Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Secular Buddhism - does a label help or hinder?

The emergence of Secular Buddhism as an identifiable movement is very new. The movement itself has been growing for some time - as Stephen Batchelor said to me a couple of weeks ago - 'it's an idea whose time has come'. That rings true with my experience both in the sangha (meditation group) that I help run and with my experience more generally. However it is only in the last couple of years that we've started to see web sites dedicated to 'secularising' Buddhism, it's only in the last year that the first Secular Buddhist Association has appeared (see and indeed it's only in the last few days that a substantial entry has appeared in Wikipedia under 'Secular Buddhism' courtesy of Stephen B and Winton Higgins.

It's very exciting to be involved in bringing to life something that has so much potential and so much apparent support out there. As with everything though, there are upsides and downsides. As I see it, the upsides are many. These are not just the legitimizing of a wider array of experiences as elements of serious dharma practice, but importantly, they include the accessing of the invaluable insights taught by Siddhattha Gotama, by a much wider audience who are unlikely to benefit from it otherwise. In addition, it helps bring together people with similar values and orientations and it also helps us formulate a conversation about the forces that have brought us together, what they mean, and what we do and don't want them to produce.

The potential downsides also need to be considered as we coagulate and label this 'movement' so that its impact is beneficial and not harmful.  I thought it would be a good first post on the SBA blog to invite discussion on it. My hope is that this will help us move forward mindfully in a way that mitigates the potential downsides.

There are two obvious downsides that occur to me. The first is the ever-present tendency of human beings to co-opt things into our identities. Siddhattha spoke of the creation and desperate clinging to a fixed identity or self concept as a key source of our suffering and angst. It would be both ironic and unhelpful if we began clinging desperately to the idea of our 'selves' as being 'secular Buddhists', adopting the views coming from our own camp simply because it's 'our camp', rejecting helpful practices or ideas from other camps because they're not from our camp, or reacting badly to criticisms or challenges to the movement.

One of the most common requests fielded by Ted Meissner who runs the US site, is that Secular Buddhism finds funding for the establishment of its own premises. To me, this is one of the key ways to entrench identity - get yourself an address, a hierarchy, an institution. Siddhattha led a peripatetic life and was sedentary only during the rainy season for obvious reasons. Both my intuition and my experience in the corporate world tell me that getting ourselves a geographical home is a very slippery slope to entrenchment in fixed identity - we need to be very mindful to stay attuned to this.

Related to this is the second obvious potential downside which is that it could create a bit of an 'us and them' mentality with other Buddhist traditions. Psychology has a label for this phenomenon (see, labels can be useful): Social Identity Theory. This is a common pattern where human beings define who is in and who is out according to some criterion (and there are many....which football team you barrack for, which political party you vote for, gender, race, education, how you dress, wealth, age, dialect or accent - the list is endless). Once we know the bounds of the in group we then over-emphasize the differences we have with the out-group, we over-emphasize the similarities we have with the in-group, and voila!...we have divisiveness.

So what should we do to try and avoid these common pitfalls? Three ideas come to mind. First, be very clear on our goals. Ted Meissner and his colleagues have done a great job of clarifying these for the Secular Buddhist Association in the US and we'll be reviewing these as the basis for a similar statement for the Australian chapter.

Secondly, we can cultivate a vigilance of our intentions and keep them firmly planted on these goals. We can do this by questioning ourselves and others as we orient our way through the emergence of the movement. Importantly, those of us who are involved in expanding the presence of secular Buddhism can structure checks and balances into our processes to make sure we are living the values we aspire to.

Thirdly, we can include prominently in our intentions, friendliness to all beings including all those who have adopted or been born into religious Buddhism. While this sounds obvious it's likely to be tested because some of these people will find secular Buddhism they may not behave in very Buddha-like ways when we cross paths.

What do you think? Are there other potential pitfalls? Do you have other ideas for making sure we don't fall in to them?


  1. I am delighted to see this site up and running.  A lot has happened since Martine and I met Lenore at the Golden Wattle sangha three weeks ago in Sydney: the public debate with Bhante Sujato in Redfern, followed by the study retreat at Sine Cera (during which Winton and I worked on the Wikipedia entry) and now the secular Buddhist retreat at the same location.  Two nights ago I gave a talk here entitled "What is Secular Buddhism?" as another attempt to articulate what we mean by this still unformed idea, and I plan to follow this up with two more talks to flesh out the idea further still.  Perhaps these three talks could be used as an introduction to the notion of Secular Buddhism, particularly for those new to the dharma and interested in exploring this approach.  The talks have been recorded and will be available online as downloads shortly.

    As for the pitfalls of any new movement, one of the key ones is the overidentification with the concept or label, which risks heightening an "us and them" mentality, thus reinforcing - as Lenore points out in her blog - the very individualism and separation Buddhism seeks to overcome.  The Wikipedia entry addresses this point when it says:

    "Secular Buddhism emphasises a praxis that encourages autonomy and encompasses equally every aspect of one's humanity, as modelled by the noble eightfold path.  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." 

    For me, this means that such a secular approach to the dharma celebrates plurality and difference rather than overtly or covertly seeking to suppress them in the name of the need to toe a party line.

    At the same time, if an endorsement of plurality extends too far, then it risks compromising the sense of participating in a specific community that focuses and embodies the values one holds dear.  

    Here, in this tension between the openness of pluralism and the need for communal cohesion, lies one of the key challenges in defining what a secular Buddhist practice is about.

  2. Thanks Stephen. Yes, so this willingness to be with the tension is important, to accept that we will always need to be moving, responding, opening, questioning ourselves, not sitting down comfortably in one spot. This is relevant to the first of the Four Important Things - the willingness to be with the unpleasant. (Instead of noble truths I've taken to thinking of them in this way - hard to argue that they are not important....and they are definitely...'things'...broadly speaking).

    Even as I wrote about the downside of getting entrenched I felt the feeling tone (vedana) of attraction toward the idea of having a home, an identity, somewhere to set up camp, to be embedded in something solid and reliable. (Fortunately I've got a little alarm wired to that one these turns on a bright light and prompts me to look at it closely.) What fabulous practice this will be!

  3. Congratulations on getting the website up and running. I wouldn't worry too much about the issue of identifying too much with a label; some people will and others won’t. I generally call myself a Labor voter, for example, but I’ve been known to vote for The Greens. Perhaps just being open to hearing different views guards against such a problem and every organisation should have a mission statement that clarifies its aims. It’s a bit unclear what Secular Buddhism is going to look like in Australia in a practical sense. Are people going to go to other groups and then assemble as Secular Buddhists online? Is there going to be a specific venue (e.g. a hall that has been hired out) that people go along to to hear a dharma talk and undertake a guided meditation? Who is going to give such talks? Is there going to be memberships etc? Also, be prepared for there to be mistakes along the way. That’s okay.

  4. Hi DT. Yes, it is unclear what SB will look like. My sense is that it will emerge dependent on how many people have the energy to do something and what that is. From my experience, the face to face groups are an incredibly important part of practice but whether and to what extent that starts to happen will depend on how much people want to make it happen.

    The way it worked with Beaches Sangha (the one that I founded) is that it simply took someone (in this case me) to offer to organise it. I scouted around for cheap venues and found one owned by our local council, then put the word out with existing groups (e.g. I put up a web site ( and invited some existing Buddhist teachers with a secular orientation to come and give talks. When we don't have a teacher we either listen to a podcast and discuss it (there are plenty of those on the net), I sometimes give a talk or another experienced practitioner does. The first year we had 3-4 people regularly, sometimes more. Each year it's grown and we are now beginning the 4th year of its existence and we have around 10 or so people regularly, sometimes more. This is a nice size.

    This year the sangha members are getting more invovled - we are focusing on the 8-fold path and people are offering to research and present on one of the folds with an emphasis on practical application. I plan to include some resources on this web site for people who have the energy and intiative to start this kind of thing.

  5. Thanks for the considered response. I'd be happy to get involved on some level, if possible.

  6. Personally, I think Atheist would have been better than Secular but seeing as much of the work appears to have been done in terms of brand recognition, it feels that Secular is here to stay.

    Given that, I think that it is very important for Secular modifier to be in place. Most other Buddhists do differentiate between themselves as it is a very useful shorthand to declare one's position. Theravadian, Zen, Tibetan (and its various sub-modifiers), Pure Land Mahayana, Shin Mahayana, Triratna, etc. There's a strong tradition of modifying one's Buddhism and being proud of it (in so far as Buddhists can be proud).

    And one must be mindful that amongst the non-religious Buddhists, sub-modifiers will no doubt appear even if they have not fully formed yet: Goenkaites, ACTists, Mindfulnistas, non-Buddhists, etc.

    As far as the risk of fostering an "us versus them" attitude, it's useful to see how the religious Buddhists get around this problem. From the outside, it looks like in conversation they just focus on the commonalities between their traditions. Personally, I think this is the most skillful approach. I am NOT interested in "converting" religious buddhists or proving that I am "right". And in the areas where Secular and Religious Buddhists overlap, their traditions have so much to offer, I am more than happy to learn (or cherry pick if you will).

    I have found that robust discussions are more fruitful with other non-religious buddhists as they tend to be tussling with similar issues and there's more common ground to start from.

    Anyway, its good to have an umbrella to shelter under in Australia!

    With metta, as always.