Secular Buddhism, Thin and Thick

Image courtesy of scottchan /

Image courtesy of scottchan /

There is an important split in the way many of us approach Secular Buddhism. Some of us want a “big tent” form of Secular Buddhism that welcomes believers from any and all faith backgrounds who are looking for a way to incorporate meditative practice within the context of their own views about religion, salvation, God, and the self. Others of us are looking for a deep, robust way of incorporating Buddhist practice and dhamma into an explicitly naturalistic worldview.

These are both ways to be a Secular Buddhist, but they are crucially different ways. Let’s call them “thin” and “thick” Secular Buddhism, and consider some of their differences.

Thin Secular Buddhism

To bring the benefits of Buddhist practice to the largest audience, it’s convenient to thin the dhamma out to the point that it makes very few claims about the way things are. Many want a Buddhism modeled after a kind of psychological therapy, that is open to believers from all walks of life: secularists, followers of the New Age, traditional Buddhists, even traditional believers from other religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

In order to appeal to such believers, the dhamma of thin Secular Buddhism must be minimal. It will amount to practical claims, such as that doing particular sorts of meditative practice can reduce stress and increase happiness. Perhaps most particularly this view occurs in the medical context with approaches such as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) model.

MBSR practice centers around the seventh division in the eightfold path, right mindfulness, in order to bring relief of suffering. In order for this to be appropriate in a medical context, however, reference to many basic Buddhist claims about reality are avoided: there is no emphasis upon rebirth or active kamma, but no denial of them either. There is no rejection of an eternal or everlasting God, but no acceptance of one either. There is no reference to the soul as either present or absent in experience. As this article about Kabat-Zinn says,

… anything resembling religious vocabulary can be anathema to many people. He prefers to use a vocabulary that doesn’t exclude anybody.

“I don’t have to use the word ‘spiritual,'” he said. “Part of it is the power of silence and stillness. And part of that power is the power of healing that happens when you move from the domain of doing to being. It’s transformative.”

In fact, there have been rabbis, priests and even an imam who have taken Kabat-Zinn’s eight-week MBSR training course and told him that it deepened their experience of their own faiths.

The imam told him the practice was “totally consistent” with Islam, Kabat-Zinn said. Priests said MBSR reminded them of why they first went into the seminary and allowed them to transmit their faith more effectively to their flocks. Kabat-Zinn noted that even Mother Teresa described her conversations with God as mutual silence.

“Is silence Jewish or Christian or Buddhist? Is awareness Jewish or Christian?” said Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness principles are found on every continent in every culture, he added.”We’re born with this capacity. It’s about cultivating it.”

Even so, the practice may prove controversial from within a traditional theistic context.

If thin Buddhism took sides in any of these or several other basic claims, it would no longer be viewed as appropriate for practice within a poly-religious context such as that found in a hospital or clinic. Christians, Jews, and Moslems would not abide a teaching that denied the existence of God or an everlasting soul. Traditional Buddhists would not abide a teaching that asserted the existence of God or an everlasting soul. Further, as regards the scientific basis of such practice, naturalists would not abide claims that the practice involved any supernatural influence, and many followers of the New Age would not abide the denial of such claims. It’s worth noting that many — even self-described Buddhists — accept that meditation reveals features of reality that are supernatural, even literally divine, in character. Hence in order to be as widely applicable as possible, thin Secular Buddhism must make no claims with regard to such things.

Many Secular Buddhists see this as the appropriate paradigm: it makes claims about relieving certain forms of pain, disappointment, and stress through meditative practice, but all other claims go beyond our ability to know. Hence they are best left as unproven, and not a basic part of Secular Buddhist dhamma.

Was the Buddha “Thin”?

Sometimes it is claimed that the Buddha himself was a thin Secular Buddhist: that he didn’t believe anything remotely speculative or religious by contemporary standards, and that the entire point of the path was basically, “My path of meditation works as well as any to reduce dukkha, but use what works for you.”

I do not believe this is an accurate picture of the Buddha’s dhamma, at least as we find it in the Pali Canon.

To begin with, the Buddha accepted and taught literal rebirth, and causally active kamma. He accepted and taught the existence of devas and supernatural powers (iddhis). But although escape from the beginningless rounds of saṃsāric rebirth plays a central role in the Buddha dhamma, I have argued that rebirth was not among the most central aspects of the dhamma.

If there is a central aspect to the dhamma, it is the first mark of existence: anicca, variously translated as “impermanence” or “unreliability“.

This is a feature that pervades all of reality for the Buddha; there is nothing that we can ever experience that is permanent, and this includes the self (anatta). This unreliability is in fact the basis for dukkha: craving or clinging (taṇhā) only creates dukkha because that which we cling to is necessarily anicca. That’s so whether we cling to the self, to physical objects, to views, to goals, to power, or to anything else. In fact, as the Buddha says in the Alagaddūpama Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 22) if there were a permanent object somewhere, we should cling to it:

“Monks, you would do well to possess that possession, the possession of which would be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change, that would stay just like that for an eternity. But do you see that possession, the possession of which would be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change, that would stay just like that for an eternity?”

“No, lord.”

“Very good, monks. I, too, do not envision a possession, the possession of which would be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change, that would stay just like that for an eternity. (22)

Hence any reformulation of the dhamma that allows there might be a “constant, permanent, eternal” possession such as a soul or God, which we might experience in meditation and to which we might cling, rejects perhaps the single most important aspect of Buddha dhamma: the truth of anicca. Of course, this isn’t to say that one cannot put forward a reformulated, thin Secular Buddhist dhamma along these lines, it is simply to say that such a dhamma is not original to the Buddha, and indeed is in many ways contrary to the Buddha’s most basic teaching.

In the Cūḷasīhanāda Sutta (MN 11) the Buddha distinguished his own doctrine from those of others of his day. In particular, he held up his own as the only dhamma that “describe[d] the full understanding of all kinds of clinging”:

Though certain recluses and brahmans claim to propound the full understanding of all kinds of clinging… they describe the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, and clinging to rules and observances without describing the full understanding of clinging to a doctrine of self. They do not understand one instance… therefore they describe only the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, and clinging to rules and observances without describing the full understanding of clinging to a doctrine of self.

Bhikkhus, in such a Dhamma and Discipline as that it is plain that confidence in the Teacher is not rightly directed, that confidence in the Dhamma is not rightly directed, that fulfillment of the precepts is not rightly directed, and that the affection among companions in the Dhamma is not rightly directed. Why is that? Because that is how it is when the Dhamma and Discipline is badly proclaimed and badly expounded, unemancipating, unconducive to peace, expounded by one who is not fully enlightened.

Bhikkhus, when a Tathagata, accomplished and fully enlightened, claims to propound the full understanding of all kinds of clinging, he completely describes the full understanding of all kinds of clinging: he describes the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. (12-14)

In prior paragraphs the Buddha makes clear that certain rival sects do agree with the Buddha that one should not (e.g.) cling to sensual pleasures, views, or rules and observances. It’s clinging to the doctrine of self in particular that distinguishes the Buddha dhamma from those of his rivals. Similarly, many contemporary Christians will agree that one should not cling to sensual pleasures, and that doing so will only lead to suffering for oneself and others. However they will not agree that the self is impermanent and changeable, and indeed many will claim to see the hand of a permanent divinity in meditative experience.

If we look to the history of the Buddha’s rivals, the agnostic skepticism put forward in thin Secular Buddhism is most akin to the “eel wriggling” or equivocation of Sañjaya Belatthaputta, for example in the Brahmajāla Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 1, and the Samaññaphala Sutta, DN 2:

“There are, bhikkhus, some recluses and brahmins who are endless equivocators. When questioned about this or that point, on four grounds they resort to evasive statements and to endless equivocation. …” (DN 1.61ff)

“When this was said, Sañjaya Belatthaputta said to me, ‘If you ask me if there exists another world [after death], if I thought that there exists another world, would I declare that to you? I don’t think so. I don’t think in that way. I don’t think otherwise. I don’t think not. I don’t think not not. If you asked me if there isn’t another world… both is and isn’t… neither is nor isn’t… if there are beings who transmigrate… if there aren’t… both are and aren’t… neither are nor aren’t… if the Tathagata exists after death… doesn’t… both… neither exists nor doesn’t exist after death, would I declare that to you? I don’t think so. I don’t think in that way. I don’t think otherwise. I don’t think not. I don’t think not not.’ (DN 2.32)

Thin Secular Buddhism recalls Belatthaputta in reliably evading all besides secular practice. When one encounters dhamma in this context, teachers may be unwilling to answer questions that they feel might turn off potential clients; so for example questions about eternal souls or God, or about anicca and anatta, are treated with equivocation. They become part of the dhamma if they feel right for you, otherwise not.

Thick Secular Buddhism

If thin Secular Buddhists look to garner the largest potential audience of practitioners, thick Secular Buddhists look to construct the most scientifically tractable form of the dhamma. Of course, just like thin Secular Buddhism, the thick form is not compatible with the entirety of the Buddha dhamma.

Since I have spent many blog posts outlining this vision, it’s perhaps not necessary to go through it again in detail. But as a quick summary, thick Secular Buddhism is a naturalistic vision, which is to say it accepts the results of mainstream science when it comes to descriptions of the causal nexus in which we find ourselves. Since mainstream science finds no evidence for devas, iddhis, rebirth or causally active kamma, thick Secular Buddhism rejects them as (at the very least) unproven, and (at the very most) demonstrably false.

This wiggle room between “unproven” and “false” is a fertile one within the philosophy of science. However if we are to take views such as the existence of philogiston, caloric, vital spirits, or Newtonian absolute space and time to have been scientifically disproven in the sense that most mainstream scientists would claim they are literally nonexistent, then there should be no problem in rejecting supernatural elements of Buddhist dhamma on the same grounds. It is always possible that the scientists are wrong, and that therefore these phenomena are real. However our best evidence says otherwise.

Was the Buddha “Thick”?

Though thick Secular Buddhism is clearly not compatible with certain elements of core Buddhist dhamma, I have argued that it is compatible with its very core, that is, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Behind both of these, of course, are the Three Marks of Existence: anicca, dukkha, anatta. All are broadly compatible with a scientific, naturalist vision of reality.

I say “broadly”. It is not correct to say that literally everything is always disintegrating and being reborn every moment. For example, certain fundamental particles have very long mean lifetimes: electrons last more than 4.6 x 1026 years, and protons last over 1029 years; both may indeed be everlasting. And there are additional questions about the existence status of abstract, scientific entities like mathematical objects.

However although these do establish the existence of certain, very small things that are at least “constant”, and more controversially perhaps permanent or eternal, they do not have the existential and psychological importance of a self or God. Electrons, protons and numbers do not reveal themselves as constant, much less permanent, in lived experience.

If thin Secular Buddhism is akin to the “eel wriggling” of Sañjaya Belatthaputta, then thick Secular Buddhism is akin to the “nihilism” of Ajita Kesakambalī.

It is “nihilistic” in denying any literal form of rebirth after death, hence denying any certainty of kammic justice. However it need not thereby deny the truth of certain ethical judgments: thick Secular Buddhism is perfectly compatible with a naturalist vision of the dhamma that values (the way things should be) are not captured in mere descriptions of natural states (the way things are). Or to put it another way, however things may be, there may still be skillful and unskillful ways of acting. There are certain ways we can act that promote general happiness and well-being, that promote the happiness and well-being of ourselves and of others, and there are other ways we can act that do not.

Claims such as these make thick Secular Buddhism a form of “naturalism” rather than strict physicalism. We need not go so far as to say that the only properties and objects are those discussed in physics in order to be friends of science. There are other sciences as well, and ways it is better and worse for us to think and act in the world.

An Internal Tension

As I see it, there is a tension within Secular Buddhism between two beneficial ways to construct contemporary dhamma. Thin Secular Buddhism holds out the broadest tent, one which promises to draw in committed believers from other religions and provide them with practical advice and aid in reducing suffering. However in so doing it is also comparatively theoretically nondescript; somewhat ‘thin beer’. We might say that like a tent, thin Secular Buddhism is thin but broad.

Thick Secular Buddhism holds out the deepest penetrating insight into reality, by accepting the results of mainstream science as our guide to reinterpreting the dhamma. It provides a robust and coherent theory, with a practice that promises to unite both naturalism and deep, psychological well being. However in so doing it is also comparatively limited in its audience. Relatively few naturalists are interested in a secular path such as Buddhism provides. And many potential Buddhists are not themselves naturalists, unwilling to give up long held faith in supernatural entities or processes.

It may be possible for some Secular Buddhists to contextualize their adherence to one or the other of these two options. To an extent, of course, we all contextualize our views in this way. However the risk in contextualizing is that we appear hypocritical or even dishonest to those who follow what we say and how we act over any considerable span of time.

Each form has its danger. The danger of thin secular Buddhism is that it becomes simply another form of cognitive therapy for aiding mundane wellness, or another form of cafeteria spirituality. The danger of thick Secular Buddhism is that it becomes inbred.

For myself, insofar as I subscribe to any “-ism” along these lines, I subscribe to thick Secular Buddhism. Yes, and I know some of you will say that’s very “thick” of me! While I see the psychological advantages of broad-based meditative practice, as well as the sociopolitical advantages of a ‘broad tent’ approach, the dhamma is more interesting and compelling to me when it provides depth.

Your mileage may vary.

Neither thin nor thick Secular Buddhism is one that Siddhatta Gotama himself would have accepted. Most likely, he would have rejected both of them as he rejected the views of Belatthaputta and Kesakambalī. But then so too would he likely have rejected most historical forms of Buddhist belief and practice, at least if we follow the Pali Canon as our guide. The question going forward is how to make the world a better place, and how to make ourselves better people. I hope that clarifying some of the issues surrounding Secular Buddhism will at least help along that path.