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.
Here are six key ideas shared by secular Buddhists:
- Secular Buddhism is a ‘this-worldly’ practical and ethical philosophy, focused on the value of the dharma for and in this life.
- Secular Buddhist are skeptical of or reject supernatural entities or processes (e.g,. rebirth) in traditional versions of Buddhism.
- The Buddha is seen as an historical person, not a God-like figure.
- We retain the essential insights of Buddhism while jettisoning cultural ‘accretions’ and practices not relevant to our contemporary world.
- A secular approach to the dharma emphasizes the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of Buddhism rather than a set of metaphysical beliefs.
- Secular Buddhists believe that we need not only to transform ourselves but to create a society which promotes the flourishing of all.
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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.
The four tasks (ELSA) are:
- Embrace life
- Let reactivity be
- See reactivity stop
- Actualize a path
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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.
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