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?