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.

No Comments

  1. Candol on July 20, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Well said Ted!

    Of course i still don’t understand why anyone who believes in reincarnation/rebirth and karma would want to consider themselves a secular buddhist. I do of course see that that is their right and noone here would dream of saying “oh but you are not a secular buddhist” as if it really mattered.

    But It would make more sense to me for them to consider themselves a non-sectarian buddhist if they believe in those things but don’t want to align themselves strictly any of the traditions.

    It really shouldn’t matter to any of us what someone else identifies themselves as. So i find it quite objectionable that someone would say to Ted you can’t call yourself a buddhist because xyz reason as listed above.

    Certainly as you already know, i think you and dana are doing a great job with this site and facebook. I realise you feel you need to explain yourself as above to a few individuals who haven’t yet grasped what the project of secular buddhism seems to be about but there will always probably be these people coming through. What i’ve noticed is that when any one of us is new to something we often start by questioning those things that the originators worked out long ago. But it is a process that all newcomers have to work through for themselves and it just needs the patience of the old hands to answer their questions. Or not if you can’t be bothered.

    Some people are quieter as they go through this questioning process. Some need to get their questions out there and answered and resolved for themselves quickly and more noisily. But this is what i’ve noticed about this sort of thing in myself and in others.

  2. Ted Meissner on July 20, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Thank you for those kind words, Candol, and I appreciate your understanding that this is a process — we’re just starting out, it will be interesting (in the Chinese curse way, sometimes!), but worth the effort.

  3. doug sample on July 20, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Holy cow I figured out how to do this! Thank you so much for the SBA! I often have trouble expressing to others my thoughts and beliefs. I’ve never had any use for myth and mysticism. I grew up Protestant but thankfully it was never foisted upon me by my parents. I think they just thought it was a good idea to try to instill some good Christian values(United, pretty liberal as Christians go) upon us kids. Once I figured out there was no Santa, Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny the next logical step was the understanding that there is no god. So at 9 or 10 years old I became an atheist with an inkling of any idea that there was some underlying principle to the universe but I had no idea what.
    A semester of grade 12 history was spent on the “Great Religions of the World”. This was my first brief encounter with Buddhism. I remember thinking at the time, if I’m ever in a position where I have to pick one, I’ll pick Buddhism. Over the years I slowly developed a “belief” in life. A belief that life permeates all things and drives the creation of all phenomenon. (My Higgs Boson)
    40 years later an encounter with SGI and Nicheren Buddhism rekindled my interest in the teachings of Shakyamuni. I spent a few years in the organisation but could never reconcile my beliefs with theirs'(reliance on a mentor, belief in prophecy and the mystical power of Daimoku etc.). Thankfully though it kept me searching and one day I discovered the Secular Buddhist Association face book page. Buddhism without the Ism. The four noble truths and the eight fold path without a lot of mystical goobledy goop.
    Here, I may have found a place I can hang my “belief”hat. Thank you for putting to words a lot of the beliefs I’ve long held but been unable to express myself.

    Sincerely,
    Doug Sample

  4. ernie on July 21, 2012 at 3:58 am

    My thanks too, Ted, to you and to all who have helped – and are helping – on this project.

    The inclusiveness that you promote is important. This practice is a journey, and to get anywhere we need to be open to new ideas and to having our current ideas challenged. How boring it would be if everybody had the same ideas! In fact, aren’t we here because of our dissatisfaction with the conformity of practice that pervades some traditional groups? I certainly am, even though I don’t identify as a Secular Buddhist.

    As you say, we are not perfect. Recognising our own limitations and fallibility is an essential part of the journey. That means being open to the realisation that we may have been wrong, or misunderstood something, or that there may be a different way to look at a particular part of the teachings. And when the practice rests on interpretation of teachings set in a whole different paradigm, there’s plenty of scope for all of that.

  5. Darlene on July 21, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Yessum, it’s a big job. The technical side of it must be huge. Hats off to Ms Dana for all her hard work on that front and to Ted for all the FB fun and podcasts. Being a nerd, Sunday mornings always include downloading the latest podcast.

    Generally, people will choose whether to include or exclude themselves. If you’re queer, you’re not likely to spend your days on the “Homophobics Are Us” website, for example. Unless you like getting angry a lot, I suppose. And if you’re a free market capitalist you’re not likely to be a member of the Australian Labor Party…errr, perhaps, well, probably you are these days.

    SBA seems like a relatively diverse bunch, and when there’s a bit of argy-bargy over definitions and stuff, it’s good and healthy (along as people aren’t being complete rhymes with wicks).

    Other than regular checks at the Speculative Non-Buddhists and the odd look at other more traditional sites (usually after they’ve been linked on the SBA FB page), I don’t really spend my time looking at sites like “No Non-Believers in Rebirth Welcome”. If they expect me to sit at the back of their bus they can get nicked.

    When it comes to ventures like this one you’ll always be damned if you and damned if you don’t so it’s all good. Time for a song: “We are what we are, and what we are needs no excuses…”.

  6. Darlene on July 21, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    “Along as people”, arrghhh, language is my tool. Sorry about that. As long as people aren’t being complete etc.

  7. jonckher on July 21, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Ted,

    Good post on the origins.

    As one of those people who have been banging on about inclusiveness, definitions and of course rebirth, I’d like to repeat what I have also said in some comments in a previous post.

    The efforts of the directors and the named contributors of the SBA are completely to be commended. The fact that the SBA site is what it is now is evident through a huge amount of hard work that have been put into it, It was never my intention to question that or the value of it.

    However, the points that I have put up previously is also worth repeating.

    Talk about inclusiveness and critical thinking etc is very good however, the translation into actual influence of the content within this site is opaque. As Directors, you of course, have full control over the content of this site. But without a clearly defined process for other self-identified Secular Buddhists influencing content or obtaining membership to your association, I’d suggest that there is a gap between the principle and reality.

    I am by no means advocating that anyone can or should have influence and neither am I questioning your ownership of the content here. I am merely raising the possibility that seeing as you already are speaking for self-identified Secular Buddhists and defining Secular Buddhism here, you may wish to outline a process, no matter how stringent, for others to get seriously involved in your content.

    I take your point that others (and many have) already created their own Secular Buddhist websites (secularbuddhism.org.au is one that springs to mind) and that not only do you encourage it but also actively support it. That is certainly one way to encourage participation and it is a great one. I also take your point that anyone can and should start up their own – you have defined a very broad school after all.

    But that doesn’t invalidate the fact that you do have authority and influence. Your advisory council is composed of respected figures and the setup of SBA structure comes across as something pretty formal – a Council, a Board – etc. You have established a hierarchy with the SBA at the top (online that is).

    This is NOT a criticism. To my mind, this is an inevitable and desirable result of your work, passion and dedication to this site.

    All I am saying is that to avoid giving the impression of mandating from above the common usages and definitions of Secular Buddhism, you may wish to clearly outline the process (however stringent) by which the wider community of Secular Buddhists may evolve the content portions of your site (ie FAQ, Guidelines) or join the SBA.

    Finally, I should also say that I’m just being a bit of a nosy-parker, while there are overlaps, my interests in Buddhism stem very much from an atheist / naturalist / skeptic viewpoint and so I have no real interest in Secular Buddhism as it stands now. I was drawn in initially to see if there was a fit and it is evident to me that, hard-line as I am, there is not.

    So, take this rather lengthy post for what it is worth.

    With utmost respect and regards

  8. Linda on July 22, 2012 at 6:28 am

    I believe, Jonckher, that the process is apparent if you look at the site: volunteer. Figure out what you can do that will help, and offer to do it. If that’s not needed at the moment, offer to do whatever is needed. Want to see the thing more formalized? Offer to do the paperwork and legwork and phone calling to get non-profit status, and the moment when folks here feel ready to become governmentally official, we’ll know who to ask. Maybe you could offer to organize meeting places and times where we can talk about the issues that concern you — but in general (the way people work, as I’ve observed throughout my life) the idea is to be actively involved for a while and get to know what the situation is from the grunt-work side before proposing sweeping changes to match your idea of how things should be. You need to really understand how we are working together before you propose changes, in order for the changes you propose to be most effective in moving things forward rather than confusing things or bogging them down and breaking them down.

    I continue to understand you to be wanting the SBA to formalize the word “Association” — to organize, to provide chains-of-command (sorry, my Navy years speaking there), and so on — but what it seems to me that we are saying is “it is too early for that”. We are not “an Association” like The United Nations is an association of countries — formalized. We are an association more like budding friendships — like-minded people hanging out together; like-minded websites linking to each other — an informal association. Probably that will change, and the whole may become more formalized, but (as far as I can see) we are not in a hurry.

    On the other hand, I for one, agree with you about opaqueness vs. transparency, if only because we have recently seen the perils of lack of transparency in Buddhist organizations made clear through stories of sexual abuse and even power struggles leading to enough confusion to contribute to a recent death. This group is far from those outcomes, but where does it start? I somehow suspect opaqueness doesn’t happen because a committee somewhere sits down and says, “Let’s keep everything we do a secret” — it just happens (in about the same way our sense of self “just happens” — it’s a sort of natural process). Perhaps it starts from this, what we’re seeing here. A group of people is doing something they all agree is good and useful (but challenging and increasingly complex) and they’re doing the best they can to get the work done and to them it *is* transparent; they don’t see that it isn’t, at all, to those not doing the work. To those outside the whole thing looks more organized than it really is. (Maybe part of us doesn’t want the world to see our lack of organization and strategic planning? so we don’t talk a whole lot about how we don’t have a formal structure? And maybe, too, it’s the human tendency to see structure in the opaqueness.) But the effort of making it more transparent is going to be more than they can fit in to their already-overwhelmed-with-work days (we have lives beyond SBA, after all). So the opaqueness just continues. In that sort of slippery-slope of the way cognitive dissonance works, this could be the first step down the pyramid (see Ted’s interview with Carol Tavris #71 if you don’t know what I’m referring to here), and it could cause a steady slide down from here if we’re not careful.

    So I fully endorse transparency; but I also tend to think those calling for it should be the ones to put in the effort to make it happen.

    You shouldn’t mistake any of the above for me speaking The Official Party Line. I don’t know what others who work on this site think about all the above. I know in discussions I am quite often the dissenting voice, so my opinions definitely aren’t representative of the whole, but I recognize that what I say gets taken into account and sometimes even accepted so I keep talking. But I’m not aware of any detailed discussions about these topics in private — so far all the talk about opaqueness vs transparency is transparent.

  9. Ted Meissner on July 22, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Jonckher, again, excellent points, and Linda’s response is much more eloquent than I would have been able to put it. We’re doing the best we can in our spare time, and having available material for people has been a priority over our own conversations which occur on the back end. We have addressed the most critical needs first, and are taking steps to move forward with things like becoming an actual organization — though honestly, we do so with great trepidation, as we do not have the time to devote to that without help. We will likely never have total exposure to those conversations, either, because it is simply not necessary for everyone to participate in all the work that goes into, say, the upcoming creation of a discussion group online that Mark will be leading.

    If you want to see what’s going on in the kitchen before the meal arrives, volunteer to help do the cooking! There’s a page that’s been set up through which you can Volunteer, it appears on the top of every page on this site. Use it. Tell us what you can do to help construct and move forward.

  10. jonckher on July 22, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Hi Linda, Ted,

    Thank you for the time you have spent in considering and responding.

    I believe that you have answered them very well.

    The only thing I have to add is that from an outsider’s perspective, the volunteer page is very much about helping out in the maintenance of content that this site requires: transcribers, calendar maintainers, legal document creation. These are valid jobs of course but more focussed on administration than on primary content (ie principles, guidelines, FAQ).

    If it is true that the process is: Earning your stripes in the “kitchen” and then having a bigger say first as a named Contributor and then maybe as a member (who will then have a say on what the Guidelines, FAQ etc contains and even popping in suggestions for new pages / tabs)” then why not state that clearly?

    To my mind, that’s a pretty good process and leaves a lot of flexibility. It may also attract more volunteers.

    Plus there’s the added benefit of being able to direct annoying bureaucratic people like myself to that page!

    kind regards

    • Linda on July 23, 2012 at 1:12 am

      However, Jonckher, both Ted and I said here in the comments that the other option is for you to tell us what you can do for us. Fill out the form, and make your case. Probably ought not to start with applying for the position of CEO, though. : )

      Most of the case-making for all the things that concern you is going on right here on this site, in the public eye. You may not recognize this — perhaps because it’s not the normal way things are done? — but, for example, when you comment about opacity, and I pop on here and make comments about opacity vs transparency, that is actually me “submitting my request” to (as someone put it on that other thread) “the committee”. When I make my case here — apparently just in conversation with you — I am actually hoping/expecting that the other participants on this site will be persuaded by our discussion. So, in this thread’s example, I was pleased to have Ted come in and express accord. When those who aren’t (yet) writing blog posts for us but participate in the comments weigh in with their opinions, they, too, are “submitting their requests to the committee”. What we do is largely determined by “our audience” because “Our Audience R Us”.

      There is actually more transparency going on than folks might recognize.

    • Ted Meissner on July 23, 2012 at 7:43 am

      And just a note here:

      If it is true that the process is: Earning your stripes in the “kitchen” and then having a bigger say first as a named Contributor and then maybe as a member (who will then have a say on what the Guidelines, FAQ etc contains and even popping in suggestions for new pages / tabs)” then why not state that clearly?

      That is a bit off the mark, as I don’t want to create the impression that if people do XY and Z that it’s a clear and inevitable result of being a direction setter on this site. It isn’t.

      The people who are setting the direction on this site show at least two key attributes, and it is from these shared attributes that they’ve together created what you see here:

      • Shared cultural values of inclusiveness and friendly engagement with people with diverse perspectives
      • Alignment with a broad understanding of secular Buddhism

      Linda, for example, is part of this direction setting team in part because of her constant willingness to try to foster understanding, and build something that will be of value to others. She contributes every day, not just on this site, but across many sites. Rather than be openly critical on other sites of what we’re doing, without making positive suggestions about improvement, she engages with us directly and personally as is appropriate for understanding prior to finding failure in what hasn’t been done by a constrained group of volunteers.

      So, if someone is interest in participating in a direction setting role, we will take into account what we’ve seen with regard to their cultural fit — do they criticize first or question first? Do they deconstruct or contribute? Do we have a shared vision of what secular Buddhism might be, and are we able to collaborate in the face of having diverse views? There are many people who have been very supportive, constructive in their commentary with us on a personal level instead of using a public forum for criticism, who demonstrate in their behaviors online that they are a cultural fit as drivers, should they inquire about such roles.

      In part, this is to ensure that we do not experience what Paul Kurtz did: the taking over of an organization that had a culture of positive engagement, by those with a culture of naked antagonism towards people with religious views. That’s certainly something they could have created on their own without commandeering an existing organization.

      What other responses on this page are indicating is that we’re doing the right thing by being inclusive, and that’s a cultural attribute this site will retain. Again, please do feel empowered to create your own site as others have done, we would be happy to provide any help we can in that effort.

      • jonckher on July 23, 2012 at 5:35 pm

        Hi Ted,

        Thanks for correcting my point. Reading it over, I realise I was a bit presumptuous. I got a little carried away there and do apologise.,

        Your clarification is excellent and shows a lot of thought. The balance between inclusiveness and setting a straight course is a very tricky one. However, from what you’ve posted, I believe you have struck it. I have no issue with it whatsoever and would encourage you to put something along the lines of that in your main pages rather than having it lost in the comments.

        kind regards,

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