No robes, no ritual, no religion

| May 14, 2012 | 6 Comments

The following is from May 2012 issue of the New Zealand newsletter INSIGHTAotearoa.

No robes, no ritual, no religion
by Ramsey Margolis

At Easter, a new website went live at secularbuddhism.org.nz. Within a week, 34 people had asked to go onto the mailing list for a yet-to-be issued newsletter. Something must have been in the air, and it probably wasn’t incense.

The rites and rituals of ancient religions have never touched my heart. The core principles of a secular Buddhist practice, however, make excellent sense to me, and to the world we live in. I remember well my first insight meditation retreat at Tauhara in 1999 or 2000. There was no bowing, no candles, no ritual and no-one in robes on a pedestal, just silence with alternating sitting and walking, wholesome food to nurture our bodies and the occasional talk to make sense of our practice. Going back to Wellington and starting a sitting group was clearly worthwhile.

During those first few years, when not on the cushion or writing newsletters (a serious practice in itself) I read voraciously, exploring a wide range of spiritual and even new age texts. Some books touched my heart and some made me laugh out loud, but not many had what I felt to be real intellectual rigour that didn’t demand that I suspend disbelief. The first major exception was Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.

I’d been listening to dharma talks downloaded on dial-up for years. Some were good, some were wonderful, some had me shaking my head at the kinds of propositions we were being asked to accept. Through his talks and writings, I’ve been following the development of Stephen Batchelor’s thought for over a decade. He makes good sense to me. But he’s not an insight meditation teacher, and that in itself was interesting: I was involved in a Buddhist tradition but the teacher who made most sense to me wasn’t.

Insight meditation was the nearest thing to what I sought, a secular approach to Buddhism, which is why I stayed with it. But the reality is that it doesn’t actually have what I would describe as a secular approach: it’s very much a liberal, tolerant, broad church of a movement. Each sangha is different, and some insight meditation teachers have, for instance, started to meld their Buddhist teachings with Advaita Vedanta, a form of Hinduism designed in the 8th century from what I can ascertain as a ‘Buddhism killer’. The assumptions and beliefs of Hinduism with regard to rebirth, reincarnation and a karma that goes from life to life were stated as truths at insight meditation gatherings, and never challenged, causing me to cringe.

Eventually I withdrew from the local insight meditation community, passed my newsletter, website and organising roles to others and began looking for new ways to serve and share the dharma.

For the past few years I’ve been organising courses, retreats and talks by Martine and Stephen Batchelor, on my own and with friends, but not as part of an ongoing community. I set up the Aotearoa Buddhist Education Trust, ostensibly to bring insight meditation teachers to offer teachings in New Zealand, but really to publicise those retreats and most importantly as an attempt to engage people in the practice of generosity.

Now I want to be part of a community again, but this time one which is consciously secular and deeply engaged with the concerns of our world and all the beings in it. We often forget, for some reason, that the Buddha – known to his contemporaries as Siddhattha Gotama – lived in a particular time and place. And that we live in a different time and place.

What made sense in the northern Gangetic basin two and a half thousand years ago doesn’t necessarily strike a chord with us now, living as we do on one of two medium-size islands in the southern Pacific Ocean roughly two thousand years after the birth of Yehoshua, the man who came to be known as the Christ.

A lot of beliefs that made sense to some back in those times and places no longer make sense in our very different time and place. Do you really believe that what happens to you and I as we live our lives is a result of the actions that you and I took in a previous lifetime? Do you really believe that after you die you will come back again, if you’re lucky in a human body and if you’re unlucky as a different being, on a ‘lower’ level than us humans?

I don’t believe these things and I don’t believe they are – or need to be – part of a Buddhadharma that speaks to our time and place. We don’t need them to enjoy the fruits of the Buddhadharma any more than we need to put on Asian costumes and do Asian rituals. In our secular age it is possible to have a secular Buddhism, and this is what I am exploring now. It is such a new approach that the best resources are found online rather than in books, for example on secularbuddhism.org.nz as well as on a number of other websites, links to which you’ll find there.

You will find the work of challenging thinkers who are deeply steeped in dharma practice. Winton Higgins, for instance, is a Sydney based teacher, an academic with an acerbic wit. A dharma practitioner since 1987, he began teaching in 1995 and teaches at three Sydney insight meditation communities. His biography states that he ‘has developed towards non-formulaic insight practice based on the Buddha’s original teachings, while his dharmic orientation inclines towards secular Buddhism. He fosters interest in the original teachings and their affinity with modern streams of thought and progressive social commitments.’

Martine and Stephen Batchelor will be no strangers to regular readers of INSIGHTAotearoa. If you missed their Otaki retreat there’s the possibility of virtually being present at a retreat they taught in Australia a couple of weeks later. A series of talks they gave at Sine Cera Retreat Centre offer the possibility of in-depth study in the comfort of your own home, or on your phone/MP3 player on the bus to work. Find them at http://sc.dharmaseed.org/retreats/1593/.

In her talks, Martine goes through: practice; ethics, compassion and wisdom; awakening; feeling tone; some zen quotes; path, view and concentration; right mindfulness and right intention; ending up with the four great vows and a discussion on the role of a teacher.

Stephen offers his thoughts on: experience; namarupa and consciousness; dukha and tanha; conditionality and the four; Mara; and stream entry; before starting on a description of a secular Buddhism, looking at the four noble tasks and discussing a culture of awakening.

To paraphrase French writer Victor Hugo, there’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come. I believe that the conditions are right for a full-on secular approach to Buddhism, the stripping back of years of cultural accretion from the teachings of a man who lived in the north of India two and a half thousand years ago. If that approach resonates with you, please come and join me in developing a contemporary form of Buddhism – one with no robes, no ritual and no religion.

Category: Articles

Ramsey Margolis

About the Author ()

A meditator since 1995, in the year 2000 I set up a sitting group in Wellington, New Zealand, that evolved into Wellington Insight Meditation Community. Seven years later I left WIMC for paid work, as an educator and lobbyist for cooperative enterprise. Then in 2009 I set up Aotearoa Buddhist Education Trust (abet.nz) to help bring experienced teachers from overseas to New Zealand, and help build a culture of generosity. In 2010 I launched a website at secularbuddhism.org.nz and also started a secular Buddhist meditation group, Simply Meditation. Three years later I left Cooperative Business New Zealand, and now work as a cooperative business advisor for Huia CDS (www.huia.coop). However with a passion for a secular approach to the dharma in 2014 I was co-director of 'Stillness & The Moving Image', a film festival focussing on mindfulness. Last year (2016) I began the process of being mentored as a dharma teacher with Linda Modaro of Sati Sangha in Santa Monica, CA and I helped to start Re~Collective, an experimental, international, secular, open awareness/recollective awareness meditation community that meets online monthly in English. In January this year, Simply Meditation became One Mindful Breath (onemindfulbreath.org.nz), and I'm now one of two teachers at the group. Also I've started to mentor individuals who have an interest in secular Buddhism meditation practice and ideas.

Comments (6)

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  1. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Ramsey, thank you so much for this wonderful article! It does my heart good to see how like minds are coming together across the globe. People like myself who saw some real value in the local Buddhism, but were put off by the outrageous claims of rebirth and karma.

    My experiences with the Insight Centers here in the US are similar to what you experienced. For the most part concentration was on some excellent teachings regarding meditation and mindfulness, people who are open minded and very much into Buddhism, but also who have a tendency towards new agey or Hinduism thinking. It was almost a fit but not quite.

    It’s been wonderful sharing with people around the world who want to practice and discuss the teaching in light of reality, our every day lives, and who are sincerely trying to figure out how to make it all work and break through our delusions.

    Great title too!

  2. Candol says:

    Very nice article. But what i dont’ understand – and this is not just about your approach – is where is all this taking shape or taking place. Yes we have all these online forums. Its not enough for me. Its good but its not enough. For one the ground practice i want a real life secular sangha.

    This is my principle concern, since all the rest seems to be taken care of.

    I am trying in my own way but its a very small community we have here and so it is very hard to even get a steady bunch to come and meditate together, let alone on secular buddhist lines.

    In the end, i have to go and participate in traditional forms because there is simply nothing going on where i live that could be called secular buddhism. And i don’t see much of this happening anywhere. Gaia house in the UK seems to be somewhat of a possibility so maybe there’s one place per country. But that’s hardly going to satisfy a widespread population.

    And as i have raised in earlier discussion on this forum and the uk secular buddhist forum, where are all the secular buddhist teachers going to come from. As it stands it looks like people have to go through the traditional routes to become decent teachers. Otherwise if you don’t have any rigour whatsoever, you will have people teaching any old mishmash of ideas that hey prefer and have picked up. So amongst that approach you may get the odd good group but a lot of rubbish as well.

    So i’m not seeing many answers from you or anyone else. I think the likes of stephen batchelor is one answer to on the ground buddhist practice but he and martine can’t do it all. I think there are a few others teachers like them around but they are nowhere near where i live that’s for sure.

    Its a problem. So that’s why i’m off to santi forest monastry in November for a month. I can afford to go there and i know i can do a rigorous practice and just keep to one side any of the beliefs and thing
    s i dont go along with, though i will have to compromise and call people bhante and treat them reverentially no doubt. Sigh!

    • warren says:

      Why not form a sangha of your own? There’s nothing stopping you from being direct about yourself, if you feel you’re not qualified to be a ‘teacher’ (whatever that is in this context); you can always just say, ‘I’ve had no formal training nor ordination – this is just a group of interested secular Buddhists.’

      That’s what I’ve done in my area. We don’t have a vast number of people – just four – but in a fairly Christian conservative locale, with a population of about 25,000, I’ think that’s pretty good.

      So if there are no sanghas around you, well, consider getting one started.

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Thanks for the post, Ramsey, and good luck. I feel so fortunate to have found the mindfulness group I practice with, which I’ve written about here: http://secularbuddhism.org/2011/07/20/buddhism-without-buddha/ ‎ and here:http://secularbuddhism.org/2011/12/06/meditation-only/ . Along with being totally woo-free, it is also very much focused on bringing mindfulness skills into daily life, and the sessions are very interactive — it’s not just sitting and listening to a speaker. Those of you who are still searching for a group to practice with, check with your local healthcare providers — maybe there’s something similar in your area.

  4. ryondong ryondong says:

    Hi Ramsey,

    Thank you for your article. It’s a very nice one and one that speaks for my interest.

    I don’t immediately jump to the idea of being “secular” as it could have several meanings for somebody else. Neither I would label my practice too with this word.

    But I’m one of your idea of having this type of Buddhism which is devoid of those ritualisms, and has the kind of directness that is representative of what the Buddha wants us to find — the true nature of reality.

    I’m relatively new to Buddhist practice, meaning the practices itself. But not Buddhism as I have held it as one of my favorite philosophies around, I being a philosophy major myself. I find in it a pragmatism that is founded on sound and scientific principles. Unlike other philosophies that are academic, this one speaks for a kind of ethics that doesn’t resort to gods and godesses. It is really a human-based ethical philosophy which finds its value in practice, not in debates and continuous philosophizing.

    This is what attracts me to Buddhism. But as to how its being practiced, I believed that each one is called to a path. I don’t want to call myself a solitary Buddhist, as I am not an individualist myself. But I guess this is one thread of thought that needs to be considered too: that each one is drawn to a path, a path to one’s individual liberation. I do take the fact that in the end, one must work for his own liberation.

    And as far as this path is concerned, it has its similarities in your concept of being secular. No robes, no amount of ritualism. Rather with due focus on instilling mindfulness and loving kindness all throughout. Though, in my own esteem, this must also flow into one’s social sphere and involvement in the community. Even championing life where it is needed. In short, a Buddhist is a person of the world, one who is mindful of the needs of all beings in the world.

    For I’ve seen many who delve much into their practices but who end up just being in those practices. I do not however ask that the secular Buddhists would be this, but this is the perspective where the practices become really a living practice, a practice that transforms the individual, making him a Buddha of the world.

    Wishing you well.

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