As a journalist, Ira met some of Buddhism’s most important teachers and became interested in the dharma. As an agnostic, he finds a secular approach particularly valuable because there is less emphasis on beliefs and more on what contributes to wellbeing in this life. Colette Descent edited the interview for SBN.
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?
Ira Rifkin: I grew up in a mostly secular but strong culturally Jewish home in New York City. Judaism was taught as an obligation best practiced with a dollop of hypocrisy. However, I did come to appreciate and identify with Jewish history and Jews’ contemporary issues and struggles.
SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you? Why?
IR: As a pre-teen. The hypocrisy I experienced in my family was compounded by being sexually assaulted by a rabbinical student in a synagogue basement when I was about age 11. That frightened me and prompted me to reject it all. The secular world’s acceptance of my raging hormones and the excesses they prompted was undoubtedly also a factor.
SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?
IR: No. But I did gravitate toward spiritual/psychological exploration and experimentation. I tried psychedelic drugs, human potential/New Age workshops, psychotherapy, and eventually Siddha Yoga guru meditation (I met my current wife in an ashram). Plus, as a journalist specializing in religion coverage I met a cornucopia of religious leaders — some genuine, others corrupt narcissistic manipulators — who taught me much about the deeper nature and value of religious yearnings and associations. Additionally, I spent time (as a journalist) traveling with evangelical Christian missionaries in the Amazon region and saw how condescendingly they treated indigenous tribal members as well as how the tribes were willing to became ‘plastic bucket’ Christians. On a positive note, the tribes impressed upon me the value of family and social support. It was a splendid education.
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?
IR: No sangha right off. Because of my journalistic credentials I’ve had the privilege to meet with or speak to some of contemporary Buddhism’s most articulate teachers. They taught me about the great variety of Buddhist movements and I’ve been duly impressed by many of them. I’ve also read widely, starting, I remember, with Siddhartha, Dharma Bums and similar tomes, and I have participated in numerous retreats and classes. So, I’d say the impact has been transformational.
SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?
IR: I’ve embraced universalism even as my negative experience with religion’s overtly politicized side has left me increasingly angry and suspicious of religious partisanship, which is often rooted in ‘my beliefs trumps yours,’ a prime cause of religious intolerance and my desire to avoid theological debates.
SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?
IR: Buddhism’s psychological and philosophical teachings and techniques (meditation being foremost) resonate strongly for me. Also, as an agnostic toward all religious belief, I like not having to debate the ‘truth’ of any particular doctrine. For me, if something seems to work, I stick with it. If not, I just drop it.
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?
IR: No. Since I’m agnostic toward actual beliefs this has been a boon rather than a hindrance of any sort.
SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?
IR: Those that know agree with or accept my thinking. Most don’t know.
SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?
IR: Yes. I sit weekly with a local Sangha (these days it’s via Zoom because of Covid) and most days on my own for short periods. I concentrate on my breath though occasionally I will repeat a religious ‘mantra’ of Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish origin. I’ve come to believe that the celebration of traditional faith — even the repetition of what I intellectually reject — is more important to me than the actuality of faith itself; I’m a syncretic opportunist who believes any technique that contributes to my wellbeing or personal growth is ok to attempt as long as it does not hurt other sentient beings. So, I’d say my practice is very influenced by secular Buddhism.
SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.
IR: I’m part of a local Sangha that meets weekly via Zoom, I participate in various SBN discussions and sits, I read widely and on occasion write stories about Buddhist news events for international consumption.
SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?
IR: The more psychologically, philosophically and spiritually aware people become the better we all are, of course. But at almost 80, and having suffered serious health issues and the death of a son in 2021, my priorities have become balancing my emotional state and my commitment to my closest family and friends. My communal concerns are political and environmental, and are also strong. The future of organized secular Buddhism will unfold as it will with or without my input. I’m more concerned with our present challenges.
If you are interested in sharing the story of your journey, we’d be happy to hear from you! Please contact Colette at email@example.com.