How do we explain to those who are unfamiliar with secular Buddhism what this approach is in a brief, concise form? Stephen Batchelor offered his formulation in ‘Buddhism in a Nutshell‘, part of a talk he gave at an interfaith series in March 2011.
Eleven year later, at a 25 May 2022 online meeting of leaders and facilitators of secular Buddhist groups, organizations, and sanghas, we discussed how to best define or describe a secular approach to the dharma. The following includes some of the perspectives presented at the meeting or submitted afterwards. The perspectives are presented alphabetically, by first name.
If a secular dharma is one which embraces and values the impermanent and conditioned world rather than seek to transcend it, then, for coherence, it must reject the doctrine that Anything Conditioned and Impermanent is Dukkha (ACID). This doctrine also takes the form of the ‘three meanings of dukkha’, which applies an everyday word for pain and suffering (duḥkha/dukkha) to all experiences. ACID is in fact a practical means to induce renunciation.
In the basic reasoning ‘anicca > dukkha > anattā’, the first item is an observable universal fact, while the other two are conclusions traditional Buddhism draws from it – crucially, the second is a renunciant value judgment. Impermanence is just the alternation of good and bad. To emphasize the bad, and even to absolutize it, is a negative assessment of the situation that aligns with a renunciant or world-denying orientation.
Therefore, a secular dharma must reject ACID or consciously reinterpret it. What we value in it, like certain psychological effects, its potential to foster acceptance or stimulate existential reflection, can still be achieved by other means, without metaphysical claims of inherent unsatisfactoriness.
John Danvers, Exeter Meditation Circle
secular: from the Latin, ‘saeculum’ – of this age, time, world
– that is, a Buddhism of this time and place, making sense and working within our culture, meeting our everyday needs and aspirations, open to the same kinds of reasonable questioning and rational enquiry we would apply to any other activity – ‘secular’ or ‘agnostic’ Buddhist practice is not in any way opposed to formal religious institutions and traditions, but a complement to them.
The term, ‘secular Buddhism’ is not intended to refer to a particular category of Buddhism, let alone a new school or sect. In our understanding, the term refers to an informal process – an exploratory movement of individuals and groups who are developing forms of Buddhist practice that meet the needs and demands of people living in twenty-first century cultures across the globe. Our Buddhist practices are grounded in this life – our daily life with all its ups and downs, shocks and surprises, messiness and mystery. Mindful awareness of our daily experience is the primary method for understanding and coming to terms with life’s ever-changing pleasures and pains.
Participants in the Exeter Meditation Circle come from many different backgrounds, contributing to the Circle in ways that reflect their life-experiences and their experience of different approaches to Buddhism, other religions, philosophies, sciences and arts. We place particular value on personal responsibility and self-reliance, within the context of a deepening understanding of how we are all interconnected and interdependent. In a small way, we are working to create a culture of awakening in which all beings, and the environment in which we live, are valued and cared for.
How do we define a secular approach to the dharma?
A means of practising the Buddha’s wisdom that is true* to the teachings, makes sense in our place and time, addresses contemporary challenges, draws on any source that’s helpful, and is practical.
What are the core elements of secular Buddhism?
- A secular reading of the Pali canon as our primary source for ‘what the Buddha taught’
- Openness to any source of insight, resources or practices that help us with the four tasks (including but in no way limited to traditional Buddhisms)
- Makes sense in this place and time, including in the light of evolving scientific knowledge
- No sacred cows – honest and open questioning of anything (including teachings, translations, teachers and their behaviour)
- (Related to #3) Practice as practice – honest self-enquiry to ensure that our ‘practice’ (noun) is also part of our practice (verb). That is, we are constantly seeking to maintain self awareness. E.g. Am I ‘selfing’ right now in my reaction to a religious Buddhist? Am I trying to grow my sangha attendee list to show that ‘my’ sangha is successful? How many books have I sold? Why, as a teacher, was I reluctant to answer that question from a sangha member about my personal practice? Why should the car park at the sangha hall be left for me just because I’m the teacher? You get the drift.
Meeting ELSA in a coffee shop
(please read with a rap-ish beat!)
I met ELSA in a coffee shop
americano, oat mild on the side –
with Steven, Steven with a V !
a member of Cardiff mindfulness teachers group
‘Stephen Batchelor’, says Steven, ‘has created the Four Tasks
– as an alternative to the Four Noble Truths.’
I am curious …
let go reactivity
see the ceasing
act … the eightfold path …
in no particular order ,,,
and, like mother hen turning and rearranging her eggs with her feet to keep them equally warm, we can attempt to do so with the aspects of the path.
ELSA invites us, join us if you like !
Let us care for planet Earth
see our place in the manner of things
and be less fucking human centric…
Secular Buddhism is a practical, ethical philosophy which aims to reduce suffering and promote the flourishing of all beings in this life.
Like other perspectives and philosophies with a similar orientation, such as secular humanism, liberatory political theories, modern versions of Stoicism, and certain trends within psychology and neuroscience, secular Buddhism has emerged as a response to the interrelated challenges that we face in our time, our saeculum: growing social divisions; the loss of community and an increasing sense of alienation; widespread economic inequality; and the climate crisis. In responding to these challenges and offering a way forward, secular Buddhism is deeply informed by the contemporary values of democracy, inclusion, mutuality, and pluralism.
Among perspectives and philosophies oriented toward human flourishing, secular Buddhism is distinguished by its particular understanding of the causes of suffering, the remedy for suffering, and the path toward flourishing. Based on certain aspects of the Buddha’s early teachings, secular Buddhists understand suffering as the product, in large part, of our tendency to react unskillfully to life’s vicissitudes and thus cause harm to ourselves and others.
The remedy for suffering resides in engaging in a fourfold task in which individuals strive to limit their tendency toward reactivity and cultivate views, attitudes, and values which promote compassion, mutual solidarity, non-harming, and peace between each other and other beings. In this shift to a less reactive mode of being and a culture marked by compassion and mindfulness, human beings can more fully flourish, that is, develop their potential for creative activity, wisdom, and love.
While secular Buddhism emerged from certain modernist forms of Buddhism, advocates of secular Buddhism are not focused on establishing a new form of Buddhism as an alternative to traditional lineages. Rather, secular Buddhists seek to offer the insights and fruitful practices of the secular dharma as an important component of the broader movement to reduce suffering and promote flourishing in the early 21st century.
1 – How do we describe a secular approach to the dharma?
A set of ideas that were meant to be practised, individually and communally, a secular approach to the dharma offers a practical philosophy that helps us to develop a culture of awakening.
These ideas underpin how we live our lives and how we respond to our experience, rather than what we believe about how we live our lives.
It is not an identity, but an approach we practise with ethics, with care, and with self-knowledge, reflecting on Gotama’s final words: ‘Things fall apart. Tread the path with care.’
2 – So, what are the core elements of a secular dharma?
At the core of a secular dharma are four tasks. These are:
1 – to fully experience all of life, embracing and understanding suffering
2 – to let go of the habitual reactivity we generally fall into in the face of life’s difficulties
3 – to learn to stop, momentarily and repeatedly, relishing this peace of mind whenever the mind is free of reactivity
4 – to let these experiences inspire us to cultivate the eight aspects of the path, a middle way that, as suggested in the Sutta on The City (SN 12.65), leads to the restoration of a city. These eight aspects are:
- perspective = ditthi
- imagination = sankappa
- application, or perseverance = vayama
- recollective awareness, or mindfulness = sati
- focus = samadhi
- voice = vaca
- work, livelihood, vocation, or calling = kammanta, and
- survival = ajiva
Secular Buddhism is an experience based, contemporary, pragmatic, process-oriented approach to the Buddha-Dharma.
It does not set itself as absolute. It tries to develop a framework model that respects other points of view and is open to new understandings and perspectives. Its view of the world is not static, but oriented toward continuous, beneficial development and free from metaphysical beliefs.
Secular Buddhism is based on contemporary evolutionary humanistic ethics, not on Buddhist legalistic ethics, meditative practice, and experience-based, process-oriented cultivation of wisdom.
The focus of Secular Buddhism is on our actions in this one and only life, on what is helpful and reduces suffering, taking into account the three marks of existence.
It is a guideline that cultivates a compassionate, caring way of life that creates space for all sentient beings to unfold and flourish in our present world.
Secular Buddhism is not only about how to awaken as an individual, but also about how to cultivate a society, a culture of awakening.
Secular Buddhism is an accurate description of moment-by-moment experience in daily life, and a structure to support well-being in this lifetime.
Secular Buddhism/dharma contributes to the process of making the dharma and its practice culturally available to people steeped in modern western culture.
The adjective ‘secular’ here refers to the need for any great tradition like Buddhism to address people in the specific times, places and cultures that they inhabit. Secularity contrasts with the tendency of religions to assert timeless metaphysical truths, and the value of timeless rules, practices and rituals, irrespective of historical context.
The dharma does rest on a timeless meta-ethic – the ethic of care – but historical situations must mould how we practise it. For instance, today it must guide us in tackling our current two great crises – global warming and global social injustice. In the Buddha’s time no such responsibilities hung over him or his followers.
So as secular Buddhists we see the Buddha himself not as a religious prophet, but as what the contemporary Greeks called a ‘practical philosopher’, one who staked out a fruitful way to work with fundamental predicaments facing people during the ongoing agricultural revolution. That is, people with a degree of leisure and freedom to make informed life choices, but still intractably subject to birth, ageing, sickness, death, unpleasantness, frustration, and vulnerability. To thrive as human beings, we must work creatively with these elements of the human condition.
We are such people ourselves, so we stand to benefit from applying his dharma – his matrix of interpretive concepts – to parse our life experiences, and to respond intelligently to the predicaments we face, in terms of the cultures we inhabit now.