Three Paths for Secular Buddhists

| August 28, 2017 | 12 Comments

Introduction

As secular Buddhism has become an increasingly prominent trend in the U.S., it’s a good time to reflect on the diverse paths being taken by those of us who identify as secular Buddhists.  While these paths are not mutually exclusive and thus practitioners may be involved, to some extent, in all of them, they do represent distinct ways in which secular Buddhists are making a significant contribution to our society.

Currently, there are three broad approaches or paths for secular Buddhists: first, the project of reconstructing traditional Buddhism in order to create a modern version of the dharma; second, helping to develop a secular mindfulness movement rooted in Buddhist meditative practice as a key component of various therapeutic and educational practices; and third, the effort to incorporate the Buddha’s vital insights about human experience into a radical movement for human liberation and social transformation.

The first approach is primarily situated within Buddhism; the dharma – however reconstructed along secular lines – remains the center or foundation for understanding the world and for promoting human flourishing.  The other two approaches are not as dharma-centric; they involve the integration of key Buddhist insights into a broader set of social theories and practices, whether, as in the case of the second approach, to reform and humanize the existing society or, as in the case of the third approach, to transform and revolutionize existing institutions.

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism 2.0

The first approach or path has been developed with great clarity and depth by Stephen Batchelor, the most prominent voice of secular Buddhism. While he has often cautioned us against trying to establish an institution and set of beliefs which represent an “officially-sanctioned” secular Buddhism, Stephen believes that it’s crucial to identify the basic insights of Buddhism which are relevant to our contemporary world. At the same time, he has insisted that this process of discovering Buddhism’s essential core and its application in modern life should remain open and flexible, not be the basis for a new orthodoxy.[1]

Much of Stephen’s work in recent years has involved the progressive refinement and elaboration of this core. In his most recent formulation in “A Secular Buddhist”[2] Stephen contends that there are four core insights of Buddhism: 1) the principle of conditionality, 2) the practice of the four noble tasks (truths), 3) the perspective of mindful awareness, and 4) the power of self-reliance. These four elements are the foundation of what Stephen sees as a new “operating system”– Secular Buddhism 2.0 – of a dharma shorn of the ancient Indian metaphysical and soteriological beliefs which have been part of traditional Buddhist lineages.

Stephen has also put forward “Ten Theses of Secular Dharma” which are consistent with the four core insights and provide a framework to situate secular Buddhist perspective and practice in the modern world.[3]

The ten theses were the subject of a blog post by Mark Nickelbine on this website and led to a quite lively discussion about the meaning and value of each thesis.[4]  In the context of this essay how one interprets Thesis #10 – “A practitioner of the dharma aspires to nurture a culture of awakening that finds its inspiration in Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and secular sources alike” – will reflect, to a large extent, which of the three paths one is traveling.  Stephen and many other secular Buddhists find their main inspiration and ethical guidance in the dharma. While they believe that it’s vital to utilize non-Buddhist sources to develop a culture of awakening, the core foundation and practice is rooted in the dharma. For those following the other two paths, the non-Buddhist sources are equally if not more essential in developing a culture of flourishing.

Secular Mindfulness

While the main goal of the first path is to reconstruct the dharma for our contemporary world, the primary emphasis of some secular Buddhists is to play an active role in the development of secular mindfulness as a theory and practice in modern life.  Rooted in certain aspects of Buddhist meditative practice, secular mindfulness has emerged as an incredibly important cultural and social trend, having a significant impact on medicine, psychology, and education, as well as organizational theories and practices. For many secular Buddhists, involvement in secular mindfulness programs in these various fields is the most important way in which one can bring the Buddha’s insights about human experience into a vital relationship with our contemporary society.

It’s not my purpose here to evaluate the relationship between secular mindfulness and Buddhism. There’s been a lot of controversy and heated discussion about this topic – in particular, the debate over the critique leveled by some Buddhists that secular mindfulness represents a harmful dilution of the Buddha’s radical message of transformation and is, instead, being used to reinforce the basic patterns of individualism, consumerism, and hierarchy in a capitalist society.[5]

My sense is that, overall, secular mindfulness has had a more complex effect and that its future role in society will depend as much on other developments (e.g. the extent to which an unbridled capitalism remains dominant) as on anything intrinsic to secular mindfulness programs. What is clear is that most secular Buddhists who are active in such programs believe that secular mindfulness can contribute to both individual well-being and a more humane society, insofar as less reactive, healthier, and more compassionate individuals are an important foundation for achieving social reforms.

I think it’s also useful to recognize that, for some individuals, secular mindfulness programs can initiate a process of increasingly robust engagement with meditative practices, a greater sense of wisdom, and a heightened recognition of our common humanity. As Robert Wright has noted in his recent book, Why Buddhism Is True, even if one starts off meditating to reduce stress, one begins to gain incrementally an experiential knowledge of some core Buddhist insights about the nature of the self and our relationship with other beings.[6]  Rather than pose a binary opposition of secular mindfulness as a stress reduction method versus Buddhism as a path to complete enlightenment, Wright asserts – and I agree with him on this – that we should think in terms of greater or lesser progress in freeing ourselves from reactivity.

Secular Buddhism and Radical Politics

Like secular mindfulness advocates, those secular Buddhists who embrace the third path are focused on bringing core Buddhist insights into the larger arena of society. The difference is that, while secular mindfulness programs are primarily oriented toward improving individual well-being and enhancing the development of human potential, the goal of the third approach is to integrate Buddhist understandings of human suffering and our potential for change into a movement for radical, social transformation.

Recognizing that there is not one, “right” path for secular Buddhists, based on my own life experiences and views, I feel the greatest affinity with this third approach. Like other political activists who have been influenced by Buddhism, I have come to realize that liberatory political perspectives, such as a humanistic Marxism, lack a crucial dimension: the recognition that human beings cause suffering to themselves and to others not just because of the harmful effects of social conditioning, but, in part, because, at an existential-psychological level, we have a proclivity to experience ourselves and the world in ways which cause suffering.

This is not just a theoretical gap. To the extent that the existential-psychological component of human suffering is not grasped, we are less likely to see how even the most well-intentioned pursuit of social justice and equality can be damaged by our tendency to crave (in the forms of both desire and aversion) and our inability to see beyond what Tara Brach has called the small, egoic self.[7] The sad phenomenon of radical movements becoming authoritarian or succumbing to internal conflicts is due, in part, to what Buddhists have called the three defilements of greed, anger, and delusion.

Thus, the Buddha’s existential-psychological understanding of human suffering and his inspiring ethical vision of relationships founded on kindness and compassion are essential elements for creating a transformative movement oriented toward the full flourishing of human beings and a just society.  It is the role of Buddhists – both secularly and traditionally-inclined – to contribute this understanding and vision to the broader movement.  And that is precisely what organizations like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and individual Buddhists who are also radical activists have been attempting to do.

At the same time, a contemporary liberation movement – which needs to be both democratic and radical – requires other theories and practices which Buddhism cannot provide, including a robust theory of psychology which recognizes human development in all its complexities and conflicts, a radical social theory which grasps the mutual interaction of individuals and social institutions, and a critical perspective on gender and other forms of oppression. In this respect, secular Buddhism is only one component of a broader set of liberatory theories and practices.

Conclusion

We are just at the beginning of the development of secular Buddhism, so it would be folly to try to make a prediction about the future development of each path or whether new, secular Buddhist paths will emerge.  However, based on the significant impact that secular Buddhists have already had within Buddhism and the larger society in such a relatively short period, there is no doubt that secular Buddhists will continue to be a vital part of our society’s most crucial conversations and movements.

[1] Stephen’s discussion with Ted Meissner on Ted’s podcast (Episode 270, March 5, 2017) explores this point, among other topics. http://secularbuddhism.org/2017/03/05/episode-270-stephen-batchelor-secular-buddhism-imagining-the-dharma-in-an-uncertain-world/

[2] Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” in Tricycle, 22 (1), Fall 2012. The article is included in Stephen’s latest book, a collection of essays, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World (2017), New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 158-164.

[3] Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (2015), New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 321-322.

[4] Mark Nickelbine, http://secularbuddhism.org/2015/11/23/batchelors-ten-theses-of-secular-dharma/

[5] Two of the most prominent critiques of secular mindfulness based on this view are Jeff Wilson’s Mindful America (2014), Oxford University Press and Ronald Purser and David Loy’s “Beyond McMindfulness,” in The Huffington Post, July 1, 2013.

[6] Robert Wright, Why Buddhism Is True (2017), New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 254.

[7] Tara Brach True Refuge (2012), New York: Bantam, p.20.

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About the Author ()

I have been a political and labor activist for over 40 years. In 2010, I became interested in Buddhism and began a regular vipassana meditation practice. As an agnostic and activist, I am particularly interested in exploring how to connect secular Buddhism with a radical political theory and practice.

Comments (12)

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  1. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Michael — My immediate reaction to this piece was to regard your identification of “three paths” as somewhat dubious. I am a democratic socialist with an abiding interest in the Pali canon who also believes that any philosophy or movement that needs to insist on the authority of its founder is headed into decline. I’d prefer, perhaps, “tendencies” rather than “paths.”

    There are problems with all three tendencies, and a lot depends on the individual practitioner. They need not be mutually exclusive. Properly applied (something not necessarily easy – it is may be useful to discuss the impediments inherent in each) all can lead to what I take to be your main point: “Like other political activists who have been influenced by Buddhism, I have come to realize that liberatory political perspectives, such as a humanistic Marxism, lack a crucial dimension: the recognition that human beings cause suffering to themselves and to others not just because of the harmful effects of social conditioning, but, in part, because, at an existential-psychological level, we have a proclivity to experience ourselves and the world in ways which cause suffering.” This also applies to personal liberation.

    I’d also add that once this is understood, some pitfuls in political activism can more easily be avoided. One is the tendency to become intoxicated with (attached to?) the Cause, the Idea, rather than real people, genuinely appreciated as individuals. As the mystic and social activist Simone Weil put it, “Attention [to individuals and their individual needs] is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

    • Michael Slott says:

      Michael,

      I struggled a bit with what to call the three main ways that I think that secular Buddhists are making an impact on Buddhism and the larger society. Perhaps “paths” connotes too much a fixed direction without any interaction with other paths, which is not what I was trying to convey. So, in that sense, your suggestion to use “tendencies” instead makes sense.

      I also agree that dependence on the authority of a founder of perspective or movement, whether it be the Buddha, Freud, or Marx, leads to dogmatism and an unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and the complexities of individual human beings. I’m more interested in trying to engage with and integrate the essential insights of various emancipatory perspectives than knowing the “correct” interpretation of any founder.

      Finally, I am interested to know if you think the three paths/tendencies I laid out accurately described what secular Buddhists are focused on, or do you think my characterization was faulty?

      Best,

      Mike

      • m.miller says:

        As I read the original piece, I interpreted the three “paths” as three possible starting points and visualized them more as “tributaries” to a larger stream. A person could start in any one of these tributaries and eventually merge with the others. Only after the tributaries have merged would the stream reach its fullest force.

        The journey I have personally been on (and I’m still quite new at) started with tributary number three in this article – an ethical orientation generally pointed towards the reduction of unnecessary stress in the world around me (as well as within me). To make inroads toward that general goal, there is a need for some sort of methodology which brought me to tributary number 1 from the article – developing an understanding of the dharma from a Westernized, secular perspective. Of course, a methodology is no good without understanding the methods that would be involved, so those tributaries merged once again in my interest in cultivating a sense of mindfulness through meditation and other techniques.

        However, it is easily conceivable that a person would have started with mindfulness (tributary 2) only to gain interest in the dharma to fully develop that mindfulness – since mindfulness is only one part of the eightfold path and all parts reinforce each other (tributary 1). Once they were engaged with right view and right intention, such a person would likely see that their suffering is integrated with the suffering around them and could lead to an increased interest in social transformation (tributary 3).

        The other possible benefit in visualizing these starting points as tributaries is that, after the tributaries have merged, the stream can diverge again. Thus, the force of the movement could have a general direction, but each practitioner can still follow a distinct path as they move – avoiding the idea that there is one “right way” to understand or practice the dharma.

  2. Michael Slott says:

    m. miller – Thanks for your comment. Your metaphor of three tributaries is another interesting way of conceptualizing the three paths of secular Buddhists. While I am unclear about what the main river to which the tributaries are connected would be called (perhaps the “project of human flourishing”), I do think that understanding the paths as tributaries reinforces the idea that these three paths mutually interact with each other and with a broader human effort to make our lives better.

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Yes, Michael, I think you have usefully identified 3 tendencies in secular Buddhism. But there is, I think, a lot of overlap between them, as in my case — differences may often be just a question of emphasis.

    This is likely especially true among those who identify as secular Buddhists and “fellow travelers”, as opposed to, for example mindfulness practitioners who avoid or downplay a Buddhist connection. I’ve noticed that almost everyone who comments on this site and mentions politics and social issues would seem to identify as left of centre, to have at least good intentions (if not always very sophisticated political analysis.

    “pure” mindfulness practitioners, I suspect, are more likely to insist that their practice is purely personal and therapeutic. We’ve discussed around here the extent to which the contemporary mindfulness path can lead to a broader social perspective — I believe it can, but the therapeutic approach probably can be an impediment to a broader perspective. I suspect that those who have included some explicit Buddhism in the mix are more open to embracing a social perspective, even if they started with a therapeutic approach — not necessarily because the suttas have clearer social content, but just because curiosity about the suttas as well as contemporary mindfulness shows an openness that a purely therapeutic approach may (intentionally or not) discourage.

    There are some truly egregious examples of misappropriation of mindfulness in popular and corporate culture. But I think it’s mistake to believe that anyone who have really understood even part of the mindfulness/Buddhist message are fooled.
    ,

    • Michael Slott says:

      Well said, Michael. I would just add one point to your comment that “I suspect that those who have included some explicit Buddhism in the mix are more open to embracing a social perspective, even if they started with a therapeutic approach — not necessarily because the suttas have clearer social content, but just because curiosity about the suttas as well as contemporary mindfulness shows an openness that a purely therapeutic approach may (intentionally or not) discourage.”

      I think it’s also likely that someone who sees the Buddhist roots of mindfulness will likely recognize the important value of an ethics of care and compassion as well as meditative experiences in living a good life, and this ethical stance will lead to social engagement in some form, whether as service or activism.

  4. Andrew Schaad says:

    Michael, I think a good case could be made for another approach to secular Buddhism where the emphasis is compassion and loving kindness. Compassion and loving kindness is intrinsic to the three paths that you have outlined, but my sense is that this fourth approach is crystalizing strongly over the past few years.

    For example, Thupten Jinpa developed the Compassion Cultivation Training at the Center for Compassion and Altruism and Education Research at Stanford University. Also, the recent publication of several books seems to support my thesis that there is a somewhat recognizable path. Matthieu Ricard’s Altruism, Jinpa’s A Fearless Heart, and Beyond Religion by the Dalai Lama. The training and the books are rooted in Buddhist practice but all clearly target a secular audience.

    To me, this seems like a shift in emphasis, maybe also in response to the potentially decontextualized practice of mindfulness that could lose its ethical ground.

    • Michael Slott says:

      Andrew,

      Thanks for highlighting this trend, which I hadn’t considered when writing the blog. Compassion training offered in a secular form could be seen as a fourth way in which secular Buddhists are having an impact. Alternatively, we could see this type of training and secular mindfulness training as two modes or “wings” of the secular application of core Buddhist insights within society. Many Buddhist meditation teachers use the metaphor of two wings of a bird to describe the two basic attitudes/methods needed in meditation. For example, this is from a Tara Brach blog from 2012: “The two parts of genuine acceptance —seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion—are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.” http://blog.tarabrach.com/2012/05/unfolding-wings-of-acceptance.html

      • Andrew Schaad says:

        Michael,

        You are right, compassion training can be considered as part of secular mindfulness training. This may be a matter of emphasis. It appears to me, however, that the secular form of compassion training – while retaining its Buddhist roots, e.g. Lojong, the Four Immeasurables, etc. – is also strongly influenced by the finding of cognitive and contemplative neuroscience and the attempt to find universal ethical values that transcend any single approach.

        Personally, I view compassion training more as part of your third approach. Although, my sense is also that it could be viewed as a meta-approach which permeates the other three.

  5. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Michael —

    Thanks for quoting my blog post; it would be great if your citation could have the correct spelling of my name — hundreds of people over the years have wasted time looking me up under the “Ns”.

    While your division can be useful as an analytic tool, I think the scene on the ground is more complex and interrelated. For example, while Batchelor and others may be trying to define “Buddhism 2.0” the actual evolution of Buddhism in modern societies is not in the hands of any set of individuals. I think the greatest value of Wilson’s work is how he documents this process and situates the mindfulness movement as an iteration of Buddhism’s evolution. I would make the same argument for engaged Buddhism, which emerges from Buddhism’s emphasis on compassion reacting with Enlightenment values of freedom and justice. Batchelor spends a good deal of time writing about the implication of his ideas for societal change.

    As I’ve argued elsewhere, the dharma is not a set of ideas or practices, but the capacity of the human organism to achieve introspective self-awareness and to use that capacity to engage in self-directed neuroplasticity. As such, we should expect that capacity to express itself throughout history and cultures, and I believe we have. It’s this capacity for wisdom and awakening that are at the heart of all three of your streams, and however many others we might want to define.

    • Michael Slott says:

      Mark,
      Apologies for ignoring the “K” in your last name and also for responding in not so timely a fashion. I’ve been checking the website to see if anyone has posted comments, but have been doing this less frequently as time has passed. (A technical question: Is there any way that I could be notified by email when a comment is posted?) Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I agree with you that the three paths I sketched out don’t represent totally separate and divergent approaches. As I said in the blog, “….these paths are not mutually exclusive and thus practitioners may be involved, to some extent, in all of them…..”

      On the other hand, I think it’s helpful to recognize that secular Buddhists are taking different approaches, each of which has a significant impact on one’s views, practice, and engagement with society. Yes, as you say, all three approaches presuppose and highly value our human “capacity for wisdom and awakening,” but whether or not the suttas are seen as foundational and whether or not one’s practice is aimed at reforming or transforming social institutions has important implications for how we, as secular Buddhists, live our lives.

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