Secular Buddhism is relatively new form of Buddhism that is gaining momentum. Inherent with this early stage of its development, however, is some expected confusion about the nature of having a “secular” approach to an ancient religious tradition.
What is below should help clarify some of the larger questions. More will come in the form of Frequently Asked Questions, books, and more, hopefully taking some of these principles into account. It is not a perfect description of this practice, but a starting point for the continued development of Secular Buddhism.
Secular Buddhism :: Definition
Secular Buddhism is Buddhism. We differ from other forms in two key ways:
- We allow questioning of a literal interpretation of rebirth.
A minority of Secular Buddhists believe in literal rebirth. More believe in non-literal rebirth (i.e. that we are reborn from moment to moment). Many are “agnostic” on rebirth (i.e. that belief or non-belief in literal rebirth does affect the truth and power of the rest of Gautama Buddha’s teachings as they have been transmitted – both belief and non-belief can be valid). By allowing such questioning and exploration without excluding questioners and explorers, we allow for more and ultimately deeper engagement with the Dhamma.
- We reject the appropriation of Asian/Diasporic culture/s as part of engagement with the Dhamma
You will see many references to separating the Dhamma from specific Asian/Diasporic cultures. Unfortunately, these are often read as attacks on those cultures; it is claimed that this separation is due to an aversion to these cultures or as a preliminary step to appropriation. Truthfully, some of the confusion is our fault – we haven’t been able to find the right words to express ourselves. (However, we’re going to try here and now:)
The opposite is actually true. We do not wish to appropriate these cultures with our practice of the Dhamma. For those of more European descent, this prevents a repetition of historical harms. For those of more BI/POC descent, this allows us to engage with the Dhamma without dealing more harm to our already harmed (by Imperialism) cultures (i.e. there is a responsibility to uphold our own cultures to combat harm to those cultures that the adoption of Heritage Buddhist forms can interfere with). And for Asian/Diasporic Secular Buddhists specifically, this allows practice of forms that are not specific to their specific ethnicity without similar issues around appropriation and harm to the practitioner’s culture (i.e. a person of Thai heritage could explore elements of Zen without issues that might otherwise arise). This is why we seek a separation of specific cultures from the Dhamma – to prevent appropriation and to facilitate access to the Dhamma by those of BI/POC descent (who otherwise may have to choose between the Dhamma and healing their cultures) – and NEVER as a form of erasure.
The Asian/Diasporic peoples who started and maintained (i.e. transmitted) Buddhist Forms for millennia, allowing for Secular Buddhism to eventually arise, our Dhamma ancestors, have our deep and explicit gratitude for that and always have. (And, again, part of that gratitude is making sure that we do NOT harm cultures with appropriation as part of our practice of the Dhamma.)
Secular Buddhism :: Guiding Principles
- Secular Buddhism understands Siddhattha Gotama as a human being.
- Secular Buddhism understands The Four Noble Truths as an accurate, empirical description of the experience of living, and as a methodology of understanding, social behavior, and mental development.
- Secular Buddhism understands the community of practitioners as integral to the positive development of society.
- Secular Buddhism supports a culture of awareness, encouraging the availability of this teaching and practice.
- Secular Buddhism supports a culture of development, incorporating personal growth with interpersonal growth to improve social interactions and society.
- Secular Buddhism supports a culture of awakening, finding its inspiration from Buddhist (religious) and secular sources alike.
- Secular Buddhism is naturalistic, in that it references natural causes and effects, demonstrable in the known world.
- Secular Buddhism is form independent, making it flexible for integration into daily life in a variety of cultural contexts.
- Secular Buddhism is inclusive, fostering learning and practice across cultural and traditional bounds.
Secular Buddhism :: Values
- Secular Buddhism values all people as being capable of, and having equal rights to, understanding and practice.
- Secular Buddhism values sharing authority and responsibility among peers.
- Secular Buddhism values meaningful dialogue and critical examination for the purpose of continued improvement of understanding and practice.
- Secular Buddhism values the texts (Suttas and Sutras) of various forms of Buddhism as tools for study, learning, and practice. (And we hold gratitude to those who were integral to preserving and transmitting those Suttas and Sutras from their oral origins to the present-day written forms – monastics and others in Asia and its Diaspora.)
- Secular Buddhism values individual preference and creativity on the forms of practice appropriate to them.
This first version of Secular Buddhism’s Guiding Principles is not the work of one mind, but of many. Contributors to this include but are not limited to Stephen Batchelor, Stephen Schettini, Glenn Wallis, Rick Bateman, Stanford M.Forrester, Marc Wilson, and Ted Meissner. (Later editing by Jennifer Hawkins for clarity.) Any omissions are entirely Ted Meissner’s error. (Let us all point and him and scream “Error! Error!” j/k LoL)