Words can be slippery things, but they have more power to change things than we often give them credit for. Take the word “religion” for instance. The first two definitions the Oxford Dictionary offers are, “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” and “a particular system of faith and worship.”
Contemplation, “a form of… prayer or meditation in which a person seeks to pass beyond mental images and concepts to a direct experience of the divine” (sense 5) is, obviously, at least potentially at odds with “religion”. That “direct experience” might not be of “a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” It might not fit into the doctrines of “a particular system of faith and worship.” This has been the problem with contemplatives for millennia. Time and again they have broken away from state churches on the one hand and politico-religious revolutions on the other, sometimes forming loose communities and sometimes not, and have retreated from formal organisation almost altogether, at least at the beginning. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land-derived schools of Buddhism (Jōdo-shū, Jōdo Shinshū) founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and the Quakers in 17th century England.
The word “secular” is defined (sense 1) as, “not connected with religious or spiritual matters.” Now, this is slightly problematical, as Sam Harris points out in Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. He writes
Twenty percent of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit… many nonbelievers now consider all things “spiritual” to be contaminated by medieval superstition.
I do not share their semantic concerns. Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.
It seems to me that we are (well I am at least) coming to a crossroads, exacerbated and given an added sense of urgency, as with so many other things, by the current pandemic. For many of us, even if we are not contemplatives as such, a system of faith and worship based on the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God set over against his creation, no longer describes our experience. Over the past year, many of us, bereft of conventional (or unconventional) worship, especially those of us who have resisted the distracting simulacra of Zoom church, have found ourselves sinking further into a direct experience of – what? Grace? Mercy? A stillness and a strength far beyond our own resources or imagination? All of those, perhaps. What are we to name it?
Lenorë Lambert writes of a secular dharma, based on an openness to all sources, but guided especially by the Pali Canon, an emphasis on practice, and accessibility to “anyone, anywhere, from any background or life circumstance”. The experience of lockdown has shown us (some of us were already getting the idea here and there) that special buildings and rituals, special forms of words, formulations of orthodoxy, scriptural literalisms, and many other aspects of conventional religion, are simply not required baggage on the spiritual path. Yes, we can learn from them – and often we will need to learn from them – but we are not beholden to them, as though we couldn’t walk without them.
Of course such attitudes will threaten many of our erstwhile co-religionists, and we owe them great courtesy and care as we move along our own paths. But the ground of being lies beneath all that is, and holds us all in being, whatever words we use for it. May we be true, gently, to what we find.