I began Zen meditation in 1965. Back then there were few if any Zen groups in the UK, and none that I was aware of in the East Midlands, where I grew up. I sat alone – with a selection of Dogen’s essays, found in the local library, as my guide. For eight years or so, I practised zazen as conscientiously as I could, learning about myself and observing the fleeting nature of experience – as thoughts, feelings, moods, hopes and fears came and went.
In the early 1970s I headed north for a couple of retreats at Throssel Hole monastery, recently founded by Jiyu Kennet and her Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. All I remember is the rain-lashed wildness, the freezing toilets and the hard work being done to convert an old farm into a centre for Soto Zen practice. I was surprised to find that my solitary practice of zazen had prepared me quite well for the harsh conditions and austere regime at the monastery. Although, at the time, I regretted my lack of contact with other meditators, I now look back and realise it may have given me a good grounding in meditation practice and an unusual perspective as a home-grown secular Buddhist, somewhat detached from Asian traditions and practices.
Zen Meeting Place
After ten years of doing zazen I’d only been in a Buddhist community for two or three weeks. By 1975 my wife and I were living in Reading, about thirty minutes from London on a fast train. There we made contact with a few other Buddhists and established a regular meditation group in our tall, rambling Victorian home. We called ourselves the Zen Meeting Place and every now-and-again we held weekend retreats, during which we practiced zazen and brought our mindful attention to cleaning, cooking and working on the house and its tiny garden.
One evening, just before our weekly meditation meeting, I was astonished to find a young man in monk’s robes standing at our door. He turned out to be a Japanese Soto Zen priest on sabbatical, travelling in Europe. He had heard about our group and had come along to sit with us. For me, it was as if Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, had suddenly turned up. He was very friendly and although his English was fairly basic, and my Japanese was non-existent, we managed to understand each other. For me, sitting in meditation, and guiding a few new-comers in how to do zazen, with a genuine Zen monk also in the room, was like being examined by Stephen Hawking on my knowledge of cosmology – somewhat daunting.
After we had done our first thirty-minute period of zazen, Maitreya (the nickname of our monastic visitor), surprisingly, said, ‘John, your practice is very strong. Who your teacher?’ He was very amused when I replied, ‘Dogen.’ He chuckled on and off through the rest of the evening. But Dogen, and the practice of zazen itself, had been my teacher. Over the few evenings Maitreya sat with us, I realised that it was possible, after all, to develop a Buddhist practice without the scaffolding of religious tradition and training. Maitreya, didn’t seem at all disturbed by our secular practice, indeed he seemed genuinely delighted to find a group of westerners practising zazen far away from the temples and conventions of his homeland.
Recently I found a leaflet about the Zen Meeting Place written in 1976. I’m surprised at how the ideas expressed in it anticipate the later development of secular Buddhism. To convey the flavour of our thinking at the time, here are a couple of extracts:
…. the teachings of the Buddha and the accumulated experience of Buddhist practitioners down the ages, form the bare bones of our way. Through our own experience we give these bones Twentieth Century flesh and blood. Our way is, inevitably, unique to our time and place, just as Zen is unique to Japan, and Tantra to Tibet. We feel that our way is close to that of the Buddha, but it doesn’t, and cannot, take the same shape as in the Buddha’s time. As yet there is no name for our secular practice….. Beyond a certain point there are no signposts only open country. We have to find our own path.
….. our weekly meetings are times to sit in silence and to share our experiences. To guide each other and be guided. Those with more experience help those with less. Slowly our collective experience grows and deepens. We all benefit.
Continuing Zen practice but finding no ‘home’
Over the ensuing years my Zen practice became woven into my life as a husband, father, academic, artist and writer. From time-to-time I would find myself introducing students in art schools to the zazen form of mindful meditation – exploring the ways in which mindfulness gives rise to insight, creativity and a calm kindness that infuses day-to-day living with humour – developing respect for the creativity that resides in everyone.
As the years went by, I realised that I’d been searching for a suitable ‘home’ for my contemplative enquiry by joining Buddhist groups in the different places where I’d been living. I’ve learnt much from these encounters and from the lovely people who have found a feeling of community and belonging within their particular sangha. Nevertheless, I have felt out-of-step and, sometimes, alienated by the conventions or rituals or exoticism that seemed to attract other members of the group. And so, I have moved on from one sangha to another, tradition to tradition, staying for a few months or years, but finding no place that really felt like home.
In each group, I met other travellers and seekers who shared my sense of homelessness – all equally uncomfortable with what seemed to them to be unnecessary practices and beliefs. Like me, they had great respect for those who had found a home in a particular tradition or school, while, at the same time, finding nowhere to house their own western, sceptical curiosity and enquiry.
Creating the Exeter Meditation Circle as a home for secular Buddhists
This was the background to conversations I was having in early 2016 with my friend, Glenn, and with other somewhat rootless colleagues – many of whom had had similar experiences to mine and who had read Stephen Batchelor and others who advocated a fresh approach to Buddhist practice. We had shared stories of our contemplative wanderings and pondered on what to do. I had been talking about my experiences as a university Buddhist chaplain and describing the sessions I’d been guiding in ‘non-religious’ mindful meditation – grounded in what I had learnt of the early teachings of the Buddha, in Zen practice and in my career as a teacher of philosophy and art practice.
Out of these conversations emerged the idea of starting the Exeter Meditation Circle, which held its first meeting in October 2016. I had put up a few posters in the university and in the local library, cafes and other meeting places. I also set up a website and emailed various friends, colleagues and groups. At first, there were four or five regulars (which was more than I expected), and from the outset we seemed to feel a kinship grounded in just sitting together in mindful meditation and in sharing our knowledge and experience.
How our group functions
Now there are ten-to-fifteen of us who meet once a week and an email group of over forty who are part of the Circle.
I organise the meetings, venue and website, and tend to prompt our discussions by giving a short talk. But the meetings are gatherings of equals and fellow practitioners. We are all teachers and learners, seekers and guides. We are a varied group, from many different backgrounds. We sit in guided meditation for 15 minutes, have a short break with, sometimes, a sharing of meditation experiences, and then we meditate again in silence for 20 minutes, followed by a conversation. Very simple and concise. We give guidance for newcomers to mindful meditation and share advice, anecdotes, questions and ideas. Our discussions are supportive and lively, stimulating and open. Each week I post on the website notes about the topics we explore.
What ‘secular Buddhism’ means to us
Early on we agreed the following description of our understanding of the term ‘secular Buddhism’:
secular: from the Latin, ‘saeculum‘ – of this age, time, world. In other words, a Buddhism of this time and place, making sense and working within our culture, meeting our everyday needs and aspirations, open to the same kinds of reasonable questioning and rational enquiry we would apply to any other activity. ‘Secular’ or ‘agnostic’ Buddhist practice is not in any way opposed to formal religious institutions and traditions, but a complement to them.
The term, ‘secular Buddhism’ is not intended to refer to a particular category of Buddhism, let alone a new school or sect. In our understanding, the term refers to an informal process – an exploratory movement of individuals and groups who are developing forms of Buddhist practice that meet the needs and demands of people living in twenty-first century cultures across the globe. Our Buddhist practices are grounded in this life – our daily life with all its ups and downs, shocks and surprises, messiness and mystery. Mindful awareness of our daily experience is the primary method for understanding and coming to terms with life’s ever-changing pleasures and pains.
Our meetings are simple and non-ritualistic, non-dogmatic and free of attachment to any particular teacher or tradition. We particularly draw on contemporary research into the ideas and methods of the historical Buddha and into the questions he poses for us.
Our aim is to understand how things are (Dharma) by paying attention to our own experience – learning to live in harmony with a world of constant interaction, change and uncertainty.
We consider the process of awakening to be a process of learning – and in this sense we are all students and teachers, helping each other to grow in understanding.
Over the past three and a half years, I feel the Meditation Circle has developed a distinctive identity that reflects the aspirations and understandings of its participants. A feeling of kinship and community has developed through shared silence, enquiry and conversation. As we sit in a circle in mindful meditation, we experience the interconnectedness and equal importance of everyone. Together we develop a secular Buddhist way of life that is of our time and place.
However temporary it may prove to be, we have found a home.