Ted Meissner reflects on the past, present, and future of secular Buddhism

Since 2009, Ted Meissner has been interviewing Buddhist practitioners and writers involved in a wide range of lineages and approaches on his podcast, The Secular Buddhist.

Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association (USA), Ted has been a meditator for over 25 years with a background in Zen and Theravada lineages.

We asked Ted to offer his views of how secular Buddhism has evolved, its current status, and his hopes for its future development.

SBN Editor: You were one of the first people to coin the term “secular Buddhism”.  How did that come about? What led you to identify as a secular Buddhist? 

I think the idea of a somewhat different kind of Buddhism being developed from what has gone before was inevitable.  Buddhism’s rich and long history has always influenced and been influenced by the cultures in which it found itself.  Contemporary Western culture and thinking has a strong thread of secularity, whether it’s as a needed underpinning in honoring diverse spiritual views and practices in a multicultural society, or personal rejection of organized religion.  Respecting heritage Buddhism by not appropriating the culture of others involves discernment around a new manifestation of the dhamma, and the time for it had fully arrived.

My experience in finding tremendous value in Buddhism, starting with Zen and then Theravada, is not unique.  Neither was it unique to find some of the aspects of traditional forms, beautiful and valuable though they are for others, not a good fit for my background.  It wouldn’t be ethical for me to fake beliefs to which I do not hold, and disrespectful to those who do.  Just noticing the presence of that cognitive dissonance and paying attention to it rather than ignoring it and going forward with monastic ordination, was a big hurdle to overcome.  But once acknowledged fully, I was unable to see it any other way: to not engage in cultural appropriation, to respect heritage Buddhists and be authentic, required discerning what this different kind of Buddhist way of being could be.

With Secular Humanism already firmly established in the West and more closely aligned with my understanding of how the natural world functioned, it was a light bulb moment to combine the Secular part with Buddhism and land on Secular Buddhism.  But it was a dim light bulb, because it felt so obvious.  The complexity came with the tremendous variability of how secularity could be defined.  To me, it was about what we could know and agree on in terms of the natural world, not as a rejection of supernatural beliefs held by others, but acknowledging they are not held by everyone.  So, when it came time to start a podcast, something I’d been interested in doing, the topic leapt out and The Secular Buddhist podcast was born on May 7, 2009.

I’d not known Stephen Batchelor at that point, or that quite independently he had also considered Secular Buddhism to be a valid form of the sasana, or teaching of the Buddha.  Again, the time had come.  But I will credit Stephen for thinking of the term, however independently, first.  He already had the domain name our organization uses today, secularbuddhism.org (not .com!), and very generously transitioned it to us — but he came up with it first, I just started to socialize it with the podcast.

SBN Editor:  Why and when did you form the Secular Buddhist Association (SBA) in the USA? What were your initial goals in forming the SBA? Have those goals changed over time?

Understand that when I first started the podcast I’d no idea how it would go, or whether there would be any interest.  That shifted very quickly as people found the conversations speaking to them quite deeply and revealed an appetite for people connecting with others that I’d not considered.  Even interview-based podcasts tend to be a one-way asynchronous form of communication, and people started to reach out asking for more interaction.  So, we began to meet live online through various means, talking about how Buddhism was showing up for us, learning from one another and practicing together.  We began the SBA in 2012, but at one point the others convinced me of something I had been resisting quite strongly, which was to support this work and ongoing conversation more formally.  So, in 2016 we formally registered as a non-profit, as I’d been funding the podcast, website, etc. myself for those first seven years. And they were right, I was wrong. That’s made it not only much less difficult to continue the work, but enables people to connect and show their interest and care for what we offer in a tangible way.

My resistance came from seeing how institutions didn’t have a great track record with avoiding unethical behaviors, corruption, or harming people, and desperately not wanting this to become a vehicle for anyone’s personal profiteering on a freely given dhamma.  So, baked into our core goals of reaching others with Secular Buddhism was the principle that it’s not about us, it’s not a cult of personality, but about how the teaching and practices can help people in their lives.  And we stick to that; no one gets paid, it’s all volunteers giving up personal time out of their lives to support this work.

Over time, this has grown somewhat in that, because of how and what we do and how long we’ve been at it, the SBA is a bit of a hub for Secular Buddhism. I’m very, very glad to see other groups forming and building out the wider community with their own unique offerings.  This isn’t about holding tightly and ownership, but about opening.

SBN Editor: How would you characterize the current status of secular Buddhism?  Do you see different trends within secular Buddhism?  How do you now see the relationship between secular Buddhism and traditional lineages? 

In just a few short years it’s gone from a term that gave people pause, wondering exactly what does that mean, to people openly identifying as Secular Buddhists as if it’s been a recognized branch of the Buddhist tree all along.  I think many more people in heritage Buddhist settings might more closely identify with the premise of Secular Buddhism than are counted as such, simply because they don’t know there is another way of engaging with Buddhism, and that there aren’t a lot of established in-person Secular Buddhist centers as there are Zen or Theravada or Vajrayana settings. Most of the teachers and meditators I know who identify as Buddhist are more closely aligned with secular views than orthodox ones, if actually asked, but still identify as being a “Zen person,” or whatever their particular context is.

And yes, there are different varieties of Secular Buddhism.  Some include a strong ritual or chanting practice, while others may be more averse to them.  We tend to respect what is most helpful — not necessarily the easiest, but most helpful forms of practice. It’s worth examining what is helpful to us, rather than having to adhere to strict ideologies or forms.  Mindfulness of breathing for example can be quite dysregulating for some people.

SBN Editor:  How do you think secular Buddhism can contribute to both individual transformation and changing society for the better?

It has the most understanding that each individual is unique, and what is most supportive for one person may not be helpful to you.  In addition,  for secular Buddhists, new findings in neurology and behavioral science are welcome and incorporated into practice, something virtually absent in orthodox centers.  Secular Buddhism is not patriarchal, is intentionally welcoming of people of color with tangible and meaningful action and leadership inclusion, and is inclusive of all gender identifications and sexual orientations.

We actively push against the notion that ideals of non-self somehow validate criticisms of POC or other groups which recognize and honor lived realities of people in those groups.  We intentionally and actively recognize people’s unique circumstances, and we’ve found views or practices which separate a person from their humanity, or ignore the realities of their existence in favor of an ideal of non-self and emptiness, can be quite harmful — we won’t do that because of the negative impact is has on society, let alone the individual.

SBN Editor:  With your podcast, you’ve interviewed a wide range of practitioners, writers, and teachers. As you look back over the years of doing the podcast, have you noticed any trends in how Buddhism has changed, including how people view secular Buddhism? 

While it’s more accepted, there’s still a strong push back against Secular Buddhism.  There are assumptions about it which are just plain false, or the imposition of measures of how “Buddhist” we are that simply don’t apply to a secular understanding of the world.  While many heritage Buddhists have been quite understanding, there are those who completely abandon metta in favor of hatred and willful ignorance of us as people. They’re unwilling to acknowledge even obvious areas of compatibility and agreement.  We try to remain open and engaging, but when name calling and aggression is unabated, no one should continue to punish themselves by receiving outright, abusive rhetoric.

SBN Editor:  Finally, how would you like to see a secular approach to the dharma evolve over the next 10, 15 years? 

I would very much like to land in a place where there can be not just acknowledgment that we’re neither taking away from heritage Buddhism nor harming it, but actively partnering in sharing the dhamma with the world.  We’re doing something different; if we claimed we were Theravadins and then practicing as we do, that would be a legitimate point of contention — but we don’t.  I would like to see Secular Buddhist centers as widely accessible as heritage centers, so those who really are more secular in their world views know that they don’t have to go on “silent running” in an orthodox setting.

Finally, I would like to see acceptance that Secular Buddhism is a new fourth main branch of Buddhism, distinct from Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.  In my lifetime?  We’ll see.


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