For three days in late March, nine women and 23 men came together in Barre, Massachusetts to discuss Secular Buddhism, the growing tendency which emphasises the practical applications of Buddhist ideas and sidesteps – or drops – the religiosity of the various Asian styles of Buddhism that have been transplanted into the West over the past century.
Sceptical about traditional doctrines and models of authority that are seen as features of Asian institutions, secular Buddhists generally view some of the standard beliefs of those who champion and teach Buddhist practices – such as rebirth and karma that goes from lifetime to lifetime – to have little relevance to their practice in an increasingly secularised world.
The two evenings saw sessions addressed by Stephen Batchelor and David McMahan, while 20 other participants from the USA, Europe, Israel and Australia each offered 20 minute presentations during the day. Ten others took part in the discussions without presenting.
Batchelor needs no introduction to those with an interest in secular Buddhism; McMahan is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at a Pennsylvania college and author of The Making of Buddhist Modernism.
Described by Australian dharma teacher Winton Higgins as ‘a think tank, not the founding congress of a secular Buddhist movement’, the participants – who were present by invitation only – included not just those who identified as secular Buddhist practitioners but also some who wanted to consider where secularisation per se was going, while others didn’t have a view on the topic, rather expert knowledge of Buddhist modernism.
Participants who have led retreats and taught in New Zealand included Martine and Stephen Batchelor, Gregory Kramer, Jason Siff, and Winton Higgins. Eventually to be gathered together into a book, some of the contributions to the colloquium may become available on this website over coming months as they are transcribed.
In the meantime, download the schedule for Secular Buddhism: Rethinking the Nikayas for our Times here and read Winton Higgins’ report here.