Excerpted and adapted from the discussion Secular Buddhism and the Timeless: A Conversation with Stephen Batchelor and Bhikkhu Santi, which took place at Yale University on April 21, 2024.

Yes, you can be secular and religious. Everyone has a religion. You might be part of an organized religion, or you might reject organized religion, and that’s part of your religion. We all have, to paraphrase the American writer David Foster Wallace, something we bow down to. We have some system of beliefs that we regard as the true ones—the ones that aren’t just beliefs but that we feel are actually true. Well, that’s your religion. 

For me, the forms of monastic Buddhism are not articles of faith. They’re not markers of some set of beliefs. One of the things that especially attracted me to monastic Buddhism is that there is no requirement of faith. There is no requirement of belief for monks. It’s a very different form of monasticism from the Christian forms, although I admire many Christian monastics deeply. The idea for me as a sometimes secular monk—as a sometimes secular religious Buddhist practitioner—is to find a way to bring into monastic practice my own personal inquiry into the nature of things—what we call the dharma. It’s to find a way to reconcile monastic practice with what I understand as a modern person, a person whose psychology was shaped by all the factors of modernity including a commitment to science, a commitment to many of the small “l” liberal values like the questioning of hierarchy, and my commitments to various human rights and forms of human association.

When I went to the monastery, I encountered a lot of orthodoxy … and I was willing, for some years, to just overlook it. I was deeply into my personal meditation practice, and I was willing to, in some senses, check my values at the door with regard to those secular commitments. But, as I developed, that became less tenable, and I took advantage of the emphasis on the Buddhist path of developing independence in the practice. We have this very strict, structured training, but it aims at making us independent of any teacher.

We have this very strict, structured training, but it aims at making us independent of any teacher.

Religious Buddhists take refuge. That’s the basic concept—call it the religious part. We take refuge in the teachings of the Buddha. We take refuge in our understanding of the nature of things (the dharma). And we take refuge in the institution of Buddhism, or the sangha, as a kind of vehicle of the teachings. 

But instrumental and essential to the Buddhist path is the recognition that we actually aren’t all one thing or all another thing. I noticed in myself—especially early on in my personal liberation from the more orthodox aspects of monastic practice—a kind of fieriness that came in when I thought about my secular principles and values. I had to get doctrinaire about my own ideas, my own interpretations, in order to free myself from the sort of entrained subservient attitude that was expected early on in my monastic training. But as I moved on, I realized that, you know, that too was a kind of attachment. In fact, most people aren’t really living on the philosophical plain, most people aren’t wrestling with deep questions and deep issues on a day-to-day basis, yet many people are doing just fine. Many people are quite able to square themselves with the world and live meaningful, full, purposeful lives without having to take strong stands on this set of values or that set of ethical commitments. I didn’t always need that fieriness. It didn’t always serve me.… So I eased off a bit. Now I only assert my secularity sometimes.

Yes, it can be challenging to be a monk in the modern world. But there is one key function of presenting as a monk that I think is still alive in the world—and of service to it. It’s called the sign of the samana, or the sign of the renunciant. I know it’s still alive because it worked on me when I encountered monks early on in my Buddhist practice, after I became a meditator. It’s the impact of seeing a monastic—a monk in his or her ochre robes, with shaved head and alms bowl. At best, it’s an image of uplift and spiritual potential—in particular, the potential of renunciation. 

Probably the defining feature of monastic practice, in contrast to lay practice, is the emphasis on renunciation. Though in some respects, we’re all renunciants, right? We all exercise restraint in making our choices in life. We all forgo what we want, often moment to moment. We resist impulses to do things that aren’t good for us, and that’s a kind of renunciation—not having that third drink or not getting behind the wheel if we do. That’s kind of what makes the world work, if you think about it, in terms of most people being decent, good people. That’s renunciation in action in the lay world.

But for a monk … we undertake unnecessary renunciations, renunciations that go beyond basic delayed gratification and impulse control. We take on renunciations that further our project of turning against what’s called “the stream of the world,” the force of samsara, the turning of the wheel of desire. We take on renunciations, like all dressing the same, so that we’re not so attractive to people. You know from one look at me, I’m not looking for a date. In forgoing our most basic desires, we greatly heighten our ability to see them, and by seeing them, to do the work of freeing ourselves from them. This doesn’t mean eliminating them or never enjoying things. It means giving ourselves the level of awareness that lets us choose. That’s what freedom is, ultimately. As monks, we commit ourselves to doing that work full-time, to making it the central project of our lives. And I think for many people, this renunciatory ideal is alive in the figure of the monk.

There are eras and times in the world when the figure is corrupted, when monks have behaved really badly. You read about the fleets of Rolls-Royces, and you think the whole thing is corrupt, or it becomes extremely ossified and bound by orthodoxy and it stops making any sense. And then that image is tarnished. But throughout Buddhist history, there has been renewal after renewal. Renewal lies at the origin of most or even all of the Buddhist orders and sects. So I believe that the sign of the samana is something that’s valuable to keep bringing into the world. I often have people stop me, and we have really beautiful conversations. I think that’s worth pursuing.