Secular Buddhism


Summer Buddha by Gonkar Gyatso

Secular Buddhism is a broad term for an emerging form of Buddhism that is based on humanist, naturalist, and/or agnostic values and pragmatism rather than religious – or more specifically supernatural – beliefs. Secular Buddhists interpret the teachings of the Buddha and the Buddhist texts in a rationalist and often evidentialist manner, considering the historical and cultural contexts of the times in which they were written and the period in which the Buddha lived.

Secular Buddhists eschew mythological and superstitious elements of traditional Buddhism such as supernatural beings (devas, bodhisattvas, nāgas, pretas, Buddhas), merit (an accumulation of good deeds which carries over to subsequent incarnations), supernatural karma (actions, both good and bad, come back to us in the future), rebirth, Buddhist cosmology (including the existence of pure lands and hells). Some of traditional Buddhism’s secular ethics have also been called into questions such as conservative stances on abortion and homosexuality

Secular Buddhism has its roots in Buddhist modernism and Secular Humanism. The Insight meditation movement in the United States was founded on modernist secular values. Jack Kornfield, who trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma and India, said that the Insight Meditation Society wanted to present Buddhist meditation ‘without the complications of rituals, robes, chanting and the whole religious tradition.’ SN Goenka, a popular teacher of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, taught that his practice was not a sectarian doctrine, but ‘something from which people of every background can benefit: an art of living.’

One of the first people to explicitly present a strictly secular form of Buddhism was Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor. Like many of today’s proponents of Secular Buddhism, he was a Buddhist monk ordained in the more traditional forms of Buddhism. From his experience as a monk practicing Tibetan Buddhism and later Zen, he felt the need for a more secular and agnostic approach. In his books ‘Buddhism without Beliefs’ and ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ he describes his approach to the Buddha’s teaching and describes Siddhattha Gotama as a historic person rather than an idealized religious icon.

Unlike other kinds of Buddhist modernism, which tend to be modifications of traditional schools of Buddhist thought and practice in the light of the discourses of modernity, secular Buddhism is founded on a reconfiguration of core elements of the dharma itself (the teachings of the Buddha which lead to enlightenment). To this end it seeks to recover the original teachings of Siddhattha Gotama, the historical Buddha, yet without claiming to disclose ‘what the Buddha really meant.’ Rather, it interprets the early canonical teachings in a way that draws out their meaning in the Buddha’s own historical context (the culture of the Gangetic plains in the fifth century BCE) while demonstrating their value and relevance to people living in our own time. Both aspects of this interpretation are literally ‘secular’ in that they evoke the Latin root word ‘saeculum’ – ‘a particular age or generation.’

Secular Buddhism proposes that we leave behind the metaphysical beliefs and soteriology (Salvation theology) of Indian religious culture. This culture saw human life as an irredeemable realm of suffering, from which one should seek transcendence in an enduring beyond-human condition – a stance that virtually all Buddhist schools, as well as Hinduism and Jainism, perpetuate. Secular Buddhism, on the other hand, seeks to deploy the Buddha’s teaching as a guide to full human flourishing in this life and this world. In adopting this post-metaphysical position, it parts company with existing religious forms of Buddhist orthodoxy, which have evolved since the Buddha’s death. Instead, it aligns itself with today’s post-metaphysical philosophy, not least phenomenology (focusing on sensation of external phenomena rather than abstractions of them), so finding itself on a convergent path with similar movements in Christian thought, as exemplified by the work of thinkers such as Anglican priest and a professor at the University of Cambridge Don Cupitt and Italian philosopher and politician Gianni Vattimo.

Secular Buddhism likewise rejects the authoritarian structures of power legitimated by the metaphysics of orthodox Buddhist belief. It questions notions of spiritual progress based on standardized prescriptions for meditation practice, as well as the widespread idea that Buddhist practice is essentially concerned with gaining proficiency in a set of meditative techniques endorsed by the authority of a traditional school or teacher. Instead, secular Buddhism emphasizes a praxis that encourages autonomy and encompasses equally every aspect of one’s humanity, as modeled by the noble eight-fold path (right vision, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration). Such an approach is open to generating a wide range of responses to specific individual and communal needs, rather than insisting on there being ‘one true way’ to ‘enlightenment’ valid for all times and places.

The appearance of secular Buddhism is understood as part of the broad trend of secularization that has been developing in the West since the recovery of classical Greek culture in the Renaissance, rather than merely as a consequence of the supposed triumph of scientific rationalism over religion in the modern period. Moreover, many aspects of secular Buddhism have been prompted by organizational developments that began in lay Buddhist practice communities (sanghas) during the last decades of the 20th century, when the hierarchical features of Buddhist monastic culture were abandoned in favor of democratic principles of civic association. In particular, the need to include women on an equal footing produced organizational innovations, which disrupted older patterns of patriarchal authority and gender exclusivity.


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