While secular Buddhism has become an increasingly significant trend within western Buddhism, there is no consensus among secular Buddhists about our basic principles, values, and goals. In a recent article, Three paths for secular Buddhists, I identified three distinct trends within secular Buddhism. This diversity among secular Buddhists is actually a good thing. As Stephen Batchelor has repeatedly pointed out, we would be making a huge mistake if we attempted to establish a set of unitary, officially-sanctioned secular Buddhist beliefs and practices. Instead of trying to create an institution to represent secular Buddhism, he argues that we need to engage in a process of dialogue and discussion about how the Buddha’s insights about human experience can become relevant and impactful in today’s world.
I offer below some “Core elements of a secular and socially-engaged Buddhism” as a contribution to this ongoing conversation. I’ve tried to lay out succinctly the essential building blocks of a secular Buddhism that is strongly linked to socially-engaged action. I do so recognizing that my views have been shaped both by my own personal history and the debates and discussions among Buddhists within the country in which I live, the USA.
I began to meditate and find value in Buddhist insights fairly late in life. As a lifelong political and labor activist, I’ve always had a strong orientation toward perspectives that supported social change based on working class self-activity and democratic participation. In particular, a humanistic, non-dogmatic version of Marxism blended with Deweyan pragmatism has been central to my approach to the theory and practice of social transformation.
However, I eventually came to see that these perspectives – as valuable as they were – failed to grasp that human suffering occurs not just because of exploitative and oppressive social institutions, but also because of the ways in which human beings tend to experience and understand themselves and the world at an existential-psychological level. Believing that both a radical social theory and Buddhist insights are crucial, I’ve attempted to figure out how these approaches/perspectives can complement and enrich each other.
I have explored these issues at length in two articles in Contemporary Buddhism in 2011 and 2015. For those who would like to read more, if you send me an email I will send you these articles. I’d appreciate your comments, feedback, and questions.
The goal of a secular and socially-engaged Buddhism is to promote human flourishing through the fullest possible development of capacities which are essential for individuals to have a fulfilling and happy life. The notion that human flourishing is the summum bonum or highest good of human life can be found in ancient Greek and modern philosophies. In Aristotle’s view, human flourishing is based on our capacity for reason and living a virtuous life, including being temperate and courageous. Following Aristotle, several Hellenistic philosophies – Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism – also linked the development of certain human capacities to a flourishing life. In the modern era, Marx argued that the creation of an ideal communist society in which the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” is premised on human beings’ capacity for creative labor (praxis). The Buddha’s notion of human flourishing, however, requires the cultivation of a broader range of experiential and emotional capacities than these other perspectives. In addition to wisdom, ethical action and mindfulness, he emphasized that loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (the four immeasurables) are essential to human flourishing.
The Buddha also provided us with profound insights about how individuals tend to think, feel, and act in ways which run counter to the cultivation of capacities essential to human flourishing. Not only do we tend to have a false understanding of our experiences at an existential-psychological level, but our actions tend to be instinctively reactive, dominated by anger and/or greed, capacities which cause suffering.
The capacities essential to human flourishing emerged as part of our evolutionary development as a unique form of sentient being. They coexist with other human capacities, also biologically-evolved, which cause suffering and unhappiness. All these capacities constitute our complex make-up. While a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist places a positive value on the capacities essential to human fulfillment and happiness, they don’t constitute our “true nature” or “basic goodness” in comparison to capacities which cause suffering and unskillful actions. Human beings are complex creatures who are capable of a wide range of actions and beliefs based on a variety of capacities.
Since we emerged from and are embedded in the natural world, we will always be subject to the causes and conditions of that world. Contrary to the perspective of many traditional forms of Buddhism, the goal of human flourishing is not achieved through an end-state or experience of unconditioned liberation from afflictive and reactive emotions (whether on a temporary basis, or a permanent basis). Such a state or experience which transcends the causes and conditions of the natural world is inconsistent with a secular, naturalistic approach to Buddhism. Instead of seeking transcendence, our goal in this life should be to cultivate and develop the capacities conducive to human flourishing while limiting the impact of capacities which are not conducive to our own happiness and have a negative effect on the other beings that inhabit this planet.
The capacities essential to human fulfillment and happiness are developed only in and through social interaction; they are not, in this sense, owned like a personal possession by human beings. Even when we meditate alone, we are engaging in an ongoing internal dialogue shaped by and based on previous social interactions. Beginning with our earliest interactions with parents/caretakers and then in and through various social relationships, formal education processes, and the impact of such macro-social institutions as the economic and political systems, the capacities for human flourishing are either stunted or promoted to one degree or another.
Given the inherently social nature of human beings and our unique capacities, the furtherance of human flourishing must be based on the combined and mutually constitutive processes of individual and social transformation. The obstacles to human flourishing are based on both the tendency of individuals to cause themselves and others unnecessary suffering, as well as the ways in which social institutions directly harm individuals and promote capacities like greed and anger which in turn cause more harm to individuals. These processes interact with and mutually constitute each other. For this reason, a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist understands that promoting human flourishing requires effort at both the individual level, such as meditative practices that reduce the role of capacities which promote reactivity and unskillful actions, as well as actions which contribute to changing or transforming the institutions which harm human and other beings.
A secular and socially-engaged Buddhism, then, needs to incorporate a philosophical and social theory which grasps the complex interaction between the individual and society as a complement to the Buddha’s core insights about human experience. One such perspective can be found in a non-deterministic, humanistic Marxism which, as a radical social theory and guide to activism, helps us to understand the specific causes and conditions that produce human suffering as well the potential for human flourishing.
Western Buddhism, traditional and secular, places overwhelming emphasis on meditation as the path to freedom and liberation. While a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist values the crucial role of meditation in reducing reactivity and gaining wisdom, it also recognizes that the development of vibrant and democratic communities of practitioners (sanghas) is equally, if not more, important.
Communities provide essential support for individuals to develop their own practice. In addition, they can play a crucial role in developing in sangha members the capacities and skills needed to create a society in which the flourishing of each individual is mutually dependent on the flourishing of all individuals. Such capacities include greater discernment, the ability to participate with others and make decisions democratically, and the development of increasingly broader and richer forms of mutual solidarity.
In short, a secular and socially-engaged Buddhism is humanistic in its ultimate goal, naturalistic in its understanding of reality, cognizant of both the individual and social sources of human suffering, and radically democratic in both the means and the ends of social transformation.
While a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist respects and values the teachings and practices of other forms of Buddhism, she/he believes they are problematic in three key respects. First, traditional forms of Buddhism presuppose, in one way or another, non-naturalistic entities or processes, such as nirvana, rebirth, devas, etc. Second, the Buddha’s insights about and his pragmatic approach to the alleviation of suffering and the facilitation of human flourishing have been mistakenly elaborated by virtually all Buddhists (including some secular Buddhists as well) into metaphysical beliefs based on ontological assertions about human beings and the world, such as the four noble truths, the three marks of existence and the notion of emptiness. Third, lacking a social theory that grasps the mutual interaction of the individual and society, most Buddhists overemphasize the role of the individual. For them, the root of suffering initially and primarily resides in individuals, and the solution to suffering thus is mainly based on individual transformation.
The critique of traditional forms of Buddhism entails neither a militant defense of secular humanism and atheism nor an aggressive, dismissive stance toward those who do not share our perspectives. If our goal is to contribute to a movement toward human flourishing, then our attitude must be one of openness, an appreciation of diversity, and a willingness to dialogue and work with others in any way that helps promote human flourishing.
Similarly, a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist does not elevate any one perspective and practice in the “secular” sciences, arts, and culture as dogma or the model for understanding human affairs. For example, she/he rejects scientism and other perspectives which foreclose other ways of approaching and understanding the natural world. Rather, a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist understands that our path to human flourishing will be guided by a number of perspectives and practices in addition to those provided by the Buddha’s insights; and that we should be open to appreciating and incorporating any perspective and practice which contributes to our ultimate goal.