Each month, we highlight the path that brought an individual to explore and then fully engage in a secular approach to the dharma.
From a very early age, Sylwia Plich has questioned religious orthodoxies. Born into a Catholic family, she initially saw Protestantism as a ‘purer’ form of Christianity but then found more value in a Buddhist approach to spirituality. She practiced for 25 years in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In 2016, she came across Stephen Batchelor's writings and began to embrace a secular approach which focuses on ethical life on a daily basis.
Although deeply influenced and inspired by some aspects of Judaism, Carmel Shalev began to lose faith in God and his commandments because they treated women as somehow limited and second best to men. She eventually connected with Buddhist teachers, primarily in the Insight meditation tradition; and then found that Stephen Batchelor’s secular approach to the dharma, which brings a shift in gaze from the metaphysical to the mundane, from truths with a capital T to tasks in the everyday, resonated deeply with her.
Craig Murphy was already skeptical of religious orthodoxies when he encountered Buddhist-inspired meditation practices through John Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR approach in the early 1990s. As Craig deepened his involvement through discussions with Buddhists and a meditation group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he has found that a secular approach which eschews metaphysics and highlights an ethics of pragmatism to be most consistent with his overall perspective toward life and society.
After moving away from the Catholic church as he engaged in in the civil rights and anti-Viet Nam war movements of the late 1960s, Tom Cummings didn't encounter Buddhism until later in his life. His initial practice was based in Vipassana meditation, but he has found that secular Buddhism's emphasis on our present human life as the one and only existence we have aligns well with the agnostic humanist perspective he has embraced for many years.
Jim Bronson connected with the Theravāda tradition and Insight meditation over 20 years ago, after the death of his first wife. As a scientist, he was attracted to the secular aspects of Theravāda and began to learn more about secular Buddhism. He finds inspiration in Stephen Batchelor’s view that ‘a secular Buddhist is one who is committed to the practice of the dharma for the sake of this world alone.’
Kathy Lang was introduced to Buddhism after she retired. She found that key Buddhist insights resonated with the therapeutic approach she used as a volunteer helping families with loved ones dealing with addiction. She particularly appreciates the secular Buddhist emphasis on bringing the practice to everyday life and the the view of nirvana as a process of reducing reactivity, rather than as the metaphysical goal of a state beyond our present reality.
Cathryn Jacob became disillusioned with the dogmatism of an independent, charismatic church when she was young and was an atheist for many years. As part of her process of recovery later in life, Cathryn found that the Secular Dharma provided her with the concepts, skills and practices to ‘live life on life’s terms’, to flourish, and to help others do the same. She is currently very active in several secular Buddhist sanghas and groups.
Ronn Smith's interest in Buddhism began with a trip to Korea in 1997, where he recognized that he needed to learn about Buddhism to understand the Korean culture. He began a more intensive study of Buddhism at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) in 2008 and gravitated toward a secular approach through an engagement with Stephen Batchelor's writings. For Ronn, the ethical and philosophical dimensions of secular dharma are crucial; in particular, the emphasis on flourishing and care rather than on suffering.
Steve Holdsambeck and his family were deeply involved for many years in the southern (USA) Methodist Church. However, through a very emotional and difficult transition, he began to question his Christian faith and developed an increasing interest in meditation, which eventually led to an interest in Stephen Batchelor’s books and secular Buddhism. Steve is a regular participant in SBN's monthly discussion group.
Keith Clanton's initial religious experience was with Christianity but he has been interested in Buddhism for many decades. He finds that Buddhist teachings in a secular/agnostic form fit well with how he sees the world. Keith has taken vows with a group called the Secular Buddhist Tradition (SBT) and is also active in various SBN groups.
Katie Pope first became interested in meditation and Buddhism through her yoga practice. As she learned more about Buddhism, she found that secular Buddhism’s focus on how we can live a good and full life while we are here, with however much time we have, deeply resonated with her. Katie facilitates SBN’s monthly reading group.
As a journalist, Ira met some of Buddhism’s most important teachers and became interested in the dharma. As an agnostic, he finds a secular approach particularly valuable because there is less emphasis on beliefs and more on what contributes to wellbeing in this life.
Kate's interest in Buddhism began when she was a college student and developed further while she was a Peace Corps volunteer and program manager. Over time, she became increasingly skeptical of the adherence to hierarchy and rituals in many Buddhist traditions and moved toward a secular approach to the dharma, one which does not lean on enlightenment as a goal, but fosters a practice that is ethical, practical, compassionate and forward looking.
Katya grew up in a culturally Jewish, Leftist family in New York City and became involved with a Buddhist sangha in 2001. When her sangha refused to engage politically around issues of racism after the murder of George Floyd, she connected with the Secular Buddhist Network and has become an active participant.
Tim grew up in a Christian household, but found a disconnect between his church’s teachings and how church members lived their lives. He was introduced to Buddhism over 20 years ago and learned about secular Buddhism in the course of his explorations. Colette Descent edited the interview for SBN.
Jeff was deeply involved in orthodox Judaism for 15 years, but eventually moved away from this spiritual tradition to explore secular Buddhism: a non-dogmatic, ethical approach to life.
Colette Descent explored many spiritual traditions before engaging with secular Buddhism. She is an active participant in several SBN groups. She is part of SBN’s monthly online discussion group, the weekly meditation group, a reading group, and an ageing and secular Buddhism group. Finally, Colette is currently participating in the Spring 2022 SBN course on secular Buddhism, Exploring a Secular Dharma.