Secular Buddhism :: Part One :: What Is It?

This is Part One of a five part series, exploring some concepts of Secular Buddhism.  This post is the What, upcoming posts will examine Who, Where, When, and How.


Recently, and in the past few weeks in particular, there seems to have been an upsurge in the blogosphere about secular Buddhism.  Commentary has been from many different perspectives, including responses from philosophical writers, initial forays by monastics, and full discussions by practitioners of various traditions.  The posts and attitudes have also ranged quite widely, representing curiosity, sometimes dismissiveness, sometimes outright antagonism.

One trait they have typically lacked, however, is an experienced background with secular Buddhism itself.  Perhaps this is one of several reasons why those of us who either openly identify as secular Buddhists, or have some inclination to that kind of practice, find those posts not representative of secular Buddhist attitudes.  Of course, within our own community, there is tremendous variation in forms, techniques, approaches, and ideals, just as there is within any particular community of practice.  This diversity of manifestation of the dhamma brings with it a wonderful richness, providing options to scholars, meditators, laity, monastics, and the idly curious, and is a positive development in the ongoing growth of Buddhism.  There is in effect no one true secular Buddhism, as the root of “secular practice” can find many positive expressions still in alignment with core Buddhist principles.  This may, however, cause an understandable confusion when the topic comes up for examination and discussion.

This made the formulation of guiding principles of secular Buddhism (1) very challenging, as despite having input from several different kinds of very experienced thinkers, scholars, and practitioners, there were disagreements about how to articulate those principles.  Of course this is inevitable, as we each resonate with the particulars of the branch of the evolutionary tree on which we find ourselves.  Some of us found the inclusion of the historical Buddha to be critical to the principles of secular Buddhism, for example, while others saw such inclusion as limiting.

Neither was incorrect.  They are simply personal expressions of our own practice, based on our experience and understanding.  This is the rich diversity of human variation in action, and is not a “necessary evil”, but a wonderful opportunity for growing.  The challenge remains, however, to find a common reference for secular Buddhism.  What is it we can agree on not only within our own community, but with Buddhists in general, about what secular Buddhism is?

Most problematic is attitudes, as has been seen online.  Having a common language, a finger pointing at the moon so to speak, should be independent about the value judgements one makes about the moon itself.  Sadly that has not been the case, as attitudes about secular Buddhism have become entangled with simply identifying what we mean by secular Buddhism.  This not only does a disservice to any topic of discussion, it is simply poor thinking.  To move forward, we must have a common understanding of the topic.  We can fairly easily demark the basic difference between a bicycle and an automobile, for example, before comparing their values and limitations.

The first action to take, then, becomes ascertaining the core thread of secular Buddhism, distinguishing it from other kinds of Buddhism.  It is important to note that it is the core thread that is being sought here.  We are not trying to map out all the various ways in which that can find expression but find what they all share, and yet clearly do not have in common with other kinds of Buddhism.

A possible avenue for resolving this is to examine, briefly, the term secular Buddhism itself.  The word “secular” has several dictionary meanings (2), most of which describe it in terms of what it is not.  For purposes of this exploration to find a core trait, the first dictionary definition “of or relating to the wordly or temporal” is extremely beneficial for several reasons.

First, it is a positive proposition, not a negative; it says what secular is, not what it isn’t.  This is important because negative propositions can be limiting, as we see with atheist communities struggling with being ‘not-theistic’ in nature.   Lots of things are, but that doesn’t really give any guidance about what that specific community is.  Some solutions to this have been catch phrases like “Positive Atheism in Action” (3), or the more constructive expressions of Secular Humanism (4), but starting with a positive proposition may be the simplest solution.

Second, that dictionary definition places secular matters as pertaining to this world in this time, not some other world or some other time.  This sets the tone immediately: what is topical in secular expressions of practice is here and now, not another realm in another lifetime.

This leads to another component to secularism, one which seems to be a point of contention with more traditional attitudes.  Much of religious doctrine, including that of Buddhism, contains religious assertions.  That is, teachings which must be at least in the beginning taken on faith, rather than on any material evidence (5).  They may be assertions about the divine lineage of a prominent figure in the tradition, assertions about the spiritual meaning of observable events, or assertions about the historicity of the stories making up the tradition.  The importance and limitation of such assertions will be the topic of a later post.  For the purposes of this discussion, it is sufficient to ascribe the term “secular” as pertaining to what is in evidence — that is, what is demonstrable in the natural world.

Moving to Buddhism, we are immediately faced with what appears to be an oxymoron: a non-religious religion!  On the face of it, of course, it is a valid question to ask how such a combination has any material meaning.  However, one should consider that contemporary Buddhism is often faced with this identification problem of being a religion or a philosophy, as its practice is not dependent on the supernatural, and its founder was very clear about not being divine.  Of course, there are many of the forms of religion in the main branches of Buddhism, including ritual, monastic hierarchies, etc., but this does not mean that the average person cannot follow their tenants, and do so without worship of the divine.

This is not to say that religious forms are neither helpful nor meaningful to those who practice them, and those who are so inclined may benefit greatly from accepting faith assertions.  Secular Buddhism is not antagonistic to other kinds of Buddhism; rather, it is just another expression of practice which does not share that approach.  Secularists may question religious assertions, asking for evidence about them, as anyone should when faced with what is often a belief enjoying the status of privileged exemption from free inquiry.  It is an opportunity to demonstrate the reason one has a belief.

A descriptive issue remains: what is Buddhism?  Answering this question was most succinctly put by Siddhattha Gotama himself in his statement that he teaches suffering and the extinguishing of suffering, and that a teaching is valid, “When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.” (6)

We can see that secular Buddhism has a distinguishing characteristic from other kinds of Buddhism in that it is related to what is in evidence (what is demonstrable in the natural world); that which is not in evidence is not a dependency of secular Buddhism, and can be set aside.  Note that the choice of words “is not a dependency” and “can be set aside” is very intentional and key to the entire core thread of secular Buddhism.  Secular practitioners may or may not choose to exercise faith based forms like bowing, chanting, lighting incense, etc., it is simply that their practice does not depend on these forms to provide value.  That such forms can be set aside, does not mean that they always will be set aside.  And that setting aside does not mean they are disallowed, or somehow found to be lacking in value to others.  It is that secular practice, free from the dependency of forms and adherence to assertions not demonstrable, is far more accessible to a wider variety of people — traditionalists, secularists, and those of completely different faiths may find secular Buddhism to be of tangible benefit in their lives.  A possible core thread of secular Buddhism then becomes:

“What is in evidence in the natural world as a dependency to the reduction of suffering.”

Of course, this is an evolving practice in an evolving cultural setting.  The important thing is to take what is beneficial to your own practice!

*** Notes ***

5 “Faith” here is meant in the Judeo-Christian sense: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Heb. 11:1]
6  Kalama Sutta