Friday, September 21, 2012

Some secular Buddhist readings – launch of our annotated bibliography

Posted on September 20, 2012

I’m very pleased to announce the launch of a new resource on the SB Aus web site in the ‘resources for the mind’ section – our annotated bibliography (bottom section of the page). I’d like to say a huge thank you to Winton Higgins (one of our local secular teachers) who has kick-started this resource with 12 recommended readings along with a paragraph for each describing the territory it covers and providing a bit of secular perspective. As with all of our resources on here, we’ll add to them in time as we have time to (and I’ll also work on improving the formatting on the resource pages).

In the meantime, I hope you find this valuable.

Warm regards


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Snake - new addition to Sutta Central

I've been on walkabout up the east coast of Australia for the past two months. Walkabout is great for mental space and clarity. However I realised to actually knuckle down and produce things (such as material for this site) I need stillness and un-interrupted time.

I'm happy to say I've had a bit of that this week and have just put up a second sutta worksheet in Sutta Central for your studying pleasure. It's called The Snake and it's a short one but it's a cracker. It's about that insidious temptation to use knowledge as a weapon - the wrong grasp of the dharma.

I've got several more items in the 'almost ready to put up' basket. I'll keep you posted.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

SB Aus site back in action

Thanks very much to the people who let me know there were some problems with the SB Aus site. We have cleaned it up now and added some extra protection. Hopefully it's all squeaky clean and problem free now. Thanks very much for your patience and your feedback.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

An idea whose time has come

It was a conversation with Stephen Batchelor that led to me starting this site. He said to me 'it's an idea whose time has come'. This obviously resounded with me personally but today the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its first lot of data from the 2011 Census and the figures provide support for the idea that 'secularising' the dharma is the way to go if we are to adapt it to this time and place.

A full 22.3% of Australians are 'nones' - up from 15% five years ago - that's a 47% increase! Christianity continued its steady decline. Interestingly, if you look at the Christian religions separately, Catholicism  is the only one with more adherents than 'No Religion' - with 25.3%. Buddhism is the largest non-Christian religion. (If you click on the link above you'll need to scroll about half way down the page.)

From the site:
Since the first Census, the majority of Australians have reported an affiliation with a Christian religion. However, there has been a long-term decrease in affiliation to Christianity from 96% in 1911 to 61% in 2011. Conversely, although Christian religions are still predominant in Australia, there have been increases in those reporting an affiliation to non-Christian religions, and those reporting 'No Religion'.




Proportion born 



13 150.6



5 439.2


3 680.0


Uniting Church
1 065.8


Presbyterian and Reformed


Eastern Orthodox








Other Christian



1 546.3











Other non-Christian



No Religion
4 796.8



21 507.7



(a) Proportion of people reporting this religion who were born overseas.
(b) Total includes inadequately described (supplementary codes) religions and people who did not state a religion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sutta Central launched!

I'm really pleased to announce the launch of Sutta Central. I've posted up the first sutta from Stephen Batchelor's selection (To the Kalamas) along with questions for reflection and some answers offered.

The idea is to make available to all, the kind of knowledge a small number of us are lucky to have ready access to. In my case I've been lucky to have easy access to the mind of Winton Higgins (see the US web site for a podcast interview with Winton) in getting my head around the core concepts in the dharma, as well as periodic access to Stephen Batchelor. So the idea of this section of the web site is to share the informed secular perspective on some suttas that are key to this perspective so that people who may not have access to their own walking dharmic encyclopedia can do some assisted study themselves.

Check it out and if you have any questions, post them on our Forum under Canonical discussion. I might even be able to convince Winton to answer them for you! It does take a bit of work to put these together so I'd really like to know if people find them valuable. If so, I'm very happy to keep doing them.

More great stuff coming soon!
Warm regards (on a cold, rainy Sydney day)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Share your favourite heart-movers

Secular Buddhism needs you!

What are the movies, poems, songs, Youtube clips, cartoons, pictures or other inspirations from the arts, that move your heart in dharmic ways?

While logic and rationality serve us very well, it's our emotions that move us. Indeed they are what make our decisions. There are lots of resources for the mind on many of our sites (and more to come soon here) but equally important is to feel and experience the dharma. This is also going to be an awesome way to adapt it to our western culture - to clothe it in our way if you like. So come and be part of it!

I've recently posted the first few submissions on Resources for the heart. Even just the first few ideas are exciting - some movies I've never heard of and will now have to see! Have a look and please, take a few minutes to submit your own favourites. (As they accumulate I'll collapse them down and have links to a page per theme.)

Also, if you have other email lists, blogs you follow or web sites you contribute to, please spread the word and link to the Resources for the heart page. This is open to contributions from anyone and here to benefit everyone.

More exciting things coming soon!

Warm regards


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Can we call the Buddha Sid?

One of the key features of a secular understanding of Buddhism is the viewing of the Buddha as a human being rather than as a supernatural being. It's seen as one of the 'three refuges'....that a human being achieved awakening which serves as an encouragement to the rest of us mere mortals that we too can do this.

In the first blog post on this site (Secular Buddhism: Does a Label Help or Hinder?) I attempted to explore the pros and cons of adopting the label 'Secular Buddhism'. One of the down-sides is the propensity to start locking down one's view as belonging to the 'secular' camp and possibly missing out on helpful things from other 'camps'. One antidote, I suggest is to use whatever means are available to continue encouraging open questioning. In this spirit I'd like to hear views on the pros and cons of continuing to call Siddhattha Gotama 'The Buddha' rather than Siddhattha or even Sid for short.

As I write this post I feel some anxiety which is the result of an expectation that this question will be seen as heretical by some and that it might spark some flames of objection that could come my way. I've actually been 'blow-torched' for questioning things in other realms of my life lately so the anxiety is even higher than normal. However despite the pain that sometimes comes along with it, the freedom to question is one of the few things that feel sacred to me, so despite the flammability of the question, I'm putting it out there.

My current thinking on it (subject to change with the considered views I hope are shared in reply to this post) is that, as with all things, there are advantages and disadvantages. I'll have a go at starting the list:


  1. It reinforces the view of Siddhattha as human and therefore the view of awakening as a real, attainable possibility for us.

  2. It helps keep us away from the slippery slope of pedestals, deifications and the religifying of the dharma.

  3. It prompts us to look at any attachment we might have to Sid being on said pedestal - we can ask 'what is that?' (as the Zennies would say) and does/how does it help?

  4. It keeps us focused on the fact that dharma practice is about getting to the other side of the river, not building a shrine to the raft.

  5. It helps prevent the adherence to the teachings just because they came from Siddhattha rather than subjecting them to the rigour of our own life testing.

  6. It helps us relate to the persona of Sid as a wise friend rather than an authority figure - those of us with a secular orientation are more likely to be influenced by the former.

  7. (For Australians) it's in keeping with Australian culture of nick-naming everything that we feel affection for and/or anticipate will have any kind of longevity in our lives.

  8. (Also especially for Australians) it helps circumvent mistrust of authority figures.

  9. It's a symbolic reminder of the fundamental shifts that come along with Secular Buddhism.


  1. The fact that the Buddha has an honorific title might encourage newcomers to test the teachings out more fully than they otherwise might if he was seen as just another self help guru.

  2. When speaking with the general population it's clearer who we're talking about.

  3. We are less likely to upset those of a more traditional Buddhist orientation

  4. It's easier to avoid 'us and them' identification between the secular and traditional approaches.

Believe it or not, I've tried very hard to be balanced about this. Any omissions in this list are due to the limitations of my own personal experience rather than an attempt to push an agenda. Based on the list above and my own view of the world, the advantages of 'Sid/dhattha outweigh the advantages of 'The Buddha' but I genuinely invite and look forward to hearing others' views.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Secular Buddhism - does a label help or hinder?

The emergence of Secular Buddhism as an identifiable movement is very new. The movement itself has been growing for some time - as Stephen Batchelor said to me a couple of weeks ago - 'it's an idea whose time has come'. That rings true with my experience both in the sangha (meditation group) that I help run and with my experience more generally. However it is only in the last couple of years that we've started to see web sites dedicated to 'secularising' Buddhism, it's only in the last year that the first Secular Buddhist Association has appeared (see and indeed it's only in the last few days that a substantial entry has appeared in Wikipedia under 'Secular Buddhism' courtesy of Stephen B and Winton Higgins.

It's very exciting to be involved in bringing to life something that has so much potential and so much apparent support out there. As with everything though, there are upsides and downsides. As I see it, the upsides are many. These are not just the legitimizing of a wider array of experiences as elements of serious dharma practice, but importantly, they include the accessing of the invaluable insights taught by Siddhattha Gotama, by a much wider audience who are unlikely to benefit from it otherwise. In addition, it helps bring together people with similar values and orientations and it also helps us formulate a conversation about the forces that have brought us together, what they mean, and what we do and don't want them to produce.

The potential downsides also need to be considered as we coagulate and label this 'movement' so that its impact is beneficial and not harmful.  I thought it would be a good first post on the SBA blog to invite discussion on it. My hope is that this will help us move forward mindfully in a way that mitigates the potential downsides.

There are two obvious downsides that occur to me. The first is the ever-present tendency of human beings to co-opt things into our identities. Siddhattha spoke of the creation and desperate clinging to a fixed identity or self concept as a key source of our suffering and angst. It would be both ironic and unhelpful if we began clinging desperately to the idea of our 'selves' as being 'secular Buddhists', adopting the views coming from our own camp simply because it's 'our camp', rejecting helpful practices or ideas from other camps because they're not from our camp, or reacting badly to criticisms or challenges to the movement.

One of the most common requests fielded by Ted Meissner who runs the US site, is that Secular Buddhism finds funding for the establishment of its own premises. To me, this is one of the key ways to entrench identity - get yourself an address, a hierarchy, an institution. Siddhattha led a peripatetic life and was sedentary only during the rainy season for obvious reasons. Both my intuition and my experience in the corporate world tell me that getting ourselves a geographical home is a very slippery slope to entrenchment in fixed identity - we need to be very mindful to stay attuned to this.

Related to this is the second obvious potential downside which is that it could create a bit of an 'us and them' mentality with other Buddhist traditions. Psychology has a label for this phenomenon (see, labels can be useful): Social Identity Theory. This is a common pattern where human beings define who is in and who is out according to some criterion (and there are many....which football team you barrack for, which political party you vote for, gender, race, education, how you dress, wealth, age, dialect or accent - the list is endless). Once we know the bounds of the in group we then over-emphasize the differences we have with the out-group, we over-emphasize the similarities we have with the in-group, and voila!...we have divisiveness.

So what should we do to try and avoid these common pitfalls? Three ideas come to mind. First, be very clear on our goals. Ted Meissner and his colleagues have done a great job of clarifying these for the Secular Buddhist Association in the US and we'll be reviewing these as the basis for a similar statement for the Australian chapter.

Secondly, we can cultivate a vigilance of our intentions and keep them firmly planted on these goals. We can do this by questioning ourselves and others as we orient our way through the emergence of the movement. Importantly, those of us who are involved in expanding the presence of secular Buddhism can structure checks and balances into our processes to make sure we are living the values we aspire to.

Thirdly, we can include prominently in our intentions, friendliness to all beings including all those who have adopted or been born into religious Buddhism. While this sounds obvious it's likely to be tested because some of these people will find secular Buddhism they may not behave in very Buddha-like ways when we cross paths.

What do you think? Are there other potential pitfalls? Do you have other ideas for making sure we don't fall in to them?