The Concept of Secular Buddhism

Many Buddhists are quite prepared to say that Buddhism is ‘not a religion’, because it includes no conception of a ‘Creator’, but, in contrast, do that Buddhism provides access to ‘transcendental’ dimensions of reality. So the concept of ‘Secular Buddhism’ poses a particularly interesting challenge in thinking about (let us say) ‘engaged’ Buddhism. In particular, can ‘the transcendental’ be distinguished clearly from ‘the mystical’ and ‘the supernatural’ in such a way that it can be included in ‘the secular’? Or does ‘secular’ Buddhism necessarily exclude ‘the transcendental’, interpreting ‘Enlightenment’ and the ‘Vision’ inspiring the Eight-fold Path (for example) as ideas that provide us with a direction for our efforts without assuming that in their ideal form they can actually be achieved?

Stephen Batchelor’s book Buddhism Without Beliefs provides us with a powerful clarification here, emphasising that the Buddha is proposing a series of practices and a way of life founded essentially on the acceptance of a radical un-certainty concerning the reality we experience. He also emphasises that the form of Buddhist ‘awakening’ entails an opposition to the political and economic structures of contemporary society (p.112).

My interpretation of ‘secular Buddhism’ involves a development of two ideas from Stephen’s book. Firstly, concerning ‘mysticism’. Many writers intending to evoke the radicalism of the Buddha’s thinking make statements concerning, for example, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Unconditioned Being’ or ‘Buddha Mind’ which seem (perhaps accidentally) to make a claim to know and to describe precisely states of being which in principle (and even according to the Buddha’s own comments) cannot be known or described precisely. In contrast I find it helpful to focus on the mysterious but (by now) quite intelligible processes of ‘the unconscious’, and how, through meditation practices, we can increase our access to that region of our mental and emotional being. And, at the same time, we can accept the reality of forms of sensitivity and receptivity (e.g. ‘telepathy’) that are currently only describable anecdotally but which we could conceivably come to understand more precisely and systematically. In this sense, then, ‘the transcendental’ may be included within a ‘secular Buddhism’ as meaning, forms of awareness that ‘transcend’ our current ‘normal’ experience. Both lines of thought may be helpful in rescuing the radicalism of the Buddhist ‘vision’ from some of its ‘mystical’ tendencies.

Secondly, concerning political engagement. The concept of a secular Buddhism seems to embody my particular interest in combining the teachings of the Dharma specifically with analysing and contesting the political dimensions of ‘delusion’. The delusions fostered by our spontaneous ego-based experience of the world and our selves are continually magnified by a culture that systematically attempts to distort our understanding of ‘reality’ for commercial purposes, converting all phenomena into ‘commodities’ whose value is determined by market forces rather than human needs and values. From this point of view, the Dharma has, for me, the very direct secular purpose: of providing a practical method for supporting our efforts as citizens to create a space in which we can ‘liberate’ ourselves from the malign efforts of capitalism as well as from the Dharmic ‘poisons’ of greed, aversion and ignorance. (‘Just as the ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, this Dharama and Discipline has one taste, the taste of liberation’, The Udana, Trans. John Ireland, p. 74.)

(Blog posted on the 'Secular Buddhism UK' website, June 16th 2012)