What is Secular Buddhism?

| March 6, 2017 | 16 Comments

This is a short experiment, a video I’ve cobbled together and put up on YouTube on the question “What is secular Buddhism?” where I try to explain both what it is, and how it has come about historically. It’s quite short, seven and a half minutes long, so I don’t go into a whole lot of detail. For example I didn’t mention Stephen Batchelor’s multiple contributions, perhaps because they are so obvious! Nevertheless I hope anyone not familiar with his work will look for his recent books, or listen to the podcast interview with him that Ted has recently uploaded. I found Confession of a Buddhist Atheist to be particularly interesting.

Further info on Ledi Sayadaw’s relation to contemporary secular Buddhism

Further info on the relation between secular humanism and secular Buddhism

The Dalai Lama’s two books recommending secular ethics:

Ethics for the New Millennium
Beyond Religion

Thanks for stopping by!

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (16)

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  1. Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

    This is perfect, Doug. It touches on so much we’ve been discussing and looks exactly like the videos that Princeton puts out. Thank you.

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    As you point out, Doug, secular Buddhism can be regarded as a humanism. But, apart from interest in some ancient texts, how does it differ (and differ usefully) from other forms of humanism? I think the most important difference lies in the ethical approach of Buddhism. Approach, not specific ethical rules or systems, ancient or modern. There is something in this approach that potentially adds a dimension to humanistic ethics, which it sorely needs if it is to combat the moral muddle we seem to have got ourselves in. I’m not sure just how to articulate the difference. Provisionally, I’ll just observe that utilitarianism, which is perhaps the ethics most typically associated with secular humanism, makes the happiness of the individual the foundation of ethics. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but there is not much concern, at least in what might be called popular utilitarianism, with either the meaning of “happiness,” or the status of the “individual.” This, I think, reflects a fundamental weakness of secular humanist ethics, but these concerns are very near the core of the Buddhist project.

    There used to be a slogan on the French Left that “humanism needs socialism.” I’d suggest that our slogan could well be “humanist ethics needs Buddhism.” Richard Gombrich has argued that Gotama ethicized Indian thought. He did so at a time when there was a crisis in the mores of Indian society as it moved away from tribal and village culture toward a pan-Indian political and commercial culture. The cultural shifts of our own time may require a similar reformulation of ethics, to which Buddhism may once again contribute.

    PS I enjoyed your video, and hope to see more. I also hope, however, that you will continue to make concessions to those of us who are hopelessly print-oriented. If mothing else, it’s easier to quote the written word when we want to point out the error of your ways 🙂

    • mufi says:

      Hear hear.

      I’m reminded of Damien Keown’s explanation of Buddhist ethics as a member of the virtue ethics family of ethical theories (notwithstanding a consequentialist turn among latter-day Buddhist schools). More recently, Owen Flanagan cited Keown in agreement, though Flanagan took greater pains (if I recall correctly) to distinguish the Buddha’s set of virtues and vices from, say, Aristotle’s. They do, after all, offer very different models of wisdom and their ethics are no exception.

      With this understanding in mind, one could very well expand on your premise with “humanist ethics needs virtue ethics, Buddhist or otherwise.” Indeed, modern and secular Stoics, like Massimo Pigliucci (a previous podcast guest here), seem to agree.

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Mufi, I agree that Buddhist ethics is essentially a virtues ethics. That, I think, is part of its appeal and contemporary utility. Here’s another good discussion — James Whitehill, Buddhist Ethics in a Western Context: The Virtues Approach ( http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/04/whitehil.pdf ) This is one of a short collection of papers I’ve kept on my hard drive for years now.

    I doubt there is much that’s useful in Buddhism or Buddhist inspired discourse that couldn’t be found elsewhere,and the similarities with stoicism (and Epicreanism, not to mention some modern philosophy and psychology) run deep.

    Still, I think that anatta, particularly if understood as the notion that we build our self-identity (thus moral character) from the things we attach to, is a particularly good antedote to the ills of a society which constantly tries to tell us what we need, what we absolutely must possess to reach some sort of fulfillment, and usually that we need more of whatever it is. Creating craving and attachment have become industries. Most of us, most of the time, allow ourselves to shaped quite mindlessly by incessent external forces I also suspect that Buddhism is more available than stoicism, for example — more likely to have broad influence.

    • mufi says:

      Michael, bearing in mind our overall agreement on the missing value of virtue ethics in modern secular humanism, I suspect that many secular humanists of European descent will have an easier time relating to Stoicism than to Buddhism. That’s not necessarily an argument in its favor – after all, they may also find it easiest to relate to some crass form of hedonism, be it ancient or modern – but I choose Stoicism as my analog here because I think, of all the Western/Greco-Roman schools, it seems to have most in common with Buddhism.

      That said, just as CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) and MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) offer different tools in the domain of clinical therapy, both of which aim at better health outcomes, Stoicism and Buddhism offer different tools in the domain of ancient philosophy, which (in contrast to much of academic philosophy) aims at achieving a kind of “good life” (i.e. flourishing, eudaimonia, or nibbana).

      Personally, I think it’s just fine to keep both tools in one’s kit and to avail oneself of either – say, as a skillful means, depending on the situation – but then I’m neither a philosopher nor a dharma teacher.

      And, while I don’t think one will find an analog to Buddhist anatta in Stoicism exactly, one can find in Stoicism analogous warnings about the downsides of unbridled passion and the upsides of temperance (sophrosyne) and of disciplining one’s desires. I dare say, if we were all to live up to Stoic ethical standards (or Buddhist ones, of course), then the industries of “craving and attachment” wouldn’t stand a chance. 😉

  4. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    “Personally, I think it’s just fine to keep both tools in one’s kit and to avail oneself of either – say, as a skillful means, depending on the situation – but then I’m neither a philosopher nor a dharma teacher.” (mufi)

    Agree absolutely.

    I also agree that stoic notions of temperance & duty undermine craving and attachment, but think that the Buddhist critique of individual identity perhaps goes more directly to the root, is more radical in the literal sense. Having said that, Buddhist ethics, after centuries of commentary and controversy, have become less clear and transparent. The price, I suppose of remaining a living tradition and a religion. On the third hand, even for “humanists of European descent,” stoicism seems rather more austere and intellectual than Buddhism — though perhaps for the wrong reasons (cf. “religion” above) — to have as much contemporary influence as Buddhism.

    Of course, hope for either may be rather fanciful, and any successful new ethics will no doubt draw on a variety of traditions and be unlike any of them.

    One last question, though — Are Buddhists more capable of joy than stoics?

    “Live in joy, In love, Even among those who hate.” (Dhammapada)

    • mufi says:

      Michael, I won’t even attempt to answer your question, but I will add that, among Greco-Roman schools, the Stoics tended to prioritize freedom from “unhealthy passions” (apatheia) over and above achieving positive mental states, like tranquility or equanimity (ataraxia), which it saw as a “natural consequence that occurs in a person who pursues virtue” (source).

      Also, since justice is a fundamental virtue in Stoicism, the notion of a socially “engaged Stoic” is redundant and one reason why I think Westerners – particularly those with activist instincts – might relate to it more readily than to relatively quietistic traditional Buddhists and (among ancient Western schools) Epicureans.

      As far as Stoic quotes on joy, here’s one from Marcus Aurelius: “Know the joy of life by piling good deed on good deed until no rift or cranny appears between them.” Easier said than done, I know, but who ever said it’s easy to be virtuous?

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Addendum: Two things I should have mentioned — First, since Doug’s video started this conversation, I should reference his fuller discussion of the topic here (http://secularbuddhism.org/2012/11/29/secular-humanism-and-secular-buddhism/ ), where he distinguishes classical virtue ethics from Buddhism in part by the latter’s focus on psychology, thus with the project (I add) of self-construction. I don’t mention this to enlist him in my own cause (which he may not want to endorse at all), but just to acknowledge his (well, almost always) lucid commentary.

    But (Second) if I was seriously interested in pursuing a claim that there is something uniquely useful in Buddhism, I’d probably try to draw some sort of implication from the fact that the one thing about Buddhism that Pigliucci seems to have misunderstood in his piece comparing it with stoicism ( http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.ca/2013/02/buddhism-epicureanism-and-stoicism.html )was the doctrine of no-self, at least until Doug explained it to him in a comment! 🙂

  6. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks guys, very useful and interesting discussion here. As you know, I’m a fan of Stoicism generally though my knowledge of Stoic philosophy is limited. Agreed with Michael that it’s anatta that distinguishes Buddhism from Stoicism, and at least in my estimation makes the former more philosophically and psychologically incisive, although not without its own problems of course.

    I may eventually do a short talk distinguishing secular Buddhism from secular humanism, along the lines of the essay you mention. My sense is that the main distinction between them lies in the practice aspect of Buddhism; the cognitive/philosophical nature of secular humanism is, I think, protean enough to allow for a Buddhist take on things, at least if understood in a secular-Buddhist manner.

    Re. ethics, I’ve argued (in my paper with Justin Whitaker in Phil. E&W, following a paper by the scholar Abraham Vélez de Cea) that early Buddhist ethics has aspects of all major Western theories: it is at times consequentialist, at times a virtue ethics, and even at times Kantian. While I’m willing to agree with Keown that virtue ethics is the best rough understanding, any attempt to shoehorn Buddhism into such Western categories as these should be seen as only a first step and not some finally correct box. I think Buddhist ethics is best understood on its own terms, as suggesting a fourfold task of understanding dukkha, abandoning craving, realizing awakening, and following the path.

    As for future essays Michael, I do intend to write from time to time. My major problem with writing is that it is very, very time consuming and requires access to a library of primary and secondary source material which is not always with me. Ideally I’d like to be able to post more material on the site, which means material that is less time consuming to produce and frankly less time consuming to consume as well. I suspect that most folks on the site are not that interested in the minutiae of scholarly disagreements … at least not as much as I am!

    • mufi says:


      I think Buddhist ethics is best understood on its own terms…

      Couldn’t one say that about any domain of knowledge? Yet no domain that I know of completely defies categorization.

      • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

        Yes; in fact I’d speculate this tends to be the process we undertake with new information: we begin by fitting it into our preexisting categories, and then as we learn more about it, we also begin to understand how it doesn’t quite fit those categories.

        Again, not saying Buddhist ethics completely defies categorization, far from it.

  7. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I seem to recall that Caroline Rhys Davids made a reasonably good case that Buddhist ethics is utilitarian — but that may reveal as much about English Edwardian students of Buddhism as about Buddhism itself. There’s a general lesson here about applying categories and concepts devised for modern purposes to the thought of other ages. In this case, I think we have to remember that the modern notion of virtue ethics was set up as a counter to the presumed failure of consequentialist ethics to consider to effect of one’s decisions on one’s own character. The distinction had fish to fry (not the least was a Christian concern about care of the soul in a godless age) other than just whether there is value in Bentham’s “felicitous calculation.” This is not something that likely troubled Gotama very much — “of course,” he could well have said, “the virtuous person is concerned with the actual, predictable, consequences of actions, so where’s the problem?” He would probably have been much more interested in justifying ethics in terms of the flourishing of both self & others rather than in terms of fulfilling Bhraman ritual requirements.

    Still, I think that on balance, it is very much to the point to group Buddhism (with an * perhaps) in the “family” of virtue ethics, which are united by concern with cultivating an ethical character or pattern of ethical activity.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Agreed. This is why I think that on balance virtue ethics is a good fit. But I don’t think the Buddha cared about foundations in the sense of reducing ethics to some conceptual framework like virtues or consequences or rules, etc. I think he would consider that to be an undertaking not liable to lead to dispassion, etc.

  8. mufi says:

    Doug and Michael: Thanks for your thoughtful replies, as usual. I always learn something from you both!

    I agree that the Buddha would likely have rejected any reduction of his ethics “to some conceptual framework” (unless perhaps we mention that said framework is apiece with his Dharma) and I would also agree that our doing so is of limited value.

    Still, if we’re on the topic of what modern secular humanism has or has not been lacking, and therefore how and why Buddhism can fill a void in modern secular life, then it is fair game to mention other candidates (if only in passing) that meet the same criteria.

    In this sense, speaking in broad strokes about ethical theories, like virtue ethics, may be like speaking of common biological features in convergent evolution. We know that both birds and bats can fly, though their “wings differ substantially in construction” and they differ in other more significant ways. Nonetheless, they can fly, while so many other species cannot, because of those common features.

    Would the Buddha have been bored by such comparisons? found them counter-productive? If so, then I suspect that many modern secular humanists will eventually find his Dharma to be too constricting and incurious (if not anti-intellectual) to be fully honored in spirit.

  9. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    For Gotama, the founations of ethicalbehaviour were perhaps obvious enogh to require no elaborate formulation: “Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.”

    But this doesn’t quite mean he wasn’t erecting implied categories or making distinctions. The quote above follows assurance that the good life is available even if there is no afterlife to reward good behaviour. However, his distinctions (eg viryue vs consequences) were not those that troubled later ages, and I suppose hewas agitated by distinctions that were missed in different historical contexts.

    Re convergent evolution — a useful analogy, I agree. It’s interesting that there are so many parallels (though also differences, as Doug’s latest video blog demonstrates) between Greek and Indian thougt c. 500 BC. I think the convergence reflects similar environmental influences (just as fins on whales and fish evolved under similar selective pressures)– in this case, the decline of tribal, insular society, the rise of a more complexsocio-economic order etc.

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