Venerable Tenzin Tharpa is a fully ordained American Buddhist monk ordained in the Tibetan Gelug Tradition. He is a teacher, author, and philosopher with nearly three decades in Tibetan Buddhist studies, half of which was spent in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries throughout India. To download his free Buddhist study material, visit SBTonline.org
I remember when I first wrote to the Secular Buddhist icon Stephen Batchelor. In the letter I introduced myself as a secular monastic; his response was great, writing, ‘When I first read your description of yourself as a secular monastic, I thought it was an oxymoron. However, I’m glad to know that at least one of your species exists.’ This understandable confusion regarding the term secular monastic showed me that there is indeed a need for some clarification.
Like many, I started my Buddhist path with romanticized visions of mystical experiences and esoteric knowledge; meaning, I was a ‘believer’ and had dove headfirst into the path. Although I was captivated by the idea of becoming a monastic from the very first Buddhist books I’d read, it took me fifteen years to rise above dissuasive voices to follow my heart and pursue ordination. So, I took a year, worked every waking moment of those 365 days, sold everything I owned, and bought a one-way ticket to Dharamsala, India. The timing of my arrival was fortunate as I came just in time to apply and be accepted into the Dalai Lama’s ordination program. After a remarkable ordination experience, I was sent to South India to begin my formal monastic education within the legendary Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries.
My aim was to become an accomplished tantric practitioner and therefore I was apprehensive of the long sutra studies before me. Nevertheless, I was determined to get a proper monastic education, so I followed the prescribed study plan. The curriculum was referred to as the path of reason and included studies in Buddhist philosophy and dialectic debate. It was here that I began to truly embrace logic and reason. Curiously, it was this path of reason that created the objectivity and clarity which would later lead me to Secular Buddhism. Other influences included my teacher the Dalai Lama, who, in his bestselling book Beyond Religion, gives his approval and encouragement to those wishing to engage Buddhism in a secular manner; and the writings of the father of modern Secular Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor, whose books I had to hide in my room at the monastery to avoid the scorn of the other monks.
As with many Western practitioners, I possessed a broad range of interests and knowledge. I had begun my path in the Zen Tradition; however, it was the warmth and mysticism of Tibetan Buddhism that I found magnetizing. Throughout the years I had studied all the various forms of Buddhist thought, both Sanskrit and Pali traditions alike. But it was my monastic education that became the turning point in my path, for which I will forever be grateful. It was the skills of reason and logic that I had learned in the monasteries that allowed me to see beyond the traditional views I had been taught and gave me the courage to move past the safety and security of my chosen tradition.
After enduring ten long years of study in the monasteries, I decided to cap off my education by undertaking a yearlong pilgrimage of Buddhist Asia, armed only with my alms bowl, a second set of robes, and my trusty laptop for writing. This would allow me to experience firsthand all the various traditions I had long studied while also gaining information for books I was writing on monasticism and meditation. During my pilgrimage(s), I’ve had the opportunity to stay in over sixty monasteries and communities of all the Buddhist traditions, in all the Buddhist countries, including many non-Buddhist spiritual communities.
As I continued to travel and teach, I came across an increasing number of people who were strongly drawn to the practical wisdom of the Buddha but were not interested in joining a religion or exotic belief system. Those who felt disaffected by the more religious and cultural presentations of Buddhism they had encountered; wisdom seekers who were unrepresented within the larger Buddhist community. Their feelings of alienation were equally true for myself, for, from the first dharma center I entered, I struggled to relate to the rites, rituals, and symbolism I encountered, a feeling that remains with me to this day. As we talked, I was repeatedly asked if I could create some literature on my progressive views. This led me to dedicate my work and life to champion a more inclusive and secular presentation of the Buddha’s teachings.
To facilitate my aim, I founded the Secular Buddhist Tradition (SBT). SBT is an international community dedicated to sharing a practical and accessible presentation of the buddhadharma focused on the positive life-affirming message of the Buddha, while emphasizing and prioritizing those aspects of the teachings that we deem most illuminating, plausible, and fruitful. Our focus is to inform and guide without sharing presumptions of what to believe, acknowledging the broad range of individuals and minds while respecting the individual’s role in determining their own path.
Our teachings remain in line with the basic framework of traditional Buddhism, namely the cultivation of the Four Noble Truths, virtuous ethics, wisdom, and altruism. However, we differ in our move away from religious authority, dogma, absolutism, and the more religious, mystical, and cultural content presented in traditional Buddhism. We also differ in our strongly agnostic view, maintaining a careful balance between the experiential truth and tangible benefits of the Buddha’s teachings, and the acceptance of the uncertainty and mystery of our existence.
There are some unique aspects of SBT. We are one of the few Secular Buddhist groups that arises from the Tibetan Tradition. We emphasize training in the Buddha’s vinaya system. We embrace the Mahayana ideology and the bodhisattva ideal. We hope to eventually offer Secular Monastic Ordination.
Now let’s clarify the concept of secular monasticism. I assert that being a monastic – a renunciant holding vows of training in the Buddha’s Vinaya system (which is basically a secular system), is not a philosophical position. This becomes obvious when understanding that each of the different monastic traditions hold very different philosophical views. Therefore, for secular monastics, a secular interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings is their chosen philosophical view; while monasticism, is their chosen training, practice, and path.