SBA: Why We Are The Way We Are

A couple of years ago, a friend was encouraging me to do a podcast about… something. Their idea was for a podcast about critical thinking, and though that had some appeal, it wasn’t something about which I had any particular experience. So it went for awhile, back and forth, what kinds of topics might be covered, what format the podcast might have, would it be about skepticism, atheism, critical thinking, until one day the idea clarified for me: I could do a podcast that had something to do with this Buddhish practice.

It was a start of an idea, but not fully formed. Traditional Zen and Theravada was my background and something with which I could be somewhat conversant. But, something about the religious context didn’t sit well with me, and never has. As an atheist and a skeptic, there were assertions about the natural world that just didn’t fit with my understanding of how things work. Still, there was a very beneficial practice here that I wanted to share, but how to distinguish it, and what to call it?

The Skeptical Buddhist was the first thought that came to mind, but it didn’t seem quite right. There is a great deal of baggage around that S word that didn’t quite fit the bill of what I was interested in doing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… and then it hit me, Secular was the word I was looking for, and it all fell into place.

It may be interesting to note that, though I don’t specifically remember, I may not have even read Stephen Batchelor’s books yet. My Buddhist education was Dogen, the Pali Canon, and various monastics for the most part. But the word allowed for a broad and inclusive spectrum of approaches, as those interested in a non-religious way of practice, and those interested in how that practice directly impacts this world, would be able to actively participate in investigating what this contemporary Buddhism might look like.

Early on, I was faced with a choice in my responses to postings on the FB page, feedback from the listeners, and how I have discussions with guests on the podcast. The examples most prevalent in my mind were from the skeptical and atheist communities, and the format of the podcast is based upon the Center for Inquiry podcast, Point of Inquiry. Podcast format and building a website was very straightforward for me as an IT person, but the tone of discussion was a difficult decision. Should I be an accommodationist, never questioning what someone may say? Or take the PZ Myers route, and openly deride people on a personal level when the express their understanding about the world? Would that tone be open and friendly, or strict and antagonistic?

My guide in making this decision was based on one primary concern: What Was The Problem I Was Trying To Solve? That was pretty simple: people like me, skeptical and non-traditional, don’t have a place to go or anyone to talk with about this practice. Following on the heels of that answer was to clearly formulate what the podcast would be about, so I created a Vision and Mission to be able to point to. These statements are high level and broad by quite intentional design, to allow for the ongoing growth and evolution of what this practice might become.

There were behavior examples, positive and negative, from a variety of existing groups, including Secular Humanists, skeptics, and atheists. And though it’s not been done perfectly and mistakes have certainly been made, I’ve tried to use a tone that would promote secular Buddhism as I understand it to people who might not otherwise encounter it. Derision, accusation, and antagonism were possibilities, but not where I wanted to go. That tone will not take us forward, it is not contributory to the goal.

Part of that tone is doing my best, even in this volunteer activity, to do better than what I’d seen happening in the skeptical community. The first people out of the chute there are awesome people I greatly admire, but may not always exhibit the competencies we might like to see in our leaders. And that’s understandable, not all those key players were the least bit interested in being leaders in the first place. This became more important as listeners wanted more community building functionality, like commenting on pages and having discussion forums. This level of participation became more than I could do alone with the podcast.

And so, with the ideas generated by a small group of interested meditators who met regularly online, the Secular Buddhist Association site was developed to meet those requests. It involved a great deal of time and effort, particularly by Dana in not only technical implementation, but resolving hosting, performance, and security issues. She spent many hours of her own time on this site to provide the best possible experience for as many people as possible, and continues to be a banner lead in posting and replying to others. The other people who post articles here also do so with the sincerest of motivations, trying to make this available while promoting dialogue.

We’re not perfect. We’ve made mistakes, and sometimes have spoken in ways not always as we’d like to see ourselves speak. But we understand that, in the same way the first out of the chute in popularizing skepticism have become the de facto leaders of that community, that may happen here, too. So we’ve tried to moderate our tone and foster an environment that is welcoming, while encouraging free inquiry. We sense the responsibility, and we’re doing it anyway to try to make something that will help people

Part of our critical thinking on this is the recognition that not only are we not perfect, but neither are all of the visitors here. We are all in different places in our approach, and though some of us may be very conversant with the specifics of the neurological basis for experience, the fallibility of the brain, and the rigors of the scientific method, others are not. And as we’re not so inclined to create dogma, we’re less interested in telling people what they can and cannot think — we’re not the thought police. When we start doing that, we then say you can’t use incense because that’s a ritual (even if you just like the smell), you can’t sit on a cushion because that’s not part of our Western culture (even though it may help you keep awake and aware), you can’t call yourself a Secular Buddhist if you’re married to a religious person so you’re clearly not a critical thinker, etc.

It never ends, and I’m not going there. I get told I’m not a Buddhist because I don’t believe in rebirth quite enough, thank you. I’m not going to repeat that behavior by telling someone else they can’t call themselves a secular Buddhist because they do. What matters is what we do, how our practice manifests. And we’re choosing to do our best to be welcoming and encouraging with one another, rather than critical and accusatory. We won’t always get it right, but we’ll try.

So, here we’re going to continue to be inclusive. And many people won’t like it, while others do. We will not only encourage others to start their own sites, we’ll help them do it. If this doesn’t fit how you think secular Buddhism should be, that’s fine, more power to you, it’s not intended to be the final word in the creation of a new tradition. This is about exploration, and we’re going to explore as best we can.

Hope you join us on this adventure of discovery.