Secular Buddhism and the real reasons to meditate

In the July 2018 issue of Lions Roar magazine, Buddhist teachers representing Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajryana lineages discussed the “real” reasons to meditate. While the responses were insightful and reflected the full range of beliefs among Buddhist lineages, there is a glaring omission: no one presents a secular Buddhist view of the real or fundamental reasons to meditate.

In one respect, the absence of a secular Buddhist perspective is not surprising as the magazine’s main focus is to provide the reader with a greater understanding of the rich variety of practices and beliefs found in traditional lineages. Lion’s Roar does a wonderful job at that and at explaining the basic concepts of Buddhism. However, my guess is that there is another issue at work here. For many Buddhists in the U.S., secular Buddhism is identified with the secular mindfulness movement; and the practitioners of that movement are primarily concerned with how individuals can use mindfulness to alleviate stress and have a more relaxed, present-moment relationship to their own experiences and the world. Secular mindfulness thus involves only a limited incorporation of the Buddha’s radical insights about suffering and the release from suffering. So, what can a secular Buddhist say about the real or fundamental reasons to meditate?

For the Buddhist teachers featured in Lion’s Roar, the real reasons to meditate go beyond stress reduction; they have to do with transformative changes in our self-conception, perceptions, and our ways of being in the world.  This transformation is based on overcoming our ignorance, delusions, and tendency to live in a dream-like state and gaining insight into or directly experiencing an ultimate or “true” reality.

There are differences, of course, in how this transformative process is understood and what insight into, or direct experience of, the ultimate is. So, for the Theravadans Thanissaro Bhikku and Bhikku Bodhi, the path of practice, while itself part of the web of causes and conditions, can lead to the unconditioned or nirvana. We gain liberation once we have developed the ability through our meditation practice and ethical actions to gain penetrative wisdom of the so-called three marks of existence – dukkha, not-self, and impermanence. Having attained that wisdom, we escape, find freedom, from suffering. That is the goal toward which meditation should be oriented.

On the other hand, the Zen teachers – Norman Fischer, John Tarrant, Melissa Myozen Blacker, and Koun Franz – view awakening or enlightenment as a fundamental alteration in how we view and relate to life in the here and now.  We are able to break through or go beyond our dream-like existence when we can experience reality just as it is, without mental fabrications and views of what should be. We can then recognize that life is ungraspable in terms of concepts and that, as Blacker says, we  can gain “… perception of everything’s uniqueness…..recognize that everything is already absolutely perfect and complete.”  Rather than see the ultimate fruit of meditation as a release from the conditioned world, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi do, Zen emphasizes how meditation can give us access to the ultimate truth within our world.

Two of the Tibetan/Vajrayana Buddhist teachers featured in the article, Judy Lief and Gaylon Ferguson, view the real reasons to meditate within their framework of progressing through three stages of the path: individual transformation, the Bodhisattava’s effort to help all beings attain liberation, and the final stage, in which the practitioner recognizes the sacredness, the basic good nature, of all phenomena, including afflictive or difficult emotions such as desire, jealousy, and pride.  As Ferguson says, “….. the basis of the entire world and all beings is primordially good……This is original sacredness, the fundamental wisdom that is already present as our innate nature, complete and perfect from the beginning.”  The goal of meditation is to bring us into contact with this primordial goodness.

In the article only Rev. angel Kyodo Williams strongly emphasizes that the purpose of gaining transformative insights through meditation is not just to free individuals of suffering; she argues that we need to “….apply these liberatory practices to society at large” as part of a process of radical change.

Despite their differences in approach, these teachers all presuppose a duality between meditation as stress relief and meditation as a transformative process of liberation leading to an experience or state of awakening in which an ultimate or “truly real” dimension of reality is encountered. You can meditate for the former reason and that’s OK, but you’re not going to achieve the end goal of Buddhism. A committed practitioner should engage in the more arduous but ultimately transformative process of seeking liberation through meditation.

As a secular Buddhist, I think that this view is faulty in two important respects. In the first place, the notion of an ultimate dimension, however conceived, is inconsistent with a naturalistic approach to reality. Human beings are always embedded in and function as part of the web of causes and conditions which constitute reality. From this perspective, there can be no end-state or momentary experience of an ultimate dimension which either transcends or serves as the “ground” of the causes and conditions of the natural world.

Further, the dichotomy posed between meditation as stress reduction versus meditation as liberation through contact with the ultimate is a false one. I agree that some versions of mindfulness practice are limited in that they focus on the relief of stress and helping individuals function with more ease in our current society. In this respect, certain mindfulness practices are similar to those psychological therapies which seek to make the individual fit more easily into society rather than transform individuals and society so as to promote human flourishing.

Yet, even if we are critical of the idea that the goal of meditation should be limited to stress reduction, this doesn’t mean that the only way that meditation can have transformative effects is through contact with an ultimate or truly real dimension of reality.  I believe that the practice of meditation is transformative when it qualitatively shift one’s life toward a more compassionate, less reactive, and more equanimous way of living in the world. And that, I contend, is in fact the real reason for meditating.  Not contact with the ultimate via penetrative wisdom, but using the insights of Buddhism about suffering, impermanence, and interconnectedness in meditation practice to cultivate qualities of the heart and mind which promote individual flourishing and, as Rev. angel Kyodo Williams so rightly emphasizes, radical changes in society.

What do we do in meditation? Sure, we try to calm and settle our minds using various techniques. But, as the mind settles down, we can also gain a heightened, experiential understanding of the pervasiveness of constant change, our tendency to attach to all that we experience, and the fact that the self is much less solid and unchanging than we believe it to be. We learn how our misunderstanding of these three dimensions of human experience cause suffering beyond what we inevitably have to experience in life – pain, sickness, loss of loved ones, etc.

Through meditation practice and acting ethically, we begin to develop greater wisdom and a more compassionate stance in the world. We recognize the limits of our own control while we embrace our responsibility to act with kindness and strive for justice. We are less reactive to our experiences as we come to distinguish our feeling-tone responses (pleasant-unpleasant-neutral) from the perceptions and conceptions we apply to those experiences. We are more capable of being present and aware. We have more patience, a greater ability to be with what is painful, confusing, or frightening.  Recognizing interconnectedness, we feel a greater bond with other human beings, as well as other sentient beings. We have a stronger motivation to act kindly and for the benefit of all.

These are some of the key ways that meditation can be truly transformative, and that takes us far beyond a limited concern with our own physical and mental health, and our success in this society.  Of course, the extent of transformation varies in each individual based on her/his level of commitment to the path of change, social circumstances, etc.  But the basic indicators of positive change are common to all human beings: greater capacity for kindness and compassion, more equanimity, less reactivity, more presence, and a greater understanding of our unique role as embedded beings in the natural world of causes and conditions.

In the end, I would argue that the real reasons to meditate – if we choose this path – is to become better human beings and to create a society in which the flourishing of all human beings is our primary aspiration.

This article first appeared in the website of the Secular Buddhist Association on July 23, 2018: 



3 Replies to “Secular Buddhism and the real reasons to meditate”

You’ve contributed an interesting post to the US Secular Buddhist Association website Mike, and I’m keen to see how it’s received. I was wondering if your post here might initiate a discussion on the reasons that people meditate. To start this off, here’s my 2¢ worth.

The people who come to One Mindful Breath and those I mentor in secular meditation practice, here in Wellington and online, give different reasons as to why they meditate, those reasons come with different goals, and as their practice deepens they change.

For most of the people I’ve been mentoring, their practice goes through three stages.

1 – ‘I want to meditate so I can be happier, less reactive, less anxious, and get to sleep more easily. My goal is to reduce the many ways in which I suffer.’

2 – ‘Okay, I’ve been meditating for a while and I get it. So what is this secular Buddhism, anyway? My intention is to notice when I stop, and savour those moments of stillness, peace and freedom that come and go when I manage to let go of instinctive reactivity, greed, hatred and confusion, both in my meditation practice and in daily life.’

3 – ‘Tell me something about a secular Buddhist approach to the eightfold path [or the five precepts, or the five mindfulness trainings] and how I can use them to thrive, find happiness, and lead an ethical life? Now, I practice meditation for its own sake, regularly.’

Interestingly, what I’ve found is that all three goals can arise during one meditation session, as well as afterwards. This pattern can be seen in the majority of the practitioners I’ve mentored. I’d be keen to see why other people meditate.

Pete Cowley

My Path followed the above from Ramsey.

I started with a weekly secular meditation mainly for relaxation, to give some time to myself and secular because I am a progressive Presbyterian where the believing in the supernatural has almost vanished and I was not willing to go backward, and to learn something new.

I enjoyed the weekly sessions both for their camaraderie and the teachings.

The teachings took a while before they clicked and that only really happened when Ramsey challenged us all to start a daily meditation session.

I can see how necessary a daily practice is. The four tasks and eightfold path are so deceptively simple but at the same time so hard to do. So what can I do?

PRACTICE … practice … practice.

Jeremy Fyson

My path also followed the stages outlined by Ramsey. I would be interested to know if others have had similar experiences.

I initially came to meditation hoping it might ease my nagging sense of unsatisfactoriness. I did initially experience a few moments of ease. However, as I continued to practice, difficulties remained and often most visibly during meditation. As a result I mistakenly lost faith in the practice and sought relief through other means.

As the insubstantial nature of these other means (people, positions, experiences etc) slowly became evident, I returned to practice with greater resolve, but more importantly, I embarked on a more sustained and honest enquiry into the roots of my predicament, investigating how Buddhist teachings might apply to that. For me, it was only through the support of this enquiry that meditation practice transformed from a haphazard stress reduction technique into an indispensable component of a broader path.

The importance of making this enquiry relevant to the context of Aotearoa New Zealand here and now has become increasingly clear to me. While I am grateful for the inspiration I have drawn from those who have appropriated elements of distant cultures, letting go of much of their associated baggage has allowed me to begin practicing in a more unified way.

It hasn’t been easy but it has been extremely worthwhile.

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