Why I am not a secular Buddhist

October 17, 2020

Seth Zuihō Segall is a Zen priest and psychologist who is the science writer for the Mindfulness Research Monthly. He is affiliated with White Plains Zen where he received shukke tokudo in 2016. He is the author of Buddhism and Human Flourishing: A Modern Western Perspective (Palgrave MacMillan, 2020), Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings  (SUNY Press, 2003), and Living Zen: A Practical Guide to a Balanced Existence, which was published by Rockridge Press in May, 2020.

In Buddhism and Human Flourishing: A Modern Western Perspective (Palgrave MacMillan, 2020), I redefine enlightenment as a horizon we may progress towards but never reach—there is no final state of perfection to be attained.  However “awake” we may be, we can always be more awake.  However “good” we may be, we can always aspire to be “better.” This revised goal of Buddhist practice—I call it eudaimonic enlightenment—can be thought of as a relatively greater skillfulness in living characterized by mindfulness, discerning wisdom, equanimity, and compassion in this, our one and only life. Eudaimonic enlightenment entails, not an end to desire and attachment, but the cultivation of wise desire and wise attachment—the wisdom to know which desires and attachments are truly beneficial and consonant with our highest values, and the skillfulness to pursue them in the right sort of way.

This revised understanding emphasizes not only traditional Buddhist virtues such as compassion and equanimity, but also virtues substantially neglected by the Buddhist tradition such as courage and justice. Unlike traditional Buddhism, it acknowledges the crucial roles that aesthetic creativity/appreciation and familial/romantic attachment play as constituents of human well-being. Finally, it reconciles the traditional Buddhist critique of selfhood with a recognition of the functional value (and inevitability) of our embodied sense of being selves.

There is obviously much here that will resonate with practitioners who identify as secular Buddhists, but I nevertheless declined to identify my approach as “secular.” This is because it is not clear to me what sorts of philosophical commitments one is making when one defines one’s Buddhism as secular.

 Religion and secularity

“Religion” and “secularity” are socially constructed categories. There is no bright line dividing one from the other, and the words conjure up different connotations in different cultures and historical eras. The religious-secular dichotomy evolved in the West in the contexts of the power struggles between Popes and Kings, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment’s Baconian emphasis on empirical inquiry over settled authority, and the increasing division of life into private and public spheres. The Western discovery of non-theistic religions/philosophies such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism created a new set of dilemmas in defining secularity and religiousness. Prior to this discovery, religion necessitated a belief in God. Now that we are accustomed to talking about “world religions,” this requirement no longer seems necessary, at least to religious scholars. The contemporary Japanese, who often mix and match Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, and Christian rites and practices in their daily lives don’t view these aspects of their lives so much as religious, but as cultural—just the Japanese way of life. It is useful to keep the historicized, socially constructed, unstable nature of these definitions in mind as I explain why I decline to identify myself as a secularist.

Acknowledging the spiritual dimension

So why do I decline to use the secularist label? First, I worry that the term secular fails to fully honor and acknowledge what Dale Wright [What is Buddhist Enlightenment? (Oxford University Press, 2016)] has called the spiritual, or depth dimension of human experiencing.  This includes not only our awe and wonder as we look out on the starry firmament, consider the complexity of goings-on inside a single cell, or ponder the paradoxes of quantum physics. It goes beyond awe, wonder, and the Kantian “sublime” to recognize the full range of feelings we may have regarding the objects of ordinary experience—trees, blades of grass, rivers, mountains, works of art, storms, fires, newborn infants—feelings that acknowledge that these things are in some meaningful way sacred, holy, deserving of our reverence and care, and may carry intimations of something beyond our comprehension—a something that some may even characterize as being loving and intelligent. This is a very different view of the universe than the one that science conveys—a view in which we live in a disenchanted clockwork universe devoid of intrinsic value or meaning.

While I personally find “god-language” distinctly unhelpful, the experience of a spiritual dimension of life shares much in common with intellectually sophisticated and/or mystical strands of the Abrahamic, Romantic, and pantheistic traditions, including the traditions of Spinoza, Whitman, Wordsworth, Whitehead, Tillich, and Schweitzer.  As a member of an interfaith community of priests, ministers, and rabbis, and as an interfaith chaplain, I often need to translate back and forth between my own language-and-belief system and the language-and-belief systems of believers in other faiths. The remarkable thing is that I find I can do so without too much difficulty. While there are significant differences between Buddha-nature, the Abrahamic soul, and the “Christ within;” or between the dharmakāya body of the Buddha and the Hindu godhead; or between Buddhist śūnyatā and some mystical interpretations of Adonai’s and Allah’s “oneness,” there are also resonances between them that deserve recognition. The world is intricately complex in a way that exceeds the ability of any and all language systems to exhaustively describe, and I am open to the possibility that theistic languages capture some aspects of reality that secular languages seem to omit.

The problem of ontological materialism

Second, I worry that secular Buddhism entails (consciously or unconsciously) a philosophical commitment to ontological materialism—the belief that the material world is all that there is (as if we understand what material “stuff” is!) and that consciousness is epiphenomenal. Now these things may be true, but to my own mind, the philosophical issues between ontological materialism and its various alternatives seem fundamentally unresolved, and I feel no personal call to commit myself to conceptions of materialism that are prevalent in contemporary scientific circles. My own views on human nature and what makes for genuine excellence in living are uncommitted to any final underlying metaphysics, and I prefer to keep it that way.

Religion, Individualism, and Community

Third, I worry that secular Buddhism may be too individualistic. Religion serves a variety of functions that help society cohere and function (the word “religion” is derived from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind together”). Religion provides communal rites of passage and communal responses to tragedy that enable communities to celebrate joys and mourn griefs together. I worry that secular Buddhism invites a kind of “nightstand Buddhism” in which practitioners more likely gather online (if even then) than meet in person with teachers and sanghas. This may be an unfair prejudice on my part—I can’t pretend to know what the majority of people who identify as secular Buddhists do, and there is nothing fundamental to secular Buddhism that makes this a necessary feature—but I raise this as a possibility to be considered. Secular practitioners may be prone to seeing themselves primarily as individuals rather than as members of lineages and communities. For individualists, there can be something appealing about owing fealty to no tradition or organized social group.

While we are all responsible for our own opinions, something vital is lost when we lose our personal connection to communal institutions and lineages, however imperfect they may be. The Buddha and Aristotle both emphasized how important participating in a community of friends aspiring to human flourishing is. When Ananda suggested that spiritual friendship constituted half the Buddhist path, the Buddha objected saying it was in fact the entire path. We cannot walk this path by ourselves: we need others to support, inspire, instruct, and guide us when we go astray. If we live geographically far apart from other practitioners, or in a protective bubble due to a pandemic, virtual connection may be all we have, and we must be grateful for it. But let’s not pretend it is the same as participating within an in-person community.

The importance of ritual

Lastly, there are ritual aspects of a religious approach to Buddhism that appeal to me. I like the robes, incense, prostrations, bows, gongs, chimes, chants, altars, and Buddha images intrinsic to a typical Zen service—what one of my teachers calls “the smells and bells.” This is not simply an aesthetic preference, although it is partially that. I think that an intellectualized approach to Buddhism has a certain “thinness” to it, whereas a more religious approach can be “thicker,” engaging not only the intellect, but the senses, emotions, and body, and setting the stage for a deeper multi-level engagement with the quiet sitting that follows. I realize that this kind of religious approach may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  For some—especially those who have had a bad experience with their “birth” religion— it may set off alarm bells and an inner resistance which would defeat its purpose.  It’s a personal choice, but for me, at least, I find it works better than a more intellectualized approach.


I want to be careful, however, not to over-stress the differences between my naturalized eudaimonic Buddhism and secular Buddhism. We are close cousins and maybe even best of friends. It’s simply that the word “secular” implies a set of connotations I feel no call to affirm.  Calling my Buddhism “naturalized” and “eudaimonic” is sufficient.



6 Replies to “Why I am not a secular Buddhist”

rosemary sacken

Thank you Seth, for your talk tonight
as well as for your essay. I find both
very settling, which is interesting to me. Not so different from speaking with you, back when we could
do that so easily . . . perhaps it’s just that it seems to make such good sense, and I don’t need to reach for concepts that are far too much of a stretch. If more comes to me, I’ll write again. Thanks,

Gallia Taranto

HI Seth
and thanks for your article
. It is an ongoing dialogue and you opened it up for discussion last night.
the article points to a clear mind.
It was nice to hear from other participants too since it is all a matter of point of view> Is Buddhism a religion Or not?
For me it is such a deep practice _and I love the fact that you speak of the rituals-It is such a deep practice that i call it my religion with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.


HI Seth
thanks for your talk yesterday and for this article. We started an ongoing discussion/the religious/ secular Buddhism
can go on forever since it is a matter of points of view.
I was glad to hear other sangha members talk last night too.
Gallia Junsei

Miriam O'Donovan

Fealty: a feudal tenant’s or vassal’s sworn loyalty to a lord.

The use of ‘fealty’ is an interesting choice of word above. Secular Buddhism has many expressions but commitment and community are central to most. Arguably most self-described secular Buddhists are in fact seeking an alternative from the somewhat isolating, introspective nature of traditional Buddhism. We are all about communitarian, engaged Buddhism.

Gary Schlosser

I don’t participate in these discussions because they seem too intellectual.
Sure, Seth approaches with an intellectual piece. He raises good questions. Does it really matter that he is secular or religious? I think not.

The question I take away is: What is Secular Buddism and does it matter? My practice contains seeds from all traditions. Frankly, I don’t segregate one from the other. My teachers have taught rituals and methods that are steeped in time and appear as valuable today as 2000 years ago.

Does that mean that Secular Buddhism throws out history? Because history is not modern? Or sustainable, or communal? Or diverse enough?

I was raised in a Christian environment. I long ago rejected it, save great music, basic ethos, and ingrained cultural norms.

So, I ask again. What does it mean to be secular? And why is it valuable?

David Dane

Yes I feel unhappy with the term secular and I have stopped describing myself as a secular Buddhist. Talk about God could have a vast number of different meanings. Probably a person will have a view of God based on culture and experience.I am agnostic with regards the existence of God. In early Buddhism the Buddha did not seem to think such speculations were constructive.. Yet in the Indo Tibetan traditions there are deities present but not like in the Judeo Christian tradition. They are seen as properties to be visualised and help develop the spiritual practice of the practitioners.
I am also interested in Jung and his idea of the collective consciousness. This I feel has congruence with the Yogacara School and the idea of storehouse consciousness. I am also interested in trans personal psychology. So I think the term secular Buddhism lacks a certain broadness. Best wishes David

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