Insight Buddhism is Secular Buddhism: Reviewing Heartwood


Wendy Cadge: Heartwood

Wendy Cadge: Heartwood

Wendy Cadge’s 2005 book Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America is a fascinating look at the way this form of Buddhism is adapting to contemporary American life. Although the book stems from her PhD dissertation it is readable, filled with descriptions of practitioners and their approaches.

Cadge spent several years doing field work, in both an immigrant and a convert (Western) Buddhist center, and much of the book details the differences she found in their approaches. The immigrant center she chose was the Thai Buddhist Wat Mongkoltepmunee (Wat Phila) outside Philadelphia, and the convert center was the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center (CIMC) in Massachusetts.

A look at her results reveals much about the direction of secular Buddhism in America.

Wat Phila

As one might expect, Wat Phila displays a structure significantly closer to the traditional Theravāda practices of Southeast Asia than does the CIMC. It is more rigidly hierarchical, with ordained monks at its head. Its practices reflect significantly more of traditional Buddhism than the CIMC, for example in its monastic orientation to lay practice, in extended chanting, and in the observation of festivals. (58). Much of its activity (of which Cadge took part, and which she describes) involves the women of the saṅgha preparing food for the monks. Since this is something that must be done on a daily basis, it constitutes a significant portion of the charitable practice within the monastery.

The charitable act of cooking for the monks is one of the reasons Cadge feels that women are overrepresented in the membership of Wat Phila (181), although they also represent over 60% of the membership of the CIMC.

Wat Phila seems to serve as something of a refuge for displaced Thais living in the US; a slice of home life, where they can congregate with other Thai people and speak their own language, engage in cultural activities, eat communally, and do beneficial deeds. (76-77). That is, the aim of engagement at Wat Phila is essentially communal, and merit-based. (138). While there are a handful of non-Asians at the temple, non-Asians seem usually to have been drawn there by marriage to a Thai woman who attends services. Several of the members were not particularly religious, even if they considered themselves nominally Buddhist, before involving themselves in temple activities.

The monks at Wat Phila do not emphasize supernatural aspects of Buddhist belief and practice as much as some of their counterparts in Thailand, and they were not welcoming to a person who wished to engage in fortune telling in their temple. Nevertheless they do reinforce aspects of traditional Buddhist belief about kamma and rebirth. (90). They also promote veneration of both living and deceased monks, and several of the attendees use amulets with depictions of these monks as objects of prayer and good luck. (92-3). Nevertheless others view the practice in more rational terms. (105). There is also a range of views about the Buddha himself within the Thai saṅgha, with some accepting more supernatural interpretations of his abilities and others viewing him in more rationalist terms. (152-3).

Cambridge Insight, and Some Key Similarities and Differences

The CIMC is, of course, a center on a more Western model: explicitly “not a temple” (66). That is to say, it is less religious, less ceremonial, less hierarchical, and non-monastic. Its practices center almost exclusively around meditation and dhamma talks. (138). Dhamma talks typically occur in concert with meditation practice (95), so such practice constitutes an essential part of membership in the community. It would be difficult for a non-meditator to find membership in the CIMC rewarding.

The teachings one finds at the CIMC pointedly avoid discussion of the more supernatural elements of traditional Buddhism. Interestingly, this orientation towards teaching is reflected in the views of the membership. “Only a few practitioners at CIMC believe people have past and future lives, and none are concerned about accumulating kamma or merit to ensure a better rebirth in the next life.” (98, 107). Instead there is the notion that awakening is something that can be pursued in this lifetime. The Buddha is taught “almost exclusively in rational terms” (153) as a wise teacher rather than a superhuman or supernatural agent.

Apart from meditation itself, which can be seen sociologically as a kind of ritual, leadership at the CIMC has tended to avoid ritualism within the center. Although more recently they have found ways that some ritual can support meditation practice, and hence are introducing some modest ones, such as the use of bells or (apparently occasional) bows towards the teacher or Buddha statue. (99). Nevertheless the CIMC’s membership displays “a much more ambivalent attitude” towards Buddha images than one would find at Wat Phila. (154). That is, there is a wider range of views regarding such images at the CIMC, all the way from reverence to disinterest.

One difference between the CIMC and Wat Phila’s approach to saṅgha is that Wat Phila sees itself as a single entity; even smaller groups consider themselves part of the larger community, and festivals or weddings bring out the entire saṅgha. The CIMC instead has tended to self-organize into smaller groups of local interest. (125-133). There is no attempt to celebrate Buddhist holidays at the CIMC, for example. While this undoubtedly goes hand-in-hand with the CIMC’s less overtly religious approach to practice, it also produces a more fragmented or fractured community.

This difference also reveals itself in sound: Wat Phila is a noisy place of chanting and discussion. The CIMC on the other hand was organized around the silence of meditative practice. However over time the CIMC has modified that take somewhat, in the growing understanding that discussion among the membership fosters a livelier sense of community. (134-5). So connection within the CIMC is more at the individual than the communal level (141-2), fostered by discussions between individuals at meditation or dhamma events. Perhaps this is a reflection of the American tendency towards radical individualism.

Cadge highlights the problematic nature of identity within Buddhism as a whole, and notes that this problematic nature is reflected in both communities’ somewhat ambivalent take on what constitutes being “Buddhist”. (151). It is particularly interesting to learn that this ambivalence can even be found within a more traditional Thai context. (157, 161, 164).

One of the larger, recurring questions that arises within the CIMC is to what extent its members or even its teachers can be considered “Buddhist”, and therefore for purposes of the study to what extent it is an example of so-called “convert Buddhism”. Conversion implies religion, and many of the practitioners at the CIMC do not consider themselves to be taking part in a religion, or indeed to be Buddhist at all. (74, 102, 107, 164-70). Indeed Larry Rosenberg, CIMC’s founding teacher, responded “No” to the question “Are you a Buddhist?” during one question and answer session. (165). While his answer was in fact somewhat more nuanced than that word might suggest, it starkly highlights the problems with Buddhist identity at an Insight (Vipassana) center. Some of its members consider themselves simply to be followers of the Buddha’s teachings, rather than to be Buddhists. Others consider themselves to be in a kind of blended religion, e.g., as Jewish Buddhist, or as Christian with a Buddhist practice. Others reject such labels altogether. (166-8).

New York Insight

My own experience at New York Insight (NYIMC) parallels that documented by Cadge at Cambridge, in every facet. In New York, the center is also non-monastic, largely non-ceremonial, non-ritualistic, and non-hierarchical. Its guiding teachers express misgivings about labeling themselves or others as “Buddhist”. While the center does occasionally welcome monks or other religious figures to give talks or lead meditation, most of the time it is led by laypeople.

Anecdotally, while my experience with the membership reveals a broad range of opinions and approaches, there is a significant percentage who are at least skeptical of claims of rebirth, and who are not interested in discussions that stray into the supernatural. I would estimate this to be a majority.

While NYIMC has tried to institute some large collective events, these are rare: for example, during New Year’s Eve or at a fundraiser. As I see it, one significant barrier towards gathering the entire saṅgha together is that the space is not large enough to contain them. This is a problem I suspect some urban Buddhist centers may face: rental costs are high, and until centers can attract the donations required to purchase land or buildings, significant community gatherings may simply prove unfeasible.

That said, my sense from attending events at NYIMC over the years is that much like CIMC togetherness occurs more at the individual than at the collective level: one meets particular individuals at talks or meditation events and makes connections through them. One rarely if ever sees a significant portion of the community together at one time.


The turn towards “insight meditation” as a central, focal practice of Buddhism for laypeople began with Ledi Sayadaw’s revolutionary reinterpretation of the early suttas in late 19th c. Burma. In “Secular Buddhism’s Roots in South Asia” I wrote about how this movement developed into what we now consider secular Buddhism: Buddhism seen as most centrally a this-life practice of meditation and dhamma study.

My experience at NYIMC leads me to believe that it, like the CIMC, is a de facto secular Buddhist center, even though it is not labeled as such. I would estimate that few of its membership knows or cares much about “secular Buddhism” per se (although a recent visit by Stephen Batchelor was well and enthusiastically attended), but they are practicing secular Buddhism nevertheless.

Cadge’s more systematic study of the CIMC reinforces my own experiences within the Insight movement in New York. Insight Buddhism, it seems, is secular Buddhism.

To clarify, there are two senses of secular that should probably be distinguished. One sense of secular is that it is anti-religious. In this sense of course Insight Buddhism is not secular: it is not oppositional to religious belief or practice. NYIMC does host religious teachers, and they are treated with respect. Further, certain of the membership do accept traditional Buddhist views on rebirth and other supernatural claims, even if they may be in the relative minority. In my experience such views are treated with respect as well. They are however typically put to one side, rather than being actively engaged with. In a religious setting, or a setting of confrontational secularism, one would expect such views to be engaged with more fully.

While Insight Buddhist centers like the NYIMC do invite monastics to teach, the monastics invited tend to be those towards the liberal end of the spectrum. It is my understanding that more conservative, traditional monastics are not invited, or perhaps if they are invited they do not agree to attend. Thus for example something of a rift has opened up between monastics who allow for the ordination of women and those who do not. Urban Insight centers tend to support the former position, hence are less open to invite those monastics who espouse the latter position.

A second sense of secular is that it is non-religious. One way to understand this sort of stance sociopolitically is that it involves the creation of a public space where a variety of religious and non-religious views coexist. In this sense Insight Buddhism is secular Buddhism. Of course, as a kind of Buddhism, Insight Buddhism creates a space that is imbued with a particular philosophical background, and a particular background of meditative practice. But it is also one that is open to people of different religions, or of no religion. Both the CIMC and NYIMC have believing Jews and Christians among their membership, both have people who do not accept the Buddhist label or indeed any such religio-philosophical label. In none of these cases is there any need to keep secret such opinions; indeed they often constitute the grist for discussion and practice.

Near the end of her study, Cadge notes that

Like Christians who take yoga classes and Jews who visit Zen centers, visitors to CIMC initially practice meditation devoid of particular beliefs or requirements of organizational memberships. For some practitioners, as Stephen Batchelor argues, the ideas presented at CIMC are “Buddhism without beliefs.” (193).

That is, for some practitioners, the Insight approach constitutes secular Buddhism. For others, it may mean something else, even something religious. But that’s OK; indeed, in an odd sense that’s the very thing that makes it secular.

The Way Forward

Insight (Vipassana) Buddhism is a growing if small, generally urban approach to the dhamma. It appears to be one of the key ways Theravāda Buddhism is adapting to the modern West. If indeed it is a form of secular Buddhism, is there any need to pursue “secular Buddhism” as such beside Insight Buddhism? In one sense there is: while Insight practice is secular, for some of us the beliefs and practice surrounding secularity itself are of interest. In a contemporary urban setting secularity is often as ubiquitous and unseen as water for the fishes. Just as Molière’s Bourgeois Gentleman spoke in prose for forty years without knowing it, many of us have a secular practice without knowing it. Understanding what that is may be of benefit, particularly insofar as it is an aspect of belief and practice that we wish to preserve.

It also may be of benefit to inform secular oriented people within easy reach of an Insight center that they are likely to find a saṅgha to their liking.

There are of course other forms of Buddhist belief and practice that one may take as secular. Cadge notes Zen in particular. Although it is too big a topic to tackle in this post, it is worth saying a few words about Zen. Indeed, Zen is a perfect example of Batchelor’s “Buddhism without beliefs”, and as such a perfect example of a secular approach to the dhamma. However if we set the cognitive aspects to one side, Zen is in many ways prototypically religious. It involves religious hierarchies and lineages, distinctive clothing, complex rites, rituals, and ceremonies, as well as the “smells and bells” we usually associate with orthodoxy. Zen may indeed lack a (well structured) belief system, but it is perhaps most accurately seen a religion, at least in a way that Insight Buddhism is not.

This is by no means to say that Zen is somehow inappropriate for secular practitioners. That is a matter for each practitioner to decide on their own. I myself have been to many Zen centers and enjoyed years of (somewhat irregular) Zen practice; there is much to be said for its quiet, precise aesthetic. But my sense is that many secular-leaning Buddhists will find the approach of Insight Buddhism to be more comfortable and accommodating than Zen.

This is also not to say that Insight doesn’t have its own problems. Perhaps the greatest problem the Insight has is in fostering a true, deep sense of saṅgha or community. I suspect that is mostly due to the urban American culture in which it is embedded, one of individualism and (yes) secular independence, one that looks askance on any request for common belief, action, or purpose. Other overtly secular organizations have had to deal with this problem for decades. Whether it can be overcome in a way that allows for true depth of community, or whether it is a weakness that limits the eventual growth and success of such secularist movements as Insight Buddhism, only time will tell.


Wendy Cadge (2005). Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.