Moving away from hierarchy and toward democratic sanghas

November 4, 2019

Developing a secular dharma which is relevant to our contemporary world requires us to engage in a serious examination of traditional models and practices of the community of practitioners – the sangha – and to be willing to experiment with new, more democratic forms.

This work is incredibly important for the secular Buddhist project. First, in contrast to many western Buddhists for whom meditation is the cornerstone of their practice, creating and sustaining democratic communities is as important as meditation in contributing to what Stephen Batchelor calls a culture of awakening in which all human beings can flourish.

Further, our communities need to thoroughly reflect the contemporary, progressive values of equality, democracy, participation, and inclusiveness. That is, in contrast to the sanghas of virtually all Buddhist lineages, which to one degree or another are founded on hierarchical notions of the teacher–student relationship, secular communities need to be based on the equal participation of members, each sharing their knowledge, life experiences and meditative practices.

Experiments in creating democratic communities

The effort to create more democratic dharma communities is a work in progress, but it’s vital that we share we each other examples of how groups and individuals are moving away from the hierarchical notions and practices we see in traditional Buddhist lineages.

In their article Moving toward student-centric meditation teaching, Linda Modaro, Nelly Kaufer and Janet Keyes discuss the ways in which they have changed their approach to teaching reflective meditation so that that the gap between the teacher and the student is lessened. Their reevaluation of the teacher–student relationship emerged from a difficult and painful split in the recollective awareness community that had been led by Jason Siff. They continue to examine their ideals and assumptions about teaching and leadership and search for a middle path.

A change in the teacher’s role has implications for how a meditation retreat should be structured and what the goals of the retreat are. Vipassana and Zen retreats feature a rigid structure focused on individual meditation sessions, but provide retreatants with little or no opportunity to “co-create” their retreat experience; they are following the rules already laid out by the organizers. Reflective meditation teachers Linda Modaro and Nelly Kaufer explain in Reflective meditation retreats as a space for independent and critical thinking how they have attempted to develop a middle path between a strict adherence to an intensive schedule and completely doing away with the structures and guidelines that have been considered  worthwhile on vipassana retreats. Theirs is a more student-centric, less hierarchical approach to meditation retreats.

In his article Learning, awakening, and empowerment John Danvers uses his own experiences as an educator working in art schools and universities in the UK to argue that the development of secular approaches to Buddhist practice involves not only a radical reconsideration of institutional goals and structures but the development of more effective, transformative and egalitarian modes of learning.

In Touching the earth: exploring a new, secular self-help mindfulness group approach, Bil Gayner discusses his initial efforts to develop a self-help approach based on egalitarian, inclusive, and democratic values, one that seeks to avoid the ‘power-over’ issues that plague so many traditional teacher-centric Buddhist and other spiritual groups worldwide, such as sexual abuse and boundary violations by meditation teachers. Touching the Earth integrates a new mindfulness-based psychotherapy developed by Bill called Emotion-Focused Mindfulness Therapy (EFMT) that has secular Buddhist roots (see with the self-help format of Focusing Changes groups ( developed by Eugene Gendlin.



One Reply to “Moving away from hierarchy and toward democratic sanghas”


Dear Editor,
While I agree with your comments, I think a lot more effort could be put into supporting those who “come out”. Two years after leaving my Zen sangha of 13 years I am still feeling the psychological effects. I feel sure there are many others in the transition phase, but without access to a secular sangha, who could use some sort of support structure.

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