Three paths for secular Buddhists – crucial conversations and movements

As secular Buddhism has become an increasingly prominent trend in the U.S., it’s a good time to reflect on the diverse paths being taken by those of us who identify as secular Buddhists. While these paths are not mutually exclusive and thus practitioners may be involved, to some extent, in all of them, they do represent distinct ways in which secular Buddhists are making a significant contribution to our society.

Currently, there are three broad approaches or paths for secular Buddhists: first, the project of reconstructing traditional Buddhism in order to create a modern version of the dharma; second, helping to develop a secular mindfulness movement rooted in Buddhist meditative practice as a key component of various therapeutic and educational practices; and third, the effort to incorporate the Buddha’s vital insights about human experience into a radical movement for human liberation and social transformation.

The first approach is primarily situated within Buddhism; the dharma – however reconstructed along secular lines – remains the center or foundation for understanding the world and for promoting human flourishing. The other two approaches are not as dharma-centric; they involve the integration of key Buddhist insights into a broader set of social theories and practices, whether, as in the case of the second approach, to reform and humanize the existing society or, as in the case of the third approach, to transform and revolutionize existing institutions.

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism 2.0

The first approach or path has been developed with great clarity and depth by Stephen Batchelor, the most prominent voice of secular Buddhism. While he has often cautioned us against trying to establish an institution and set of beliefs which represent an “officially-sanctioned” secular Buddhism, Stephen believes that it’s crucial to identify the basic insights of Buddhism which are relevant to our contemporary world. At the same time, he has insisted that this process of discovering Buddhism’s essential core and its application in modern life should remain open and flexible, not be the basis for a new orthodoxy.[1]

Much of Stephen’s work in recent years has involved the progressive refinement and elaboration of this core. In his most recent formulation in “A Secular Buddhist”[2] Stephen contends that there are four core insights of Buddhism: 1) the principle of conditionality, 2) the practice of the four noble tasks (truths), 3) the perspective of mindful awareness, and 4) the power of self- reliance. These four elements are the foundation of what Stephen sees as a new “operating system”– Secular Buddhism 2.0 – of a dharma shorn of the ancient Indian metaphysical and soteriological beliefs which have been part of traditional Buddhist lineages.

Stephen has also put forward “Ten Theses of Secular Dharma” which are consistent with the four core insights and provide a framework to situate secular Buddhist perspective and practice in the modern world.[3]

The ten theses were the subject of a blog post by Mark Knickelbine on this website and led to a quite lively discussion about the meaning and value of each thesis.[4] In the context of this essay how one interprets Thesis #10 – “A practitioner of the dharma aspires to nurture a culture of awakening that finds its inspiration in Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and secular sources alike” – will reflect, to a large extent, which of the three paths one is traveling. Stephen and many other secular Buddhists find their main inspiration and ethical guidance in the dharma.

While they believe that it’s vital to utilize non-Buddhist sources to develop a culture of awakening, the core foundation and practice is rooted in the dharma. For those following the other two paths, the non-Buddhist sources are equally if not more essential in developing a culture of flourishing.

Secular Mindfulness

 While the main goal of the first path is to reconstruct the dharma for our contemporary world, the primary emphasis of some secular Buddhists is to play an active role in the development of secular mindfulness as a theory and practice in modern life. Rooted in certain aspects of Buddhist meditative practice, secular mindfulness has emerged as an incredibly important cultural and social trend, having a significant impact on medicine, psychology, and education, as well as organizational theories and practices. For many secular Buddhists, involvement in secular mindfulness programs in these various fields is the most important way in which one can bring the Buddha’s insights about human experience into a vital relationship with our contemporary society.

It’s not my purpose here to evaluate the relationship between secular mindfulness and Buddhism. There’s been a lot of controversy and heated discussion about this topic – in particular, the debate over the critique leveled by some Buddhists that secular mindfulness represents a harmful dilution of the Buddha’s radical message of transformation and is, instead, being used to reinforce the basic patterns of individualism, consumerism, and hierarchy in a capitalist society.[5]

My sense is that, overall, secular mindfulness has had a more complex effect and that its future role in society will depend as much on other developments (e.g. the extent to which an unbridled capitalism remains dominant) as on anything intrinsic to secular mindfulness programs. What is clear is that most secular Buddhists who are active in such programs believe that secular mindfulness can contribute to both individual well-being and a more humane society, insofar as less reactive, healthier, and more compassionate individuals are an important foundation for achieving social reforms.

I think it’s also useful to recognize that, for some individuals, secular mindfulness programs can initiate a process of increasingly robust engagement with meditative practices, a greater sense of wisdom, and a heightened recognition of our common humanity. As Robert Wright has noted in his recent book, Why Buddhism Is True, even if one starts off meditating to reduce stress, one begins to gain incrementally an experiential knowledge of some core Buddhist insights about the nature of the self and our relationship with other beings.[6] Rather than pose a binary opposition of secular mindfulness as a stress reduction method versus Buddhism as a path to complete enlightenment, Wright asserts – and I agree with him on this – that we should think in terms of greater or lesser progress in freeing ourselves from reactivity.

Secular Buddhism and Radical Politics

 Like secular mindfulness advocates, those secular Buddhists who embrace the third path are focused on bringing core Buddhist insights into the larger arena of society. The difference is that, while secular mindfulness programs are primarily oriented toward improving individual well- being and enhancing the development of human potential, the goal of the third approach is to integrate Buddhist understandings of human suffering and our potential for change into a movement for radical, social transformation.

Recognizing that there is not one, “right” path for secular Buddhists, based on my own life experiences and views, I feel the greatest affinity with this third approach. Like other political activists who have been influenced by Buddhism, I have come to realize that liberatory political perspectives, such as a humanistic Marxism, lack a crucial dimension: the recognition that human beings cause suffering to themselves and to others not just because of the harmful effects of social conditioning, but, in part, because, at an existential-psychological level, we have a proclivity to experience ourselves and the world in ways which cause suffering.

This is not just a theoretical gap. To the extent that the existential-psychological component of human suffering is not grasped, we are less likely to see how even the most well-intentioned pursuit of social justice and equality can be damaged by our tendency to crave (in the forms of both desire and aversion) and our inability to see beyond what Tara Brach has called the small, egoic self.[7] The sad phenomenon of radical movements becoming authoritarian or succumbing to internal conflicts is due, in part, to what Buddhists have called the three defilements of greed, anger, and delusion.

Thus, the Buddha’s existential-psychological understanding of human suffering and his inspiring ethical vision of relationships founded on kindness and compassion are essential elements for creating a transformative movement oriented toward the full flourishing of human beings and a just society. It is the role of Buddhists – both secularly and traditionally-inclined – to contribute this understanding and vision to the broader movement. And that is precisely what organizations like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and individual Buddhists who are also radical activists have been attempting to do.

At the same time, a contemporary liberation movement – which needs to be both democratic and radical – requires other theories and practices which Buddhism cannot provide, including a robust theory of psychology which recognizes human development in all its complexities and conflicts, a radical social theory which grasps the mutual interaction of individuals and social institutions, and a critical perspective on gender and other forms of oppression. In this respect, secular Buddhism is only one component of a broader set of liberatory theories and practices.

Conclusion

 We are just at the beginning of the development of secular Buddhism, so it would be folly to try to make a prediction about the future development of each path or whether new, secular Buddhist paths will emerge. However, based on the significant impact that secular Buddhists have already had within Buddhism and the larger society in such a relatively short period, there is no doubt that secular Buddhists will continue to be a vital part of our society’s most crucial conversations and movements.


  1. Stephen’s discussion with Ted Meissner on Ted’s podcast (Episode 270, March 5, 2017) explores this point, among other topics. http://secularbuddhism.org/2017/03/05/episode-270- stephen-batchelor-secular-buddhism-imagining-the-dharma-in-an-uncertain-world/
  2. Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” in Tricycle, 22 (1), Fall 2012. The article is included in Stephen’s latest book, a collection of essays, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World (2017), New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 158-164.
  3. Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (2015), New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 321-322.
  4. Mark Knickelbine, http://secularbuddhism.org/2015/11/23/batchelors-ten-theses-of-secular- dharma/
  5. Two of the most prominent critiques of secular mindfulness based on this view are Jeff Wilson’s Mindful America (2014), Oxford University Press and Ronald Purser and David Loy’s “Beyond McMindfulness,” in The Huffington Post, July 1, 2013.
  6. Robert Wright, Why Buddhism Is True (2017), New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 254.
  7. Tara Brach True Refuge (2012), New York: Bantam, p. 20.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Secular Buddhist Association on August 28, 2017 – http://secularbuddhism.org/2017/08/28/three-paths-for-secular-buddhists/


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