Kate’s interest in Buddhism began when she was a college student and developed further while she was a Peace Corps volunteer and program manager. Over time, she became increasingly skeptical of the adherence to hierarchy and rituals in many Buddhist traditions and moved toward a secular approach to the dharma, one which does not lean on enlightenment as a goal, but fosters a practice that is ethical, practical, compassionate and forward looking. 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?
Kate Barba: Attending Quaker Friends meetings in Philadelphia, PA with my three brothers and mother is my earliest memory of religious influence. The contemplative silence appealed to my introverted nature though I preferred climbing trees and playing tag outside the meeting hall over oral readings of scripture. My father claimed to be agnostic and my mother simply loved to sing, and subsequent household moves landed us in a Philadelphia suburb with a Methodist church, literally, next door. We were immersed in singing liturgical choral music, playing in bell choirs and this was complemented by an extensive program of choral and instrumental music at school.
I was somewhat intrigued with the notion of a God that appeared simultaneously as an internal and external voice according to the pastors, a seemingly forgiving and omniscient presence, and as a young teen I took an obligatory church class and was confirmed in the United Methodist tradition. Perhaps influenced by my father’s beliefs, I maintained a skeptical attitude towards religion through those years at home, and was marginally curious about the practices and belief systems held by my mostly Catholic and Jewish friends.
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?
KB: During my last year of undergraduate study in New Hampshire in the late 70s, I fell head over heels for Richard, who was 13 years my senior, a tall, quiet man of Zen studying computer science and electrical engineering, living in a small cabin on the banks of a creek some six miles from campus. I was intrigued by his ability to be so still in meditation, surrounded by shelves of books on Zen, including mostly poetry, but also history, books on various teachings and Zen art and calligraphy. He rarely talked about his practice and beliefs, but kept a book of koans close by, and when I would question him, he would choose a book from the shelves and suggest that I read. When we parted ways, he gave me Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching and wished me well. I don’t have words to describe how deeply his presence and influence over that year framed my foundational understanding of existence and ways of being for years to come.
I took four or five books of Zen poetry, teachings, history and the I Ching with me into five years as a young Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines and Nepal. I read them over and over, as a way to help inform my practice and make sense of the world around me. I got used to observing the cycles of happiness, loneliness, sadness and joy in me and villagers around me. Participating in traditional practices around death and dying in both countries instilled an acute awareness of how transitory life is and how death is simply a part of life. An affair with a Japanese man in Manila landed me with a marriage proposal and an escorted trip to Japan where we traveled throughout Hokkaido and visited his parents in a very rural setting near Kyoto. I tried to chase the ghosts of Zen hermits like Ryokan, Hui Hueng and Dogen into the hills and sat for hours in Zen gardens. I was stunned by the contrast of temples and solitude with the speed of bullet trains and the hustle and bustle of modern day Japan.
I carried those books onward for another eight years during Peace Corps tours in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Hungary as a program manager, the books dog eared and worn, with ragged slips of paper and aerograms with my own poetry and those from a few friends tucked inside. I had no teacher or sangha to speak of while in south and southeast Asia, but simply by being surrounded by Hindu, Tibetan and Theravada practices, I felt very much at home in a spiritual sense. Lastly, I met my life partner in Sri Lanka, who became an important influence, a woman trained by Jesuits, with a keen sense of compassion and social justice.
Later, based in Washington, DC for 20 plus years, continuing international and US-based work, I explored Tibetan Buddhism and for a year or more attended weekly sits and dharma talks with a Dharmadhatu in Maryland, reading and discussing teachings with the sangha, learning something of the Kagyu lineage and practices. Over time, I became increasingly skeptical of the ostensible need for and adherence to hierarchy, rituals and structured chanting in so many Buddhist traditions. But the fundamentals still made sense to me and if I was tired of the hype and the jargon and of the politics of the sangha, I could always retreat to poetry or a Zen book.
SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?
KB: I am a long-time subscriber to the journal Tricycle and have always appreciated articles with practical insights and applications in Buddhist practice. I read some of Stephen Batchelor’s work there, and in the last ten years and particularly since I retired, his books and Bodhi College talks and workshops have been a constant thread of insight for me as he, along with others, articulated a secular approach to Buddhism. I have learned that this approach, posited in accessible language and with clear examples that build on the earliest teachings and does not lean on enlightenment as a goal, but fosters a practice that is ethical, practical, compassionate and forward looking.
For me, the idea of nirvana as a goal or result of intense practice over years has been replaced with a recognition that there may well be nirvanic moments throughout life and through regular practice, study and reflection on these teachings, complemented with effort in daily life, I might realize those moments of infinite clarity more often. But it’s not the goal. It’s the process that matters. Through my beginner’s understanding and awareness of dependent arising and conditionality, there is infinite freedom and choice in how I relate to the world around me, moment to moment. I have been increasingly drawn to this approach because of my respect and value for these earliest dharma teachings and my resistance to the hierarchy and structure that has evolved over eons inherent to most Buddhist traditions.
SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?
KB: For the last few years, a 30 minute daily meditation practice early in the day lays a foundation and reminder to self that there is no self, and to consider how I might choose to interact, communicate and relate to others throughout the day. Streaming chatter of the mind frequently takes over, but I try to appreciate the challenge of focusing on the breath or other mechanics of meditation, and observing the stream as just that. I also take advantage of remote training, workshops, talks, etc. on the topic. I recently joined the SBN network and am enjoying participation in the reading group.
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?
KB: No. The secular approach builds on the fundamental ethics and practice of early Buddhism and serves only to reinforce and enhance my understanding of Buddhist ways of being and a broad worldview. A key value I see in this approach is to use it as a tool to help inform and move society writ large to an economic model that assures equity and flourishing for all. I am a fan of doughnut economics, a theory British economist Kate Raworth talks about, where there are two concentric rings: a social foundation, to ensure that no one is left falling short on life’s essentials, and an ecological ceiling, to ensure that humanity does not collectively overshoot the planetary boundaries that protect Earth’s life-supporting systems. Profit is not the motive. A flourishing society is the motive. A number of municipalities around the world have adopted this as a working vision and we need to document their progress.
SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?
KB: Most of our network of friends come from years of working in overseas development, most of whom have an understanding of many religions and are interested in a sort of short form. Family tends to be cursorily interested but ease to other topics. They care about where I might be headed and are interested in my volunteer hospice service and work with the city and community in climate change mitigation and adaptation. During the pandemic I talked about study and certification as a chaplain, which apparently requires a graduate degree in divinity and clinical practice. A significant step to take at 64 years, which provoked all sorts of interesting conversations.
SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.
KB: I came across the SBN website and network which has been very helpful and currently participate and enjoy the reading group that meets on the first Thursday of the month. I continue to read related books and articles on secular Buddhism, I occasionally enroll in remote workshops and trainings with teachers I respect and try to integrate learnings quite regularly in daily life. For related entertainment, I enjoy Buddhist poetry, art and with my partner, am contemplating design and materials for a zen-like garden.
SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?
KB: It seems that secular Buddhism is a nascent thing and the theory and practice appears to resonate with many who wish to explore a more modern practice based on early teachings. Batchelor, Higgins and others have framed the basics and as with any new approach, we get to benefit from early discussion, applications, challenges and new realizations as we participate in this evolution. I particularly appreciate the scholarly analysis that thought leaders have taken in framing the approach and interpretation of the early teachings.
Hopefully membership and ambassadors from the SBN and other networks will help to extend the theory and practice with relevant tool kits as they evolve to foster community, understanding and practice. Imagine secular Buddhists working closely with communities at all scales using doughnut economics as a frame to move society towards a state that is both equitable and flourishing! Easy enough to say, I expect, as a white woman of privilege in a well-resourced retirement but so hard to effect in today’s world.
If you are interested in sharing the story of your journey, we’d be happy to hear from you! Please contact Colette at firstname.lastname@example.org.