Skip to main content

Daily Life

Building Community

Is the discussion meeting the “third place” society is searching for?

Rittenhouse District. Photo Johnathan Wilson

Sidewalk cafes in Paris. Pubs in London. Piazzas in Florence. All great cities seem to share a common feature—distinctive, informal gathering places that breed a sense of identity and connection, places where people feel at home.

The urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined these places the “third place”—neutral, public spaces beyond the home (“first place”) and work (“second place”), where the community can easily and routinely connect with one another.

Mr. Oldenburg argues that such spaces represent “anchors of community life” that are necessary for both civil societies and democracies to function.

In this regard, America does not bode well. Whereas a century ago the town square served as a vital community gathering place, urban sprawl has brought with it less community connection. This is all the truer for young people who seek out community through virtual third places online.

“Daily life amid new urban sprawl,” Mr. Oldenburg wrote, “is like grammar school without its recess periods, like incurring the aches and pains of a softball game without the fun of getting together for a few beers afterward. Both the joys of relaxing with people and the social solidarity that results from it are disappearing for want of settings that make them possible.”

Absent such gathering places, the retail coffee giant Starbucks has sought to nurture its identity as a third place for communities, with its 14,000 stores, in essence, becoming modern-day town squares.

What, then, do third places, such as Starbucks, have in common? (see sidebar). At heart, third places represent a neutral ground, where the participants are there willingly; where their social or economic status is unimportant; and where they tend to feel at home.

In the SGI, the third place, so to speak, is the monthly district discussion meeting that takes place at thousands of homes across the country. These are the places where members and their friends come together to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, discuss Buddhism and hold informal dialogues about their challenges and triumphs.

Lawrence E. Carter Sr., dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, noted in a recent talk that the power of the SGI is its “house meetings.”

“They overcome structural violence,” Dean Carter said at a recent talk in Santa Monica, California, to discuss his new book A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher. “Structural violence is communication that does not allow for feedback. You’ve got the platform, the mechanism and the instrument to get pastoral care closer to where people are living.”

To be sure, the district discussion meeting, which nurtures personal connection in a neighborhood setting, may well represent the type of community anchor people are looking for.

A 2018 Cigna study found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). And Generation Z (ages 18–22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.

Clark Strand, the spiritual writer and former Zen Buddhist monk, writes in his book Waking the Buddha that the monthly discussion meeting represents personal transformation through group discussion.

“Buddhism is put to the test, and the truth of its teachings are manifested by members through personal stories of overcoming obstacles to happiness,” he said. “Sharing such experiences builds faith, faith builds lives, and collectively those lives can change society.”

Julie Burdick, the women’s leader of Pacifica District in San Francisco, described her monthly discussion meeting as a “very safe space for the members to share their sufferings and be vulnerable.”

Even when members have ongoing challenges, they feel comfortable sharing them with others to inspire them to persevere. “Everyone is welcome,” she said. “We always speak heart to heart.”

Did you know?“Third Place”

Scholars have summerized sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s description of the “third place” with these eight qualities:

  1. Neutral ground
    • Little to no obligation to be there
    • Not tethered to the area financially, politically, legally or otherwise
  2. Leveler
    • An individual’s economic or social status is unimportant
    • Allows for a sense of commonality among its occupants
    • No prerequisites or requirements that would prevent acceptance or participation in the third place
  3. Conversation is main activity
    • Playful and happy conversation is the main focus of activity, although not required as the only activity
    • The tone of conversation is usually lighthearted and humorous
  4. Accessibility and accommodation
    • Must be open and readily accessible to those who occupy them
    • Must also be accommodating, meaning they provide the wants of their inhabitants, and all occupants feel their needs have been fulfilled
  5. The regulars
    • Harbor a number of regulars who help give the space its tone, and help set the mood and characteristics of the area
    • Regulars also attract newcomers and are there to help someone new to the space feel welcome and accommodated
  6. A low profile
    • Characteristically wholesome
    • Without extravagance or grandiosity, and has a homey feel
    • Never snobby or pretentious, and are accepting of all types of individuals, from different walks of life
  7. The mood is playful
    • The tone of conversation is never marked with tension or hostility
    • Witty conversation and frivolous banter are not only common, but highly valued
  8. A home away from home
    • Occupants often have the same feelings of warmth, possession and belonging as they would in their own homes
    • They feel a piece of themselves is rooted in the space, and gain spiritual regeneration by spending time there


Creating Great Value