A person who is curious about or interested in Buddhist ideas and practices today will find that there is a plethora of resources to explore. One can connect with every type of Buddhist perspective and practice through books, Youtube videos, websites, podcasts, courses, online groups, and retreats. From the most traditional forms of Buddhism to the most westernized and secular versions, all are readily available.
Of course, this process can feel overwhelming, especially to those whose initial encounters with Buddhism are not determined by a specific purpose or perspective. How does one assess the various ideas and practices? What form or forms of Buddhism make the most sense? And how does this relate to other valued aspects of my life?
And then, as we engage with a particular form of Buddhism, at some point, we may decide that something is lacking in this approach or that it conflicts with other beliefs and practices. How to proceed?
There are no easy answers to these questions. I suggested in a previous article that the choice of what form of Buddhism to engage with in a serious, committed way, including secular Buddhism, is ultimately a matter of what one’s experiences, interests, and goals are. There is no 'one size that fits all' and the claim of any lineage or tradition that it is the 'correct' or 'right' form is a form of superiority conceit.
It may be helpful in this context, however, for practitioners to have a clearer sense of the variety of Buddhisms now on offer in the west. In what follows, I offer a 'map' of contemporary Buddhism to represent the multiplicity of approaches. My purpose is not to prescribe a particular approach, although of course I have my own view on this, but to provide a descriptive account which practitioners can use to understand how their own interests, values, and attitudes connect with Buddhism.
Varieties of Buddhism
In his contribution to the recently published book Secularizing Buddhism, Bhikkhu Bodhi proposed a tri-partite division of contemporary Buddhism in the west:
- Traditional Buddhism – This form of Buddhism accepts the traditional notions of rebirth and karma as part of an overall view of human life as embedded in samsara. The goal of Buddhism is to attain an irreversible release from samsara by achieving nirvana.
- Immanent Buddhism – In his view, this form of Buddhism is the most prevalent today. Immanent Buddhists put aside or avoid the issue of karma and rebirth. Instead, they focus on existential and psychological issues in this life, with the goal of achieving internal transformation that results in a more fulfilling and joyful life.
- Secular Buddhism – Secular Buddhists explicitly reject the teachings of karma and rebirth as metaphysical views based in traditional Indian culture. Like Immanent Buddhists, secular Buddhists are focused on promoting the flourishing of beings in this life.
At the same time, Bhikkhu Bodhi raised the concern that all three types of Buddhism have the tendency to foster a ‘purely private type of spirituality pursued mainly by educated, upper-middle-class people in the tranquility of their meditation halls and dharma centers.’ He called for a renewed commitment among all Buddhists to an engaged form of Buddhism which is committed to social change, to addressing our current social crises – climate change, poverty, racism, and inequality.
Through his work with Buddhist Global Relief and other organizations, Bhikkhu Bodhi has become a leader in socially engaged Buddhism. He thus combines a commitment to traditional Buddhism with political action. In his words, he is attempting to strike a balance in his practice between working toward the transcendent goal of nirvana and the struggle for social change and transformation.
I would argue that whether and how Buddhists respond to social problems in the world is an equally important and defining aspect of contemporary Buddhism as is the traditional versus secular dimension. Just as Bhikkhu Bodhi found three forms of Buddhism in relation to the traditional vs. secular issue, we can identify three approaches to social engagement:
- Not socially engaged – In this form of Buddhism, the focus is solely on individual transformation through meditation, gaining understanding of reality (wisdom), and an ethics of non-harm. From this perspective, to the extent that positive social change occurs, it is seen as the by-product of individual change.
- Socially engaged (reform) – For many Buddhists, social engagement is important and central to their practice. Their social engagement takes the form of providing individual services (e.g. hospice services) and support for suffering individuals as well participation in efforts to reform existing institutions and laws.
- Socially engaged (radical) – Social engagement for these Buddhists includes participation in reform efforts but is also concerned with systemic change through dismantling social systems of exploitation and oppression which are the root of social harm, such as capitalism, racism, etc.
These three forms of engagement can be thought of as also expressing a political continuum. In the U.S. context, this would be a continuum which ranges from relatively conservative or moderate perspectives (not socially engaged) to liberal views (socially engaged in a reformist sense) and finally to radical left positions (socially engaged in a radical sense). However, we need to be careful in assuming some exact correspondence. A practitioner can eschew active, social engagement yet be liberal or even radical.
A chart of contemporary of Buddhism in the west
If we take Bhikkhu Bodhi's tri-partite typology and the three Buddhist responses to social engagement, and then graph them as two axes in a chart, what results is a ‘map’ of forms of contemporary Buddhism. The one change I make is to use the term ‘Buddhist modernism’ in place of what Bhikkhu Bodhi calls Immanent Buddhism. Buddhist modernism is the more commonly used term to refer to the multiple forms of Buddhism in various lineages (Theravada, Zen, etc.) which de-emphasize but do not completely reject traditional Buddhist views on rebirth, karma, and cosmology.
A person or group's location on the chart will be a function of their stance toward both dimensions. Since each dimension is actually a continuum, there are a multiplicity of locations on the map; however, for the sake of clarity, the chart is divided into nine 'cells', based on the combination of three types within each dimension (3 x 3).
Below is the chart:
Here are some examples of how individuals or groups can be placed on the chart.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi is a traditional Buddhist and believes in social engagement oriented toward systemic change. He is located in the top row, left column.
- A meditation group has an orientation toward Buddhism that is fully secular. The group focuses on using meditation practices to deal primarily with stress reduction and living more fully in the world. The group is located in the bottom row, right column.
- An Insight meditation practitioner leads a meditation class for prisoners as an important part of her practice. She is located in the middle row, middle column.
Where do you fit into this chart?
When you consider your interests, affinities, and views, where on this chart do you locate yourself? Or, do you find yourself relating to several points on the chart?
Does the chart provide greater clarity about your current practice and where you want to move forward in the future? In short, is it useful?
 Bhikkhu Bodhi, 'Manifesting the Buddha Dharma in a Secular Age,' in Secularizing Buddhism, p. 178.