by Stefano Bettera
Stefano Bettera recently completed a two year course in the Secular Dharma offered by Bodhi College. In this article he offers his reflections on what the course meant to him and what the next steps are for the temporary sangha created by the course participants.
The two year course combines study, meditation practice, and group discussions. The instructors for the 2018 to 2019 course were Martine Batchelor, Stephen Batchelor, Jennie Wilks, and Renate Seifarth. Applications for the next two year course will be available in the beginning of 2020.
Two years of travel have come to an end. In this long period dedicated to the course of study and meditation on secular Dharma, organized by Bodhi College, a group of twenty people have laid the foundations for a path of secular practice that takes its cue from different insights of Gotama but not only. In these two years, dialogue with contemporary culture and philosophy has been, and is increasingly so, the basis and the indispensable starting point for the realization of this path and so that it may be able, concretely, to speak to our society, to the men and women of today.
And it is precisely from this consideration, having reached the goal of this course, that some questions arise: What happens now? How can we prevent this temporary sangha from dispersing through the streets of the world? It is certainly important that each of us, as has always happened after our meetings, returns to his or her ‘place’ and brings with him or her these elements of practice, reflection and challenge. It is true that Gotama always repeated that everyone would find the Dharma wherever there was a resonance with his teaching. It is equally true, however, that the strength of a community, of a group, is an essential quality to build a project and face a challenge.
We need precursors. Someone to start the journey. Someone who gives inspiration, who shows the direction. This course has responded to this need. Stephen Batchelor is the guide that started and leads this path. But the challenges out there are great. Take, for example, the theme of the climate crisis and this new environmental movement that is, literally, changing the way we look at the problem. The energy, the enthusiasm, the decision of some people have allowed the river to flow. Just as we have done here in these two years.
Fragility and resistance
But the flow, even if it seems powerful, can be fragile. The temporary sangha born during the course is a sort a model, which can serve as a reference and inspiration. A model that concerns perspectives, method, language. A model experienced in a ‘protected’ context. Where the choice to exercise a conscious, respectful, attentive, welcoming behavior is part of the agreement that we have made between us. This community of practice is also, in some ways, a community of human resistance. A “sacred” place, which people have made such thanks to their practice.
Returning to the world
The question, then, is, what’s next? How can we bring this experience into a larger context where different rules prevail? In which pressure, contrast, harshness, are certainly often stronger than awareness? And how can we bring this model of secular practice that we have imagined here into contexts that speak languages very far from our own and often totally disinterested in any kind of profoundly human path?
The road of ‘sharing’
Sharing allows knowledge, it opens up to dialogue, it allows us to insert some elements of ‘involuntary’ practice in distant contexts, without this being experienced as a force. For example, during a recent event of Extinction Rebellion in the UK, a group of activists simply sat in meditation in the middle of the street, just to bear witness with silence, a presence. Practices like this are certainly not new. The movement of civil disobedience has used them for a long time. But what is new today is that this form of ‘planetary emergency’ paradoxically breaks every pattern. It urgently calls for commitment and horizontally, anyone who is willing to propose, even in a creative way, a moment of presence.
A secular creativity
It is precisely the creative, adaptable, non-dogmatic and unorthodox characteristic of this secular Dharma that is an opportunity. This characteristic makes it by nature open to encounters with other perspectives, to ‘contamination’. Both to be contaminated and to contaminate by the ‘virus’ of the challenge, of the sublime, of the unknown. The fact that it is a method to be put into practice, something to be done, not something to believe in, saves it from presenting itself as a new ideology. It does not create a dialogue in an ideological, abstract, and ascetic way with any reality it encounters. Instead, the secular Dharma is willing to mix, to know, to learn. And, at the same time, to bring the value of awareness, of practice, in contexts that need it.
That kind of society that Gotama had imagined in the parable of the City, may perhaps be this society contaminated by a centuries-old practice. The strength of a temporary sangha like ours does not disperse if it manages to contaminate with the elements we have elaborated here, ‘different’ communities and larger contexts. Its strength, which lies not in appearance, symbols and rituals, but in conviction and continuous transformation, can also transform what it encounters.
This temporary sangha will not disperse if it continues to have a heart and brain open to what happens, faithful to this choice of freedom and confident that many others are taking steps similar to ours. And so the encounter with other perspectives will not mean losing a memory, a road, but strengthening it, making it even more transformative by making room for the steps of many others “different from us” who want to make a stretch of the way.