Questions and answers about secular Buddhism

About Secular Buddhism – some questions and answers

Q. Why do you use ‘secular’? Is there a better word?

A. We have not found a better one to describe our approach – although terms such as ‘pragmatic Buddhism’ and ‘natural Buddhism’ come close. Other terms tend to be negative – like ‘non-denominational’ or ‘non-aligned’. These say a little about what we are not, but nothing about what we are.

Q. Is there a clear and agreed Secular Buddhist philosophy or orthodoxy?

A.No. This is an ‘organic grassroots movement’ that is still developing. However, there are a growing number of organisations and websites that describe themselves as secular and a number of teachers, academics, authors and practitioners who are setting up groups or organisations and articulating some key secular directions.

Q. Is Secular Buddhism anti-tradition?

A. No. Secular Buddhism is a positive movement founded on a sincere wish to practice a contemporary Buddhism that is both encompassing of all lifestyles and true to the early intentions and insights of the Buddha. However, Secular Buddhism does raise questions about the authority granted to scriptures, and lineages, and the applicability or relevance of historic cultural accretions to contemporary practice. The Secular Buddhists that I know often have friendly connections with one or more traditions and have great respect for all teachers – both ordained and non-ordained – who practice with integrity.

Q. Why is Secular Buddhism described as sceptical and naturalistic?

A. Scepticism based on a wish for clarity and honesty is a helpful attitude and one praised in Buddhism. Complacency and delusion grow when ‘good’ critics are silenced. A good critic is motivated by a wish to help and improve by pointing to contradictions, errors, confusion and unwarranted assumptions and beliefs that compromise the aims or behaviours of the group. So we are encouraging a compassionate scepticism that is sensitive to others rather than a destructive and insensitive cynical scepticism.

Naturalism is the assumption that the world and our experience operate according to patterns or laws that can be determined by honest and patient enquiry.

Science is based on a naturalistic assumption and looks for evidence for patterns and laws in nature. Both scepticism and naturalism are part of Secular Buddhism since the path described in early Buddhism is primarily a patient, pragmatic, empirical, and honest enquiry into our experience, and not the adoption of beliefs and dogma which make unsupported (by evidence) assertions about reality, the world, or our experience.

Q. And why is Secular Buddhism humanistic?

A. Early Buddhism is humanistic. The Buddha did not claim to be a God, but a human just like us, who had awakened. I find this comforting and helpful.

Q. Is Secular Buddhism non-religious even if not anti-religious?

A. This begs the question of what we mean by ‘religious’. There is an old debate as to whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy, and depending on what criteria are used and what traditions are examined, it can be both, or at least have both aspects. This is the case with most if not all major religions. There is little doubt that secular Buddhists practice in ways that are identical to those who regard themselves as disciples of a Buddhist tradition. They meditate, go on retreat, listen to Dhamma talks, use Buddhist ethical frameworks and associate with spiritual friends. The difference is that they may not identify closely with a particular tradition, or that they may be repelled by the need to comply with traditional cultural practices or (superstitious) beliefs that seem unnecessary to Buddhist practice, or contradict Western cultural norms.

Q. Do Secular Buddhists use devotional practices?

A. Practices such as chanting, bowing, and using incense and bells, are personal choices and some Buddhists find these very helpful. But some do not, and do not want to feel pressured into adopting these. A common experience for those involved with Buddhism, is the interested person who comes along to find out about meditation and Buddhism and is then repelled by feeling pressured to bow to statues and ordained clerics and chant words that they are uncomfortable with. This type of experience often turns these people away from Buddhism. They see it as just another superstitious religion requiring obedient disciples.

Q. What does it mean to integrate aspects of contemporary culture with Buddhist practice?

A. Thanks mainly to patient investigation by many outstanding people over many centuries, we have accumulated a growing body of knowledge about how human societies and individuals flourish – and what can prevent this, what forms of government are most liberating, how personal and organizational power can be harnessed and how it becomes corrupt, about our biological nature and evolution, and how our brains and minds work, and what causes or alleviates psychological suffering. Whilst most of these are still ‘works in progress’- and will remain so – many of them can offer powerful and proven assistance to people wanting to live well and graciously. And learning to live well and graciously is a large part of what the Buddhist path is about.

Not only can our growing modern knowledge integrate with Buddhist practice, but Buddhist practices can inform areas such as psychology. For example, mindfulness has become widely used in therapeutic and educational settings.

Q. Does Secular Buddhism lack a transcendent aim or belief?

A. I don’t think so. At the heart of early Buddhism is the Buddha’s enlightenment experience. This is described as an ineffable realization – one beyond words – but having a powerful impact on the whole character, psychology and subsequent behaviour of the Buddha. There is plenty of evidence from mystical traditions and modern research, that our mind / brains have a natural ability, given the right conditions, to go beyond normal everyday discursive thinking and to experience (what is felt as) powerful, liberating insight. Mystical (or wisdom) traditions have regarded these experiences as of great value. From a scientific perspective, these realisations are also increasingly being shown to have a long-term impact on our normal limited sense of self-hood, and to alleviate or remove existential suffering. They also seem to be linked with greater empathy and compassion and a whole range of other positive and measurable benefits.

Modern neuroscience is identifying various functions of our brains – specifically the relationship between our holistic systems that have a more direct and immediate appreciation of what we are sensing, with the modeling – discursive thinking language based -systems in which our awareness normally resides and which are narrow-focus abstractions of our total experience. Our default operating mode places our awareness within the modeling / re-presentational thinking structures often largely operating on previously stored behaviours – our autopilot. It is the floundering within these limited models of reality that are relatively fixed and always out of step with direct fluid experience, that creates the discordancy – suffering – that awakening avoids.

This explains the root cause of our suffering as being ‘ignorance’ – that we habitually perceive and interpret our world from a limiting perspective – our re-presentational / modeling systems.

Q. Isn’t taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and the four noble truths religious?

A. Possibly. But from a Secular Buddhist perspective, these teachings are rules of thumb, recipes, or pragmatic training guidelines for a good life, freedom from suffering, and the experience of enlightenment, rather than metaphysical beliefs. Taking the three refuges can be an affirmation of a belief in cherished ideas of the historic Buddha, in regarding his teachings as contained in, for example the Pali Canon, as sacred and literally true; and in demonstrating deference towards Buddhist clerics as the true inheritors and representatives of the Buddha’s teaching. This use of the refuges is both widespread and religious in tone.

However, the three refuges can also be a conviction in the reality of awakening (Buddha); a trust that there are regular patterns in life and our experience that can be known (Dhamma); and a trust in wholesome selfless qualities exemplified in ourselves and others (Sangha, especially the ariya-sangha). This second interpretation of the three refuges is more in keeping with Secular Buddhism. In fact, without trusting the refuges in this way it is hard to see why anyone would identify with the Buddhist path.

Similarly, the four noble truths and the eightfold path – if used a pragmatic way and not as beliefs – provide an encompassing framework for guiding our enquiry into the nature of suffering and awakening and in considering our lives in wholesome ways.

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