Secular Buddhism? For Sure.

Via Devon Ward-Thommes
on Apr 4, 2009
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Many people question the compatibility of traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings, which were historically transmitted in monastic settings, and Western secular culture, so rife with busyness and worldly concerns.  However, according to Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, a student of the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and professor of Religious Studies at Naropa University, the West is ready to incorporate Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism into regular, everyday life.  The Vidyadhara, as students of Trungpa Rinpoche call him, discouraged Westerners from taking monastic robes and preached a vision of enlightened society in America, created by lay practitioners of Buddhism with spouses, children, and meaningful careers in the world.

Simmer-Brown is an example of this kind of Buddhist – she’s the mother of two children, wife to Richard Brown (also a professor at Naropa), author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism, and a senior teacher in the Shambhala meditation community.  She follows the advice of her teacher to infuse daily life with practice, completing a personal month-long retreat every year, and also teaching a month-long retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center near Estes Park, only 2 hours from her home town of Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder, where the Vidhyadhara lived and founded Naropa University and Shambhala International, a network of Buddhist communities the world over, could exemplify the mindful society envisioned by Trungpa Rinpoche, says Simmer-Brown, since the town teems with socially responsible businesses such as Organic India Tea Company and prAna, families that incorporate spirituality into their daily lives, and schools practicing contemplative education.

Simmer-Brown is working on a book about the theological roots of Romantic Love and editing a collection of writings for college professors about contemplative education for Oxford University Press.  Contemplative education has been a founding principle at Naropa University since it was created in 1974, when students of Trungpa Rinpoche began to work with each other to create models and methods for incorporating contemplative practices into higher education.  Now the wider academic world is catching on, and interest in learning more about bringing practices for cultivating awareness, compassion, and justice to university classrooms has grown dramatically over the past ten years.  Simmer-Brown is working with Arthur Zajonc, a physics professor at Amherst University and Academic Program Director at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a non-profit organization created to bring contemplative awareness to contemporary life.  Simmer-Brown’s active spiritual, scholarly, and secular life is a testament to at least one Buddhist’s ability to bring traditional practice into chaotic, busy, materialistic American culture.  The path she’s pioneered is an example for others interested in leading Western lives infused with the wisdom of the East.


About Devon Ward-Thommes

Devon Ward-Thommes, M.F.A, R.Y.T., is a devoted yogini, a poet and essayist, and a practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga and Vajrayana Buddhism.  Her life’s passion is awakening loving-kindness through creative, embodied practice and sharing these experiences with others.


8 Responses to “Secular Buddhism? For Sure.”

  1. J. Ward says:

    Thank you for bringing this book/author to our attention. How to adapt Buddhism to western life is currently a hot topic. This is a time of transformation. Some physicists think that the current buildup of solar flares will bring about a magnetic polar switch around 2012, and that in turn may change human consciousness in unforeseen ways. The earth's magnetic poles have switched in the past. One wonders if the last switch perhaps ushered in the current patriarchical dominance in society, and that this next one will change that aspect of human consciousness, along with more acceptance of Buddhistic values.

  2. C. Ward says:

    It sounds like Simmer-Brown's life is pretty fast-paced. Is her contemplative time limited to yearly retreats? It would be interesting to know what her daily schedule is like. Also, her book sounds interesting. Thanks for the heads-up on it.

  3. E. Fabricant says:

    Next I'd love to see examples of secular Buddhism infusing other areas (away from the oasis of Boulder or Ashland). A research road-trip through the deep South or Midwest might be in order!

  4. C. Hase says:

    Interesting article about an interesting woman. Will Buddhism find its roots in secular Western society? Let's check in around 2070 and find out. Until then, it's great that people are dedicated to trying to make it all work.

  5. ayana says:

    I like this article…but i would like to hear more about her day to day incorporation of buddhism. When does she find the time to meditate, does she make time to sit everyday and be silent or is it while doing the dishes or laundry. Many of us do not have the time for month long retreats and teachings, but i believe it can be done everyday, even in simple ways…i would like to hear the story of the regular people, maybe not ones who have career ties to buddhism but just the heart and open mind to embrace it.

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    Saw this post not until now…. It is a very important misconception that "Tibetan Buddhism" was transmitted primarily by monastic celibates and unable to match our western culture. The first teachings in Tibet from Padmasambhava were taught to Kings and laypeople. Padmasambhava himself was not a monk at the time. It is in the tradition of the Ngakpa and Ngakmo that Vajrayana and Dzogchen flourished in Tibet until today. During the time of King Langdarmas assault on buddhism in Tibet all of the monasteries were destroyed and the teachings were protected and hidden with the Ngakpa, lay practitioners of the Nyingma School. The greatest accomplishment for a practitioner is to at death attain enlightenment through attaining Rainbow Body. The overwhelming practitioners who have attained this were and are non-monastic.

  7. Devon says:

    Hi Padma Kadag,

    Thank you very much for this important perspective on the piece. I think you are right to emphasize the Ngakpa tradition in Tibet – a culture just as important as the monastic one. That should be mentioned in the article. However, I'm not sure that I'd say "the overwhelming practitioners who have attained this were non-monastic." Each lineage of Tibetan Buddhism has its monastics and its non-celibate yogis…so it seems right to acknowledge both paths, not one over the other. And even the yogi path seems difficult to incorporate into Western lay life, since it can involve much time spent in retreat. Maybe better to detail the specific cultural differences that set Tibetan practice apart from Western culture, instead of off-setting monastic versus secular life. Thank you for making the distinction.

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