We often get asked by traditional Buddhist, and people of all kinds, what is secular Buddhist practice? This is a great question, and I’ll do my best to answer, but I hope other secular Buddhist practitioners will also comment on this article to share any practices not mentioned here. Also, I want to remind everyone that we have a discussion forum that is dedicated to secular Buddhist practice, where people can ask questions and share their practice.
What is secular Buddhist practice? For the most part, secular Buddhist practice is identical to traditional Buddhist practice. In every Buddhist tradition to my knowledge, the following are vital practices:
- Meditation — Buddhist meditation consists of sitting or moving meditation, which is the way we develop mindfulness and concentration. Additionally from meditation, we develop insights overtime as our practice matures. There are variations in Buddhist meditation as to what object is used as a focal point, whether one is practicing general mindfulness, or pointed concentration. The breath or the body are often used as the focal point. Secular Buddhist meditation does not differ from traditional Buddhist meditation, but does not generally include the visualizations of Buddhas as practiced in Tibetan Buddhism. (Some secular Buddhists who came from that tradition, however, may continue those meditations as a part of their practice)
- Introspection — Introspection is used to examine the characteristics off all things in our world. The three main characteristics that are studied are impermanence, suffering, and not-self. This introspection is sometimes done while in meditation, but continues into every day life. This study of the world around us and within ourselves also does not differ from traditional Buddhist practice. Additionally, we consider and study the Four Noble Truths.
- Behavior — How we behave in the world is every bit as important to the secular Buddhist as traditional Buddhists. Mindfulness is essential to being aware of how we behave and interact with others. Our intent is to lessen our own suffering and the suffering of others. Therefore, we do our best to follow the Eightfold path: Right View (understanding the four noble truths), Right Intention (Pointing our intentions in the direction of good, healthy, friendly intentions), Right Action (Behave in ways that don’t cause suffering, and in ways that are helpful), Right Speech (Keeping our speech helpful and not hurtful, honest instead of deceptive), Right Livelihood (Work in occupations that do not bring suffering to others), Right Effort (Putting effort into a wholesome practice that benefits ourselves and others), Right Mindfulness (Developing mindfulness in all activities and stillness), Right Concentration (Developing concentration so that we listen attentively, tend to matters skillfully, etc).
- Engaging — An important part of practice may also be engaging in the world in ways that express compassion, perhaps by volunteering at shelters, donating to organizations, working on causes, etc. Additionally, engaging with others helps us to develop tolerance, patience, compassion, and wisdom. It’s also one of the most challenging areas of practice for many of us. All of the above comes into play while we are living our daily lives and interacting with others.
Those are the practices of secular Buddhists. What may or may not be included are rituals. Secular Buddhism in and of itself doesn’t have rituals, with the exception of regular sitting. However, as many secular Buddhists come from traditional Buddhist backgrounds, many incorporate some of the rituals they learned from previous traditions, such as counting mala beads or reciting text, doing prostrations, or lighting incense for meditation.
Some secular Buddhists avoid rituals for various reasons, and feel all the practices I mentioned above are really what’s important in Buddhist practice. There is no right or wrong when it comes to rituals. People have reasons for incorporating them into practice, or dismissing them.
When you read about Buddhist practice you will likely come across information on mindfulness and meditation more than anything else. This is likely because they are so integral for the rest of the practices to work and be integrated. If you aren’t mindful, it’s hard to practice right speech, for instance.
In summary, secular Buddhist practice is the same as traditional practices. We differ only in that our focus is on this life, and in this world. Regardless of what your thoughts are about rebirth or karma, what you practice today influences your tomorrow. No matter whether you feel death is the end of the line or the beginning of the next life, you have this life to work with, this suffering to understand.
What we all agree on is there is life before death, and this is where we practice.
If you have questions about the practices of secular Buddhists, please comment below. Also, please do share your practice!