Buddhist practitioners and those who are interested in learning about Buddhism can currently access in books and journals, as well as online (through websites, social media, and online meetings), an incredibly wide range of ideas and practices related to Buddhism. Through these various ways, we can gain knowledge about and practice in virtually any lineage or version of Buddhism.
While this provides us with a rich set of resources for developing our practice, it also can be a cause of confusion and anxiety. We have access to so many different paths and practices that it can sometimes seem overwhelming. An American psychologist, Barry Schwartz, pointed out in his book, The Paradox of Choice, that too many choices can cause deep stress and anxiety. This is precisely what plagues some new and more experienced practitioners in today’s contemporary Buddhist landscape. Among the hundreds of lineages and practices, how does one make the right choice?
This same dilemma is experienced by secular Buddhists, too, who have come to this approach via a variety of routes. Some people initially experienced mindfulness meditation through MBSR programs and then deepened their practice by moving toward a secular approach to Buddhism. Others were practicing in a traditional lineage and became dissatisfied with some aspects of that lineage; they then found secular Buddhism more amenable to their beliefs. Finally, some individuals’ first encounter with Buddhism was through reading a book by Stephen Batchelor, which led them to become a secular Buddhist.
Whichever path brought us to a secular approach to the dharma, at some point we have all asked ourselves: How do we know if this approach is the ‘appropriate’ one? We might have also asked ourselves the related question: Why is a secular Buddhist approach better than other versions or trends within Buddhism?
I’d like to explore these questions, hoping to shed light on some of the important issues that we face as practitioners as we attempt to live a more ethical, mindful, and wise life.
My basic argument will be that we cannot definitively know if secular Buddhism is more ‘appropriate’ in some universal sense. We have no basis for claiming that secular Buddhism is superior to other versions of Buddhism for all people and for all times. However, each individual can determine whether secular Buddhism is an ‘appropriate’ view and path for their own life based on their experiences, interests, and goals.
A preliminary task: clarifying terms
It’s important to clarify the meaning of two key terms: ‘secular Buddhism’ and ‘appropriate.’
As has been previously noted, secular Buddhism is by no means a unified perspective and practice. Among secular Buddhists, there are a range of views and interpretations about what makes a secular approach to the dharma distinctive and valuable. In my article, Three paths for secular Buddhists – crucial conversations and movements I argued that there are three broad approaches to a secular dharma: first, the project, most closely identified with Stephen Batchelor’s work, of reconstructing traditional Buddhism in order to create a modern version of the dharma; second, the endeavor to develop a secular approach to the dharma in tandem with the application of mindfulness practices in psychological therapies and education; and third, the effort to incorporate the Buddha’s vital insights into a broader, secular perspective and movement for both individual and collective, political transformation.
Winton Higgins has also identified another division among secular Buddhists. In his article, Secular Buddhism: scientistic versus interpretive he asserted that a dominant tendency among many secular Buddhists in the U.S. is support for scientific atheism, a militant critique of traditional religion, and basing a secular approach to the dharma on discoveries in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. On the other hand, outside the U.S., secular Buddhists tend to adopt a ‘post-metaphysical, interpretive’ approach in which the emphasis is on ‘first-person discourse arising out of the conscious experience of engaged human agency.’
Clearly, then, we first we need to recognize that secular Buddhism has varied meanings and that the answer to the question posed in this article will depend, in part, on the particular approach to secular Buddhism one adopts. I have my own approach to secular Buddhism, which will thus affect the way I view these questions.
Further, I purposely posed the question of the value of secular Buddhism in terms of ‘appropriate’ view and path. Standard translations of the Eightfold Path use the adjective ‘right’ to characterize each of the path factors. Thus, the first path factor is sammā diṭṭhi, translated as ‘right understanding’ or ‘right view.’
In his book After Buddhism Stephen Batchelor translates sammā as ‘complete’ or ‘appropriate’ in part because that is the literal translation of the Pali term but also because complete or appropriate ‘…lacks the moralistic overtones of right and suggests how each element of the path can become an integral part of the whole’ (p. 83). In addition, the adjective ‘right’ can imply a sense of truth or correctness. Thus, for traditional Buddhists, a key foundation of the first path factor is the Four Noble Truths, which constitute the basic truths of human existence: the inevitably tragic dimension of human life; craving and ignorance as the causes of our distress and suffering; the liberation from distress and suffering through non-attachment and wisdom; and Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the end of distress and suffering.
While the purpose of fully comprehending the Four Noble Truths is ultimately a practical one – to overcome distress and suffering and attain liberation – the Four Noble Truths are understood by traditional Buddhists as correct propositions about the world. In other words, they are true because they correspond with the way the world really is. They are thus ontological assertions, propositions about the nature of ultimate reality.
Stephen Batchelor has rightly emphasized that we ought to understand the Four Noble Truths instead as four essential tasks to live a more mindful and compassionate life. They are pragmatic, ethical injunctions and whether they correspond with the way the world really is in some ultimate or absolute sense, is not relevant to human flourishing.
From this perspective, the four tasks are not essential because they represent the ‘right’ understanding or metaphysical view of the world but because they are a foundational element of an overall understanding or view of our experience which is ‘appropriate” for leading a more compassionate, caring, mindful, and wise life.
So, it matters whether we pose the question in terms of ‘right’ or ‘appropriate.’ With respect to the former, we are assessing secular Buddhism with respect to the ultimate truth value of its claims; using the latter term, we are evaluating this approach in terms of its efficacy in helping us transform our lives. I find that the latter approach is more consistent with my values and interests.
Appropriate for me?
Let me start with a limited but crucial inquiry. How do we know if secular Buddhism is the appropriate view and path for an individual?
This type of questioning is actually very consistent with Gotama’s, the historical Buddha’s, own injunction: Ehipassako, the Pali term which essentially means to come see for yourself the worth of the dharma by engaging in the belief and practice of it. Rather than assert the universal truth of his approach based on reasoning or the sacred nature of texts, Gotama emphasizes that the value of his teachings can only be fully recognized through one’s own experience.
In the famous sutta, With the Kālāmas of Kesamutta, Gotama lays out the need to use experiential criteria to evaluate the worth of his teachings:
Please, Kālāmas, don’t go by oral transmission, don’t go by lineage, don’t go by testament, don’t go by canonical authority, don’t rely on logic, don’t rely on inference, don’t go by reasoned contemplation, don’t go by the acceptance of a view after consideration, don’t go by the appearance of competence, and don’t think ‘The ascetic is our respected teacher.’ But when you know for yourselves: ‘These things are skillful, blameless, praised by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to welfare and happiness’, then you should acquire them and keep them.
So, what leads to welfare and happiness? This, too, is a contested issue, but I think the notion of human flourishing comes closest to what Gotama means by welfare and happiness. Like Aristotle and certain Hellenistic philosophers in ancient times, as well as Marx, Dewey, and others in the modern era, Gotama understands welfare and happiness as the product of a life in which we develop to the fullest extent our capacities for mindfulness, compassion, wisdom, and other human virtues. In this sense welfare and happiness are not a matter of feeling good or experiencing pleasure but are the fruit of living a meaningful, fully realized life. It is a ‘real,’ more enduring happiness than the momentary ‘hits’ of pleasure we get at different times.
From this perspective, we can ask ourselves if a secular approach to the dharma:
- Increases my capacity to be more mindful and aware
- Reduces my reactivity to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences
- Makes me more capable of keeping an open mind, recognizing uncertainty and complexity, and cultivating patience
- Helps me to discern the situations or areas in which I have some measure of control and thus responsibility, and the areas and situations in which I have little or no control
- Enables me to feel and be more connected to other people, to recognize our common humanity, and to reduce the tendency to create ‘Others’ whom we treat as objects
- Allows me to have more space in my life for periods of contentment and ease
- Limits the impact of ego-based emotions and actions while expanding the role of loving friendliness, compassion, joy for others’ well-being, and equanimity in the face of life’s ups and downs
- Provides me the internal resources and wisdom to have a more positive impact in improving the lives of others and contributing to a socially just, egalitarian society
- Facilitates a holistic and broader understanding of the world, enabling me to see the interconnected, mutually dependent relationships of humans, other sentient beings, and other aspects of nature
If a secular approach to the dharma is helpful in these ways as you develop greater understanding of its key concepts and practice in a way consistent with this approach, then secular Buddhism is leading to your welfare and happiness. It is thus, I would argue, appropriate for you.
A serious critique of secular Buddhism
But what if you want something more or different than what is listed above? What if you believe that your goal as a Buddhist practitioner is to work toward and perhaps achieve a transcendent experience of nonduality or complete liberation, i.e. nirvana? For you, the above list provides a good roadmap to a flourishing life in this world but misses an important dimension of spirituality.
This is the core of the argument made against a secular approach by two Buddhist teachers whom I very much respect and admire: Bhikkhu Bodhi and Akincano Mark Weber. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Theravadan monk and writer who has in recent years played a crucial role in developing a socially engaged Buddhism. Akincano Weber is a meditation teacher in the Insight tradition and one of the core faculty members of Bodhi College, an educational organization which focuses on the exploration of early Buddhist texts and teachings. Both take seriously the ideas and practices of a secular approach while offering a thoughtful critique of secular Buddhism.
In a 2014 Skype discussion with Ajahn Brahmali and Bhante Sujato, Bhikkhu Bodhi argued that to dismiss the traditional Buddhist notions of kamma, rebirth, and nirvana (complete freedom from suffering) presupposes that the ‘bandwidth’ with which we normally experience reality is the only one possible. In fact, Bodhi asserts that it is reasonable to believe that there are other bandwidths with which we can experience realities which are not part of the naturalistic world as we currently understand it. The secular Buddhist thus is someone who has a radio tuned into only bandwidth – e.g. FM – and doesn’t realize that other bandwidths, such as short wave, exist and can be accessed.
Akincano Weber makes a similar point in his article Secular Buddhism: New vision or yet another of the myths it claims to cure? While appreciative of some aspects of the secular Buddhist project, Weber sees the danger of secular Buddhists creating a ‘flatland Buddhism’ which overlooks the possibility of a truly transformative personal experience of the supra-mundane or numinous. To Weber, the secular dismissal of nirvana as an illusion falsely limits experience to the world of natural phenomena. Yet, there is no reason to believe that this the extent of reality.
If I have a good nose and actually can smell if somebody has cut the bread on the onion board, then to the guy who does not have a good nose, this may seem an extra-sensory and supernatural experience. To me, it is not—it just smells of onion. I cannot prove how I know, but I do know. It’s the old story of the turtle telling the fish of his visit on dry land—his walk, the gentle breezes, the evening sun, the scent of the blossoming trees—and the fish concluding that anything not wet, cool and liquid according to his experience is unthinkable, that dry land, breezes and walks under blossoming trees are mere fantasies.
The need for ‘metaphysical humility’
What are we to make of their argument, which on its face, certainly seems quite sound? While Bodhi and Weber make a reasonable point, there is simply no way to resolve definitively the issue one way or another. How can we know if a there is a dimension of reality which, by definition, is beyond what we can access through our current understanding of natural processes and structures? Like any argument over metaphysical questions, inquiries about the ultimate nature of reality, the very criteria for determining the validity of a particular claim presupposes the position which is being asserted. There are thus no neutral or ‘objective’ standards to adjudicate the dispute.
While I think that a secular approach is more appropriate because it facilitates human flourishing in this life, I am taking that position without asserting that, in some universal or objective sense, secular Buddhism is better than traditional forms of Buddhism. I agree with Seth Zuihō Segall who, in his book Buddhism and Human Flourishing, argued that certain metaphysical issues may never be resolved and that it’s best to be open-minded and agnostic with respect to them; we need, in short, to assume a stance of ‘metaphysical humility.’
Of course, from a position of metaphysical humility, we can and should continue to engage in a dialogue on this and other issues of ultimate concern. This is simply part of human life, the never-ending effort to make sense of ourselves and the world. As fallible, complex, and creative beings, we are unlikely to achieve some definitive, final resolution. What we can do is to engage in this dialogue in a way that helps promote mindfulness, compassion toward others, and the full flourishing of human beings.
A secular approach to the dharma, along with other valuable perspectives, can play an important role in nourishing precisely this type of constructive dialogue.