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Secular Buddhism, Thin and Thick

Image courtesy of scottchan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of scottchan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

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  1. Mark Knickelbine on April 9, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Let me just say how grateful I am to have discovered the “thin beer” that helped me overcome depression, transformed every aspect of my life and introduced me to the lifelong path of the dharma. Given the five years I’ve spent growing and deepening my understanding of the infinite ways mindfulness addresses the existential challenges of human existence, I for one am thankful that mindfulness isn’t any “thicker” or I should never get through a tenth of it. My sincere wish is that everyone know the joy of a heart full of loving kindness, theists, New Agers, and philosophers included.

    • Doug Smith on April 9, 2013 at 3:18 pm

      Thanks, Mark. Either way, it can certainly be a wholesome practice.

      • Mark Knickelbine on April 9, 2013 at 6:52 pm

        Well, thank you for saying so. Because when I read a sentence like “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,” you may forgive me for appearing to recognize the same kind of condescension that one expects from traditionalists toward Secular Buddhism thick, thin, and just right. If “thick” Secular Buddhism has something better to offer than living in joy and equanimity, I’d certainly like to hear about it.

        • Doug Smith on April 9, 2013 at 6:56 pm

          Mark, I think you may have missed the first sentence in that paragraph: “Each form has its danger.”

          • Mark Knickelbine on April 10, 2013 at 8:04 am

            I caught it; but attempting to be magnanimous does not excuse spreading misinformation. It’s certainly commonly-circulated misinformation, especially among people who feel their spiritual/intellectual authority is threatened by the fact that there are many thousands of people practicing the dharma who don’t know a word of Pali or Japanese and care nothing about ancient Asian religious doctrines. My problem is that there are probably many people who believe that mindfulness IS just another psychotheraputic technique and, because they share the common ookiness about psychotherapy, will avoid mindfulness and miss an opportunity to learn and practice the dharma. And by using this unfounded stereotype to dismiss mindfulness, we shut ourselves off from the chance to observe what a successful form of secular dharma practice looks like. In any event, mindfulness as taught in MBSR and the other mindfulness-based approachs may be many things; “thin” ain’t one of them. Perhaps a term like “non-dogmatic” would be more appropriate, since you seem to be chiefly concerned with creating criteria for separating people into camps; if you insist on sending me to one corner or another, I’ll be with those who believe that the dharma is not in either suttas or science books but in the human heart, which we all share, regardless of philosophy or creed.



          • Doug Smith on April 10, 2013 at 8:25 am

            Mark, I took your original post here to be sincere. If in fact you feel that I was being, as you say, condescending and spreading misinformation, then I would appreciate it in future if you would be upfront about your feelings rather than pretending to a consideration you do not feel.

            My claim was quite clear: these are dangers of thin Secular Buddhism. They are not going to occur in all instances, no more than are all thick Secular Buddhists going to become inbred. I think a little appropriate distance from the subject will lead you to realize that I have tried to be as fair as possible to both approaches, which I sincerely believe to be beneficial, although I personally tend to one rather than the other. Indeed, I believe them to be complementary. Any social movement requires both sides: bridges and foundations, as it were.

            The notion that in pointing out the dangers of each I am somehow impugning you or dismissing mindfulness is simply incorrect, a form of grasping. And I would be a bit careful about claiming the mantle of “non-dogmatism” in such a guise.



          • Mark Knickelbine on April 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm

            Doug, I apologize if the irony of my referring to how “thin beer” as you called it transformed my life was not sufficiently obvious. You were certainly not impugning me, but the whole point of your post is to suggest we ought somehow separate the sheep from the goats, and I note the goats come in for all of the dismissive language, so you will forgive me for perceiving that you intended to impugn somebody.



          • Doug Smith on April 10, 2013 at 2:40 pm

            *Sigh*.

            Mark, you’re taking things out of context. I also said that thin SB had “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”, and that thick Secular Buddhism was “limited” and risked becoming “inbred”.

            I further said that both thin and thick SB were “two beneficial ways to construct contemporary dhamma.”

            If you only pay attention to the negatives addressed to your preferred approach you will get an incorrect interpretation of the message I was trying to get across.

            Really, there’s no reason to take this personally. If you must know, my family has had good experience with MBSR only very recently. I don’t want to get into medical specifics on the public internet, but I bear the practice only goodwill, and hope it thrives. But I also think that SB is more than just MBSR. I know we disagree on that, but as Ted might say, “That’s okay!”



  2. Nausauket on April 10, 2013 at 5:14 am

    Great post, Doug. My wife and I agree that I am in your camp. That I am, in fact, quite thick!

    • mufi on April 10, 2013 at 6:59 am

      I’m not sure which camp I fall into, but then the beauty of the big tent metaphor is that it’s wide enough to cover more than one camp.

      • Doug Smith on April 10, 2013 at 7:09 am

        True, and to an extent the distinction is theoretical: we all move about somewhere in between, along the continuum. And context matters a whole lot: in one circumstance we may be ‘thicker’, and in another, ‘thinner’. Nevertheless it’s a continuum that’s worth exploring, as we move forward.

    • Doug Smith on April 10, 2013 at 8:49 am

      Thanks, Nausauket! Sounds like our wives think along the same lines! 🙂

  3. mufi on April 10, 2013 at 7:47 am

    Doug: Nice job (as usual).

    I’m reminded of something Gil Fronsdal said in an interview with Tricyle (over ten years ago):

    I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around [the three marks/characteristics of existence]. Sure, in some ways everything’s impermanent. The mountains are impermanent-that I could accept. But that the mountains were suffering seemed a little odd to me. And that the mountains were “not-self’ also had little meaning for me. The teaching that everything was impermanent made sense logically but remained, somehow, only a view without much personal meaning.

    Eventually, I decided that I could only understand the three characteristics as describing the nature of how I experienced the world. There are lots of problems in claiming to know what reality actually is, what it is like. I don’t see Buddhism as a form of physics. Rather, I saw mindfulness as revealing how I perceive the world.

    I suspect that this idea is more or less what Stephen Batchelor was trying to convey in his Journal of Global Buddhism essay (from last year):

    As soon as the seductive notion of “truth” begins to permeate the discourse of the dharma, the pragmatic emphasis of the teaching risks being replaced by speculative metaphysics, and awakening comes to be seen as achieving an inner state of mind that somehow accords with an objective metaphysical “reality.”

    [As an aside: I think the main difference here is that Fronsdal’s words are less easily (mis?)construed as a postmodern-ish or hyper-skeptical criticism of all truth claims.]

    In other words, perhaps the three marks of existence are better understood as the three marks of experience – at least for those of us who share or endorse Gotama’s creative insight into the human condition.

    By “better”, I don’t mean to suggest that Gotama intended that message (or at least I’m not prepared to defend that idea as an historical claim), but rather that it’s a valid (re)interpretation of the dhamma that seems likely to work well for many modern practitioners.

    I’m not sure that it’s as “thick” as what you describe here as “Thick Secular Buddhism”, given its apparently close adherence to the words of the Pali Canon, except for those which imply supernatural belief, but it definitely seems thicker than what you describe here as “Thin Secular Buddhism.”

    • Doug Smith on April 10, 2013 at 8:36 am

      Thanks, mufi. I agree with Fronsdal: the mountains can’t literally be dukkha, if we take dukkha as “suffering”. That may be more reason to translate “dukkha” as something more akin to “unsatisfactoriness”, and in the context of mountains their being unsatisfactory isn’t very different from just saying that they are anicca, or impermanent/unreliable.

      Some of Batchelor’s descriptions, like the one you cite, I find unhelpful for the reasons you suggest, so I would prefer to leave them aside. But we don’t need to talk simply about experience: mountains are in fact anicca in a very real sense: all macroscopic physical objects really are changing all the time. That’s why I stuck to elementary particles, since (so far as we know) they are the only sorts of things that really don’t change to any degree, save in location. They aren’t made up of parts (at least the electron isn’t; again, so far as we know).

      But the Buddha wasn’t interested in elementary particles. He did understand that mountains wear down over time, so must be seen as impermanent in each moment, though perhaps indistinguishably. And for dukkha, clearly our lived experience is what matters, rather than whether or not some mountain may in fact remain relatively unchanged during our lifetimes.

      At any rate as I say this is a fertile continuum between thin and thick; the ‘endpoints’, such as they are, are basically conceptual fictions.

      • mufi on April 10, 2013 at 9:05 am

        And for dukkha, clearly our lived experience is what matters, rather than whether or not some mountain may in fact remain relatively unchanged during our lifetimes.

        I’ll go a step further and say that I don’t trust the Buddha or the Pali Canon as a source of information on how the world/nature/reality generally works – any more so than I trust the Hebrew Bible or the works of Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers. For that, I’ve got a wealth of modern, up-to-date sources that I go to.

        But, when Fronsdal speaks of the Buddha’s teachings as “describing the nature of how I experienced the world” and as “revealing [or affirming] how I perceive the world” – e.g. even if/when modern science & philosophy (or “sci-phi”) suggests that my perception is more like deception – I can more easily relate to and appreciate them.

        Of course, this is only at the conscious level of reflective or analytical thought, whereas the ways that regular mindfulness practice can make me feel and behave (on average and relative to what my life was like prior to adopting this practice) are more likely the main incentives here, and that’s admittedly more on the “thin” end of the spectrum that you’ve drawn here.

        • Doug Smith on April 10, 2013 at 9:13 am

          I’ll go a step further and say that I don’t trust the Buddha or the Pali Canon as a source of information on how the world/nature/reality generally works …

          Absolutely. It’s instructive from a historical POV to try to understand where they were coming from, but that’s a different matter.

          That said, what makes me interested in Buddhism rather than, say Christianity is that the Buddha’s insights into the conditioned and impermanent nature of reality are much more scientifically tractable than those one gets from the Bible. So it’s not that we should take the Buddha as our source of information; rather, it’s that in taking science as our source of information we find that Buddhism is a pretty good fit. (Not a perfect fit, but a pretty good fit).

          Re. your regular mindfulness practice, this folderol about kinds of Secular Buddhism is basically beside the point. It’s more of a programmatic or procedural matter, about how properly to construct a social movement of a certain sort. About what we might want to be considering, and the options before us.

          • mufi on April 10, 2013 at 9:59 am

            Agreed on all counts.

            Re: the social movement, do you envision (Thick) Secular Buddhism as becoming an independent school of Buddhism – analogous to Theravada or one of the Mahayana or Vajrayana traditions? more as a strain of thought (analogous to religious liberalism or religious naturalism) that might infiltrate and reform those traditions from within? or both?

            And (what’s perhaps more up your alley) are you prepared to say that Secular Buddhism has as legitimate a claim to the mantle of Buddhism (Sans Adjectives) as one of those traditions – bearing in mind that they, too, introduced changes and/or “enhancements” that Gotama may have rejected, and yet (in my experience) their adherents do not hesitate to speak in the name of Buddhism (Sans Adjectives)? or is it too soon to say?

            Please don’t feel obliged to answer in this comment thread. These questions may just as well serve as seeds for future additions to your excellent series here.



  4. Dana Nourie on April 10, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Doug, thank you for this interesting categorization. Something that jumped out at me and that I disagree with is this:

    “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.”

    I have to disagree with thin Buddhism becoming “simply” another form of cognitive therapy, or that it’s a “danger”. While I think I know what you mean by that, the cognitive therapy aspect of mindfulness is HUGE! In fact, I’m sad to say many people who have been practicing Buddhism for years seem to miss out on that cognitive therapy improvement and don’t seem to benefit at all. So what MBSR and psychotherapists are doing with mindfulness really packs a beneficial punch! That they have been able to take a part of Buddhism and get so much mileage out of it is truly wonderful and amazing, not a danger.

    Even if all you got out of Buddhism is that everything is impermanent so you loosen your hold on expectations and outcomes, then you have gained a great benefit of the practice. I wouldn’t minimize these kinds of “cafe” Buddhism or spirituality.

    Oh, what do you mean by the danger of thick Buddhism is it becoming “inbred”?

    I also balked at this, “Neither thin nor thick Secular Buddhism is one that Siddhatta Gotama himself would have accepted.” No one can possibly know if Gotama would have accept either or both of these. I’m always surprised when people say, I don’t think Buddha, or Jesus, or Zeus would have thought anything in particular. I’d like to think Buddha would be hunky dory with secular Buddhism, but who knows! I sure don’t, and we can’t tell from those old text. That’s like asking, What would Jesus do? He and Buddha both had moments of constrictions, said different things to different people.

    I don’t know that I fit into either of these categories, but it was interesting to read through. Interesting article though!

    • Doug Smith on April 10, 2013 at 11:52 am

      Hi Dana, and thanks for your reply. I’ll try to take it in bits.

      I have to disagree with thin Buddhism becoming “simply” another form of cognitive therapy, or that it’s a “danger”. While I think I know what you mean by that, the cognitive therapy aspect of mindfulness is HUGE!

      Of course it is, and I don’t mean to deny that. (And I think you know that, when you say you know what I mean by it). As elements from Buddhism become another form of cognitive therapy, there is the risk that they become less a form of real, separable Buddhism. Now, perhaps you’ll say that that isn’t a risk, it’s a benefit. OK, but if the issue here is about Secular Buddhism in particular, then it remains a sort of risk. Perhaps it’s a very small risk, in the sense of being unimportant to you. If so, OK, but it’s worth discussing.

      More serious is the risk that it becomes a form of café spirituality; that is, philosophy lite. Again, perhaps you will say that this is not a big danger, in that it’s not particularly important, that philosophy lite can be helpful in its own way, etc. OK. But here’s one thing: I think this sort of approach will not appeal to many potentially interested people: they may want something with a bit more depth. Insofar as SB is presented as something with a very thin dhamma, it may seem banal to some, and hence lose some of whatever transformative power it might have. Again, for some people. Not for everyone, of course.

      Oh, what do you mean by the danger of thick Buddhism is it becoming “inbred”?

      Yeah, I should have said more about that. By “inbred” I mean basically that thick Secular Buddhism could become like some stereotypes of Secular Humanism: isolated, small groups of aging folks arguing about which manifesto is the correct one, for decades and decades, without interacting much with anyone else. That would be a danger. But again, perhaps it would be a great thing for those folks, and so not much of a danger at all …

      No one can possibly know if Gotama would have accept either or both of these.

      Hm. I’m always surprised when people claim that we cannot possibly know something for which there is abundant evidence, however problematic. Sure, the Pali Canon is an imperfect guide to the Buddha’s beliefs. But it is a guide. I sometimes think that I should always just say, “the Buddha of the Pali Canon” instead of “the Buddha”, but that’s too cumbersome, and without the Pali Canon the Buddha is basically nobody.

      If you think that my arguments for why the Buddha wouldn’t have agreed with thick or thin Secular Buddhism are wrong, it might be interesting to hear why. I’ve presented copious textual documentation as to why he would have deep problems with both.

      Of course, as you say, we’d all like to think that the Buddha would be hunky dory with Secular Buddhism. But it’s one thing to say we’d like to think such-and-so, and another to say there’s good reason to believe such-and-so. In this case, I don’t think there’s any good reason to believe it.

      Further, what does it really matter if the Buddha wouldn’t be hunky dory with Secular Buddhism? There are many current forms of Buddhism that he likely would reject. Since we are agreed that Siddhatta Gotama wasn’t infallible, and certainly wasn’t omniscient, he was prone to error and mistake as much as any ancient thinker. It’s to be expected that his ideas would fall somewhat short of contemporary standards, particularly when scientific evidence comes to play.

      As a general point, in writing my pieces I am always hoping to generate intelligent, level-headed discussion about these matters. I don’t expect that we’ll all agree on each point, of course! 🙂

  5. Dana Nourie on April 10, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks, Doug, yes, I come from the place that a tiny bit of Buddhism is good and more is possibly better, but not necessarily. I’m good with whatever works to lessen one’s suffering and help them attune to the time they’re here.

    On what Buddha would have thought, I do see your point, but then I have another Buddhist tell me Buddha would have thought the opposite, and all of you base it on the same book:-) So, I only speak from experience of having people say the evidence is, and then having someone else find contrary evidence. For myself, I have no idea what Buddha would have thought of secular Buddhism, but I do know it works well with me.

    I am guilty of cherry picking the suttas. When I come across one that makes sense to me, that I can put into practice and see what happens, I tend to call it a good sutta. When I come across one that talks about rebirth after decay of the body, I skip it to something more useful, or see if there is a metaphor for rebirth of the selfing process. A lot of people will say I’m in danger of missing the path, but I’m a materialist who needs evidence in this life.

    I’m going to reread your article again later, because this form of categorization is new to me and I found it interesting. Again I do appreciate your take!

  6. Terry on April 10, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Doug, love your post and this thread! Have done some thinking on where I fit in.

    Having come from the engineering/business practical side of education, the scientific method and what works when an idea is tested, has been my M.O. Thus, I had an Atheist/Humanist approach to my naturalistic view. I also did TM meditation starting in the 70’s when overwhelming personal issues arose to relieve stress. Then 6 months ago joined a secular Buddhist meditation group and became interested in mindfulness meditation and book readings and discussions. That caused me to find out more about all types of Buddhism, find this website and question whether this site was a metaphysical free zone before I trust it!

    Funny thing on the way to the Forum, I realized that my rigid views on the metaphysical were causing me suffering because I was intolerant of most peoples’ religious views and that is a lot of stress to take on for one sentient being. Some of the people I railed against were within my own close family circle and it caused problems due to my view.

    I found the solution for me was to take a more agnostic approach by personally discounting metaphysical views because they defied logic, but accepting others’ right to their views because they aren’t yet determinable as to truthfulness. I came this view after researching the Buddhist practices and superficially studying the core secular ideas expressed on this website. In fact this view has allowed me to understand and accept in kindred spirit with others because I have experienced the benefit of mindfulness practice as others might experience similar mind strengthening benefits of prayer and the metaphysical (Newberg, Andrew B.; Waldman, Mark Robert (March 24, 2009). How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist).

    As others have said on this site, what makes me attracted to secular Buddhism is that it gives me logical and practical instruction to solve life’s problems with as you say “The Three Marks of Existence, The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path” and as Linda extolls, the theory of Dependent Origination which I am now studying.

    I like the site concepts to be in clear contemporary language so that I can understand them readily(w/o Sanskrit/Pali/Tibetan language) and don’t put a whole lot of stock into religious interpretations except in the historical contextual sense. However,
    I do like paradoxically, to have the theoretical philosophical minds, such as yourself Doug, to base their secular opinions(such as Kamma, Not-Self) on sound referenced research whether it be Gotama, Bodhi, Buddhadasa, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pali Canon Sutras or Parfit.

    I must be a big tent guy, since I would welcome anyone that can benefit from secular Buddhist mindfulness thinking or the core practices and find the site helpful for their Dukkha. However, my tent needs to be based on the Gotama core practices to be called secular Buddhism. For me, unproven/not provable metaphysical site proclamations would be not be secular and clearly outside my tent, but maybe still in the big tent for a so inclined sentient.

    • Doug Smith on April 10, 2013 at 2:44 pm

      Thanks, Terry, I’m glad it was helpful to you.

      I certainly agree about the unproven or not provable metaphysical claims. I think the Buddha also made some (roughly) proven metaphysical claims, such as that reality is anicca and anatta, so I have no problem with metaphysics generally. But that’s the philosopher in me talking.

      • Terry on April 11, 2013 at 1:25 pm

        Thanks, you bring up food for thought, I (my wiser self) may agree with you at some point.

        As far as impermanence/not-self/suffering, I think I remember Gotama saying that beginning of these(at least suffering) was not possible to know and wasn’t important to the process of relieving clinging. So did Gotama leave the possibility that the “process” of beginning may be metaphysically permanent(1) or that the “punt” of not ever possibly knowing the nature of beginning actually be a metaphysical claim (2) or was this just Gotama proposing negative infinity(3)? Is this not where some myths have crossed into metaphysical territory and why secular Buddhism(without a creation myth) is so compatible with naturalistic thought and other myths are not?

        • Doug Smith on April 11, 2013 at 2:59 pm

          Thanks, Terry. You bring up important points, which I hope to get to in future blog posts. But in general even secular naturalists have a metaphysics: it’s one based on the findings of science. So we say that spacetime is curved, as Einstein showed. This is a metaphysical claim, the existence of curved spacetime, but it’s based on empirical investigation. I think it’s arguable that the Buddha had a similar approach, one based on his own investigations.

          • Terry on April 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm

            Thanks Doug, I always enjoy your blogs and look forward to your philosophical daring do. Bravo!



  7. Robert M. Ellis on April 11, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    I found this an interesting exploration of tensions in secular Buddhism, but not really very helpful as an analysis, because it seems to tell us much more about your assumptions than about any consistent pattern in the ideas and practices you are discussing.

    To start with,”thick” and “thin” are sometimes used in philosophy to mean something like “emotionally connected” for “thick” and “dry and cerebral” for “thin” – but I don’t see what this has to do with the two sorts of secular Buddhism you identify here. Are you trying to claim that naturalistic secular Buddhism is better connected to emotional experience? If so, I can’t see your grounds for doing so.

    Secondly, in ‘thin’ SB you identify a philosophical approach (agnostic scepticism) with emphasis on a particular set of practices (MBSR). The link seems to be that you think agnosticism functions so as to keep supernatural believers on board, because they can engage in a pared-down practice regardless of world-views. But I would suggest that this kind of practical focus involves much more ignoring philosophical issues than being agnostic about them. Sceptical agnosticism, on the contrary, is deeply challenging to traditionalistic supernatural world views in Buddhism or elsewhere. You have no justification for seeing agnosticism as a kind of uncritical New-Agey sponge when it can be based on a rigorous critical process. Nor does it have anything necessarily to do with ‘eel-wriggling’ or temporising, when it can be a clear and defined philosophical position.

    Thirdly, your whole distinction between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ is based on a false dichotomy. The relationship to science and rigorous thinking that you want to get from ‘thick’ SB could be more effectively based on sceptical agnosticism, implying provisionality of belief about scientific theories based on evidence, than it can from naturalism, without needing to reject the openness of approach to other kinds of experience that is the merit of ‘thin’ SB as you depict it.

    Your paragraph beginning “This wiggle room between “unproven” and “false” is a fertile one within the philosophy of science.” almost seems to bear this point out. If you really want to recognise the possibility that scientists may be wrong and yet to confidently adopt a scientific theory, provisionality of belief is crucial. Provisionality of belief does not mean new-Agey sponginess as you seem to assume, but is the basis of a rigorous scientific approach that nevertheless avoids slipping into dogmatism. Such an approach is neither ‘thin’ nor ‘thick’, but navigates between them, though on the philosophical basis you identify with ‘thin’.

    Finally, I agree with you that we cannot identify the Buddha’s position with either ‘thin’ or ‘thick’ positions. However, the reason for this is not just the issues of interpretation you discuss. Oddly enough, although nobody but me seems to want to talk about this for some reason, the Buddha taught the Middle Way. This is pretty clear – the Pali Canon and also the Mahayana scriptures mention it regularly, both directly and indirectly. The Middle Way involves avoiding both eternalism and nihilism, and your analysis appears to be just another version of the eternalist v nihilist argument, where you identify ‘thin’ with eternalism and ‘thick’ with nihilism. As you suggest, practically there does need to be room in the secular Buddhist movement for people with both tendencies. However, that doesn’t mean that we should be reinforcing the false dichotomy between the two in theoretical discussions. I wish we could be discussing the finer points of the interpretation of the Middle Way – but instead of that we still seem to be struggling to reach base 1 in acknowledging that the Buddha’s insights have a pragmatically-oriented dialectical structure rather than being an attempt to describe a ‘reality’. In doing so we are just reproducing the eternalist and nihilist errors of the Buddha’s interlocutors.

  8. Rick Heller on April 11, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Doug,

    I think “thick” vs. “thin” are useful analytica categories. But I doubt there really are very many “thin” secular Buddhists. Also MBSR might be thin, people who graduate the program who continue seek Insight Meditation Centers or perhaps Zen centers to continue and deepen their practice. I can’t think of “thin” sanghas that exist outside of this medical setting.

    So Insight and Zen and other forms of Buddhism are “thick” and we’re trying to create another type of thick, substantial path. Personally, I have gotten a lot out of Insight meditation, but there are two reasons I and others in the Cambridge Secular Buddhists have come together to form a secular group:

    1. Many of us have the same experience of attending the local Insight Meditaiton Center and, while benefiting from the practice, finding it difficult to meet and talk to other people. There is such a strong atmosphere of silence that people pass each other like ships in the night.

    2. While one can be a naturalist and be comfortable in an Insight Meditation Center, the culture there is not as skeptical and questioning as those of us with a strongly skeptical cast of mind would prefer.

    Regarding Zen, I’m told that it’s secular, but the robes and prostrations just feel religious to me. I also find the paradoxical language just confusing, not enlightening.

    In sum, I want something with substance, that builds community, and communicates in clear language.

    • Doug Smith on April 12, 2013 at 4:50 am

      Hi Rick, and thanks. You make good points. As regards different centers, of course it will depend on the teacher, how each is run, and can even depend on which sub-group one attends. As I say, I don’t mean that this is an all-or-nothing, thick-or-thin matter. It’ll be a continuum of sorts between two (largely theoretical) extremes of complete inclusion, and rigorous, explicit, scientific naturalism.

      The question is how to negotiate that continuum, since both sides have their advantages and disadvantages.

    • Mark Knickelbine on April 12, 2013 at 8:25 am

      Rick, one of the things that makes MBSR such a robust practice is that it is founded on the understanding that mindfulness is relational. In the group I practice with, we spend part of every session in dyads or small groups practicing mindful speech and listening exercises, and then come together at the end for whole-group discussion. This reinforces the interpersonal atunement of the group and, for me anyway, promotes an embodied sense of shared humanity. I never had this kind of experience at the local Zen center or on half-day sits with the local Theravadin group. From the perspective of promoting shared awakening, perhaps it’s these traditions that are “thin.”

    • Ron Stillman on April 12, 2013 at 11:24 am

      “Many of us have the same experience of attending the local Insight Meditation Center and, while benefiting from the practice, finding it difficult to meet and talk to other people. There is such a strong atmosphere of silence that people pass each other like ships in the night.”

      Rick, I had the same experience when I attended Theravadan sanghas in different locations. It appeared to me that there was, for many of the attendees, a predisposition toward “intellectualism”.

      “Socially, ‘intellectualism’ negatively connotes: single-mindedness of purpose (‘too much attention to thinking’) and emotional coldness (‘the absence of affection and feeling’).” Wikipedia

  9. strawdog56 on April 26, 2013 at 3:18 am

    I feel free to move between the to tents as I please.

    • Mark Knickelbine on April 28, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      Good for you, Dog. I’m sure you’ve noticed in the process that there aren’t really two tents at all.

  10. strawdog56 on April 29, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Thanks Mark, I have found we all have our own prospective. However as I have a pantheist foundation, I belive, through Insight meditation,I come to know the true Being behind the mind.

  11. Jay N. Forrest on December 20, 2015 at 2:12 am

    Hi Doug, just wanted to say thank you for this post. I have been thinking along similar lines. I see what you call thin as Buddhist minimalism and what you call thick as Buddhist naturalism. A minimalist ignores the presuppositions of early Buddhism, while a naturalist evaluates these presuppositions in the light of scientific feasibility.

    • Doug Smith on December 20, 2015 at 7:13 am

      Thanks very much, Jay. Yes, and there is certainly room for both, though each of us will tend towards one way or the other in our preference.

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