“I’m sorry,” my friend at work said, shaking their head as if that would clear the unknown obstruction messing with their hearing, “you’re a what did you say?”
“A Secular Buddhist,” I said again.
“Oh,” they said knowingly, sudden comprehension dawning on them for the barest flicker of an instant. But it didn’t last. They heard me just fine, but now the inevitable Scooby-Doo head twist of confusion followed. “Isn’t that an oxymoron? Like, uh, ‘airline food’?”
This is a pretty common event in the life of an out-of-the-closet Secular Buddhist. It took some time to open that door and step out, too.
Being out as an atheist wasn’t ever an issue because I was never in the closet to begin with. It was just a simple fact of existence. But Secular Buddhism is something a bit more complex than simply saying, “I don’t believe in your invisible magic sky daddy” because unlike atheism, it’s more than a negative proposition.
It took a while to even figure out what I was. And that meant I didn’t even know there was a house, let alone a closet.
Something wasn’t quite right with me about Buddhism from the get go, 20 years ago. It started simply enough: I heard meditation could help develop better concentration, but there weren’t any classes for meditation at the local YMCA. All hope was not lost; a friend told me there was a Zen place (said with the subtext “there are weird people”) uptown, I could learn meditation there. So, I headed over to the local Zen center, knocked on the door, and *bam* first hurdle—a bald guy in robes answered the door.
Now, bear in mind, I’m used to seeing things a bit outside of my limited cultural upbringing. And it wasn’t an unexpected event, as it was pretty likely this would happen. What made this different and set off the alarm bells ringing “Cult! Cult!” was that it was personal. This was a choice I was making to go to this place and find out more, and made me wonder if I was going to be the bald guy in robes if I drank the tea and read the pamphlet. Still, the concentration was desperately needed, and the smiling monastic didn’t appear very threatening, so I stepped into a practice that would eventually become embedded in every breath I take.
What I learned is that there are many different kinds of Buddhism, each growing out of a cultural response to the teaching and practice.
And yes, some of these branches were very religious, complete with deities, a plethora of heavens and hells, and social norms that were not synchronous with my own understanding of how the world works. But what has grown over time is acceptance of the fact that I didn’t have to approach Buddhism that way. I could still find tremendous reasoning underlying Buddhist principles, and benefit from the practices in this world.
No acceptance of a foreign culture’s way of understanding, or belief in a supernatural anything that was helpful to someone else, had to play any dependent part of what I understood or did. Scriptural authority could and did take a back seat to my own testing of what Buddhism said, and those ideas continue to withstand my ongoing questioning, skepticism, and free inquiry about how Buddhism the practice instead of Buddhism the religion is changing my ability to respond creatively in the moment, rather than being dragged along by my habitual reactions.
I’m not alone. “The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” by Pew Forum shows that of the 0.7 percent who identified as Buddhist, less than 0.3 percent each were from Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana and Other Buddhist groups (Pew 2008, p. 5). Only the group Buddhist, Not Further Specified was 0.3 percent, the largest segment of the four listed. In that same survey, Unaffiliated (those identifying with no specific religious tradition whatsoever) ranked in at 16.1 percent, 23 times the number of those who designated themselves as Buddhists of all types put together.
The Dalai Lama said in his book The Universe in a Single Atom:
“My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”
More recently, the Dalai Lama posted on Facebook on September 10th, 2012:
“All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”
Why am I a Secular Buddhist? Really, it’s just a label, but one that most accurately describes my naturalistic practice of having more positive engagement with every moment—in this life.
Ted Meissner is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. His background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture.
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Ed: Sara Crolick & Brianna Bemel