Interview with Dave Smith on teaching during COVID and a secular approach to the dharma

Dave Smith  is a meditation teacher and one of the co-founders of the Secular Dharma Foundation, which offers several programs that integrate the insights of Early Buddhism with science and psychology. In addition to online programs focused on mindfulness and Buddhist recovery,  Dave mentors people individually.

We previously interviewed Dave for SBN in December 2019. This interview was conducted 15 October 2021, and has been edited and condensed in the text below.


Secular Buddhist Network: So, Dave, it’s great to have you back to check in and see how things are going for you and the programs that you’re working on right now.

Dave Smith:  Yeah, thanks. It’s good to see you again. I can’t believe it was two years ago.

SBN: Well, I think COVID has stretched out time in various ways. To start with, Dave, we had a really interesting conversation when we talked at the end of 2019. And you have such an interesting history. You started off very early getting involved in meditation practice, attending retreats, and you got deeply involved in it. You worked with meditation teachers primarily in the Theravada and insight meditation traditions. That’s where your training began; it was the context for your training. Then you worked with the Against the Stream meditation group founded by Noah Levine. And then you went on to develop your own way of teaching and your own perspectives about how meditation and Buddhist insights could be incorporated into the contemporary world.

So, since our interview back in December 2019, do you see any ways in which your perspectives have continued to evolve? Have you changed your views about anything? I think it would be helpful for folks to get a sense of how you have changed since then.

DS: Yeah, I certainly have. I think that with dharma practice, the thing to compare it to is evolution, that the dharma, like everything, evolves, right? Like plants and animals in nature, our practice evolves, our understanding evolves to some degree. The dharma has been evolving for 2500 years. And so I think that the analogy of the dharma with natural evolution is really important. Around the last time we spoke, I was finishing up a course that I never released called Reimagining the Four Noble Truths. And I’d spent probably hundreds of hours on the course. I was getting ready to launch the course and then I spent some time at Upaya on a retreat with Stephen Batchelor. I heard his talks on the topic and I realized that I needed to put the course aside because I had left a bunch of stuff out.

Part of the way I approach Buddhism is looking at the historical texts and really trying to make a distinction between dharma practice and Buddhism. Stephen Batchelor has emphasized that and I think a lot of people are thinking along those lines. It’s really easy to lump them together. What I’ve really been interested in is the idea that in the historical time of the Buddha there were actually two dharma paths. There was a path of monasticism. People who wanted to take the robe, shave their heads, do the 227 precepts, etc. Now, that is mostly what we think about when we think about Buddhism. We have a very thorough snapshot into the world of the monastic tradition that has been going on for 2500 years. But also at the time of the Buddha there were people – lay people, non-monastics. They were artisans, they were potters, they were bakers, they were farmers, they were making rope. There was a whole bunch of people doing business and who were also practicing the dharma. And my interest is to go back and figure out what was that path like? And how do we, as secular people who have sexual lives and are non-monastic, live? I’m a non-monastic person. I have to deal with taxes and politics, and sexism and racism, parenting and mortgages, insurance payments, and all that stuff.

The dukkha of non-monastic life – I think a lot of that stuff gets left out in the classical teachings, including right speech, right action, and right livelihood. So, I spent the majority of the last couple of years trying to rethink and repackage, and come up with, really practical applications for how we can use the sila (ethical) path factors of the Eightfold Path as part of the liberation process itself.

SBN: That’s very interesting. I think you’re right that, to the extent that lay people are talked about in Early Buddhism, it’s almost as an afterthought. The actual path for lay people is not very much defined. Because the emphasis was obviously on building the sangha through monasticism. And I also think it’s true that the factors of right speech, right action, and right livelihood are not necessarily the ones that are most emphasized by meditation teachers. It’s been my experience on retreats that you’ll hear some dharma talks on right speech but rarely around right livelihood. That path factor is crucial for understanding how we live in this society in a way that is mindful and compassionate.

The pandemic has created for all of us so many changes, challenges, and stresses in our day to day lives and how we think about things. So, I just want to ask you – we had the interview three months before COVID hit – how has the pandemic affected you both personally and in terms of your teaching, your various projects?

DS: As much as the pandemic has been a tragedy for most people and really disruptive, there’s always the other side of the coin. For me, I would say that I mostly have found this period to be fruitful, more meaningful. It’s really challenged me to question why I do what I do. So, I actually think that I’ve grown a lot during this time. And to some degree, the timing was good because I was driving back from Upaya after being with Stephen Batchelor after a five-day retreat and on my ride home about 30% of my work for the upcoming year got cancelled. I saw a huge financial disruption. And so, my wife and I found that our life became a kind of retreat, a retreat center, because we weren’t going anywhere. We were only going to the grocery store every two weeks wearing masks. So, we had this kind of almost monastic home life, getting up at the same time, eating the same time, and having the same schedule every day. And it was really quite nice, being home with a small child who at the time was 1 year old. So, I’ve really been home with my family.

On a professional level, I felt lucky that I was already moving to online stuff. I’d already been in the online class domain, having worked with Mindful Schools. So, I was prepared for that. I also had an online mentoring program that I grew during this time. But the main thing is that the pandemic forced me to rethink everything. Being a dharma teacher is a weird career choice. It’s totally ‘choose your own adventure’. It changes constantly; it’s always stressful and then there’s the financial stresses. The pandemic just made me get more honest about what it is that I want to do. When programs got cancelled, I noticed that certain programs, certain retreats that I had on the calendar, when they got cancelled, I felt relieved. It made me really think about what are the things that I do as a teacher that are actually meaningful to me. I picked up some bad habits from my teacher Noah Levine who said ‘You just say yes to everything and you just go out and do the work and it all comes out in the end’. But I found myself asking myself: What is the stuff I’m doing just because I can and they’re going to pay me and I need the money? It also made me look at things like climate change – for example, getting on an airplane to fly to New York City or California to teach a one-day workshop or a couple talks. I don’t know how skillful that is if I’m looking at my carbon footprint. So, the pandemic really forced me to consider: What really matters to me?

SBN: I think what you’re saying is really important. Unfortunately, in our capitalist society you have to earn a living, right? You have to be able to support yourself and your family. And in the dharma teaching world, there is a lot of competition in terms of who is going to be able to do retreats. So, I can see how the pandemic would be an opportunity to put a pause on the routine fallback position of just saying yes to doing all the retreats and workshops that you can.

DS: What I really am very dedicated and committed to is taking a smaller group of people further than doing this kind of Johnny Appleseed dharma teaching, where you just go everywhere and you see people and you give talks and maybe connect with two or three people. I’m really kind of over that. This is really what turned me on to focusing on the path factors which don’t get talked about so much – action, livelihood, and speech. Most of my time I spend doing, talking, acting, and working in order to survive. If that is so much of my day and I don’t have a dharma framework or contemplative framework on how to approach that, then I think we’re missing out on so much. And when you look to the early teachings, you don’t get much. You get the four suggestions around right speech, the five precepts, and for livelihood you get basically nothing, right. You don’t sell weapons or drugs, you don’t human traffic. Most of us don’t have any connection with that, probably aren’t even interested in that stuff anyway.


Dave Smith on a secular perspective on the sila path factors


SBN: Important point. As you said, you were already beginning to have an online presence, right? But COVID forced us to go pretty much online fully. What’s your sense of the connections that can be made with students, people that you’re mentoring, and with groups online on Zoom compared to in person contact?

DS: I think Zoom is great, a lot better than I thought it would be. I was always anti-Skyping back when people were mostly Skyping or doing Facetime. I never did much of that. When I started working for Mindful Schools, I started having to do lots of Zoom meetings just because we were in different places and found Zoom to be pretty good. The area where I find it most meaningful and helpful is with one to one interactions, such as mentoring on Zoom. On Zoom, I can have a deep connection with people, sometimes even a therapeutic connection. We get to talk about struggles and challenges. And you can really have a very intimate exchange on Zoom. That’s why I have a mentoring program.

Now, in terms of groups, it depends on the size of groups. I’ve been on Zoom calls that had 900 people. I’ve had Zoom calls with 3 people. I think once you need more than one screen, it gets a little bit like I feel I’m teaching myself. I do some large Zoom meetings with dharma communities around the country – in San Francisco, Albuquerque, etc. I’m happy to do that, but I don’t know how useful those meetings are for the participants. I think that with those kinds of meetings people are kind of getting burned out on.

The one thing I haven’t done and am very resistant to doing is online retreats, actual multi-day retreats. First, logistically, it doesn’t really work out for me because I have screaming children downstairs and upstairs where I live. I don’t have an environment where I can be away that long. More important, you can’t recreate the retreat experience on a computer screen. The power of in person retreats is what happens in that space. There is a dharma transmission. Not to get esoteric or spooky about this, but there’s something that happens that you can’t put your finger on when human beings are together in a room with good teachers and good instructions, and where you’re really practicing and reflecting on these things in a big way. You’re having the dharma transmission, an exchange of nonverbal energy, an emotional experience. That is the stuff that makes the retreat setting so meaningful. I don’t think you can create that  on Zoom.

SBN: I’ve heard the same thing from other people that have participated in online, multi-day retreats. However, one thing that the expansion of online connections has done, despite its limitations, is that it has been able to connect people with similar interests around the world. In the secular Buddhist community, there are many more groups that have been able to form through Zoom when, in the past, most people would have thought of a sangha as being a local group that met in person. And if they didn’t know anybody with a similar interest in their locality, then they didn’t have a sangha to participate in. But because of Zoom there are secular Buddhists connecting with each other from many different countries.

DS: You’re pointing to something really important. We can more easily form affinity groups; you can participate in groups and meditation centers that are closely aligned with your interests. Without Zoom, if I live in a city, I’m at the mercy of whoever is teaching at my local dharma center. And I may not be interested in what they have to say. I just kind of have to accept what’s being offered. But with Zoom, I can participate in discussions that really interest me. I did a program on not-self with Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, and they were both in Europe. I was able to participate in that program. If it wasn’t for COVID, they might have taught it in person at Gaia House in England and maybe I could listen to the program, maybe not, later. I think that’s a big benefit of the sort of globalization of discussions that Zoom has enabled.

SBN: Well, it sounds like you have used the time during COVID as a period of reflection and reorientation, figuring out what your priorities are. So, let me turn to one of your most important projects, which you started with your spouse – the Secular Dharma Foundation. We talked a bit about this is the prior interview. Before you discuss the current projects of the foundation, can you speak about why you use the term ‘secular’ for your foundation? What do you mean by secular?

DS: That’s a great question. Generally speaking, I think the term is grossly misunderstood. For me, in the first place, secular means non-monastic. I’m a non-monastic Buddhist practitioner. I’m not anti-monastic; I’m actually pro-monastic and love the monastic tradition. I’m just not doing that; I’m doing something different. I live in the secular world of civic responsibility, family responsibilities. I’m interested in the world that I live in. I’m interested in climate change, and racism, and doing white awake work. I’m very involved in this culture.

A guy in the mid to late 1800s, George Holyoake, wrote one of the first papers on secularism. And he really thought that the term, atheism, was too aggressive as a synonym for secularism. And he thought that secularity also implies a concern with ethics. So, for me, the three criteria of secularity are, first, that the goal of secularity is to improve the quality of life for everybody on the planet. That’s the starting point. The second is that if we’re going to put our trust in anything, if we’re going believe or put stock in anything, it really needs to be science. It’s the stuff that’s well-researched that we know. It’s actually taking the science over the mystical, esoteric ideas that we find in religions. And unfortunately, that we find in Buddhism. We’re not negating that; we’re just putting it aside and saying, ‘Let’s go to the science first’. And the third one is that, it’s good to do good, to support generosity and kindness and good will – all the Buddhist ideas that people throw around. It’s really good to integrate those into your words and into how you live and work.

And the other element of secularity I pull from a very huge Buddhist figure, the Dalai Lama, who wrote a book called Beyond Religion. This is a book on secular ethics. The thing that he does which is very important is emphasizing the spirit of tolerance of opposing views. We need to tolerate the fact that we don’t all agree on all things, and that is OK. I like that because while I have my secular views, I have students who are devout Catholics and devout Christians. I work with people who have very strong religious faiths. I shouldn’t say I tolerate that; I actually respect that. There’s no problem; you can practice the dharma and be a devout Christian. They’re not exclusionary.

Finally, the secular world has so much to offer in terms of psychotherapy, science, how we understand the mind and the therapeutic process. In terms of attachment theory and trauma therapy and addiction. We know so much that we would be foolish not to integrate these ideas into dharma practice. Our goal is a marriage of these two worlds – Buddhism and secular resources.

SBN: That’s a really insightful way of talking about secularity. To some extent, the discussion between traditional Buddhists and secular Buddhists gets hung up on binaries, such as traditional religion versus modern secularism. So, the debate is often over whether secularity is anti-religious. What do you think?

DS: Secularity does not mean that. Secularity is a rounded way that encompasses, that can actually see the binaries for what they are. And in the spirit of tolerance, of kindness point to a behavioral system that incorporates both the teachings of Buddhism and secular resources.

SBN: So, tell us about the Secular Dharma Foundation’s current projects.

DS: Well, right now because of COVID, we’ve invested in some online courses. We currently have three online courses. We have an online course called Mindfulness for Everyone, which is just a great secular mindfulness training course. There are eight modules in it. It’s like taking a class at a community college. It’s certainly everything you need to know about mindfulness of the body, bringing in training in trauma therapy and nervous system regulation. We deal with the cognitive part, the mind, with topics such as cognitive awareness, metacognitive awareness. Also, emotional and relational components of mindfulness. It’s a very thorough course and is self-paced.

We also have a Buddhist recovery subscription course; you sign up and pay a monthly fee and you get access to all the online material. We have Buddhist recovery podcasts developed in connection with this. The great thing about this course is the subscription thing, you can join and cancel at any time. There’s a weekly ‘live’ class, every Wednesday night. My wife, Shannon, and I – one of us – will do this. We’ll do a meditation and then we’ll have a group discussion so people can actually come in to Zoom and practice together. We can explore these ideas together. We can share our experiences. So, that has been a really successful program.

We just released a course I’m really excited about which is taught by a woman who is a Tibetan monastic. Her name is Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi. It’s a course on the four immeasurables, in Pali known as the four Brahma viharas. They are really heart practices: loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. There are two versions of the course. There’s an interactive version so you can take the course with her or as a standalone. We just launched the course about two weeks ago and we’re really excited to have a woman’s voice, a person who is a monastic, teaching this course.

Under the umbrella of the foundation we also have a clinical training component called Mindfulness East, which stands for Emotional Awareness Skills Training. It’s a program where I teach clinicians – people who work in mental health, substance abuse, any kind of therapeutic clinical program. It’s a training that I have done quite a few times.

Finally, we are discussing doing a podcast at some point.

SBN: Quite a package of programs. If someone’s reading this interview or listening to it, how do they connect with the Secular Dharma Foundation on the web?

DS: The URL for the foundation is https://seculardharmafoundation.com/. If you want to contact us, there’s a contact page. There’s a program page if you want to take any of the courses that I just described. The website also has our mission statement and our Board of Directors. It’s not a huge website but a very informative website.

SBN: You’re starting a new program in January 2022, called Dharma Here and Now, which will last for 15 months. Can you tell us about this program? What are your objectives for the course?

DS: This course is actually almost full and it’s mostly been through invite only but you can email me if you are interested. It’s kind of a pilot program.

I’ve done many retreats, including three-month retreats. I’ve taken courses through Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS), was in a teacher training program with Against the Stream and have done many clinical trainings. I tried to bring the best elements of these programs into one package. One of the things that people who go on retreats report is that they wish there was more learning. We’ve tried to create a program that combines the retreat experience with intensive study. It’s a secular program.

We’re going to talk about early Buddhism; we develop a primary overview. The three retreats each focus on a particular aspect of the Eightfold Path: sila (ethics), samadhi (meditation, concentration), and panna (wisdom). So, the first retreat is going to be on meditation – effort, mindfulness, and concentration. The second retreat will be on ethics – speech, action, and livelihood. And the third retreat will be on intention and wisdom. So, we’re really going to go through the Eightfold Path in a very exhaustive way. The three in person retreats will be in a gorgeous retreat center in California.

And then, there’s an online learning management system. There are lessons. There are videos. So, each month starting this January, there will be a new lesson each month. The first one will look at the meditation path factors. There will be meditations to do, stuff to read, videos to watch. There are also going to be guest teachers, including Stephen Batchelor. Because we have Zoom, I can invite guest teachers. And there will be an opportunity for people to connect with each other online through that.

It’s maybe not for everybody; it’s a pretty deep dive. Not that time consuming but it requires a deep commitment and a long period of time. The good thing is it’s going to be the same group of people. So, you’re going to be on retreat with the same people three times. And the goal is to really create a sangha, a community, where we can explore these kinds of issues in a kind of more Western perspective of having an open dialogue. It’s not going to be a hierarchy where I’m the teacher with all the answers and I’m going to teach the students. It’s going to be a presentation of these ideas and really a dialogue and experimentation.

It’s really an opportunity for people who really don’t want to go too far down the religious side of Buddhism, who really want a perspective from the early Buddhist tradition who also value and want to integrate that with all of the things we currently know. The goal is to have a practice that feels alive and connects with everything that we do.

Most of the people who are signed up are people that I already have a pretty good relationship with; most people are going to know each other. There are maybe 5 spots left. If someone is interested, they can email me at dave@seculardharmafoundation.com.

SBN: I’m pretty impressed by the depth and breadth of your programs. And you’re not an organization like BCBS or Bodhi College that has staff and lots of resources to put programs on. To have generated so many programs as an individual is pretty impressive.

DS: I’m a worker. I’m a blue-collar kid who grew up and now has kids and responsibilities. So, I do crank it out and I also feel really happy about the stuff that we have to offer. There are a lot of online classes out there. We try to take a smaller audience and take them further, more deeply, into these topics. We get folks from the secular mindfulness world, from MBSR. People who have done enough mindfulness to go, ‘Wow, this practice is really valuable’ and then they are really interested in where this stuff comes from. But then they usually get caught in the weeds around a lot of these esoteric, mystical, kind of religious Buddhist ideas that can really become a hindrance. That’s why our secular approach is so important.

SBN: So, I want to end this interview by taking you back to the prior interview. I asked you a question about whether you considered yourself a secular Buddhist. You’ve already discussed the idea of secular and secularity. Let me just read you what you said in December 2019 and then tell me your reaction to it, whether you feel differently at this point. Here’s what you said:

I suppose I could consider myself a secular Buddhist, but it would be with some degree of discomfort. Actually, I would say that I’m more identified with the early Buddhist tradition, which is pre-Theravadan and based on the Pali Canon. I don’t have a problem with the post-Canonical Theravada tradition, but I have found so many rich insights in the Pali Canon.

For me, the word dharma – based on the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali Canon – means a lot more than Buddhism. And in terms of the word secular dharma, you don’t even need the word secular because if you look at the early Buddhist tradition, you look at the dharma, there’s nothing religious about it so even calling it secular dharma is in some ways redundant.

How does that statement now land with you?

DS: I would say I feel pretty much the same way except that I feel more discomfort now than I did then with the word, Buddhist. I think a lot of times I’ll just say that I’m a Buddhist out of a kind of laziness because I don’t want to go through the whole elevator speech of why I am a Buddhist. I could give you many examples of how I am a Buddhist, but also many examples of how I could say that I’m not that interested in that title. I’m a lot more other things than a Buddhist. As I said, in my investigation of the early canon, I see two dharma paths. When the dharma became a religious, monastic institution, that was the arising of what we now call Buddhism. That’s what Buddhism is, a monastic training. I don’t feel part of that. I value that and respect that training, I’m grateful and have admiration for that, but I’m not that. If I really had to – if I was filing out one of those forms that ask for your identity – I would be very happy to check off a box that says secular humanist.

SBN: That’s so interesting. The identity of secular Buddhist does provide a shorthand way of characterizing your approach, but there’s so much more involved. And I think that a lot of people feel the same way, at least in the secular Buddhist community. We have many different identities and interests, including those linked to psychology and political activism. So, to the extent that Buddhism is bound up with the monastic tradition, with certain metaphysical or religious beliefs, for a lot of us, that’s not very relevant.

DS: That’s why I think science is key and that’s why I like to drop the focus on being identified with Buddhism. I want to make space for people who have other religious beliefs. You can be a Christian and practice the dharma. Let’s not even worry about that because then we’re focused on binary beliefs. Let’s have a secular dharma practice that is available to everyone whatever their religious beliefs are. I feel that’s more in line with the original teachings.

SBN: Well Dave, the point you made in the beginning of this interview – about how the dharma has evolved – is a great ending point because I’m looking forward to talking with you in maybe a year or so. We can talk about where the dharma is in this country and the notion of secularity and how you’re own teaching has evolved. You’re someone who is constantly rethinking, reexamining their approach to the dharma and how to make it relevant to our contemporary society. So, let’s talk again in a while to see how things have evolved.


Below is a video of the unedited interview:


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