Secular Buddhism at the beginning: a study course in 2007

February 7, 2022

In October and November 2007, Ramsey Margolis (RM) and Jonathan Wood (JW) facilitated a program in Wellington, New Zealand called ‘Creating a path: towards a secular Buddhism.’ Each week of the program the participants listened to an hour-long talk by Stephen Batchelor and then had a discussion. On the final evening, Stephen appeared via Skype for a question-and-answer session.

This was one of the earliest education programs on secular Buddhism. At this point, the term ‘secular Buddhism’ was not commonly used; secular Buddhism was certainly less prominent than it is now.

SBN:  Welcome Ramsey Margolis and Jonathan Wood. Before we begin to discuss the 2007 program, can you each say something about your current projects and their connection, if any, with secular Buddhism?

Jonathan Wood

JW: I’m less involved than Ramsey with the world of secular Buddhism although I do teach introductory mindfulness courses here in Brisbane (Australia) and I incorporate the core ideas, including the four tasks, from secular Buddhism into what I teach. I don’t use the language of Buddhism because it’s not a Buddhist course, but I do try to give people who come to my courses an idea of how some those ideas can provide context for mindfulness practice.

In particular, I explain that this is very much a journey of letting go of craving and clinging and experiencing the cessation of reactivity, and so on. And that involves making changes to lifetime habits, and even evolutionarily ingrained habits. And so, it’s not a question of setting yourself a new year’s resolution. ‘Right. this year I’m going to give up clinging and craving!’ The challenge is more about relearning a whole set of relationships to the world and oneself and one’s idea about one’s place in the  world. And certainly, my own experience of that is it can take quite a long time.

SBN:  Thank you, Jonathan. Now, Ramsey, we’ve known each other for a few years and I know that you’ve been very active in many projects regarding secular Buddhism since 2007. Can you give our readers just a sense of your main projects right now?

Ramsey Margolis

RM: Thank you, Mike. Well, having reached my eighth decade I’m trying to do less than in the past. A few years back, Winton Higgins and I set up a publishing imprint, Tuwhiri, which focused initially on just secular Buddhist books, courses and educational material. Now Tuwhiri’s approach has broadened, though we still keep within the core values of a secular dharma. I’m the publisher and I think we’ve done quite well, really. In our first year we published one book and helped you set up the SBN online course, in our second year, we published a second book, nothing happened in the third year; that was 2020, the first year of COVID. And then in 2021, we published three books.

So, during the first COVID lockdown, I came up with the idea of connecting people with a newsletter, Creative Dharma. The idea behind it is that a secular approach to the dharma has to be a creative approach. There are no manuals, there are no How To books, there’s no Secular Buddhism for Dummies. We are creating it as we go. As  Jonathan talks about creating his own path, we are creating our path. That newsletter goes out every second month. Most recently, one of the authors that Tuwhiri has published has set up his own newsletter and I’m helping him with that. It’s called poetry & polis; it connects reading and writing poetry with politics and international relations.

SBN: What was your purpose in doing this program? Was there a lot of interest in New Zealand about Stephen Batchelor and secular Buddhism at the time? Give us a sense of the context in which the program was developed.

JW: I think the idea was actually Ramsey’s. Back then I was part of an insight meditation group that Ramsey led and there was a growing interest in what Stephen had to say. Stephen had written Buddhism without Beliefs several years before [in 1997] and our insight group had discussed it several times.  In the talks Stephen then gave in Switzerland he was developing his ideas about a different approach to the dharma. Those ideas later appeared in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, but at the time of our course I believe his thinking was still evolving. Indeed, it continues to develop as we can see from his latest book, The Art of Solitude. Ramsey probably has a better sense of where Stephen was in 2007 because he had more direct contact with him.

SBN: So, Ramsey, how did you make the initial contact with Stephen and then how did you put this program together?

RM: Well, I’d read Buddhism without Beliefs and I found it both interesting and very useful. In it Stephen offered a rigorous intellectual appreciation of Buddhism that brought in elements of western philosophy. It was something I could relate to. I’d heard that he and Martine Batchelor were coming to New Zealand, I think in 2002 or 2003, to teach at a retreat. That was the first time I met Martine and Stephen. He was also taking part in a Sea of Faith conference not far from our retreat location. Also, at that point, I had listened to his talks on the internet and very much appreciated his very sensible approach to teaching. I could see how his ideas were changing, developing, and growing. I kept following all these changes to see where they went, and that was fun.

In 2004, I invited Stephen to Wellington, where I hired the large auditorium in the National Library, and he gave a public talk on his (then) new book, Living with the Devil. Towards the end of the following year he sent me something he’d written but not published. It was his 12 Theses on Secular Buddhism. Then, in 2006, looking at the website of the Meditation Center Beatenberg in Switzerland, I noticed a new series of talks; the sixth one intrigued me as it was called ‘Towards a secular Buddhism’. I thought, these talks could be an opportunity to try and talk up secular Buddhism to the people in our insight meditation group.

JW: I think the other bit of context, when I reflect back on it now, was that for several years before our course took place much of the teaching about meditation in Wellington was led by one or two people who had been Buddhist monks. I’m not sure they were using the word ‘secular’ to describe their approach, but they weren’t teaching traditional dharma. It was in those classes that I first came across the more practical aspects of the dharma and what I now think of as the Buddhist theory of mind.  They were teaching mindfulness, although that word wasn’t used quite as much in those days. So, when people in our insight group came across Stephen’s teachings a lot of them already had some background in the dharma and the Buddhist approach to meditation.

SBN: So, we have a situation in 2007 where there is a coalescence of interest and Stephen is beginning to become more clearly situated as someone who is presenting a secular perspective. So, you decide to do the course. How did the participants respond to what Stephen was talking about? Looking back, what stands out about the program, both in terms of what Stephen had to say and the response of the participants?

RM: There were 14 people in the room for the whole course, and many others listened to the talks afterward. What stood out for me was that we had to unlearn a lot of the dharma that we had been learning. For most people who took part in the course, looking back on it now, I would say it was too intellectual. They were the kind of people who preferred teachers who would give them the ‘warm fuzzies’. The insight meditation community, really very much of it, was more focused on individual wellbeing; it wasn’t so much about the eightfold path, which Stephen was emphasising. I think that for a lot of people, to be honest, it just didn’t suit their needs. When you look at the questions they asked Stephen during the final Q&A session, on the whole they reflect a focus on how to survive better in a world with difficult thoughts, in difficult places.

Click here for a transcript of the Q&A session with Stephen Batchelor.

JW: I think that’s probably true. In a way that reflects where I see Stephen’s teachings now contrast with the broader mindfulness movement. I think a lot of people then were looking for a kind of self-help, as opposed to a broader philosophy on how to live life. I often see the same thing in people who turn up for the mindfulness courses that I teach now; people are looking for a kind of ‘quick fix’ to deal with stress, depression, or anxiety. And most people are simply interested in learning  techniques; the technique for meditation; the technique for “stopping” thoughts, and so on.

Where Stephen stood out for me, and still does, was in giving a voice to ideas that weren’t being articulated by most other teachers. Most of the people on our course probably had some prior knowledge about the dharma; they may have heard a few quotes from the Buddha; they may have even heard about the four noble truths. But I think many people saw these things as a series of abstractions rather than central tenets around which one could build both a philosophy and a life practice. For me, at least, Stephen’s emerging emphasis on the four tasks and on ‘Buddhism without beliefs’ offered a clear way of linking the philosophy of Buddhism with its practice.

SBN:  I think it’s still true today that many people find Stephen’s approach very challenging because it requires you to broaden out the sense of what the path is about. It’s not just individual self-help, but a whole life path.

RM:  Let me read something from the flyer that we used to promote the cause:

Rather than presenting Buddhism as a finished product, faithfully passed down through the centuries, we will see it as an endlessly adaptive culture capable of generating new forms in response to the ever-changing human situations in which it finds itself.

That’s very challenging. It’s not just that it’s challenging. It’s actually hard. It’s not presenting a set of certainties, or a path or a clear set of ideas – follow this, do this, and you’ll be saved. For me, this is the dilemma that secular Buddhism is facing.

SBN:  Okay. So, what happened after the course? What was the impact of the course on the participants?

RM:  Well, they weren’t asked to commit to anything afterwards. There was nothing to commit to at the time. So, in a sense what we asked them to commit to was studying and listening. It was a path that was still being formulated.

JW: I’m not sure anyone there had a kind of ‘aha’ experience when the scales fell from their eyes. Personally, while I understood Stephen’s teachings fairly quickly it has taken much more time for them to find their way round my defences to affect my behaviour and my relationship with the world. The pace at which that happens is likely to be different with everyone.

More generally, my recollection is that our insight meditation group continued and there was more reference to Stephen’s teachings after this course than there was before it. Meanwhile, Stephen continued giving talks and we played some of those in the group, especially after Confession of a Buddhist Atheist was published three years later.  So, his ideas started to become more part of the common currency of what we discussed, and I think the course was helpful in that respect.

SBN:  Absolutely, I think today, though, the difference is that Stephen is much more established within the Buddhist community in a way that wasn’t when you put together the course.

JW: I think that’s true. There are many articles today in journals such as Tricycle (the Buddhist Review magazine) that are secular in nature, and there are websites such as the Secular Buddhist Network. Plus, in 2016 Stephen helped formed the Bodhi College which offers courses to an international audience which are all secular in nature. So, there seems to have been a sort of snowballing of understanding and engagement with the whole notion of Secular Buddhism in the past 15 to 20 years.

SBN: The first explicitly secular Buddhist meditation group in New Zealand was One Mindful Breath, right? How did you start that, Ramsey?

RM:  Well, we actually started it with a different name – Simply Meditation. It started at the insistence of my wife, Despina, who wanted to start meditating. She invited her girlfriends into the group. We outgrew our living room pretty quickly and pretty soon it turned into One Mindful Breath. We never pushed the notion at the beginning that what we were offering was secular Buddhism unless someone asked. If anybody did ask, I’d say I’m teaching a secular form of Buddhist meditation. But there was never any demand on anyone to accept the dharma, to identify as a Buddhist. It was always: does this work for you, or does it not work?

SBN: Jonathan, when you left New Zealand to go to Australia in 2011, did you come into contact with folks who had an interest in Stephen’s work?

JW: Not very often, but in Brisbane’s insight community there’s a strong focus on secular ideas and practices. There are traditional Buddhist centres in Brisbane and Australia more widely but I don’t have much contact with them. I may have a selection bias, but many people I meet are trying to embed the dharma in a context that makes sense to them. This is perhaps a more materialistic context, but our culture is also steeped in scientific inquiry and a popular understanding of psychology and psychodynamics. I think Stephen’s work is one strand of this wider movement.

SBN:  It’s almost 15 years since you offered the course. What stands out for you in terms of the evolution of secular Buddhism? Ramsey, you work with a lot of different people that have an interest in a secular approach to the dharma. How would you characterize the change over the last 15 years?

RM: I would say that there’s been a large interest from around the world. Around that time, the interest mainly came from Australia, the USA, from Switzerland, Austria and from around New Zealand. Now, as you know, we’re seeing Tuwhiri books being translated into German and Thai. There’s interest in Stephen’s books in Spain, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Costa Rica, and Brazil. But in the main interest comes from individuals. Aside from a group in Barcelona and more recently in Germany, very rarely has anybody tried to get a group together. Rarely has there been someone with an existing group or community who wants to transform that group into a secular Buddhist group.

Bear in mind that Stephen did not promote himself as the ‘secular Buddhist guru’ by creating an organization around himself. He’s a writer and a peripatetic teacher. My own focus has always been on community. One thing I really loved was when the Los Angeles Insight teacher Eugene Cash took the three jewels of Buddhism [traditional formulation: Buddha, dharma, sangha] and turned the order around to make the sangha the first jewel. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the sangha as the next Buddha. That’s what I’d like to see coming up.

SBN: I think that there has been some development of community as part of developing secular approach. You have the Secular Buddhist Association in the US, and there’s actually a very active Facebook group on secular Buddhism, initially started by Noah Rasheta. There’s the Secular Buddhist Network and our efforts to develop community through our online course, meditation group, and discussion group. But I agree there’s certainly not been the strong development of community we’d like to see yet. Secular Buddhism is still very much a work in progress.

JW:  I think it’s hard for us to understand sometimes the extent and the breadth of that shift. For example, Gil Fronsdal, the guiding teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, has been teaching a secular approach to the dharma for years but I don’t know that he often uses that term.  The same is true of many other writers and teachers, even including Buddhist monks such as Karma Yeshe Rabye (teacher at the Ashoka Buddhist Temple in Northern India and author of Life’s Meandering Path).  These people may have a deep understanding and experience of traditional Buddhism and they use that to translate the dharma into terms that are more meaningful for our culture.  However, they don’t necessarily call their approach secular.

SBN: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Gil Fronsdal refers to himself as a naturalistic Buddhist. He has some problems with the term secular Buddhism, because he thinks that is counterposed to religion. And he wants to have some sort of affiliation with a kind of spiritual, religious path. But in terms of his approach, it is secular.

JW:  Stephen has spent much of his life examining the Buddha’s early life and context, and distinguishing between his core teachings and the accretions that have been added on since that time. Gil doesn’t do any of that – or if he does I’ve not heard him talk about it. But he does pare things back to a set of ideas and practices that seem very similar to the ones that Stephen writes about.

RM:  I’d like to reframe this somewhat, because I think the issue is not whether an individual is or is not self-identified as a secular Buddhist.  I’m more interested in how we, as humanity, are engaged in the world. This approach moves us from the four tasks to the eightfold path. I think the future of a secular approach to dharma has got to be in engaging with the four tasks and in particular the eightfold path and how we are in the world. I’d really like to see us looking at how we use those four tasks to engage together in a world that is existentially threatened by the activities of humanity.

With my Tuwhiri hat on, I’d be very keen to engage with someone who wanted to write a book about meditation practice and secular dharma for political activists.

SBN: Well, I think that relates to what Jonathan was saying earlier, the issue of people coming in and kind of just wanting to just grab a technique for their individual self-help. And I think, a crucial part of Stephen’s message is that if we’re talking about a path, it has to be an integrated path that is both individual, but also engaged; and that, in fact, it’s not meaningful as a path, unless it’s engaged.

JW: I think that these days many people come to meditation practice primarily interested in mindfulness in its various different guises. However, there are perhaps a growing number who find themselves looking for an understanding that’s rooted in philosophy and, to use Stephen’s term, an ethical framework. Because unless you embed practice in that philosophical and ethical foundation you’re only getting a fraction of the picture. And I think it’s by embracing that ethical framework that you inevitably find yourself asking questions such as, ‘what does it mean to be an engaged Buddhist?’ ‘How do I engage with these fundamental problems that all these teachers are talking about’? One reaches the conclusion that it’s not enough to sit in a room and meditate to achieve contentment. Giving effect to the eightfold path means I have to go out and I have to engage in the world.  Or to use Stephen’s fourth task: to act.

RM: On a practical level, at One Mindful Breath we found that every Wednesday night felt like a beginners’ night. We were of necessity reducing every meditation session to the lowest common denominator. It became boring, and people lost interest. We changed it so that each Wednesday of the month, we did something different.

The first Wednesday was for beginners, an introduction to a secular approach to meditation. The second Wednesday of the month, we did something very specific, and it could be perhaps a reflective meditation session where we meditated, then reflected and journaled, and had a conversation. The third Wednesday of the month, someone like Jonathan joined us on Zoom and gave a talk. The fourth Wednesday of the month was study night. And if there was a fifth Wednesday, it would be a potluck.

This was how we dealt with trying to develop a deeper connection with the dharma. But, on the fourth Wednesday only three or four people came because people just weren’t engaged in that.

JW: It’s interesting that when I try and introduce some of these ideas into my mindfulness teaching I lose a lot of people. As soon as you move away from technique into psychology or philosophy or ethics things become more challenging. I’m reminded of the John Lennon song, ‘Imagine’. He wrote, ‘Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can’. Clearly, some people are just not interested in the dharma, secular or otherwise. But perhaps others find it hard to imagine what it might mean for them.

SBN:  We’re in a culture that is self-oriented, individualistically oriented, and some of these ideas are threatening in terms of how people view themselves. But Stephen and other people have also pointed out that sometimes, even though mindfulness programs are technique- focused, they sometimes become an entry point for people to expand and deepen their understanding. Sometimes people take a mindfulness course and can begin to gain a new way of looking at things and begin to go with that.

JW: That’s true, and you never know what that can lead to. I’ve met people who said the basic introductory mindfulness courses we teach have been the starting point for major changes in their lives. I suppose it’s like any kind of teaching: you throw a whole lot of seeds onto the ground and some of them will take root and perhaps the majority won’t.  But the ones that do take root may grow and be important and have effects that you will never see.

SBN: Absolutely. In one of Stephen’s responses to a question in the last meeting of your course, he said that we have to apply to Buddhism the same understanding about how life is changing and impermanent and conditioned and so forth. And that’s true of secular Buddhism as well. We don’t know how it’s going to develop; there are a lot of different trends and currents. It’s hard to know how things will develop, but I think it’s great that the two of you were on the ground floor of the early development of secular Buddhism. Who knows where secular Buddhism will be 100 years from now? What a secular approach to the dharma will mean at that point? But at least you could say that you were there at the beginning.



One Reply to “Secular Buddhism at the beginning: a study course in 2007”


Thank you. A very interesting and grounding interview. It is great to have a foundational context to how SB has evolved.

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