Buddhism Without Buddha

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.