I am a secular Buddhist. It has taken me years to fully “come out,” and I still feel a nagging tug of insecurity, a faint aura of betrayal in declaring myself in these terms. My practice as a secular Buddhist is concerned with responding as sincerely and urgently as possible to the suffering of life in our saeculum—this world, this age in which we find ourselves now and future generations will find themselves later. I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be not the attainment of a final nirvana but rather the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the Eightfold Path here on earth. Given what is known about the biological evolution of human beings, the emergence of self-awareness and language, the sublime complexity of the brain, and the embeddedness of such creatures in the fragile biosphere that envelops this planet, I cannot understand how after physical death there can be continuity of any personal consciousness or self, propelled by the unrelenting force of acts (karma) committed in this or previous lives. For many—perhaps most—of my coreligionists, this admission might lead them to ask: “Why, then, if you don’t believe such things, do you still call yourself a ‘Buddhist’?”
I was neither born a Buddhist nor raised in a Buddhist culture. I grew up in a broadly humanist environment, did not attend church, and was exempted from scripture classes, as they were then called, at grammar school in Watford. At the age of 18 I left England and traveled to India, where I settled in the Tibetan community around the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. I became a Buddhist monk at the age of 21 and for ten years underwent a formal monastic education in Buddhist doctrine, philosophy, and meditation. Even in the wake of the 1960s this was considered a highly unconventional career path. Buddhism, when it was mentioned at all in those days, was dismissed by mainstream Western media as a marginal though benign spiritual preoccupation of ex- (or not so ex-) hippies and the occasional avant-garde psychiatrist. I would have dismissed as a fantasist anyone who told me that in 40 years meditation would be available in the U.K on the National Health Service, and a U.S. congressman (Tim Ryan) would publish a book called A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.
Buddhism had its origins in 5th-century B.C.E. India and eventually spread throughout the whole of Asia, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that Westerners had any inkling at all of what it taught and stood for. The abrupt discovery that Gotama Buddha was a historical figure every bit as real as Jesus Christ, and whose influence had spread just as far and wide, came as a shock to the imperial conceits of Victorian England. While a tiny handful of Europeans converted to Buddhism from the late 19th century onward, it was only in the late 1960s that the dharma started to go viral in the West. In contrast to Christianity, which slowly and painfully struggled to come to terms with the consequences of the Renaissance, the European enlightenment, natural science, democracy, and secularization, Buddhism was catapulted into modernity from deeply conservative, agrarian societies in Asia, which were either geographically remote or cut off from the rest of the world through political isolation. After a lifetime of work in Buddhist studies, the scholar and translator Edward Conze drew the conclusion that “Buddhism hasn’t had an original idea in a thousand years.” When Buddhist communities collided with modernity in the course of the 20th century, they were unprepared for the new kinds of questions and challenges their religion would face in a rapidly changing global and secular world.
I suspect that a considerable part of the Western enthusiasm for things Buddhist may still be a Romantic projection of our yearnings for truth and holiness onto those distant places and peoples about which we know the least. I am sometimes alarmed at the uncritical willingness of Westerners to accept at face value whatever is uttered by a Tibetan lama or Burmese sayadaw, while they would be generally skeptical were something comparable said by a Christian bishop or Cambridge don. I do believe that Buddhist philosophy, ethics, and meditation have something to offer in helping us come to terms with many of the personal and social dilemmas of our world. But there are real challenges in translating Buddhist practices, values, and ideas into comprehensive forms of life that are more than just a set of skills acquired in courses on mindfulness-based stress-reduction and that can flourish just as well outside meditation retreat centers as within them. Buddhism might require some radical surgery if it is to get to grips with modernity and find a voice that can speak to the conditions of this saeculum.
So what sort of Buddhism does a self-declared secular Buddhist like myself advocate? For me, secular Buddhism is not just another modernist reconfiguration of a traditional form of Asian Buddhism. It is neither a reformed Theravada Buddhism (like the Vipassana movement), a reformed Tibetan tradition (like Shambhala Buddhism), a reformed Nichiren school (like the Soka Gakkai), a reformed Zen lineage (like the Order of Interbeing) nor a reformed hybrid of some or all of the above (like the Triratna Order, formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order). It is more radical than any of these: it seeks to return to the roots of the Buddhist tradition and rethink Buddhism from the ground up.
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