Jeff has had an interesting path to secular Buddhism. He grew up as a non-observant Jew, but in 2004 he became involved in orthodox Judaism. However, after 15 years, Jeff found this form of Judaism too dogmatic and explored other spiritual traditions, eventually finding a secular approach to the dharma. Colette Descent edited the interview for SBN.
SBN: 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?
Jeff: I’m 56 years old, so I’ll answer the questions in two parts, one in regard to my youth, and the other in the present time. I grew up as a non-observant Jew. I went to Hebrew school for three years, three days a week after school, but really didn’t get anything from it. We identified with Judaism more as a cultural/ethnic connection. As an adult, I spent 15 years as an Orthodox Jew. I liked that this religion supposedly had the answers to life’s questions. Plus I am a huge fan of community connectedness.
SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you?
Jeff: I found the world of nightclubs and meeting girls way more exciting and fun as I hit my mid teens. In the late 80s, I had taken a “Comparative Religion” class in college as one of my elective classes taught by a Buddhist practitioner, but I wasn’t drawn to Buddhism whatsoever at that time. As an adult, I became involved with Orthodox Judaism in 2004 and left in 2019, as I was turned off by the dogmatic beliefs as well as the ethnicity and superiority issues I came across as I delved deeper.
SBN: How and why did you become interested in Buddhism?
Jeff: After leaving Orthodox Judaism, I went down a path that brought me to secular Buddhism. Between 2017 and 2019, I read & absorbed many classes, sessions, videos & books on Yoga (Isha, Hatha & Nidra), Vedic Meditation (Transcendental Meditation & Emily Fletcher of Ziva), Sadhguru, Energy Healing, Reiki, Pranic Healing, Yogananda, Deepak Chopra, Ayurveda & Zen Buddhism. Because I was turned off by the supernatural aspects of all these teachings, I started reading about secular Buddhism and the self-reliance teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Paine and Baruch Spinoza.
SBN: Did you read books by Buddhist authors? What was the impact on you?
Jeff: I love reading, so I went through many books on Buddhism. The ones that are most memorable to me are the following four:
- Josh Korda’s book Unsubscribe” opened my eyes to the idea that one can legitimately utilise secular Buddhism as a way of life and a philosophy to follow.
- Karma Yeshe Rabgye’s two books, Life’s Meandering Path and The Best Way to Catch A Snake clearly explain the Dharma in an easily understandable way. I appreciate that he is a Buddhist monk and yet teaches that one need not follow the religious Buddhist past. We actually had a nice conversation on Facebook. He was very responsive to my messages.
- Joseph Goldstein’s book One Dharma nicely explains the different Buddhist options, and how the similarities can bring all those who appreciate or live the philosophy to see how much in common is shared.
- Stephen Batchelor, with his books After Buddhism and Secular Buddhism, has been able to take the concept of secular Buddhism as a philosophy to the masses. I appreciate his writings as well as the class I am taking in secular Buddhism as they show that it’s a viable path for those not attracted to the religious aspects of Buddhism. Plus, he is very proactive in getting his philosophy out there, unlike most writers (of all topics) who just go on to write other books, without taking any action.
SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?
Jeff: Very recently, within the past 3 years. After spending 15 years as an Orthodox Jew, I was turned off to theism as well as dogmatic belief systems. Secular philosophy appeals to me.
SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?
Jeff: Realising that there is no absolute truth. To not allow the close-minded belief systems of others affect my life or behaviour. To see all of humanity as one, instead of being overly concerned with certain groups simply because of where I was born or who I am descended from. Don’t get me wrong, I find ethnicity & culture to be important, but not to the detriment of caring about others.
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?
Jeff: Not at all. Secular Buddhism is enhancing my perspectives on life, humanity, and other sentient creatures. It has removed much reactivity I used to have when coming across other views.
SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?
Jeff: The ones I have shared my interest with think it’s cool. I’m mostly a private person so I don’t wear my belief system on my sleeve, as I used to when involved in Orthodox Judaism
SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?
Jeff: Unfortunately not. I’m always distracted and too busy 🙂
SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.
Jeff: I’m taking an amazing class with the Secular Buddhist Network: “Exploring a Secular Dharma”.
SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?
Jeff: As it seems the perfect system for humanity to come to terms with its over-reactivity and misplaced priorities, without forcing it upon people or being dogmatic about it, I’d love to see these teachings spread far & wide.