Defining secular Buddhism: beware of certain traps

December 12, 2019

Secular Dharma or traditional Buddhism? This seems to be the dilemma mainly for people who live in the western world who approach Buddhism in its many manifestations. But, in one respect, this division seems to be more a terminological problem, quite abstract.

Let's start from this object, with its outlines still in the process of being defined, which goes under the label of ‘secular Buddhism’ or ‘secular Dharma’. These terms often risk creating contrasts more in form than in content. Or, in the worst case, they create new sectarian simplifications which lead to the emergence of new doctrinal orthodoxies of which I personally feel little need.

The problem with labels

For me, therefore, the need of giving a new label to this form of practice in this moment could be rather secondary. Secular Buddhism doesn’t need to be understood as a new ‘Buddhism’ but more as a different approach to practice. The differentiation between traditional and secular Buddhism seems very refined in theory, from a scholarly or theological perspective. Maybe it responds to a need to have an identity that, in fact, is not very different from those who define themselves as Zen or Theravada or Tibetan Buddhist or Epicurean as a mere distinguishing fact.

There’s a remarkable passage in the Pali Canon in which Gotama speaks of the Dharma as something clearly visible to every wise man and in which he claims that whoever loves his own place too much, his own identity, will not be able to see that Dharma with ease. Why don’t we apply his warning to the ‘false problem’ of defining this secular Buddhism?

Conflict arises when we consider the word ‘Buddhism’ as something that defines in a rigid and immutable way every aspect of life. But, again, it depends on what we mean by this term and how we use it. If being a Buddhist means following Gotama's teaching, accepting his challenge, reasoning in his perspective, walking in a personal way along the path already travelled by others and fitting into this ‘noble lineage’, a way to live in a free and authentic way, there is no problem at all. If, on the contrary, being a Buddhist means taking into account all the cultural, magical, metaphysical, and religious aspects that revolve around Buddhism, that is problematic because it doesn’t fit with what the Buddha primarily taught.

If we think about Buddhism as a sort of ultimate truth of revelation, someone should explain which of these traditions or forms is more legitimately Buddhist than others since the body of truth or revelations they propose are very different from each other. Instead of asserting that one tradition has the whole truth, we should take these ideas as wise intuitions or suggestions of practice and accept that there is no authority to decide what works for everybody. Being a Buddhist has nothing to do with believing but with practicing and verifying. It’s not a new thing. The teachings of Gotama are the basis of every form of Dharma or Buddhism. And it doesn't make the term ‘Buddhist’ a mere question of identity.

Secular Buddhism as an approach to practice, not a new orthodoxy

Returning to the word ‘secular’ as an approach to Buddhism/Dharma, maybe it is better to see this approach as a method of research and dialogue with contemporaneity that starts from our perspective as modern people, from our ‘seculum’, precisely, our time, and thanks to this lens revises the meaning of the teachings of an ancient tradition so that they can speak to human beings today. Secular Buddhism, in this perspective, is a new sensiblity, more than an ultimate choice between two extremes.

And, again, to think that secular Dharma replaces a priori the traditions that have come so far, as if they were antiques, and creates another is a contradiction that risks throwing away the baby with bath water. If, in fact, there are aspects of purely cultural, fideistic or devotional origin present in the various Buddhist traditions that we are not obliged to take on board and that often, on the contrary, are an equally effective obstacle that create prejudices, we don’t have to forget that these traditions are the vehicles, thanks to which the Dharma has come here.

Buddhism, even Secular Buddhism, has not landed here from a timeless, pointless dimension but has its roots in that noble lineage of which Gotama himself speaks. Therefore, a new approach that takes into account our historical, philological, anthropological and archaeological knowledge is necessary and strongly helpful to make it clear. But, to use a metaphor, we are better remembering that, despite the differences, all the rivers that flow in today's Buddhism have a single source and refer to it. Secular Buddhism/Dharma, is therefore not in competition with any traditional form of Buddhism, whose contours, even in this case, are more the result of a conventional definition that does not do justice to the vitality and heritage of ideas present in each of them.

The future of secular Buddhism

How secular Buddhism/Dharma will be is an open question and the solution does not lie in a conflict or in a contraposition with traditional Buddhism. It is perhaps easier to imagine a path that is the fusion of both these elements. A new path that requires confrontation, dialogue, openness and a not inconsiderable dose of risk and unconsciousness.

This is what always happened when Buddhism encountered new cultures and there is no reason why this should not happen now. The basic point is whether to stand on the side of this unknown or to embrace any kind of orthodoxy, traditional or not.

It should be remembered that the word Buddhism itself was created by Westerners, to define in one place the boundaries of the teaching of Buddha. Yet, in so defining Buddhism, those who created the label did not take into account that this perspective and practice highlights impermanence, emptiness and the absence of a definitive and immutable reality. We must honestly admit that even Buddhism itself is unreliable, impermanent, and empty - an unfinished product in constant change. And that every definition is valid as a communication tool but remains an imperfect definition and unable to include every nuance of experience, just as the Buddhist wisdom suggests.

Again, the trouble we have with definitions and creating orthodoxies is nothing new. It may seem odd that Buddhists should fall into the trap of thinking that one form or tradition is the repository of a single truth. But it is clear that human beings like very much to have certainties and are not particularly inclined to open their eyes to the mystery of the sublime.



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3 Replies to “Defining secular Buddhism: beware of certain traps”

Gary Dean

Thanks Stephano for this. You are on my case. 🙂

Any attempt to define dharma is not going to be without its dangers and pitfalls, some of which you mention.

Nonetheless, I shall be giving it a go.

Stefano Davide Bettera

Hi Gary, you are right :-): any attempt to define dharma is not going to be without its dangers and pitfalls, and it’s right to deepen the point. Obviously, as you know, I think it’s important to define this object called secular Buddhism. My only “suggestion” is not to fall into the trap that words and definitions often create.
But we are in the same boat 🙂

Rupert Bozeat

There is much useful advice here Stefano and I thank you for your insights. For me the key is that whatever emerges from the search for secular dharma it is not, and cannot be construed as a religion. Philosophy sounds too academic and “way of life” too imprecise, Labels will I guess always be a problem but on the other hand we do do need to work towards a common understanding and contributions such as yours provide helpful guidance.

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