New to Secular Buddhism

photo by Dana Nourie
Welcome to New to Secular Buddhism!

Whether you are new to Buddhism itself, or you are coming from one of the other traditions, we hope this area of the site helps you get started in your practice, and that the rest of the site continues to be a source of useful information, encouragement, and support.

The development of this part of the site sprang from the needs of our members, who wanted to learn about Buddhism, and also to understand how secular Buddhism differs from other traditions. If you have suggestions on how we can improve this area or the rest of the site, please post in the discussion forum Site Foo.

The tabs above lead to information to help you learn about secular Buddhism from basics to how you can get support for your practice. Each page has information, plus links to encourage you to dig more deeply.

We recommend that you read The Basics, which is about the SBA site. From there click on the Basics tab above to learn about Buddhism.

Buddhism is a huge topic with a lot of history. No doubt you know something about it, or you wouldn’t be here. If you’re new to Buddhism, though, the amount of information out there can be overwhelming and confusing. To help you get started, this section covers some of the basics with links to more information. Much of secular Buddhist practice is the same as traditional, but there are some differences, which are noted where appropriate.The bottom line in Buddhism is to eliminate suffering for yourself and others. All the teachings strive to that end. The difference with secular Buddhism is that the focus is on this lifetime, in this world, whereas some traditions believe the practice takes many life times, and their goal is to end the cycle of rebirth. There is more information about that in the Secular vs Traditional tab.

Secular Buddhists tend to practice on the following teachings, but this is a bare bone outline and by no means covers everyone’s knowledge or practice.

As for text, some secular Buddhists study the Pali Canon, which is generally considered a good source of the teachings. Also, there are good books out there by practitioners of other traditions, where you can get some good basic information on Buddhism. But in general, we agree the following Buddhist concepts are very important to understanding Buddhism in general and to one’s secular practice.

The Four Noble Truths

The Three Marks of Existence

The Eightfold Path

Here are some other articles about secular Buddhism:

Practice is the heart of Buddhism. Without it all that information you may have learned about Buddhism isn’t going to do you a lot of good. Secular Buddhist practice varies little compared to traditional practices, though traditions are often heavy with rituals that may seem foreign or pointless. On the other hand, if you like certain rituals, by all means go for it!Listed below are a few of the essential Buddhist practices:

    • Ethical Behavior — Ethics is important in Buddhism, because without it we create suffering for ourselves and others. Developing ethics is built into the Eightfold Path in several areas, and is talked about in many of the teachings. The Buddhist view is to see others with compassion, and do them no harm.Here are some articles to get you started:

      Directing Wholesome Intentions: Right Intentions
      The Ethics of Impermanence

    • Developing Mindfulness– In the Eightfold Path, mindfulness and concentration are both mentioned. Mindfulness and concentration are the tools to help you become more aware of how you operate in the world, how you affect others, and how your mind works. These skills are crucial to recognizing suffering and how to end suffering.
    • Meditation — Meditation is the practice where you develop mindfulness and concentration, as well as bringing those skills into your daily life.
      Basic Meditation Guide
      Guided Meditations
      Weekly Practice
      The Whiner’s guide to Meditation
      Body Meditation

There are a lot of common practices and approaches to Buddhism that traditions and secular Buddhism share, but there are some important differences as well. Traditions such as Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism share some core beliefs about what Buddha taught, but they differ in how they approach the teachings and the rituals they practice. These traditions tend to be steeped in the cultures in which they thrived, and therefore many of the rituals they practice are geared more toward Asian or Indian cultures.

In the west, Buddhism is also taking on our culture in a variety of ways. For many of us secularism is important, and so not surprisingly, secular Buddhism arose. Defining secular Buddhism is not cut and dry, and is still taking shape, but there are some resounding themes that are emerging.

We encourage you to read our FAQ, as it will answer questions you may have about Secular Buddhism. Also read our Guiding Principles, which also explains the SBA view on secular Buddhism.

Keep in mind both of these documents are works in progress. The most common topic people ask about is Rebirth. So, for the record . . . most secular Buddhist do notbelieve in literal rebirth after death. In fact, I don’t know of any secular Buddhists who believe in rebirth.

Secular Buddhists have a variety of ways of approaching teachings or text where they see mention of past lives, future lives, or reincarnation in general. Some just ignore the passages and move on. Some of us choose to look at the topic as a metaphor for the many ways the feeling of self and ego arise, the rebirth of greed, hatred, etc. And some feel that either these passages about literal rebirth were added to the Pali canon at a later time, or that the writers misunderstood or mistranslated the teachings, or that Buddha was victim to the times he was born in, or that he put a lot of weight in meditation experience. Some even feel rebirth is contradictory to the teachings.

The point is, you don’t have to believe in literal rebirth to benefit from these amazing teachings.

The other topic we get asked about a lot is how secular Buddhists feel about the supernatural elements in some of the teachings. It seems unanimous that secular Buddhist do not believe in the supernatural. Some are agnostic about it, some are antagonistic about it, and some just don’t care and ignore it. Secular Buddhism most definitely encourages critical thinking and skepticism to such claims. Many of us lean to a more scientific approach in our practice, including skepticism towards our own meditative experience, which is why we feel support is so important.

Now, for the word secular. There are multiple definitions, and we have found that when people visit the site, they lean towards one or more of these definitions:

  • Not overtly or specifically religious
  • Worldly rather than supernatural or superstitious
  • Not being exclusively allied or against any particular tradition or religion
  • Of this world, and in this lifetime

From talking to people on this site, I’d say all these definitions fit most secular Buddhists views. However, I want to point to that third item. We also have no wish to exclude traditional Buddhists from this site, or sharing in conversations and support groups. While some of their beliefs may differ, and while they may think rebirth is crucial to the Buddhist path, we will still be respectful and compassionate with them. That’s not to say you can’t discuss your differences. Of course you can! Just remember, we are trying not to create more suffering.

If you want Buddhism without beliefs in the supernatural, and if you don’t need a belief of rebirth in your practice, then you are in the right place. But, again, we do welcome transitional Buddhists as well. The ultimate goal is the same, and many of the teachings and practices are shared.

We welcome everyone’s participation in the site, sharing your practice, concerns, etc. Please read our Community Standards and Participation Guidelines.

Skeptical Buddhist's Sangha

Skeptical Buddhist’s Sangha in Second Life

There are several ways to get support for your practice. The obvious one might be find a local Buddhist community, but not everyone has such a community, and secular Buddhist communities are hard to find. So, we have developed several ways you can get support virtually:

    • Discussion Forums— The discussion forums are a great place to ask questions, make comments, and share ideas and practice.
    • Commenting on articles– There is a lot of lively conversations on some of the article pages. Be sure whenever you read an article on the site that you check down at the bottom of the page to see what people are saying, and add your own questions or comments.
    • Practice Circle— Practice Circle is a virtual community, where we get together at regular times for video chat. These sessions have been lead by Mark Knicklebine, and at each session he has special exercises for us and we share our experience with it. Please sign up only if you want to commit to joining the Practice Circle.
    • Social Circle— Social Circle is also virtual via video chat. This is light-hearted, fun conversation where we just get together and socialize.
Insight Timer Screenshot

Insight Timer Screenshot

Here are a few ways of getting started in a daily practice

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