What Is Secular Buddhist Practice?

| April 27, 2012 | 6 Comments

We often get asked by traditional Buddhist, and people of all kinds, what is secular Buddhist practice? This is a great question, and I’ll do my best to answer, but I hope other secular Buddhist practitioners will also comment on this article to share any practices not mentioned here. Also, I want to remind everyone that  we have a discussion forum that is dedicated to secular Buddhist practice, where people can ask questions and share their practice.

What is secular Buddhist practice? For the most part, secular Buddhist practice is identical to traditional Buddhist practice. In every Buddhist tradition to my knowledge, the following are vital practices:

  • Meditation — Buddhist meditation consists of sitting or moving meditation, which is the way we develop mindfulness and concentration. Additionally from meditation, we develop insights overtime as our practice matures. There are variations in Buddhist meditation as to what object is used as a focal point, whether one is practicing general mindfulness, or pointed concentration. The breath or the body are often used as the focal point. Secular Buddhist meditation does not differ from traditional Buddhist meditation, but does not generally include the visualizations of Buddhas as practiced in Tibetan Buddhism. (Some secular Buddhists who came from that tradition, however, may continue those meditations as a part of their practice)
  • Introspection — Introspection is used to examine the characteristics off all things in our world. The three main characteristics that are studied are impermanence, suffering, and not-self. This introspection is sometimes done while in meditation, but continues into every day life. This study of the world around us and within ourselves also does not differ from traditional Buddhist practice. Additionally, we consider and study the Four Noble Truths.
  • Behavior — How we behave in the world is every bit as important to the secular Buddhist as traditional Buddhists. Mindfulness is essential to being aware of how we behave and interact with others. Our intent is to lessen our own suffering and the suffering of others. Therefore, we do our best to follow the Eightfold path: Right View (understanding the four noble truths), Right Intention (Pointing our intentions in the direction of good, healthy, friendly intentions), Right Action (Behave in ways that don’t cause suffering, and in ways that are helpful), Right Speech (Keeping our speech helpful and not hurtful, honest instead of deceptive), Right Livelihood (Work in occupations that do not bring suffering to others), Right Effort (Putting effort into a wholesome practice that benefits ourselves and others), Right Mindfulness (Developing mindfulness in all activities and stillness), Right Concentration (Developing concentration so that we listen attentively, tend to matters skillfully, etc).
  • Engaging — An important part of practice may also be engaging in the world in ways that express compassion, perhaps by volunteering at shelters, donating to organizations, working on causes, etc. Additionally, engaging with others helps us to develop tolerance, patience, compassion, and wisdom. It’s also one of the most challenging areas of practice for many of us. All of the above comes into play while we are living our daily lives and interacting with others.

Those are the practices of secular Buddhists. What may or may not be included are rituals. Secular Buddhism in and of itself doesn’t have rituals, with the exception of regular sitting. However, as many secular Buddhists come from traditional Buddhist backgrounds, many incorporate some of the rituals they learned from previous traditions, such as counting mala beads or reciting text, doing prostrations, or lighting incense for meditation.

Some secular Buddhists avoid rituals for various reasons, and feel all the practices I mentioned above are really what’s important in Buddhist practice. There is no right or wrong when it comes to rituals. People have reasons for incorporating them into practice, or dismissing them.

When you read about Buddhist practice you will likely come across information on mindfulness and meditation more than anything else. This is likely because they are so integral for the rest of the practices to work and be integrated. If you aren’t mindful, it’s hard to practice right speech, for instance.

In summary, secular Buddhist practice is the same as traditional practices. We differ only in that our focus is on this life, and in this world. Regardless of what your thoughts are about rebirth or karma, what you practice today influences your tomorrow. No matter whether you feel death is the end of the line or the beginning of the next life, you have this life to work with, this suffering to understand.

What we all agree on is there is life before death, and this is where we practice.

If you have questions about the practices of secular Buddhists, please comment below. Also, please do share your practice!

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Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (6)

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  1. kirkmc says:

    I would add “study” to the above list. Not everyone reads books about Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist psychology, or reads suttas, but many do.

  2. Dana, all of what you outlined, together with the “study” aspect added by kirkmc (and probably other things that will be added in subsequent comments), serve well as a general summation of what it can mean to be a secular Buddhist. Personally, I would rank meditation, in the traditional sense of assuming the seven-point posture on a cushion, pretty far down the list in terms of my own practice. I “meditate” plenty, if that can include quiet concentration on a single subject. It happens when I’m driving to work, or sitting in my backyard, or waiting in a restaurant for my food to come. But I don;t often practice the traditional version of meditation. I’ve had it strongly suggested to me by some local Buddhists that my practice is therefore incomplete. I tend to think, though, that meditation has been overemphasized in Western Buddhist practice. The Eightfold path has seven other parts to it, each of which is a valid point to concentrate one’s efforts on. It might be that things like Appropriate Speech and Appropriate Effort are very similar to the religious teachings we are already accustomed to in the West, whereas traditional meditation practices seem so different. Maybe that’s why meditation occupies such a central place in Western Buddhism.

  3. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Bruce, you bring up some great points!

    Many people develop mindfulness, ethics and compassion, not through formal sitting, but through other means. One very popular one in this country is martial arts. Another is simply a concentrated interest in the world, as in many scientists.

    When I listen to Neil Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, as well as other less popular scientists, I’ve realized that many of them have developed powerful mindfulness, tolerance, appreciation, and compassion through the study of their files. All have a powerful sense of ethics and morality. I know Harris also has a meditation practice, and while many don’t consider Dawkins to be tolerant, I’ve been amazed by his calm when sitting across from someone as obnoxious and aggressive as Bill O’Reily.

    I think many secular Buddhist will agree that mindfulness in daily life can indeed be learned through daily life. I just want to put in the plug that sitting meditation allows for conditions that make developing mindfulness easier because you’re not in the thick of it so to speak. I’d advise all people to at least try sitting or moving meditation, but for many those aren’t going to work as well as, say, walking along the beach, through a forest, and even sitting at a stop light.

    Interestingly in the last year, I discovered I am learning all kinds of new information about how my mind works in learning math! I immediately came up against the brick wall of belief that I had to face, fears I had to get over, and I had to work with intention in a way I never had before. Now most people would not consider math a meditative practice, but I’ve learned so much from it, I have to call it a part of my practice!

    I think we are going to find in secular Buddhism that our idea of practice is going to be energized by new creative ways of thinking about it, as most of us are not stuck in doggedly following a formula.

    Kirk, thank you for bringing up reading too. Many secular Buddhists do have reading as a part of their practice, reading about traditional Buddhism, reading suttas, learning the history of those times, and doing some great critical work on what we’ve been traditionally fed versus new translations that are coming out. I’ve learned so much from the studying Mark and Linda are doing, as well as people like Batchelor and Peacock. I think over time there will be more material for secular Buddhist to read that is geared towards early Buddhism and translations without the religious aspects of early India.

  4. Dana, I agree with almost everything you wrote. The one part I have a hard time with is that you seem to imply there might be others who are at a similar level of obnoxiousness and aggressiveness as Bill O’Reily — I’m pretty sure he’s in a class by himself.

    I agree that sitting meditation can be very valuable. When I’m with a group, I have no problem meditating. I even attended a week-long silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock last year. I was sure beforehand that I would get a lot out of the dhamma talks (Stephen Batchelor), but had mixed feelings about spending hours every day in meditation. It turned out to be very productive and… well, I won’t go so far as to say “enjoyable,” but it was on the positive side of tolerable. However, I’ve never been able to get myself in the habit of devoting more that a couple of minutes here or there during the week to sitting (or walking) meditation when I’m on my own. I think this is something I want to work on. Meanwhile, I consider myself to be on the right path, even without that.

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