A practitioner’s journey to secular Buddhism: Tom

May 7, 2023

After moving away from the Catholic church as he engaged in in the civil rights and anti-Viet Nam war movements of the late 1960s, Tom Cummings didn’t encounter Buddhism until later in his life. His initial practice was based in Vipassana meditation, but he has found that secular Buddhism’s emphasis on our present human life as the one and only existence we have aligns well with the agnostic humanist perspective he has embraced for many years.

Tom Cummings

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?

Tom Cummings: As a child growing up in the late 1950s, I attended the local Catholic elementary school in my family’s staunchly conservative, middle-class neighborhood in Queens, New York.  Practically every school day began with 8:15am daily Mass in the parish church; as soon as Mass was concluded, the nuns who were our teachers marched the entire student body in single-line silence upstairs to our classrooms, where the first lesson of the day was always religion.  This involved either quiet study of, or sometimes reciting aloud from, a page or two of the catechism, a booklet containing all the important tenets of our nascent Catholic faith, presented in a simple question-and-answer format suitable for young malleable minds.  I no longer remember very much of their content, but I can still recall, almost viscerally, the comfort those lessons held out to me – in particular, the seductive promise that we would all one day be happy forever in heaven, provided of course that we adhered to the ‘one, true’ Catholic faith throughout our lifetime.


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

TC: By the late 1960s, I found myself drifting further and further away from both the Catholic church and the religious beliefs it had inculcated in me.  With regard to the church, as I was drawn more and more to the protest movements on behalf of the Civil Rights movement and in opposition to the Vietnam war, I was less and less at home in an institution that was still loudly supportive of the war and silently accepting of the racial status quo.  With regard to my religious beliefs, I had begun to avidly read the existentialist philosophy of Camus and Sartre, and I was becoming an enthusiastic fan of the ‘new cinema’ films arriving from Europe, particularly the works of Bergman, Truffaut and Fellini.  In very short order, these intellectual and artistic experiences rendered the teachings of my Catholic upbringing completely irrelevant to me.


SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?

TC: No, I had practically no awareness of Buddhism at that time in my life.  It had been rather emotionally wrenching for me to withdraw from the church and to abandon my religious beliefs in such a brief span of time.  Consequently, I was not at all inclined to quickly return to any form of organized religion.  I came to define myself as an agnostic humanist, which in fact I still do.


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?

TC: In 2001, after twenty years as a corporate information technology manager, I was ready for a career transition, and launched my own business as a personal life coach.  My new profession allowed me to be the work-from-home parent for our two young children (twins who had recently entered elementary school) while my wife continued to commute daily into Manhattan for her own corporate career as a market research executive.  Sometime around 2005, I began taking yoga classes, as a means of developing better concentration and focus during my telephone sessions with clients.  One of my yoga teachers was in the habit of ending each class with a 3-minute silent meditation, which very quickly became my favorite part of the class.  I soon realized that the practice I was actually interested in was meditation, not yoga!  Not long after this realization set in, I found a sangha in New York City that held weekly meetings on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, and began attending both sessions on a regular basis.  The sangha’s founder and guiding teacher, Allan Lokos, had studied extensively with the well-known Buddhist teachers Thich Nhat Hanh, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, and by listening to Allan’s dharma talks on a weekly basis, I became familiar with their teachings and began reading many of their books.  The core tenets of Buddhism – especially the notions of impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and the interdependence of all beings – fit seamlessly into my existing philosophy of life.  While I do not identify myself as a ‘Buddhist’, so as not to be mistakenly labeled as a religious practitioner and a believer in bardos and rebirth, I have become very comfortable defining myself as someone who strives to live his life in accordance with Buddhist ethics and Buddhist philosophy.


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

TC: In the course of my readings in Buddhist literature, I came upon numerous references to Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, and reading this book served as my introduction to secular Buddhism.  Given my past history and my longstanding discomfort with religious dogma of any sort, Stephen’s view of the corrupting influence that centuries of institutionalized dogma have superimposed upon the original teachings in the discourses was profoundly appealing to me.


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

TC: The idea that’s most impactful for me in secular Buddhism is its focus on our present human life as the one and only existence we have, and its corresponding dismissal of any notion of a life after death.  While this point of view has long been a part of my agnostic humanist approach, its rootedness in the world of secular Buddhism has certainly strengthened my convictions in this regard, and on a day to day basis, it’s definitely enhanced my appreciation for the life that I’m presently fortunate enough to be living.


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?

TC: On the contrary, secular Buddhism aligns almost seamlessly with my prior agnostic humanist philosophy.  If anything, it’s helped me to feel more grounded in my approach to thinking and acting in the world.


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

TC: While neither my immediate family nor those of my friends who have known me since before my involvement with Buddhism share that interest, all of them have been incredibly supportive of my involvement in secular Buddhism. 


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

TC: I meditate every morning for 20 minutes, and have done so for over ten years now.   While secular Buddhism has not noticeably influenced the externalities of my practice, I do think that there’s been a subtle shift in my internal focus.  When I first started meditating, as a student following in the Vipassana tradition, I mostly paid close attention to my breath and to my level of concentration; but now, as a secular Buddhist, I seem to be using my morning sit as an opportunity to reflect calmly about how I’m living in this world and how I’m relating to those I care about.  


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

TC: I regularly attend two separate monthly online sessions: a Secular Sangha group facilitated by the New York Insight Meditation Center, and the Secular Buddhist Network’s online discussion group.  Within the latter meeting, I participate in the Political Action and Secular, Socially Engaged Buddhism breakout subgroup.  There’s a fair amount of overlap among the members of these two groups, so that in combination they have come to constitute my virtual, secular Buddhist sangha with whom I interact twice monthly.  I also publish a newsletter on Substack called The Liberal Buddhist Review, in which I comment upon current news events and topics from a secular Buddhist and a liberal political point of view.


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

I’m hopeful that secular Buddhism will begin to attain a more significant presence in the broader secular society – particularly in the spheres of political philosophy and social justice movements – over the next few years.  To some degree, I believe this is already happening, thanks to the impressive number of talented individuals within our SBN community who dedicate so much of their time and energies to working with political reform causes and social action groups that exist outside of the secular Buddhist world. I’m hopeful that their impact will not only continue to grow, but that it will be amplified further in the future, as more speakers, teachers and authors emerge from within the secular Buddhist community.  The lectures they deliver, the courses they teach, and the books they write will hopefully start to have a positive impact upon various non-Buddhist spheres of society.  Given our focus as secular Buddhists upon the mitigation of suffering and the promotion of flourishing in this life and in this world, the success or failure of our intention depends, I think, upon achieving this kind of broad-based influence in the larger world outside the confines of Buddhism.


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.



6 Replies to “A practitioner’s journey to secular Buddhism: Tom”

Janet Kingston-Davis

Thanks for sharing this, Tom. My experience is similar to yours, even down to finding and reading the work of the same teachers. When I left the Christian cult of Pentacostalism, I was determined that never again would I allow myself to be subsumed into another religious movement. Years later, when Buddhism and meditation became of interest, I also struggled with the religious dogma, rituals, chanting, beliefs about reincarnation etc. and this was a sticking point. Gradually being introduced to secular Buddhism has been the way out of this dilemma. Now, I am as comfortable with being in a monastery as I am meditating at home on my stool because the principles of Buddhism are strong enough in my being. I can allow for the fact that other Buddhists have a need for the religious approach whilst I don’t.
I do agree with you though that the religion of Buddhism, like any dogmatic movement, can be a barrier to Buddhism becoming more mainstream.

Thanks for your comments, Janet. It seems that you’ve travelled a path very similar to my own, and have attained an acceptance of your past and an appreciation of your present much like I have. Your description of yourself “as comfortable in a monastery as I am meditating at home” deeply resonates with me.

David Patten

“Thank you for subscribing to The Liberal Buddhist Review…” https://tomcummings.substack.com

Another thank you. Lots of similarities to my own path, through Zen primarily. And I love Zen’s outlook, its insights into both behavior and the cosmos. But like Janet and you Tom, the ceremonies etc do nothing for me. I was kind of a half-assed Zen practitioner for 8 years, but I did read and listen and there are some profoundly helpful teachers there: Gary Snyder (The Practice of the Wild), Joko Beck, (Nothing Special), and the talks and writings of Norman Fischer. All have been tremendously important for bringing Zen down to daily life but the secular Buddhist approach is really what I’m doing already and am looking for more fellowship on that. Thanks to all.

Thanks for your comments, Eugene. I too find the teachings of Zen very appealing, but it requires too much adherence to ritual for me to commit to Zen as a personal practice. I’ve read a few books by Joko Beck and Norman Fischer, and have enjoyed them greatly. I haven’t yet come across any of Gary Snyder’s writings, but I’ll search him out the next time I visit my local bookstore.

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