Where will you set up headquarters?
It was June 2012. Secular Buddhism had only just begun to emerge and Ted Meissner was already receiving this fraught question on a regular basis.
Ted had started the Secular Buddhist Association – a website dedicated to podcast interviews relevant to this new idea of adapting the Buddha’s teachings to our modern western lives and mindsets. He was interviewing me because I’d started a website too: Secular Buddhism Australia.
More than a decade later and the movement is gaining momentum. A related question is becoming more pressing. The essence of it is: to what extent should we make Secular Buddhism a ‘thing’ or instead, leave it as an un-defined path for people to discover and explore themselves?
By a ‘thing’, I mean a defined, locatable concept and practice.
Here’s why the question is fraught.
The dangers of making Secular Buddhism a thing
One of Gotama’s (the Buddha’s) key insights was that ‘selfing’ (in Pali anatta, meaning not-self) causes us trouble. This is one of the slipperiest concepts in the dharma but essentially it refers to the process of creating a fixed, defined identity for ourselves and then desperately clinging to, promoting and defending it.
So for example, I adopt the adjectives smart and capable into my identity. When someone speaks to me simplistically in a tone usually reserved for children, I get hot under the collar and blame them for my anger because they treated me like an idiot. What caused the reactivity though, was my attachment to my identity – to being seen a certain way.
This is a benign example. But this process causes trouble on a large scale too. Immense amounts of suffering and loss have resulted from people in positions of power bolstering their identities as rulers, sometimes with a god-given right, defending their identities as powerful, supreme, superior, strong, in-control, righteous…. you get the idea. Empirical domination is underpinned by identity, ego.
More everyday examples are the brawls that break out between fans at football games in Europe. I am a Chelsea/Palace fan or I am a Blues/Pies fan - my identity defines the in-group and the out-group and off we go. Or I am a Liberal/Labor voter, I am a Christian/ Jew/ Muslim/ Buddhist…. We all know the conflict and harm that’s done when these characteristics turn into in-group/out-group dynamics.
Other every-day doses of trouble that emanate from selfing: the boss who takes credit for their team member’s excellent work because it will earn them kudos (an ego-hit as being smart or credible); the nightmare sport-parent who ruins their child’s experience of sport through aggression on the sidelines as they’ve incorporated winner into their identity; a relationship ruined because one person had always right embedded into their identity and could never apologise for their hurtful behaviour.
So what has this to do with Secular Buddhism as a movement?
The ego is a wily fox. As soon as we pin something down, define it, turn it into a set thing, give it an identity, the ego can now grab onto it. Religions have done this since time immemorial and show us the problems it can create.
We build a structure, a hierarchy, role titles, rules, and the next thing we know we’ve got priests/lamas/rabbis (etc.) and doctrines that can’t be questioned because of their status. We have a system that directs a significant portion of its energy and resources to maintaining and preserving itself for reasons that have nothing to do with the benefit for practitioners. We have unhelpful limits imposed on how we practice, because the initial ideas became ‘tradition’ and the ‘right way’ to practice and any deviation is considered illegitimate, or even blasphemous. We have rules that exclude or disadvantage certain types of people (think women; LBGTIQ; lower caste) – rules that have nothing to do with spiritual benefit and everything to do with the biases of culture and/or those in control. Ego takes over. Reactivity is in the driver’s seat.
Clearly this is antithetical to a movement that’s designed to help as many people as possible flourish in life. This is the danger inherent in making Secular Buddhism a thing rather than leaving it as a path for people to find themselves. As Ted’s experience shows, all we have to do is give something a name and this process can set off.
The dangers of not making Secular Buddhism a thing
Some people believe that the obvious solution to this is to simply avoid making Secular Buddhism a thing. Some have tried to come up with less ‘thing-ey’ names like the universally beneficial path. Now TUBP isn’t exactly a catchy acronym, but I have no doubt that any name could be co-opted by ego. Others agree and suggest not using a name at all, not defining Secular Buddhism, nor articulating any kind of tenets or principles – simply not pinning anything down so that ego and all its attendant trouble-making tendencies simply can’t take hold.
However, this introduces another very real and meaningful danger, which is that many people whose lives could benefit from dharma practice, simply miss out. This is no small danger. Those of us who are committed practitioners know firsthand the deeply transformative benefits of the dharma. If I think about my life without it, that is a serious loss.
While religions have shown us the dangers of becoming a thing they also show us the benefits. These benefits are centrally relevant to sharing the benefits of the dharma.
- Easy to find
Spiritual seekers would find it far easier to find the Christian City Church across the road from my Sangha than they would my Sangha. To find and approach my Sangha, they need to know about secular dharma, they need to know that the dharma is about flourishing in life, not rebirth, robes and giving up all pleasures in life. They possibly need to have kept at it despite some concepts and practices that don’t make much sense to them, they need to already practice meditation or be looking to start, and they need to live somewhere nearby.
Everyone knows of the CCC (or 3C as they’ve branded themselves); they’re easy to find, have a slick website, and an on-ramping process for making C3 your home.
- Harness our needs
Church isn’t a hotel, it’s a home. This is the message that greets you on the C3 website. We humans have a fundamental need to belong with others. It’s in our DNA. That marketing catch-phrase hooks into that need instantly. If I’m honest, I even feel a little pull to join in!
The need to belong is one of our shared human needs and this need is better fed when we join some-thing than when we engage in a solo practice, discovering the dharma for ourselves. This need is fed not just because we are now in a group but because organised endeavour brings with it the need for teamwork and helping out (often through volunteering), which also bolsters our sense of belonging. Meeting fundamental needs is a powerful means of both attracting people to practice, continuing with it, and contributing to the spiritual community. There are other needs too, that religions hook into.
Here are a few needs that I think religions meet well that a non-defined Secular Buddhism doesn’t. In some cases it’s unlikely to be able to, but in some we could:
Material security – Everything from being a well resourced organisation to offering life after death can meet this need.
Certainty – Religions make clear what’s right, what’s wrong, what leads to the good stuff (love, eternal life, or in religious Buddhism’s case, escaping it) and the bad stuff (damnation, some form of missing out, or in religious Buddhism’s case having to continue enduring human life).
Pleasure – In some cases joyous celebrations, music and singing or chanting are standard rituals, or cathartic emotional experiences in groups. These associate positive feelings with the group and energise us to continue.
Achievement – Some religions, notably Buddhism, have levels or attainments that we can aim for and enjoy the satisfaction of achieving on our path. (Humans inherently enjoy achievement and will engage in it even without external reward.)
Connection – Because regular attendance is expected, friendships form and our need for real personal connection with others is fed. This one, too, is in our DNA. I imagine monastics in any religious tradition would have this need fed well by their monastic community.
Contribution – Volunteering to help keep the church, temple, synagogue (etc.) operating, helping with charity projects, and supporting the church and charity projects financially, feed our need to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.
There is one need that religious adherents often give up to some extent – the need for autonomy. Church-goers don’t get to choose how a church service is run, or how to practice their particular brand of religion. However, in our modern world, most of us can meet our need for autonomy, or control over our own lives and destinies fairly easily outside of spiritual practice, and in most cases (though not all) there are no drastically dire consequences for exercising our autonomy to leave a religion.
A non-defined Secular Buddhism offers autonomy in spades. It can also feed the need for connection as groups are often small and discuss very personal issues. Contribution can also be a need that’s fed, as groups are often scantily resourced and need volunteer effort to run; however, I’ve found that people are less acutely aware of the appeal of this need and are often so busy contributing to their own families via busy careers and parenting that they often look to their sangha as a place where they receive rather than contribute.
A non-defined Secular Buddhism however, misses some of the powerful needs that attract and energise human beings. Chief among them, I believe, is belonging. Certainty is not far behind, and while the dharma requires us to embrace uncertainty rather than eradicate it, a defined and easily accessible Secular Buddhism could take some of the long winding uncertainty out of finding and understanding the dharma. Ironically the dharma feeds the need for certainty as we understand better how human experience works, and we know how to meet it in its dynamism and practice with it.
I’ve focused on religious things so far but there are many other things too that are attracting adherents. Think: gym/fitness/nutrition culture; political parties/candidates (my recently elected federal Independent has over 1200 people on her list of volunteers); or sports clubs/teams/squads. All have defined purpose and practices, leaders/influencers in the area, clarity on the benefits of being involved, and processes or programs to get involved and that make it easy to start, including websites and online resources. These are all elements of these interests becoming things and these things are accessible and popular. While all have the potential downsides of becoming things they are all affecting lives en masse and have momentum.
Being a thing and avoiding the trap of egoic identification
If sharing dharmic benefit is our goal, then defining ourselves and lending from the things out there that are attracting and affecting adherents, is going to be helpful. AND we need to be vigilant to ensure we don’t fall prey to the temptations that corrupt. The best way to do that, is to overtly state the traps we want to avoid and build into our processes and structures, methods for doing so. For example:
- Items on regular meeting agendas to trigger individual and group assessment of identification (selfing) behaviours
- Overtly welcoming resources from any source that benefit dharma practice and articulating how they do that – building this in to defining documents and all communications
- Regularly surveying the Secular Buddhist community for input and feedback on adherence to and deviation from purpose
- Defining success in terms of take-up of resources and benefit to people’s lives, not number of adherents or financial wealth
To stay too fluid and ill-defined is, in my view, a recipe for flying under the collective radar. That means that many people are missing out on the superb benefit that the dharma can bring to their lives. While thing-ifying Secular Buddhism entails some risks, these can be mitigated. The risk of people missing out on the dharma is surely greater.
The fascinating question is: how might we learn from the things out there so that seekers can find the dharma, are energised to commit to it, and at the same time, side-step the wiley ego traps?
Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to hear them.