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Secular Buddhism—sometimes also referred to as agnostic Buddhism, Buddhist agnosticism, ignostic Buddhism, atheistic Buddhism, pragmatic Buddhism, Buddhist atheism, or Buddhist secularism—is a broad term for a form of Buddhism based on humanist, skeptical, and agnostic values, valuing pragmatism and (often) naturalism, eschewing beliefs in the supernatural or paranormal.
Secular Buddhists interpret the teachings of the Buddha and the Buddhist texts in a rationalist and often evidentialist manner, considering the historical and cultural contexts of the times in which the Buddha lived and in which the various suttas, sutras and tantras were written.
The secular Buddhist framework strips Buddhist doctrine of various traditional beliefs that could be considered superstitious, or that cannot be tested through empirical research, such as: supernatural beings (such as devas, bodhisattvas, nāgas, pretas, Buddhas, etc.), merit and its transference, rebirth, and karma, Buddhist cosmology (including the existence of pure lands and hells), etc.
Traditional Buddhist ethical views regarding social issues such as abortion and human sexuality may or may not be called into question as well, with some schools, especially Western Buddhist ones, taking alternative stances.
Secular Buddhism has its roots in Buddhist modernism and secular humanism, and is part of the broad trend of secularization that has been ongoing in the West since the recovery of classical Greek culture in the Renaissance. Many aspects of secular Buddhism are associated with the abandonment of hierarchical features of Buddhist monastic culture among some lay Buddhist practice communities in the West during the last decades of the 20th century in favor of democratic principles of civic association and the inclusion of women, disrupting traditional structures of patriarchal authority and gender exclusivity.
The Insight Meditation movement in the United States was founded on modernist secular values. Jack Kornfield, an American teacher and former Theravadin monk, stated that the Insight Meditation Society wanted to present Buddhist meditation "without the complications of rituals, robes, chanting and the whole religious tradition." S. N. Goenka, a popular teacher of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, taught that his practice was not a sectarian doctrine, but “something from which people of every background can benefit: an art of living.” This essentially treats Buddhism as an applied philosophy, rather than a religion, or relies on Buddhist philosophy without dogmatism.
Stephen Batchelor is a self-proclaimed secular Buddhist who promotes a strictly secular form of Buddhism. Batchelor was a Buddhist monk ordained in the more traditional forms of Buddhism. From his experience as a monk practicing Tibetan Buddhism and later Zen, he felt the need for a more secular and agnostic approach. In his books Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist he articulates his approach to the Buddha's teaching, describes Siddhārtha Gautama as a historic person rather than an idealized religious icon, and scrutinizes typical Buddhist doctrines dealing with the concept of an afterlife.
Key concepts and practices
Unlike the various kinds of Buddhist modernism, which tend to be modifications of traditional schools of Buddhist thought and practice in the light of the discourses of modernity, secular Buddhism is founded on a reconfiguration of core elements of the dharma itself. To this end it seeks to recover the original teachings of Siddhattha Guatama, the historical Buddha, yet without claiming to disclose "what the Buddha really meant". Rather, it interprets the early canonical teachings in a way that draws out their meaning in the Buddha's own historical context (the culture of the Gangetic plains in the fifth century BCE) while demonstrating their value and relevance to people living in our own time. Both aspects of this interpretation are literally "secular" in that they evoke the Latin root word saeculum – a particular age or generation. The ethos of the movement is perhaps best captured in Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.
Secular Buddhism proposes that we leave behind the metaphysical beliefs and soteriology of Indian religious culture. This culture saw human life as an irredeemable realm of suffering, from which one should seek transcendence in an enduring beyond-human condition – a stance that virtually all Buddhist schools, as well as Hinduism and Jainism, perpetuate. Secular Buddhism, on the other hand, seeks to impart the Buddha's teaching as a guide to full human flourishing in this life and this world. In adopting a post-metaphysical philosophy, it parts company with existing religious forms of Buddhist orthodoxy, which have evolved since the Buddha's death. Instead, it aligns itself with today's post-metaphysical philosophy, not least phenomenology, so finding itself on a convergent path with similar movements in radical Christian theology, as exemplified by the work of thinkers such as Don Cupitt and Gianni Vattimo.
Secular Buddhism rejects power structures legitimated by the metaphysics of orthodox Buddhist belief. It questions notions of spiritual progress based on standardized prescriptions for meditation practice, as well as the idea that Buddhist practice is essentially concerned with gaining proficiency in a set of meditative techniques endorsed by the authority of a traditional school or teacher. Instead, secular Buddhism emphasizes a praxis that encourages autonomy and encompasses equally every aspect of one's humanity, as modeled by the noble eight-fold path (right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration). Such an approach is open to generating a wide range of responses to specific individual and communal needs, rather than insisting on there being "one true way" to "enlightenment" valid for all times and places.
- Buddhism in the Americas
- Buddhism in the West
- Buddhist modernism
- Buddhist paths to liberation
- Criticism of Buddhism#Arguments of secular origin
- Index of Buddhism-related articles
- Religious views on truth
- Schools of Buddhism
- Secular spirituality
- Shambhala Buddhism
- Similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism
- Spiritual but not religious
- Spiritual naturalism
- Batchelor, Stephen (2015), After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, Yale University Press, ISBN 030020518X
- Batchelor, Stephen (1998), Buddhism without Beliefs, Riverhead Books, ISBN 1-57322-656-4
- Ward, Tim (1995), What the Buddha Never Taught, Celestial Arts, ISBN 0-89087-687-8
- Harris, Sam (2014), Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1451636017
- Wright, Robert (2017), Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 9781439195468
Notes and references
- Vernon, Mark (10 March 2010). "The new Buddhist atheism". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 22 July 2019.
- Fronsdal, Gil (2014). "Natural Buddhism". Insight Journal. Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.
- Higgins, Winton (2012), "The Coming of Secular Buddhism: A Synoptic View", Journal of Global Buddhism, 13: 110-113.
- Fronsdal, Gil (1998), "Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness", in Prebish, C.S.; Tanaka, K.K. (eds.), The Faces of Buddhism in America, University of California Press
- Braun, Erik (October 1, 2013). "S. N. Goenka, Pioneer of Secular Meditation Movement, Dies at 90". Tricycle:The Buddhist Review. Retrieved August 12, 2019.
- "Buddhism Without Beliefs". Publishers Weekly. March 31, 1997. Retrieved August 12, 2019.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (1998). "Buddhism without Beliefs: Review" (PDF). Journal of Buddhist Ethics 5:14-21.
- Batchelor, Stephen (2012), "A Secular Buddhism", Journal of Global Buddhism, 13: 87–107
- Batchelor, Stephen (2010), Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, New York: Spiegel & Grau, ISBN 0-385-52706-3
- Cupitt, Don (1997), After God, New York: Basic Books, ISBN 978-0465045143
- Vattimo, Gianni (2002), After Christianity, New York: Columbia University Press, ISBN 978-0231106283
- Contestabile, Bruno (25 February 2018). "Secular Buddhism and Justice". Contemporary Buddhism. 19 (2): 237–250. doi:10.1080/14639947.2018.1442144.
- Magid, Barry (2008), Ending the pursuit of happiness: a Zen guide, Boston: Wisdom Publications, ISBN 978-0861715534
- Siff, Jason (2010), Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get In the Way, Shambhala Publications, ISBN 978-1590307526
- Secular Buddhism (Australia)
- Secular Buddhism (Canada)
- German language Secular Buddhist website
- Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand
- Spanish language Secular Buddhist website
- Secular Buddhist Association (USA)
- Secular Buddhism Website (USA)
- Nichiren Secular
- Secular Lotus Buddhism
- Secular Buddhism in Tricycle's Buddhism for Beginners series