Ahem …

September 26, 2010 § 5 Comments

… Well, I’m just going to jump in where I am — the beginning, or close to it.

I’m a mom, wife, teacher, and recently have become a student of Buddhism. Specifically, I’m a practitioner of what’s called Secular or Skeptical Buddhism … I think there’s some kind of difference between the two, but to be honest, at this point, I couldn’t quite tell you what that difference is LOL!

That’s precisely what this blog is about: The learning that takes place while on the journey on the path toward what all Buddhists are working to attain, which is Enlightenment. I’m hoping to slowly put together a somewhat organized source (for myself and for others), of information for those just starting their studies/research/journey on Buddhism from the Skeptical/Secular point of view.

I actually, believe it or not, grew up with an awareness of Buddhism. My father is a scholar of classical Japanese literature, and my mother is a Japanese immigrant — although at this point she’s been thoroughly Americanized. In any event, Buddhism has always been a part of my background. I grew up with some stories, with a vague knowledge that it had an influence on my life, but that was it. It wasn’t until I began to seek out my own answers to spiritual questions that I really began to look more closely at Buddhism — really, I’d looked at Buddhism only after I’d already looked at Christianity from various angles, and even read parts of the Koran and looked at Taoism.

While examining those religions independently (read: from a complete layperson’s point of view. I’m NOT schooled in theology or philosophy in any way whatsoever), I formed my own set of ideas and philosophy. Honestly, I saw so many common threads between all those religions I began to wonder what all the arguments were about, REALLY. Then I caught a glimpse of Buddhism, and was taken aback by how closely the point of view I’d developed on my own, matched that of Buddhism. So I read on.

All that was while I was in university. After a hiatus during which I pursued careers, marriage and toddlers, I’ve once again found the time to look at Buddhism, and am elated to find this school of Buddhism that believes in approaching it from a Skeptical point of view — that is to say, to examine what the Buddha ACTUALLY taught, and to approach his teachings from a non-mystical, non-ritualistic, and non-dogmatic approach.

As a beginner though, I have to say, that THIS IS HARD STUFF! There ARE resources out there that I’ve found helpful, including podcasts, web sites, facebook pages and even an virtual Sangha in Second Life (which, for those who are not familiar, is a virtual world in which people from all around the world can meet and create avatars which can communicate and interact with each other in real-time. More on that another time).

Living in conservative, rural America, it’s difficult for me to learn much about Buddhism, let alone Secular Buddhism. In my area, there are no Sanghas or meetup groups for this particular branch of the philosophy. The online resources that are out there, and those individuals who DO help out and have information are — I’m going to just spit it out here — very academic. Half the time, I’ll read one paragraph over about oh … let’s say … five times, just to make sure I KIND OF understand what is being said. I’m pretty certain I still get it wrong most of the time, and feel like a dolt making comments or asking questions that seem way, way, WAY more basic than anything else that is being posted on those sites.

It’s NOT EASY being a non-academic, un-scholarly Secular Buddhist who is just starting out. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m smart, I’m just not an academic, if you know what I mean. I need things spoon-sized and fairly easy to digest. I’ll catch on quickly when information is delivered that way, and I’ll be quick on my feet in a debate or exchange of ideas (once I latch on to them), but my words may be … ah … simple. I have to think that I’m not the only one like this who is on this journey of Skeptical Buddhism!

I don’t mean this to be critical, either, of the Skeptical or Secular Buddhist groups or practitioners!  I believe the resources and individuals out there are outstanding — anything I’ve ever asked or said has been responded to WELL, and with great care to making sure I understand what is being said. When I came up with the idea of creating a Reading Club geared toward beginner Buddhists  in Second Life, I received a lot of encouragement and support from those in the virtual Sangha. The secular community is a wonderful, accepting group of people of which I am happy to consider myself a member.

Simply put, I hope I can fill in the place of being a stepping stone toward getting to where those people who have been helping me are — hoping to be the first rung of the ladder, shall we say. The bottom rung! LOL!

So, this is going to be the story of this walk along this path, building this ‘bottom rung of the ladder,’ and I invite anyone else who is in the same boat (well, and those who might be ahead of us too!) to join me here. As I blog, I’ll try to figure out how to posts links and such to informational sites, podcasts and other materials that might be helpful. I do have a Second Life Reading group that I’ll talk about more another time. For now, this is my intro 😉

If you read all this, THANKS. Hopefully I’ll talk to you soon.


§ 5 Responses to Ahem …

  • star says:

    I hope you don’t mind me calling you “bd” here since “beginningdharma” while fitting is long. And I am (you may have noticed) star, the same one you know from Second Life. How cool that you have a new blog, mine has an older start date on it than yours, but I didn’t use it much over this first year so you and I can be rank blog beginners together.

    I want to address the Secular/Skeptical Buddhist differences in a separate post but before I work on that I want to focus on being new to the Dharma. I was as confused as you’re feeling back just a few years ago, and these same sorts of questions were the reasons I started a Buddhist group in Second Life. Having a sangha helps a lot, and though the many different points of view seem as though they should be confusing, I actually found having friends from different schools very helpful, and I am so grateful for my sangha in all the media in which we meet, you especially! Working through “What the Buddha Taught” is going to be very helpful so thanks for starting the reader’s group.

    I’m not sure whether you’ve encountered the videos I have up on youtube. They are about ten minutes apiece and are meant to introduce Buddhism from the Skeptical perspective in bite-sized (10 minute) pieces in ordinary language. The first Big Concepts I introduce are not the usual (four noble truths) but three fundamental truths about reality that underpin Buddhist thought — sometimes known as the Three Marks of Existence. I hope you can give them a listen / viewing / reading (they’re closed captioned too), and let me know what you think.

    One of the first things the Buddha thought about after his awakening was refraining from trying to teach because it seemed to him that what he wanted to show us was going to be a little hard to get across — it was then, still is now. I’d say that the reason we *need* what the Buddha taught is revealed by the way in which it’s counterintuitive. We all just naturally feel we are individuals, special, unique, and with hard edges, and we tend to believe someone this cool can’t just vanish when we die, must go on. One reason we’ve survived as a species is because we’ve developed this strong sense of self-preservation, literally. And what the Buddha is pointing to goes against that instinct, big time!

    The good news is that he was right, this path is “Good in the beginning, good in the middle, and [therefore I assume] good at the end” — because we can test, and see the changes in our lives for ourselves; no need to go on faith.

    Oh and the youtube channel can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/user/justalittledust

  • Star, so glad you took a read, thank you for taking the time! 🙂 I did discover some of your ‘intro to Buddhism’ materials quite a while ago, now that you posted that link and I looked them! I think it was several months ago though, that I found them and I’d completely forgotten. Thanks so much for putting the link here and reminding me of them! I’ll have to find a place for them here, if you don’t mind very much, where I (and anyone else reading) can easily access them more regularly.

    Would you mind very much if I were to do that? I’ve only ever watched your video on the Four Noble Truths and I think one other, but I remember really appreciating them both for their clarity. I’ll watch them again because my ability to retain information is nearly zilch (always have had issues with that), and once I get your OK, will set something up that will serve as a link that won’t keep getting pushed down by my and others’ future postings.

    And DO call me BD for short if it helps! I know it’s a long name, and I actually only used it because I was getting frustrated with trying to come up with a name that hadn’t already been used. I kinda did this one as a “Oh yeah? Take this!” kind of thing, and since it worked, I went with it LOL.

    I’m looking forward to hearing your explanation about the differences between Skeptical and Secular Buddhism. That’s something that’s not ever been really clear to me, and I know you’ll be able to set me straight!

  • star says:

    I started drafting “the differences” between Secular and Skeptical Buddhism and found them so subtle (and personal) that it’s going to take me a while to get it clear enough in my own thoughts so I might have some hope of setting it straight on paper!

    You’re welcome to put a link to my videos. On my blog I have it in its own section “videos” but I might move it up to my “info” page (both through the Links interface in WordPress).

  • star says:

    It seems to me the difference between Skeptical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism is mostly one of an emphasis that’s pointed to by the different choice of S-words.

    The “skeptical” in Skeptical Buddhism is a reflection of the agnosticism that the Buddha taught — question the difference between what you know and what you think you know and don’t ever stop questioning. To a large degree it’s about living balanced on that questioning, accepting that there’s more we’ll never know than we’ll have any certainty on. It’s not sarcastic, critical, or eel-wriggling skepticism, but rather it’s “a philosophical position in which people choose to critically examine whether the knowledge and perceptions that they have are actually true, with the aim of acquiring approximate or relative certainty” which seems to me to pretty well define what the Buddha taught us about inquiry. Because questioning is what it’s about, Skeptical Buddhism is very accepting of other people doing questioning along a variety of lines — tolerance of and respect for others’ views is built in and is a direct reflection of the way the Buddha handled other views of his time. Pointing out a failure in morality based on wrong views is fine, but anyone who is at least striving to be moral deserves support, even if they aren’t followers of the Buddha’s dharma.

    For “secular” in Secular Buddhism we might use the definition of “secular” at wiktionary.org as a starting place, while “(1) not specifically religious” is most popular, “(8) having to do with worldly, rather than religious matters” seems about right for the one in the name “Secular Buddhism”. The emphasis here is on separating Buddhism from religion. While Secular Buddhists don’t generally exclude those who are religious (whether Buddhist or “other”) the title pretty clearly says, “But what we are wanting to talk about is Buddhism’s place in daily lives in ways not depending on faith.”

    On a personal level, I find the title of Secular Buddhism problematic because it does seem to separate Buddhism from religion, whereas for me, even as a Richard Dawkins agnostic (99% of the way to atheist) Buddhism is still a religion. My definition of religion is larger than many people are comfortable with because I don’t see religion as requiring an intervening God or even an uncaring one; religion for me has a great deal to do with looking up from the concerns of my little life of home and family and a patch of ground and local community, and reaching for something much larger, including a group understanding of morality, as well as the social support network religion provides; also, a sense of reverence and awe for what I see when I look up. So as a bottom line for me, I find the focus of Skeptical Buddhism on a kind of “accepting questioning” to be more suited to my attitudes than the line-drawing title of Secular Buddhism. But that’s just me.

    “Secular” is a perfectly good word, it is clear and recognizable, and a wonderful draw for people who aren’t familiar with Buddhism but do prefer to separate religion from philosophy and morality — so it is enticing to many people who may be seeking what Buddhism offers without being aware that Buddhism does offer a non-faith-based system. “Skeptical” is deliberate in its use of an easily misunderstood word that draws people in to ask questions, but ends up meaning precisely what it says.

  • Star,

    Thank you for that! I don’t even have any questions LOL! I really like your point of view on religion not simply being an expression of a belief in an “intervening God,” as you so well put it. I do love the idea of religion being more about the community in which we practice the teachings of the Buddha, meet and talk with each other about them, and pause in our busy daily lives to take time for our questioning and search. I have to say that my own point of view lies very closely to yours, while there are many aspects of Secular Buddhism that also speak to me as well.

    I wonder if it’s at all necessary to put oneself in one camp or the other? I hope not! LOL.

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