Four US teachers discuss a secular dharma

The invitation list to a June 2011 conference at the Garrison Institute to the north of New York City read like a veritable who’s who of contemporary American Buddhism, according to the Huffington Post.

Jack Kornfield, one of the principal organisers, situated this conference in the tradition of Buddhist councils that have been held since the death of the Buddha in the north of India around five hundred years before our era.

A number of questions came to the fore. Who speaks for western Buddhists, and how accurately and honestly are the Buddhist elders passing on their knowledge to new generations? What is the relationship between western-born Buddhists, in the main converts, and those from Asia where the practice has its roots in the ancient Vedanta tradition? And when corporate health programmes are using Buddhist concepts such as mindfulness, what is the role of Buddhism and Buddhists in today’s world?

Buddhadharma, a quarterly magazine put out by the Shambhala group, invited four attendees to discuss the conference: zen teacher Pat Enkyo O’Hara, insight meditation teacher Gina Sharpe, Ken McLeod, who has been trained in Tibetan-style Buddhism, and engaged Buddhist Diana Winston.

I was particularly struck by the suggestion that there are three secular approaches to the dharma, and thought it worth sharing some of their conversation here, hoping this might kick off a discussion here about what we’re expecting from a secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand. This excerpt is from near to the beginning of their conversation:

Gina Sharpe: …secular dharma is a widespread phenomenon. Dharma is becoming so secular in so many ways, and we need to discuss that in much greater depth. I’m not so sure that we gave that enough of an airing at the conference.

Buddhadharma: Since the terms secular dharma and mindful society have come up, let’s talk about concerns in those areas.

Ken McLeod: I’ve had conversations with Stephen Batchelor, who has talked about secular dharma or secular Buddhism, and I don’t have a clear idea of what’s being talked about.

Gina Sharpe: I’m not sure I’m referring to the same thing as Stephen, but what I’m talking about is the fact that dharma is being taught in a lot of nontraditional settings, such as prisons, schools, and hospitals. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is offered widely, in institutional settings but also in dharma centers.

This is a huge phenomenon and we would benefit from really understanding what’s going on. We could examine how people’s needs are best met in different settings, rather than simply letting it grow like topsy.

No need or point in controlling, as others have said, but it would be very helpful if we looked at the way language is used, and what might be helpful to support people who want to teach in those settings, as well as the kind of training people need to have who want to work in these secular settings.

Buddhadharma: It might be helpful to make some distinctions here. There are a few different movements. There is overlap, but they’re also distinct. One concerns developing forms of Buddhism that strip away doctrine and cultural elements, so somebody could follow the Buddhist path without those trappings. This approach is presented in Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

Then, there is engaged Buddhism or applied Buddhism, which puts an emphasis on having a component of social action in Buddhist practice, which may or may not include meditation.

Finally, there is mindfulness meditation practice being used in all kinds of secular settings with no particular implication about whether a dharmic path is going to be involved. MBSR is the most widespread of these types of programs.

Generally, little or no reference is made to Buddhism in secular settings where mindfulness is taught. For one thing, religious programs are not allowed to be offered in certain kinds of public institutions.

Ken McLeod: That’s a very helpful distinction.

Buddhadharma: Of all of the secular dharma movements, the one that’s the biggest phenomenon and which seemed to have been discussed more at the conference is secular mindfulness practice….

Read this article online here. Your thoughts?


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  1. Ted Meissner
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Yet again, a discussion about secular Buddhism without anyone present who openly identifies as a secular Buddhist. This is similar to certain political parties in the U.S. discussing women’s rights with no women present.

  2. Tony Reardon
    Posted August 7, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Hi Ted, yes it would have been interesting if someone like Stephen B had been there.

    That aside, what I read above does broaden my idea of secular Dhamma, particularly Gina Sharpe reminding me of how much mindfulness practice there is that makes little or no reference to Buddhism.

    I’m all for broadening and think it important to recognize that modern dhamma must necessarily be individual, otherwise we will simply have the old types of adherence all over again.

    I’m not interested in joining anything exclusive and am glad that my experience is of relating well to other dhamma-ers who are significantly belief based. I don’t think there need be a hard and fast boundary; I’m happy to hold my identification with Secular Dhamma – which for others might be Secular Dharma, or Secular Buddhism – quite lightly.

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