Ronn Smith’s interest in Buddhism began with a trip to Korea in 1997, where he recognized that he needed to learn about Buddhism to understand the Korean culture. He began a more intensive study of Buddhism at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) in 2008 and gravitated toward a secular approach through an engagement with Stephen Batchelor’s writings. For Ronn, the ethical and philosophical dimensions of secular dharma are crucial; in particular, the emphasis on flourishing and care rather than on suffering.
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?
Ronn Smith: The Lutheran church—and an expansive circle of aunts, uncles, and cousins—occupied a large part of my childhood. Both of my parents, especially my father, were very active in church activities, and we attended Sunday services every week. But I wouldn’t describe myself as being ‘religious’ in the traditional sense of the word. The church provided social opportunities, so it was something the family did together. I went to college thinking I would become a Lutheran minister. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned from my mother, after my father died, that it was my father’s dream that I become a minister. But it wasn’t my dream.
SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you? Why?
RS (laughing): My first year in a Lutheran-affiliated college in Ohio! I was exposed to a wide range of religious and non-religious philosophies/histories that cracked open my world view. They, along with friends and professors, encouraged me to rethink who I was, who I wanted to be, and the role spiritual practices could play in my life.
SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?
RS: No, not really. Although books about Buddhism (by Philip Kapleau, Paul Reps, D.T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts) interested me, they played only a small part in my life at that time. I was also reading Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Peter Matthiessen, and Gary Snyder, which I now associate with my nascent interest in Buddhism. Now I look at that list of names and think: only men, oops. But they were what was available to me at the time.
SBN: So, how and why did you become interested in Buddhism? Did you join a sangha?
RS: My interest in Buddhism started as a result of a professional trip to Korea in 1997. I fell in love with the culture, felt that Buddhism informed much of what I experienced there, and began reading about Buddhism simply as a way to understand the Korean culture. In in odd way, it was the aesthetic elements of Korean Buddhism that attracted me.
Shortly after returning from my second trip to Korea, two years later, I started attending a weekly LGBTQ sangha at the Cambridge (MA) Zen Center. I was living in Providence, Rhode Island at the time, and would drive up to Cambridge to sit with the group on Sunday nights. Occasionally someone was invited in to give a talk about Buddhism, but the evening was primarily devoted to meditation.
Eventually, in 2008, I decided that my understanding of Buddhism was rather random, and that I needed to get back to basics through a more organized study program, which for me meant looking more closely at the primary texts. It was then that I started doing workshops and retreats at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS), in Barre, Massachusetts. I think that’s where and when my Dharma practice got serious, with Mu Soeng, Resident Scholar, as my mentor.
SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?
RS: Like for many people, it was through the books of Stephen Batchelor. Someone in Korea gave me a copy of Kusan Sunim’s The Way of Zen, which was translated by Martine Fages and edited with an introduction by Stephen Batchelor. So, his name was familiar to me long before a friend introduced me to his books. I started reading him, maybe more critically, in 2016, after meeting him at the Dharma and Art Symposium I helped organize at BCBS. I don’t remember if he specifically referenced ‘secular Buddhism’ or ‘secular Dharma’ at the Symposium, but the idea certainly informed his keynote address, during which he talked about his collages. I thought: here is an artist with a spiritual practice I can relate to.
At the end of the Symposium, he and Sherry Woods invited me to meet with them to discuss their opera, Mara: A Chamber Opera on Good and Evil. The music was composed by Sherry; Stephen had written the libretto. Neither of them had any theater experience, which is a part of my history. We agreed to do a workshop presentation in Florence, South Carolina, where Sherry lives, in the Fall of 2016. And then we presented a concert version of the opera at The Rubin Museum of Art, in New York, in 2017. I was—and continue to be—engaged by Stephen’s work and the philosophical/ethical aspects of secular Dharma as a result of meeting him at BCBS. (More information about Mara can be found at https://maraopera.org. The opera can be heard on Sherry’s website: www.sherrywoodscomposer.com.)
SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?
RS: Again, it’s the philosophical and ethical dimensions of the secular approach that resonate the most for me. I’m not sure why that is, except to say that I’ve had an interest in philosophy and ethics since college. It’s how I make sense of the world, I guess … and my place in it. I also appreciate secular Dharma’s focus on ‘flourishing’ and ‘care,’ rather than on ‘suffering.’ For me, it provides a stronger base for engagement with others and the world.
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?
RS: No. In fact, secular Buddhism has impacted many areas of my life, from personal and professional relationships to the work I do as a writer, independent consultant, or theater director. I often assess what I am doing through the lens of secular Buddhism. Whether we’re talking about Buddhism, secular Buddhism, or secular Dharma, I think it needs to be an integral part of one’s whole life. To talk about ‘on the cushion’ and ‘off the cushion’ can sound simplistic, but I try to make no distinction.
SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?
RS: Most of my friends and family are supportive of my secular Buddhist practice, primarily because they understand what it means to me. I have a friend who is a biologist, and she has been a little skeptical, but she’s slowly coming around (laughs).
SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?
RS: Yes, I try to meditate for 30 or 40 minutes every day, usually in the morning. Given my schedule it’s occasionally easier for me to sit late in the afternoon or just before I go to bed. I might not meditate when I travel, but I try to find some time to sit, close my eyes, and maybe do a body scan.
SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.
RS: I’m currently involved with Secular Buddhist Network and an avid participant in Bodhi College programs. I’m interested in finding ways to expand my international secular Dharma network and interviewing artists about their artistic and contemplative practices—how these practices do or do not intersect. Some artists are reluctant to talk about their contemplative practices, maybe for fear of being labeled in some way, but this is slowly changing. I was fortunate to be able to interview the playwright Sarah Ruhl about her Buddhist practice for Tricycle magazine (Facing the Four Noble Truths, Winter 2021). I also had a series of interviews with artists, many of whom I would characterize as secular Buddhists, published in Creative Dharma newsletter before it ceased publication after 15 issues. I like to talk with artists about their spiritual practices, so I hope to continue doing this in the future.
SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?
RS: That’s really hard to say. Stephen Batchelor’s recent course on Mindfulness Based Human Flourishing (hosted by BuddhaStiftung) is maybe moving it in one direction. But there are other individuals working in the area as well. Robert M. Ellis, Sam Harris, Winton Higgins, and Seth Segall immediately come to mind. But there are others, like the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund, who seem to embody certain secular concepts without self-identifying as a Buddhist. After the Covid pandemic forced us to come to grips with Zoom technology, and as a more diverse group of younger teachers enter the field, it’s difficult to predict where secular Buddhism will be in five or even three years. It could go in any one of a number of directions, so I wouldn’t want to hazard a prediction.
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