A practitioner’s journey to secular Buddhism: Katya

Katya grew up in a culturally Jewish, Leftist family in New York City and became involved with a Buddhist sangha in 2001. When her sangha refused to engage politically around issues of racism after the murder of George Floyd, she connected with the Secular Buddhist Network and has become an active participant. 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?

Katya de Kadt: No, my family were atheist but we were cultural Jews, meaning we knew and studied Yiddish, Jewish history, literature and culture, all from a left perspective. What I loved about it was that it was a strong cohesive community committed to social and economic justice and to both the trade union movement and anti-racist struggles.


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

KdK: I never became disillusioned with the community, but as the kids grew up, we did not want to spend time on Friday nights and Saturday mornings in study.


SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?  

KdK: I did not get involved in Buddhism until 2001 when my mother was dying of breast cancer. I had attended a few talks by various Buddhist teachers before that, but in 2001 I attended a weekend retreat with Rodney Smith on dying and it was very eye opening. There, I met Peter Doobinin, who had helped organize the New York Insight Meditation Center, and who invited me to join his practice group to learn more about Buddhism.


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?

KdK: I had been an activist my whole life and often felt that my comrades did not consider the personal, psychological impact on human beings from capitalism, racism, and the other systems of oppression and exploitation; and that unless those issues were addressed, we could never really challenge the system as it was. And that these personal issues may be a way to reach people who are different from us.

After Peter Doobinin approached me, I joined his group – the Downtown Meditation Community – a Theravada community. I took classes, meditated with the group, and attended retreats until I left the community soon after the murder of George Floyd when the group refused to get politically involved in tissues around racism, other than reading a few books.

In my Kalyana Mitta group, which I have been in since 2004, we read many Buddhist authors, though mostly Thanissaro Bhikkhu. We also read Stephen Batchelor. And we listened to podcasts from Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Sumedho and others.

The concept of impermanence was very helpful, the awareness of how attachment to the three poisons causes suffering and the Five Reflections were very helpful. The concept of “no-self” was always difficult, but eventually I got it and it too was helpful. But I always rejected the religious and supernatural aspects of the practice like reincarnation, nirvana (as if there was ever going to be complete freedom from suffering, especially as a householder). Most importantly, I rejected the idea that if I only worked on my own individual suffering without regard to the suffering in the world caused by systems of oppression and exploitation like capitalism and racism, I would be on the path to freedom. But no one in my Theravada sangha supported me in those concerns.


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

KdK: A few years ago, my Kalyana Mitta group read Stephen Batchelor’s “Buddhism Without Beliefs”. It was a mind opener. But it was not until the past year, when I met Mike Slott and joined the Secular Buddhist Network (and left my original sangha), and took a class on Secular Buddhism with Mike, that I really got into it. For me now, the Secular Buddhist Network has become my sangha.


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

The idea that one can have less suffering in the “here and now” and that that is a sufficient goal. I no longer feel like I am grasping at an impossible task – finding Nirvana in a future life. Also, the attempt to democratize the sangha so that there is not one all powerful, all knowing leader has been helpful, though scary at times.


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?

KdK: No. On the contrary, I find that the secular Buddhist approach is totally aligned with my thinking and my philosophy.


SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?

KdK: My family supports the work I do around my Buddhist practice and have taken in some aspects of it, particularly the mindfulness practice in everyday living and the “right speech” in the eightfold path. The whole secular nature of my practice makes it more palatable to them.


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

KdK: I try to meditate every day, even if only for 10 to 15 minutes, saving my longer periods for the weekends. It is secular Buddhism which has made my practice sustainable.


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

KdK: Currently I am a member of the monthly secular Buddhist Network meetings; I meditate with SBN on Sundays. I am also part of a group called Critical Buddhist Study group which has been studying leftist tendencies in Buddhist circles throughout the world and in various historical periods, and their offshoot group called the Revolutionary Buddhist League. Neither of these last two groups consider themselves secular Buddhists, but they are involved and supporting the move towards radical social engagement among Buddhists.


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

Like all Buddhists groups, I would like them to get into conversations with sanghas made up of People of Color to see where there are commonalities and where we may need to change to involve others.

I would also like the secular Buddhist community to work more with other Buddhists to help them to better understand why, if they are serious about ending suffering for themselves and others, they have to find ways to also tackle the systems which cause suffering for all people: capitalism, racism, homophobia, etc. But we cannot be seen as being critical of other Buddhists who do not share the secular perspective and must find a way to join with them in this liberatory project.

We also have to find a way to build strong supportive sanghas that do not exclude people.

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.



One Reply to “A practitioner’s journey to secular Buddhism: Katya”

Kathy Lang

Thank you, Katya for sharing your journey —it is inspiring to hear about your commitment. Kathy

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