Bhikkhu Bodhi on traditional versus secular Buddhism

August 1, 2019

As the winding river of Buddhist tradition flows beyond the boundaries of its Asian homelands and enters the modern West, it has arrived at a major watershed from which two distinct streams have emerged, which for convenience we may call ‘Classical Buddhism’ and ‘Secular Buddhism.’ The former continues the heritage of Asian Buddhism, with minor adaptations made to meet the challenges of modernity. The latter marks a rupture with Buddhist tradition, a re-visioning of the ancient teachings intended to fit the secular culture of the West.

The expressions ‘Classical Buddhism’ and ‘Secular Buddhism’ are to a certain extent abstractions. They do not define fixed categories but stand as the end points of a spectrum of possibilities that may blend and merge in any given individual’s personal commitment to the Dharma. Nevertheless, at certain key points the two branch off in different directions, presenting us with a choice between incompatible alternatives. As we endeavour to find our own orientation to the Dharma, it is helpful to clearly understand where these divergences occur and to recognise the choices before us.

Classical and secular Buddhism

The contrast between Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism stems primarily from different ways of understanding the human condition. Classical Buddhism seeks light on the human condition from the canonical texts of Buddhism, particularly from the Buddha’s discourses. Secular Buddhism looks for illumination to modern science and the value systems of secular society. These different perspectives govern their distinctive ways of understanding the Three Jewels of Buddhism – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. They also determine their assessments of the nature and purpose of Buddhist practice.

Classical Buddhism sees human existence as embedded in the condition called samsāra, understood literally as the beginningless chain of rebirths. From this standpoint, humans are just one class of living beings in a vast multidimensional cosmos. Through time without beginning all beings have been roaming from life to life in the five realms of existence, rising and falling in accordance with their karma, their volitional deeds. Life in all these realms, being impermanent and fraught with pain, is inherently unsatisfactory – dukkha. Thus the final goal, the end of dukkha, is release from the round of rebirths, the attainment of an unconditioned dimension of spiritual freedom called nibbāna. The practice of the path is intended to eradicate the bonds tying us to the round of rebirths and thereby bring liberation from repeated birth, ageing and death.

Secular Buddhism, in contrast, starts from our immediate existential situation, understood without bringing in non-naturalistic assumptions. Secular Buddhism therefore does not endorse the idea of literal rebirth. Some Secular Buddhists regard rebirth as a symbol for changing states of mind, some as an analogy for biological evolution, some simply as part of the dispensable baggage that Buddhism drags along from Asia. But Secular Buddhists generally do not regard rebirth as the problem the Dharma is intended to resolve. Accordingly, they interpret the idea of samsāra as a metaphor depicting our ordinary condition of bewilderment and addictive pursuits. The secular programme thus re-envisions the goal of Buddhist practice, rejecting the idea of irreversible liberation from the cycle of rebirths in favour of a tentative, ever-fragile freedom from distress in this present life itself.

This difference in fundamental worldviews between Religious and Secular Buddhism shapes their respective ways of regarding the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. For Classical Buddhism, the Buddha is an exalted being, the teacher not only of humans but of deities and beings in other realms. He attained buddhahood as the culmination of countless lives spent as a bodhisattva perfecting the paramitas, the supreme virtues. His enlightenment involved a breakthrough to the ultimate truth, by which he eradicated the mind’s defilements, penetrated the spiritual laws of the universe and acquired various kinds of psychic powers. As the indispensable guide to liberation, the response he evokes is one of awe, reverence and devotion.

Secular Buddhism has no concern with a multilife background to the Buddha’s achievements, and devotion plays a minor role in its programme. The Buddha is seen as a wise teacher who awakened to the truth of the human condition. His teaching was pragmatic and therapeutic, aimed at the alleviation of suffering here and now. Those who aspire to learn from the Buddha need not place trust in principles that transcend the bounds of ordinary cognition. All are welcome to adopt from his teaching whatever provides concrete benefit in their lives.

Divergent attitudes towards the Dharma also distinguish Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths, the bedrock of the Dharma, provide a sterling example of how they differ. Classical Buddhism gives priority to a ‘horizontal’ view of the Four Noble Truths, seeing them as an evaluation of samsaric becoming. The truth of suffering underscores the defective nature of life in the round of rebirths. Craving and ignorance function as the hidden levers driving the cycle, propelling the stream of consciousness forward from life to life. The end of suffering is attained by eliminating craving and ignorance through insight into the real nature of things. In contrast, Secular Buddhism gives precedence to a ‘vertical’ view of the Four Noble Truths. It understands them as a diagnosis of our present life itself, offering a pragmatic therapy that can lead to a life of equanimity and contentment lived fully in the here and now.

These different outlooks on the Four Noble Truths in turn determine their divergent views on Buddhist practice. Classical Buddhism affirms the value of practices designed to secure a favourable rebirth and promote gradual progress towards the realisation of nibbāna. It thus includes such elements as ritual, the formal observance of precepts, support for monasteries and monastics, and devotional recitations and meditations. The higher meditation practices of serenity and insight (samatha and vipassanā) aim at disenchantment, dispassion and ultimate release from the rounds of rebirths.

Where Classical Buddhism grounds practice in the cosmology of the Buddhist scriptures, Secular Buddhism seeks to integrate Buddhist practice with existential psychology. It assigns the devotional and ritualistic practices to the sidelines or drops them entirely. The path centres on meditation as a means of dealing with uncertainty and stress alleviating the ordeal of afflictive emotions. Secular Buddhism locates ultimate meaning in the immediacy of life in the here and now, lived deliberately with keen curiosity and open attention.

Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism also differ in their understanding of the Sangha. For Classical Buddhism the ideal focus is on the ‘Sangha of noble ones’ (ariyasangha), those who have attained the stages of awakening culminating in arahantship, or in Mahayana Buddhism, on the exalted bodhisattvas. However, because the Sangha of noble ones is a purely spiritual entity, without manifest signs, most forms of Classical Buddhism direct their communal veneration towards the monastic Sangha, the order of monks and nuns. The monastics function as the field of merit, recipients of respect and offerings. They are also the supreme teaching authority, whose years of training qualify them to transmit the Dharma.

In Secular Buddhism, the Sangha of noble ones is not recognised as such, or is treated as marginal. While Secular Buddhists may respect individual monastics as teachers and models, they generally do not give priority to establishing a monastic order. The word sangha is in fact broadened in scope to designate all practitioners. Precedence may be given to lay teachers, who share the lifestyles and values of lay students and are thus felt to be more accessible than renunciant monks and nuns. Where Classical Buddhism regards the conservation of traditions as the guarantee of authentic teaching, Secular Buddhism prizes creativity and innovation.

As Buddhism evolves in the West, it is likely that the encounter between these two camps will generate competition and rivalry. Yet it may be the attempt to bring together the respective strengths of each that holds the most promise for the future vitality of the Dharma. This is the case not only in the West but in Asia as well, where educated Buddhists now often look to Western Buddhism for inspiration and models to emulate.

Strengths and weaknesses of classical and secular Buddhism

In my own opinion, each of these two expressions of Buddhism has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses. The strength of Classical Buddhism lies in the commitment to preserving the teachings that have defined Buddhism through the ages. Classical Buddhism stresses fidelity to the Buddha’s words and thereby keeps intact the ancient heritage of the Dharma and the potential for deep practice and attainment. By endorsing the ideal of transcendent liberation, it fosters the spirit of renunciation that motivates the traditional quest for awakening. Its values of restraint and fewness of desires challenges the rampant greed and self-seeking fostered by free-market capitalism. With its respect for the monastic life, it upholds the lifestyle that the Buddha himself made available by creating a monastic order governed by a stringent code of discipline.

The weaknesses of Classical Buddhism are typical of other forms of traditional religion. These include a tendency toward complacency, a suspicion of modernity, the identification of cultural forms with essence, and a disposition to doctrinal rigidity. At the popular level, Classical Buddhism often shelves the attitude of critical inquiry that the Buddha himself encouraged in favour of devotional fervour and unquestioning adherence to hallowed doctrinal formulas.

The main strength of Secular Buddhism lies in its ability to make the Dharma meaningful to people nurtured by a secular culture with a deep distrust of religious institutions and scepticism about tenets outside the range of normal experience. Secular Buddhism thereby opens doors to the Dharma for people inclined to the experiential emphasis of the hard sciences. Secular Buddhists have also devised new applications of the Dharma neglected or bypassed by the tradition, bringing Buddhist practices into such areas as health care, education, prison work and psychotherapy. These last features, however, are generic to Western Buddhism, whether secular or religious, and are not unique to the secularist approach.

The principal weakness of Secular Buddhism may be overconfidence in the naturalistic premises with which is starts. This can lead to a disregard, even disdain, for principles that clearly spring from the Buddha’s own realisation. This is particularly the case with the principles of rebirth and karma. To dismiss these teachings as trappings of Buddhism’s Asian heritage is to cast off the essential backdrop to the spiritual quest that the Buddha himself emphasised by including them in Right View, the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. If they are discarded in favour of materialistic naturalism, there is a real danger that the very pillars that sustain the Dharma will collapse, leaving us stranded in the wilderness of personal opinion and reducing Buddhist practice to an assortment of therapeutic techniques. On the other hand, if Classical Buddhism holds fast to its original standpoint, it may well expand the horizons of science beyond materialist reductionism, opening the scientific mind to subtler dimensions of reality.

Although a cross-fertilisation between Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism can inspire a revitalisation of the Dharma in ways fitting for our time, in my view the relation between them cannot be symmetrical. Since it is Classical Buddhism that has firmer roots in the original teaching, it provides a more solid basis than Secular Buddhism for preserving the integrity of the Dharma against the temptation to dilution and commercialisation. Nevertheless, while unbridgeable differences between them will remain, Classical Buddhism can learn from Secular Buddhism how to respond effectively and intelligently to the unique pressures of modernity. For example, while most forms of traditional Buddhism in Asia follow a hierarchical organisational structure, Secular Buddhist communities have adopted lateral power-sharing and more egalitarian models better suited to the democratic standards of national governance. At the popular level, where Classical Buddhism tends to posit a sharp contrast between serious Dharma practice and everyday life, Secular Buddhism takes everyday life to be the field for successful practice and thus bridges the two domains. Secular Buddhism has also purged ancient biases that still infect traditional Buddhism, affirming the equal capacities of women and giving full respect to people of diverse sexual orentations.

Some Dharma teachers go a step beyond Secular Buddhism and hold that Buddhist mindfulness practice must be recast as a nondenominational technique stripped of its Buddhist identity. This, they claim, will enable the Dharma to blend unobtrusively into the cultural mainstream. Few Secular Buddhists, however, endorse this proposition, which even they deem too drastic. For traditional Buddhists, bare mindfulness without the support of refuge in the Three Jewels and the rest of the Eightfold Path loses its transcendent orientation and risks being turned into a mere adornment to a comfortable life. Even more concerning, however, is the fact that this approach can easily be taken up by the corporate mindset to suit its own agenda, culminating in the triumph of what some have called ‘McMindfulness.’

Need for social engagement with both both perspectives

With some exceptions, adherents of both Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism have tended to treat political and social activism as marginal to their understanding of Dharma practice. While they may engage in certain types of humanitarian service – assistance to the sick and dying, care for orphans and animals, the operation of soup kitchens, or work among prisoners – they often shy away from overt political advocacy, which they may see as a threat to the purity of their practice. This, I feel, is where Buddhism in all its varieties has much to learn from the Abrahamic religions with their prophetic concern for social justice. For billions of people around the world the principal causes of the real suffering they face on a daily basis are endemic poverty, social oppression and environmental devastation. If Buddhism is to live up to its moral potential, its followers must make a stronger commitment to peace, justice and social transformation. Inspired by the ideals of lovingkindness and compassion, they must be ready to stand up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, for those burdened by harsh and exploitive social structures. For all its unsavouriness, politics has become the stage where the critical ethical struggles of our time are being waged. Any spiritual system that spurns social engagement to safeguard its purity risks reneging on its moral obligations. Its contemplative practices then turn into the intellectual plaything of an upper-middle-class elite or a cushion to soften the impact of the real world.

It is still too early to determine how in the long run the encounter between Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism will play out, much less the broader encounter between Buddhism and modernity. These are matters for the future to determine, and to learn the answers we must be patient. But as followers of the Dharma, it’s not enough just to sit on the sidelines as observers. Whether we lean towards Classical Buddhism or Secular Buddhism, we must be ready to promote fruitful exchanges between the two, undertaken in a shared quest for a wider understanding of the Dharma in its full range, relevance and depth.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi (formerly Jeffery Block) is the founder and chairman of Buddhist Global Relief. He has been a Theravāda monk since 1972. A translator of the Pāli Nikāyas, he lives and teaches at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. Excerpts from his translations of the Pāli Canon are available at under ‘Teachings of the Buddha’ in the Wisdom Academics collection.

Originally published in Inquiring Mind, Vol. 31, #2 Spring 2015 (northern hemisphere), this article is © 2015 by Inquiring Mind and republished here with kind permission from Inquiring Mind ( which means that the Creative Commons license of this website does not apply.



11 Replies to “Bhikkhu Bodhi on traditional versus secular Buddhism”

Being familiar with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s merits in global „classical“ Buddhism and truly acknowledging them I would first like to point out that Bhikkhu Bodhi presenting himself, or allowing himself to be presented as „Ven.“ (=Venerable) gives me a difficult start. For me as a reader, this imposing abbreviation immediately opens the gap between a viewpoint of being addressed at eye level in contrast to being talked to from a somehow „higher“ position.

Before going into detail I would like to remind us: our world is becoming more and more secular, whether we like it or not. The power of almighty gods and elevated men represented by strong ecclesiastical institutions and men’s devotion towards them has been continuously diminished during the last century. We have to face this trend and accept it.

Some aspects of secular Buddhism Bhikkhu Bodhi does not characterize in ways its followers would agree with:

Nothing brought me closer to the canonical texts of Buddhism than the extended studies of the secular Buddhist Stephen Batchelor. On the other hand, I cannot see where the opinion that secular Buddhism would look for illumination amongst modern sciences stems from. In our present world we have to acknowledge the importance and achievements of sciences. It would be desirable if all sorts of Buddhists would take this into account.

In describing a secular Buddhist’s approach to the traditionally so called „Four Noble Truths“ Bhikkhu Bodhi does not mention the shift towards seeing them not as truths to be believed in, but as tasks to be undertaken. In this understanding they are much more than a „diagnosis and a pragmatic therapy“, but the threshold to nibbana in our ordinary life, here and now.

I do not think, „secular Buddhism seeks to integrate Buddhist practice with existential psychology“. There are just as interesting parallels between Buddha’s insights and this branch of modern western philosophy, as many other matches exist, e.g. with the work of Epicurus, Titus Lucretius, Michel de Montaigne, Erich Fromm and other Western thinkers who were influenced by Buddha’s teachings, directly or indirectly.

As for „the devotional and ritualistic practices being assigned to the sidelines“: yes, there is less devotion in secular Buddhism; I do not miss it as most of my dharma friends do not. Quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous sentence: „Der Mensch ist ein zeremonielles Tier“ (Man is a ceremonial animal), I would like to add: secular Buddhists need rituals as every human does and are working on generating new ones outside temples.

Secular Buddhists try hard to „stress fidelity to the Buddha’s words“, as „classical“ Buddhists do; maybe they do less for „keep(ing) the ancient heritage of the Dharma intact“ in a literal sense, but they certainly work on developing it for our presence as practitioners did in many stages of history since Buddha’s time.

To discuss karma and rebirth in this brief comment, the two big issues on which classical and secular Buddhism deeply disagree, would be asking too much. But as secular Buddhism tries to offer a set of values without beliefs, many of its followers feel much more comfortable with the agnostic idea of not knowing what might happen to them after death, instead being concerned with living fully in their present.

Reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article I find concerns of Buddhism being reduced by its secular adepts’ concern of „materialistic naturalism“, of limitation to therapeutic methods, of „the wilderness of personal opinions“. Nowhere in Stephen Batchelor’s work do I find anything about secular Buddhism being a therapeutic method. I do find him stressing the importance of finding one’s personal way as Buddha does in the Kalama Sutta. I find him pointing out the wonders, the mysteries and the beauty of our life here and now, which he calls: the everyday sublime. Winton Higgins, in a series of four talks that can be found on this website, thinks in a similar way. I would not call this approach „barely materialistic“.

In his last point I totally agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi: „With some exceptions, adherents of both Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism have tended to treat political and social activism as marginal to their understanding of dharma practice….” and further on: „If Buddhism is to live up to its moral potential, its followers must make a stronger commitment to peace, justice and social transformation. Inspired by the ideals of lovingkindness and compassion, they must be ready to stand up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, for those burdened by harsh and exploitive social structures. For all its unsavouriness, politics has become the stage where the critical ethical struggles of our time are being waged“.

To this I would like to add a remark Ajahn Brahm uttered a few months ago: „We Buddhists have built so many more temples than orphanages“. I take this as a challenge. As a secular Buddhist trying to integrate all aspects of today’s life I feel a strong need for me and my Dharma friends to develop many more strategies and ways to act not only as social activists but also to nonviolently interfere in global politics, as far as our personal potential and abilities reach.

Evamaria Glatz, Vienna

Bhikkhu Bodhi deserves thanks for his attempt to capture the relationship between what he calls ‘classical’ and ‘secular’ Buddhism. But the problems with his article start precisely with these two categories. Inherited Asian Buddhisms (plural) are far too diverse to fuse together in his classical-Buddhism category which – in BB’s account – really references BB’s own Theravadin school of Buddhism and its idiosyncratic emphases, which diverge markedly from much east-Asian Buddhism, for instance.

The coagulation of ‘secular Buddhism’ in his article generates similar confusions, such that one of the most prominent developments in secular Buddhism (especially in New Zealand, Europe and Australia), that of Stephen Batchelor, disappears without trace in his description. Also, secular Buddhism is a broad church with no orthodoxy and no clear demarcation lines.

Having set up these two unpromising categories, BB then proceeds to place them in a hostile relationship, one involving ‘rupture’, ‘incompatible alternatives’, and ‘competition and rivalry’. Some friction between conventional and secular Buddhism has indeed arisen in some quarters, such as the Buddhist Society of Victoria, whose doors no dharma teacher may darken if s/he hasn’t first literally signed up to belief in rebirth and the proposition that ‘sangha’ (spiritual community) refers to monastics only.

These rules – written by the senior Theravadin monk who acts as the BSV’s spiritual adviser – aim to exclude secular Buddhists (although some Mahayana teachers might end up as collateral damage). They thus fly in the face of the BSV’s own constitutional objective to ‘show respect for all schools of Buddhist thought’. As in this example, the animus has been all one-sided: to paraphrase the Buddha, secular Buddhism doesn’t dispute with conventional Buddhism; conventional Buddhism disputes with it.

Rebirth and monastics-only sangha
Ancient Indian culture carried the working assumption (‘belief’ may be too big a word) that all beings reincarnate. Much like a digital algorithm today, it made thinking outside the dominant paradigm well-nigh impossible; trying to imagine a European atheist in the Middle Ages presents the same degree of difficulty. The Buddha, as a child of his culture, worked from the rebirth assumption. But he didn’t teach it as a central belief. At the end of the Kalama sutta, for instance, he validates dharma practice irrespective of whether the practitioner accepts the idea of rebirth or not. As well, he repeatedly expressed his disdain for all metaphysical beliefs and speculations. Rebirth naturally falls into this category.

Yet, as BB verifies, rebirth is the central pillar of Theravadin practice, which would seem pointless without it. Indeed, the finances of its monastic institutions rest on it: the whole ‘merit-go-round’ whereby non-monastics (‘laypeople’) make material offerings to monasteries and monastics depends on the promise that the donors thereby secure a fortunate rebirth.

The Theravada’s (and BB’s) insistence that ‘sangha’ – the third element in the three refuges of Buddhism – refers exclusively to monastics, completes the spiritual business model. If you want a fortunate life next time around, give generously to monastics now. Thus the BSV’s rules, mentioned above, begin to look less like intolerant religious dogmatism and more like the prudent defence of the intellectual property on which its major revenue stream depends.

Modern western culture doesn’t support the rebirth idea, and it’s a non-issue in most if not all secular-Buddhist circles. And all major religious and spiritual traditions emphasise the inclusive communality of practice and adherence. To be a practitioner is to belong – to give and receive nourishment from one’s fellow practitioners.

This is what sangha is about. It has nothing to do with membership of a professional priestly elite, the likes of which simply didn’t exist among the Buddha’s followers during his lifetime. He took sangha to mean the fellowship of all sincere practitioners and that is how secular Buddhists understand and honour the third refuge today.

The sources of ‘classical’ and ‘secular’ Buddhism
Bhikkhu Bodhi’s account of the doctrinal sources of his ‘two camps’ doesn’t pass muster either. He contrasts classical Buddhism’s ‘conservation of traditions’ and ‘fidelity to the Buddha’s words’ with secular Buddhism’s apparent nonchalance towards the latter while it privileges ‘materialistic naturalism’, and ‘an assortment of therapeutic techniques’, with ‘existential psychology’ in the lead position.

In fact, ‘sutta study’ (communal study of the Buddha’s discourses) features regularly in many secular-Buddhist sanghas, which see themselves as expressions of a living tradition started by the Buddha himself. By way of an example, Stephen Batchelor’s forthcoming After Buddhism (Yale University Press) will provide a master class in rigorous sutta study. BB might be pleasantly surprised to discover how familiar his own name is among secular Buddhists as a translator of their study materials. Perhaps the Buddha’s discourses find fewer readers in ‘classical’ circles, where commentaries and other scriptures (including quite a few dumbings-down), ones that post-date the Buddha, tend to upstage them. As for most ‘classical’ Mahayana traditions, what we now understand as the words of the historical Buddha hardly see the light of day there.

Much of the literature that post-dates the Buddha comes from institutional sources and spins doctrine to bolster institutional interests. For this reason fidelity to the Buddha’s words can collide with the ‘conservation of traditions’. Assuming we could make sense of BB’s ‘two camps’ at all, the real distinction consists in the secular project’s burning interest in the Buddha’s teachings as they stand, and then finding ways to apply them to dharma practice in the context of our own culture, while mainly bypassing the traditional commentaries. We need to free the Buddha’s teachings from later institutional and cultural accretions that are alien to our situation, and then express them in ways that capture affinities in our own cultural heritage.

Foremost among these valuable affinities are not the natural sciences and psychotherapy (as BB imagines), but ancient and modern western philosophy (for example, scepticism and phenomenology respectively). Many are the moments in sutta study when we get the feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, or one quite like it, but that time around the soundtrack was in Greek, German, French or English.

On the other hand, because of its wonderful lack of metaphysical baggage, Buddhism has enjoyed an easy relationship with science in general, and psychology in particular, since it first appeared in the west. But Buddhism, the natural sciences, and the various corners of the psych world all represent separate disciplines arising from distinct generative questions and protocols for tackling them. They need neither contradict nor colonise each other as they compare notes and learn from each other (which they frequently do).

Buddhist ethics-based politics today
When the Buddha was alive around 2500 years ago, the human world was much more violent; political communities were small-scale, and customary practices and natural phenomena rather than rulers tended to govern how people lived and died. In other words, political arrangements had very little efficacy compared to their formative influence (for good and ill) today.

So the Buddha didn’t have a whole lot to say about politics, from which silence later institutionalised ‘classical’ Buddhist traditions have drawn the convenient conclusion that a good Buddhist has nothing to say or do in the political sphere. On this abstentionist basis the hierarchs of the institutions in question have been (and many still are) well-placed to uncritically cosy up to temporal rulers, however transgressive they may be.

By contrast, in today’s west, popular sovereignty underpins state systems with enormous power to foster destruction, misery and injustice on the one hand, or justice-based human and planetary flourishing on the other. As citizens we bear responsibility for what our leaders and political communities do; we have ‘civic virtue’ thrust upon us, and abstention is not an ethically sustainable option. Towards the end of his article, BB makes a bold statement to this effect, one which I heartily commend.

But as Eleanor Roosevelt told the UN General Assembly in 1948 while introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for its adoption: good political principles ‘begin in small places, close to home’. For instance, are we cultivating respectful gender equality and inclusiveness in the family home? Are we doing so in other small places close to home that really matter, such as our spiritual practice communities? It’s at this point that the rubber hits the road for a great many vehicles of ‘classical’ Buddhism, not least the Theravada where women continue to be subordinated and marginalised.

One of the great advantages of secular Buddhism lies in its de-institutionalised condition, which replicates the dharma world of the Buddha’s time. Secular Buddhists can shoulder their responsibilities as individuals and citizens without compromising their authenticity by ‘conserving traditions’ that fundamentally flout today’s ethical standards and political imperatives.

By all means let us – as Bhikkhu Bodhi enjoins us – ‘promote fruitful exchanges between the two [camps], undertaken in a shared quest for a wider understanding of the Dharma in its full range, relevance and depth.’ But let’s also understand that such exchanges will need to go beyond anodyne pieties, and can’t be short-circuited by issuing bans and anathemas.

It’s refreshing and pleasing to hear a balanced and dispassionate summary and comparison of ‘classical’ and ‘secular’ Buddhism from an adherent to the former. Thank you Bikkhu Bodhi for a stimulating article. I do also feel compelled to respond to some important points that I believe are misperceptions.

If I had to volunteer for a label, it would be a Secular Buddhist. I run a secular Buddhist meditation group here in Sydney and am part of a network of similar sanghas. I have attended several retreats run by the Batchelors and other teachers of secular, practical, modern persuasions. And I run the Secular Buddhism Australia web site and Facebook Page. I swim in very secular dharma circles.

As such I always find it curious when people from outside of those circles make definitive statements about what Secular Buddhism does or doesn’t do. The movement is barely out of the womb. It’s very much in an early exploratory phase, finding itself as it were. There are no clear marks, traditions, rituals or devotions that identify one as a Secular Buddhist. So making confident statements about the movement is, I believe, presumptuous, premature, and prone to inaccuracy.

In line with this, the comments I am about to make are from my experience of secular dharma practise, here in Australia, and from my connections to those running similar web sites around the world. They may or may not be true of others who would call themselves Secular Buddhists.

First, Bodhi says that classical Buddhism seeks light on the human conditions from canonical texts whereas Secular Buddhism seeks it from modern science and the values of a secular society. That’s not my experience. As Winton Higgins has alluded to in his comments, our secular Buddhist sanghas here in Sydney, draw our light on the human condition from both canonical texts AND modern science and secular values. I would also include philosophy in the cluster of sources from which we draw.

For example, my Sangha has spent the last year and a half, studying the Satipatthana Sutta – a book by a ‘classical’ Buddhist monk, Analayo. We devote one weekly session a month to sutta study. Before that, we studied a selection of suttas from the Pali canon chosen by Stephen Batchelor. Before that we studied the book ‘The Basic Teachings of the Buddha’ by Glenn Wallis which examines in depth, numerous key suttas from the Pali canon. If my experience is anything to go by, Secular Buddhism actually puts more emphasis on canonical study than many other lay Buddhist practices. We want the teachings to guide us, but we want to understand those teachings for ourselves, not have them interpreted for us through Asian cultural values from past centuries, which are in many ways, quite different to ours.

It’s on the basis of this assertion that Bodhi suggests the cross-fertilisation relationship between classical and secular approaches should be ‘asymmetrical’. That is, classical Buddhism on top due to their firmer roots in the teachings, and Secular Buddhism lower down. I think this is wrong. I think the teachings should be held as higher than all of us – the stars at which we are all gazing – and our interpretations of them acknowledged as just that – interpretations. Sure, these ‘classical’ Buddhist traditions have been staring at these stars much longer than secular Buddhists have, which is why we are open to learning from them. However, the focus should be on knowing the starscape, not on privileging any one star-gazer’s sketch of the night sky.

Secondly, Bodhi says Secular Buddhism ‘centres on meditation as a means of dealing with uncertainty and stress and alleviating the ordeal of afflictive emotions’. Again, my experience has been that we centre our practices as much on knowing and implementing the dharma as on meditation. Both serenity and insight are important, as are knowledge of the dharma and practise both on and off of the cushion.

Thirdly, Bodhi says that Secular Buddhism treats the Sangha of Noble Ones (i.e. monastics) as ‘marginal’. This overstates it. Monastics are treated as valuable sources of input. They are not revered or put up on pedestals as they are in many classical approaches, and they are subject to questioning and challenge as all teachers are. However they are not relegated to the margins or dismissed. They are simply taken in context as people who may have a rich knowledge of the dharma but who also have committed to a certain pre-packaged interpretation of it, that is imbued with certain social and historical values from another culture and time.

Fourth, Bodhi says ‘classical’ Buddhism regards the conservation of traditions as the guarantee of authentic teaching whereas Secular Buddhism prizes creativity and innovation. That’s true enough, in that it describes the different orientations of preserving the pre-existing out-workings of the dharma and creating new ones. However it also points to another difference: Secular Buddhism doesn’t blindly trust ‘tradition’ to convey the teachings meaningfully. We want to learn the teachings ourselves as our guarantee of ‘authentic teaching’ rather than swallowing whole, the interpretations embedded in existing traditions coming from cultures imbued with different values.

Fifth, Bodhi points to the concepts of rebirth and karma as principles that sprung from the Buddha’s realisation. He suggests Secular Buddhism’s non-acceptance of these principles as a weakness and that discarding such principles may lead to the collapse of the pillars that sustain the dharma. I’ve heard others from classical Buddhist backgrounds make such assertions and they strike me as perplexing. Rebirth and karma were not principles that sprung from the Buddha’s realisation. As far as we can tell, they were existent beliefs in Indian culture at the time Gotama lived, in the same way that gravity is now a principle we all believe in.

Canonical debates aside, the important question is: can you practise fruitfully without these beliefs? Those of classical persuasion often say they can’t imagine Buddhist practise without them. However I’d go so far as to assert, they’ve probably never tried. I live without them and practise the dharma every day of my life. I don’t need future lives, or a punishment and reward system of distributive justice, to motivate kind action now. I just need awareness of the effects of being kind or otherwise.

If I can truly see that everything is a dependent arising, if I accept that unpleasantness is a part of life and get to know it well, if I develop an ongoing awareness of my craving and aversion habits and work to undermine them, if I cultivate the intentions, action, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and mental integration of which Gotama spoke as ‘the path’, am I not practising the dharma? I don’t see any dharmic pillars falling here. There’s no need for panic!

Bodhi lists one of the strengths of the secular approach being that it ‘opens doors to the dharma for people inclined to the experiential emphasis of the hard sciences’. This is no small benefit! What classical Buddhists need to remember is that those of us who fit this description couldn’t believe in karma or rebirth if we tried. And I have tried! So would they have us miss out on the dharma all together? Secular Buddhism is not trying to ‘take over’ Buddhism or redefine it. It’s trying to make the dharma (not Buddhism) accessible and practical for masses of people who would otherwise miss out on it.

Finally, I couldn’t agree more with Bodhi that more fruitful exchanges between secular and classical approaches to the dharma can be incredibly beneficial. And the idea of the ‘shared quest for a wider understanding of the dharma in its full range, relevance and depth’ is wonderful. Invitation accepted! I just hope he’s told his ‘classical’ Buddhist mates, that we’re not gatecrashers at this party!

Taking the time to read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article slowly and carefully, the first question that came to mind is why he has taken this particular focus in an article for the final issue of the US insight meditation community’s magazine Inquiring Mind. Is he expecting that the numbers of secular Buddhists will crowd out those who start off learning their dharma within insight meditation communities? He may well be right, but only partly I suspect.

Why also, I wonder, does he want to draw a line between what he terms ‘Classical Buddhism’ (in one instance he writes ‘Religious’ Buddhism) and ‘Secular Buddhism’? Is this division more important than say, that between the Buddhisms of Korea, Tibet or Vietnam, or perhaps some of the variants of Buddhism created in the USA since the 1960s, or the 19th century refresh of Theravada Buddhism in which he has spent most of his adult life?

Millions of people, estimated variously at 488, 495 and 535 million and representing seven or eight percent of planet’s human population, were born into a Buddhist culture. Compare this with the number of people in the world, today, who identify as secular Buddhists. How many double decker buses would we all find a seat on? Two? Maybe three?

That he feels the need so emphatically to delineate the differences with such force and set boundaries suggests he is concerned over what this new approach to the dharma has to offer both those who have adopted Buddhist practices and beliefs as adult converts, and those born into communities where Buddhist practices are the norm and Buddhist beliefs taken for granted. He writes, for instance, ’Classical Buddhism can learn from Secular Buddhism how to respond effectively and intelligently to the unique pressures of modernity.’

There’s one instance, mentioned above, in which Bodhi names his preferred kind of dharma as ‘Religious Buddhism’. This creates an assumption that secular Buddhism is not religious, an assumption that has been dealt with effectively by Stephen Batchelor and Winton Higgins. For a description of secular Buddhism by secular Buddhists take a look at this page on this website –

Lenorë Lambert makes it clear in her comment on Bodhi’s article that for many secular Buddhists an examination of the Pali canon is vital to understanding the dharma. Bodhi has spent much of his life translating Pali texts into English and secular Buddhists, individually and in community, will be using Bodhi’s translations.

Languages are living things and we are continually learning new ways to interpret what others say, write and mean. Debates around the best ways to translate documents from one language to another will continue for as long as different languages exist. New scholarship in the Pali language and other prakrits is showing that no translation is the be all and end all, and all can be improved on.

Like everything, these writings are impermanent. Within a few decades, we can expect alternative translations will be published that will attribute new meaning to these texts. Such is the normal hermeneutic development. These new translations will, we hope, eschew the Judeo-Christian religiosity of 19th and 20th century interpreters, and monastic retraditionalisers such as Bodhi.

Those who are practising the dharma 50 years from now are likely to view Bodhi’s translations similarly to the way in which the King James Bible is now seen: a delightfully poetical piece of writing, translated from a flawed Latin translation by Erasmus who used a collection of Greek manuscripts whose texts differed in multiple ways. The dharma may attract scholars such as Bart Ehrmann whose book Misquoting Jesus is an object lesson in textual criticism.

By way of an example, there are, for instance, no capital letters in Asian scripts such as that used for the Pali language. When those who translate these words into English give initial capital letters to terms such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Jewels, and particularly to words left untranslated such as Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, they are investing metaphysical authority in these terms – the sort of authority they bring with them from their Judeo-Christian upbringing.

In the Pali canon, we see the Buddha emphasising self-reliance, becoming autonomous in their practice. The one who has entered the path, we read in the early texts, has become independent of others in the Buddha’s teachings. This goes against other texts – likely to be later insertions from the early monastic traditions – which emphasise finding a teacher, becoming devoted to a teacher, surrendering one’s autonomy to him, as perhaps in the Tibetan tradition, receiving the blessings of the lama or the guru.

A secular approach to Buddhism undermines the authority of those westerners who have donned robes – the retraditionalisers – and presents a very real long term threat to their financial support.

With this in mind, secular Buddhists will doubtless continue to reach out to other dharma practitioners, but will continue to find their generosity of spirit ignored or rejected, as has been the case here in New Zealand.

Is Bhikkhu Bodhi facing a great divide, I wonder, or aggravating one?

Doug Smith

Hello to all, and thanks for reproducing this interesting article from Bhikkhu Bodhi. For any who are interested I wrote an (all too brief) response to Bodhi and to Stephen Batchelor over at the Secular Buddhist Association website: “A Few Words on Bodhi and Batchelor.
With metta.

This is an interesting discussion and many of the things I thought while reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s piece have already been said by others in a better way that I could. I thought I might offer the perspective of a younger generation (I was born in Spain in 1989), one that did not need to wrestle with God and traditional religions so much because our parents did it already – my parents are one year younger than the Batchelors. My generation directly inherited several of these ideas through our upbringing, and in a much more emotional, non-intellectual, intuitive way. We are, as it were, a little bit beyond it.

Bhikkhu Bodhi says that a “spiritual system that spurns social engagement to safeguard its purity risks reneging on its moral obligations.” I thank, from the depths of my heart, certain Buddhist teachers for engaging with the contemporary society that has informed me, taking all its features into account, and evolving a meaningful and inspiring discourse that allowed me to leave the palace and commit to the Buddhist path. If they had been more concerned with safeguarding Buddhism’s purity, I, and others of my generation with little dust in their eyes, would probably be wasting. And traditions have the moral obligation to speak to their audience, not to themselves.

I have benefited and continue to benefit from the work of ‘classical Buddhism’, and in this sense I have nothing to complain and a lot to feel gratitude about. But at the same time I have often felt they were not talking to me. The shock of encountering secular Buddhism wasn’t so much the obvious relief of reading “I do not believe in rebirth and I am still a Buddhist” but an enthusiasm from hearing the core message of the dharma expressed in a different way, with terms and cultural references I could relate to. A dharma not simply adjusted to include mobile phones in its metaphors, but articulated from the historical time of mobile phones. It is not so much a matter of reason but of sensibility.

In order to devote this life to having a better next life, which will then be spent in the same way, and on and on, until one stops being reborn, it is necessary that one thinks in terms of cyclic existence in the first place, that one is then afraid by that prospect, seeks a way out and finds it in Buddhism. But in the West we generally do not have the samsara concept to begin with. So let’s admit it: how many westerners are attracted to Buddhism because of this? We generally have other reasons (conscious or unconscious to ourselves) and might adopt the beliefs later. And if we do, as Stephen has pointed out, it’s probably because “holding them renders this life meaningful and worthwhile” for us.

So the here and now matters, of course. But this doesn’t mean that all those who practice secular dharma do so only in order to have a better palace life. The important thing for us is that when we leave the palace, we do not travel back in time: we want to enter a 21st century forest. At the same time, a lot of those who follow classical Buddhism are likewise improving their here and now, basically, but with the conviction – and explicit external recognition – that they are advancing squares in the samsaric board. Others simply enter a new palace, albeit a Buddhist one. It is true that we are seeing a lot of aspects of the dharma being put at the service of capitalist consumerism, being used as fuel for the three fires. But this happens as much in secular Buddhist circles as in classical ones.

Metaphysics, perhaps more than ever before, are a hindrance. We all know that the Buddha was suspicious of them. The so-called ‘Great Divide’ might be an example of it. So, why not drop the whole thing? We also know that the Buddha did this in his time, like how he used conditioned arising as a way of not getting into certain arguments about ‘views’. In fact, the thing with my generation is not so much that we don’t believe in rebirth or heaven but that it is simply not relevant to us, or most of us. To put it bluntly: we don’t care. Among the friends of mine that are around my age (26), there is literally zero who care about this. And they aren’t immoral or hollow people, nor mindless consumers. Yes, we are overcome by existential dread sometimes, and still ‘Post-mortem’ is a language we don’t speak.

If the problem with discarding the pillars of karma and rebirth is the potential collapse of the whole edifice of the dharma, I’m with Winton in that there is no need to panic. Perhaps it would collapse for Bhikkhu Bodhi and others but not for the generation I’m describing, since a great majority of us haven’t even used those pillars: we have never built our ethics, values and worldview upon them.

The views of classical Buddhism are immensely diverse. We can continue to look at the moon without getting obsessed about the different fingers pointing at it. If we want to have fruitful exchanges between classical and secular Buddhism, we can start by focusing on what we like about each other’s ideas, on what makes us think, and incorporate it, rather than arguing about what we disagree upon. Let us drop the whole argument on metaphysics. It is a necessary one maybe, but it has taken place already. Enough of it. It just tires and leads to further quarrels and disputes: it does not lead to welfare and happiness, to letting go, to nirvana – however one understands it. What’s important, and relevant to both classical and secular Buddhism, is that one should reduce and extinguish the three fires, regardless of the cosmological or existential consequences this might or might not have. So let’s just do that. And let’s share information about how each one of us does that. Let’s focus on the things that do not bring great divides.

Tony Reardon

i think that most of the picking at BB’s detail – in the various comments – is really off topic. BB would need a large book to try and lay it all out and we’d still get as much disagreement. I would go as far as to say that there would be as much disagreement no matter who wrote about this or how much they wrote. He’s roughly right about the divide, isn’t he? He says at the start that the two positions are abstractions. I can suggest to the believers that they shouldn’t have beliefs and the believers will tell me that Buddhism is meaningless without the beliefs. People rarely change sides.

I find people like B.B. and Ajhan Sujato very open to my inquiries and sometimes i say hi Sujato rather than Ajhan and sometimes i say Ajhan – i’m trying to bridge what i do think is a divide, trying to be honest on one hand and not offensive on the other.

i think this – bridging – is really the topic [though i’m not holding my breath for agreement!!]

Martin Gisser

Here’s one aspect I’d like to add to the excellent comments: this saeculum poses a challenge to the dharma which I feel both “classical” and “secular” Buddhism aren’t yet up to. While still in robe, Stephen Batchelor wrote: “Enlightenment is nothing but the answer to the deepest questions of human existence. Thus without a vivid consciousness of these questions how can there really be a genuine striving for enlightenment?” (Flight, BPS 1984, p.27). The existential question of the present saeculum is: “Why is the earth silent at this destruction” (Martin Heidegger, Beiträge zur Philosophie, §155. Written ca. 1937, published 1989).

This is one reason why I don’t like the word “secular”. And Bhikkhu Bodhi illustrates this a little. (Of course I can accept the label – it’s just a word after all…)

“Secular” sounds so yestercentury, so Homo Sapiens omphaloskeptic. But this very saeculum, the Anthropocene, is something entirely different to what the Great Apes have seen before: We are standing at a crucial juncture in the history of Life, not just another lousy saeculum in the history of civilization. While secularization still is a noble goal and religious (incl. secular quasi-religious!) fundamentalism is still causing lots of suffering, the Anthropocene poses a new moral and practical challenge, never heard before: unlike in David Hume’s saeculum, the Ought now follows from the Is and from the axiom of preservation of Life. Exaggerated slightly: Not carbon negative, no bodhisattva; not carbon negative, no sangha…

BB: “Secular Buddhism looks for illumination to modern science”. Science no longer is revolutionary secular business, as in Galileo’s saeculum. The stars and galaxies are irrelevant distraction meanwhile – except you need a theory of rebirth somewhere else. A less fundamental science, new and still evolving, neuroscience, might serve illumination – and it seems to confirm the Buddha’s insights. It is time to turn attention towards Earth: It is the facts modern science (climate physics) has gathered that can no longer be ignored or just taken as interesting entertainment. And here we are “beyond materialist reductionism” (BB) which science has anyhow long transcended in the study of the complex emergent systems at the foundations of Life. Here are the “subtler dimensions of reality” (e.g. some 0.01% of carbon dioxide changing the stage of Life). The “materialist reductionism” that spooks BB is long gone. Laplace’s demon is dead. We are now in “The Emergent Age” according to physics Nobelist R.B. Laughlin’s popularizing book A Different Universe (2005). The first emergentist manifesto, by an even greater physicist (e.g. Anderson-Higgs mechanism) is P.W. Anderson’s “More is Different” (Science, 1972, pp.393–6).

Anyhow, the world of spirituality is haunted by a very similar phenomenon, which I like to call “spiritual reductionism”. It is found in christian scholasticism, when overdoing linear causality logic and arriving at an unmoved “God”. It is also in classical Buddhist philosophy, which can feel eerily mechanistic: Like explaining shunyata at the example of a chair (is a bacterium like a chair?) or comparing the aggregates of a person with the parts of a chariot (SN 5.10, MP 28). Or, arriving at the necessity of inter-life rebirth by simplified linear causality thinking combined with atomistic linear time (the same thinking, paradoxically, that leads Christian theorists to the necessity of a moment of creation).
Materialistic reductionism as well as spiritual reductionism are both one symptom of the fundamental mental disease of the Late Homo Sapiens. We need to get over it. Now. It can help looking at the ground that feeds us, here (forget heaven), and transcend the hall of mirrors of our theorizing (papanca producing) left half of the brain.

This is why my hope rests on a modern, postmetaphysical, Buddhism. Methinks the danger to Buddhism is not “dilution and commercialisation” (BB) but keeping the heads stuck in the sands of either metaphysics or classical secularism.

Martin Gisser, Bavaria/Germany

Nick Nahlous

Greetings friends.

Browsing over some of the replies here, I wonder why many take BB so seriously? For those learned in the Buddha-Dhamma, it is quite obvious the ‘Classical Theravada’ position is a form of ‘cultural Buddhism’ and a misrepresentation or distortion of the core Buddhist teachings (such as its bizarre views of Dependent Origination occurring over 3 lifetimes, re-linking consciousness and the 4 Noble Truths explaining ‘rebirth’).

BB has performed a immeasurably valuable service in translating the scriptures into an easily readable and convenient form. Yet there remain crucial errors in the translation and, of course, the accompanying commentaries in the footnotes are abundantly tainted with the ‘Classical Theravada’ view.

Also, the new Australian Theravada sect is now influencing these translations. Monks such as Ajahns Buddhadasa and Chah already provided aspirants with an undistorted introduction into comprehending the teachings. Yet, today, these new old Ajahns are rarely mentioned and, for some reason, the new Australian sect has become very prominent, as though the new Australian sect are competent scholars (which they are certainly not).

A discerning reading of the scriptures offers even more clarity into the purity of the teachings (such as the word ‘beings’, which does not refer to meta-physical organisms but to momentary mental becoming).

I think the term ‘Secular Buddhism’ further distorts the invalid dichotomy created by BB, in that both ‘Classical’ and ‘Secular’ are somehow subjective interpretations, sects or abstractions. What is currently labelled as ‘secular’ actually represents the ‘Heartwood’ or purity of the teachings. It may be both diplomatic and clarifying to use the term ‘secular’ however the secular view is the authentic view in relation to awakening.

I think leaders of the secular movement, such as Stephen Batchelor, who deny the Buddha ended the mind’s defilement and who deny psychic powers, are not helpful here. For example, for the mind to have psychic powers in unrelated to ‘rebirth’ and is merely enhanced sense organs & thought function.

Winton Higgins pointed out, the ‘Classical’ is the cultural view, supporting the monasteries, treasuries and the Sri Lankan, Burmese, Thai, etc, cultures, including their expulsion of the Rohingya.

However, a historical problem here is Buddhism disappeared from India, probably because the Classical view of ending ‘rebirths’ was largely undifferentiatable from the new Hindu position. Obviously Hinduism survived the Muslim invasions so why not Buddhism?

Importantly, the pure Buddha-Dhamma or Transcendent Path does disappear or become lost, due to misinterpretations such as the ‘Classical’ misinterpretation, even though the scriptures remain intact.

The Buddha-Dhamma may be altered to provide solace for the multitude that cannot accommodate impermanence and not-self but does history show that is wise? The suttas provide no recommendations for this.

Although the scriptures do provide general mundane teachings for ordinary people about the future results of karma, the scriptures show the Buddha was very honest and admonished those that distorted his core teachings.

Naturally, a discerning reading of BB arguments show many of them appear illogical. Take BB’s departure into social activism. Surely this cannot represent the Classical view, given social activism is often a form of ‘worldliness’ and thus would be a hindrance to ending the ‘Classical’ rounds of rebirths? Must the Classicals conjure up a Mahayana Bodhisatva ideal (of postponing Nirvana for the sake of all sentient beings) to reconcile their new found embrace of social activism?

I guess, historically, Theravada cultures have probably not displayed a tendency towards social activism given they generally believe in the ‘Classical view’ of karma, namely, misfortune happens due to past karma. It is common in Classical societies that a passive or deterministic position is taken in relation to crimes such a rape, exploitation or child abuse on the grounds of Classical past karma.

It is certainly very wrong of BB to say: “Buddhism in all its varieties has much to learn from the Abrahamic religions”. Having a secular view provides no hindrances to the social activism found in Abrahamic religions (since you are not worrying your concern or even outrage will threaten your Nirvana). However, it is the Classical view, due to its errors about past life karma, that must diminish Buddhism by saying it can learn from the Abrahamic religions.

In short, BB appears to be ‘making it up as he goes along’. BB introduces the notion of social activism, which appears antithetical to Classical Theravada (unless one has given up on liberation in a Jataka fantasy) and then asserts the Lord Buddha, teacher of gods & men, could learn much from the Abrahamic religions.

Why why would anyone interested in enlightenment, peace & liberation entertain the ideas of the former Jeffery Block, now Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi? Life is far too short friends and no amount of merit making can bring one closer to awakening & Nirvana.

BB and the new Australian sect appear to represent the old cultural Buddhism, are a departure from the suttas and a departure from the old Ajahns Buddhadasa and Chah that rebirthed pure Buddhism. Why take these Classicals so seriously or even regard their views at all?

With metta.

John Tate

As a secular Buddhist, whose practice is based upon the teachings of Nichiren, I am thankful for Stephen’s references to the Soka Gakkai and his discussion on how they fit into the Classical/Secular dichotomy of the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. Although the Soka Gakkai laity has been instrumental in reducing the role of ancient Buddhist rituals and has taken over many of the functions (for better or worse) traditionally associated with the clergy, key elements of the classical Buddhist teachings, like rebirth, remain.

To address this issue and other issues related to secularization of the teachings, the below-linked Silent Prayers have been developed. Although these prayers are written for the immediate adaptation of Nichiren Shoshu believers who are transitioning from a literalist view, I believe they are also suitable for anyone who recites the Second and Sixteenth Chapters of the Lotus Sutra before a well-kept alter with a Gohonzon.

In closing, if I may please mention, one thing I believe that is omitted from this “Great Divide” discussion is a definition for Buddhist enlightenment that reflects the Buddha’s ultimate attainment, while not relying on the principle of rebirth and other forms of supernaturalism. Based on the Lotus Sutra and the writings of Nichiren Daishonin, my current working suggestion for this is:

“The manifestation of an eternally compassionate aspect of life that resides at every moment in the realm of the potential.”

I was hoping that this definition, or something close to it, might not only be consistent with your organization’s preferred scriptural origins, but also serve as a rational description for the fundamental purpose of most other religious beliefs.

My e-mail address is and the link to the Silent Prayers is


Thank you for this essay on “traditional versus secular Buddhism. I experience no duality or “versus” in my practice of Buddhism. In Jodo shinshu one can believe or not believe in a God deity, and neither Amida Buddha or Gautama Buddha are viewed as gods. Part of studying and learning the sutras is interpretation and relating them to contemporary understanding. –I was exasperated with the noisiness of my godsons as I was driving. It occurred to me it was my “greed” for silence that wanted them to shut-up. I started laughing, and they fell asleep in the car. –I practice being present in the flicker of “sukha” or “dukkha,” accepting what is while continuing to practice the dharma. Joy & peace,

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