so remain open to possibilities.

Over the years, I’ve had conversations with people both here in Aotearoa New Zealand and elsewhere on creating community. Here’s a brief list of resources on this website, mainly on the blog, that you may find thought provoking and useful. This website has developed over time into what you see now. Read through its pages, starting with About secular Buddhism or the Resources page, making notes about what you like and what doesn’t feel right and send in your feedback.

The first blog post, Make it relevant, tell the truth was published on 19 February 2012. Here’s how it concludes:

Seeing the birth now of an appreciation of the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama which asserts that today, now, this moment, is what matters and that this moment is contingent both on so much that has come before and that exists around us. Saeculum. Secular Buddhism. And like all forms of the dharma it too is contingent. For now though, this is enough.

Not the best possible grammar, I admit. Soon after this, I posted on loving kindness meditation or metta meditation, what I prefer to call unconditional friendliness meditation. Developing unconditional friendliness among participants is vital to creating a thriving community. A liberal interpretation of a version in Pali, here’s the English language meditation phrases I recommended:

May you be safe, and free from danger
May you be healthy, and free from pain
May you be happy, and free from distress
May you live in this world with ease and goodwill

and I’m happy with this wording still. You’ll also find a translation in te reo Maori, because this is important to those of us living in Aotearoa New Zealand:

Kia ora koe, mahorahora i te whakawhara
Kia kauora koe, mahorahora i te mama
Kia hari koe, mahorahora i te porum
Kia ngawhari, kia ngakaunui tou oranga ki roto i tenei ao.

The website was formally opened to the public on 9 April 2012. Three days later I posted What does secular Buddhism mean to you?, which is what I have to confess it meant to me at the time. You may find it useful.

Stephen Batchelor’s Coming out as a secular Buddhist, posted in August of that year, is an exposition of where his notion of a secular dharma was at the time, four years ago, one that remains useful to those wanting to bring people together in face-to-face groups for dharma practice.

For people with an academic leaning, two articles in the Journal of Global Buddhism were made available in another August 2012 post here. Setting out what a 21st century practice group needs to consider, one article is by Sydney secular Buddhist teacher Winton Higgins and the other by Stephen Batchelor.

At the start of 2013, Auckland secular buddhist group member John Cassidy posted his thoughts on what brings people together in a dharma community in Why we come together. Well worth reading if you’re looking to form a group.

Community is something you create, Stephen Batchelor suggests in a blog post published in August 2013. He writes, ‘if you can’t find a community that suits you, create your own. In other words, put a notice in your local health food store saying “meditation at 6 o’clock every Thursday at my place,” and see what happens.’

Posted in Jan 2014, Carol Smith’s My 6 days at a vipassana retreat gets more hits than any other post on the blog. It’s received a fair few comments too, so take a read and add your own if you feel moved to do so. You will inevitably be welcoming people who have done the 10-day Goenka retreats to your group sessions and this conversation gives a good understanding of this form of practice.

Developing a meditation practice is so much easier when we don’t do it alone and, in response to questions on how to set up a community, I posted Creating community in April 2014. You can read it here.

One thing you’ll need to decide when setting up a group is what form of meditation practice to facilitate. If, like me, you more often than not lose count when trying to follow the breath, you may wish to give recollective awareness meditation a try. Take a look at Matt Young’s post Jason Siff & Recollective Awareness.

From a discussion with John Peacock at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Buddhism in a nutshell is Stephen Batchelor’s two minute summary of the dharma, and take it from me you’ll want to share it during the group’s discussions from time to time.

Martine Batchelor talked about the Four bonds of fellowship that help build community at Gaia House in Devon in December 2014. What are the four bonds? Generosity, kind words, beneficial help and consistency. Well worth a read.

Clarifying the differences between a traditional approach and a contemporary approach to the dharma will help you to successfully set up a secular dharma community. Vital to this understanding is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Facing the Great Divide, and the wide-ranging discussion that followed – do add your thoughts to this conversation.

A new approach to dharma practice needs a contemporary approach to Buddhist terminology, as it has been translated into English over the past 150 or so years. Just as the Buddha used language that was common in his day and gave it a different twist, so to we need to unpack some of the terms used by Buddhists today, most of which are in Pali, a language spoken in the north of India a short while after the Buddha lived. Very much a work in progress, take a look at the website’s glossary.

Finally, taking copies of Stephen Batchelor’s 10 theses of secular dharma to a group meeting will offer you the opportunity to have a useful discussion on how to bring a contemporary dharma practice into life.

And if you’re keen to delve further into what it takes to set up a secular dharma group where you live get in touch and you’ll be offered access to a Dropbox folder full of resources contributed by people from around the world who are actively working with  others in their community to do this.

What’s your experience of building community? How useful was this article? Post your thoughts as a comment.

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One Comment

  1. Leon Frampton
    Posted April 14, 2016 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post Ramsey. It is a very useful framework for getting a group going, and why we do it. I’ll be using some of these resources when the Invercargill group finds a new home 🙂

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