Beyond the dichotomy between secularism and institutionalised religion, there is a possible way forward that starts precisely from the experience of awakening as an essential and inclusive synthesis of opposing approaches.
The notion of ‘secular Buddhism’ has been primarily shaped by the apparent dichotomy posed by Stephen Batchelor. He asserts that a secular dharma is based on the need to ‘start again’ and restructure Buddhism as part of creating a ‘culture of awakening’ in this life. On the other hand, traditional Buddhism is based on the ascetic ideal of surpassing the human in the name of a teleological otherworldliness, of which nirvana represents the point of arrival. According to Stephen, the ascetic path is aligned with a religious vision of ancient India, of which Buddhism, as a new form of worship, represents one of the expressions. The secular path, on the contrary, moves away from that eschatological vision to envisaging a new society.
A critical analysis of this opposition, however, leaves the door open to a third, potentially less divisive and more fruitful perspective.
Gotama’s primary experience
Much of the secular perspective on Buddhism thus far has probably responded to a more than understandable need for schematization. But this, in my view, has led to some questions being put out the door that come back in, like the wind, through the open window. In particular, what is the quality of the experience from which the entire path of the Buddha flows? And, consequently, is this experience indispensable when we want to redefine a new secular perspective?
It must be said, as a first consideration, that the ultimate vision of a new civilization based on a culture of awakening, which claims to be unconnected to any religious perspective, is, in reality, eschatological and therefore metaphysical itself. That is, it is not just based on an ethical, pragmatic stance on how we live. In fact, the premises that make Gotama’s experience possible on a phenomenological level and that allow him to imagine a different possible civilization, are ontological in nature. That is, they arise from an ‘a-priori’ perspective and this ‘a-priori’ is precisely inherent in the experience of awakening, without which it would not be possible either to read or to frame the specificity of the Buddhist path as a whole. In other words, there is no Buddhism without the specific experience of awakening that, by its very nature, belongs to the field of the numinous, the mystical.
Batchelor also believes that the ideal of the Bodhisattva is linked to a teleological vision. That is, he argues that the Bodhisattva, like the traditional idea of Nirvana, is the goal toward which Mahayana Buddhism tends. His interpretation, however, seems not to take into account that the paradox of a soteriology such as that expressed in the first vow of the Bodhisattva – ‘The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them’ – is exactly what allows the synthesis between an absolute and unrealizable dimension, and the concrete act of the fulfillment of this same paradox again and again in a present that repeats itself endlessly. The Bodhisattva’s orthopraxis focuses not only on the ultimate goal, not only the point of arrival that we know will never arrive, but how it powerfully translates into the present, as an epiphany of awakening itself. Paradox becomes vital precisely because it is experienced and gives meaning to this phenomenological experience.
The strength of secular reasoning
The strong point of Batchelor’s reasoning is, on the other hand, his radical criticism – already well expressed by Zen since its origins – of a religious orthodoxy that has taken the experience of awakening hostage, confining it to the realm of ideas and making it accessible only to a monastic elite. However, this is not enough to justify exiling religious experience and characterizing it as a negation of the secular path. In fact, to return to the first question, the experience from which the entire Buddhist path moves is awakening. It is an experience that is in the religious or spiritual realm, provided we understand religion and spirituality as referring to an ultimate dimension of human experience, not as an institution or metaphysical dogmatism. Although the Buddha’s teachings were heterodox and revolutionary with respect to the cultural and spiritual conventions of ancient India, the experience of Buddhist awakening is inevitably in the religious realm.
An opportunity for the secular way
Far from being a limitation and pushing the argument into the realm of metaphysics, this starting point of awakening represents an opportunity on which a secular critique of the metaphysical idealism of the institutionalised religion of Buddhism can be founded. From this perspective, if awakening is what starts the transformation, what sets the wheel of the Dharma in motion and makes possible the vision of a new civilisation, then awakening needs to be seen not as a process leading to a teleological ideal but as a way of seeing nirvana for what it is, to live it, to incarnate it, and even to put it into practice. In this way religious experience obtains its epiphany; it comes to express itself in the ordinary, in concrete life, because there is no reason for it to be separated from it.
Zen, nirvana and new civilization
With this approach, the tendency to imagine a secularism devoid of religiosity thus declines and restores to us the creative force to imagine the new society expressed in the sutta in which we find the parable of the city. This sutta doesn’t make sense in the absence of an eschatological thrust, which, on the contrary, provides its flavour and its full meaning. In fact, it is not so much a matter of affirming an ascetic ideal whereby awakening or nirvana become the point of arrival for navigation in the spirit. On the contrary, awakening itself, in exactly the opposite sense, becomes an essential element for the ship to leave port.
Zen already firmly affirms this method, as clearly emerges from Dogen’s writings, because it projects the mystical dimension into the ordinary and in this way makes the mystical experience, secular. In this way, it resolves, in a complete synthesis, the process of separation entailed by Indian ascetic extremism, Theravada Buddhism, and the logical epistemological dualism of Nagarjurian Mahayana. Zen places the Bodhisattva ideal as a meeting ground for two experiences, two levels – the transcendental mystery and the earthly experience – making them, in fact, an inseparable unity.
A healing synthesis
If there is a real opportunity to express a sensibility, a secular form of the Buddhist path, one cannot but start from this synthesis, which is based on our ability to generate an awakened mind and spirit as the foundation for the new civilisation envisioned by Gotama. After all, the pandemic and climate change are incontrovertibly demonstrating that a different approach is needed to take care of the epoch-making problems we are experiencing. If there is a ‘task’ that a secular form of Buddhism can perform, it is precisely that of creating the conditions for this process of awakening to take place by creating relationships and diminishing separation, polarisation, and dogmatic extremes. In addition, a secular approach needs to heal the very wound of a certain orthodoxy with which a dialogue is still necessary in order not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To do this, a new paradigm is certainly needed.
This new light on the Buddhist path, this new perspective, is not simply a matter of semantics. This approach can be a third way, inclusive and conciliatory, where the two apparent opposites, secular and religious, meet in the primary experience of the ethical dimension of awakening called nirvana. On a hermeneutic level, too, this synthesis is salvific and removes the burden of sterile controversy over texts. Recognising a possible third way saves us, in fact, from the need to force certain interpretations and leaves us free, instead, to take as the basis of the path, in an absolutely legitimate way, that part of the texts and traditions that are significant and functional and that must re-emerge, foundational, in the creative process of rethinking that has always been, by its nature, heterodox.