Craig Murphy was already skeptical of religious orthodoxies when he encountered Buddhist-inspired meditation practices through John Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR approach in the early 1990s. As Craig deepened his involvement through discussions with Buddhists and a meditation group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he has found that a secular approach which eschews metaphysics and highlights an ethics of pragmatism to be most consistent with his overall perspective toward life and society.
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?
Craig Murphy: I grew up as a US Air Force brat and regularly attended Episcopal/Anglican churches on both sides of the Atlantic until I was in my second year of college. The social-justice orientation and internationalism of these churches seemed to reinforce the best values of my military family. The one set of friends from childhood I’m still regularly in touch with first met in a Colorado Springs Episcopal youth group in the late 1960s; all but one of us are US or Canadian military brats.
SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you? Why?
CM: When I was in high school, the idea of a creator god began to seem implausible to me. At the same time, I was developing an ever-increasing skepticism about the validity of any religion’s special claims to knowledge. How could Christianity be special when I had Jewish and Muslim friends who were very good people, true saints? Then I spent part my second year in college in Ghana where I developed an appreciation for some of West Africa’s non-Christian/non-Muslim traditions. All shared a common morality, similar, in fact, to the sila of the eightfold path.
SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?
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?
CM: In the early 1990s, my wife began dealing with acute chronic pain. Our HMO suggested she start using John Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness meditation tapes. She agreed as long as I joined her. I began a meditation practice then. A few years later, a scholar of Buddhism and politics joined the small Boston-area college where I taught. He asked me if I knew that Kabat-Zinn’s was basically a Buddhist practice. I said, “Not really, but learning that makes me curious.” A great deal of reading, listening to dharma talks, and short retreats followed. Most were in the Boston area, but also in northern India where I met Samdhong Rinpoche in January 2003 while helping lead a program for my college. He was then the head of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath. There, back at my college when he visited the next year, and though email, we had conversations over three years about ahimsa and Gandhi’s politics from which I learned a great deal. In 2009, I joined a dharma group in Cambridge, Massachusetts led by Lila Kate Wheeler. The group broke up about ten years later as various members moved to different stages of their lives and to different places. Wheeler became focused on the more important work of training diverse (not necessarily white, not necessarily straight) groups of Buddhist teachers throughout the US.
My meditation practice has helped me become a calmer and more effective when trying to care for others. My study of Buddhist texts and reflection with Buddhist friends has given me a much deeper understanding of human psychology and of political pragmatics than I had developed throughout the first two decades of my social science career. In addition, a rereading of the first sutta helped me through a significant crisis: I’d unexpectedly received a coveted professional honor, but it felt hollow and troubling, something that would just alienate me from my work and from the colleagues for whom I cared the most. A few paragraphs into the sutta I started to think, “Oh, so that is what I am experiencing,” and, “This whole thing makes sense now.” If I have experienced “stream entry,” that was it.
SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?
CM: My Buddhist colleague would probably say that, to the extent that I ever have been a Buddhist, I’ve been a secular one: learning meditation through Kabat-Zinn’s program, approaching Buddhist teachers and teachings with the same skepticism that apparently shows on my face when conversing with devotees of any religion.
That said, I have been more drawn to Stephen Batchelor’s approach than to that of anyone else. I am especially convinced by the arguments in his After Buddhism.
SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?
CM: Placing metaphysics to the side. Batchelor’s understanding of what he calls the second “task.” The centrality of an ethics of pragmatism. From Buddhism more broadly: the Bodhisattva vow, which is not necessarily heroic, nor is it gendered.
SBN: Do you find that secular Buddhism conflicts with other perspectives that you have? In short, has a secular Buddhist approach created any conflicts or tensions in how you think and act in the world?
CM: I am a social scientist who believes that the point of understanding the social world is to change it. I live in a large city where higher education is the major industry. Most of the people I interact with are secular, full stop. When I go to the 6000-person annual convention of my professional association there is only one person I’m sure to have a serious conversation about secular Buddhism. I also have an old Marxist friend who no longer attends those meetings who keeps urging me to write about the connections between Buddhism, Gandhi’s politics, and how we can best confront global-level problems such as climate change, ecocide, nuclear weapons, and the global-level inequalities of gender, class, race, etc.
I’m more likely to talk about secular Buddhism with those I study: people who work on those global problems within the UN and related organizations. Many are motivated by firm religious beliefs or by a secular morality that originated in faith. Almost all of them are comfortable talking about their deepest beliefs with others whose traditions are fundamentally different. Deep capacity for interfaith dialogue is one of the “secret powers” of the UN staff.
For myself, I think I have resolved most of the tensions among my Buddhist, pacifist, liberal, Marxist, internationalist, and other beliefs.
SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?
CM: Except my Buddhist friends, most don’t think about it at all. Those non-Buddhist friends and family members who know I have a meditation practice and have seen its effects think it is good.
SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?
CM: Yes, and some of Kabat-Zinn’s instructions from ‘90s are still part of the rotation. But there’s a catch: When I started a regular practice, my wife actually did not, in large part because the pain she was suffering made it too difficult. Recently, I’ve become subject to similar sorts of pain due to a form of inflammatory arthritis that has fused the joints in my lower back. Some days 40 minutes on the chair or cushion is impossible, so it may just be a few minutes looking at a miraculously reblooming iris.
I take part in the Sunday on-line secular Buddhist meditation group, and have learned a great deal from the instructions that the various leaders have given and from the insights of other members of the group. For that I am very grateful.
SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.
CM: In addition to the above, a week rarely goes by without long conversations with Buddhist friends, mostly about right speech, action, and livelihood. And I’m writing that thing my old Marxist friend has been urging me to do. Inshallah, it will be part of short book on solving those global problems.
SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?
CM: I hope it does not become just another inclusive sect, a capital-S “Secular Buddhism.” I hope that secular Buddhists remain in dialogue with, and continue to learn from, Buddhists of other traditions and that secular Buddhists take up the mission of understanding and learning to work with people devoted to other spiritual and faith traditions and to other traditions of pragmatic practice.
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