Observations from the Intersangha Meeting of 2017: The Past and Future of Secularized Buddhism

A report from Mindy Schorr

In April of this year I had the opportunity and pleasure to attend the 8th annual Intersangha Meeting of the Buddhist Insight Network (BIN) at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.

The sixty-five attendees were made up of Community Dharma Leaders and sangha board members from Insight communities around the country. The purpose of the annual Intersangha gathering is to discuss issues pertinent to our sanghas and for representatives to come together to explore those issues, to learn together and from each other. The schedule, which was very full, included time for talks, sitting, walking, yoga or Qigong, networking, and fabulous meals on the beautiful 400-acre Spirit Rock campus. Breakout groups were organized so that sangha representatives could meet together to discuss areas of common interest, as well as issues challenge our sanghas.

Just being at Spirit Rock was exciting. Talking with other Insight practitioners about the dharma, about practice, about each of our home communities and our greater shared community felt very connecting. I was proud to be there as a representative of VIMS, and attending the meeting helped me to recognize the maturity and strength of our sangha in a way that I would not have otherwise understood.

The title of this year’s Intersangha gathering was “Dharma, Secular Mindfulness, and Science: Convergences and Collisions.”  Kim Allen, the founding president of the Buddhist Insight Network, gave a presentation about the issue of teacher succession and teacher support. Gil Fronsdal, the keynote speaker, gave an informative talk titled “The Genealogy of Secularized Buddhism.” These two talks, more than any other conversations, deepened my understanding of where our Insight community is at this moment in time.

Kim discussed the reality that within the next five-to-ten years, most of the founding and senior teachers of the Insight movement will no longer be teaching. These founding teachers were taught by the Westerners who brought the Insight movement to the United States (Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Christina Feldman, Christopher Titmuss, and Ruth Denison). The new teachers then began their own local groups. There are now roughly 200 Insight sanghas, which range in size from small sitting groups to large organizations. And many more teachers have been trained through the Community Dharma Leaders and other teacher trainings. Nonetheless, the pulling back, retiring, and aging of the founding teachers is happening in sanghas across the country, and many are struggling to figure out how their organization will evolve.

VIMS’s guiding teacher, Doreen Schweizer, is one of these founding teachers, and she brought Vipassana (Insight) meditation to the Upper Valley. VIMS is fortunate also to have Peg Meyer and Karen Summer on the teacher team. As I talked with other board members from around the country, I recognized that we have one of the strongest teacher teams of any community of our relatively small size. And while we move through transitions and change, we are strong in our community and have leaders who are highly qualified to teach the dharma.

In Gil’s fascinating keynote talk, he shared his perspective on the interface of secular and Buddhist mindfulness, and reflected on how those separate practices influence each other and evolve. Gil noted that he has tremendous respect for the secular movement and for the sophistication and science that people are bringing to it. But he acknowledges that there is some tension there: if Vipassana is now being practiced by the secular world, what will happen to the dharma? Gil welcomes the secular mindfulness movement and suggests that it is possible that this movement may create a “seed bed” for receptivity and openness to Buddhist mindfulness.

Gil also observes that Buddhism is not just one belief system. There are various beliefs within Buddhism worldwide that have been largely culturally determined. This cultural determination is also true of the Vipassana movement. Buddhist thought and practice throughout the world also exist on a continuum of religious to secular. The more religious groups tend to believe in rebirth, the supernatural, faith, belief in what cannot be seen. Those groups are oriented toward monastics and mediated by clergy. The more secularized groups are not based on belief in rebirth and the supernatural; rather they emphasize our present life, and direct personal experience. Secular Buddhism tends toward the scientific, rational, empirical. There is more focus on the laity and the training of lay teachers.

This range from religious to secular has existed historically and is not unique to the American modern world. Gil gave several examples from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Korea, and China.

Gil proposes (and there is historical evidence that supports the claim) that certain conditions give rise to the movement toward rationality and secularization. These contributing conditions are:

1       Sufficient affluence/comfort
2       Leisure time; space for study
3       An educated population seeking a different approach to religion and understanding.

Gil sees the focus of the Vipassana movement as liberation and freedom from suffering, more than merit for rebirth, though the latter is certainly present. Vipassana is about direct personal experience that is available in the here and now, and it follows in a long tradition of interpreting Buddhism for our life and time and culture; he does not feel that Western culture has appropriated or disrespected Eastern forms of Buddhism. And finally, he pointed out that the Buddha was a rational man who emphasized direct personal experience over rites, rituals, and supernatural theories about rebirth. The Sutta teachings are more secular than religious.

Gil also observed that secularized movements are more fragile than religious movements, which frequently get maintained and provide a landscape from which secular movements may come and go.

I left the meeting feeling moved and happy about the state of our Valley Insight sangha. For those who are interested in attending, the next BIN meeting will be held in May, from the 3rd through the 6th, at IMC (Insight Meditation Center) in Redwood City, California.

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