Winton Higgins, a meditation teacher, member of the Tuwhiri Project editorial board, and contributor to the Secular Buddhist Network website, was interviewed by Tricycle magazine editor James Shaheen on 18 November 2021 about his new book, Revamp: writings on secular Buddhism.
Winton and James discussed a number of important topics related to the book and controversies concerning secular Buddhism. The interview is below, but here are Winton’s views on some of the issues discussed:
The definition of secular Buddhism: Secular Buddhism is rooted in the early teachings found in the Pali Canon, but takes a fresh look at them while also incorporating other perspectives in the Western philosophical tradition. Secular Buddhists see the Buddha as a practical philosopher, helping us to to live a better life.
Secular Buddhism and radical atheism: Secular Buddhists see the dispute between fundamentalist religious believers and their opponents, radical atheists, as contesting systems of metaphysical beliefs. Secular Buddhists have no interest in taking a side in this dispute but, instead, focus on the pragmatic and ethical thrust of the Buddha’s teachings.
The mindfulness movement: While mindfulness can be helpful in a therapeutic setting, mindfulness has also been used to further corporate and military interests. Secular Buddhists see mindfulness not as a self-help technique but part of a larger ethical project of human flourishing.
On meditation: In contrast to traditional Buddhist versions of meditation, which tend to be formulaic and oriented to a goal of complete liberation from suffering, secular Buddhist meditation is more about awareness of all our experiences as part of the process of awakening in this life.
Secular Buddhism and Buddhist modernism: Buddhist modernism, as found in certain versions of Zen and in Insight meditation, still retains some of the traditional elements of Buddhism, including the impact of monasticism, hierarchical structures, etc. Secular Buddhism emerged from Buddhist modernism but has made a more radical break from traditional Buddhism.
Four Noble Truths versus the Four Tasks: Instead of adhering to the metaphysical truths expressed in the Four Noble Truths, secular Buddhists emphasize the transformative impact of four tasks to promote human flourishing. These tasks are ‘an open-ended invitation to get your life together’.
External transcendence versus internal transcendence: Consistent with the perspective of the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, secular Buddhism is not about transcending our world and the human condition (external transcendence) but fulfilling our human potential to transform ourselves (inner transcendence) and our society.
Secular Buddhism and the ethic of care: An ethic based on care and compassion is fundamental for secular Buddhists and requires us to not only transform ourselves but to engage in social and political action to address collective problems.
Process versus goal in Buddhism: Secular Buddhism is not about achieving the soteriological goal of complete liberation but the ongoing process of gaining awareness and cultivating virtue s which promote human flourishing.
On Marx’s theory of alienation: Marx’s early writings on human alienation provide us with an important perspective on human suffering and need to be incorporated into a secular approach to the dharma. Martin Hägglund’s interpretation of this notion in his book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, is particularly valuable because he emphasizes that human flourishing in this finite life can only occur if we transform fundamentally our current institutions and create a post-capitalist society.