Creating and maintaining a secular dharma community was never going to be easy

Doing something a bit different, a Buddhism that’s not Buddhist – not my words – was always going to present a number of challenges. Some of these were to be expected, others unexpected. I would like to offer just three key reflections here. Think of this as part of a conversation that you’ve just walked in on.

My own style of meditative practice is a developing one. In my own particular way I combine Dogen’s shikantaza with Jason Siff’s recollective awareness. Having connected with other secular Buddhist teachers and group facilitators, it is clear that I am not alone in this approach. As a group leader, I have found that some people would be more comfortable with a leader who appears to have at least some of the answers. Being ‘in charge’ gave rise to the notion that I had a doctrine or programme to teach and was there for others to follow. Discussions around terms such as emptiness, enlightenment and awakening were made far more complicated by an assumption that I must know what they really mean in order to talk about them.

The perspective that we are each following our own path can have an unintended consequence; it can lead people to question why one needs to attend a regular sitting community – especially face-to-face – to sustain a practice. People who join a church or a temple with a well known doctrine or liturgy and ritualised behaviours to adopt can quickly fit into what is going on and feel at home, safe and secure in the routine of worship.

For me, though, the value in the secular approach is what emerges over time, created just as much by the darkness as the light. That however takes a willingness to work through difficulties and a commitment to attend regular meetings for a sustained period. People do derive some personal meaning from identifying with a community, but if the identity of the community is a process rather than a doctrine, newcomers have an extra hurdle to overcome in developing a sense of belonging and fellowship with others.

It is no accident that many secular practitioners have fallen out of an established Buddhist tradition and, perhaps, this is why those of us that have been through that process, quickly feel at home in this process. This is my journey too, I’ve not arrived at a destination, so it is up to me to balance teaching with learning when I am in community with others, and to make this as transparent as possible.

In the absence of lineage with institutional support systems for group leaders, group leaders can end up feeling isolated. The near enemy of isolation is discouragement and we may be losing good people who have a lot to offer the growing secular movement by not having adequate support available. This comes home to roost most clearly when conflict arises.

Two years ago, when I started Invercargill’s secular Buddhist group, my biggest concern was around attracting enough people to sustain the community. Being open and inclusive, allowing others to express their thoughts and views, has been by far the most significant challenge. Inclusivity and tolerance (surely a strength, right?) became our Achilles’ heel as the meetings became increasingly centred around random expressions of belief, of dissatisfaction with the world, and (occasionally) of intolerance of others within the group.

I felt very discouraged. I started to believe this was due to my naïve, idealistic ideas about community ownership of the group, and shut it down. When I spoke to Ramsey Margolis in Wellington some weeks later, I realised my experience was actually quite common. When I set up the group again a few months later, I made sure to identify some supports. Alongside Ramsey, I attend online meetings of Treeleaf Zendo, and meet online with the Re~Collective group of secular recollective awareness practitioners and teachers. I also seek the counsel of regular group members.

Anyone who has looked at the southernzen website will have noticed the claim that is based on the soto zen style of Buddhist practice. I am not alone in grounding a secular practice in something more traditional and see no conflict of interest in that. I have not received dharma transmission from an authorised zen teacher but, then again, I do not claim to be a teacher. Think of me as a guy who listened to a discourse the Buddha gave and then went and told his friends about it. That’s the character of what I am trying to bring to my town, to my community.

If we imagine the dharma as a raft, as someone once did, and there is a rope attached to it that we are holding to stop it drifting away in the current, I see the left hand as traditional Buddhism and the right as the modern mindfulness and secular approaches. I am more likely to successfully hold onto my raft if I use both hands to hold the rope … you can see where this is going.

This describes how the Invercargill group is developing. Will it stay that way? Who knows? One thing I do know is that, once in a while, one has to let go with one hand and let it rest while the other takes the strain, all the while maintaining a vigilant eye on both the raft and the river. The person who refuses to use one or other of their hands altogether will surely lose their raft and be left standing, frustrated and stuck on the riverbank.

Everything I have studied, watched and listened to over the last few years seems to point to a form of secular-religious community that is both localised and globalised, rooted in the past but responding to the present, and able to respond to the secular and religious needs of its members. A psychologist on their own cannot do that (aka some forms of modern mindfulness), a priest on their own cannot do it (i.e. may discount the significance of some events in your life if they fall outside of doctrine), but someone who embraces both may stand a chance. Even the Dalai Lama appears to be advocating such an approach, on behalf of humanity.

I would like to close with an excerpt from an email I recently sent to Ramsey Margolis. The Wellington group was in the process of changing its name to One Mindful Breath from Simply Meditation, and this prompted me to think about how, as secular communities, we don’t seem to be evolving out of random mutations, but by reflective and purposeful changes that have the wellbeing of other people as a central tenet of our ‘faith’.

‘Observing from a distance, I think you have done well to keep your group alive and I am sure you are still thriving because of your efforts to be inclusive and diverse while balancing the need to stay a bit on track. These are times when peoples’ interest, commitment and attention spans seem to be getting shorter in an inverse proportion to advances in cell phone technology. It seems to be a natural consequence of reaching out and doing something new that you go through several rebirths over time.

‘I sense that ultimately our path will be somewhere between the traditions and modernity, and in the meantime we must keep the dharma alive by any suitable means and try to reach audiences that are put off by monastic traditions. That the dharma has the ability to change countless lives I have absolute faith in, that we have the ideal medium (if one indeed exists) to transmit these teachings alive right now I doubt, but we must keep treading the path to prevent it from becoming overgrown and lost.’

• Leon Frampton
From the UK, I’ve been in New Zealand for 10 years and am in my second marriage, with two children. I have worked as a nurse for the last seven years, with two years in the army including a deployment to Afghanistan. For four years I worked in an emergency dept, and I now work in Invercargill Hospital and Hospice Southland as a nurse. My interest in Buddhism started when I was 20 and led me to join the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. I have also been very interested in pop psychology over the years, starting with NLP (seems so old now…). My primary underlying purpose in life is to help others and one of the persistent messages I offer to my group is loving kindness, to yourself first and letting that flow naturally on to others.

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  1. Sean Wright
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 6:54 pm | Permalink


    I found this :

    really stood out for me. I think it’s helpful to have support/mentoring whether its peer or a more traditional linear structure. Helpful for organizers/facilitators and for attendees/members to see that there is that support there.

    I was part of a Korean school of martial arts (the only one of its type in Australia at the time) and looking back now the lack of mentoring/peer support for the senior members/teachers probably contributed to its demise.

  2. Sean Wright
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Sorry I was trying to quote this:

    When I spoke to Ramsey Margolis in Wellington some weeks later, I realised my experience was actually quite common. When I set up the group again a few months later, I made sure to identify some supports. Alongside Ramsey, I attend online meetings of Treeleaf Zendo, and meet online with the Re~Collective group of secular recollective awareness practitioners and teachers. I also seek the counsel of regular group members.

  3. Sean Wright
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    okay that didn’t work either. Hopefully you get the idea 🙂

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