Colette Descent is an active participant in several SBN groups. She is part of SBN’s monthly online discussion group, the weekly meditation group, a reading group, and an ageing and secular Buddhism group. Finally, Colette is currently participating in the Spring 2022 SBN course on secular Buddhism, Exploring a Secular Dharma.
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?
Colette Descent: Growing up in the very Catholic province of Quebec, religion permeated every single facet of family, home, school, church, health care and community; it was a given that I would be fully versed in its practice and beliefs. It did provide me with a sense of community, social cohesion, spiritual direction, ethical guidance, and it nurtured a strong spirit of service to those in need.
SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you? Why?
CD: In my late teens, I seriously questioned the dogmas and doctrines of the church. There were inconsistencies, contradictions and ‘made up stuff’ that bore no correlation to the spirit of their scriptures. The leadership’s fondness for following hard rules seemed to supersede compassion and sound thought. Jesus and the priests often did not match in either words or deeds. The validity of their stringent rules and claims of infallibility was now exposed to me as a system to simply control the laity.
SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?
CD: Sadly not at the time, as Buddhism was non-existent in my surroundings. At university, I met people of different Christian traditions who all thought they had the Truth, no matter how conflicting. So, I walked away from all religious shenanigans, floating in agnostic wilderness for a while.
I married a guy with a totally different religious background (he was charming at the time), studied his religion, same old story; they have the Truth, everybody else was wrong. Prince Charming turned out to be not charming, so after 11 years and two kids, the marriage blew up. Bereft and traumatised, I joined a new place of worship. Their welcoming and friendly overtures, inclusive pot-luck dinners and joyous musical church services brought me much needed support and care. But right on cue, the weird dogmas, illogical doctrines and power plays started coming out. Exit stage left. I was tired of people making up gods and rules to suit their needs.
Still needing some kind of spiritual food, I made up my own religious practice: Mother Earth, Father Sky, concrete and tangible, very eclectic Wiccan. Great fun for a couple of years, celebrating Yule, Solstice, etc. But it was all frivolous and felt shallow, groundless and directionless.
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?
CD: Three years ago, I randomly found online articles by Thich Nhat Hanh, and his words galvanised me into delving into Buddhism. I devoured books of all traditions – from Salzberg/Goldstein/Kornfield, Norman Fisher, Blanche Hartman, Pema Chodron, Tenzin Palmo, Joan Halifax, the Dalai Lama , to the Ajahns, Bhikkus and Rinpoches. It was an exhilarating spiritual renaissance. I took online retreats and courses with BCBS, IMS, Spirit Rock, Tisarana Monastery, Bodhi College via Tricycle, etc.
The impact was immense joy and peace in finding a practice that was nourishing and wholesome. I felt the genuine care of so many intelligent, compassionate and wise teachers and authors (taking the metaphysics of some lineages with a grain of salt, naturally). I did join a local online sangha this year that was very secularised and sanitised for the retiree crowd. But still, I felt I needed something more.
SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?
CD: I had read a series of essays by B. Allan Wallace, one of which lacerated the views of a certain S. Batchelor. Super intrigued, and always up for controversy, I ordered Stephen’s book Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World.” It was frank and wonderfully eye-opening. I embarked on a Stephen binge, viewed his videos, got more books and eventually landed on the SBN site. I found the honesty of divesting the dharma of its metaphysical elements refreshing, intelligent, logical, pure, practical, believable, adaptable, and fully appropriate and needed for our current world. It is intellectually honest. Yet, Stephen retains his awe of life and its incredible wonders, which is spiritually very wholesome. The word ‘atheist’ does not work for me (cold and dogmatic), whilst ‘non-theist’ is a much better fit for me. There’s a little hint of Shin in my heart still (‘infinite light’ – the big bang and all that universal energy, ‘immeasurable life’ and ‘boundless love’ easily fulfilling my need for awe and wonder with concrete words.)
SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?
CD: The reworking of the Four Noble Truths into a Four-fold task is brilliant in its pragmatic applicability. Dovetailing into the Eightfold Path, it’s all I need to know to practice fully and wholesomely.
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?
CD: Secular Buddhism offers a bespoke fit to my practice, tailored exquisitely to my needs. My practice allows me to act in the world honestly, ethically, wisely and mindfully (except when I blow it, of course). This practice checks all the boxes and creates absolutely no conflict on any level. It is fully synchronous with body, heart and mind. It empowers me to take full responsibility for my life, my happiness and my actions and their consequences. It also allows me to engage with others to bring healing to all the fractures and imbalances in our society in a way that is intelligent, spiritual, yet cleansed of religiosity.
SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?
CD: My husband (the second one) is 100% supportive. He suggests when I need more cushion time, or should do some meditation walking rounds in the garden to quell my impatient reactivity (smart guy, right?). My kids are tolerant of me trying to ‘wake them up’ (to no avail) but perhaps some more years of samsara under their belt will make them more permeable and receptive to these essential teachings ( But when do kids listen to their parents anyways…). My friends are not really interested, they all prefer to merrily stew in their anxiety and reactivity. Others are trying to convert me back to a theistic world view. I do have a new Buddhist acquaintance locally, so there is much mutual support and learning as we share our practices (she’s more Tibetan-bent), so that is encouraging and fun.
SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?
CD: I do sit every day, if possible. I am doing Jhana meditation right now – a 75-day series offered by Bodhipaksa – very secular. I will also do Metta, Tonglen, Insight, Satipathanna, etc for variety, but all secular in outlook of course – the intent is to deepen mindfulness in order to nip reactivity in the bud as I go through life, to work at developing wisdom and to walk ethically at all times (as best as I can).
SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.
CD: I am taking the Compassion Course offered by Tom Bond and belong to a study/practice group called Mudita which has a secularised Buddhism flavour.
I partake in monthly discussions with various SBN groups (a book reading group, an Ageing & Buddhism group and the main forum group), as well as their Sunday meditations and online course on secular Buddhism.
I digitise old paper newsletters for a Buddhist prison outreach program sponsored by Compassion Works for All (CWFA). I belong to a local online sangha (which meets every 3 weeks), where topics are discussed following a themed meditation and some Qi Gong.
SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?
CD: Just as the mindfulness movement has infiltrated many areas of society (schools, prisons, corporations), I would love to see this tied to the ethical component of secular Buddhism. Acting mindfully is great, but it alone is insufficient in making our world more just, equitable and flourishing. The Fourfold task and the Eightfold path are needed to integrate practice with social change. The word ‘Buddhism’ may need to be rebranded, as people are leery of hints of religiosity and may not be apt to plunge into the dharma as readily… As well, it seems people prefer to cling to metaphysics and superstitions in a way to avoid taking personal responsibility for their lives, the lives of the oppressed and the life on our planet. It is my wish that Secular Buddhism find a way to disperse its sense of hope and empowerment throughout the world at large – its dharma message is most needed.