No robes, no ritual, no religion

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 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 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

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.