From a very early age, Sylwia Plich has questioned religious orthodoxies. Born into a Catholic family, she initially saw Protestantism as a ‘purer’ form of Christianity but then found more value in a Buddhist approach to spirituality. She practiced for 25 years in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In 2016, she came across Stephen Batchelor's writings and began to embrace a secular approach which focuses on ethical life on a daily basis.
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?
Sylwia Plich: I was raised in the Christian Catholic tradition in a small town in Poland. As a child I was very curious and always was looking for more knowledge. In my early school years, I read the Bible several times trying to find answers to my questions. I was quite devoted to the belief. Influenced by my grandmother, who was Protestant, I started very early to question the Catholic teachings which were coming from that tradition and not from the Bible, which I treated as a source of Christian beliefs. When I was 14 years old, I switched to a Protestant church, looking for the ‘purer’ teachings of Christianity.
SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you? Why?
SP: Very quickly, I realized that the pastor of the Protestant church was also not able to dispel my doubts, specifically when it comes to the fate of people who are not Christians in terms of their fate after death. At this time, being 16 years old, I developed my own understanding of spirituality as a form of energy which is shared by all beings. I remember that one day I dared to deny God's existence while sitting alone at home and was waiting to see if any punishment was going to happen to me like a bolt from the blue for my iconoclastic belief, but nothing happened. 🙂
SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?
SP: I started to read as much as I could about different religions in the world, trying to find something that would appeal to me. At this point, I started to be drawn to Buddhism as it was fitting the best with my understanding of the world and spirituality.
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?
SP: In my small town at this point in time, there were not many books available about Buddhism and also there was no sangha I could find. Initially, I was mostly into Zen teachings and remember that the book, The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau was my main source of knowledge and practice. I started to meditate by taking all the tips from this book. In parallel, I started to train in Aikido, which linked me to other people who were interested in Buddhism. I then deepened my knowledge by reading books by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and by Seung Sahn Soen-sa. Then, when I was 18 years old, I found the Tibetan Buddhism of the Karma Kagyu tradition and joined a sangha, which I continued to participate in after moving to Warsaw to study. I practiced dharma in that tradition for more than 25 years. My main practice was Ngondro, Szine and other Karma Kagyu meditations on a Tibetan deity, Yidams.
SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?
SP: In 2014, I became an MBSR teacher and started to run mindfulness-based courses. I switched to mindfulness practices from that time and stepped away from the sangha I was in before. I started to be much more into secular Buddhism. Around 2016, I came across the book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor, which gave me a great sense of relief as I was becoming discontented with the tradition I was part of. In 2019 I participated in a retreat with Martine and Stephen Batchelor organized by Gaia House, which was the turning point and brought me totally to the secular approach to dharma. After reading a few books by Stephen, I joined Bodhi College’s Secular Dharma course, which reinforced my view that this was the approach I was looking for. What was most important to me in the secular approach was its open, non-hierarchical environment and ethics. The behaviours which I observed from some teachers and people from my previous sangha conflicted with my ethical values. I could not agree with the way some people were treated due to gender or preferences, which for me was not in line with Buddha’s teachings and additionally lacked a sense of openness for people who are not part of sangha.
SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?
SP: I think that for me the most important is that in a secular approach I can focus on living an ethical life on a daily basis. There are tasks to accomplish and it is not focusing on life after death. It makes my life meaningful.
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?
SP: It rather has brought me relief and peace rather than conflicts. It broadens my view on what we can do for others and the environment (social perspective).
SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?
SP: My husband has quite a similar history with being part of a traditional Buddhist sangha and he also chose a secular approach to the dharma, so I have great support here. During my participation in the Bodhi College course, I made connections with others who also have chosen a secular approach as their own. So now, I feel I am part of a new ‘secular sangha’ even though we mostly meet online. Among my old friends from the traditional Buddhist sangha, it’s a different situation. With those who chose to stay there, my connections have loosened through time. But with others who also had some doubts and discontents, I could share my experience, and by doing that, hopefully it has helped them to develop their own ways.
SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?
SP: In my regular practice I sit with my breath or sounds, I do calm abiding and insight meditation. I also like doing from time to time meditations taught by Stephen Batchelor, such as embodying the seven factors of awakening.
SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.
SP: I am currently part of a working group which is developing an online course, Mindfulness Based Ethical Living (MBEL); and I am very happy about it. I am also willing to join other secular Buddhism initiatives in the future.
SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?
SP: I would like to see a secular Buddhist approach spread so people can get to know about it. Currently there are quite a number of different traditional Buddhist sanghas and not so many people have knowledge of a secular approach. I think there is a need for it as many people cannot find themselves in traditional approaches and they could probably relate to a secular one. I can observe among friends, my psychotherapeutic clients and people who are joining MBSR courses that they are missing some meaning in their lives, but they cannot find it in any religions or spiritual movements, so secular Buddhism approach could be appealing to them.
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.