by Ramsey Margolis
Nothing is permanent. This includes the ways people have come together over the past 2,400 years to practice the dharma in so many places, and languages. With no secular Buddhist GPS to show us where we really are now, and no handbook to guide us how to exactly do it, our task is to continually revise what it means to be part of a community of dharma practitioners.
We need to be ever more imaginative and resourceful as to how this practice of dharma can respond to the needs we face in the world we live in today. This post is a contribution to a never-ending discussion. Leave your observations, comments and questions below or, if you prefer, send a private message through the Contact form.
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False starts and blind alleys
Having run a number of dharma communities over the past twenty years – to start with an insight meditation sitting group that I set up in 2000 and ran in a deliberately secular way without ever using that word, and most recently a secular dharma practice community – this post sums up where my thinking is at now. It will change.
So, if you think you’d like to start a secular Buddhist group, here are some of the ways in which I did this, and some suggestions around what you need to consider as you engage in the process of creating and sustaining a community which connects people as they develop a secular dharma practice, on their own and together.
First of all, ask yourself why you want to do this. Here’s my response: setting up and nurturing a secular dharma community, I saw my own practice grow and develop alongside others as I was engaging with them, guiding them; the value in this is immeasurable. Helping others with their practice, helping them get to grips with a way of understanding the Buddha’s teachings that will assist them to thrive as humans in a difficult world, I was at the same time learning and developing far more than if I had simply taken part in someone else’s group (that felt more or less okay), sitting at the back wondering why I was going along. Or just read books and meditated on my own at home.
But … expect a couple of false starts, and don’t be too surprised when you realise that you’re at the end of a blind alley. You could also find yourself sitting on your own from time to time; I did on one occasion.
One Mindful Breath
Until the end of 2018, I was one of the people who ran One Mindful Breath (OMB), Wellington’s secular dharma practice community. From January 2019, others took on the tasks needed to run the group. For our first four years of existence, though, the group was known as Simply Meditation.
An initiative of my wife, Despina, her intention was that I would explain to her and some of her girlfriends how to meditate, and help them develop an ongoing practice, but in a non-scary way. We needed an essentially non-religious approach and a name that wouldn’t frighten her friends away. Identifying as ‘Orthodox’ if you quizzed them about their religion, they were comfortable remaining involved in the community of Greek New Zealanders into which they were born, and not looking for a new religion (thank you very much).
So why would they come to our home on a Wednesday evening and meditate together? Like many who take enrol in introductions to meditation courses and commercial mindfulness programmes, they were hoping that meditating would offer them a way to deal with their thoughts, feelings and memories, with their anguish and suffering, and help them to flourish as a person. Three from this original group would continue to take part for a long while, but sadly one other died.
Our little meditation group at home started to attract more people, some of whom were coming along regularly. In what seemed like no time at all, our living room was decidedly too small, so we rented a room from a community group, then shifted into Newtown community centre. When we outgrew that meeting room, our meditation sessions moved to the community room belonging to Wellington’s Quakers.
The people who turned up to our Wednesday evening sessions were described once as a coalition of practitioners from different traditions, and none, who got together to practice meditation. This may sound good, but in fact it’s quite challenging. The range of assumptions that people bring into a group whose leadership is attempting to articulate a new, groundbreaking, secular approach to dharma practice is vast. We have no idea, of course, what goes on in someone else’s head when they are meditating – unless they’re prepared to reflect on it afterwards and share some of these reflections.
Heaps of energy goes into running a dharma group: planning and publicising weekly meetings and daylong retreats, finding interesting material for a monthly newsletter, curating a website, paying the bills, creating community events, bringing tea, coffee and biscuits, and so much more. How much energy do you have? Have you the skills to engage others so they take on some of the responsibilities? If you don’t already, you’ll develop them.
At one point, it became clear that each of our evenings was by default a beginners’ session. However, we really were much more than the name suggested: simply meditation. The Buddha’s dharma in secular clothing was present in all our discussions, so what we decided was needed was a varied programme with both predictability and flexibility. And a change of name that reflected our intention to create a secular dharma practice community – more on that below.
The month started with ‘Beginner’s Mind’, at which we introduced different practices such as sitting, walking, and loving kindness meditations. The second Wednesday evening was often devoted to reflective meditation, at which everyone brings (or more likely forgets to bring and is given) a notebook and a pen and asked to reflect on what went on during their meditation session, and make a few notes.
On the third Wednesday of the month we brought in a teacher or practitioner from outside Wellington using Zoom who gave a talk and kicked off a discussion. You can see recordings of some of these sessions – with visitors from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Spain, the UK, the USA and elsewhere in Aotearoa New Zealand – on the One Mindful Breath Youtube channel here.
We considered the fourth Wednesday of the month to be our study evening. Someone would introduce a dharma topic and talk about it from a secular viewpoint, and then facilitate a discussion.
When there was a fifth Wednesday in the month (which happens four or five times a year), it would become a social evening with a short meditation to begin with, perhaps around slowly peeling and eating a mandarin orange, or smelling, tasting and eating a single square of chocolate. After a discussion we’d then have a potluck.
From this you’ll see that as the month went on, more depth was added until finally we arrived at an evening of conviviality. The next month, we started all over again.
From time to time we would offer study groups, and it was noticeable that they drew a slightly different crowd from Wednesday evening sessions. Commuters from out of town would remain after work for a six-week or seven-week study programme while, interestingly, they wouldn’t stay in town for a weekly meditation session.
Learn from our mistakes
Designing a schedule is one thing; implementing it another thing. You don’t have to make all the mistakes we did, so here are some of the other lessons learnt over the years. This is a list of suggestions, remember – not a blueprint.
✘ Think carefully about the group’s name; any name you choose will attract some and repel others. Who exactly do you want to attract, and what kind of person do you not want in the group? You can read about our change of name to One Mindful Breath here.
✘ Starting small and remaining small makes it easier to manage; if your community becomes unwieldy consider ways you might devolve it into smaller groups, perhaps on a geographical basis.
✘ Nurture your community: make sure every get together includes a convivial interlude, or perhaps ends with tea and biscuits.
Communicate, communicate, communicate!
✘ Letting people know the group exists with a simple website is a must do; it’s never been easier to set one up, but be sure to keep it updated with a current schedule, reviews and articles.
✘ Send out a short monthly newsletter by email to announce your meetings, perhaps monthly, and consider whether you might bring people along through a Facebook page, a WhatsApp group, or a Meetup group. Meetup is great for developing your audience – more on this below.
✘ Share printed handouts with those who come along. They could be on the topic of that night’s meeting or they could be a basic introduction to secular dharma ideas and practices.
Who’s in charge here?
✘ Take the leadership role seriously, and decide what kind of facilitator or teacher you want, or want to be: one who encourages participants to take responsibility for their practice and their lives, or one who shepherds and fleeces a fine flock of followers?
✘ Most people want to be handed the solution to their suffering on a plate; it can be dispiriting to be told they need to put in effort, to be persistent; developing a strategy to help them deal with their inevitable disappointments helps them stay, and enables your community to thrive.
✘ Expect churn. People turn up with every good intention to meditate, but no matter how many times you encourage them to practice, practice, practice until all their hair is on fire something more interesting will show up, such as a new series on Netflix, the All Blacks at the Westpac Stadium, or a baby shower.
✘ Not comfortable thinking of yourself as a teacher? Consider yourself a spiritual friend walking the path alongside your dharma buddies. Bring other secular Buddhist voices into your community to echo yours online using Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp or FaceTime. Or use recorded talks, both audio and video; heaps can be found online.
✘ If there’s one aspect that clearly separates a secular dharma community from the more traditional Buddhist communities it’s that we generally run them on a democratic basis. Just like we run all our communities such as tennis clubs, reading groups, and even poultry clubs.
Paying the bills
✘ One Mindful Breath took a leap of faith when we decided that all activities would be offered without a fixed fee. It’s so much easier to ask people for a fixed amount, but how then will they learn to be more generous – to themselves, and to all beings? Will your group be financed from fees, or simply from the generosity of those who turn up?
✘ Don’t be scared to ask for periodic financial support from those who do turn up regularly, in particular those who see, feel and understand the benefits of being part of your community. Doing this, you are creating a culture of generosity. One Mindful Breath has a small number of financial supporters and while they may not turn up regularly they nevertheless donate a small amount (of their choice) weekly, fortnightly or monthly. This makes it real easy to pay for the room.
✘ The OMB donation box is in the shape of a coffin and has two sections: one for the community, and another for the teachings. People are asked to put their dana into one or both sides; their choice. It’s a great talking point. You can see it here.
Audience and community
✘ It’s absolutely vital that you understand the difference between having an audience and being involved in a community. By far the majority of people who come to your secular dharma group will not want to commit in any way, shape or form. This is your audience. Nurturing a community takes time, effort and a lot of generosity on your part. It won’t be big.
✘ At one point, we looked at everyone who was connected with OMB and decided we were:
1 facilitator / teacher
1 practice leader
8 regular donors
14 WhatsApp group members
19 on the ‘Who we are’ page of the website
20 irregular attendees
269 newsletter subscribers
877 Meetup members
✘ Face-to-face or online? There’s a place for both. Very real connections are developed in face-to-face community, though as a member of an online group I have excellent one-to-one relationships with people around the world, so I don’t discount online community entirely; it just feels different. When one of the earliest members of One Mindful Breath left Wellington and wanted to keep in touch, we set up a twice-monthly online meeting to keep in touch with him. More on this here. You’re most welcome to join us.
✘ Having a regular schedule is really important; weekly works well, but if you meet less frequently than fortnightly then people will find it hard to seriously engage as a community.
✘ Look for ways you can engage as a group in your wider community. You may choose for instance to help people without a home, pick up rubbish on the beach, attend Extinction Rebellion marches, or campaign for things like free water fountains.
✘ Don’t expect too much from others; few will be willing to engage, to take part, and seeing as many won’t have the ability to take responsibility for their own suffering, they won’t take your group as seriously as you, the organisers, do.
✘ Connecting with secular dharma communities and individuals around the country and around the world offers lots of wonderful opportunities for the exchange of ideas and experience. That’s why we set up a Secular Buddhist Network.
✘ Above all keep a sense of humour, and share it.
Interested in setting up a secular Buddhist community?
What’s your experience of running a dharma community? How might you do things differently?
Wherever you are in the world, and no matter which language you speak, if you’re interested in getting help to set up a secular Buddhist or secular dharma practice community please take a look at this page:
And the website you’re reading this on has been set up to help people do exactly that.