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

November 19, 2020

In the spirit of Seth’s conclusion to his rejoinder, I agree that much more unites us than divides us when we compare his ‘eudaimonic Buddhism’ with my sense of what secular Buddhism entails. Like him, I’m sure we’d get along just fine in some post-Covid world when we could meet in person. But it’s still worthwhile to tease out and crystallise points of disagreement – not to see who wins, but to clarify our own reference points as we practise the dharma. I find he’s still misrepresenting secularity and secular Buddhism quite fundamentally in his rejoinder.

Retrieving secularity

For starters, he suggests that four of us (Stephen Batchelor, Martin Hägglund, Charles Taylor and I) are ‘redefining’ secularity, because we expound it in a way that falls outside a common dictionary definition today. Note that two members of this gang of four (Hägglund and Taylor) have no dharmic connections, and Taylor is a Catholic, presumably a religious one. But no, sorry, we four aren’t at all interested in redefining secularity, but rather in retrieving the original vital concept of secularity that goes back at least to St Augustine at the turn of the fifth century. It’s the meaning baked into the Latin root word. The phenomenon itself has played a growing part in developments in western religious culture over the last seven centuries, and in western culture more generally in recent centuries. It’s been a complicated business – Taylor needed 874 pages to account for it. So a lexicographer might be forgiven for giving it all a swerve and opting for a snappy definition based on a secondary meaning, albeit one that violates its actual etymology.

Basically, secularity upholds the dignity and importance of what is happening in time, especially in this time and in this world, such as our own life processes. So secularity demotes entities and worlds that supposedly exist out of time – what the Buddha criticised as eternalism. The true contrast between secularity and eternalism is lost if we follow Seth’s example in mapping it onto a simple secular-versus-religious dichotomy.

He asks: ‘Why adopt the [‘secular’] label at all? What is being affirmed when they [we, the gang of four] call themselves secular, and what are they differentiating themselves from?’ Well, we’re not much interested in labels, or differentiation – especially of the secular-versus-religious kind. We’re not inclined to adopt the ‘humanism’ label he’d like to pin on us, either. We get our ethics from the dharma. But we’re certainly affirming the absolute centrality of time-bound life and spiritual practice.

To be bound by time is to be mortal. Actually-existing secular Buddhists might hold all sorts of beliefs about what happens to us after we die (there’s no orthodoxy at work here), but to my mind Martin Hägglund cuts to the chase by addressing those of us who work from the assumption that death is final. No rebirth, no post-mortem destinations of any sort. This working assumption plunges us into a compelling ‘affirmation’ that he calls secular faith. ‘Faith’ here denotes fidelity, engagement, wholehearted commitment to living this, our one and only life, meaningfully. Making the most – spiritually and ethically – of this temporary, fragile life and our human capacities. One of the more important human capacities is our ability to investigate and question, thus overriding the dogmas and pat answers many of us have been inducted into as children. This capacity flourishes in what Hägglund calls spiritual freedom.

For the record, let me forestall the common ‘religious’ argument that acceptance of the finality of death inevitably leads to nihilism and amorality, or at least indifference towards lives other than our own, not least those of the as-yet unborn. Hägglund affirms Karl Ove Knausgaard’s dictum that indifference is the deadliest of all sins, because it is a sin against life. Those of us who practise secular faith (including Pope Francis, as noted earlier in this dialogue) are the least likely to commit this sin. Those of us practitioners who’ve been privileged to see the faces of our grandchildren have also been blessed with a vision of our own lives in a much larger, intergenerational context, which impels us to keep the faith even more fervently as our species grapples with the present climate emergency of its own making.

The sublime and the religious

For his part, Seth affirms something he calls ‘the religious attitude’ which entitles one to exclusive participation in sublime or numinous experiences (ones so beautiful or terrifying that they beggar our ability to capture them in words or pictures). He’s right to affirm the value of the profound, formative experiences in question, and he provides us with an inspiring personal example of the sorts of experiences he writes about. But by what warrant does he lay exclusive claim to them on behalf of the religiously minded?

All human beings have the capacity to enter into sublime experiences, and are likely to do so if they set up the conditions for them, as he did in his example – conditions in which we’re especially undistracted, receptive and inspired. In my own neck of the dharmic woods these experiences are known by their original name, samādhi, the final factor in the eightfold path. They visit us unforced on silent retreats and yatras (meditative hikes through nature). In his After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor elevates these sublime experiences to a central place in meditation practice. And of course many people report unforgettable sublime experiences that arise quite outside religious and spiritual contexts.

That said, another reason why we ought not buy into Seth’s secular-versus-religious framework is that we inhabit a culture that has been enriched by Judeo-Christian religions. Religions are essentially cultural practices, ones historically backed up by supernatural narratives. In the west we’ve inherited a mixed bag from them in their glory days. It includes a propensity to mass violence in the name of dogma, intolerance and seemingly ineradicable antisemitism. But it also includes artistic forms and a vocabulary for deepening into human experience.

A few years ago a close friend who appreciated classical music was coming on a visit from interstate, just when I was looking forward to what promised to be a magnificent performance of Mozart’s requiem in the Sydney Opera House. When I offered to buy him a ticket too, he declined the offer because the work was ‘too religious,’ he said. His reply saddened me, as requiems top the list of what I’m most grateful to the Christian tradition for. If we go down the path of prim standoffishness towards religious forms, we impoverish our lives.

Nothing compares with a well-wrought funeral in inviting us to deepen into the truth of our mortality and our need to mourn if we’re to fully enter into the human estate. In this way it refreshes our secular faith, our determination to intensify and deepen into this life. And nothing brings this all together like the great requiems that grace our cultural heritage. This musical form offers unrivalled potential for us to plumb our deepest feelings, and so it has attracted such brilliant composers as Beethoven (whose Catholicism was at best tenuous), and Brahms and Fauré who were explicit non-believers. Fauré also exemplifies how we can adapt inherited religious forms: he dropped the Dies irae (‘the day of wrath’) sequence from his requiem as it promotes the fear of death – missionary Christianity’s main marketing tool.

Our cultural indebtedness to religion extends to other musical forms, and to architecture, graphic art and literature. I feel a personal debt to Thomas Cranmer, original author of the Anglican Book of common prayer; I grew up with its poetry, which also reverberates throughout Shakespeare’s oeuvre. We don’t need to take on board the supernatural narratives that originally underpinned all these achievements in order to draw sustenance from them now.

Retrieval and renewal, not disruption

Secular Buddhists follow historical precedents in acculturating the dharma to a new host culture. Their task consists mainly in retrieval – of the origins of the dharma, and the developmental direction of the new host culture – and adaptation. Entwining these two traditions ushers in a moment of renewal for both. The dharma is in the early stages of putting down roots in the west – a complex and delicate process. It has nothing to do with disrupting traditions or ‘redefining’ phenomena like secularity which have rich, well-settled meanings – even when those meanings have been lost on some commentators today. On the contrary, we’re honouring the Buddha’s living tradition by tracing it back to its sources. We are true traditionalists.

Books alluded to:

Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age (Yale University Press, 2015)

Martin Hägglund, This life: secular faith and spiritual freedom (Anchor Books, 2020)

Charles Taylor, A secular age (Belknap, 2007)



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