Can Someone Be a Secular Buddhist? 

person doing secular dharma meditation

A woman sits in meditation. | Rafael Metz / Alamy Stock Photo

Yes, you can be a Buddhist without adopting religious beliefs! Buddhism may be considered a religion, a way of life, a philosophy or a science of the mind—depending on whom you’re talking to. Whatever your perspective, it’s important to know that following the Buddhist path doesn’t require any sort of theistic belief or faith in metaphysical doctrines. 

The growing secular dharma movement is a contemporary perspective that aims to reinterpret the Buddha’s teachings in the context of the global, modern world. Rather than focusing on the goal of enlightenment and transcending the cycle of rebirth (samsara), secular Buddhists are more concerned with ethical conduct, freedom from suffering and achieving human flourishing and collective well-being in the present. Teachings such as the four noble truths, for example, are taken as a wise recommendation for how to release reactivity and act skillfully in the world, rather than inviolable truth. 

Learn more about the secular dharma movement—and its practices, ethics and perspectives on traditional Buddhist teachings—in the cards below. 

Discover Level 2, Deck 7: 

What is secular dharma? This contemporary tradition looks at the teachings of the historical Buddha in the context of modern life in today’s world. 

Why “secular”? Isn’t Buddhism a religion? Those who engage with secular dharma are not required to adopt metaphysical beliefs or become involved in traditionally religious activities such as chanting or praying. 

What do secular dharma practitioners believe? The two main secular dharma groups have beliefs that align with scientific atheism and Western philosophies of phenomenology, existentialism, and hermeneutics. 

What’s the role of meditation in secular dharma? Secular meditation is primarily about stillness and self-observation.

What are secular dharma’s ethics? Secular Buddhists do not take the Buddha’s word as absolute and have found several ways of meeting the challenge of establishing guidelines for ethical conduct. 

Is secular dharma the same as mindfulness? While mindfulness is a secularized form of Buddhist practice, secular dharma is a movement that goes beyond meditation practice. 

What does secular dharma teach about enlightenment? Secular dharma tends to promote the goal of human flourishing rather than the traditional aim of reaching enlightenment or nirvana. 

Do secular dharma communities have spiritual leaders? Secular dharma places value on the teachings over the teacher, emphasizing self-reliance and community engagement rather than following a guru. 


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