Is Secular Buddhism an Oxymoron?

| October 16, 2017 | 15 Comments

It may seem like “secular Buddhism” is an oxymoron, a kind of contradiction in terms. But this depends on how we understand secularism, and how we understand Buddhism. Both concepts have a wide range of senses, which we will explore.

 

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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. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (15)

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  1. Jason Malfatto says:

    Doug: The label is not perfect, as you point out, but then what label is? What’s more interesting (to me, anyways) is how one explains it to interested newcomers and how one defends it to (usually orthodox) challengers. You’re doing a very fine job on both counts, in my opinion.

    That said, there’s a part of me that’s sympathetic to orthodox critics – not because I share their conviction in the traditional karma/samsara/nirvana narrative, of which we are both skeptical – but rather because I find it difficult to understand many Early Buddhist Texts (EBT’s) without it (e.g. its cosmological and soteriological themes). Inasmuch as I focus more on practice and less on study, the problem is mitigated but never entirely avoided.

    So I reckon the problem with the label is just a proxy for a deeper problem – one that’s shared by any attempt to reconcile ancient with modern philosophy, while also claiming continuity within a tradition (like modern Stoicism). And the problem seems to invite more strife, when the tradition survives as a major world religion (as Buddhism, but not Stoicism, does).

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Jason and thanks for the question. I guess to an extent any secular project of the kind I discuss in the video will always be at some tension with religious impulses; this is what we see in US political history for example. Insofar as we are opening up a window for those with varied backgrounds to approach practice, we will be opening up a window for folks to disagree. One can see that as a weakness, but I prefer to see it as a strength, so long as it can be maintained with relative kindness and equanimity.

      For myself, while I do agree that many of the EBTs are shot through with supernaturalist themes, I don’t find any tension in setting them to one side and working on the path without them. It’s still one foot in front of the other, here and now.

      And I also look forward to dialogue with more traditional believers and practitioners, with whom I’ve almost always had good experiences. Again, one can look at the depth of the surviving tradition as a weakness, but I prefer to look at it as a strength: there are literally thousands of very, very accomplished practitioners and knowledgeable scholars (if not necessarily at the level of a Richard Gombrich or an Anālayo) with whom one can practice in any number of countries around the world. We aren’t in the circumstance of having to create a tradition entirely de novo.

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        We aren’t in the circumstance of having to create a tradition entirely de novo.

        Agreed. I guess my point is that there are pros and cons to our situation.

        A pro – one that’s perhaps most relevant to post-Abrahamic secular humanists – is that the Buddha-Dharma offers an alternative tradition to the one that we and/or our parents rejected. And it’s a tradition whose earliest teachings are (in varying degrees) easier to reconcile with a modern outlook, even as they pose challenges to some of its features.

        A con – one that’s shared by virtually all ancient traditions known to the modern world – is that aging better than others is not necessarily the same as aging well. It depends on how much has changed since its origins and how much that change represents genuine progress. Those who hew most closely to the tradition’s earliest forms can remind us just how much has changed, though reading canonical texts can have the same effect, I find.

        Setting the cons to one side is indeed a live option, but it also rings of compartmentalization or avoidance. I prefer to keep both pros and cons on the table, even if that means bearing a greater degree of doubt about the Dharma than the Buddha would have advised. I consider him a wonderful role model, nonetheless.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Thanks for the reply, Jason. I’m not talking about avoiding the problems. Indeed in videos such as these and in many of my blog posts I tackle those problems, and my disagreements with tradition, head on. But it’s one thing to find problems and deal with them and another to allow those problems to get one bogged down in minutiae and doubt. If one finds that one is doing the latter, best to find some other way to spend one’s time.

          I suggest using what is manifestly beneficial in the tradition to move forward in one’s practice.

          • Jason Malfatto says:

            I suggest using what is manifestly beneficial in the tradition to move forward in one’s practice.

            Sure, though I’d say that’s easier advice to follow as far as daily contemplative/ethical practice goes (e.g. mindfulness & lovingkindness meditation). That much I learned from MBSR, which eschews canonical texts and concepts like no-self and emptiness, not to mention the grand narrative of karma/samsara/nirvana I mentioned above. Secular Buddhism is presumably “thicker” than that.

            But I certainly agree that you do not avoid Buddhism’s problems. Sorry if my words insinuated that in my last reply.

            • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

              Thanks again Jason. For myself, I find practices around non-self to be particularly beneficial, and as the Buddha uses notions of kamma in the early texts it can be understood as a stand-in for ethical action and its fruits. That is, kamma can be a sort of explanatory placeholder for the simple notion that skillful action tends to lead to benefit and unskillful action tends to lead to harm. It implies much more than this as well of course in the EBTs, but it implies at least this, and this is something we can work with in daily practice. And so on. There is a lot beneficial to work with besides mindfulness and lovingkindness, fantastic though those are.

              • Jason Malfatto says:

                Thanks, Doug.

                I now seem to recall our having some version of this conversation years ago (while I was still posting under my ‘mufi’ nickname). That one reached a “to each their own” conclusion. At the risk of committing ourselves to an infinite loop (samsara), I’ll add that what I’ve found ‘manifestly beneficial’, before and since, hews very closely to what I learned in MBSR, which is why I mentioned it earlier.

                But I imagine that the experience may be quite different to those located in or near a secular sangha (or, what’s closest to it, a Western insight meditation community), where words & concepts like non-self and karma act as socially binding currency, as they do in online forums like this one, only on a more regular face-to-face basis.

                Lacking those sustained relationships, however, I find these ‘thick’ terms are more of a mixed bag. It’s usually more productive, I find, to speak and think about moral consequences, rather than about ‘karma’, or about the transient nature of phenomenal experience, rather than about ‘non-self’, etc. It’s not that I can’t do this hermeneutical work; it’s just an extra unnecessary step in maintaining an already challenging practice.

                I guess that much leaves us with another cliché conclusion: “your mileage may vary.” 😉

  2. m.miller says:

    While “secular Buddhist” may seem like an oxymoron, I think it’s also quite ironic that this is an issue to begin with since putting so much emphasis on a label would appear (at least on its face) to be a type of clinging to what “I” am – a notion that seems antithetical to Buddhism.

    Related to that, labels are always an inadequate shadow of the bigger concepts they try to represent. To me, the term “secular Buddhist” probably isn’t the most accurate since I don’t consider myself a Buddhist in that I “believe” in the Buddha and take his word as infallible. Rather, I think there were beneficial insights the Buddha had which are still relevant today in guiding my day-to-day practice of living. Because of that, “Buddhist-informed Humanist” or “Dharmic-Humanism” may be a better descriptor of the approach I currently follow. I see Humanism as a unifying philosophy with broader goals and aspirations than Buddhism alone has and, as such, I would consider Humanism the foundation or grand schema for my approach to the world. However, Humanism by itself doesn’t offer a methodology by which to approach those broad aspirations – a gap being bridged by my emerging understanding of the Dharma.

    To date, I haven’t quite found a perfect fit for a Sangha that jives entirely with this approach. However, between this site, americanhumanist.org, naturalism.org, and the occasional interaction with a Unitarian Church (when I’m in a town where there is one) I find communities with enough overlap in their approaches to be comfortable in continuing to expand my understanding of both Humanism and the Dharma. The best fit I have found was attending a meditation session and Dharma talk at the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism in St. Louis. Sadly, I can’t make it to St. Louis very often and the Center’s website doesn’t spear to have been very active since 2015.

    Having said that, thank you for keeping this site active and engaged. It has been of immeasurable help in developing my understanding of the Dharma.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for that, m.miller. Actually we are pretty much in agreement! I certainly don’t believe the Buddha was infallible (indeed I doubt many thoughtful Buddhists, even traditional ones, would go that far). And as for humanism and Buddhism, I wrote a blog post here:

      http://secularbuddhism.org/2012/11/29/secular-humanism-and-secular-buddhism/

      … and made a video awhile back that may be of interest to you.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yd1rCCWX0bo

      • m.miller says:

        Thank you for the links. I had seen both the video and the article previously but it was valuable to revisit both and reflect on how my thinking and practice have changed since first viewing them. If you were to revisit the article (written in 2012) today, what would you add or change?

        The area where I am most struggling the most in in developing my practice is meditation. What resources would this community (yourself and the visitors to this site) recommend for trying to develop that practice keeping in mind that where I live is devoid of any Buddhist mediation groups (secular or otherwise)? The only major local options I have for meditation groups are all focused on TM – which doesn’t seem to fit with the type of development I’m really looking for.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Hi m.miller, I’m not sure what substantively I would change in the article if I were to rewrite it now. The video is much more recent so that should give you an idea of how I’m thinking about things nowadays, though I don’t think there’s a whole lot different.

          There is an SBA practice circle that meets online once a week or so, it’s often mentioned on the front page here, so if that interests you as a way of keeping up your meditation practice I’d recommend it. It may also help to keep your eyes out for local MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) classes. The folks who teach such classes are often capable of, and interested in, teaching regular mindfulness meditation in an ongoing fashion. You can also practice on your own. My most recent video on Five Keys to Sticking With Practice may be useful since I go over some of that.

          http://secularbuddhism.org/2017/10/23/five-keys-to-sticking-with-practice/

        • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

          As Doug mentioned, there is our live online Practice Circle on the second and fourth Sunday evenings of every month. In addition, he mentioned MBSR, or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I will be offering that in the coming year as a live online course on a donation basis, too, and that will be advertised here and on our Facebook page.

        • Jason Malfatto says:

          m.miller: You sound like me, except I’ve been visiting this site semi-regularly for over five years now and my situation has not much changed in that time.

          Like Doug and Ted say, you have the remote Practice Circle option, if you can commit to that. I’ve not been able to do so (Sunday evenings are key family time in this household) and the couple of meets I attended (albeit, very early in its history) were not really for me. But then I may very well harbor a Grouch Marx (“I’ll never belong to a club that would accept me as a member”) complex.

          That said, I too recommend MBSR. I found a class a few years ago within a 30-mile range of my home, which (at the time) was even closer to where I worked. Since I was already practicing mindfulness meditation, based on texts & audio recordings (e.g. by Kabat-Zinn, Goldstein, Salzberg, etc.), it was more of a reinforcement than anything else, but it also provided some opportunities for day-long weekend retreats, where I derived the most benefit.

          The only trouble is that MBSR only lasts for eight weeks, so then what?

          If you’re like me, you’ll eventually return to the rhinoceros life and “wander alone”, which in practice is not as lonely as it sounds for householders, given our other relationships & commitments.

          If, on the other hand, you take the charge to find a sangha more seriously, then I am aware of local practice groups centered on a Western-style insight meditation center (perhaps the closest real thing to a “secular sangha”). In my experience, these are few and far between, so you would have to either relocate or initiate one, wherever you are. Before then (and time/money permitting), you may want to attend a retreat at one of these centers.

          • m.miller says:

            Those are all excellent suggestions. Thank you. I have been very interested in MBSR but just haven’t taken the “plunge” yet – mostly because it seems the closest place to me that offers that course face-to-face is a solid two-hour drive and the cost was out of my reach. The online sessions Ted mentioned above seem like a great way to start growing my practice.

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