Secular monks?

There are reasons to value what secular monks can give and receive. ‘Secular’ is already an option for monks of many traditions. I self-identify as secular. In my practice, I focus on this planet; I am indifferent to rebirth and understand transcendence as transformed consciousness, not living in a different world. I reject the dogmatism and authoritarianism that is often part of religious organizations. A secular layperson would have a similar attitude, which Steven Batchelor has described so well.[1] I know of other monks (from various traditions) who would affirm such attitudes. However (so far as I know), there is no Buddhist monastic Order which is avowedly and consistently secular in its approach. I’d like to see a few such movements emerge, and I hope that we shall see the contemporary soils of Buddhism nurturing such green sprouts.[2] Yet, the case against ‘secular monks’ can be substantial. You might want to add your own insights to either side of the argument.

The prosecution (the case against secular monks)

An Order of Secular Monks (using the term for all genders) might reinforce the traditional and well-established division between lay and ordained roles in traditional religious Buddhism. This dichotomy is evident in most Buddhist religious organizations and assumed in our school curriculum and broadcasters such as the BBC. The monk’s role is affirmed as a vastly superior, exemplary way of living and learning the dharma. Exemplary lay Buddhists are celebrated as exceptions. I studied with a Norwegian theologian, Kjell Yri, who refused ordination because he saw it as implying a false division among Christians. That judgment is transferable to Buddhist communities. If secular Buddhism stands for anything, surely it is the ability of all and any to exemplify the liberating insights of Gautama’s teaching. Robes, shaved heads, and unquestioned respect for the office are not the only nor the best path to awakening.

I’ve been ordained for fifty years (thirty as a Christian pastor and teacher). Looking in the mirror and at my fellow monks/clergy, I can assure you that ordination has its particular temptations (not always overcome!). There are saints and sinners in every sub-grouping of humanity. Ordination cannot guarantee a certain level of spirituality. It even includes some unique and powerful temptations. I’ve seen the dangers and the failures in myself and others. I do not idealize the role, but I respect it provisionally.

Another concern is the ideological and social reality of the monks’ hierarchical and authoritarian position within the broader religious community. This is symbolized by the Sangha Refuge being sometimes equated with the ordained community only. A dangerous aspect of this position is the assumption that monks represent the ‘true dharma’. Another is to assume that they always deserve respect and even obedience. But dharma faithfulness is an individual quality, reflecting virtues such as humility, knowledge, and integrity, not role or function.

Many monks are exemplars of positive Buddhism. But, let’s face it, many are not. Every organization needs leadership and structure. But why should we reserve such servant authority for the monks, excluding all others? Lay administrators and other dharma-based, socially relevant roles are viable possibilities. The Secular Buddhist Network proves this. My own Sangha could not do very well without its lay leaders.

Gautama’s affirmation (in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta) of the Four Assemblies[3] is extremely relevant: Monks, nuns, and householders were all mastering and teaching his dharma. Each was equally important to him as a potentially confident, competent teachers. The monks’ most common vocation was dharma study and teaching. But this role was not exclusively theirs. There were just as many enlightened householders as monks or nuns, perhaps more. But, because the monks became the self-proclaimed guardians and transmitters of Gautama’s teaching, their role is prominent in the recorded discourses. I suspect there was an unconscious bias that minimized the contribution of women and householders. (Admittedly, this suspicion is unprovable.)

Religious authorities tend to enforce dogma. But we know from the Kalama Sutta that Gautama encouraged all his followers to judge ‘views’ (doctrine) for themselves according to (1) their individual judgment of what was palpably helpful/unhelpful to them and (2) what was exemplified or taught by those whose lives had earned their respect.

The above does not imply that monks (and nuns) cannot contribute to the sangha and their wider community. But it calls into question the utility of this role as it is most often seen today.

The defense (the case for secular monks)

All that said, what is the case for secular monks? There are so many ways of being a secular monk – actual and potential. But I shall speak from the reality of the Order I belong to, the Order of Pragmatic Buddhism. It’s what I know.

The Buddha’s passion for a vital dharma expression through four different ‘assemblies’ – half of them laity –  underscores the legitimacy of the monk’s role (the other half). In his time, monks and nuns ideally left all ordinary means of gaining security and income, and dedicated themselves to learning and sharing how to live an awakened life. Secular monks (of all genders) will likely be self-supporting and might have a partner. Despite these and other demands on their time, they will dedicate their lives to helping others explore the dharma and move towards buddhahood. In the Order I’m blessed to be part of, we affirm five + ten precepts, plus vows which indicate a wholehearted dedication to this work ‘for the benefit of all beings’.

Ordination is a public role, which, if lived humbly and with integrity, contributes to the greater good. In a sense, monks represent a deeper level of commitment than most practitioners. Their additional precepts and vows, provide a serious accountability within their Order, and an expectation of skillfulness, knowledge and integrity from the members of their sangha. Their impact can be great, if they live out the dharma – but that can include unwelcome pressures – especially when others expect a different kind of Buddhism than they expect. The same, of course, can be true of every practitioner.

The origin of the Pali terms for monk (bhikkhu) and nun (bhikkhuni) does not equate with the concept that is codified in the older traditions. The word is sometimes translated as ‘mendicant’, not ‘monk’. Its meaning is ‘beggar’. Originally, Gautama instructed his monks to make robes from the fragments of clothing left on charnel grounds. They were seen as ascetics, without a permanent residence and eating only one meal a day, begged from the wider population. Gautama famously said at the end of his life that the dharma should guide everyone; there was no need for appointed leaders. But, too often, traditional monasteries have rigid command systems. Its system provides securities and comforts that many find very attractive. Our cultural context is so different from Bronze Age India that few want to replicate the original model of the monk’s (nun’s) lifestyle.

Finally, monks can serve as Buddhist ‘clergy’ – blessing homes, celebrating births, marrying and burying – and on call to respond to others’ cri du cœur, the impassioned outcry for help.

Our Order is redeveloping its education pathway for those applying for ordination, which is also open to other sangha members seeking to deepen their understanding and practice. This allows people to explore the monk’s role at their own pace, with the companionship of a mentor.

Monks are accountable to their Order which, if it is functioning well, knows them well enough to provide guidance and accountability to their declared intentions.

I welcome this accountability because it demands a  level of consciousness and service I might otherwise let slip. Our Pragmatic Buddhist movement provides five aspirational precepts for everyone but adds ten restraining precepts for monks (the term applying to both sexes). Thus, our Sangha affirms weekly, ‘I undertake the training of positive speech.’ Monks are under four additional speech precepts (self-enforced):I undertake the training of verbal empowerment; I will abstain from useless speech. I undertake the training of kind speech; I will abstain from harsh speech. I undertake the training of meaningful speech; I will abstain from frivolous speech. I undertake the training of harmonious speech; I will abstain from slanderous speech.’ I am grateful for these explicit standards. They are helpful guides and correctives. In their light, I have recently realised my need to develop my non-violent communication and strengthen my empathy and deep listening in my conversations.

The Buddha looked for confident purveyors of the dharma. Being recognised as an acceptable dharma teacher (Sensei) by the senior monks in my Order, whom I respect, encourages me to do my homework well and to teach courageously. The Chinese name I’ve been given, Seng Ting (Diligent Sangha Member) encourages me to keep at it, and model the Buddhist life (joyous, compassionate service) as best I can. These explicit standards keep me learning from our sangha members and all others about the qualities I want in my life.

Under the leadership of my fellow Scottish monk, Beverley Hooper (Chi Zhu), we are developing a sangha in which lay leaders are prominent in helping to build our local and online communities. My role as the senior teaching monk (with pastoral and outreach concerns as strong as my love of teaching) includes strengthening the community by learning to empower others. It’s part of an ongoing process in which I’m learning to divest myself of typical ‘religious’ expectations and grow to be an appropriately secular monk.

Concluding with a personal note, I find my monk’s role a comforting recognition of my sense of inner calling, a challenging consciousness to live the Buddhist life I represent, and an extra layer of ‘fellowship’ when I relate to fellow Order members. I rarely wear my robes, but I hope to be buried in them.

Dennis is the senior teaching monk (Sensei) in the Centre for Pragmatic Buddhism in Scotland.

[1] See, for example, Stephen’s Secular Buddhism (2017, Yale University Press).

[2] I’m happy to be part of an Order which allows both secular and religious values and patterns, but welcome a more radical, purely secular approach. Right now we are discussing how to further develop democratic governance in our Order.

[3] Mahaparinibbana Suta, section III, verses 7-8. In the Pasadika Sutta Gautama says with pleasure: “I have today disciples who are competent senior monks, middle monks, junior monks, senior nuns, middle nuns, junior nuns, celibate laymen, laymen enjoying sensual pleasures, celibate laywomen, and laywomen enjoying sensual pleasures. Today my spiritual path is successful and prosperous, extensive, popular, widespread, and well proclaimed…”


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4 Replies to “Secular monks?”

Travis Barker

Insightful. There is a new secular monastic order forming on the horizon.
Taixu and Gendun Chophel are worthy study in the investigation and understanding of the importance of an informed and empowered lay community.

Dennis Oliver

I’d love to know the details of this yet to emerge group. Thanks for the other reference.

Sharon Reuler

Dennis, thank you. You say “there is no Buddhist monastic Order which is avowedly and consistently secular in its approach.” Curiosity Question: Is that why Thich Nhat Hanh and his Order of Interbeing are not embraced as models for secular buddhism – because they are not AVOWLEDLY secular? Or perhaps because Thay’s tradition has monastics who “look” religious – shaved heads, robes, etc.? I find nothing in the dharma articulated by Thay that’s inconsistent with my devout atheism. Yet, I feel alone in viewing Thay and the Order of Interbeing as secularists. Can you enlighten me? Sidenote: I’m grateful to generations of “old school” monastics without whom we might have no dharma at all. I count them en masse among my spiritual ancestors.

Dennis Oliver

Thanks for raising this issue, Sharon. I’m a fan of Thich Nhat Hanh too! This highlights the subjective aspects of the judgment. In my judgment the issues of hierarchicalism (to coin a term) and the authority of monks are an issue. It’s important to say that secular is not ‘good’ or ‘better’, and religious is not ‘bad’! It’s a question of what is helpful. So adherence to the Order of Interbeing (or membership in the Church which was Than’s earlier effort) is great for those who find it an aid to awakening – which is the crucial issue for us all.

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