Buddhism is changing in the West. I agree with Jay Michaelson in his book 'Evolving Dharma' that we are on the cusp of a major shift in how we view Buddhism and 'contemplative fitness'. In fact I would go further and say we are over the cusp. It has happened. We are in new territory. Secular Buddhist inspired practices are now mainstream.
I started this post because I wanted to explore 'Secular Buddhism' but found that as I wrote it, my position shifted. Rather like the images that flip between two possibilities:
Instead of seeing Buddhism shifting, distorting or getting watered down into something called 'Secular Buddhism' I flipped into the position of seeing Buddhism from a secular viewpoint - where the path of Buddhist practice is seen within a contemporary framework as a natural process of awakening embedded in a context of 'contemplative fitness', physical movement, mindfulness, engaged ethical action, critical thinking and an empirical and sceptical attitude.
The word ‘secular’ has become very widely used and often pejorative. There are regular warnings from a range of senior religious figures and politicians about ‘aggressive’ or ‘militant’ secularism, and how it is destroying faith and the moral backbone of Europe.
So what does secularism mean and why the fuss?
Wikipedia has this definition:
"The term "secularism" was first used by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851. Holyoake invented the term "secularism" to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief... Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life."
The final sentence of this quote already has a resonance with the Buddhist emphasis on direct experience and testing what is of value for oneself in this life - our present experience and life context - rather than blindly following scripture, conventions and what others say – an enquiring, empirical and sceptical attitude found in the Kalama Sutta – a well-known and widely quoted early Buddhist scripture.
Secularism in its popular form has developed a political position which argues that the state should be neutral towards faiths and not privilege any faith above others or over non-religious movements. The opposite of political secularism would be a theocracy – a government run by religious authorities such as that found in Iran and a few other countries.
Most reasonable people, whether of faith or not, want government to be secular – they would not welcome a theocracy and want to limit the power of any one faith over the state. However, some religious figures and some politicians do want to maintain or increase the influence and power of religion (invariably their own). We should not be surprised at this – whatever else they offer, religious institutions offer livelihood and prestige – and livelihood and prestige are things that people fight for. And, of course, there are historical complexities that lead a faith to assume a more dominant role in some countries such as the UK.
Some of the complaints about ‘militant secularism’ arise from religious institutions feeling threatened by legislation that appears to reduce their privileges or makes it illegal to operate policy that discriminates against various groups in society – such as homosexuals and women. But it is also true that in contemporary democracies such as the US and Europe, a growing number of citizens are disenchanted with conventional organised religions and 'religiosity'.
Religiosity is increasingly criticised as being associated with superstition, abuses of power, oppressive and hypocritical behaviour, and highly conservative attitudes. And in return, some religious adherents are labelling criticism of religious privilege and behaviour as 'militant secularism' and attempting to gain special exemptions for the 'religious conscience'.
Buddhism is not immune from anti-religious sentiment, (for example, recent publicity given to violent sectarianism in Burma and other parts of Asia).
Some of these concerns and cultural attitudes have contributed to Secular Buddhism - an evolving effort to outline and practise a non-denominational contemporary path that restructures traditional Buddhist frameworks into a Westernised vernacular. This secularising process started around a century ago when Buddhism was already being characterised as a rational and scientific philosophy, rather than a religion requiring belief.
Secular Buddhism is evolving and may simply stay as a general term to label the range of modern forms that Buddhist practice is taking. However, some might see it as moving towards a new orthodoxy and eventually defining a distinct contemporary Buddhist form alongside traditional forms.
Some of the ingredients in the Secular Buddhism mix are:
- A sceptical, humanistic, naturalistic and evidence based approach emphasising personal experience and responsibility rather than unquestioned beliefs and supernaturalism
- A discomfort with traditional religiosity with its emphasis on exclusive faith identity, unaccountable (and usually male) clerical power hierarchies, and pre-modern attitudes to gender, sexuality and the material sciences
- A discomfort with the Buddhist 'guru' model or any teaching model that elevates some supposedly 'enlightened' individuals and cloaks them with a magical aura that renders them beyond criticism. This encourages power abuses that corrupt both the teacher and the student.
- A focus in and of this world, i.e. secular, as in 'these times; in this particular context' that treats Western and modern culture as embodying many valuable aspects and insights including those arising from science, evolution, philosophy, psychology, democracy, liberal values, the arts, and its own religious traditions, and seeks to relate, reconcile and integrate these where there is synergy, with a balanced contemplative practice and engaged lifestyle
- A tendency to place a high value on early Buddhist teachings in the Pali Canon. These focus on the path to awakening (including mindfulness) and are presented in psychological and sceptical terms more in keeping with modern attitudes. They also present the historical Buddha in human terms rather than as the god-like being that is described in later Mahayana texts.
- A wish to emphasise the universality of the truths Buddhism (and other contemplative traditions) point to; truths that are potentially available to all who follow certain meditative, ethical and behavioural disciplines.
- Sympathy with secular mindfulness and related training and practice systems that aim to avoid stress, awaken participants to lead a good engaged life, and that provide evidence to support their efficacy.
- A comfort with multi-lineage or eclectic attitudes to practice
- Secular Buddhism also reflects growing confidence in a contemporary Westernised contemplative practice rooted in a human potential for awakening and for which Buddhism provides a highly valued framework.
As mentioned at the start of this post, the truth is that a popular movement for contemplative and awakening practices is already well-embedded in the West. It exists in a constellation of practices such as Yoga, Chi Gong, Tai Chi, meditation, mindfulness, forms of psychotherapy, insight and vipassana, acceptance and commitment therapy, mystical and reflective practices from other faiths, insight dialogue, and a host of related disciplines, courses, qualifications and teachings. These are increasingly being offered in an entirely secular context and validated by scientific evidence.
The rapidly evolving and increasingly complex array of approaches makes it hard to see whether Secular Buddhism might lead to a new Buddhist form, or whether it will remain as an umbrella term for contemporary Buddhist related practices. I suspect the latter. The age of distinct and relatively stable religious forms is fast declining and we are headed down the road to a deconstructed secular 'contemplative fitness' culture.
Even in a traditional Buddhist context, secularised practices are being widely offered and promoted by Buddhist institutions from Tibetan, Theravada, Zen and related backgrounds. Just have a look at what is being offered now at your local Buddhist temple, monastery, vihara or retreat centre...and their growing websites and digital media offerings.
For many traditional Buddhist lineages this has probably become a matter of survival: those who embrace secular attitudes and practices - mindfulness, yoga and related contemplative offerings and the internet - are likely to flourish; those who stick to a conservative and/or dogmatic religious orthodoxy will probably serve a dwindling minority.