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.
How Did This Start?
In May of 2009, the podcast called The Secular Buddhist was published. It was the first time the term “Secular Buddhism” appeared in popular media, and quickly became a hub of a diverse and global community. The development 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.
That podcast began out of a very common experience: while there are many different kinds of Buddhism in the world today, the teachings and practice are finding new ways to connect with people in different personal, social, and cultural contexts. Heritage Buddhism has had hundreds if not thousands of years to co-evolve with their communities, and is an embedded and beneficial aspect of their cultural lives. But for some, this is not always the right fit for various reasons, including not being part of those cultures, or even if one was born into them, you may have different ideas about the world.
Can We Check This Out For Ourselves?
Within Buddhism is the idea of checking it out for yourself, or “ehipassiko,” translated as “come and see.” However, sometimes this is more lip service rather than genuine, deep questioning of how one can really know and experience something to be true. Sometimes “come and see” is more like “come and believe what we do, or keep looking until you do.” Secular Buddhism avoids that false questioning in favor of genuine exploration, and is willing to suspend required adherence to literal interpretations in favor of asking how they might apply to the world of today.
As a thought experiment, apply the same standards of acceptance to Buddhism as you may to other belief systems with which you don’t completely agree. If the assertion is afterlife in Valhalla, do you accept it or need more than someone else’s story? Even a very compelling experience in Buddhism may seem like it’s “real.”
For many, that’s enough, and that’s fine — this organization is disinterested and frankly unable to judge what is of value to others in their lives. But questioning, “How do we know that’s true?” and “How might this help me grow and learn?” are welcome and encouraged.
Collaborative Exploration, New Ways of Thinking
Secular Buddhism is not in antagonism to heritage Buddhism, or against ritual, or any other ways in which people find the sasana to be of benefit to them and others. It’s acknowledging that not everyone is culturally Asian or from Gotama’s time, to suggest otherwise would itself be cultural appropriation. Instead, the dhamma is doing what it has always done: touching my life as it is, and making changes.
Buddhism is a huge topic with a lot of history. If you’re new to Buddhism, 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.
Just as there are many kinds of Zen, or many kinds of Tibetan heritage Buddhism, there are different ways in which people engage with Secular Buddhism. Some may be more interested in Buddhism as psychology, others as philosophy, others as contemplative practice. None of these are wrong, any may be found in a secular approach.
So what do we mean by “secular?” Though the word has a common usage of contrasting to religious, that’s not how we’re using it here. Rather, we find value in the meaning of its Latin root saeculum, which focuses on this world and life. Rather than having as a core goal of ending rounds of a literal rebirth, Secular Buddhism’s primary focus is on how we are and what we do in this lifetime, and how that influences the world and generations to come. This is not to say there isn’t any value in the idea of rebirth, it can have tremendous impact when seen as a very real description of moment by moment experience. Kamma (or karma) is also meaningful without being tied to literal rebirth; just think of any long gone inspirational leader whose actions are still making an impact on the world today.
You may want to read our Guiding Principles for some bite sized nuggets of information.
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:
Secular Learning and Practice for Living Mindfully
Secular Buddhist practice varies little compared to traditional practices, though may have less focus on rites and rituals. If you like certain rituals, by all means go for it if it supports you in your practice. 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.
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 reduce if not eliminate suffering.
Meditation — Meditation is the practice where you develop mindfulness and concentration, practice loving kindness and self compassion, as well as bringing those skills into your daily life. Here are a few articles to help:
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.
Buddhism is also taking on modernity 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 themes that are emerging.
We encourage you to read our FAQ, as it will answer questions you may have about Secular Buddhism.
Rebirth and the Supernatural
Secular Buddhists have a variety of ways of approaching teachings or text where they see mention of past lives, future lives, or rebirth 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. 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. Here is further reading to help you:
What is a Secular Buddhist, and What Do They Believe
The Four Foundations of Secular Buddhism
On the Path
Is Secular Buddhism Cherry-Picking?
What is Secular Buddhist Practice
How an Atheist Practices Secular Buddhism
Secular Humanism and Secular Buddhism
Who is the Ultimate Authority?
On Subtracting What You Don’t Like
Making It Real
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. Please consider joining us for Practice Circle, our virtual community where we get together at regular times for video chat. These sessions have been led by Mark Knicklebine, and at each session he has special exercises for us and we share our experience with it.
If you have questions about any of this, you are welcome to use the Contact page and let us know!