Is Secular Buddhism Cherry Picking?

For me, yes! Just as I would pick cherries from a tree, taking the ripe ones and the almost ripe, and leaving unripe on the tree and the rotten ones on the ground (or throw them away), I have cherry picked from Buddhism.

Over the last ten years or so, I have studied Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and Insight Meditation, which is loosely based on the Theravada tradition. I’ve attended their talks, meditations, read the books, and chatted with the people at the gatherings (sangha). Most importantly, I tested out the teachings.

The traditions above have some common themes and tools:

  • Meditation: In Zen you sit, and you sit some more. In Tibetan Buddhism, you use guide meditations and visualizations. In the Theravada tradition, you learn insight meditation, or mindfulness meditation and concentration.
  • Compassion: In all the Buddhist traditions, compassion for ALL beings is taught, explored, and experienced through looking into the nature of life itself, and the suffering thereof.
  • Ethics and Morality: Meditation and compassion help one to see the powerful need for ethics and morality personally, to alleviate one’s own suffering, but also because when you develop compassion for others, you don’t want to create suffering for them either. Ethical living is of great importance to any tradition in Buddhism.
  • Letting go: All traditions teach various ways for us to explore our clinging and attachments, and how these attachments create suffering and delusion. The freedom from clinging is to let go of it. Turns out that is much more difficult than it sounds, and mindfulness and meditation are key in seeing the true nature of our existence so that we can let go. Psychology talks a lot about ego, but Buddhism teaches us how to explore and see it directly for ourselves.

Secular Buddhism focuses on the above, picked out because of practicality and necessity, and has left behind teachings that contradict or downright disprove themselves. We understand some of the above traditions see the point of Buddhism as the means to stop the circle of rebirth, of being reborn in some other life, with all it’s likely suffering. However, when one sees directly that there is no particular thing in our existence that is a self, the idea of rebirth after death is disproved. If you want more on this topic, you can read No One to be Reborn.

That said, we do see the ego being reborn repeatedly in one’s experience. We even begin to see what drives this response, how it creates suffering, and we learn to let go of the attachment we have to ego. All this occurs, with persistent and vigilant observation in this lifetime. Secular Buddhists have no interests beyond death. We have plenty to work with, appreciate, and discover in this life.

Some secular Buddhists enjoy some of the rituals and practices they learned in traditional Buddhism, but the desire to use them is closely examined and the utility of them explored. For instance, I like to light incense when I meditate. The aroma reminds me that I’m sitting to be present, to see what my mind is up to in that moment, what’s happening in the body, and to focus on the breath. Of course, I can meditate without it, and sometimes I do.  But I don’t light it as a blessing, as I was taught in Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s not a gift to the gods. It’s just incense.

In my practice, I find the Four Noble Truths invaluable, and I use the Eightfold Path as a practical guide for me to explore and integrate into my life. These teachings are intended to bring our lives into sharp focus, refine the mind so we aren’t behaving like mindless monkeys, and to assist in the letting go of the many cravings and attachments that lead to suffering. I do not adhere to the teachings dogmatically. I will reject anything outlandish, even if it was said by Buddha.

I do enjoy reading suttas (teachings) from translations of the Pali Canon, and I view all of Buddha’s life and teachings as mythology. This allows for more cherry picking, and I can see useful metaphors and analogies where others may be thumping their foreheads, trying to figure out exactly what the Buddha meant or why one sutta contradicts another. You can go on endless discussions about whether or not the Buddha was a historic person. But no one can prove it either way. You can read more of what I had to say about this topic in Refuge in the Buddha. That Buddha spoke of gods and hell and heaven realms is not a problem for me because I see that as a metaphor, and I do not take it literally.

All of this is my view, and not necessarily shared by all secular Buddhists. But I do see secular Buddhism as cherry picking, taking the ripe, practical fruits of the teachings and putting them to valuable use, and leaving behind that with requires belief, which Buddha taught against (and science teaches us today), and that which is fantastic and without evidence. I make no apologies for it, as I see this practice as immensely beneficial to my life and those who come in contact with me, and I see it lessening the suffering of those who I know also practice.

For me cherry picking in Buddhism has been more about making wise choices and testing out the teachings, just as the Buddha taught.