I am beginning a series that will incorporate both text and images, and even sound, all related to understanding Buddhism as a humanist spirituality. This will be published in three posts, to limit the size of each post.
I arrived at this place because I have discovered a new way to practice Buddhism in North America. When I first encountered Buddhism and became interested in the practice, I never wanted to join a religion. But I’ve discovered that there is a way to practice Buddhism that is not constrained by the formal institutions of Buddhist religion.
Six years ago this month, in 2009, I walked into the Shambhala Centre on Serenity Lane in Fredericton, NB. I just wanted to learn how to meditate. The instructors at the Shambhala Centre did a great job of teaching me how to mediate over several months of weekly sitting practice. Once I established the practice of meditation at home on a daily basis, the practice began to radically change my life for the better. I became, for the first time in my life, a sane human being.
Of course I wanted to go further with the practice. I discovered the dharma and fell in love with it. I began studying the dharma in earnest, first by reading everything Pema Chodron ever wrote, and also by studying the connection between Buddhism and the 12 Steps. There were many parallels between what I learned about Buddhism and what I practiced in Recovery.
In 2011, I took Refuge Vows. I continued to study the dharma and practice meditation every day. For the first four years, all I did was meditate. I didn’t go on retreats or take courses.
When I moved to Halifax in 2013, I spent a year doing retreats and courses, and delved into the study of the dharma. I was blown away by the powerful truth of the dharma. I wanted to make the dharma and the practice of Buddhism my spiritual path in life. I made the Bodhisattva Vow in 2014.
But I ran into one road block after another. After the first year of courses, I didn’t have the money to continue retreats and courses at Shambhala. I was stuck at a dead end. And I found I was not interested in the Vajra path as my primary practice.
I was determined to continue on, so I switched to Nalandabodhi. The courses they offered were very good, very affordable and accessible. But I felt marginalized by their regime of flying to Seattle to go on sangha retreats. I could not afford the more than $5,000 it would cost to fly coast to coast, live for a week in a hotel, and pay for the retreat. I was looking at another road block, another dead end. Moreover, I became dissatisfied with the way the dharma was being taught, as a “science of mind.” It lacked warmth and compassion or any sense of social responsibility. So I left Nalandabodhi as well.
In both cases, what prevented me from continuing with either snagha was not a lack of will or desire to pursue the dharma; it was a lack of money.
The Vajra practice of one sangha was trying to steer me toward the belief that I was a god. The Dzogchen practice of the other sangha was trying to convince me that I was nothing, that I didn’t exist. Well let me tell you, friends, I’m not a god and I’m not nothing either. I’m a human being, and all I want is to be treated like a human being. Leaving both sanghas, I searched for humanist interpretations of the dharma. I actually found that I made more progress, spiritually speaking, when I studied what I what was meaningful to me, and meditated daily.
In 2014, I discovered the life and teachings of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, India’s most famous Minister of Law. Ambedkar’s vision was to rebirth Buddhism in India. He called his understanding of Buddhism the Navayana or “the New Vehicle.” He proposed that liberty, equality and fraternity were the hallmarks of the Navayana. He held that Buddhism should liberate all people individually in their minds and lives, socially and spiritually; that all people are equal and should be treated as such; and that the fraternity of all beings would create a more just and compassionate society. Ambedkar’s Buddhism was an authentic practice based on the teachings of the Pali cannon and the Mahayana sutras, but it was also a profoundly humanist practice. I decided that I would practice the Buddhism of Ambedkar, the Navayana.
When I learned how to mediate, I wanted to go on with my study and practice of the dharma, but I did not want to join a religion. I had “done the whole religion trip” as a youth, and I found that it led me down the wrong path. Like all religions, including Buddhism, it was in the business of perpetuating itself as a religion. I felt that Buddhism was one of the few spiritual systems that did not have to be practiced as a religion. During this whole process, I met many people who were also interested in Buddhism, but who also don’t want to practice Buddhism as a religion.
I never wanted a religion, but everywhere I went, I was presented with Buddhism as a religion. It seemed there was no other way to do it. It was always a heavy trip of courses, rituals, and retreats. There was always this anxious striving for the next level of spiritual achievement. There were esoteric practices and beliefs of all kinds, but not necessarily beliefs and practices that spoke to me or helped me on my path. Like most religions, it felt very coercive. Mostly it was about doing what I was taught to do and not questioning anything. It was about joining a group and meeting the social expectations of that group, which had little to do with practicing Buddhism, but was really about acting as though I belonged to a certain social class.
Then I read this book by the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinely Dorje, The Heart is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out. In this book, he said all the things that I had learned for myself from Buddhism. The Karmapa said Buddhism can be practiced as humanist spirituality, that the most important dharma is that everything is interdependent and that we are all connected, and Compassion is King. He said that it’s not necessary to join a Buddhist organization. Just find a few friends who will support you in your practice, even if they’re not Buddhists.
Everything he wrote in this book spoke to me and let me know that I was on the right path. It wasn’t that I learned anything that was startlingly new or different. Rather, he confirmed what I had felt all along, that practicing secular Buddhism was a perfectly valid and complete way to follow the Buddha and practice the dharma. He gave it a name: Buddhism as a humanist spirituality.
The Karmapa’s book was about how we can create a more compassionate world by working for social justice, practicing love and compassion with all beings, practicing vegetarianism, protecting the environment, and creating a more caring society. This was not only engaged Buddhism, but Buddhism as a humanist spirituality.
The Karmapa’s book turned my spiritual life around. It gave me a sense that I was on the right path. It gave me the courage to go forward with my practice and my spiritual journey.
So now I would like to outline what is the beginning of a manifesto on engaged Buddhism as a humanist spirituality. There are several basic dharma concepts, broad areas of study and practice, that make up the Navayana, or “the New Vehicle.”