A practitioner’s journey to secular Buddhism: Carmel

October 6, 2023

Although deeply influenced and inspired by some aspects of Judaism, Carmel Shalev began to lose faith in God and his commandments because they treated women as somehow limited and second best to men. She eventually connected with Buddhist teachers, primarily in the Insight meditation tradition; and then found that Stephen Batchelor's secular approach to the dharma, which brings a shift in gaze from the metaphysical to the mundane, from truths with a capital T to tasks in the everyday, resonated deeply with her.

Carmel Shalev

SBN Editor: When you were younger, were you religious? Did you strongly identify with a particular spiritual tradition? If so, what was appealing to you about that tradition?

Carmel Shalev: I was born and raised as a child in London in an orthodox Jewish community, and to this day I am inspired by its literary and scholastic culture, and a basic teaching of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ or ‘that which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your friend.’  

SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you? Why?

CS: In my teens, after we moved to Israel, I became quite devout. But a few years later I began to lose faith in God and his commandments because they treated women as somehow limited and second best to men. It was a long-drawn-out process of inner searching till I found the courage to come out as a heretic, as it were. It started during my military service when I was living on a religious kibbutz south of Jerusalem. One time, a highly respected member of the community, a man, refused to allow me on a bus with friends because my skirt was too short. Shortly after, I realized that no rabbinical studies were open to me as a girl, while feeling I would surely have pursued that avenue had I been born a boy. Then on a winter night, amidst the silence of snow falling on the hills all around, I had a kind of spiritual experience listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a glimpse of the unspeakable beauty and mystery of the world we live in. And there was also a political awakening. I suddenly noticed the house of the Palestinian on the curve of the road leading to the kibbutz. Suddenly I saw the other. I realized we are not alone.

SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?

CS: I came to the dharma only twenty years later, when I was at the height of a professional career and in the throes of a painful midlife personal crisis. A friend lent me Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living which had just come out, and in it there was a Gaia House letter announcing a meditation retreat at a convent west of Jerusalem, with Christopher Titmuss and Stephen Fulder. At the time I was practicing tai chi with its wisdom of the east but thought one had to go to Nepal to meditate, and here was an opportunity close to home. I discovered the power of stopping, to breathe and simply be, and the space of silence that opens between gaps in the stream of inner talk. The day after the retreat ended, I joined Christopher on a visit to Palestinians in Nablus. From the very start, the dharma came with social engagement.

SBN: So, how and why did you become interested in Buddhism?  Did you join a sangha? Did you read books by Buddhist authors? What was the impact on you?

CS: In the years that followed I went on meditation retreats two or three times a year with Tovana, our local Insight meditation society which grew from that first retreat, and also took part in its socially engaged initiatives, including silent walks and peace work in the occupied territories, where I learned from Zen peacemaker Bernie Glassman the precious practice of simply bearing witness to suffering.

During those early years, I attended a few retreats here led by Tibetan teachers, after a visit to Dharamsala where I had the good fortune to have a personal meeting with the Dalai Lama, because I was serving then on a UN human rights committee to which China was reporting and had advised the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy there on submitting a shadow report. But the Mahayana retreats lacked the silence of insight meditation, and its trimmings of deities and rituals were not my cup of tea, even though some of its teachings – like Shambhala – The Sacred Path of the Warrior, by Chogyam Trungpa – were very meaningful to me.

I became interested in studying the Theravada texts after another trip to India, this time with Christopher for the millennium, to Bodh Gaya for a three-week retreat and on to Sarnath where Gautama gave his first teaching on the four noble truths. I wanted to understand better the wisdom behind the meditation practice, and I found a sangha near where I lived, Itamar Bashan and Tor Gonen's Bhavana House in Tel Aviv, where once a week we would meet to read and discuss suttas together.

SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?

CS: In those years Tovana invited many western teachers to come and lead retreats. One of them was Stephen Batchelor. I attended a talk he gave one evening in Tel Aviv, and that night reserved flights and registered for a meditation retreat he and Martine were offering at Gaia House around the practice of ‘what is this?’ which they had learned in Korea. Meeting Stephen I experienced a spark of mutual recognition and I became a follower. I read his books as they came out, co-translated Buddhism Without Beliefs into Hebrew, and attended retreats he led both here and abroad in addition to those led by other teachers who came here.  I never felt any kind of hierarchy or authority in our relationship or in his relationships with others, with all his gifts of words, scholarship and understanding. There was always a flavor of simple friendship. And after Bodhi College opened, I joined a two-year program of dharma study with four teachers including Stephen, who brought together for me all the threads of the teachings I had been touched by over the years.

SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?

CS: For me secular dharma brings its wisdom down to earth. It brings a shift in gaze from the metaphysical to the mundane, from truths with a capital T to tasks in the everyday. It replaces belief in reincarnation with an open questioning of the mystery of the world. Instead of receding as a monastic from the challenges of daily life, it offers us skills to meet them like those ‘householders’ who were equal members of Gautama's sangha. Awakening is a moment-to-moment awareness of our interconnectedness and our agency in the dynamic web of our lives, rather than an irreversible transformative event once and for all. And it brings mindfulness with kind care to our personal experiences and behavior as well as our relationships. This speaks to me most deeply, since an ethic of care has been a constant theme in my view of the world, ever since my days as a young doctoral student and budding feminist back in the '80s, when I read Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice

SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?

CS: I've had years of regular meditation practice simply sitting and observing what comes and goes in the mind, together with an almost daily qi gong practice which brings gentle awareness to the inner and outer movement of the body and its sensations. But today the true challenge for me is to bring that openheartedness to my thoughts and actions in the spur of the moment of ordinary living. It is about finding friendly care and compassion to acknowledge my own bad habits, weaknesses and shortcomings, like a loving mother holding her hurting child in a comforting embrace. I am ageing and even though I wrote a book on the subject from the view of the dharma, In Praise of Ageing, it is a different thing to actually apply that wisdom in practice. I suppose there will be many such occasions for insight until my dying days. I even hope so. The dukkha of our human limitations is the stuff of life, and always an opportunity for tikkun, improving the world.

SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.

CS: These days I have a sangha that meets once a week as a study group, where we talk about books we read or courses we attend together. We've been going for two years now, after we started meeting to revisit a Bodhi College zoom course we all attended during the covid isolation. I've contributed some thoughts on uncertainty, care and responsibility to the Secular Buddhist Network (secular dharma and ethics; wisdom, contemplation and action; and to be a mensch.) And I belong to a sangha of SBN friends collaborating to design and create an online course on mindfulness based ethical living (MBEL).

SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?

CS: I would like to see mindfulness or other meditation practice carry people from the cushion to our interactions in daily life, with the wisdom of the dharma that all phenomena come and go in constant change, that we are intrinsically connected and dependent on each other from the unique moment of our births to that of our inevitable deaths, and that by facing our human vulnerability we can learn to live the lives we would like to and make the world a better place for all.

If you are interested in sharing the story of your journey, we'd be happy to hear from you! Please contact Colette at secularbuddhist.network@gmail.com.



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