by Winton Higgins
I found Seth Zuihō Segall’s recent post on this website, wherein he distances himself from secular Buddhism, quite intriguing. In engaging with it, I must first make clear that secular Buddhism has no orthodoxy and already contains quite divergent strands. In particular, it contains a scientistic strand (which Seth takes to stand for secular Buddhism as such) and a contrasting interpretive strand which this network represents and to which I myself cleave. I go into this contrast (along with much else) in my forthcoming book Refit: selected writings on secular Buddhism (Tuwhiri).
As Seth himself writes, he sympathises with a number of important themes in secular Buddhism, ones which draw fire from ancestral Buddhism. These themes include the sense of awakening (or ‘enlightenment’) as a life-long process with no terminus; a rejection of renunciation in favour of full human flourishing as the aspiration driving spiritual practice; the addition of new values to be cultivated in response to the contingencies of our times; the importance of creativity and life-enhancing relationships; and the affirmation of our embodiment as the basis of our being, in meditation as in life.
What’s not to like? Well, for Seth it turns out to be the characteristics of scientistic secular Buddhism: its partisanship in a supposed conflict between secularity and religion, and its tethering our sensibility to a scientistic mind-set that projects ‘a disenchanted clockwork universe devoid of intrinsic value or meaning’ – a mind-set that blinds us to the sublime and forecloses on numinous experience. (He could quickly disabuse himself of this idea by reading Stephen Batchelor’s chapter on the everyday sublime in his landmark 2015 After Buddhism.) It may be that Seth is tilting at a straw person here. But if not, he can take comfort from the fact that interpretive secular Buddhists recoil from the self-same unlovely scientism.
The notion of secularity
The problem is that Seth has bought into the truncated notion of secularity that he rejects, and thus cuts himself off from a richer and truer sense of what secularity entails. As against that, Charles Taylor has demonstrated at great length in his A secular age (2007) that secularity is in fact the achievement of seven centuries of developments in western religious culture, and is to be gladly embraced by Catholics like himself, among other religionists. It has always involved rejecting superstition, certainly, but also mandates an orientation to this life, this time, and this world – that which is saecularis in St Augustine’s language.
In his This life: secular faith and spiritual freedom (2019), Martin Hägglund has drawn out the implications of a secular spirituality. It has nothing to do with religious versus secular beliefs, but rather a wholehearted commitment and fidelity to what matters in this life – what he calls ‘secular faith’. Among his prime examples of those who’ve embodied secular faith are conspicuous contributors to the Christian tradition – St Augustine, Martin Luther, and CS Lewis.
So whatever happened to the eternal struggle between religion and secularity? It seems to be proceeding only in the minds of narrow thinkers. Let me give a personal example of what can happen when we don’t buy into it. Last year a Catholic academy invited me (a secular Buddhist) to co-teach (with its director, a Catholic priest) a course on Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the climate emergency, Laudato Si’: on caring for our common home.
I can’t praise this text too highly. You won’t find a more compelling manifesto of secular faith free of the usual trivialisations and technocratic pseudo-solutions that pepper official pronouncements in this area. It yokes the Catholic tradition, cutting-edge climate science, and secular inquiry, to a passionate commitment to radical change in the way we live. And in the way we need to act as citizens in order to overcome the twin crises of human environmental destructiveness and today’s ballooning social inequities at every level of human interaction, from the global to the local.
No doubt light years separate the ultimate beliefs of the committed Catholic participants in the course and my own, but neither gained airtime in what turned out to be a sustained and intense conversation about the common cause of the two crises in question, and how to discharge our spiritual, ethical and civic responsibilities in this world at this time. We all met in the service of care – the meta-ethic of the dharma, and the leitmotif of Francis’s encyclical.
Ironically, Seth’s misconceived defence of soulful religion against clockwork-orange secularism undercuts such meetings of minds and condemns religion (including conventional Buddhism) to irrelevance in a world crying out for help. For him the inner world and the outer world remain separate spheres – the one sacred, the other profane. He waxes lyrical about interfaith dialogue in which the nature of the soul and so on are discussed at length in theological terms. So here we’re in the realm of institutional religiosity and its ancient doctrines which deal in timeless conjectures, to the exclusion of today’s exigencies. The only contribution it can make to the latter is social conservatism.
The role of the sangha in secular Buddhism
Still on this institutional-religious tack, Seth sets up a caricature of secular Buddhism when he ‘worries’ that it may be ‘too individualistic…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 [spiritual communities]…Secular practitioners may be prone to seeing themselves primarily as individuals rather than as members of lineages and communities.’ He suspects that, if and when secular Buddhists do actually meet, they do so in the absence of robes and ritual. Whereas he himself ‘likes 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.”’
In fact, sangha-building and sangha life occupy a privileged place in secular-Buddhist discourse and practice. The latter fully honour spiritual community as one of the three central dharmic refuges. But we seek to practise it in ethically and culturally appropriate forms that enshrine our western values of inclusiveness and egalitarianism. These commitments rule out ancestral Buddhist organisational forms that typically build on lineage (top-down charismatic authority), hierarchy, patriarchy, the lay/monastic dichotomy, dogma, and formulaic approaches to practice. So yes, I do have to concede that secular sangha life – however welcoming and stimulating it may be – sadly tends to fall short on the accoutrements on Seth’s wish list.
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‘Secular Buddhism’ stands for a contribution to the process whereby the dharma puts down roots in the west. Over the last 2,500 years it has taken root in new host cultures in this way many times. Each time its practitioners have faced the challenge of expressing it in a new language and in relation to new cultural reference points and folkways. Secularity has exercised a rising influence on western culture for centuries, and science (not to be confused with the subculture of scientism) has gained in authority during the latter part of this process. Both exhibit elective affinities with the dharma. They welcome and embellish it. As dharma practitioners we should gratefully receive these gifts and learn how to deploy them as we act out our care for a world in dire straits.