From Anglican Catholic to secular Buddhist

January 2, 2024


My dear mother was a dedicated and devout Episcopalian. While my father was basically disinterested in things spiritual (until he entered old age -  more to be said about this), my mother made sure that all three of her strapping sons were thoroughly indoctrinated in the Anglican Catholic faith.  In fact, being the oldest I was expected to be a model Christian for my two younger brothers. Both my next youngest brother and I were invited/forced to be altar boys for our church and Father Middleton. Our indoctrination included Bible study, of course, and catechism classes so we could imbibe in consuming the flesh and blood of Christ at holy communion each week.  While I never really believed in the holy transmutation at communion, I remembered being concerned at a very young age that we must be cannibals since we ate Christ’s flesh every week at church. 

Despite my heavy indoctrination, I never took the obligatory leap of faith, and drank of the Christian Kool-Aid. I remember asking Father Middleton on more than one occasion how he knew that there was life after death. I always got the same answer from the good Father: ‘Because God tells me so every day.’ On questions such as ‘If God is all powerful (omnipotent) and all knowing (omniscient), then he knows that there are children starving all over the world, and he has the power to stop their suffering if so chooses, then why doesn’t he do so?’ – I would inevitably get: ‘God works in mysterious ways that transcend our ability to understand them.’

Even as a young child, before I freely took the leap into the mysterious Christian abyss, I wanted proof that post-mortem existence was real. I didn’t know the discipline or word as a 12-year-old, but what I demanded at the time was empirical evidence that life after death existed – no evidence, no Kool-Aid for this guy. When I got older and became a philosophy student, I became even more dedicated to empirical evidence as prerequisites to understanding as a consequence of studying Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology. I soon became even more insistent that belief must be suspended until the empirical evidence piles high enough to break down the barriers.

Then, I picked up The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau Roshi, and I craved Enlightenment in the worst way.  I began to practice Zazen with the appropriate cushions I purchased from the internet. It soon occurred to me in one of my horrendously difficult 10-minute Zazen meditations that in craving and working for ‘Enlightenment’ at some point in the future, I was not walking the Path in the here and now.  In addition, Martin Heidegger’s ghost visited me one night and reminded me in the harshest terms that just as with the Christian Heaven, rebirth and the karmic cycle were not subject to empirical proof. Once again, I was being asked to make the dreaded leap of faith – same Kool-Aid, different flavor.

My next question was: Is it possible to walk the Eight-Fold Path and enjoy a measurable decrease in dukkha (suffering) while suspending belief in karma and rebirth?  In addition, even as a disenchanted Episcopal altar boy, I was put off by the ritualism and the pomp and pageantry involved in Catholic worship, and Zen had a lot of rituals.  Despite some doubts that it would bear fruit, however, I continued to meditate and practice right living as a Zen Buddhist while suspending belief in many of the cosmological truths of Zen Buddhism.

Then, as if by karmic grace, I picked up Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Bachelor. I realized in the first chapter that I was a secular Buddhist and didn’t even know it.  The answer to my first question about suspension of belief and the effectiveness of walking the Buddhist Path was answered in spades. No more drinking of Kool-Aid; no more pomp and pageantry; no more nonsense and ritualistic distractions, and no more living for a future state of grace. Thank you, Steven Bachelor.

Finally, while I am glad that I found secular Buddhism, it is one thing for a 24-year old philosophy student to suspend belief in a post-mortem existence, but as a 75-year-old Secular Buddhist, it is a solid and difficult struggle at times. My father became a born-again Christian at the age of 70 because he was afraid that if he didn’t pay homage to the Christian God, he would have either no chance at a post-mortem existence, or, even worse, that he would live eternally in the bowels of Hell.  My dedication to Husserl’s phenomenological epoché remains an important tool in my secular Buddhist practice day to day, but on some days as I get older and older, I sometimes crave the sweet taste of Kool-Aid.


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10 Replies to “From Anglican Catholic to secular Buddhist”

Carey Chamberlin

As the youngest brother of the author, I have to chime in. As a younger lad I became enamored with the Christian religion until I realized over time it was all hocus- pocus, or as my brother puts it, drinking the Kool-aid. My father was an avowed narcissist and an Avoidant personality. I became aware of this too late to do me any good, aside from recognizing that brother Jack’s awareness of why our father was doing what he was doing was spot on.

I have given up enlightenment or any belief in anything without proof. (Blame my degree in biology-pre-med or later, my doctorate in psychology.). But, just like brother Jack, I have a firm belief that just because someone says it is so does not make it so.

Still pursuing a doctorate in comparative religion, I am very much interested in how cultures form and the role religion has in that. In the end, when we supposedly stand in front of our God, we get to say “Oops”, I thought I was doing it all for (Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, whomever) “, take your pick. Maybe better than picking your nose, but just minisculy.

Cedar

I don’t see why being ‘awakened’ or ‘enlightened’ (for the sake of discussion these states had to be labeled when in fact they can’t be….) has anything to do with empirical evidence. It is just so all the ‘right keys for the wrong locks’ or the ‘wrong keys for the right locks’/ dunno… XD

Cedar: I think you must agree that any person in this day and age must have some sort of intellectual device within arm’s reach in order to sift through the tonnage of information now available through the internet in particular. I choose to utilize empiricism as my sift, and those intellectual objects that are not available to my device are by definition held aside until and if they are available for empirical scrutiny; the state of “enlightenment” is not measurable by empirical understanding, nor is Karma; rebirth; or post-mortem existence….I hold these suspended at arm’s length…….I refuse to drink the kool-aid that demands a leap of faith……….

Paul Overend

Thank you for your account. I too came from an Anglo-Catholic church of my childhood, was impressed by Anglo-Catholic commitments to social justice and the mystical tradition, alongside Catholic interlocutors and influencers (such as Liberation Theology)
I went on to train with the Mirfield Fathers (CR) and was ordained in my mid 20s, serving as a priest for 30 years.
But theologically I was very liberal from reading for my first degree onwards, and became an admirer of Don Cupitt, Jack Spong, and others. I went on the read a Masters in philosophical theology and a PhD in ‘continental’ philosophy of phenomenology (with a dissertation on Levinas), while being a priest and theological educator.
I struggled to remain within the church, largely in posts in which I was teaching theology to ordinands and lay ministers, while having a revisionist understanding of theology (akin to John Caputo).
I came across Buddhism through reading in psychology and learning a little about Buddhist psychology, which gave me a welcome critique of the humanistic approach of person-centred tradition in psychotherapy (Carl Rogers).
I have since been delighted to explore ‘Secular Buddhism’ of Stephen Batchelor, Mike Slott, and others. I find the discussions stimulating and supportive.

John

My mother was a devout anglo-catholic who lost her faith, rather painfuly, after marrying my atheist father, who had himself rebelled vigorously against his parents devout Methodist faith. My parents had done the heavy lifting of rebellion against traditional Christian religion for me.

As a teenager I was something of a “born again atheist” pushing back against the tide of “Moral Majority” style born again Christianity that did well in the ’80s. A brush with my own mortality in my mid 20’s rattled me big time so I scurried off to scour the shelves of the local eco feminist bookshop, going from A to Z in the sprituality/religion section. Nothing really worked for me until I got to Z and “The 3 Pillars of Zen” book. Soon I was sitting in meditation at home then finally started to sit at the local Soto Zen dojo.

The support of sitting in a group helped my mediatation – it still does – but just as I was about to take the plunge and work towards ordination I read “Zen at War” by Brian Victoria. Goebel’s praise of Zen as a “truly fascist religion” and a mass of evidence that Soto Zen was an enthusiastic part of the imperial miltarist culture in Japan in the 1930s & 40s knocked me sideways. I continued sitting at my local dojo led by warm hearted, progressive people but put my “Zen career” on hold.

Stephen Batchelor’s “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” interleaving Stephen’s journey from wide eyed Tibetan monk through 2 disrobings to secular Budhhist writer and Gotama’s life story – messy human and relatable – & a down to earth secular understanding of his teaching, that way of thinking works for me.

I still value sitting with the support and friendship of my local dojo. Paradoxically I am happier with the ritual now than I was before. Even Dogen’s writing now reads, to me at least, as being suprisingly secular for a 13th Century Japanese monk. His notion of “practice awakening” fits with secular friendly notion of “nirvanic moments” being the start of the journey rather than the end.

As I get older maybe I will want some consolatory beliefs in rebirth etc but not yet. The combo of secular dharma & the practice of an establised tradition has helped me navigate the death of both my parents over the 4 years. My sense is that a secular framing of the dharma, buddhism etc works well, better for me certainly than having to swallow ideas alien to how I otherwise understand the world.

Cedar

Thanks for sharing, John. This paragraph, ‘Goebel’s praise of Zen as a “truly fascist religion” and a mass of evidence that Soto Zen was an enthusiastic part of the imperial miltarist culture in Japan in the 1930s & 40s knocked me sideways’

It primed me to recall something Socrates said about if all the townfolks put their sorrows in a heap, each one of them would be able to pick up something and walk away happy. (not in those exact words but same message) I am just thinking that the Zen being part of old imperial Japan does not necessarily mean it was invalid. Actually, ZEN originated from Bodhidharma of Old China (not Japan, it was transmitted to Japan) and the Shaolin lineage came from there.

Thank you for sharing your story, John……it seems we’ve walked very similar paths. Yes, at some point in age, the existence or non-existence of a post-mortem life ceases to be just an object of curiosity, and it becomes almost an unreachable object of desire……my life would be much easier at 75 years of age if I could just take the leap of faith and drink the Kool-Aid of the after-life……I still refuse to do so..ask me again at 80, if I live that long.

Dean Richard Joy

Thanks for sharing. Sometimes, when things are good, we want it to last forever. Especially when it’s time with people we love.

Cedar

This is so heartfelt and hilarious. Thank you for sharing. I grew schooled as a Buddhist in a Catholic school way there in SE Asia. I must say the education was one of the best and as it is a Muslim predominant country where I ‘survived’ and ‘escaped to exile’ in 2001 and never went back… I was saying that it being a multicultural country, there were less enforced conversion programs. Of course, schools of thought that have one Apex figure be it a ‘God’ or an ‘Emperor’ will always need confirmation by how many converts they get, rather than seeing in our own hearts where our faith is at, and be more concerned with this then telling others what God said or is doing. Anyway, I am with Tibet House US and the vision is also not to claim to be a ‘Buddhist’ but to welcome spiritual inquiry. I am a Buddhist btw, a very recalcitrant and rogue one. I don’t think in Asia they will acknowledge me being ‘Buddhist’.

I like Jesus and Siddhartha (probably Mohammed too- sorry this old wise man…haven’t had time to dwell into too many religious prophets since their stuff is all too profound and requires a lifetime or two of deep thought, so not enough life span.) I like them because they manifested in our human realm, attained sainthood, and are historically real. I like Siddhartha a bit more than Jesus because his family’s legacy is less helmed by power politics (such as the Vatican) and church institutions that have unfortunately shown ongoing evidence of paternalistic control and other forms of oppression. But I suppose it is not hard to see that my karma (ah yes, I do believe in this :D) has seen my current birth in Asia which is predominantly Buddhist so it is what it is. I do like the methods of enlightenment that Siddhartha discovered. I find it practical and applicable though not always that easy to attain (just like one would love ‘A+’ for all academic subjects but not necessarily possess the aptitude and resolve to get there.) I don’t think my Buddhist brothers and sisters will like me much, and I hope they don’t since I don’t like them and their ‘gatekeeping’ of institutionalized Buddhism makes me sick. To be fair since this is such a blanket statement, there are always good people in every bad place, even on the battlefront; one knows instinctually that there can be very bad people fighting as your comrade and very good people one has to shoot at.

I have to read Batchelor’s book. I am sure that is how both Siddhartha and Jesus (and possibly, Mohammed) would have wanted it: that back-to-basics. I was schooled in a Catholic school and surrounded by Catholic family members, however, in this comment, I shall avoid speaking about it as I knew Catholicism or Christianity. Anyway, I accidentally baptized myself* when I was in grade 1 at 6 years old (was secluded in my world then so maybe more like my peer’s ‘4-year-old’…) What I am saying is that I am more confident to speak as if I know/knew Siddhartha’s teachings.

I do enjoy being part of SBN and the amazing Zoom and group discussions. I notice many seem to doubt ‘karma’ and ‘rebirth’. For me at least (can only speak for myself) these two nodes in the web of Dharma practices if unraveled will cause your final enlightenment. So, don’t just discard them, if you must then tear them apart. Good Luck.

* it was an accident as I was too adventurous at my school chapel when the sisters weren’t around and had holy H20 fall all over me. 🙂

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