Secular Buddhism :: Part One :: What Is It?

| June 12, 2011 | 12 Comments

This is Part One of a five part series, exploring some concepts of Secular Buddhism.  This post is the What, upcoming posts will examine Who, Where, When, and How.

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Recently, and in the past few weeks in particular, there seems to have been an upsurge in the blogosphere about secular Buddhism.  Commentary has been from many different perspectives, including responses from philosophical writers, initial forays by monastics, and full discussions by practitioners of various traditions.  The posts and attitudes have also ranged quite widely, representing curiosity, sometimes dismissiveness, sometimes outright antagonism.

One trait they have typically lacked, however, is an experienced background with secular Buddhism itself.  Perhaps this is one of several reasons why those of us who either openly identify as secular Buddhists, or have some inclination to that kind of practice, find those posts not representative of secular Buddhist attitudes.  Of course, within our own community, there is tremendous variation in forms, techniques, approaches, and ideals, just as there is within any particular community of practice.  This diversity of manifestation of the dhamma brings with it a wonderful richness, providing options to scholars, meditators, laity, monastics, and the idly curious, and is a positive development in the ongoing growth of Buddhism.  There is in effect no one true secular Buddhism, as the root of “secular practice” can find many positive expressions still in alignment with core Buddhist principles.  This may, however, cause an understandable confusion when the topic comes up for examination and discussion.

This made the formulation of guiding principles of secular Buddhism (1) very challenging, as despite having input from several different kinds of very experienced thinkers, scholars, and practitioners, there were disagreements about how to articulate those principles.  Of course this is inevitable, as we each resonate with the particulars of the branch of the evolutionary tree on which we find ourselves.  Some of us found the inclusion of the historical Buddha to be critical to the principles of secular Buddhism, for example, while others saw such inclusion as limiting.

Neither was incorrect.  They are simply personal expressions of our own practice, based on our experience and understanding.  This is the rich diversity of human variation in action, and is not a “necessary evil”, but a wonderful opportunity for growing.  The challenge remains, however, to find a common reference for secular Buddhism.  What is it we can agree on not only within our own community, but with Buddhists in general, about what secular Buddhism is?

Most problematic is attitudes, as has been seen online.  Having a common language, a finger pointing at the moon so to speak, should be independent about the value judgements one makes about the moon itself.  Sadly that has not been the case, as attitudes about secular Buddhism have become entangled with simply identifying what we mean by secular Buddhism.  This not only does a disservice to any topic of discussion, it is simply poor thinking.  To move forward, we must have a common understanding of the topic.  We can fairly easily demark the basic difference between a bicycle and an automobile, for example, before comparing their values and limitations.

The first action to take, then, becomes ascertaining the core thread of secular Buddhism, distinguishing it from other kinds of Buddhism.  It is important to note that it is the core thread that is being sought here.  We are not trying to map out all the various ways in which that can find expression but find what they all share, and yet clearly do not have in common with other kinds of Buddhism.

A possible avenue for resolving this is to examine, briefly, the term secular Buddhism itself.  The word “secular” has several dictionary meanings (2), most of which describe it in terms of what it is not.  For purposes of this exploration to find a core trait, the first dictionary definition “of or relating to the wordly or temporal” is extremely beneficial for several reasons.

First, it is a positive proposition, not a negative; it says what secular is, not what it isn’t.  This is important because negative propositions can be limiting, as we see with atheist communities struggling with being ‘not-theistic’ in nature.   Lots of things are, but that doesn’t really give any guidance about what that specific community is.  Some solutions to this have been catch phrases like “Positive Atheism in Action” (3), or the more constructive expressions of Secular Humanism (4), but starting with a positive proposition may be the simplest solution.

Second, that dictionary definition places secular matters as pertaining to this world in this time, not some other world or some other time.  This sets the tone immediately: what is topical in secular expressions of practice is here and now, not another realm in another lifetime.

This leads to another component to secularism, one which seems to be a point of contention with more traditional attitudes.  Much of religious doctrine, including that of Buddhism, contains religious assertions.  That is, teachings which must be at least in the beginning taken on faith, rather than on any material evidence (5).  They may be assertions about the divine lineage of a prominent figure in the tradition, assertions about the spiritual meaning of observable events, or assertions about the historicity of the stories making up the tradition.  The importance and limitation of such assertions will be the topic of a later post.  For the purposes of this discussion, it is sufficient to ascribe the term “secular” as pertaining to what is in evidence — that is, what is demonstrable in the natural world.

Moving to Buddhism, we are immediately faced with what appears to be an oxymoron: a non-religious religion!  On the face of it, of course, it is a valid question to ask how such a combination has any material meaning.  However, one should consider that contemporary Buddhism is often faced with this identification problem of being a religion or a philosophy, as its practice is not dependent on the supernatural, and its founder was very clear about not being divine.  Of course, there are many of the forms of religion in the main branches of Buddhism, including ritual, monastic hierarchies, etc., but this does not mean that the average person cannot follow their tenants, and do so without worship of the divine.

This is not to say that religious forms are neither helpful nor meaningful to those who practice them, and those who are so inclined may benefit greatly from accepting faith assertions.  Secular Buddhism is not antagonistic to other kinds of Buddhism; rather, it is just another expression of practice which does not share that approach.  Secularists may question religious assertions, asking for evidence about them, as anyone should when faced with what is often a belief enjoying the status of privileged exemption from free inquiry.  It is an opportunity to demonstrate the reason one has a belief.

A descriptive issue remains: what is Buddhism?  Answering this question was most succinctly put by Siddhattha Gotama himself in his statement that he teaches suffering and the extinguishing of suffering, and that a teaching is valid, “When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.” (6)

We can see that secular Buddhism has a distinguishing characteristic from other kinds of Buddhism in that it is related to what is in evidence (what is demonstrable in the natural world); that which is not in evidence is not a dependency of secular Buddhism, and can be set aside.  Note that the choice of words “is not a dependency” and “can be set aside” is very intentional and key to the entire core thread of secular Buddhism.  Secular practitioners may or may not choose to exercise faith based forms like bowing, chanting, lighting incense, etc., it is simply that their practice does not depend on these forms to provide value.  That such forms can be set aside, does not mean that they always will be set aside.  And that setting aside does not mean they are disallowed, or somehow found to be lacking in value to others.  It is that secular practice, free from the dependency of forms and adherence to assertions not demonstrable, is far more accessible to a wider variety of people — traditionalists, secularists, and those of completely different faiths may find secular Buddhism to be of tangible benefit in their lives.  A possible core thread of secular Buddhism then becomes:

“What is in evidence in the natural world as a dependency to the reduction of suffering.”

Of course, this is an evolving practice in an evolving cultural setting.  The important thing is to take what is beneficial to your own practice!

*** Notes ***

1 http://www.thesecularbuddhist.com/about_guiding_principles.php
2 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/secular
http://mnatheists.org/
4 http://www.americanhumanist.org/Who_We_Are/About_Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_III
5 “Faith” here is meant in the Judeo-Christian sense: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Heb. 11:1]
6  Kalama Sutta

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Ted Meissner

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Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

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  1. frank jude says:

    Thank you for this well-written, well-reasoned essay! It’d be nice to think those antagonistic to those of us choosing to walk the Secular Buddhist Path will take this as a starting point for discussion, rather than beginning from a place of dismissiveness and antagonism, which as you point out is often the case. But that remains to be seen.

    You write, “There is in effect no one true secular Buddhism, as the root of ‘secular practice’ can find many positive expressions still in alignment with core Buddhist principles” but of course, this is true for all forms of “traditional” or “mainstream” Buddhism, though partisans or sectarians may argue this. I am currently reading Robert E. Buswell, Jr.’s “The Formation of Ch’an Ideology in China and Korea,” where he points out how the whole ‘tradition’ of East Asian Buddhism is a fabrication, right down to ‘apocryphal’ sutras written in China and Korea in order to retroactively “legitimize” their indigenous sects such as Ch’an.

    I find it at best ironic that this kind of ‘fabrication’ and re-creation of Buddhist tradition is generally accepted (outside those more conservative Theravadin monastics), while the contemporary re-creation we secularists are attempting is so frequently disparaged.

    I appreciate your attempt to uncover the ‘core thread’ of all secular approaches, and believe you have articulated what, to my mind, is the fundamental bedrock of any secular approach: “the first dictionary definition ‘of or relating to the worldly or temporal.” For me, my Zen Naturalism seems a more concrete expression of this general concern of Zen, which has always stressed “here and now,” over any other-worldly concerns. When one Zen master was asked by a student about the after-life, the master responded, “How should I know?” The student responded, “Well, you’re a Zen master.” “Yes, but I’m not a dead Zen master,” the teacher responded!

    Finally, regarding the whole question of “religion,” I look to the original root of the word, “to tie back” as a kind of synonym for yoga. Thus, though a secularist, I believe the questions Buddhist praxis addresses are ‘religious’ in this fundamental sense of a discipline of ‘tying back’ or creating an integrity of human expression. Whatever role “faith” plays, I translate shraddha as “confidence,” and if someone chooses to practice the various techniques of Buddhist meditation (for instance) they are evidencing such “faith” or “confidence” necessary to take up the practices in the first place. This makes Zen Naturalism a form a secular religion, free of any of the “faith assertions” lacking the evidence you are speaking of.

    Thus, as you point out, practices such as bowing and chanting, can be freely chosen or discarded. If practiced, they are understood as both mindfulness practices and practices to “warm the heart,” not as expressions of worship of anything supernatural. I welcome and applaud the openness explicit in your closing comments. Thank you!

  2. Neil Neil-Orangepeel says:

    I’ve been pleasently surprised to come across such a website/fb page as the ‘Secular Buddhist’. I have been practising Buddhism for around 11 years now and in that time have found it difficult to reconcile some of the components of Buddhism. What struck me from the onset was how inteligable Conditionality, the 4 noble truths, the 8 fold noble path and meditation were…basically try them and see! There was nothing about a divine power etc. For many if not most Buddhists in the world the form of Buddhisms that are practiced now have a some sort of divine element to them, e.g. Pure Land and the Tibetan forms of Buddhism and that’s fine with me that those people follow that, but for me if it’s unintelligable and un-testable then it’s not for me. Having the core Buddha’s teachings as part of a secular Buddhism seems to me, the way to go and really, keeping it simple in this way means that really, one can’t go wrong. It’s great to see the web site/blog/podcasts for secular Buddhism and I wish the author all the best and would like to provide my sincere thanks and hope that this blog gets people talking to one another and coming together to share ideas and practice that are grounded in the real world!

    • Thank you, Neil, for this. It’s very, very rewarding to read that people are finding resonance with this contemporary way of practicing.

      I’m attending a seminar at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies this week on Secular Dharma with Stephen and Martine Batchelor, along with several podcast listeners and guests. Feels like home!

  3. Hi, Frank, so glad you’re here! Yes, that’s my hope, too: that we as human beings can discuss avenues of practice not as available in a culture that is not our own, and openly acknowledge we may have differences — and that’s okay. Mahayana started that way, it’s surprising to see so many from that tradition be as averse to dialogue.

    Yes, Stephen Batchelor made that same point about ch’an just this morning during the seminar. And you’re right, it is ironic! It places the past on a pedastal, and doesn’t really address the fact that evolution is happening right now, it didn’t stop suddenly. We’re in a period of “punctuated equilibrium”, with thanks to Stephen Jay Gould.

    Wonderful zen story, and so true. What is our situation *here and now*?!

    I also take the meaning of saddha (sorry, I’m more a Pali guy!) as “confidence”, too. Much less baggage than the Judeo-Christian term. I typically say that I started from curiosity, not faith, when someone tries to co-opt my intent and meaning.

    Ah, yes, yes! Sooo very grateful to you for that last paragraph, that forms are freely chosen or discarded! In contemplating what that thread was, I had to account for those of us, myself included, who light incense and bow. I know it’s not religious in the least for me, it’s a mindfulness practice, but that core characteristic absolutely had to leave the permutations of secular practice open.

  4. Andrew says:

    Thanks Ted for hosting another thread in this valuable conversation. I have only recently delved into what you and others are calling Secular Buddhism.

    By way of introduction, this comes after being immersed for more than 30 years in the Tibetan tradition, studying under a few different teachers, and fading in and out of different sanghas. I am also thoroughly familiar with a living Buddhism in Asia from my repeated visits there – in early university education, in conducting business (garment industry) and in personal pilgrimage.

    In the last few years my efforts have been to synthesize this experience into a form that I could share with others. This has led to my building of marble stupas and outdoor temples spaces to contain them, under the auspices of my non-profit foundation, The Dharma Sanctuary. This has occurred in the U.S. and France up to now. It has a Tibetan or Himalayan orientation, and has taken place in close association with my Tibetan lama friends.

    Despite having followed a traditional empowered process of stupa raising, I feel that I and others are beginning to create a pan-Buddhist temple experience for the West that is non-denominational and perhaps could even come under the banner of secular, though some discussion is needed about that. My visit earlier this year to Burma and other Theravada countries has helped me refine my thinking and helped hone an aesthetic that I feel works well for many westerners. It is however, not a stripped down minimalist approach. For me, secular doesn’t have to mean sparse or pared back in its aesthetic. (A good topic to debate some day).

    We are all busy deconstructing Buddhism for us moderns in order to find the pithy parts, yet this is happening mostly in our heads. I would like to contribute by helping find an outward form that people can experience bodily.

    That is enough tooting my own horn. I wish you well with your project, and will look forward to your upcoming posts. Enjoy your workshop with Steven and Martine, and hope that you will share your impressions with those of us not able to participate. Also, thanks for the audio and the topic of how entheogens (psilocybin, in this case) interface with the topic of meditation. My personal path living on Kauai these past ten years involves a circle of men devoted to growing and brewing our own medicine for our twice-monthly ceremonies, plumbing the depths to see if a secular understanding stands up in the face of an experience of the deep mysteries. Perhaps we could have a future conversation about that too?

    My blog at my web site:
    http://www.dharmasanctuary.org/my-blog/

    YouTube video of the Kauai Peace Park project:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrpQ9dCcugU

    • “For me, secular doesn’t have to mean sparse or pared back in its aesthetic. (A good topic to debate some day).”

      Yes, I agree, and glad to see you here. Secular most certainly does not mean spartan! Secularists (and even us heretical atheists…) are every bit as moved by beauty as anyone else.

      And thanks for the video, too, that’s awesome. My favorite place on Kauai, other than the Na Pali coast hiking of course, is the Hindu temple which is simply GORGEOUS!

  5. Brad says:

    I find my mind wants to rebel at any label or definition. I’m also weary of using the same words to describe the same phenomenon, in this case “secular Buddhism.” I think it’s important to not peg yourself down — because therein lies the seeds of dogmatism (“no, that’s not secular Buddhism, *this* is secular Buddhism”). Just a passing thought.

    • frank jude says:

      “Brad,” just wondering if your mind rebels at the label, “Brad.” I’m only half joking here. As the Buddha said, when challenged for using words such as “I,” “me,” and “mine” when a core teaching of his was anatta (not-self): “I use such terms, but I am not caught in such terms.” It’d be not only a boring world, but there’d be no chance at any communication of much depth if we didn’t use conceptual terminology.

      I agree with you that one might want to avoid ‘being pegged down” by any concepts one uses. For instance, though ordained, I don’t think of myself as “Buddhist.” However, for the ease of conversation, I will refer to myself as “Buddhist,” and then, when asked what kind, “Secular Buddhist” most clearly describes my approach. I’ve found that, in one-on-one conversations, such disclosure leads to generally deep conversation, as I am asked what that means to me. Thus, a “label” as you put it, opens the door to a genuine ‘meeting of the minds.’ What’s so wrong about that?

      metta
      frankjude

      • Brad says:

        That’s an interesting point, Frank. And I suppose that’s why I called my response “a passing thought” in other words “without too much reflection or analysis.” I suppose that there are desirable and undesirable aspects to using labels like “secular Buddhism” or, yes, even “Brad.” You’ve balanced things out. 🙂

        But, it’s good to keep pointing out the yin and the yang. I will continue to do so. 🙂

        Thanks for you reply,
        Brad

    • Andrew says:

      I am in complete agreement, Brad. It is a slippery slope towards dogma – then the accusations of heretic start being hurled. It’s inevitable in human nature, especially religion.

      It is also true that we need labels to be able to talk about concepts and beliefs, and this can support genuine dialogue. The problem starts when we’re further down the line, and people harden their stance as a movement is formed. Then it gets further organized by people who like to do this kind of thing. That’s about the time that I’m outta there. You can see it coming.

      Of course, calling myself a Buddhist 2,500 years after the Buddha was supposedly around, is hanging onto something well into such a period of sectarianism. However, after hearing recently that the Chinese are supplying Nepal with 3 billion dollars to build out Lumbini as a tourist/pilgrimage haven might tip the scales soon, and force me to find a new religion altogether…

    • Yeah, I agree, too. The idea here isn’t to create a new institution, quite the opposite. What we want to create is *community*, not institution.

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