by Mark Knickelbine

One of the topics we get into with some frequency is what the relationship is or ought to be between Secular Buddhism and the Buddha.  Is dharma practice inextricably linked to the smiling sage beneath the Bo tree?  Is it possible for the core practices to be presented entirely outside the framework of Buddhist language and doctrine?  And if so, would that be a good or a bad thing?

Apropos of these questions, I wanted to share an experience I had last Friday evening.  It was my first attendance at a “mindfulness drop-in session” that is held twice a month at a local clinic.  I was excited to learn about it, because it seemed similar to the mindfulness classes I had attended when I first started practicing a few years back, but with a crucial difference.  Since it is “drop-in,” and since there is no fee other than a request for donations, there’s no need to get a medical necessity diagnosis, nor to fix things up with one’s health plan.   And whereas the typical MBSR-type program ends after eight weekly sessions, this is a continuing group.   It looked just like the kind of thing I had spent years searching for.

I entered a big round room; the outer wall was floor-to-ceiling glass windows.  Seated in a circle of chairs and cushions were more than 25 people.  I was surprised not only at the size of the group but its diversity – the youngest were high school or college aged, the oldest must have been in their 70s, with plenty of folks in between.  More women than men, but not all that many more.  The leader, a young woman in yoga clothes, was seated on a cushion at the far end of the circle, with a flip chart on a stand behind her.  In the center of the circle on the carpeted floor were three large candles and a stone.

We started with fifteen minutes of guided meditation, the leader giving familiar instructions about mindfulness of the body and breath.  We then moved on to a series of discussions, exercises and guided meditations designed to help us recognize how we experience emotions that trigger reactive behaviors.  The leader shared a poem, then, with the aid of the flip chart, led us in a brainstorming session on what kinds of reactivity we experience and the physical and emotional sensations we felt just before engaging in reactive behavior.  A guided meditation had us visualize such instances and focus on the feelings that came up in response.

Then we got together in groups of three to engage in a mindful listening practice, sharing what we’d just experienced.  The lesson in all of this was that, if we can train ourselves to be mindful of feelings as feelings, we can learn to just be with them rather than be trapped in our reactions to them.

The group reconvened for more discussion.  Then we ended with another guided meditation, this one asking us to reflect that our sensations and emotions are not ours alone, but that we have them in common with all other people.  With that, the hour and fifteen minute session was over.

The B-word was never mentioned.  The only Sanskrit word used during the entire session was “dana” when we were reminded about the donation box in the rear of the room (apparently exotic language still serves a purpose).   There was no direct reference at all to Buddhist concepts.  Only if you had acquired such knowledge elsewhere would you recognize the Buddhist origins of what we were doing.

And yet here was a community supporting each other in the practice of fully knowing dukkha, releasing craving and clinging, and developing compassion for others.  In fact, I was reminded how often the more traditional teaching and practice groups I’ve participated in seem distracted by the trappings of doctrine and ritual and let the focus drift away from the only thing Gotama found worth teaching, and the only thing taught by this secular group: suffering, and the alleviation of suffering.

Here was teaching and leadership, but without an authoritarian hierarchy; organization and structure without ritualized forms; and a practical approach to working with the challenges of life rather than the grand, mystical and unapproachable goal of Enlightenment.

Having said all that, I personally value my study of Buddhist texts from a number of traditions, and I think the doctrines have the capacity to enrich our practice greatly.  I also think the human figure of Gotama can be an inspiring lesson in compassion.  I think I’ll take my Buddhism with a good dose of Buddha (or at least Gotama) in it.  But this session made me aware that those things can also be distractions, sources of clinging and aids to aversion.   Practicing in a community without those familiar supports was a little unsettling, but also exhilarating.

Afterward I was excited that I had finally found a secular community to practice with.  I was also amazed to see this phenomenon arising and developing out of the mindfulness therapy community, but growing beyond the confines of the therapeutic “session.”  And I wondered how many other such groups there must be growing up around the world.

My experience reminded me that the secular dharma is already happening.  We don’t have to bring it into being – we only have to lend our energies to it.

No Comments

  1. star on July 20, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Sounds great, I admit. In fact, a quick search of the internet for mindfulness meditation using some Buddhist concepts (without reference to Buddhism) turns up this one about the unconditioned self and mindfulness: — shall we join up and support this fellow in his instructions without reference to the Buddha?

    I think there’s a tension we need to pay mind to between opening up meditation to everyone — which is great — and keeping a system that works well together in a way that keeps that system working. If there is no identification with the system that supports the effectiveness of mindfulness, then any Joe Schmoe who wants to save the world (or make a buck) and has a cool-sounding theory — maybe about how mindfulness shows us the unconditioned self that is the mind of the universe (as proved by quantum mechanics) ((or whatever)) can misuse meditation and give it a bad reputation in their system.

    Just sayin’.

    But I’m really glad for your finding a local group, Mark, and they sound like they’re whacking the ball right down the middle of the concourse.

  2. beginningdharma on July 20, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    What a great example of how we can integrate the practice of Buddhism into our modern, Western culture. Thanks for a wonderful blog post!

  3. Dana Nourie on July 20, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Great post, Mark. Reading about your experience reminded me of a daylong I did with my local Theravada group. We did exactly what you describe, did a guided meditation, discussed reactivity, then split into groups to share our experiences. This was within the context of Buddhism, but I could see how it would fit very well outside of it. What you have experienced is becoming more common.

    From my local sangha there are two women who teach mindfulness meditation at the local prison to women, and to children at local schools. In these situations, Buddhism is never mentioned. It’s simply mindfulness being taught.

    Neurobiology is picking up on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation in a big way, and I feel it can be inserted into every day life, without a single mention of Buddha, in the same way we fit in our exercise regimen.

    Those of us who read the suttas, Buddhist books, and go to physical or virtual communities know there is much more to the path than mindfulness and meditation. However, I feel it’s important that meditation is integrated into society in a completely secular way. Everyone can benefit hugely from it, even if they never read about the rest of the path, or the Buddha.

    The benefit of learning it from within the context of Buddhism is, of course, using mindfulness to our understanding of dependent origination, not-self, impermanence, and ethics and the consequences of our actions in the world. But I suspect if one developed mindfulness and maintained it enough, they would naturally discover those other benefits on their own.

    I can see a day when the Buddha is completely removed from the practice, and meditation is integrated into psychology, self-help, schools, hospitals, etc, and that people’s ethics would improve because of it.

    For right now, it’s difficult to get the teachings without the blanket of Buddhism, and we all know there is much to be gleaned from Buddha’s teachings. Over time we’ll figure out ways it can be introduced in a secular manner to everyone else, and hopefully be a part of daily life.

    • Candol on March 28, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      This is probably heretical but i’ve got to say dana, that i find the concepts of impermanence, no-self and dependent origination, not as important for me as the practice of the 8fold path. I think if you only practice the three parts re thoughts, speech and action, you will be streets ahead.

      I know the concepts are useful, particularly impermanence but i personally do not find dependent origination a very compelling idea in my personal life. Re no self, i like it that it makes one or at least me, think the aim should be towards selflessness but if we had nothing but the 4 noble truths and the 8fold path, we’d be doing just fine.

      I say this partly because when i started practicing buddhism, my first approach to practice was with the 8fold path and it was only later that i became more aware of the importance of anicca, anatta and dependent origination to the buddha’s philosophy but in learning more about them, it made no difference to my practice with perhaps some exception for impermanence because it is helpful when faced with a difficult thing to know that it will pass eventually. Although it has to be said regarding some things, it may not pass until many years hence or even with the end of life itself.

  4. Dana on July 20, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Star, people can misuse and abuse anything in the Buddhist system even if we aren’t using it outside of Buddhism. Just like Quantum Mechanics was in the purview of science, people like Chopra have yanked out and into their weird world to explain their woo-woo.

    All we can do about that is keeping reminding people, the proof has to be in the pudding.

  5. mknick on July 20, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    @ Dana : Didn’t mean to suggest this group was just about meditation — the goal is very much about cultivating mindfulness as a life skill, about turning to it instinctively when you encounter people or situations that promote unskillful reactions. Retraining one’s neurobiology to move toward equanimity rather than clinging or aversion — which, I think, was the point of Gotama’s dharma and discipline all along.

    @ Linda, don’t be whippin out no Deepak on me! There is a system here — it’s the system of mindfulness based therapies that are well supported by both research and clinical practice at this point. Of course beneath that is the foundation of the mindfulness principles that Kabatt Zinn, Kornfield and others took from Burmese vipassana. But the basis of practice is not scriptural authority but demonstrated practical effectiveness (and ain’t that what Gotama said we should be basing our practice on?) And as far as New Agey woo is concerned, you know as well as I do that the Pali canon is as useful for justifying that as any made-up spiritual mush would be. Don’t worry — this is where I started, and the efficacy I experienced made it ok for me to study the sutras (which, as a good atheist, I would not have done). I think I am not alone in this. In fact one role of Secular Buddhism may be to help bridge the clinical practice with the richness of Gotama’s concepts.

    • Dana Nourie on July 25, 2011 at 11:09 am

      Right, Brad. I didn’t mean to suggest purely meditation in isolation either. Meditation can work in conjunction with a lot of things.

  6. star on July 20, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Bridges, yes, I like bridges.

    In the end I don’t really care if the Buddha or Gotama ever get mentioned, as long as there is a core of people who understands what the system is, can keep it together, and teach it with fair accuracy. I don’t know how that happens without identifying where the system came from though.

  7. stoky on March 28, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Thank you very much for this text Mark! We have a similar discussion at the German Buddhist blogosphere right now.

    I also think we should try to avoid the fallacy that there is “one solution”. For some people reading the Suttas might help their mindfulness/meditation practice, but for some people “Buddhism” will be an obstacle.

    I easily could imagine an environment where every “branch” serves a different purpose. Mindfulness for a totally secular approach, Buddhism as a source for inspiration with its rich tradition and, maybe, secular Buddhism as a bridge between both.

  8. Mark Knickelbine on March 28, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Stoky, thanks for your comments. I would go farther and say that many people, myself included, would never come near mindfulness practice if it had not been removed from its Buddhist context. It wasn’t until after I began to experience transformations in my life thanks to practice that I was motivated to learn about Buddhism and to read Pali and Mahayana texts. Certainly the medical profession would not have adopted these techniques unless they could be used outside of their original religious context — and my HMO would never have paid for it!

    What I have been impressed with is the focus of this group on developing mindfulness skills to use in daily life. Also the interactivity — we spend as much time learning from one another as we do listening to that week’s teacher. But the main motivation for my continued attendence is the sense of warmth and connectedness I often feel attending this group. You can call it Buddhism or not, but I find it tremendously rewarding and a great support to my dharma practice.

  9. Candol on March 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    I very much like this article. I doubt there are too many groups around the world doing this as yet. But i look forward to the day when such groups could be common. I am a bit like you too Mark in that while this group seems perfectly good without its mention of the buddha, i find the reference to the buddha adds something worthwihle. I guess it will come down to personal preference.

    With regard to mindfulness in clinical settings. I find it disturbing that a course of only 8 sessions is the norm. I know from my own life that if there is no ongoing structure or support, the practice will fail. I also know this from talking online to people who have done DBT courses which is dialectical behaviour therapy which is based on the mindfulness practice. When the frame is taken away people stop practicing the method. To me this is a huge failing in all mental health contexts. Its also the case with rehab. People are turned out and have no where else to go for support.

    I know that’s mostly about money but i can’t see why there is no effort to set up support groups in the place of the formal structure. This really bothers me. I just haven’t found the way to persuade anyone in the industry of its importance.

  10. Doug on June 2, 2012 at 6:31 am

    Thanks for this, Mark. I think the Buddha’s understanding of the dharma was that it was universal, and has no essential link to the person of Siddhartha Gotama.

    Though I agree with you that “I’ll take my Buddhism with a good dose of Buddha (or at least Gotama) in it”, I don’t think the dharma needs Buddha at all; it certainly doesn’t need Gotama. If it works, it works.

  11. Mark Knickelbine on June 3, 2012 at 10:09 am

    Doug, thanks for reading. I’m currently reading the book Teaching Mindfulness, which is written for MBSR teachers. It stresses the importance of understanding the Buddhist roots of mindfulness, advises MBSR teachers to study with Buddhist teachers, and even maps the Four Truths and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness onto the MBSR curriculum! MBSR is a conscious attempt to secularize the dharma.

  12. Candol on December 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    “The lesson in all of this was that, if we can train ourselves to be mindful of feelings as feelings, we can learn to just be with them rather than be trapped in our reactions to them.”

    Learning how to just be with our feelings is not so easy. Do you have any tips on this. A concrete example: When i am struggling with stuff – my projects are threatened, my relationships full of distress, then the way i react is to think suicidally. I can’t seem to stop this happening. I can’t seem to stop thinking in this way. I have trouble letting go of those thoughts. I do try to resist going down that route but going with it only makes it last longer. I do go with it that’s why the thoughts proliferate. I wish people would actually start teaching how to be with those feelings rather than just repeatedly say we can learn how to be with them. The reactions i’m talking about here are thoughts, just thoughts. There is a thought reaction which perpetuates the feelings. Of course there are other reactions coming from that as well. Irritability and so on and so forth.

    As i ‘ve already read this article before i realise i need not comment on the program again as i’ve already done that. But my having forgotten about all this, goes to show that one is forgetful and does not remember most of what one reads.

  13. Mark Knickelbine on January 1, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Candol, I am sorry to hear that you’re suffering, and I hope you will soon be free of suffering.

    While mindfulness practice is an important means for dealing with the struggles of life, it’s not a panacea. It’s one of many ways we have to take care of ourselves, including seeking the help of trained professionals when we need it. I know that kind of help was very important to me when I was struggling with depression, and I hope you have that kind of support yourself; if not, I hope you’ll keep looking till you find a professional who’s right for you.

    Please remember that, as Gotama said, there is no one in the tenfold universe who is more deserving of love and kindness than you are. When I’m having a hard time negotiating life, metta meditation is very helpful to me. You might try it, or try some more of it, and see how it goes. Take care of yourself, dharma sister!

  14. Candol on January 2, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Thanks Mark. I should do more metta meditation. I like it in theory. I don’t really like the actual practice apart from special occasions when i’m doing it properly but that’s not oftion. I find its hard work. You have to go through a bit of a formula and you really have to conjure up memories and feelings and that’s mentally effortful. Whereas trying to maintain focus on my breath is not effortful and is much more enjoyable. I am a fairly lazy person and my mind always looks for the path of least resistance.

    I realise that there are easier ways to do it and i don’t have to do the whole formula but its not a meditation i actually look forward to its better if i am guided through it or alternatively guide others in it. Sometimes i don’t like the way others guide it. They just read or recite and that’s not proper metta in my view. Its not the way that actually makes any difference to me.

    • leebert on January 2, 2013 at 6:34 pm

      If focus meditation is easier for you, keep at it. I use that angle to get to access concentration & from there I can either engage in Jhana or Vipassana work. I enjoy access concentration & can do it anywhere — driving, listening to lectures, some social situations even.

    • Ted Meissner on January 3, 2013 at 9:42 am

      Metta meditation was instrumental in getting me through a serious depression several years ago. And as Mark eloquently said, it’s not the only tool in our box of ways to address depression; I also needed and used professional help. The meditation practice really helps make those ideas presented in therapy get some traction in our daily lives.

      • Candol on January 4, 2013 at 5:36 am

        I always go find extra help when need it.

  15. ATLmeditator on January 6, 2013 at 8:10 am

    What is a good reference for metta meditation?

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