by Bernat Font
The meditation room is packed. Around you are people sitting in a confident posture, eyelids lowered; others are fidgety, their eyes brimming with expectation. How many came here motivated by an overriding desire to break free from the cycle of death and rebirth? If the teacher asked that question, would many raise their hand? … Would you?
I would venture to say that few people today approach dharma for these reasons: we have not grown up in an environment that sees the world in this way, nor does the idea of rebirth intuitively sound like a curse to us. Consistent with this orientation, Western teachers will often present their teachings as a practical tool for this finite, fragile, and often perplexing life that may well be the only one. (To a lesser extent this also happens in Asia, within the vipassanā movement.) However, such an approach remains implicit: it operates in the silence of not addressing cosmological and metaphysical aspects that would place the practice in quite a different frame.
As a contrast we find secular Buddhism, a trend that has decided to be explicit with this same approach, openly calling into question certain traditional elements instead of simply avoiding them. Its voice, if I may simplify, says: “Yes, I am a Buddhist, and I do not believe in rebirth.” And we could add: “This does not in any way weaken my commitment to the practice of dharma.” You may find this blasphemous, or very reasonable, or you may just have felt immense relief. In discovering that this is an option, many resolve an internal conflict that for years had been knotted in their stomach. And as you can imagine, such a heterodox stance also generates its ration of animosity. Like it or not, secular Buddhism exists. Now what is it about?
At just under two decades old, secular Buddhism maintains at least an agnostic view of doctrines such as rebirth, karma, or the various realms of existence. It works with what the natural sciences tell us about our environment and evolution, and seeks a new language that articulates dharma not only for today’s world, but from it. Author Stephen Batchelor, a leading voice of this trend, uses ‘secular’ to connote ‘of this world’ or ‘of this century (saeculum)’. The search for this new language involves interrogating even the most central dogmas of Buddhism, moving the Indian tectonic plates that underlie the entire edifice. And while experimentation has its seismic risks, it is stimulating and creative—it is something that many Buddhist generations have done in the past. Instead of something to believe, Buddhism becomes something to do. In addition to questions of doctrine aside, the secular approach rethinks those structures that reflect the feudal mentality that has accompanied Buddhism in the past. Democratic values of equality and inclusiveness mark secular Buddhism as well as other contemporary schools.
If we look into its logic, we will see how secular Buddhism is born from applying the very Buddhist principles of impermanence and conditionality to Buddhism itself. Seen in this way, each tradition owes its features not to an absolute truth accessed by privileged spiritual beings, but rather to historical, cultural, and even economic circumstances. It is the unique combination of those conditions that gave rise to forms such as Thai Buddhism, Tibetan, Ch’an, Shingon, etc. Furthermore, a secular Buddhist wonders, if the dharma has survived thanks to its enormous ability to be reconfigures, why stop at Tsongkhapa or Nichiren?
Reforms have a habit of going back to origins, as Buddhism itself demonstrates throughout its history. Due to this return, and to the other half of its DNA being the Insight Meditation tradition (a modernized Theravada), secular Buddhism tends to focus on the earliest texts, preserved in the Pali canon and in Chinese translation. However, such a reformist attitude could likewise be applied to any other Buddhist strand.
At the center of this new movement lies a rereading of the Buddha’s first discourse, transforming the doctrine of the four noble truths into four tasks. Instead of affirming that existence is unsatisfactory, we welcome our suffering and dissatisfaction. Instead of claiming that the source of suffering is craving, we release compulsive reactivity, which not only generates discomfort but very often springs from it. While the third noble truth promises a state beyond all suffering, the third task calls us to experience for ourselves the cessation of reactivity, even momentarily. And instead of seeing the eightfold path as leading to nirvana, we aspire to cultivate a way of life born from that space emptied from greed, aversion and confusion—a space that we could call nirvanic.
Thus, secular dharma lowers the moon of nirvana down to our reach. It is no longer treated as a metaphysical reality distinct from everything we could conceive, or as a goal farther than far: it is about living each moment of our life from that place of non-greed, non-aversion and non-confusion. By becoming familiar with the moments when such forces subside, we learn to live from the perspective of appreciation and generosity, of kindness and compassion, and of wisdom.
Secular Buddhism does not end with Stephen Batchelor: there are other names such as Winton Higgins, John Peacock, Doug Smith, and Martine Batchelor. Today this movement has groups in Australia, New Zealand, Austria, the United Kingdom and even Spain, and organizations such as the Secular Buddhist Association (USA) or the European Bodhi College have been born. Other lineages share a similar approach, which we could call secular even though they don’t apply the label to themselves: Soka Gakkai, the pragmatic Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh, or the modern tantra of Justin von Budjoss and Lama Rod Owens. For some, the truly contemporary and secular dharma, clothed in a new language, is mindfulness. Mutually overlapping, these projects all participate in the great enterprise of rooting Buddhism not so much in the West but in contemporaneity.
In the dharma, as in other traditions, religion and secularity are not, after all, entirely incompatible, and various attempts have been made to amalgamate them. As paradoxical as it may sound, certain thinkers speak of “secular faith”: the devotion to that which is finite and temporal, rather than to the eternal and immortal—a great example of the first of the four tasks, this is an unconditional embrace of our human condition.