Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part One
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Secular Buddhist groups are arising in the West, most notably in America. Overall mission statements for these groups vary with one constant; they walk the Middle Path without any religious or spiritual context. Groups like the Secular Buddhist Association and many individuals practice the dharma without any affiliation with a traditional Buddhist lineage or school. These practitioners look to the wide variety of Buddhist writings, podcasts and You Tube videos, along with in-person sessions with other avowed secular Buddhists for information and instruction. They view dogmatic beliefs, unquestioning devotion, and religious ritual as having no value, though many still find value in the facilities and training offered by traditional Buddhist groups.
Buddhism as a religious practice arose when the Buddha’s disciples began actively worshipping him, and guiding others to do the same after Siddhartha’s death. It flourished with more than 2500 years of Buddhism becoming interconnected and interdependent on the ethnic religions of other Asian cultures. For example, in sTibet it is Bon, China it is Tao and Confucianism, and Japan it is the Shinto religion that Buddhism merged with. Religious observances and worship of the Buddha(s) naturally arose as a causal consequence of the intersection of belief systems. At this moment in its history Buddhism is encountering a secular belief system for the first time. Secular is defined as any attitudes, activities or other phenomena in which religion or spirituality plays no role. Siddhartha’s own attitude had a touch of the secular. In the Parinibbana Sutra Siddhartha clearly stated that it wasn’t him as human being or teacher his disciples should honor upon his death; they must honor the dharma, the teachings. Combined with what the Buddha offered in other sutras he did not expect to be worshipped or thought of as anything but a human being.
My own experience is that Buddhism can be effectively practiced without religious dogma, worship and prostrations, and that no matter how one engages Buddhism in their moment-to-moment life there will be an elevation of human spirit. I base this ideal on the realization that the soul and human spirit are synonymous. The soul is what goes to heaven in the Judeo/Christian system. Human spirit can be experienced by anyone open to the wonder and mystery of the world we live in. Spirituality is the ideal . . . dharma is the real. No matter how one engages the intentional practices of Buddhism their thoughts and actions will relate to and affect in deep ways the human spirit of the practitioner and of their society. Elevation of human spirit is certain when equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, generosity and acceptance are part of how one is when engages themselves and others. In his book ‘After Buddhism’ he offers Ten Theses of Secular Dharma. He prefaces the list with “In 2005 I started to formulate a series of theses to define the kind of secular Buddhist space in which I found myself then and continue to find myself today – the kind of space I have been writing about in this book. I offer a revised version of them here:”
We’ll explore Mr. Batchelor’s ten theses over the following weeks at the Buddha Center.
A secular Buddhist is one who is committed to the practice of the dharma for the sake of this world alone.
Practicing Buddhism as a religion requires that the disciple have faith in the metaphysical concepts of rebirth, of the karmic bank account for past and future lives, and nirvana as a transcendent realm independent of the material universe and beyond its physical laws. Mr. Batchelor offers that a secular Buddhist is one who commits to practicing the dharma for the sake of their own existence from birth to death, as well as the sake of their society and planet. This is a path readily walked by an agnostic Buddhist. They set aside the metaphysical possibilities and concentrate on what can be experienced. They rely on verified confidence by striving to be mindful and aware of the consequences of their thoughts and actions in their immediate existence.
A secular Buddhist doesn’t contemplate on how what they did in a previous life has affected how they are in this life. In their experience it is the thoughts and actions of this life that are the cause of what happens in this life from birth to death, with the knowledge that there are also outside causal forces that are cause and effect. Effort isn’t given to trying to view the future. Instead, it is realized that there is no value in wondering what might happen in the future so effort is spent working on what can be done in this moment to ensure a future of human flourishing.
A religiously oriented Buddhist connects situations and experiences of their current life with what may have been done in a previous life. Their job sucks because they did something wrong to their boss in another life. How can they know this to be the case? Dogmatic faith. A secular Buddhist realizes that their job sucks because of their own work habits or attitude. There isn’t anything that can be done to fix the actions in a previous life, but there is a lot that can be done to fix previous actions in this life.
There is no place in the sutras that the Buddha states unequivocally that his new paradigm is not meant to be a religion, nor does he ever unequivocally state that it is meant to be a religion. We can only carefully study the sutras and other legacy texts to get a window into Siddhartha’s thinking. The Buddhist canon abounds with mention of deities, divas, gods and other mythical entities that populated the Hindi religion of Siddhartha’s time and culture. In the texts these beings question, praise and honor the Buddha whose new approach to human existence was causally conditioned by the people whose religion created those mythical beings. The texts were written hundreds and thousands of years after Siddhartha’s death and so it is likely that the mythical beings were added in order to give Buddhism some amount of cultural authority so the populace would be able to first recognize the parallels, then realize the differences.
Spirituality is the ideal . . . dharma is the real. Can a practitioner engage in meditation, compassion and generosity without having any spiritual moments, moments when they are relating or affects the human spirit of themselves or another? My own experience says no.
Meditation is engaged in so that through practice one can gain insight into themselves and the world around them, and to develop a serene and balanced mind. Success elevates the human spirit.
Compassion is engaged in so that the concern for the suffering, discontent, anguish and unsatisfactoriness of human beings arises in the mind. The thoughts and actions of a compassionate person elevates the human spirit.
Generosity is engaged so that the practitioner fully realizes the causal consequences of wholesome deeds. Giving without expectation elevates the human spirit.
Mr. Batchelor’s ten theses of secular Buddhism point to one extreme, while Buddhism as a religion points to the other. By engaging them through discussion and practice the Middle Path can be discerned. Each time Buddhism migrated to a new country and culture there arose an ‘either/or’ situation. In the beginning people were expected to make a choice. In time, sometimes hundreds of years, a middle path that honored both belief systems arose. Over time the same will happen in the West.