A brief history of secular Buddhism

January 12, 2020

The emergence of secular Buddhism in the west is part of the secularization that has been developing since before the Renaissance. Historically, secularity has constituted a centuries-long religious development, not a victory of science over religion. Today’s secularity is marked by a cultural decline of “enchanted” truth claims, particularly those involving supernatural phenomena or beings.

While secular Buddhists have been connected with various lineages, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, secular Buddhism can also be seen as a development out of certain modernizing trends within Theravāda Buddhism, the school of Buddhism now prominent in southern Asia.

As a means to bolster Buddhist adherence against the inroads of Christian missionaries in the late nineteenth century, some Theravādin religious leaders in southern Asia made monastic meditation practices and teachings available to lay people in modernized form.

After studying and practicing with Theravāda teachers in India, Thailand, and Burma in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jack Kornfeld, Christina Feldman, Sharon Salzberg, Christopher Titmuss, Joseph Goldstein and others brought this laicized dharma back to the United States and the UK. To make the dharma more relevant, they downplayed the hierarchical and patriarchal aspects of Buddhist monastic culture, as well as most of its ritualistic forms, in favor of a lay-oriented form of Buddhism which became known as the insight meditation movement.

However, while running dead on some aspects of traditional Buddhism, insight meditation has preserved many conventional teachings, such as the notion of nirvana as a permanent status and transcendence of the human condition, as well as a teacher’s charismatic authority based on dharma transmission and spiritual pedigree, or lineage.

Parallel developments occurred in the take-up of Japanese Zen Buddhism in the west.

The dharma takes root

Secular Buddhism represents the attempt to continue the process of rooting the dharma in modern western culture where the earlier non-monastic insight movement left off. Beginning with Stephen Batchelor’s groundbreaking work, Buddhism without beliefs (1997)secular Buddhists have sought to retrieve the teachings of Gotama, the historical Buddha, while bypassing their later religious appropriation and scraping away the cultural accretions of traditional forms of Buddhism.

At the same time they have explored how the teachings resonate with important schools of western philosophy, from the ancient Greeks to modern & post-metaphysical schools such as phenomenology, existentialism and American pragmatism. Secular Buddhists also query orthodox interpretations of the teachings, not least those that wed them to metaphysical truth claims.

Finally, secular Buddhists advocate fully egalitarian, inclusive and democratic sanghas (communities of practitioners) in which there is little or no distinction between teachers and other practitioners.

Secular Buddhist communities and websites have proliferated in the last twenty years, primarily (but not exclusively) in English-speaking parts of the world.

To take a deeper dive into the history of secular Buddhism, read Winton Higgins’ 2012 article, The Coming of Secular Buddhism: A Syntopic View.



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