Many people who come to the Buddhist group with which I am involved, and I am sure this applies to other groups too, say when they start meditation that they want something “secular”; they do not want “the trappings,” or “Buddhism as a religion.” Some retain this feeling, whether they prefer not to chant or offer devotions, or whether they are closely involved with another spiritual tradition, such as Christianity. But many do go on to appreciate chanting, devotion, making offerings, and the sense of refuge in the triple gem of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, as forms of practice in themselves. They notice they arouse mindfulness, direct the mind to the meditation, and encourage a willingness to let go of problems and hindrances. They “go” for refuge, or in some cases “understand” the refuge: the Pali verb gacchāmi allows both meanings.

At some point there is a need to trust and, perhaps, take a leap in the dark. The refuges are to help us with that. We may articulate these refuges in terms that could also be regarded as secular: the Buddha as the fully awakened state of mind, the highest potential for a human being, whose seeds are present in ourselves; the dharma as the teaching of the graduated path that leads to this awakening; and the sangha, variously understood as being those who have attained this awakening or the orders of monks and nuns, or the community at large, of those who are following the same path. These, to many Buddhists, are what really ensure our balance and health in following a Buddhist practice. They offer three, interdependent reference points: the Buddha, a graduated teaching that can be re-created and reformulated, and a community to safeguard the development of the other two. As refuges, these three elements restore one another, and support each other.

But many are drawn to Buddhism precisely because of the devotional, the sense of the mysterious, and the numinous, which is there for those who wish it. Should such people wait to have their tastes sanctioned by scientific study on chanting or devotional practices in the name of what has become something of a secular imperative? Their love is intuitive and arises to them from a different kind of knowing. For this is where there is a real problem area in issues concerning this subject. Secularism has a real excellence: it suggests ways toward a common consensus that give effective and respectful grounds for interaction, as a kind of orthopraxy, between very different groups. Is it in danger, however, of becoming our new orthodoxy?

Awe and humility are strange things, but they need to be there and cannot be measured. For the possibility that we can find awakening, with the help of the three refuges, is awe-inspiring, and oddly humbling too. It is important to measure, for all sorts of purposes: to compare, graph, tabulate, assess, and quantify. But the “divine abidings” (brahma-viharas) in Buddhism are defined by the fact they are immeasurable (appamāṇa); they cannot be experienced or understood in full without an openness to the infinite and to the large, whether in time, in past and future buddhas and bodhisattvas, or in space, in infinite universes. It is this that is to many so mysterious and inviting about the Buddhist path—the sense of something much greater than oneself, or one’s society, or even a group of societies. The infinite manifoldness of things around is, in the end, a transcendent teaching. 

The desire for transcendence is, it seems to me, a human impulse, unacknowledged sometimes within secularist discourse. One Christian friend said she found mindfulness teaching very helpful. For her, she said, mindfulness of the infinite is really what heals, and gives her life meaning. A sense of transcendence for her was not an added extra to activities in daily life: it is something that can inform all she does.

A sense of awe, and of the infinite, is part of the healing of the Buddhist path too. The full extent of mindfulness encompasses this, and allows that possibility in daily life, and all dealings. The Buddha once taught an old man, Piṅgiya, who said his path was one of devotion. The Buddha sanctioned his chosen route. The Buddha might not have taught that path to everyone, but if it worked, he encouraged it; where another meditator is excessively dependent, he tells him to look to himself. Secularism has proven itself an effective way of breaking down old barriers and of allowing communications between groups that may not have been easy before. It has also prompted many people to follow Buddhism and explore it more. But do we need to be careful where we finally assign real understanding of what contributes to our health of mind? While secularism is not considered a religion, sometimes it feels a bit that way. At the time of the Buddha, we are told, only high priests had the means of sustaining the sacred texts and teachings. Other people had to rely on them for their perpetuation, for the performance of rituals, and for spiritual authority. Like others, I often talk of “they,” as in “they have found that…” or “they have proved that…” We do not need to reject the impulse to investigate external validation for Buddhist methods and techniques. Scientific, well-grounded research is encouraging, often framing Buddhist technique in modern technical terms and situating it in often highly specialized disciplines. But I have noticed we are increasingly regarding those that conduct research as “they,” our arbiters of all things to do with the mind, as if they must be the only ones who can really understand the path to happiness and recovery (however that is articulated). In my experience scientists, mindfulness researchers, psychologists, and psychotherapists are not high priests, and would not want to be!

[Social reformer and radical thinker George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) coined the term “secularism” in 1851. His] original formulation of secularism accommodates the free practice of religion, without intervention. At some point, however, Western society somehow conflated science, reason, enlightened thinking, and truth. Something called “religion” seems to challenge this and is thus identified as a threat. For something to be real these days it needs to have a good scientific backing. But the very word “secular,” in its Latin meaning, suggests changing times and new generations; secularism is by definition one mode, for our time. It is not the only, or indeed a transcendent one. 

Over the last few decades, secular academic findings, often fused with a rationalistic, scientific worldview, seem to be gaining ground in domains that we used to see as nothing to do with secularism at all. [Buddhist scholar] Peter Skilling has recently noted how universalism was deeply embedded in early Buddhist inscription and text: it is framed as the wish for ourselves and others to find happiness and freedom, and it informs the Buddhist approach to a sensibly balanced transmission in many languages, together with the promotion of tolerance, shared cultures, and new technologies.

Acting within this universalist approach is what Buddhist groups are undertaking now, and academic disciplines working with Buddhist techniques and doctrines are doing so too. If we are to stand our ground in Buddhism, with the three refuges, we need to remember that Buddhism has always done this kind of thing, and that in this process there is, in the end, no “they.” Faith is not the same as belief; having faith does not involve opposing the practices and beliefs of others, or insisting on one’s own rightness, either. It is possible to be deeply religious and passionate yet respectful. The Buddhist path is apt, inviting (ehipassiko), and leads onward (opanayiko); there is also a community to help us find it. The teaching is to be known directly by the wise (paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī). As Buddhaghosa, [the fifth century Theravada scholar-monk] indicates, it is an ornament on one’s own, not on another’s, head. By being mindful of these protections and the larger perspective they offer, Buddhism can, where it is needed, continue to encourage secularism and secularization but still genuinely allow “all dharmas to flourish.”

From Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition edited by Richard K. Payne © 2021 by Richard K. Payne. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

For more on this new anthology, join Secularizing Buddhism,’ a week-long conversation series with Shambhala Publications from August 2 – 5. 

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