Report on the 2013 Barre, USA, secular Buddhism colloquium

April 26, 2013

This talk was given to Beaches Sangha, Sydney in April 2013.

The setting

Planning for this colloquium, which took place 23–27 March 2013, took two years. Stephen Batchelor and Andrew Olendzki, the director of the host organisation Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) planned and convened it. They launched their ‘idea’ in these terms:

‘Secular Buddhism’ is a term being frequently used to describe a tendency to discard or sideline the religiosity of Buddhism, and emphasise instead the practical applicability of Buddhist ideas in the context of modernity. Those who embrace this tendency are sceptical about certain traditional doctrines…as well as models of authority…which are perceived as features of Asian orthodoxies and institutions, and have little relevance to the practice of the Dhamma in today’s increasingly secularised world.

We foregathered in BCBS’s well-appointed premises in Massachusetts, in snow-covered rural proximity to the famous IMS, which consists of the main retreat centre and the Forest Refuge that caters for longer-term self-retreatants. The event was by invitation only, and 32 participants (nine women and 23 men) came.

Apart from those specifically mentioned in this section, the participants were John Peacock, Gil Fronsdal, Leigh Brasington, Chip Hartranft, Winton Higgins, Akincaro Marc Weber, Gay Watson, Sumi Kim, Rita Gross, Keren Abel, Ken McLeod, Jenny Wilks, Dale Wright, Jake Davis, Chris Queen, Willoughby Britton, Nona Viola, James Shaheen, Adam Eurich, Grady McGonagill, Barbara Bonner, and Barry Hershey. BCBS’s resident scholar, Mu Soeng, participated in most sessions

It was fully funded: no matter where you came from (such as Sydney!), BCBS covered your travel expenses, and you lived in comfortable accommodation and ate five-star retreat food on-site and free of charge. Hence we all found ourselves enrolled in a master class on generosity.

A little more than half of the participants had teachings roles in Buddhist practice communities, and quite a few were academics (in religious studies, philosophy and neuroscience in the main); some were psychotherapists; and some combined these roles. There were also a handful of Buddhist-community builders (an editor, a web master, a consultant to spiritual organisations, and a film maker.)

A number of the participants (Stephen and Martine Batchelor, Rick Hanson, Greg Kramer, David Loy and Jason Siff) had taught in Australia, most of them on a recurring basis. All but eight of us were American or based in the USA; of those who weren’t, four were English, and there was one participant each from Australia, France, Germany and Israel.

This diversity and these proportions fed into the dynamics of the meeting. It was a hard-working event: twenty of us gave formal 20-minute presentations, while two others (Stephen Batchelor and David McMahan) addressed plenary sessions on successive evenings. In the mornings and afternoons there were also two-hour discussion sessions, wherefor participants divided themselves into two groups. Discussion sessions followed the plenary sessions as well. Each full day included eight hours of formal sessions.

What was it all about?

The actual title of the colloquium was Secular Buddhism: rethinking the nikāyas. The term ‘secular Buddhism’ had proliferated over three or four years, along with conflicting conceptions about what it means, or ought to mean. Since many of us who use it as a working concept felt it needed to be related back to the earliest teachings, the appropriate sub-title was added.

The participants also included people from Mahayanic traditions, for which the Pali canon is largely terra incognita, but that raised no substantial difficulty. (We were all amused, however, when one prominent member of a Tibetan lineage, Rita Gross, told us of the shock-horror reaction she elicited from the faithful when she pointed out that the Buddha didn’t compose the Heart sutra.)

The colloquium was originally conceived as a sort of think tank, to encompass those who identified themselves as secular Buddhists, those who simply pondered where secularisation (of everything, including Buddhism) was leading, and those who didn’t take any position but had expert knowledge of Buddhist modernism.

Given this composition, the meeting really did work as a think tank, not as the founding congress of a secular Buddhist movement. Rather, it gave us an opportunity to compare notes on where each of us was ‘coming from’, and to present each other with the reflective fruits of our highly variegated labours.


Perhaps the most moving aspect of the meeting was the warmth and generosity of spirit the participants manifested, which allowed for frank and fearless exchanges that never degenerated into rancour. Indeed, the event reminded me of a well-run academic conference, but in the radical absence of what spooks such events – egos, booze, caucusing and bed-hopping.

So we were able to explore our divergent experiences, starting points and aspirations in a creative way. This meant that our ‘issues’ helped us identify and focus on some interesting facets of the dharma’s enculturation in the west. All the issues are resolvable, given more time and reflection.

I’ll now turn to the four chief issues as they appeared to me, but first assure you that I can’t, in this brief talk, possibly give you an idea of the range of insights and ideas that came up in the presentations and discussions. The colloquium’s instigators intend to publish a book to make available to a wider public the presentations and, perhaps, particularly striking gems from the discussion times. The presentations were filmed, and the discussions recorded; in one way or another, some or all of this material will appear in multi-medial form.


The organisers worked manfully to find and attract as many suitably qualified women as possible to the colloquium. Given the less than satisfactory outcome of this labour, I wondered if we weren’t witnessing a paradox: in spite of the obvious subordination and marginalisation of women in ‘traditional’ Buddhist institutions, can it be that female Buddhist teachers and leaders in the west favour more ‘religious’ approaches to practice and the groups that promote them? (Another possibility is that this is a specifically American problem; of the non-American participants, half were women.)

A much more familiar paradox attracted attention during the meeting: while I’m sure all (or nearly all) the men there embraced progressive gender politics, they often unreflectingly dominated discussions, partly because male facilitators failed to register women indicating that they wanted to join the speaker queue.

A number of women and men commented on this pattern, drawing the obvious conclusion that there’s no room for complacency on gender issues even in Buddhist settings in which of course we’re all feminists now. Justice, equality and inclusiveness constitute the first item of business in the modern moral order, which secular Buddhism must sedulously cultivate if it is to flourish.


From outside the USA, Stephen Batchelor and others have developed a multifaceted but quite straightforward, non-scary concept of secularity in the contemporary Buddhist context. Perhaps its most important meaning is simply a this-worldly orientation, as opposed to the other-worldly one that characterises much of conventional religious life.

But historically, Americans have had their own unique relationship to secularity, in which it originally (in the eighteenth century) meant the freedom to be intensely religious within one’s own chosen denomination instead of in an established church, not freedom from religiosity. The relevant provision of the US constitution – the first amendment, adopted in 1791 (around the same time as its French counterpart) – does not actually use the dreaded S-word, but lays it down that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’

Hence one of the world’s first two constitutionally secular nation states morphed into ‘one nation under God’ in 1954, according to its civic oath of allegiance, and is now by far the west’s functionally most religious nation. In the meantime, ‘secular’ as popularly understood in the US means anti-religious, and is flaunted by that country’s abrasive atheist movement.

Again and again discussion at the colloquium drifted back to the vexed meanings of secularity and religion, and American participants tended to be extremely nervous around the word ‘secular’. (The Swedish expression, like the cat around hot porridge springs to mind.) No amount of semantic clarification could wash out its anti-religious (and therewith unseemly) stain.

Your humble servant found all this quite discombobulating, not least because he’d been in New Zealand a month earlier, knocking around with a robust, long-established secular-Christian movement for which ‘secular religion’ was an accepted working concept. In any event, the secularity/religiosity perplex prevented the colloquium becoming a convergence of minds, though it admirably succeeded in being a meeting of minds (to adopt JM Keynes’s phrase).

Scientism versus interpretive approaches

A few practitioners and exponents of neuroscience and ‘neurodharma’ came to the colloquium and presented interesting material, not least findings from wiring up meditators and using brain-imaging technology to see which parts of their brains lit up when engaging in various meditative practices.

The claimed ‘rigour’ of these scientific investigations accords them a certain street cred. But interest in this material soon gave way to questions about what the observed correlations mean. We seemed to agree to reject dualism – the idea that the physical brain and the experienced mind occupy separate orders of reality. So we accepted the approach that the mind is what the brain does.

But do we take it for granted that the function of meditation is simply to re-engineer the brain to make us more compassionate and loving beings by working the brain’s plasticity – by creating the virtuous neural circuits, optimising neurotransmission, and so on?

Clearly this line of reasoning runs two reductive risks:

  1. that we collapse the mind into observable and quantifiable neural functions; and
  2. that we reduce the dharma itself into a neural re-engineering exercise.

These days more sophisticated, non-reductive approaches to neuroscience are becoming available, ones that allow for the influence on our minds of history, language, culture, embeddedness in particular human environments. But these approaches don’t always reach the neurofundamentalists. See especially Nikolas Rose & Joelle Abi-Rached, Neuro: the new brain sciences and the management of the mind (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013).

The rival approach to understanding the dharma in the modern context aligns it with post-metaphysical thought that highlights the importance of interpreting our conscious experiences and mind states in the unique existential situation each of us finds her/himself in. Adherents of this orientation tend to see science itself as a culture, one with dark corners like any other culture, as the history of the life sciences in particular over the last 150 years in the west shows.

On the other hand, Willoughby Britton treated us to a startling presentation of her scientific investigation of psychological ruptures suffered by some insight-meditation retreatants. These findings could help retreat teachers communicate expectations and think about ways to filter or support unstable retreatants.

The dharma/psychotherapy frontier

We all agreed that something called mindfulness had ‘gone viral’ in the western world, not least in mindfulness-based psychotherapies that claimed dharmic provenance while eliding Buddhism’s expressly ethical and communal framing of all meditative practice, and its teaching on a dana basis. Instead, mindfulness was quite often being packaged and sold for wealth-creation purposes – in some instances, though, it is offered free of charge, as is commonly the case with MBSR – on the basis of ‘evidence-based’ therapeutic efficacy to ameliorate various mental ills and to enhance performance in many activities, often on an individualistic basis.

The recurring example for participants was the US marine corps’ adoption of mindfulness exercises as part of their ‘mental fitness’ training before deploying troops to war zones, and after repatriating them, often suffering various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Some of us made the connection between this appropriation of Buddhist meditation practices and that described in Brian Victoria’s Zen at war, which uncovers the collusion in the 1930s and 40s between the Japanese Zen hierarchy and the armed forces in training troops to be focused and untroubled killers.

What separates dharma practice from psychotherapy is precisely a frontier – not a clear demarcation, but rather a grey area of uncertainty and ambiguity. We can’t avoid negotiating these frontiers, and in negotiating this one, we need to acknowledge the pragmatic point that, in clinical practice, one must and should reach for what works, and hone it into forms that work best. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the integrity of the dharma, which is not a psychotherapy but rather a way of life.

Leave taking

In the final session we agreed nem con that the colloquium had been an extremely valuable meeting, for what came out in the formal sessions, and in personal connections forged at meals and in free time. The organisers seemed open to the strong suggestion that they work towards a similar meeting down the track.



One Reply to “Report on the 2013 Barre, USA, secular Buddhism colloquium”

The BCBS report on the colloquium can be found in the latest issue of Insight Journal

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