What does secular Buddhism mean to you?

This website went public three days ago when I wrote to a few dharma buddies letting them know about it. They are clearly telling their friends as more than 30 people have signed up for a newsletter, the first issue of which has yet to go out, and I’ve received some lovely emails.

Where to now?

With this post I’m hoping to start a conversation around what secular Buddhism means to us as individuals living in Aotearoa New Zealand at this point in time. Through the ensuing conversation, hopefully, we’ll develop an understanding as to what it means to us collectively, how we can develop as a community.

So, I’ll kick off with a few thoughts. Please add a comment, sharing the journey you’ve travelled to arrive here, at this website. And don’t feel you have to live in Aotearoa New Zealand to contribute a comment – even though this really is a tremendous place to live.

The rites and rituals of religion never touched my heart. The core principles behind Buddhist practice, however, do make excellent sense in the modern world, especially those that we as secular Buddhists are referring to as the four tasks: acknowledging and deeply understanding the human condition with its inevitable difficulties, letting go of the fantasising and grasping these difficulties cause to arise in us, experiencing the wonderful and profound peace of mind from letting go, and finally the direction our lives go in when travelling the eightfold path.

Born into a north London Jewish family, I’ve never wanted to adopt another religion. One is enough, believe me… however, while I feel an affinity for the culture I was born into and got all warm and fuzzy when I went to a Saturday morning service in New York not so long ago (the sense of community was palpable), living in what we term the 21st century Jewish beliefs have never made any sense at all.

Looking for more in life than political activism, after a couple of decades in those circles I began a journey that involved travel and contemplation. The first Buddhist group I examined, in the mid nineties, was the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I was attracted to them because of the word ‘Western’ in the name. It didn’t take long though to discern an unpleasant, unvoiced undercurrent, and I was moving away when the Guardian article appeared.

Practicing on my own was tough, though. It takes determination, gumption. Being part of a community, a sangha, helps us to both maintain and deepen our practice. Sitting with our eyes closed in silence must look most odd to someone stumbling into the room, but it certainly works for those in the room.

My initial foray into insight meditation was at Tauhara in 1999, I think, not sure of the year… No bowing, no candles, no rituals, no-one on a pedestal – just sitting and walking interspersed with talks and wholesome food, it felt like coming home. Going back to Wellington and starting a sitting group made good sense.

During those first few years, when not on the cushion or writing newsletters (a serious practice in itself, I can assure you) I read voraciously, exploring a wide range of spiritual and even new age texts. Some books touched my heart and some were so ridiculous they made me laugh out loud, but not many had what I felt to be real intellectual vigour that didn’t demand I suspend disbelief. The first major exception was Buddhism without beliefs.

I’d been listening to dharma talks downloaded on dialup for years. Some were good, some were wonderful, some had me shaking my head at the kinds of propositions we were being asked to accept. Through his talks and writings, I’ve been following the development of Stephen Batchelor’s thought for over a decade. He makes good sense to me. But he’s not an insight meditation teacher, and that in itself was interesting: I was involved in a Buddhist tradition but the teacher who made most sense to me wasn’t.

Insight meditation was the nearest thing to my secular approach to Buddhism, which is why I stayed with it. But it doesn’t have what I would describe as a secular approach: it’s very much a liberal, tolerant, broad church of a movement. All kinds of teachers are welcomed by insight meditation groups. Some of the senior teachers, for instance, have taken to melding their Buddhist teachings with Advaita Vendanta, a form of Hinduism originally designed in the 8th century as a ‘Buddhism killer’ from what I can ascertain. From time to time one of the local insight meditation teachers would say something that made me cringe – it seems they had never thought to question whether rebirth, reincarnation and a karma that goes from life to life are reasonable assumptions, or not.

Eventually I withdrew from the insight meditation community, twice in fact, allowing others to take on the newsletter, the website, and the organising roles. Twice is enough.

For the past few years I’ve been organising courses, retreats and talks by Martine and Stephen Batchelor, on my own and with friends, but never as part of a community. Now, I want to be part of a community again but this time one which is consciously secular and is deeply engaged with the concerns of our world and all the beings in it.

To paraphrase French writer Victor Hugo, there’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come. The conditions are right for a full-on secular approach to Buddhism, the stripping back of years of cultural accretion from the teachings of a man who lived in the north of India two and a half thousand years ago. I look forward to engaging in the development of this approach.


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One Comment

  1. Helen Tsourounakis
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    I love the concept of secular because you can take part of this and part of what I already have and they can work together.

    The peace that meditation can bring I believe is the best way to live a life that will open your eyes to peace.

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