The dialogue on secular Buddhism continues: Seth Zuihō Segall’s rejoinder to Winton Higgins

November 11, 2020

In Why I Am Not a Secular Buddhist  Seth Zuihō Segall explained why his naturalized eudaimonic Buddhism, although ‘close cousins’ to secular Buddhism, differs in some important respects from a secular approach.  In his response to Seth’s article, Winton Higgins asserted that Seth’s critique of secular Buddhism mistakenly assumes that all secular Buddhists support a ‘scientistic’ form of secular Buddhism which is hostile to religion. In fact, many secular Buddhists advocate an ‘interpretive’ approach which integrates dharmic insights with modern perspectives to promote human flourishing in this life. Seth continues the dialogue with the following rejoinder.

My intent in writing Why I Am Not A Secular Buddhist was not to convince secular Buddhists to reconsider their beliefs, but to explain why I was not inclined to adopt the label for myself. The questions at hand were what would I be specifically affirming and what would I be specifically differentiating myself from by adopting a ‘secular’ label? I want to thank Winton Higgins for carrying the discussion forward, and eloquently exploring our areas of convergence and difference.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines secular as ‘denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis,’ and adds it is ‘contrasted with sacred.’ If Higgins (or Batchelor, Hägglund or Taylor) choose to redefine secularity so that it transcends a simplistic socially constructed secular/religious binary—so that it is no longer a category opposed to religiosity—I have no problem with that. I’m also all for transcending this overly simplistic dichotomy. But why, then, adopt the secular label at all? What is being affirmed when they call themselves secular, and what are they differentiating themselves from?  If they are simply distancing themselves from the distasteful historical aspects of institutional religion (dogmatism, intolerance, adherence to authority, patriarchy) I’m also in favor of it, but none of these are intrinsic to the religious attitude.

On The Religious Attitude

For some clarity about what I mean by the religious attitude, let’s turn to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ which Higgins so rightly praises. Laudato Si’ is at least partly an eloquent expression of a Franciscan religiosity that is meaningfully different from the kind of purely secular response to climate change, the kind that weighs risks from an ecological perspective. The Pope reminds us that St. Francis:

helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation … for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection.

While it makes good logical sense to care for the earth on purely instrumental grounds, for Francis something more basic is at stake—a connection to all things by bonds of love. One could never arrive at this kind of reverence for life through rational deduction alone.

Now I don’t ordinarily go about my life experiencing the world the Franciscan way, but I can remember a time when I once did. On a walk through the countryside during a Buddhist retreat, I was overwhelmed by a profound love for everything I came across—trees, rocks, shrubs, sparrows—a love accompanied by joyous tears and an I-Thou encounter with everything I saw. Although the experience lasted only 15 minutes, it remains one of my most memorable moments of my life and continues to deeply inform my philosophical approach to this day. Religious experiences such as these provide the larger vision for and help ground whatever philosophies we subsequently choose to adopt or develop.

Someone might object that this kind of Franciscan or Schweitzerian reverence for life exemplifies not so much a religious attitude as a humanistic one. After all, the Pope says St. Francis’s attitude ‘takes us to the heart of what it means to be human.’ Yes, but. There is an important sense in which it exemplifies not just a humanism but a trans-humanism. The humanist puts human well-being front and center, but St. Francis is concerned with each being in and for itself, even his inanimate beloved ‘brother sun, sister moon.’

Humanists might reply that reverence for life and non-instrumental caring for all beings is part of what they mean by human flourishing.  I agree, but let’s be clear that not all models of human flourishing necessarily entail it.  I don’t think, for example, that Aristotle’s does. The centrality of reverence for life for flourishing is based fundamentally on feeling over and above any instrumental advantages reverence for life may afford us; rational justifications for it come after the fact.  For me, that feeling—the unconditional caring, love, and reverence for the other—is, along with a sense of awe and mystery,  the essence of the religious dimension of life.  And it is important to stress that reverence for life is not just good for human flourishing, but good for the flourishing of ‘the other.’ The Jewish existentialist philosopher Emmanuel Levinas saw this emphasis on alterity as the very basis for ethics.  If secular Buddhists can fully embrace the dimension I am pointing to (even although they may not categorize it as ‘religious’), then our differences are smaller than I think, and perhaps we are merely quibbling over semantics.

Areas Where I think Higgins Misunderstands Me

I am at a bit of a loss to understand Higgins assertions that my view ‘condemns religion to irrelevance in a world crying out for help’ and that for me, ‘the inner world and the outer world remain separate spheres—the one sacred, the other profane.’ Where does he derive these assertions from? My extended argument in Buddhism and Human Flourishing devotes considerable space to providing a philosophical justification for a politically and socially active Engaged Buddhism, and endorses a non-duality that views everything as sacred and denies a separate domain of the profane. This is why Zen Master Yúnmén Wényǎn (864-949 CE) could declare that the Buddha was ‘a dried shit stick,’ and why Zen Master Ikkyū Sōjun (1394-1481 CE ) could write fine erotic poetry. The non-dual view also denies reified divisions between separate spheres such as the insides and outsides of things. In Zen we meditate with eyes open so we will not mistakenly view meditation as a ‘going inside,’ as opposed to a practice of togetherness with all things.

Final Thoughts on Community, Tradition, and Ritual

Buddhism can be variously characterized as a religion, a philosophy, a psychology, and a way of life. Thinking of it primarily as a way of life successfully side-steps the secular-religious binary, but a way of life involves belonging to a tradition, even when one may at times be at odds with it, and—if it is a ‘thick’ tradition— practices which may include rites and rituals, forms to be mastered, narrative resources, ethical precepts, art, costumes, ceremonies, and rules of etiquette. None of these are singularly indispensable, but a tradition with none is thin gruel.

Living traditions can only exist when socially embodied in communities. If they are large communities, they require some degree of hierarchical organization. If they are small communities, they may get by with flatter organizational structures. There is nothing about spiritual communities per se, however, that requires they be paternalistic, undemocratic, or charismatically organized, even if historically they have tended to be so. If secular Buddhists are having good success in experimenting with flatter, less authoritarian, and more participatory democratic structures, or ones in which the leadership is better constrained by ethical precepts, that is something worthy of celebration.

Finally, Higgins thinks I have been unfair in worrying that secular Buddhists might be too individualistic to fully appreciate the value of sangha.  As I wrote previously, I have no way of knowing what the majority of people who identify as secular Buddhists actually do. If I have wrongly attributed an individualist bias to the group as a whole as opposed to isolated outliers, I am glad to find out I was wrong.


Why I Am Not a Secular Buddhist was written in response to Mike Slott’s request that I expand on a paragraph or two in Buddhism and Human Flourishing where I explained why I did not see my naturalized eudaimonic Buddhism as completely identical with my understanding of secular Buddhism. I thought it was an interesting topic to explore more fully, but my intention was never to lay down gauntlets or invite internecine fights. I am confident that if Winton Higgins and I sat down to explore where we agreed or disagreed and where we misunderstood each other in an extended personal conversation (instead of via public missives) we would emerge good friends and mutually benefit from the conversation. Perhaps, someday, inshallah it will happen. We all have our private visions that encompass only a small part of what might be called ‘truth,’ and we all expand our private visions through dialogue with others. I invite readers to accept my necessarily brief response to Winton Higgins in that spirit.



One Reply to “The dialogue on secular Buddhism continues: Seth Zuihō Segall’s rejoinder to Winton Higgins”

Steve Hansen

Thank you. I much appreciated this honest and respectful discussion!

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