Secular Buddhism

Secular Buddhism

The ‘secular’ word has become very popular and you may have noticed that it appears in our web header. This  emphasises the fact that the foundation has always followed a secular approach that is non-denominational, not managed or formally connected with any particular Buddhist tradition and open to support by people from all backgrounds.

As well as being widely used, ‘secular’ can  seem controversial. Recently, there have been dire warnings from a range of senior religious figures and politicians about ‘aggressive’ or ‘militant’ secularism, and how it is destroying faith and the moral backbone of Europe.

What does secularism mean?

Wikipedia has this definition:

“The term “secularism” was first used by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851. Holyoake invented the term “secularism” to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. An agnostic himself, Holyoake argued that “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth… Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”

The final sentence of this quote already has a resonance with the Buddhist emphasis on direct experience and testing what is of value for oneself rather than blindly following scripture, conventions and what people may say – an enquiring, empirical and sceptical attitude found in the Kalama Sutta – a well-known and widely quoted early Buddhist scripture.

Secularism in its popular form has developed a political position which argues that the state should be neutral towards faiths and not privilege any faith above others or over non-religious movements. The opposite of political secularism would be a theocracy – a government run by religious authorities such as that found in Iran and a few other countries.

Most reasonable people, whether of faith or not, want government to be secular – they would not welcome a theocracy and want to limit the power of any one faith over the state. However, some senior religious figures and some politicians do want to maintain or increase the influence and power of religion (invariably their own). We should not be surprised at this – whatever else they offer, all religious institutions offer livelihood and status – and livelihood and status are things that people fight for.

Secularism is not the same as atheism – many people of faith are also secularists. Some of the current fuss about ‘militant secularism’ is because some religious institutions feel threatened by legislation that appears to reduce their privileges or makes it illegal to operate policy that discriminates against various groups in society – such as homosexuals and women. But it is true that in contemporary wealthy democracies such as the US and Europe, a growing number of citizens are very disenchanted with conventional religions and that ‘religiosity’ is in decline. It is associated with superstition, abuses of power, oppressive and antiquated behaviours and highly conservative attitudes. So some traditional religious adherents feel threatened and are trying to protect themselves, partly by labelling  these perceived threats as ‘militant secularism’.

Buddhism is not immune to contemporary anti-religious sentiment.

Secular Buddhism describes an attempt to outline and practise a non-denominational contemporary path – heavily based on Buddhist frameworks – and  that has been  developing over the past thirty years or so.

Some of the  features of this contemporary path of awakening are:

–    It is best to describe the underlying attitude as arising not so much as a reaction against orthodox Buddhism, but rather as the growing confidence of a contemporary Westernised contemplative awakening practice rooted in a normal human potential for awakening and for which Buddhism provides a highly valued traditional framework.

–       It adopts a sceptical, humanistic, naturalistic and evidence based approach emphasising personal experience and responsibility rather than unquestioned beliefs or supernaturalism

– it is uncomfortable with traditional  religiosity based on adopting a religious identity, power hierarchies, and pre-modern attitudes to gender, sexuality and the material sciences

– is uncomfortable with the ‘guru’ model or any teaching model that elevates some supposedly ‘enlightened’ individuals and cloaks them with a magical aura. This is a good way to encourage power abuses and corrupt the teacher.

–        It envisages a practice in and of this world, i.e. secular,  as in ‘these times; in this particular context’  that treats Western and modern culture as embodying many valuable aspects and insights including those arising from science, evolution, philosophy, psychology, democracy, liberal values, the arts, and its own religious traditions, and seeks to relate, reconcile and integrate these where there is synergy, with a balanced contemplative practice and engaged lifestyle

–       It tends to place a high value on early Buddhist teachings in the Pali Canon. These focus on the path to awakening (especially mindfulness) and are presented in psychological and sceptical terms more in keeping with modern attitudes

–      It is a grass-roots initiative – keen to emphasise the universality of the truths Buddhism (and other contemplative traditions) point to; truths that are potentially available to all who follow certain meditative, ethical and behavioural disciplines.

–       It is sympathetic to secular mindfulness and related training and practise systems that  aim to avoid stress, awaken participants to a good life, and that seek evidence to support their efficacy.

–     It supports all  practices (whether characterised as traditional or secular Buddhist) that sincerely aim to realise awakening

–       Secular Buddhism positively affirms a contemporary practice that can and does co-exist in sympathy with traditional Buddhist forms. Practitioners will attend retreats at traditionally run retreat centres as well as use Yoga and modern mindfulness training. They may be active supporters of one or more  traditions.  They listen and benefit from all teachings that are supportive of contemplative practice, gracious living, insight and compassion from ordained or non-ordained teachers.

–       It regards many of the cultural accretions of Asian Buddhism as being incidental to the truths that the Buddha pointed to, many of them not being necessarily supportive of practice in Western contexts and some which run counter to Western social norms

Finally,  this debate about supposed traditional and secular Buddhism is already outdated. The truth is that a popular movement for  contemplative and awakening practices is already well-embedded in the West.  It can be found in Yoga, Chi Gong, Tai Chi, meditation, mindfulness, psychotherapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and a host of related disciplines, courses, qualifications and teachings that are increasingly being offered in an entirely secular context and supported by scientific evidence.

And these practices are also being widely offered and promoted by traditional Buddhist institutions from Tibetan, Theravada, Zen and related backgrounds. Just have a look at what is being offered now at your local temple, monastery, vihara or retreat centre. For traditional lineages this has become a matter of survival: those who embrace secular mindfulness and related contemplative offerings will adapt and survive; those who stick to a conservative and/or dogmatic orthodoxy will serve a dwindling minority.



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