A missed opportunity: a review of ‘Secularizing Buddhism’

Shambhala Publications has just released a new collection of essays on different aspects of the secularization of Buddhism in the contemporary world. This is an extremely important topic and I looked forward to gaining a greater understanding of the dynamics and issues regarding secularization trends, including the development of secular Buddhism, by reading the book.

Unfortunately, Secularizing Buddhism: new perspectives on a dynamic tradition fails in large part to provide what the editor of the book, Richard Payne, says is his intention – ‘to provide a snapshot of this moment, but a snapshot that is multidimensional in nature’ (p. 6). With some important exceptions noted below and despite Payne’s claim that the goal of the book is not to promote or discredit the secularization movement, the book puts forward a critique of secular Buddhism which is based on a mischaracterization of those advocating such an approach, particularly Stephen Batchelor.

Astoundingly, a book about the secularization trend in Buddhism does not include as contributors Stephen, Winton Higgins, or any other writers who identify as secular Buddhists. So, the snapshot in fact crops out a whole range of views in order to call into question the viability and legitimacy of a secular approach to the dharma.

At the same time, the snapshot is blurry in different places because of some contributors’ lack of conceptual and definitional clarity. Secularization, secular mindfulness, and secular Buddhism are often used interchangeably as terms. Thus, a critique of mindfulness as reinforcing a neoliberal view of the self is extended to secular Buddhism without recognition of the crucial role of sanghas and social transformation in most key secular Buddhist writings.

Positive features of the book

Nonetheless, the book is worthwhile reading because some of the contributors do provide insightful analyses of the complex ways in which secularizing trends in Buddhism have emerged and developed.

One key point made by Payne and several other contributors is that we need to see opposed terms like secular and religious, modern and traditional, etc. as both culturally constructed and dynamically related to each other. None can exist without the other. We also have to be aware that the positive and negative evaluations given to these terms are not objective or neutral but are always based on certain cultural assumptions and philosophical perspectives. Thus, when we give a positive valence to the term, secular, in contrast to the term, traditional, we need to be conscious of the whole set of assumptions and perspectives on which that distinction is based.

In a summary form, let me highlight some of the other important contributions.

In his chapter on the sense of self in contemporary society David McMahan sees ‘secular subjectivity’ as being marked by a tension between individualism and the fragmentation of the self which is due to various social and cultural forces. McMahan explores how this tension has impacted Buddhists’ understanding and practice of non-self, meditation, and interdependence in both traditional and secular forms of Buddhism. Within the diverse ways in which Buddhists have responded to secular subjectivity, McMahan identifies an even more fundamental tension: ‘….between versions of Buddhism as mainly a private manner – a matter of personal experience and psychological health – and Buddhism as more active and engaged in the monumental social, political, and ecological problems of the present age’ (p. 77). McMahan urges Buddhists to recognize the value of the latter.

While Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article mostly focuses on delineating the differences between secular, traditional, and what he calls ‘immanent’ Buddhism, while asserting that ‘….Secular Buddhism could be putting in jeopardy the future of the dharma as a genuine path to liberation’ (p. 171), he, too, identifies the need for Buddhists of all persuasions to be socially engaged, to respond to the political and economic systems of oppression and exploitation which threaten the lives of human beings and the existence of our planet.

In her chapter on ‘The Shared Origins of Traditionalism and Secularism in Theravada Buddhism,’ Kate Crosby makes another important point. She examines the complex, conflictual developments in Theravada Buddhism as monastics and lay practitioners tried to preserve Buddhism in response to colonialism and other forces in the 19th century. Crosby concludes that ‘….shared anxieties to protect Buddhism could lead to different trajectories, how conceptions of science and compassion have changed, and how these trajectories could both sit by side and come into direct conflict’ (p. 159). In short, we need to see the development of Buddhism not as some unilinear and uniform process but as always involving complex and contradictory processes.

Similarly, Charles Jones discusses how the prime advocate of ‘humanistic Buddhism’ in China in the early 20th century, Taixu, was not simply a modernizer and secularizer of Buddhism, as most Western interpreters have argued. Instead, a close reading of Taixu’s key essay on humanistic Buddhism reveals someone who, although he wished to modernize Chinese Buddhism, did not want to necessarily secularize it. Taixu is an example of a Buddhist leader who mixed traditional and modern forms of Buddhism.

And finally, Kathleen Gregory insightfully explains how mindfulness, in our contemporary society, can easily become part of a narrative of ‘psychological redemption’ in which we try to address what is seen as wrong or lacking in our self. Detached from any sense of community or ethical commitments, the psychologizing of mindfulness can then reinforce punitive self-judgements:

The emphasis then becomes creating the ‘right’ kind of internal mental space to feel better and to effect doing and being better. This sets the condition for a person to relate to mindfulness from the view of differentiation and impairment. Holding a critical vigilance toward their own experience is familiar to  many people. As a result, they may come to rely on this attitude in relation to the practice. (p. 229)

In my article ‘Meditating with and for each other’ I noted the potentially harmful effect of silent meditation retreats on some individuals for just this reason.

The attack on secular Buddhism

While the book does offer some very useful analyses, the critique of secular Buddhism put forward by several contributors is unfair, simplistic, and mischaracterizes the perspectives and practices of secular Buddhists.

One method of attack is to simply lump secular Buddhism together with secularization and mindfulness into a sort of general category of the secular, which is then is seen as having some bad characteristic. Thus, Funie Hsu claims the secularization of Buddhism involves the denigration of Asian forms of Buddhism in contrast to secular forms. The latter, despite its claim to universality and modern values, actually is premised on and reinforces racial hierarchies and neoliberal ideology. In her view, the secularization of Buddhism ‘….has functioned to preserve hierarchies through the process of religious exclusion’ (p. 80).

Similarly, Ron Purser identifies mindfulness and secular Buddhism, and sees both as helping to reinforce oppressive and exploitative structures in neoliberal capitalism. Instead of challenging these structures, ‘Secular Buddhism, with its practice of mindfulness, is prescribed as a way of managing, naturalizing, and enduring toxic systems….’ (p. 217).

It’s not that the problems that Hsu and Purser identify in forms of contemporary Buddhist practice and mindfulness don’t exist. They do; some secularly-inclined Buddhists do dismiss the rituals and beliefs of traditional forms of Buddhism and mindfulness programs have been used in ways which reinforce the dominance of capitalism. However, Hsu and Purser paint with such a broad brush that they fail to see, in the first place, the distinction between secular Buddhism, Buddhist modernism, secularity, and mindfulness; and, further, appear totally oblivious to the actual ideas and practices of secular Buddhists. For example, Stephen Batchelor and other key advocates of secular Buddhism has always insisted that a secular approach to the dharma must not only address individual suffering but contribute to changing the basic values and structures in society.

While Hsu and Purser level a broad critique, Phillippe Turenne takes on secular Buddhism through a specific target: Stephen Batchelor. Turenne presents quite a bill of indictment against Stephen and it would pain the reader if I discussed all the alleged offenses. Among the most important, however, are the following: Stephen’s attempt to create a ‘….new form of exclusivist orthodoxy’ (p. 187); his shoddy scholarship and misreading of the Pali texts (p. 193) ; his ‘suggestion that all others are wrong, and only his interpretation is “true”’(p. 197); his hidden metaphysics based on natural science (p.200);  and his denial of the experience of traditional Buddhists while claiming that only his ‘own empirical feeling of what is right is to be trusted’ (p. 203).

Turenne’s bill of indictment would not go very far with a grand jury of open-minded, reasonable Buddhists. Many of his criticisms are contradicted by Stephen’s own writings, including his repeated assertions in After Buddhism and other writings that he is not claiming to provide the correct view of Buddhism but a valid way of reconstructing the dharma in our contemporary world. Far from attempting to create an exclusivist orthodoxy, Stephen has provided us with valuable resources to think through the key issues. The project to develop a secular dharma is ongoing and open-ended.

Richard Payne’s concluding chapter in the book is not directly focused on Stephen Batchelor, although he refers to Stephen’s writings and other secular Buddhists to argue that ‘secularizing discourse’ (and secular Buddhism as a movement based on this discourse) is fundamentally flawed. Secularizing discourse is composed of a series of dualistic oppositions (secular versus traditional, reason versus dogma, etc.) which are based on a Protestant view of religion and other perspectives. From Protestantism, secularizing discourse emphasizes ‘….the primacy of personal meditative experience, the futility of ritual,  the authority of selected texts, and the transcendent character of the essence of the tradition….’ (p. 297). But, in Payne’s view, secularizing discourse unconsciously reproduces some other perspectives which are even more troubling – an Orientalist disdain of traditional Buddhisms, the separation of meditation from ethics, and neoliberal ideology. With respect to the latter, Payne asserts that ‘being stripped of preexisting institutional structures, Secular Buddhism is itself being formed by the organizing principles of late capitalism’ (p. 307).

Payne’s effort to examine the discourses underlying secularizing trends within Buddhism is laudable, but like other contributors to the book he fails to distinguish secular Buddhism from related phenomena (mindfulness, secularity) while ignoring the full range of secular Buddhist practices and perspectives.

A missed opportunity

We do need to assess the historical roots, theoretical assumptions, and current practices of secular Buddhism. A collection of essays that represents the diverse voices of those who are interested in developing a secular approach to the dharma would be a wonderful vehicle for this examination.

In Secularizing Buddhism the only contributor whose views align to a large extent with secular Buddhism is Gil Fronsdal, whose ‘naturalistic’ Buddhism is quite similar to a secular Buddhist approach. Like Stephen Batchelor, Fronsdal finds in some key texts of the Pali canon a vision of Buddhism which eschews metaphysics and supernatural phenomena: ‘When he taught the essence of his dharma, the Buddha consistently avoided metaphysical, supernatural, and speculative ideas in favor of practical teachings that serve to make available the path of liberation’ (p. 278).  Liberation in this world depends on reducing the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion to promote human flourishing.

With the exception of Fronsdal, however, Secularizing Buddhism unfortunately represents a missed opportunity to explore the emergence of secular Buddhism, to critically examine its assumptions, and to provide us with an accurate snapshot of the diverse views and practices of secular Buddhists.


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One Reply to “A missed opportunity: a review of ‘Secularizing Buddhism’”

Mark Knickelbine

Payne’s essay is just easy postmodernism. As soon as Secular Buddhists say that the Buddha’s teachings do not require supernatural beliefs for their efficacy, we have set up the all the science/superstition, East/West, White/Asian binaries, which requires that we arrogate to ourselves the authority to do so. Other than one paragraph from the SBA FAQ page, no actual examination of what we have said about these issue is made, because none is necessary to tar us with all the evils of white, capitalist society. And there is no examination at all of the sources of anxiety (also among White Americans and Europeans) about the hierarchies of authority that are threatened when someone says the Pali scriptures need not be taken literally. At least Ron Purser is no longer using off-color words in his headlines.

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