As Buddhism grows in popularity in North America, one aspect that is becoming increasingly important is its potential affinity with secularism. Books like Stephen Batchelor Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (Riverhead Books 1997), Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist (Spiegel & Grau 2011), and Secular Buddhism: imagining dharma in an uncertain world (Yale University Press 2017) shaped the encounter of Western curiosity and skepticism with Asian Buddhist traditions.
Defining Secular Buddhism presents a number of challenges. Each of the terms “secular” and “Buddhism” lends itself to a variety of meanings depending on the context. Secular, for example, is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary mainly in the negative: “adj. not religious, sacred or spiritual. He goes on to give the origin in Christian Latin as meaning “the world“. Batchelor himself notes his own struggle with terms such as ‘spiritual’, ‘religious’, ‘secular’, ‘agnostic’, ‘skeptical’ and others in the preface to Secular Buddhism.
However, not all types of Buddhism that arose in North America fit well with secularism, as many retained a distinctly non-secular quality. Before stripping naked, marrying Martine Fages and settling in Devon, England, Batchelor spent 10 years as a monastic in the Tibetan and Korean Seon (Zen) traditions, which Batchelor calls “Traditional Buddhism”. .
By “traditional Buddhism” I mean any school or doctrinal system that operates within the framework of the soteriological worldview of ancient India. Whether they are of Theravāda or Mahayana orientation, all these forms of Buddhism consider that the ultimate goal of their practice is the attainment of nirvana, that is to say the complete cessation of the envy (tanhā) which animates the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. . . . . Despite their apparent differences, Theravāda, Zen, Shin, Nichiren and Tibetan Buddhism share the same underlying soteriology, that of ancient India described above. (Secular Buddhism)
In contrast to this, “secular Buddhism” refers to a Buddhism that rejects the supernatural, especially in doctrines such as rebirth, or many interpretations of karma, or beliefs in spirits or gods. Other aspects of Buddhism rejected by lay Buddhists include an emphasis on ritual, belief in the power of amulets or relics, and notions of extraordinarily powerful teacher-student relationships. A tension arises here, as traditional Buddhists object that without this one cannot be a “true Buddhist”. Batchelor replies:
Each Buddhist tradition maintains that it alone possesses the “true” interpretation of the Dharma, while all other schools either fall short of this truth or have succumbed to “false views”. Today, from a historical-critical point of view, this kind of claim appears strident and hollow. For we recognize that each historical form of Buddhism depends on the wide range of particular and unique circumstances from which it arose. (Secular Buddhism)
Is it possible for a “true” Buddhist to reject many of the beliefs of earlier Buddhisms? Lay Buddhists think so.
In a survey sent to lay Buddhists, respondents defended their place under the umbrella of “Buddhism”. Jennifer Gentile, an atheist yoga teacher married to a Zen Buddhist priest, describes Secular Buddhism as “a guide to living ethically and morally, becoming more present without causing harm.” When asked about the disadvantages, she replied, “I can’t imagine any disadvantage, other than that some people might not understand what it means and be disrespectful or discriminatory.”
Similarly, Tina Hamilton, Board Member of the Association of Mindfulness Meditation and Secular Buddhism, notes, “Many studies have shown that meditation actually changes the brain in many positive ways. In my personal practice, I find that I am less reactive and able to reflect. I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and found that with meditation I no longer need medication to help me focus (no medication for 10 years now). Other things I see in Secular Buddhism help to increase compassion and equanimity.
Doug Smith, director of study for the Secular Buddhist Association, defines Secular Buddhism as: “Buddhism without speculative supernatural elements”. Asked about the benefits of this approach, he noted that “we get the benefits of Buddhist practice (wisdom, kindness, less stress) without the false or unscientific beliefs.” Gary Donnelly, a doctoral research student at the University of Liverpool in England, notes that secular Buddhism offers a “lack of hokum and regional superstition” and a “more realistic worldview”.
Mark W. Gura, executive director of the Association of Mindfulness Meditation and Secular Buddhism (AMMSB) and vice president of the Atheist Alliance of America, suggests that “Secular Buddhism is based on critical thinking, neuroscience, and the essence of Buddhist meditation and philosophy”. , without its supernatural elements. His beliefs are based only on facts, while any other information is considered opinion or assumption. To this, Gura adds that AMMSB recently became an official affiliate of the great American organization of atheists, which was founded in 1963. This, according to Gura, marks a “historic event for secular Buddhism” because it is the first time that lay Buddhists “have been adopted by another major national atheist group.
Several respondents cited Batchelor’s books and videos as inspiration for their switch to Buddhism, with many coming from atheist or secular backgrounds. Others actively practice with one or more traditional schools of Buddhism (Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada have all been mentioned several times), but do not hold many of the beliefs of these schools. Dr. Carol Creech, community health coordinator for the Health Education Learning Project in Dallas, Texas, said, “I am a former Christian practicing Tibetan Buddhism with a near total lack of literal belief in Tibetan sectarian practices, such as than Dharma protectors. And so “perhaps” a secular Buddhist.
However, Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of West Virginia, says: “Sometimes there is a condescending attitude towards those who have beliefs – I see it in the writings of Stephen Batchelor. I’m afraid this attitude may alienate people from more traditional approaches, or create a bubble of safety so that they never venture into concepts like karma and rebirth, which can be extremely beneficial (even if they don’t are taken only as a temporary “raft” to help someone through difficult waters, but knowing that they will one day be left behind).
Jennifer Hawkins, community director of the Secular Buddhist Association, who describes herself as a 32-year-old African-American, notes that her minority status has helped her establish a deeper dialogue with some traditional Buddhists. His nuanced discussion of Secular Buddhism suggested both hermeneutical and historical defenses of Secular Buddhism. Hermeneutically, she suggests that lay Buddhists struggle to determine whether the passages should be interpreted literally or not: “It is by looking at these suttas and find value – even if the original composer believed in yakshas and one thing turned out to be wrong, does that somehow deny the whole value of a sutta? No.”
Historically, echoing Batchelor, she says, “Buddhism changed as it entered each new land – and so it changes a little as it enters ‘the West’. It is simply the natural process of change and not a lack of respect. Personally, I have a lot of gratitude to Gotama Buddha for sharing what he found and to everyone who passed his ideas (and some of theirs) down through time so they could reach me. Looking really close suttas and the history of Buddhism’s changes does not diminish this respect or gratitude – if anything, it adds to it.
Full disclosure: The author sits on the board of the Association of Mindfulness Meditation and Secular Buddhism and has been interviewed twice for the Secular Buddhist Association podcast.
Batchelor, Stephen. 2017. Secular Buddhism: Imagining Dharma in an Uncertain World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Association of Mindfulness Meditation and Secular Buddhism
Lay Buddhist Association
Stephen Batchelor: Biography (Martine & Stephen Batchelor)
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