A Letter to Traditional Buddhists

Over the past few months The Secular Buddhist podcast site and its blogs have received increased attention. We are grateful for that and welcome the many new secular Buddhists into the community. But surprisingly, at least to me, we’ve also gotten a lot of heat from traditional Buddhists. I’ve been both disappointed and surprised by this, which just shows I had made erroneous assumptions and stereotypes about Buddhists in general.

While I’ve had some 30 years of disdain and anger directed my way because I don’t believe in god, I didn’t expect the same treatment from Buddhists. There has been a battery of scathing articles about Secular Buddhism that had our paradigm and intentions completely wrong. So, when we commented, with as much Right Speech, as each of us was capable, and presented our views from a secular perspective, we met with anger, rudeness and accusations.

Additionally, traditional Buddhists have come to me, accusing me of ruining my own karma and the karma of others with my lack of belief in reincarnation. I have been accused of trying to anger other Buddhist by posting secular Buddhist articles and blogs in groups that are generically called Buddhism, and I have been told I don’t understand Buddhism, that I just don’t “get it”, I have no right to blog about it.

I’m hoping these attitudes are shared only by a small minority, but these accusations have piqued my interest. I’ve realized how truly easy it is to get attached to view, as Mr. Gotama pointed out, regardless of what the content of that view is.

I’d like to draw the attention of traditional Buddhist with this letter to you to clarify a few misconceptions, and to ask that that you draw upon your  own practice of the Eightfold path (or what you call your path) when dealing with us. Above all else, please keep the following in mind:

  • By practicing secular Buddhism we are in no way criticizing traditional schools such as Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Pure Land, etc.
  • While many of us left those traditions because we were not comfortable with some of the rituals, practices, or beliefs, we respect the traditions themselves. In fact, many of us gleaned useful practices and rituals we still engage in. Secular Buddhism in no way dictates how one practices.
  • Before forming an opinion about secular Buddhism, and especially before trashing it in a blog, please learn about it from those who practice it, and from sites that have good information on it. There is a lot of  secular Buddhist just think this or that which is dead wrong! Talk to us first.
  • We welcome anyone who wants to ask questions about secular Buddhism. We welcome healthy discussions, and are willing to explain our practices, our experiences, etc. But please, please practice mindfulness and right speech. Think about your own intentions before making accusations and assertions. All questions welcome.
  • Because most of us come from a scientific, reductionist approach, if you make a claim that something is true, we are going to ask you how we can test that claim and what evidence you have that the claim is probably true. Many of us do not consider the Pali Canon evidence any more than the bible or the koran. In fact, some of us, particularly me, view the canon and Buddhism from a mythological perspective, not a historical one. Some secular Buddhists do view Mr. Gotama and Buddhism as historic. So views vary within secular Buddhism. You are free to have whatever view you are comfortable with. Of course, we all need to examine our views mindfulness and look for attachments to them.

Through the centuries various schools of Buddhism have emerged. Buddhism gets morphed according to the needs of a particular society, rituals and religions are sometimes incorporated, and we all notice big differences in approaches to the practice. There are consistencies concerning the teachings concerning compassion, mindfulness, etc. that is what draws people to Buddhism. But secular Buddhism does NOT claim to have it right, to be the correct way to practice.

I suspect each school went through its growing pains, but because communication across countries, towns, etc. wasn’t what it is today, it wasn’t so easy for a Tibet Buddhist to criticize the Zen school or vice versa. But today we have the internet. Not only is it easy to learn about anything you want, it’s equally easy to discover and spread misinformation, inaccuracies, and it’s too easy to speak unmindfully, spontaneously, and with great insensitivity.

Everyone in all the Buddhist schools are a part of one huge community. And within the greater community are smaller ones that focus their practices in different ways according to the needs and growth of the communities and the individuals.

Secular Buddhist have no desire to do away with the traditional schools of Buddhism. We value their history, and their body of experience. But don’t get your robes in a twist because some of us don’t agree with all of it, because we don’t adhere to a certain belief system, because it seems like we  just don’t get it. Instead, try to recognize that many of Mr. Gotama’s teachings were secular. We choose to focus on this life, this world, because we are certain that there is life before death.

Don’t create more suffering by antagonizing secular Buddhists. We are all in this together, humble in wondering this wise, beautiful path, seeing into our experience, and letting go of attachments and craving.


Dana Nourie