Frequently Asked Questions on Secular Buddhism
Written by Jennifer Hawkins.
What is Secular Buddhism?
Secular Buddhism is Buddhism. We differ from other forms in two key ways:
1.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). By allowing such questioning and exploration without excluding questioners and explorers, we allow for more and ultimately deeper engagement with the Dhamma.
2.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.)
If Secular Buddhists don’t necessarily believe in literal Rebirth, then… what about Kamma (Karma), what motivates them to practice Ethics, what about Nibbana (Nirvana)… Are they Nihilists…?
Actually, regardless of stance on Rebirth, Secular Buddhists believe in Kamma.
The minority who believe in literal Rebirth believe in Kamma as conceptualized by most other Forms of Buddhism.
Those who believe in non-literal Rebirth tend to believe that Kamma can be as simple as, “All actions (and intentions) have consequences,” and those consequences can be “external” and/or “internal” and occur at some point/s in this life and/or even influence the world beyond lifetimes. (Obviously, this requires further discussion than there is space for in our FAQ. Please read [Upcoming Article] for more information.)
Those who are more “agnostic” on literal Rebirth tend to allow space for exploration.
Since Secular Buddhists still believe in Kamma, there is still Kamma as a motivation for acting ethically – just as there is in other Forms of Buddhism. However, in addition to this, we also emphasize other arguments to act ethically.
For example, atheists are just as capable as any others of living ethically. This is because it is recognized that, as social beings, our lives are more enriched by an altruistic approach than an antagonistic one. Our ethical behavior creates a better world now, demonstrably, and that helps build the foundation for a better life for others both now and in the future.
Thus, our practice of ethics isn’t diminished – it’s strengthened by having multiple arguments for it.
Forgive the pedantic-ness, but this conversation requires it:
Nibbana is just as complicated for Secular Buddhists as it is for other Forms of Buddhism.
What does this mean?
Well, there have been centuries of lively debate around the following questions across the Buddhist world/s and Forms:
– Is Nibbana a state of being?
– Is Nibbana permanent?
– Are we already Enlightened or do we need to achieve Nibbana? (Note: Nibbana can be translated as Enlightenment)
– Who can achieve Nibbana? Only Monastics?
…and this list is by no means exhaustive.
Therefore, the answer that is short enough for an FAQ is:
We have conversation on Nibbana just like any other group of Buddhists.
The long answer is:
That conversation is long, lively, and may it ever-remain skillful and constructive. You are invited to join with us in it on our Forums and /or social media spaces.
Nihilism has the meaning of life having no meaning and being of no inherent value. Rather than take that less-than-savory understanding of the impermanence of life (anicca), Secular Buddhists see impermanence as providing a wonderful opportunity to value fleeting existence and see it for the rich experience it can be. Rather than expecting meaning to be an intrinsic quality of the process of living, Secular Buddhists understand that it may not be — but that’s not a problem as we can create our own value – from moment to moment – in how we address our experiences.
So no, we aren’t Nihilists either.
What about other Buddhist ideas or elements that can be referred to as ‘supernatural‘ (e.g. Devas, etc)?
Hopefully previous entries were written well enough for Readers to be able to make some guesses as to the answer:
There is a minority of Secular Buddhists who believe in the literal reality of these elements.
More are ‘agnostic,’ here meaning that they don’t consider the *literal* reality of these elements to have an impact on the truth and power of Gautama Buddha’s teachings. As I have personally said, “If Gautama Buddha taught a literal Deva, then I am happy for the Deva. If not, then I am still happy for any others who have learned from his teachings.”
Do Secular Buddhists just ignore what’s in the Pali Suttas or Mahayana Sutras?
Gautama Buddha very explicitly spoke of Rebirth, Kamma, etc. We don’t deny that! However, we allow individuals to question and explore if they should take these specific ideas/elements that Gautama Buddha speaks of as literal. A minority of Secular Buddhists do. More believe that Gautama Buddha believed in their literal reality at the time, but that as more time has passed, more information has been gathered, and these elements may not literally be true. They still have value for having helped so many over the millennia and/or when interpreted non-literally. And their *literal* reality (or not) does not impact the truth or power of Gautama Buddha’s teachings or his attainment of Nibbana.
But if Gautama Buddha was Enlightened (i.e. attained Nibbana), then shouldn’t all of his teachings be above exploration?
Secular Buddhists agree that Gautama Buddha was a human being who attained Enlightenment. But does Enlightenment mean an end to exploration? [See Nibbana (Nirvana) above.] Would that actually be a good thing?
(And yes, the above does not appear to be an explicitly definitive answer – but that’s kind of the nature of discussing Nibbana and similar topics. We invite Readers to, well, explore these questions and answers with us.)
Also, there’s an unspoken implication that allowing exploration somehow subtracts from Gautama Buddha or attainment of Nibbana. Secular Buddhists do not see or treat such exploration in this way. We take inspiration in Gautama Buddha’s status as a human being (so are we) who was able to attain Nibbana (because then so can we). We see allowing exploration of his teachings as only adding, never subtracting.
There are words on your website (e.g. “secular,” “naturalistic,” etc) that can invoke negative connotations…
Yes. And we’re asking you for the benefit of the doubt.
It’s an unfortunate reality that, due to the harms of European Imperialism, a large percentage of the world speaks European (derived) languages (e.g. English, Spanish, French…). And the languages of Europe generally do not have the foundations or developmental history to accurately express certain ideas. This has led (more than once) to the process that we are currently navigating:
Those who speak these languages (including BI/POC) must pick deeply imperfect existing terminology to try to describe something until enough time has passed that terms either finish shifting in meaning or new terms arise that are better suited to necessary conversations.
Therefore, please believe in us that we are actually doing our best.
For example, check out our Starting Out page. While “secular” *can* mean something like “against religion,” that’s NOT the meaning being used here. And the story of the selection of that word (as opposed to some others like “natural”) demonstrates our points. Secular Buddhism is not in antagonism to Heritage Buddhism (itself an imperfect word suggested by Ed Ng to describe most other Forms of Buddhism). Instead, we’re sentient beings doing our best to follow the Dhamma while NOT appropriating and while allowing for healthy questioning and exploration – and we’re still early in the process of developing one or two-word terms that express that.
We understand that words in European languages often come with bad baggage (yup, we used that word here). We don’t deny that at all. But we’d like to audaciously call in other Buddhists and other concerned parties from all over the world:
-Please give us the benefit of the doubt
-Please give time and space for terms to more fully develop or to arise that will be fully harmless and understood more accurately
-Please navigate that journey with us by listening deeply to us and giving us constructive criticism when it is skillful.
Believe it or not, we love our entire extended Dhamma Family, and we’re just as eager as others to end discomfort and to more fully develop. So please… journey with us.
Aren’t all Secular Buddhists ‘White’ (i.e. of predominantly European descent)?
…Actually, to be perfectly honest with you, Reader, it is difficult to write this section of the FAQ. There’s a felt pressure to actually put this in our FAQ. And that such a pressure is even felt causes feelings of hurt to arise.
Yes, there are Secular Buddhists of predominantly European descent. However, that does not somehow negate the observed, relatively high percentage of BI/POC Secular Buddhists – including, yes, Secular Buddhists of Asian/Diasporic descent.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been some great census of all Secular Buddhists everywhere. Certainly, there are some Secular Buddhist groups that are more predominantly of one racial or ethnic group than others (e.g. groups that are actually in Europe tend to have predominantly European membership). However, it is true that Sanghas are reflective of the communities in which they are situated (or at least they should be). SBA is online (for now) and our membership is generally pan-American (although most members are from the US specifically). As a result, we are far from only being of predominantly European descent (…far) because we are generally reflective of the populations of the US and increasingly of the Americas in general (which are predominantly BIPOC).
Now, those asking such a question of us may not realize this, but not acknowledging the existence and importance of any BI/POC – including us – is racially harmful to BI/POC (especially in the Americas where there is a certain history of erasure).
While arguments have been made, Secular Buddhists do not erase Asian/Diasporic cultures (or any others). Again, the separation of our practice of the Dhamma from specific Asian/Diasporic cultures is about preventing cultural appropriation – AT NO POINT do we separate, then fail to acknowledge (i.e. erase) the Asian/Diasporic peoples who started and maintained (i.e. transmitted) Buddhist Forms for millennia, allowing for Secular Buddhism to eventually arise. All of these people, our Dhamma ancestors, have our deep and explicit gratitude for that and always have.
And just as we’d never erase them because of how harmful that is (and rejecting cultural appropriation is NOT erasure), we’d never support any BIPOC erasure… and we don’t think that others should either.
We understand that the history of Imperialism has conditioned the world and those in it to experience concern that perhaps Secular Buddhism is an attack on Asian/Diasporic Buddhists. It is not; but we do understand how that concern arises. We hold space for all genuine and reasonable concern. But to paint Secular Buddhism as “all-white” – to engage in erasure of BIPOC – is not only inaccurate, but it’s the exact harm that we have been accused of.
Therefore, just as we’ve asked our extended Dhamma family for the benefit of the doubt, we ask also that no BIPOC of any background ever be erased in any conversations. That is racially harmful to its victims. We want to hear genuine concern so that we can address and heal it – but voiced concerns cannot engage in the exact harm that they want to protect against. In other words, “If your “social justice” isn’t intersectional, then it isn’t social justice.“
Finally, we invite concerned parties to our events (Practice Circle, eSangha eSpañol, Raising Resilience Book Club, and any that arise in the future) and social media spaces to come and see for themselves (Ehipassiko) …and hopefully to stay because we’d love to have you~!
I have encountered a self-identified Secular Buddhist who has caused harm or difficulty in a space
SBA is aware of a couple such individuals. Obviously, they do not share our values and aren’t a part of our communities.
When Secular Buddhism first began, it was thought that self-identification as a Secular Buddhist alone would always be enough. However, as time has passed and more information has been gathered, we’ve encountered problems with this approach.
Currently, anyone (even those who are not genuine) can claim our ‘label’ and then do harm in our name. Leaders from other Forms of Buddhism can be unsure on who their Secular Buddhist counterparts are (or who they could be). There is a need for Secular Buddhist teachers, but with that need arises the question of, “Who is qualified to be a teacher of Secular Buddhism?”
In the last couple of years, we have begun to look at what has worked for others:
In our extended Dhamma Family (i.e. other Forms of Buddhism), recognized leaders tend to need to have achieved and/or demonstrated some milestone/s. Often, recognized leaders provide direct training to others and signal when those others have achieved the milestones to become recognized leaders themselves.
In secular MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), potential teachers are generally grouped into ‘cohorts’ and led en-masse through a series of evaluated classes. Those who graduate all classes are recognized as official teachers. Those who do not typically have chances to try again at later times.
There are also similar paths found in career training and/or general education around the world – in both colonized and non-colonized contexts. (Some examples include: mentor/apprentice career training, most modern college programs, some practices found in myriad Indigenous communities, etc.)
Currently, one of our top priorities is to address identified problems by developing some kind of Secular Buddhist teacher training program that has looked to these successful models. However, this is most likely the work of years:
While we see deep value in mentorship, we want to develop safe-guards against possible abuse of such relationships (as has unfortunately been seen in other Dhamma communities). We also recognize that such systems work best when surrounding cultures support such hierarchies. Many cultural contexts do not, and that is something we must account for.
We also see deep value in student cohorts where chances to try again are possible. At the same time, such systems can in-build barriers that can unjustly limit the number of successful graduates from certain backgrounds or contexts (e.g. high costs for participation, etc.)
We want to build a path that will be as successful as these have obviously been across various timeframes and contexts – but we also want to seek ways to avoid their potential drawbacks. And while we do this work, we are forced to asked for patience from those who want to learn more from genuine Secular Buddhists and who would like to feel more empowered to deal with those using that ‘label,’ but who are causing harm.
We are doing our best and will work with others to share knowledge and to heal harms whenever and wherever we can.
Upcoming Topics and Other Questions
Just as we are seeking to develop a Secular Buddhist teacher training program (see above), we are also seeking to develop official guidelines for collaborations. We will update communities as updates become available, but know that our top concern is around ensuring that any we collaborate with share our emphasis on intersectional social justice and general ethics.
There has been a need for BIPOC-specific programming for quite a while now, and the volunteers who run SBA are finally in a place to start doing the work to create these spaces.
In collaboration with Bhumisparsha (a community being developed by Lama Rod Owens and Lama Justin von Bujdoss), we have begun a Spanish language space, eSangha eSpañol that meets biweekly at 2 PM Eastern Time (GMT -5). Please see our Facebook page or use our contact page to receive reminders. (Por favor, visiten nuestra pagina de Facebook o usen nuestra pagina de ‘Contact Us’ por mas información.)
We also plan to begin an English language BIPOC space in 2021, probably in collaboration with the Black Buddhist Facebook group and possibly with others. We will update communities as updates become available. (And we hope to see you there. Yes, you, Reader~!)
As we update and revise our website, we are looking at ways to offer translations into Spanish and accessibility features for people who have disabilities (e.g. captions on images, audio recordings, transcriptions for our podcast episodes). However:
-Wordpress does not seem to have the functionality to offer versions of our website in other languages at this time
-Audio recordings and/or transcriptions either require volunteers or funding to create.
Currently, SBA simply does not have the resources to overcome these barriers. However, we are very much aware of them and are open to any who can provide us help in addressing them.
Increased Opportunities to Contribute
We would like to start issuing calls for contributions or to receive pitches for articles or other offerings via our Contact Us page and/or social media pages. We just… haven’t been able to dedicate much energy to this yet. However, if you, Reader, would like to contribute, then please, reach out to us. We would like to empower more voices~!
As many (including us) have noted, our website is missing large parts of our institutional history. Much of this must be written by Director Ted Meissner. He plans on doing so as soon as he has the time and bandwidth. However, IT IS COMING.
There is a felt need for a statement on the intersections of Secular Buddhism with Decolonization Theory. As with our Institutional History, we plan on writing something as soon as there is time and bandwidth.