Secular Buddhism: to be or not to be a ‘Thing’

December 2, 2022

Where will you set up headquarters?

It was June 2012. Secular Buddhism had only just begun to emerge and Ted Meissner was already receiving this fraught question on a regular basis.

Ted had started the Secular Buddhist Association – a website dedicated to podcast interviews relevant to this new idea of adapting the Buddha’s teachings to our modern western lives and mindsets. He was interviewing me because I’d started a website too: Secular Buddhism Australia.

More than a decade later and the movement is gaining momentum. A related question is becoming more pressing. The essence of it is: to what extent should we make Secular Buddhism a ‘thing’ or instead, leave it as an un-defined path for people to discover and explore themselves?

By a ‘thing’, I mean a defined, locatable concept and practice.

Here’s why the question is fraught.

The dangers of making Secular Buddhism a thing

One of Gotama’s (the Buddha’s) key insights was that ‘selfing’ (in Pali anatta, meaning not-self) causes us trouble. This is one of the slipperiest concepts in the dharma but essentially it refers to the process of creating a fixed, defined identity for ourselves and then desperately clinging to, promoting and defending it.

So for example, I adopt the adjectives smart and capable into my identity. When someone speaks to me simplistically in a tone usually reserved for children, I get hot under the collar and blame them for my anger because they treated me like an idiot. What caused the reactivity though, was my attachment to my identity – to being seen a certain way.

This is a benign example. But this process causes trouble on a large scale too. Immense amounts of suffering and loss have resulted from people in positions of power bolstering their identities as rulers, sometimes with a god-given right, defending their identities as powerful, supreme, superior, strong, in-control, righteous…. you get the idea. Empirical domination is underpinned by identity, ego.

More everyday examples are the brawls that break out between fans at football games in Europe. I am a Chelsea/Palace fan or I am a Blues/Pies fan  - my identity defines the in-group and the out-group and off we go. Or I am a Liberal/Labor voter, I am a Christian/ Jew/ Muslim/ Buddhist…. We all know the conflict and harm that’s done when these characteristics turn into in-group/out-group dynamics.

Other every-day doses of trouble that emanate from selfing: the boss who takes credit for their team member’s excellent work because it will earn them kudos (an ego-hit as being smart or credible); the nightmare sport-parent who ruins their child’s experience of sport through aggression on the sidelines as they’ve incorporated winner into their identity; a relationship ruined because one person had always right embedded into their identity and could never apologise for their hurtful behaviour.

So what has this to do with Secular Buddhism as a movement?

The ego is a wily fox. As soon as we pin something down, define it, turn it into a set thing, give it an identity, the ego can now grab onto it. Religions have done this since time immemorial and show us the problems it can create.

We build a structure, a hierarchy, role titles, rules, and the next thing we know we’ve got priests/lamas/rabbis (etc.) and doctrines that can’t be questioned because of their status. We have a system that directs a significant portion of its energy and resources to maintaining and preserving itself for reasons that have nothing to do with the benefit for practitioners. We have unhelpful limits imposed on how we practice, because the initial ideas became ‘tradition’ and the ‘right way’ to practice and any deviation is considered illegitimate, or even blasphemous. We have rules that exclude or disadvantage certain types of people (think women; LBGTIQ; lower caste) – rules that have nothing to do with spiritual benefit and everything to do with the biases of culture and/or those in control. Ego takes over. Reactivity is in the driver’s seat.

Clearly this is antithetical to a movement that’s designed to help as many people as possible flourish in life. This is the danger inherent in making Secular Buddhism a thing rather than leaving it as a path for people to find themselves. As Ted’s experience shows, all we have to do is give something a name and this process can set off.

The dangers of not making Secular Buddhism a thing

Some people believe that the obvious solution to this is to simply avoid making Secular Buddhism a thing. Some have tried to come up with less ‘thing-ey’ names like the universally beneficial path. Now TUBP isn’t exactly a catchy acronym, but I have no doubt that any name could be co-opted by ego. Others agree and suggest not using a name at all, not defining Secular Buddhism, nor articulating any kind of tenets or principles – simply not pinning anything down so that ego and all its attendant trouble-making tendencies simply can’t take hold.

However, this introduces another very real and meaningful danger, which is that many people whose lives could benefit from dharma practice, simply miss out. This is no small danger. Those of us who are committed practitioners know firsthand the deeply transformative benefits of the dharma. If I think about my life without it, that is a serious loss.

While religions have shown us the dangers of becoming a thing they also show us the benefits. These benefits are centrally relevant to sharing the benefits of the dharma.

  • Easy to find
    Spiritual seekers would find it far easier to find the Christian City Church across the road from my Sangha than they would my Sangha. To find and approach my Sangha, they need to know about secular dharma, they need to know that the dharma is about flourishing in life, not rebirth, robes and giving up all pleasures in life. They possibly need to have kept at it despite some concepts and practices that don’t make much sense to them, they need to already practice meditation or be looking to start, and they need to live somewhere nearby.

    Everyone knows of the CCC (or 3C as they’ve branded themselves); they’re easy to find, have a slick website, and an on-ramping process for making C3 your home.

  • Harness our needs
    Church isn’t a hotel, it’s a home. This is the message that greets you on the C3 website. We humans have a fundamental need to belong with others. It’s in our DNA. That marketing catch-phrase hooks into that need instantly. If I’m honest, I even feel a little pull to join in!

    The need to belong is one of our shared human needs and this need is better fed when we join some-thing than when we engage in a solo practice, discovering the dharma for ourselves. This need is fed not just because we are now in a group but because organised endeavour brings with it the need for teamwork and helping out (often through volunteering), which also bolsters our sense of belonging. Meeting fundamental needs is a powerful means of both attracting people to practice, continuing with it, and contributing to the spiritual community. There are other needs too, that religions hook into.
The Nine Human Needs - © Flourish Personal Growth 2022

Here are a few needs that I think religions meet well that a non-defined Secular Buddhism doesn’t. In some cases it’s unlikely to be able to, but in some we could:

Material security – Everything from being a well resourced organisation to offering life after death can meet this need.
Certainty – Religions make clear what’s right, what’s wrong, what leads to the good stuff (love, eternal life, or in religious Buddhism’s case, escaping it) and the bad stuff (damnation, some form of missing out, or in religious Buddhism’s case having to continue enduring human life).
Pleasure – In some cases joyous celebrations, music and singing or chanting are standard rituals, or cathartic emotional experiences in groups. These associate positive feelings with the group and energise us to continue.
Achievement – Some religions, notably Buddhism, have levels or attainments that we can aim for and enjoy the satisfaction of achieving on our path. (Humans inherently enjoy achievement and will engage in it even without external reward.)
Connection – Because regular attendance is expected, friendships form and our need for real personal connection with others is fed. This one, too, is in our DNA. I imagine monastics in any religious tradition would have this need fed well by their monastic community.
Contribution – Volunteering to help keep the church, temple, synagogue (etc.) operating, helping with charity projects, and supporting the church and charity projects financially, feed our need to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

There is one need that religious adherents often give up to some extent – the need for autonomy. Church-goers don’t get to choose how a church service is run, or how to practice their particular brand of religion. However, in our modern world, most of us can meet our need for autonomy, or control over our own lives and destinies fairly easily outside of spiritual practice, and in most cases (though not all) there are no drastically dire consequences for exercising our autonomy to leave a religion.

A non-defined Secular Buddhism offers autonomy in spades. It can also feed the need for connection as groups are often small and discuss very personal issues. Contribution can also be a need that’s fed, as groups are often scantily resourced and need volunteer effort to run; however, I’ve found that people are less acutely aware of the appeal of this need and are often so busy contributing to their own families via busy careers and parenting that they often look to their sangha as a place where they receive rather than contribute.

A non-defined Secular Buddhism however, misses some of the powerful needs that attract and energise human beings. Chief among them, I believe, is belonging. Certainty is not far behind, and while the dharma requires us to embrace uncertainty rather than eradicate it, a defined and easily accessible Secular Buddhism could take some of the long winding uncertainty out of finding and understanding the dharma. Ironically the dharma feeds the need for certainty as we understand better how human experience works, and we know how to meet it in its dynamism and practice with it.

I’ve focused on religious things so far but there are many other things too that are attracting adherents. Think: gym/fitness/nutrition culture; political parties/candidates (my recently elected federal Independent has over 1200 people on her list of volunteers); or sports clubs/teams/squads. All have defined purpose and practices, leaders/influencers in the area, clarity on the benefits of being involved, and processes or programs to get involved and that make it easy to start, including websites and online resources. These are all elements of these interests becoming things and these things are accessible and popular. While all have the potential downsides of becoming things they are all affecting lives en masse and have momentum.

Being a thing and avoiding the trap of egoic identification

If sharing dharmic benefit is our goal, then defining ourselves and lending from the things out there that are attracting and affecting adherents, is going to be helpful. AND we need to be vigilant to ensure we don’t fall prey to the temptations that corrupt. The best way to do that, is to overtly state the traps we want to avoid and build into our processes and structures, methods for doing so. For example:

  • Items on regular meeting agendas to trigger individual and group assessment of identification (selfing) behaviours
  • Overtly welcoming resources from any source that benefit dharma practice and articulating how they do that – building this in to defining documents and all communications
  • Regularly surveying the Secular Buddhist community for input and feedback on adherence to and deviation from purpose
  • Defining success in terms of take-up of resources and benefit to people’s lives, not number of adherents or financial wealth

To stay too fluid and ill-defined is, in my view, a recipe for flying under the collective radar. That means that many people are missing out on the superb benefit that the dharma can bring to their lives. While thing-ifying Secular Buddhism entails some risks, these can be mitigated. The risk of people missing out on the dharma is surely greater.

The fascinating question is: how might we learn from the things out there so that seekers can find the dharma, are energised to commit to it, and at the same time, side-step the wiley ego traps?

Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to hear them.



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10 Replies to “Secular Buddhism: to be or not to be a ‘Thing’”

I suspect that the main reason Secular Buddhism is not very much presented as a ‘thing’, is one not discussed here: namely the lack of general agreement about what sort of a ‘thing’ it is. Stephen Batchelor’s writings inspire many, but have very little philosophical detail to help people get a handle on all the critical issues that arise. Those who do offer more detailed thinking (e.g. Doug Smith, Winton Higgins) are heavily dependent on existing Western philosophical traditions that do not agree with each other, and whose relationship with key Buddhist insights is still questionable. On the other hand there are many interested in Secular Buddhism who are much more ‘Buddhist’ than ‘secular’, unwilling to really make the radical changes that are required to adapt Buddhist tradition adequately. Turning Secular Buddhism into a ‘thing’ may have many advantages, but I can’t see it happening any time soon in a very coherent way. The suggestions in the last section about avoiding ‘selfing’ (what I would call absolutizing) whilst having a developed organization are good ones, but the question is how such measures would become an obvious application of an agreed approach: I think they are an application of the Middle Way, which is what I would suggest for a coherent long-term approach that is also a distinctive application of the Buddha’s insights.

Lenore Lambert

Robert I suspect the reluctance to become a ‘thing’ is perhaps a key reason why the work hasn’t been done to agree on this. If we decided to ‘thing-ify’ Secular Buddhism, that would be the first stop.

As for the detail, my view is that the blueprint is there in the secular rendition of the Four Noble Truths (the Four Great Tasks as I call them). And the true north is ‘whatever works’ with a clear definition of what we mean by ‘works’ (again I think there’s enough detail on that flowing from Batchelor’s secular reading of the dharma – see below as an example).

So as just an off-the-cuff example (not suggesting it’s perfect), what if we were to say that Secular Buddhism is the practice of the Four Great Tasks (in my parlance: seeing, expecting, accepting unpleasantness; dismantling reactivity; fully experiencing non-reactivity; walking the eightfold path) using any effective tools and practices (from any tradition or cultural creation) that ‘work’. To ‘work’ a resource must help us understand, practice &/or accomplish one or more of the Four Great Tasks.

Such a framework looks pretty vague to me. What is reactivity, and how do we identify it? For instance, how do we differentiate between criticality and reactivity? Avoiding reactivity also may not prompt us to be critical when we need to be, for instance of traditional dogmas. The Middle Way is a far more precise guide to the judgement involved here – namely that there are absolute assumptions to be identified and avoided on both sides. When we think we’ve experienced ‘non-reactivity’, how can we be confident that our judgement is not just confirmation bias? There are other, more precise ways of specifying this positively, such as the integration model, which have the advantage of avoiding an implied absolute cut-off point where we stop being reactive, and instead help us identify where we’ve made progress. And how do we interpret the Eightfold Path? All the practices in it require Middle Way judgements to determine the ‘right’ approach. Right speech, for instance, is a matter of balancing different priorities (such as truthfulness and harmony) without assuming any one of them to either be the whole story or to be irrelevant. To unify an organization adequately requires a more practicable framework that is open and universal, yet less subject to completely opposed interpretations.

Lenore Lambert

Reactivity is where we ‘react’ automatically and mindlessly. The instances of this that are most pertinent to practice are when these reactions are driven by hunger or aversion and lead to harm of some kind to ourselves or other beings.

I haven’t found I need sophisticated theoretical models to practice fruitfully with this Robert. I know when I encounter situations that, in the past I’ve reacted to unhelpfully and this time I’m calmer and able to respond more mindfully and more helpfully, that I’m making progress on reactivity – at least with that particular pattern in my life. I have handy summaries of elements of the Eightfold Path such as “Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it the right time?” …that help me implement it in a practical way. I don’t need a framework for making that judgment, I just use empathy and the practical wisdom from my life. Sometimes I get it wrong…. and I learn from that …and add to the practical wisdom.

I’m less interested in judgments and cut-off points and prescriptive frameworks and more interested in observing carefully the process that is my experience and sweeping it in the direction of the great quenching of hungering and aversion.

It sounds like ‘The Middle Way’ you refer to might be a helpful tool in the toolbox. So is Western philosophy (it doesn’t all have to be cogent to be helpful), and so are many other things including the arts. At my sangha we just finished a couple of sessions listening to The Poetry of Self Compassion by David Whyte – there were imagery and phrases that really stuck with people and help tilt their wings in the direction of the dharma on a daily basis in the cut and thrust of life. That’s helpful.

In my view we don’t need a prescriptive framework let alone more dogma or ‘right ways’ of doing the dharma in order to ‘thingify’ secular dharma a little. Some principles and practical guidelines would be enough.

Ric Streatfield

Thank you Lenore. A very interesting article. You have obviously thought a lot about the issues and direction of what is called ‘Secular Buddhism’. You systematically and comprehensively put forward arguments for and against two possible futures for Secular Buddhist dharma and practice. The first is to continue on as before as a path, a movement, for people to find, to chance upon. But, you suggest, that may be too fluid and ill defined and easily missed by those which it may have helped the most. The second option is to ‘thing-ify’ Secular Buddhism and take on some of the characteristics of the official, set, religions….such as, organisational promotion, team belonging, certainty, them-vs-us comradery…..but, with continual monitoring and safety measures to avoid egoic-centredness and reactivity. You suggest a useful blueprint for this might be The Four Great Tasks and Eight-fold Path.
I have a third option that is wide open for Secular Buddhism to take…..the original one the Buddha offered to humanity two and a half thousand years ago….the insight into reality he called Dependent co-Arising. To fully understand the significance of the Buddha’s insight we must try to understand it in context…..Gotama, the intelligent young family man (wife and child), probably well aware of Greek science and philosophy of the time such as with Thales (astronomy, mathematics, ‘Know thyself’) and Heraclitus (‘One cannot step into the same river twice’), a non-believer and living in a non-Brahman enclave surrounded by the rest of Brahman/Hindu India.
The Buddha’s insight into the nature of reality was ‘secular’ of course from the beginning. I have been working on a Community Education Project I call ‘A Biologian’s Workbook’. The latest version is divided into three parts, the first of which is ‘The Origins and Evolution of Religion’. Firstly Animism for tens of thousands of years, then Shamanism for another tens of thousands of years, until 11,000 years ago with the invention of farming and resulting population boom, the integration of Animism and Shamanism into the Dogmatic Religions we still have today. The Buddha’s understanding into the nature of reality and of ‘self’ was the absolute opposite of the Brahman/Hindu cosmology extant at the time, atman as a chip off Brahma and destined for suffering and rebirth, karma, etc.
Dependent co-Arising is an insight, an understanding, of the nature of reality….and what we are in that reality…..processes within processes within processes. Fully compatible with modern day science. Understand this and one doesn’t need much else to get on with living life. This is what I suggest is needed the most in this world of ours with widespread fantasy thinking, brutal wars, threats to democratic thinking, and the need for preparing for future pandemics.

Yvonne Williams

Thank you for your devotion and practice (Gassho).

One teensy little question if you would indulge me –
is there a reason you do not use the term “interdependent co-arising” ?

Lenore Lambert

There are a number of translations and interpretations of this term Yvonne. I personally use ‘dependent arising’ but they are describing the same thing.

Ric Streatfield

Lenore and Everyone,
Sorry, in my ‘Reply’ above I meant ‘Doctrinal Religions’ not ‘Dogmatic Religions’ ……although there is not much difference!

yess yess
thankyou thankyou
so this _____________
There is
no cure
for the
human condition
and yet
there is
kindness —
Happy blessings ________

Yolanda Rommel

Thank you so much for the beautifully thoughtful “Secular Buddhism: to be or…”
A non-affiliated, eclectic, solo practitioner (for 50 or so, years), rooted in Theravada, Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path…
At the end of the discussion, I thought of an American Indian, Navajo language, which does not name people or inanimate objects, but describe them by their role/characteristics. The story of a poisoned arrow, for example, instead of labeling a group, suggests a purpose, direction… J
Just thinking… Thank you!

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