BG 278: Secular Buddhism

Episode Description:

Ted Meissner is the host of The Secular Buddhist podcast and the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. In this episode with host Vincent Horn, Ted shares examples of secular Buddhism, why he is skeptical but not cynical about religion, and he stresses what he thinks is the importance of right speech in the modern world.

This is part one of a two part series.

Episode Links:


Vincent:    Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m back today for another Buddhist Geeks interview. And this is an interview that for me has been a long time coming. I’ve really wanted to have this gentleman on the show and we finally made the time to make it happen, and I’m very very thrilled today to be joined by Ted Meissner. Ted, thank you so much for doing the Buddhist Geeks.

Ted:    I’m very glad to be here. It’s been an honor because I’ve been a follower of your podcast and work, and an attendee of Buddhist Geeks Conference. So wonderful to be here.

Vincent:    Great to have you. And just to mention for those that haven’t heard of Ted or heard of your work. Ted is the host of The Secular Buddhist Podcast which is one of the most awesome Buddhist podcast out there, and he’s also the executive director of the Secular Buddhist Association. Let’s start with the most basic and obvious question which is what is Secular Buddhism. What is it?

Ted:    That’s a very big question. That’s a good one that we get a lot. Because people see that and are like “wait it’s a religion and it’s secular, it can’t really be both of those. What are you talking about?” So the way I like to describe it, and there are a lot of different ways to describe it as you’ll see in the discussion, is that people in the Buddha’s time were searching for meaning, for understanding about their experiences in daily life. That included the joys, the sorrow, the ease and stress. The whole gamut of what we considered condition existence. That’s no different that what people do in all times trying to get it and cope as best we can. And that’s a situation we find today. It’s just that we have a different cultural backdrop from that of Siddhattha Gotama. We don’t see the world in the same way as 2500 years ago. We don’t have the same understanding of the universe as even 500 years ago.

So the Buddha was embedded in his cultural environment just as we are and as all people have always been. It colors the way we see the world and engage with our experiences. So at this point, Secular Buddhism is an ongoing and evolutionary exploration of what contemporary Buddhism might become. It’s very early in that exploration. It represents an increasingly secular society. We’ll talk a little bit more about that. Not as accepting of dependencies on the supernatural or institutionalized religion for spiritual development. We’re interested in how to positively impact the self and others here in this lifetime. So there are a lot of different ways to approach it but that’s it in a nutshell.

Vincent:    Okay. Cool. Thank you. I think there’s a common maybe misunderstanding or common myth that Buddhism is like simply not a religion. And yet for anyone who’s done any sort of practice, especially in Asian context, its quite clear that Buddhism is practiced as a religion often times.

Ted:    Absolutely.

Vincent:    And so I’m curious, with the whole emphasis on putting “secular” in front of Buddhism. Obviously, and as you’re pointing to, there’s some need to differentiate or distance oneself in saying that. Tell me what is it that you’re differentiating from, and what is it that you’re sort of wanting to move yourself away from by adding that secular piece to the front?

Ted:    You know that’s really at the heart of a lot of the questions and pushbacks we get is that, the misunderstanding that this is in some way antagonistic to our tradition. And it is not. The people who are involved with this: we typically have a traditional background. I come from a Soto Zen tradition and my practice evolved into very in depth Theravada practices. And that colors and informs how I engage with Buddhism because those are very rich traditions and what we’re doing is finding resonance with another part of society that we need to resonate with people with this human practice.

And those of us who are practicing, we all know that this applies to everybody. If you’re human, this makes sense to you. But we’re not going to do that if we insist on: well you need to accept the dharma, you need to be a Buddhist, and you need to do things exactly this way. That kind of dogmatic approach is excluding people from finding benefit in the dharma. So there isn’t really an attempt: that kind of striving to intentionally draw arbitrary lines of distinction. We’re a big tent movement. So it’s more about describing what we’re seeing in this ongoing exploration.

What’s coming to the surface is that from our cultural backdrop, as we see from the Pew Religious Surveys, our society is becoming increasingly secular. Buddhism is the fastest growing religious designation in the US for example, but it’s not the fastest growing or largest designation. The non-religious, or “the nones” as they say, are secular people or those who simply don’t align with any particular tradition fit into that. And that includes atheist and secular humanist and spiritual but not religious, a whole lot of people. So with continuing exposure of religious teachers and institutions, ongoing harm of children, for example, or viewing people suffering from mental illness as being possessed, our society is just not as willing to give a hall pass to religious privilege because it is sometimes demonstratively harmful.

It’s not that religion is all bad, that our traditions don’t inform us and don’t provide great benefit, it’s simply that we’re finding freedom to question things and to shift responsibility for our spiritual growth to our own efforts rather than adherence to a particular dogma as finding more traction with contemporary circles.   So our focus is going to be more “this-world” centric, because there are all kinds conflicting narratives about what happens say: after death, and none of them provide tangible and material evidence that their view is the right one. So it’s really hard for us to distinguish how is this right, that right, the other one is right. So we maintain an open mind about how that might be and open mind about new information but don’t hang our hat on compelling stories. And simply set those aside as dependent features of secular practice. We can still have wonderful inspiration from our traditions and we do.

The use of secular doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy the stories of the Pali canon or the Mahayana traditions. We do very much so because they are ways to help us understand what’s going on in the world and a lot of that is timeless because it speaks to a human element. It’s just that we’re interested in what we can see in the world inspired by those stories and those narratives. And that’s where our explorations find the most appetite and interest.

Vincent:    Okay. You have a skeptical background don’t you as well? I remember you mentioning at one point that you had something of a background as a skeptic. I was curious how that’s informed this whole piece and what that means?

Ted:    So skepticism is often confused with cynicism. That because one questions that there is a dismissal, and it’s not that. It’s an open minded exploration of how we can discern what’s accurate and beneficial from what is not. And those who are familiar with the Kalama Sutta will find some resonance with that idea. My background as an atheist my whole life and as a skeptic, someone with a degree in science and my degrees in biology, I find that the need to demonstrate our assertions is very beneficial to what we see in our practice.

And what was particularly interesting about Buddhist practice is that the four noble truths, the eightfold path, that whole process of how we engage and turn our minds around to more beneficial actions daily in our lives was standing up to the rigorous of my own experience and my own testing and my own experiences to what was happening in the world and what I was hearing from others about how that was positively impacting a transformation in my life and my approaches.

It has been tremendously valuable. And we see that with the secular humanist as well. That on the one hand we all agree: be excellent to each other is a great idea. We all get on board with that, but that’s a what. And what is sometimes missing is the how. And to many of us and those in the skeptic community “the how” that Buddhist practice show is proving to be standing up to the rigors of that exploration.

Vincent:    Interesting.  Now obviously, and I can tell this just by taking a quick glance at some of the podcasts you’ve had, there’s obviously not one view of what secular Buddhism is. I mean obviously you’ve got your own kind of understanding you bring to things.

But you’re talking to a lot of different people who have different approaches to this. Sometimes contradictory, sometimes there’s disagreement. I’m curious if you can talk about some of the different approaches within the secular Buddhist movement and what you’ve noticed about some of those different patterns and where they tend to disagree with each other, and what points people tend to disagree about. Because that can, I think, looking at those patterns and looking at those disagreements, can maybe say a little bit more about the broader movement itself.

Ted:    Yeah. It does. That’s very true. There are many different ways of being a secular Buddhist. There’s no monolithic: this is the one true secular Buddhism. We won’t find that. Some, like our friend Stephen Batchelor, take an approach of re-examining the early suttas, to see what the four noble truths may have been intended to be as a call to action in this lifetime. And others of us may resonate more with an approach that’s informed by how our contemporary scientific understanding can cast a light on our tradition’s practices and how they help us without having to have an adherence to a particular set  of religious practices or assertions.  The important thing to get all of this is that our practice is for everyone, not just those who are willing to accept Buddhism as their religion whole cloth.  As Buddhists, those of us who do designate that way, we help raise the awareness of the value of the dharma by demonstrating how this applies to you regardless of your ideological affiliation.

So we’ll see folks who approach this from the way of looking at the traditional writings say of the Pali canon, and they’ll say “this is really secular. It’s talking about our day to day existence.” There are others who will approach it from a more say one end of the spectrum of scientific materials view that this is part of the natural world and it doesn’t mean that we don’t love, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have unique experiences which inspire us. Of course that is all part of the natural world as well. And still others who are interested in how this relates to other philosophical views of life. And so there’s a great deal of discussion around Kant and Hegel and other philosophers and how that ties to Buddhism. And we see that this recent article by one of the very well-known skeptical bloggers that’s a comparison of Buddhism with some of the other philosophers of the day and how those compare with one another and how they don’t. So there are all kinds of discussions that are occurring around that.  Where we tend to agree within the very big tent umbrella of secular Buddhism is what works for us today that we can show in this life within conditioned existence.

And our dependent practices are reliant on what we do today and what we can see and how that helps us moment by moment in our interactions with ourselves, our minds, our own stresses, into our immediate families, into our society as a whole. There does seem to be a theme of suicidal change and transformation that crosses the lines across the different areas of the way one approaches secular practice. There seems to be an interest in making that positive change in the world. In particular as we have a smaller and smaller global society, that becomes more and more important. The differences aren’t so much disagreements about points of ideological dogma because we don’t really have much resonance with that.  We know that things are in flux and don’t dictate: “this is the one true practice. You have to do it this way.” So those things are set aside. We value one’s personal experience. Many of us light incense and bow in our meditation practices. I do that everyday. I light incense and I bow in out of my meditation practice. And if you find me, for example, as a materialistic reductionist sitting in retreat at Bhavana Society in West Virginia under the auspices of Bhante Gunaratana, and next to me is a monastic who does have a belief in a literal rebirth, an ongoing and the goal is the ending of the wheel of samsara, you won’t see any difference in our practice in what we’re doing today.

And you’ll find complete agreement about what we want to do in our minds, in our meditation practice itself. So our differences are more in terms of what’s your area of interest rather than disagreements about how to be a secular Buddhist.

Vincent:    Is there any room for like intense disagreements though? Cause I know there are intense disagreements among people that listen to Buddhist Geeks sometimes. Obviously, I think maybe there’s a distinction here between disagreeing in an ideological way, like saying “this is the right ideology, that is the right ideology”, and then disagreements that are more like “hey I think you’re missing something here. I think there’s something you’re not aware of.”

Those disagreements can also feel heated because even if we’re not maybe clinging to an ideology, at least this is what I’ve noticed, there’s still a way in which you know we tend to cling to our ideas about things, maybe not ideologically. Like maybe we can let go after we hear different perspective. You know in a few days, we start to think about things differently. But still I’ve just noticed disagreement doesn’t seem to go away even when big identities with ideologies start to dissolve. So I’m wondering how you see that and how you work with that in your community.

Ted:    I think it’s a very good point is that we are going to have disagreements. That is going to happen. And how we address that when they do occur has so far been: there’s a rising of the heat, the water boils a little bit, and then we all kind of take a step back and calm down and understand that there are going to be certain points about which we disagree. It doesn’t mean that we don’t respect or like each other. We have disagreements about what are some of the key drivers about how we’ve gotten to the conclusions that we’ve gotten to.

For example, there is a very good discussion, although, it is sometimes been a little pointed on one of the episodes that we had on Dharma Voices for Animals, which is a site that is about switching to a non-meat based diet, to veganism, vegetarianism. And for many of us as Buddhist, what we’ve found very compelling about this is our understanding of the suffering of others and our compassion. That the integrated and really in depth understanding and experience and practice of compassion leads us to a point where it’s really not something we can ethically accept in our own lives to eat meat. So we have written that out of our lives and for me that’s a relative new thing and it’s been an interesting transformation.  It’s been an interesting challenge but one that has proven to be very beneficial in a number of different ways. Others on the discussion, although they do understand that particular point of view, don’t share it because of some of their own particular background interests and understandings of how things work. They’re not denying any of the fact and evidence that is suffering that goes on. But they’re reaching a different conclusion about how they relate to that in their own practices and the choices that they make. So there is, again happily, one of the common threads is understanding that we’re not going to have those agreements. We can’t expect everyone to be on the same page with this.

The biggest disagreements that we tend to have aren’t so much within our community of people who are more progressive and open minded about others having different points of view. It’s from those who are more focused on an ideological “Truth.” And that what we are therefore doing is harmful to the dharma and secular practice is associated with Nazism. I get that one all the time and I admonish people to please do your homework before you make that accusation because it’s really wrong.

Vincent:    The Nazi get pulled into pretty much everything.

Ted:    Everything. Yeah. Yeah. They do. Anything bad therefore Nazi. It’s kind of amusing at this point because it’s such a ridiculous and unfounded argument and their party was really based on a religious distinction between groups, not one based on anything rational. It’s not a matter of evolution or social evolution or Darwinism is often the term I hear use. That’s just a gross misunderstanding of that entire context that whole horrific part of our history.

So there are some pushbacks there, and there are some disagreements, but what I like to see occur, as some of the discussions we’ve had with those, we enter into it knowing we have fundamental disagreements about things that we know we will not change the other and that’s not our intent. But we still have very positive engagements. And one of the discussions with [inaudible], one of the Tibetan monastic who’s been on the podcast is around that. We do have a discussion around things like rebirth and we know we have different views on it and we shared what those were and why we have the understandings that we do. And it was still very companionable and friendly and we still agreed that what we do in this world is still very much in alignment. So that’s part of our practice in right speech and right action is trying to find that synchronicity where we can align because that’s where we’re finding the most value.

Vincent:    Okay. I think this sort of starts cutting right into the heart of what is secular Buddhism and how is it different than past forms of Buddhism. Would you say that’s a new emerging understanding of right speech that’s coming with a more kind of, like what I hear you describing is more kind of a rational discourse or one is able to describe the kind of reasons underlying the conclusions that we’ve made and sort of like being able to not, like you mention the term dogma before, not simply have a belief in the ways thing are without any reasons except for the reasons being that’s the way it is. Is this a new understanding of right speech from your understanding of the history of Buddhism? Is this an emergent I guess is the question?

Ted:    You know I don’t think it’s a new understanding at all because we see it referenced in the Pali canon, that we really try to get along and that there not be always, for example you’d have people coming to the Buddha saying “I think this” and he’ll ask some question and the person will have a new understanding. And they may or may not be convinced. And there’s a simple ending of the discussion at that point. And the person may show up in later suttas and engage again. So when you see that I don’t think right speech itself is undergoing a new emergence. What is happening, however, is that with the advent of social networking and digital technology and our propensity to type out something without as much mindfulness as we might have when we’re directly facing someone and have those in person cues that we evolve to have as social creatures we’re separated from that.

So what we see is people in person, maybe very kind and very engaging, and we can really make good progress and at the very least understanding. But online, separated from those cues, it goes in a very different and negative direction. And there’s a phrase that you have an axe in your mouth and it’s your tongue. We now have knives at the end of our arms, our fingers as we type. And so what we’re seeing is greater opportunity for us to be lax in our application of right speech, and that’s where we’re seeing some real challenges in how people speak with one another because it can be different if we apply the same awareness of what we’re saying that we do in person as we do online.

It’s not to say that we shouldn’t call out nonsense as nonsense, we should but only if it’s harmful nonsense. But at the same time we don’t have to be jerks about it.

Vincent:    Very interesting. So there’s a distinction in what you’re saying between using argumentation as a way to call out nonsense, to challenge each other, to help each other learn. And then being a jerk or essentially attacking one another personally. There’s some sort of distinction there. What I hear you saying is that right speech in that sense hasn’t really changed so much.

Ted:    Right. Right speech itself is sound and valid and positively beneficial.  Is this helpful? Is this beneficial? is this done with a heart of friendliness and compassion? And here’s one of the trickiest ones: Is it the right time?  Which is very hard for us to get around. When is the right time to approach this? And the only thing in the whole right speech tool kit that is still a negative one is what you say might not always be well received.  And that’s okay. You can still go forward with that. But everything else: is a timely?  Is it inspiring? Is it is from a place in the right heart? These are all somewhat difficult for us to do at all times, particular online. So I’m seeing it more so as an effect of some of the ways in which we can communicate now that we didn’t have in the Buddha’s time. Right speech itself is right on.

Vincent:    Ok, interesting.  So this is the one of the things I’ve sort of struggled with, especially being like a millennial in a boomer world. I say part of it is I sort of come into environments, in particular like in the insight meditation world which I’ve, by the way before I say this I’ll just qualify it by saying I’ve really appreciated the teachers and the environments I have to practice in. And yet I sometimes will come into these environments and feel like there’s a way in which right speech simply means being nice all the time and kind of blowing smoke up each other’s asses.  [laughter]

Ted:    Yeah and it doesn’t.   [laughter]

Vincent:    And the piece you said about even if it’s not received well, like part of pointing out to someone, and I’ve been on the receiving end of this probably more than I’ve been on the offering end of this, is like it really challenges something like an identity or challenges a notion. And it really feels like I’m being attacked.

Ted:    Yeah.

Vincent:    So for me the whole issue of right speech really gets muddy and clouded by like the tendencies that we as humans have to not want to rock the boat, and also it’s very difficult, I guess in my experience, to differentiate in the moment when someone is really offering something of value and when its actually a personal attack, and it usually takes a long time to kind piece those things apart, which for me makes, has always made the whole issue of right speech and the culture surrounding it very challenging, and I’ve never quite found a community in which I feel like speech is easier or like there’s clear guidelines or anything.

Ted:    Yeah. It’s very difficult to have that because we are going to need to talk about topics sometimes about which there maybe deep divides. Let’s take for example, and something that’s not specifically dharma related so we’ll edge away from that, say acupuncture and its validity as a medical treatment to heal tissue. And there are very different opinions on that and very conflicting ways to interpret controlled studies about it. We may be able to challenge one another and ask: So how about this, cause my understanding is based on this information. How do you address that? And like you and I are doing now we’re going to ask about that.

So what I found very useful, again in our magic bag of tricks of right speech, is sincere inquiry. Because we can be quite honest with ourselves, not the least bit disingenuous that I raise my hand and say “I really don’t understand your point of view and I really do want to because I may be missing something.” That’s a very true statement. Again going back to its okay to say I don’t know. We should be all right with that and understand this as a shared exploration of what’s really going on, because independent of our views about it, stuff is really going on.

I think with regards to the idea about having to be nice, we’ve had some push back on that on the site and we put up standards to adhere to for the most beneficial results in our discussions online. We build this whole set of guidelines that we’d like people to adhere to, which is not outright telling people “no you’re wrong, you don’t understand.” Instead we’d rather go towards active questioning.  And of course harsh speech, again going back to the value of, I think the value of right speech is: harshness, swearing, all that is not necessary. It doesn’t help. It creates agitation and bad feelings. It’s for that reason that we don’t want to have it there.

And the only time we’ve gone and had to block a few people from our discussions or from the Facebook page is when it’s been outright abusive speech. Not active questioning. That can be very difficult. And that’s okay. That happens. Those are good questions. It’s when there are accusations and ad hominem attacks: it’s one the logical fallacies we run into where we associate whatever someone’s view is with their failings as a person, and we attack the person, that’s not okay. So let’s move away from that and onto more fruitful dialogue.


Ted Meissner

Ted Meissner is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, and host of the SBA’s official podcast, The Secular Buddhist. His background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, and he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions.

Website: Secular Buddhist Association