This a major concern for me. I’m a recent convert to buddhism and like everyone have had to resort to making do with teachers from existing traditions, laden, as they are, with much cultural and supernatural baggage which is barely satisfactory.
My current practice is supported by weekly attendance at a tibetan buddhist centre with guided mindfulness meditation from a zen monk (but he’s out of town for 3 months) and this is not ideal. I would point out where I live there are no other options. It’s not a major city. None of the traditions really suit my needs and our local buddhist centre does not offer extended retreats for indepth study. Its pricey to attend retreats and to attend weekly meditation i have to spend $20 in petrol and attendance fees.
In an ideal world, my buddhist teacher would be a secular buddhist and belong to a buddhist centre where I could attend for regular meditation, do retreats and also do long (say 6 months) retreats for study and mediation. I would pay by donation according to my means, and volunteer my time and labour in exchange.
As its shaping up, it seems there’s no move to establish secular buddhism beyond books, articles, website communities, and retreats held by about two teachers globally. I think this state of affairs may serve the need of buddhist teachers more than we lay buddhists. It seems there’s no interest in the future, whereby people would be trained to teach a secular dharma. Why is that? I wonder if people are afraid of becoming an organised religion and end up with all the same problems and foibles. I predict that if such infrastructures are not developed, secular buddhism will remain a marginal affair. And what will happen when our current excellent guides (the batchelors go)? (I don’t wish to insult them by suggesting they are intentionally self-serving but i would say that the effect of this approach is thus).
If I thought I were teacher material, I would make sure I got skilled up and then head out to spread the secular dharma. It’s something I strongly believe is needed. I believe it won’t and can’t happen if you sit back and wait for people to find it. Buddhism and secular buddhism in particular won’t be found if it can’t be found. It can’t be found if there’s no presence on the ground, no teachers and no centres. I myself had a very very hard time finding somewhere to go to learn meditation. It took me a few years, partly because i didn’t know what i was looking for and partly because when i did know what i was looking for, the options were unsuitable and i had to go along to a totally inappropriate place until in an obvious effort to get rid of me, my teacher sent me to my zen teacher. If I had known of a secular meditation and buddhist centre, I’d have been able to start a practice long before now.
Secular buddhism shouldn’t be hard to find. I believe there’s need for thought and effort to be given to provide training buddhist teachers and facilities where lay buddhists can easily and regularly go to develop a deep practice. Facilities should be as numerous as churches. If you leave it at the odd retreat and mish mash of ideas that is currently available, our practices will be unsatisfactory.
When one becomes a psychotherapist, one studies a formal course and practices therapy with patients whilst under supervision from a qualified and experienced therapist which is essentially like going through therapy for trainee. After graduating, one goes away and develops one’s own personal approach but with support from colleagues to help get established professionally. A team of therapists will meet weekly to get help with their trickier cases. In this way the therapist is both independent but not alone. There are of course the professional bodies but therapists work quite freely within these guidelines and I can’t see why a similar model couldn’t be applied to raise secular buddhist teachers. I raise this and the next example of how secular teachers could be made because in an email from Anantacitta, i was told that there is no interest in developing a school of secular buddhism because its believed people can develop their own practices. Well they can if they are given sufficient appropriate teaching but why should teaching be denied them and therefore why should there not be teachers in the first place. There is nothing to be afraid of. We can have independent secular buddhist teachers. You can build independence into the training. Otherwise the only option is for prospective teachers to go along dishonestly and put up with all the claptrap of the other traditions for a number of years before going their own way.
At art school/university, one is trained to develop one’s own art practice and practice it at the same time, being taught by highly qualified and skilled artist-teachers. After graduation one goes ones way to develop one’s own unique path after one has been given a solid grounding in the major streams of thought and given the tools to develop a critical, rigorous and relevant practice. One is encouraged to develop professional connections and be part of the arts community. There are galleries and various events and infrastructure to nurture emerging artists.
These other models could be useful in helping establish a body of highly trained secular buddhist teachers. There is no reason to be afraid of not going down this route. One should rather be afraid of not doing it.
Recently i attended a Goenka Vipassana retreat. I was extremely impressed by the model that Goenka had set up to disseminate his method of meditation. This system could work very well with secular buddhism for both retreats and giving new teachers an avenue for practising in a controlled environment. This system could establish a network of centres for local people to attend and be part of a secular buddhist community. For readers unfamiliar with Goenka retreats, all vipassana centres are financially independent and run by volunteers. They also manage themselves according to their own aims and ideas but they seem to work together as well since i noticed our female manager of my came from another part of the country. Meanwhile one of the highlights of the retreat were the nightly video’d dharma talks by Goenka which we watched on high definition tvs. Although we all paid by donation, the centre was doing very well financially and the facilities were excellent. Each centre is run by a board of trustees who are nominated, i think annually. Secular buddhism could learn a great deal and go far by adopting the goenka model for centres and retreats. I am not suggesting we do exactly the same as Goenka but rather look to this model as a starting point to what could be done for secular buddhism. For instance, one difference would be instead of teachers being stuck at the stage of assistant teacher with no independence and all teachings being disseminated by Goenka himself, using htis model would be only one avenue and teachers could go off and develop their own directions after a bit of an apprenticeship using the goenka model with say stephen and Martine (or any other good teacher) doing the dharma talks and instruction. On a goenka retreat the assistant teachers role is to answer questions and fine tune the experience of the students. Its good and valuable experience for all.
So how do we start down this path? I’d like to be part of something like this. I also want to do some extended intensive study, ie for about six months so i can concentrate on developing a good mediation habit and some systematic sutta study of my own. A retreat centre is conducive to such practices where as home life is often not. And going to another traditions centres seems to almost out of the question for me. Why should people in the future not have these options open to them?
People like Stephen and Martine have had the benefit of intensive study and practice. Is it supposed that secular buddhists either do not want or need a similar experience, or that when they do, they should go to a monastery in the existing traditions? Personally the more I look into those options, I can’t see how I could fit in.