Jochen Weber is the founder of Buddha-Stiftung, a non-profit independent foundation in Germany which seeks to make the central and original insights of Buddhism and their practical application in life accessible to people in an understandable form. This article was originally published on Buddha-Stiftung's website at https://buddhastiftung.org/saekularer-buddhismus-kurz-erklaert/. It is reposted here with Jochen's kind permission.
A contemporary perspective on the timeless Buddhist wisdom tradition
By emphasizing personal experience, mindfulness, compassion, ethics and the knowledge of one's own patterns of thought and action, secular Buddhism give us tools to deal with life's challenges in a meaningful way. This means, as mortal and social beings, to achieve as much as possible what we recognize as meaningful and significant for ourselves, others and the world. It's an invitation provided by the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition to help shape the change in us and in our relationships in a complex, rapidly changing world.
Keep the teachings alive
The story of Buddhism shows that the teachings (Dharma) have been adapted by humans over the centuries in response to diverse cultural influences. For example, Zen originated in China and was adapted in Japan. Buddhism in Tibet developed from Indian Buddhism.
Secular Buddhism continues this tradition of adjustment by interpreting the teachings in the context of our time. From the point of view of secular Buddhism, the heart of Buddhism lies not in rigid metaphysical concepts and dogmas, but in the timeless insights that can be tailored to the needs of particular generations and contexts. Such an evolution is a natural process, which in Buddhism is seen as a ‘natural law’ of the constant change and interaction of all things (hence also of Buddhism itself).
Emphasis on personal experience
Secular Buddhism places great emphasis on how the teachings can be applied to individual experience and action. Instead of dogmatic beliefs (e.g., reincarnation) or fixed ritual practices, direct personal experience is the focus. Practitioners are encouraged to explore and review the teachings for themselves to see if they personally contribute to enriching their lives and those of others. In this way, every practitioner is encouraged to look critically at the teachings and practices.
Ethical mindfulness and presence
The practice of mindfulness based on the original instructions over 2500 years old in the Satipatthana Sutta plays an important role in secular Buddhism. A central aspect is a practice of mindfulness, which not only refers to our mind and our emotions internally, but also externally to our relationship with our fellow human beings and all living beings, i.e. with all of nature.
By being aware that we are social beings who are all interconnected, we recognize how our actions affect the environment and develop a deeper appreciation and compassion for all life on this earth and for its resources.
Compassion and ethics
The practice of friendliness and kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna), as well as ethical behavior, are of great importance in secular Buddhism. Striving for goodwill and kindness towards oneself and others, and striving to act ethically, are the cornerstones. By applying compassion on all these levels, we recognize the inseparable interconnectedness of all life.
Secular Buddhism emphasizes that the ethical principles that reduce suffering and promote compassion do not depend on metaphysical assumptions such as rebirth. While traditional Buddhist teachings emphasize rebirth, reincarnation, and karma, Secular Buddhism focuses on the importance of compassion, mindfulness, and understanding the nature of suffering in the here and now.
The way – The four tasks
Instead of proclaiming statements about the nature of the world as truths, as traditional Buddhism does, secular Buddhism interprets Buddhist wisdom as a guide to an authentic and self-responsible life as a social being.
Stephen Batchelor, a former monk in the Tibetan and then Zen traditions, has reconstructed the classic ‘Four Noble Truths’ in the form of ‘Four tasks’ and breathed new life into it. A belief system thus became a call to action, to develop one's own life for the benefit of all living beings on one's own responsibility.
Task #1: Accept and understand life
One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism is the concept of ‘suffering’ (dukkha); that is, the general and individual dissatisfaction with the conditions of life and the causes of this dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction arises from evolutionary greed, attachment to things that are impermanent and reluctance to change.
Task #2: Recognizing and letting go of the reflexive reactions and patterns
The insights from the first task can help us to be less attached to things and ideas, and to react more flexibly to changes. By learning to understand the processes of our mind, we can recognize and transform thought patterns and conditioning.
Task #3: Experience freedom and lightness
Through the continued practice of ethical mindfulness and compassion, we can learn that not reacting with our automatic patterns as often can feel liberating. Instead, we can learn to endure the uncertainty of how our actions will ultimately affect us, even if we do intentionally cultivate the ability to act as helpfully as possible.
Task #4: Act for the benefit of oneself and all living beings
In secular Buddhism, individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for their own well-being. Traditionally, the starting point is the ‘Eightfold Path’. Rather than looking for answers outside of oneself (e.g., in teachers or religious dogmas), the emphasis is on each individual's ability and need to shape their own practice and bring about change in their lives.
Community engagement - Secular Buddhism encourages the formation of communities committed to social justice and sustainability. By joining forces with like-minded people, we can collectively create change and have a positive impact on the world around us.
Action instead of apathy - In many traditional Buddhist and modern mindfulness approaches, the focus is on personal liberation from suffering or stress. In Secular Buddhism, however, the point is not only to reduce one's own suffering, but also to actively contribute to reducing suffering in the world. This means addressing social problems and actively seeking solutions.
Integration into daily life - The social orientation of Secular Buddhism goes beyond mere ideas. It is integrated into daily life, be it through conscious action, donations to charitable causes or involvement in social projects. Understood in this sense, this approach involves a way of life or an art of living that characterizes a ‘successful life’, in the sense proposed by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates.
Secular Buddhism offers a perspective in which practice does not exist in isolation from the challenges of the world, but is closely linked to them. By emphasizing social responsibility for all living beings and the entire planet, this tradition calls on us to take an active part in creating a better world. By aligning our actions, habits and decisions with these ethics, we can do our part to promote the well-being of all living beings and respect the planet as a living organism that needs to be protected. Secular Buddhism reminds us that our individual actions have a collective impact and that we have the power to bring about positive change - for ourselves, for other living beings and for the earth as a whole.