From “Buddhist Secularity” to “Secular Buddhism”

From “Buddhist Secularity” to “Secular Buddhism” March 2, 2017


(The following is part two of a post from yesterday on “What Comes After Buddhism?” inspired by Stephen Batchelor’s latest book After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age.)

In the theologically conservative congregation of childhood, I was taught that we should seek to restore the norms of the early church to today’s world. In that paradigm, the Bible was seen as the highest authority, and we were taught to reform the world to be in line with so-called “biblical norms.” In seminary, I learned a more balanced approach: that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other hand. Today, as a Unitarian Universalist, my bias is more in the opposite direction of my childhood congregation: that the wisdom of the world’s religions should be critically interpreted through reason, science, and experience. This perspective may seem basic to many people in the twenty-first century, but if an orthodox community has formed you, it can be incredibly liberating to affirm that reason, science, and experience are equal to (or more important than) religious hierarchy, community, and tradition.

Along those lines, Batchelor writes:

Just as the term “Tibetan Buddhism” describes the kind of dharma that evolved in Tibet, so, in its broadest sense, would “Secular Buddhism” describe the kind of dharma that is evolving in this secular age. And although many modern Asians are Buddhists who find themselves becoming secularized, I am a secular European finding out what it means to become a Buddhist. We might meet each other on the road, but we are heading in opposite directions. Just as their Buddhism is being challenged by secularity, so my secularity is being challenged by Buddhism. My concern, therefore, is as much about imagining a Buddhist secularity as about imagining a secular Buddhism. We have seen what can happen to Buddhism when it becomes secularized [what is sometimes called “McMindfulness”], but what would happen to a secular perspective inflected by the principles and values of the dharma.? (19-20)

As someone who escaped the dogmas of Christian orthodoxy (but who is still shaped by Jesus’s teaching and ethics in many positive ways that I am grateful for), I have found myself wary of Buddhist orthodoxy and dogma even as I have been increasingly drawn to Buddhist wisdom, ethics, and practice.

Having spent many years embroiled in research and debate regarding various theologies about what the claims around Jesus’ death and resurrection mean, I came to find that such theological debates were at most a side issue for the historical Jesus. Similarly, when I first started exploring the Buddhist tradition in college, I at first had a lot of concerns that in order to fully engage with Buddhism, I had to start believing in metaphysical doctrines such as reincarnation and karma. Over time, I have also come to find that those debates were also not central for Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha (294-296). Just as Jesus of Nazareth cared less about theological debates and more about justice, mercy, and building a beloved community, so too Siddhartha Gautama cared less about metaphysics and more about “embracing the suffering of the world, letting go of reactivity, and experiencing that still, clear center from which we respond to the world in ways no longer determined by self-interest alone” (305-306).

Allow me to be clear that my point is not to dissuade you from exploring the debates around atonement and resurrection or reincarnation and karma if they are compelling to you. Rather, I’m inviting you to consider that these metaphysical and theological debates are optional, not central, to the earliest layers of the Buddhist and Christian traditions, especially from the perspective of Siddhartha and Jesus, who—as we UUs sometimes say—cared more about “deeds than creeds.”

Relatedly, consider the following insight from Batchelor: the core teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, “no longer tied to the religious dogmas and institutions of Asian Buddhism….might help encourage the dawning of a culture of awakening, which may or may not call itself ‘Buddhist.’” I’ve been reflecting on this perspective a lot recently since the practice community that I have been a part of the last few years has recently shifted its name from “Buddhist Geeks” to “” Buddhist Geeks lasted from 2006 to 2016, and included a popular podcast that was downloaded more than 10 million times. A central question for Buddhist Geeks was “How can we serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture?” I benefited a lot from being part of exploring that question. But similar to Stephen Batchelor’s perspective in After Buddhism, the creators of Buddhist Geeks chose to drop the name “Buddhist” for their new incarnation of While still influenced by and interested in the Buddhist tradition, the focus is less theoretical and more pragmatic: how to meditate and teach meditation in our twenty-first century world.

Now, there’s a lot more to say about all of that, and certainly there are many other significant ways—both contemporary and ancient—of exploring the Buddhist tradition in today’s world. But I wanted to share a little of how my own practice and perspective is evolving. A related part of what I’ve learned about myself is that it is easier for me to read a book about Buddhism or talk about Buddhism than it is to practice Buddhism. (That dynamic is something called seeking “salvation by bibliography.”) And although I have benefited immensely from studying the Buddhist tradition—and it has helped me avoid some of the pitfalls meditators can encounter—I am seeking a balance these days between secondhand study or talk about Buddhism and cultivating firsthand meditation experiences. 

The free smartphone app I have found most helpful to supplement my meditation practice is Insight Timer. A related app called Buddhify is also helpful if you are interested in integrating meditation throughout your day.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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