Buddhist modernism and secular Buddhism

October 13, 2023

Most of the Buddhist groups and traditions that cater for ethnic westerners in western countries today belong in a category called ‘Buddhist modernism’. The term can cover more-or-less modified transplants of various Asian Buddhist traditions in the west today.

In his important book from 2008, The making of Buddhist modernism, David McMahan shows how these traditions were refashioned in Asian countries during the latter 19th century to raise the status of lay practice, without diluting monastic authority. This move sought to obstruct the inroads missionary Christianity was making among lay Buddhists, without disturbing longstanding religious authority.

The various traditions of Buddhist modernism established themselves in the west from the 1960s (with vipassana and Zen to the fore). They introduced valuable meditation practices in western languages – practices supported by a religious doctrine quite different from Christianity, because it didn’t involve God.  On this basis, Buddhist-modernist groups attracted many adherents and have spawned effective institutions in western countries.

But these traditions typically arrived in the west carrying viruses that unsettled more and more of their western adherents:

  • Supernatural beliefs and dogma to do with rebirth, other-worldly transcendence etc. that western culture doesn’t support. These beliefs bred indifference to real-world existential and social issues, and to secular approaches to tackling them;
  • Monastics and their practice took precedence over lay people and their practice. Celibate monastics became inappropriate role models for people living complex worldly lives as ‘householders’;
  • Monastic approaches to meditation tended to reduce it to a technical skill rather than a guide to pursuing meaning in worldly life;
  • Because most traditions did not allow for female ordination, male monastic privilege fed into the patriarchal male norm already embedded in western culture and institutions;
  • Traditional Buddhist organisational culture was markedly hierarchical and authoritarian (as well as patriarchal), and resisted democratisation;
  • Traditional Buddhist piety encouraged passive citizenship, thus thwarting the western values of civic virtue, active citizenship, and democratic forms of association. These values are endemic to a responsible, ethical life in our culture.

Since the early years of this century, secular Buddhism has been developing in answer to these dissatisfactions. A fresh examination of the historical Buddha’s teaching provides no support for the annoyances I’ve mentioned, which all appear to stem from the capture of his movement by religious institutions after his death around 400 BCE.

Thus, a return to the early teachings goes to the core of secular Buddhism. The Buddha that emerges from this study is no messiah or religious prophet, but rather a figure akin to his contemporary Greek practical philosophers, like Socrates and Aristotle – people who promoted ideas meant to be practised in pursuit of the good life: people who fostered dialogue and exploration rather than closing them down.

When we see the Buddha and his teaching in this light, we become aware of its affinities with several important strains of western thought both ancient (such as stoicism and scepticism, and modern (like phenomenology and existentialism).  These affinities in our own culture enrich our appreciation of his teaching, and its relevance to our dire current, real-world predicaments.

The word ‘secular’ refers to this time, this world. Such was the Buddha’s experiential focus, and secular Buddhism returns to it. Faced with the current climate emergency, social injustices, and unsustainable inequalities, at this time in our own world, secular Buddhism makes active citizenship an integral part of living an aware, compassionate, meaningful life.


What did all this come down to in my own practice? When I started practising insight meditation in the late 1980s, I had a life partner, our two small daughters, a full-time job, a cat, a mortgage, and sporadic political involvements. I learned the hard way that insight meditation refracts our ongoing life experience which (I surmise) is quite different from that of a celibate man living in a total institution with none of my ‘attachments’. When I tried to practise formulaic meditation instructions designed for such a person, most of my meditation experience fell to the cutting-room floor, discarded as ‘not meditation’. So, I was a bad meditator.

Then I discovered non-formulaic insight meditation, whereby whatever experiences we have when we sit down to meditate constitute our meditative experience. This way the whole lot is illuminated, and my practice exercised real traction on my way of being in the world. I was now on the path, seriously. The cat died of old age, I retired, and the mortgage was paid off, but my life partner and our daughters (now in their early forties) still seem to think I’m ok and are keeping me on. So the new approach to insight meditation worked.

What ceased to work was the relationship between us would-be secular Buddhists in Sydney, Australia and the legacy Buddhist-modernist outfits in which we’d first discovered the dharma and insight meditation. In 2005 they basically threw us out, and we had to run our retreats in welcoming Catholic venues. We learned to meditate surrounded by crucifixes and Virgin Maries.

In hindsight, though, the counter-reformationists did us a favour. They forced us to generate our own local sanghas, and a new umbrella organisation that pooled resources to offer retreats and visits from overseas teachers. They all honour the basic values of western civic life – democracy, equality and inclusiveness – which underpin vibrant sanghas.

This article is the text of Winton Higgins's presentation on 5 October for an online course sponsored by the New York Insight Meditation Center, called At the Crossroads of Secular and Socially Engaged Buddhism.



One Reply to “Buddhist modernism and secular Buddhism”

Ric Streatfield

Thank you Winton for this delightful little overview of the development of your practice.
I would add a couple of earlier Greeks to your two, Socrates and Aristotle. Just today, on my early morning walk in the local bush I realised that there was a continuum of related thought from origins we call ‘Animism’ (material plus spiritual world) over 100,000 years or so, through to Thales (the first astronomical prediction of an eclipse; plus his Delphic advice of ‘Know thyself’), Heraclitus with his ‘River’ flow of the universe continually changing, to Gotama the Buddha and ‘Dependent co-Arising’, and more recently …….Einstein and his famous equation summarising it all – E=mc(squared).
Matter and energy (?spirit) were different “forms” of the same ‘thing’, just as water vapour and a block of ice are different forms of the same “thing”, water.
I find this very exciting to see Gotama the Buddha as being so central in this Axial Age (as Karl Jaspers called it – 600-300BCE or thereabouts) where humanity began to burst the restrictive chains of the Doctrinal Religions developing from Shamanism over the previous 10,000 years.

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