Frequently Asked Questions on Secular Buddhism
What is Secular Buddhism?
Secular Buddhism is concerned with the practice of Siddhattha Gotama’s four noble truths in this world. It encourages a naturalistic and pragmatic approach to the teaching, seeking to provide a framework for personal and social development within the cultural context of our time.
How does Secular Buddhism differ from traditional Buddhism, such as Theravada or Zen?
The primary difference is that Secular Buddhism has no dependency on assertions not in evidence, it is based solely on that which can be verified in the natural world. It does not rule out such claims, but merely recognizes that such assertions (like literal rebirth) have not been able to provide any externally verifiable or convincing evidence. And, like the claims of other religions which cannot be verified by any known means, can be set aside.
Why do we need Secular Buddhism when we already have many different Buddhist traditions?
Like all traditions, Buddhism evolves to suit the culture in which it finds itself. Our contemporary Western culture is inclined to more secular views; the growth of Secular Buddhism is an inevitable manifestation of these attitudes. It is also a wonderful opportunity, as having a practice which does not in any way rely on adherence to a particular religious doctrine (one not in evidence) opens up that practice to people of all faiths, and no faith. It clearly makes Secular Buddhism much more accessible to all people, not just those willing to accept a cultural or religious tradition not their own.
Do the practices of Secular Buddhism differ from other Buddhist practices?
Secular Buddhism recognizes the diversity of individual preferences when it comes to contemplative practice. The forms one uses are entirely based upon what is demonstrably effective, there are no requirements or proscriptions. One person may chant and light incense as being helpful to them in setting the tone of their meditation, for example, while another person finds those to be ineffective in their own practice.
What exactly do you mean by naturalism in regard to secular Buddhism?
Naturalism is a term used to denote the physical universe. Essentially, it’s a demarkation between what can be shown, and what cannot. Supernatural assertions cannot be shown, and are therefore not a part of the natural universe. Again, this is not a denial of the supernatural, but is a recognition that without any measurable impacts on the natural universe, there is no way to discern what is true or false with regard to the supernatural. As such, it is not just a good idea, but necessary to suspend acceptance of those claims. Without such suspension, all such claims are equally true, which in light of conflicting claims is simply not possible.
If secular Buddhists don’t believe in rebirth, then what motivates them to practice?
Secular Buddhist are either agnostic about rebirth, or don’t believe in literal rebirth. The word secular can have the meaning of having to do with this lifetime, this natural world, or may also be interpreted as to be lacking in religious tradition.
For those secular Buddhists who have not found there to be enough valid evidence for a literal rebirth, there is still a benefit to viewing textual references to rebirth as metaphor. That is, taken as a reference to our moment by moment arising and falling of the concept of self, rebirth helps us to investigate and loosen our ideas about who we are, and how we engage with the present moment. In this way, references to rebirth can be quite helpful in broadening our awareness of situations in which we find ourselves, get a bit more space between our perceptions and our reactions, and make better decisions right now.
Our practice is therefore informed by Buddhist ideas around impermanence, and helps us to challenge those concepts that lead us into experiencing what’s going on in our lives negatively. This helps us recalibrate our minds into more rewarding engagements with whatever life may throw at us.
If secular Buddhists suspect that death is the end, how does this differ from Nihilism?
Nihilism has the meaning of life having no meaning, and of being no inherent value. Rather than take that less savory understanding of the impermanence of life, secular Buddhists see that as providing a wonderful opportunity to value fleeting existence, and see it for the rich experience it can be. The difference is that Buddhism has a methodology to change one’s mind, our attitude about impermanence. Rather than expecting meaning to be an intrisic quality of the process of living, secular Buddhists understands that it may not — but that’s not a problem as we create our own value, each moment, in how we address our experiences.
Without the belief of karma from one life to then next, what motivates a secular Buddhist to ethical and moral behavior?
The exact same thing that motivates atheists to behave ethically: the understanding that, as social beings, our lives are more enriched by an altruistic approach than an antagonistic one. Karma, like rebirth, may be interpreted in many ways. Simply taken as cause and effect, we can see the effects of our actions in the world, and even understand that the effects of our actions will have their own continuity past the ending of our lives. Our ethical behavior creates a better world now, demonstrably, and that helps build the foundation for a better life for others.