On 17 September 2022, New York Insight Meditation Center hosted an online program, Perspectives on Secular Dharma. The program featured a panel discussion with Stephen Batchelor, Seth Zuihō Segall, and Karsten Struhl, moderated by Mike Slott. Over the course of the three hour program, the panelists engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue on key topics related to a secular approach to the dharma. While each panelist has a distinctive perspective, they found that they had much in common and appreciated each other’s unique contribution.
The program presented diverse viewpoints within the secular Buddhist community. Secular Buddhism is not an established institution, with a fixed set of ideas, beliefs, and practices. The term itself only began to be used less than 20 years ago and since then, as it has become more well known within the Buddhist community, there has been an ongoing discussion about the nature and role of a secular approach not just in relation to Buddhism but in terms of other perspectives and the wider society.
While there is a range of views within the secular Buddhist community, there are some important areas of agreement among those who are supportive of a secular or naturalistic approach:
- There is an emphasis on how the dharma is valuable to us for and in this life, helping to promote human flourishing. Secular Buddhism is a “this-worldly”, practical philosophy.
- Virtually all secular Buddhists share a skepticism about or rejection of some key concepts in traditional forms of Buddhism, such as rebirth in another life, as well as gods, devas and other supernatural entities, etc.
- The Buddha is seen as an historical person who provided us with important insights about how to live a good, meaningful, and ethical life rather than as a God-like figure with special powers.
- Secular Buddhists focus on those aspects of the Buddha’s teachings which are relevant to the challenges and problems that we face today in our lives.
- There is an emphasis on the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of Buddhism, how we can live more wisely, compassionately, and mindfully in this life, rather than acceptance of a set of beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality.
- Secular Buddhists recognize that individual transformation is intrinsically connected, both as a cause and effect, with the creation of a more a just society which gives all people the opportunity to flourish.
The program explored differences of emphasis and approach within this broad framework.
Stephen Batchelor began the discussion with an account of why he eventually found the label secular Buddhist to have a ‘more comfortable reach within my sense of at least who I am.’ For Stephen, the notion of secular entails both a shift away from a traditionally religious (in the sense of formal institutions, orthodoxies, and rituals) approach and one focused on this life. At the same time, he noted that ‘secular comes from the Latin word secular, which means this age…. and this secular that we inhabit is one that covers a much greater period than our immediate lifetimes. A secular practice is one which involves a clear recognition that this earth, which we share not only with humans, but with animals, is a place that we cherish.’
Stephen pointed out that we have to apply to Buddhism itself the Buddhist understanding that all things are conditioned and changing. Rather than see Buddhism as something fixed and complete, we need to see the development of Buddhism as a process; the secular Buddhist movement is just ‘another more contemporary way of describing what happens as Buddhism goes from one culture into another.’ How Buddhism will evolve in western culture is unclear, but we will need to respond imaginatively to the following questions: ‘How do we translate these core values and practices which we know have great value, not just for the individual, but for the societies we live in? And how do we translate that out of a largely religious language into a language that speaks to the condition of humanity and the world today?’
Seth Zuihō Segall
In his talk Seth Segall recognized the value of several core Buddhist ideas – interconnectedness and the critique of individualism, the connection of reason and emotion in the heart/mind, and the role of meditation in cultivating mindfulness and compassion. But Seth argued that we need an approach to the dharma which prioritizes the goal of human flourishing rather than the attainment of a perfect state of nirvana. He asserted that traditional forms of Buddhism have three problems. First, the non-naturalistic aspects of enlightenment, including rebirth, conflict with our contemporary commitments to naturalism and empiricism. Secondly, the absolutistic nature of enlightenment, the notion that one can achieve a complete and final state of mindfulness and compassion, is not helpful as such a goal is simply not possible. And thirdly, Seth claimed that we need to see human flourishing as the guide to our practice: ‘what I aspire to in life isn’t a complete end to desire and attachment…it’s a life which is emotional fulfilling, it’s meaningful, and it’s attentive to the ethical and aesthetic possibilities that lie within each moment.’
Seth has posted a version of the talk he gave at the New York Insight program on his Existential Buddhist website at https://www.existentialbuddhist.com/2022/09/enlightenment-vs-flourishing/
Karsten Struhl emphasized that secular and naturalistic Buddhists must recognize the integral connection between individual transformation and radical, social engagement. One of the essential elements of Buddhism’s moral vision is the injunction to have compassion, to be concerned with the suffering of all beings. But it’s necessary to recognize that ‘suffering is not just caused by the internal things that Buddhism highlights – our craving, our self-cherishing ourselves, our reactive tendencies, etc. – but that it also involves the way social institutions and relations impact us. We thus need to confront and to attempt to alleviate the social forms of suffering. things like impoverishment. homelessness, social devaluation, and various forms of oppression….’ Challenging these social forms of suffering, however, requires us to address their systemic roots in capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. and thus entails a radical form of social engagement.
Karsten also argued that while all forms of Buddhism can become socially and radically engaged, secular Buddhism is in a better position to do so. This is because it is not tied down with traditional assumptions about karma and rebirth that suggest that our social positions are at least in part the result of what we did in our past lives. This is also because much of traditional Buddhism’s concern with attaining nirvana and escaping samsara can downplay the social causes of suffering.
To read the text of Karsten’s talk at the Perspectives on Secular Dharma program, click below.
In the the panel discussion and Q&A that followed the presentations, the panelists discussed several important topics, including whether there is a role for ritual in a secular approach, the impact of mindfulness programs in our contemporary society, the distinction between secular and naturalistic Buddhism, which non-Buddhist perspectives contribute to human flourishing, and the kinds of social changes that are needed to create a mindful and compassionate society.
The constructive exchange of views at this program represented the kind of dialogue that helps us to develop an imaginative response to the crucial challenges that we face.