An introduction to secular Buddhism

Just found out about secular Buddhism and want to learn more about it? This article will provide a helpful starting point for exploring a secular approach to the dharma.

Basic elements of secular Buddhism

While all secular Buddhists share a skeptical view of the supernatural deities and processes of traditional Buddhism (e.g. rebirth), there is a wide range of views among secular Buddhists concerning various beliefs, perspectives and practices.

Even though there is no secular Buddhist orthodoxy, all secular Buddhists share a framework for a more mindful and compassionate life.

Awakening in the context in which we find ourselves, this framework is in essence a pragmatic program for human flourishing that has no use for metaphysical beliefs and religious truth-claims. A secular dharma stands for a developmental direction that is typically Buddhist in its open-minded skepticism and its desire to let the dharma speak most effectively, that is in culturally available terms.

Click here to read about the basic elements of a secular approach to the dharma.

The core concept of secular Buddhism: a fourfold task

An essential idea of secular Buddhism is that the core teachings and insights of the historical Buddha, Gotama, are not ‘truths’ to be believed but a ‘fourfold’ task to help us live our lives in a mindful and compassionate way.

The Four Noble Truths in traditional Buddhism are: 1) Life inevitably involves suffering; 2) Suffering is caused by craving; 3) We can be free of suffering if we stop craving; and 4) There is a way of thinking, acting, and meditating that leads to complete liberation from suffering.

Based on his analysis of the relevant Pali texts and the line of interpretation developed by the English-born Buddhist monk Ñāṇavīra Thera in the 1960s, Stephen Batchelor has reinterpreted The Four Noble Truths as a fourfold task. For Stephen, Gotama’s teachings about dukkha are not truths to be believed, but injunctions to transform our lives and promote human flourishing in this world.

Click here to read more about the fourfold task.

A brief history of secular Buddhism

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.

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.

Click here to read more.

Two misconceptions about secular Buddhism

There are two common misconceptions about secular Buddhism:

1) Secular Buddhism is an attack on religion or God, a form of militant atheism;

and

2) Secular Buddhism is a self-help technique, the same as some of the forms of secular mindfulness which have become very popular in contemporary society.

Click here to learn why secular Buddhism is not anti-religious and how it’s much more than a method for relieving or reducing psychological stress.


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COMMENTS

5 Replies to “An introduction to secular Buddhism”

Maria Andrade

Hello.
I am very happy to have found your page. I have been looking to connect with secular buddhists for a long time, but I have not found any secular organizations where I live (Bogotá, Colombia). I am a literature professor and a humanist, and I try to cultivate a buddhist ethic and approach to life. I also agree fully with the way you question the uses of buddhism in a capitalist society. Thank you for all the information on this page, and I look forward to exploring it and learning more. All the best,
María

J

What is the take on secular buddhism, Dhama and teachers? Is there a secular buddhist teacher network, or is it based just on books etc?

Mike Slott

That’s a great question, J. At this point, there is no secular Buddhist teacher network. Stephen Batchelor and Winton Higgins are the most prominent secular Buddhists who are also meditation teachers and give dharma talks. There are several other secular Buddhists who lead meditation groups. However, secular Buddhism is still a very new trend and it is not clear how (or if) secular Buddhists will organize more formal teaching and learning structures. So far, we are more in the “developmental” stage, focused on debate, dialogue, and collaboration.

Ric Streatfield

Just an elementary question:
How does Dependent co-Arising fit into all this? …Where Gotama explains in a logical step-by-step example using an everyday human birth-maturing-sexual (man woman) reproduction-birth to death linear sequence (that is, three individual lives) to indicate how innate drives can lead to possessiveness, jealousies, fighting, killing…..Why is this, Gotama’s great insight into how the universe works without any reference to the supernatural, not front and central to Secular Buddhism?
Thanks

Ric Streatfield

Just an elementary question:
How does Dependent co-Arising fit into all this? …Where Gotama explains in a logical step-by-step example using an everyday human birth-maturing-sexual (man woman) reproduction-birth to death linear sequence (that is, three individual lives) to indicate how innate drives can lead to possessiveness, jealousies, fighting, killing…..Why is this, Gotama’s great insight into how the universe works without any reference to the supernatural, not front and central to Secular Buddhism?
Thanks

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