Creating a secular Buddhist association in the USA

~ by Jennifer Hawkins and Mark Knickelbine

In the U.S., the Secular Buddhist Association has grown organically around Ted Meissner’s podcast, The Secular Buddhist, and its associated Facebook page. The individuals who were frequent participants on Facebook became the core volunteers who would go on to create the Secular Buddhist Association website and, later, the non-profit organization incorporated under that name.

While there are a number of study and practice groups around the United States that are allied with the SBA, our association has principally been an online phenomenon. The SBA website receives about a half million visits a year. It features ‘The Secular Buddhist’ podcast, articles by a variety of contributors, a discussion forum and online recorded guided meditations. It also is the portal to webcast meetings, including Practice Circle, a dharma practice group that meets twice monthly, and Social Circle, an informal discussion group that meets once a month.

As an organization, the SBA has grown slowly for several reasons. Being a volunteer organization with no fundraising capacity has limited our organizational capacity. Beyond that, however, we’ve intentionally allowed the organization to grow organically, without an attempt to aggressively market it or impose institutional or ideological structures. This grows from our consensus that secular Buddhism is not a new Buddhist ‘school’, but a community in which individuals can support one another in the study and practice of the dharma without the need to explicitly or implicitly endorse the supernaturalism of most traditional Buddhist lineages. We waited to see who would show up and what they would ask for, and responded accordingly.

Probably the biggest challenge we have faced is maintaining a community that supports the precepts of skilful, compassionate speech and action. Striking a balance between facilitating open, lively debate and not contributing to the cultivation of harmful speech and minds requires us to continually reexamine our values and responsibilities to the SBA community.

It seems that those who are most in need of the dharma tend to naturally seek it out, and those who cannot believe the supernatural elements of other schools are literally true seek out secular Buddhism. Often, our participants would not have any other access to a sangha, especially a secular Buddhist one. In turn, their diversity adds to our collective awareness, empathy and engagement. Through the forums, participants can learn and discuss Buddhism (of any tradition) at any time of day or night. And through our online meetings, we build deeper connections to one another through open discussion, meditation, and simply seeing each other’s faces in real time.

As we build our organizational capacity, we plan on eventually hosting more online events, a camping trip (where we can meet in real life) and perhaps even physical meditation centres. We are also beginning to sponsor other events/organizations, retreat participants and guided meditations on Insight Timer. However, because of the way SBA has developed and because of the reach digital communications provides, our ‘heart’ will probably always be online.

Jennifer Hawkins and Mark Knickelbine are on the board of the U.S. Secular Buddhist Association; Jennifer as Community Director and Mark as Practice Director.

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