Are secular Buddhists modern or traditional?

January 4, 2018

What is secular Buddhism, or what are secular Buddhisms? Is secular Buddhism the same as modern Buddhism, or Buddhist modernism? How different is it from traditional Buddhisms? Are individual secular Buddhists modern or traditional?

Narrow answers to these questions are not satisfactory, such as that of Bhikkhu Bodhi in "Facing the Great Divide", asserting a particular theological position and dividing the many schools of Buddhism into either  orthodox ("Classical") or wrong ("Secular").

More useful answers consider the wide range of contemporary Buddhisms. Many teachings of many modernist and traditionalist schools of Buddhism are all available here and now, as part of the continuing transmission of Buddhism to the West, which began more than 150 years ago with translations of Buddist texts into English and other European languages.

Also useful are answers which help us to better understand the views of each other, both our own views and those of our sangha friends, what attracts us to a particular school of Buddhism and what is of benefit to us in dharma teachings.

Following are brief outlines of useful discussions of this matter in blog posts by two modernist Zen teachers. They give us eight variables and six issues, which we can use to map the various modernist or traditionalist positions of contemporary Buddhist schools. This may help us to better understand similarities and differences between schools, and to better understand the dharma, the teachings both implicit and explicit and the practices and trainings of our own schools.

Eight variables

Dasho Port lists variables which separate modernist (or secular) versus traditionalist Buddhisms

  1. Comfort with modernity (and especially science and psychology) – or suspicious
  2. Digging scientific truths – or favouring religious mystical experience
  3. Prone to rational working through of the human predicament – or wowed by mysterious intuitive leaps
  4. Focussed on the present (and perhaps slipping into cultural misappropriation) – or yearning for the ancient way (distinguish: naively romanticise about the past)
  5. Characterised by doubt – or faith
  6. Digging diligently with critical inquiry – or satisfied with uncritical acceptance of the dharma
  7. Resonating with the creative presentation of the now – or the repetition of orthodoxy
  8. Belief in rebirth – or not.


These variables can also help us understand the perspective of individuals of any school. Some of us may have a scientific and sceptical mindset, and prefer doubt and inquiry. Others may have a more intuitive approach, or be more comfortable with faith in uncritical dharma teachings.

Six issues

James Ford discusses issues separating modernist and traditionalist Buddhisms (with links to other informative posts, books, essays):

  1. Karma and rebirth – “the big issue … the principal shift from the traditional Buddhisms … it all plays out in this one life”, and acknowledges the importance of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs.
  2. Understanding of the nature of the Buddha – “for the range of modernist Buddhists the word is usually the title for the historic teacher, but often, particularly for the religious modernist, it also points to a state of consciousness, or even the sum total of reality which may be apprehended in some manner by human beings.”
  3. Psychology – “As Buddhism has entered the world’s cultures it has always engaged in a dialogue, rich and mutually transformative with the indigenous religions it encounters. … But, … the most powerful, and potentially fruitful, and no doubt, dangerous dialogue has been with western psychology.”
  4. Approach to spiritual texts – “Theravadans … attend narrowly to those Nikaya texts that purport to be the teachings of the historic Buddha. For those in the various Mahayana schools the problem is how to order that astonishing array of texts. … For those within the modernist schools … particularly those who fit into the secular spectrum the oldest strata, the texts attributed to the Buddha of history are generally given primacy. For modernists of either Zen or Pure Land inclinations, there are other places to focus one’s attention. For me the koan anthologies”.
  5. Teachers and the problems of authority.
  6. Emphasis on lay or non-monastic practice – “In modernist forms of Buddhism this is that most distinctive feature, the flattening of all hierarchies.”


Secular Buddhism schools based on insight or vipassana practices are likely to take differing positions from Zen schools on issues such as:

2 Understanding of the nature of the Buddha
4 Approach to spiritual texts
5 Teachers and the problems of authority
6 Emphasis on lay or non-monastic practice.

Similarly, we find differing individual views on these issues.

More on the karma debate

An earlier post by James Ford on modernist Buddhism has a useful summary of key writings: Stephen Batchelor of course, a range of his critics and commentators, the important historical discussion The Making of Modern Buddhism by David McMahan, and an excellent review and critique of it by Justin Whitaker.

In replacing the ideas of karma and rebirth with more useful ideas on purpose and ethics Ford recommends a Tricycle article “A More Enlightened Way of Being” by Seth Zuiho Segall who discusses the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, “human flourishing”. Stephen Batchelor also discusses “human flourishing”. I don’t know who was first in the context of modern Buddhism, perhaps neither.

In discussing purpose and ethics Ford also cites McMahon on interdependence: “this term has been emerging with greater and greater frequency in contemporary Buddhist literature and acquiring increasing consonance with other modern discourses of interdependence. … As articulated in contemporary Buddhist literature, the concept of interdependence combines empirical description, world-affirming wonder, and an ethical imperative.”




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