- Richard K. PayneRichard K. PayneInstitute of Buddhist Studies
- and Casey Alexandra KempCasey Alexandra KempUniversity of Vienna
Secular Buddhism (also sometimes known as Secular Dharma) is a quasi-religious movement that began in the last decade of the 20th century. It is diffuse and, despite the important role of some leading figures, lacks hierarchical authority capable of defining and enforcing orthodoxy. The background of the movement is the development of modernizing trends in Asia in the 19th century. Other formative influences include liberal Protestant thought emphasizing religious experience and social action, Victorian apologetics distinguishing religion and non-religion, Perennialist teachings that all religions have the same mystical core, and neoliberalism’s focus on the isolated individual as the locus of agency, existing in competition with others.
Secular Buddhist discourse depends on the semiotic opposition of religious and secular. That discourse itself has two dimensions, a creative one and a critical one. The creative dimension reinterprets Buddhist teachings, institutions, and practices to meet the needs of people in the present. The critical dimension is the reverse of the creative, attempting to identify and reject aspects of the tradition that are identified as inhibiting its utility in the present.
A variety of institutions, some online only, have been created to promote Secular Buddhist ideas and practices. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–2021 has motivated more online activity, including groups meeting for meditation and discussion, and also instructional and training programs. The rejection of prior kinds of Buddhism has included the rejection of traditional Buddhist institutions, which in turn creates the need for alternative forms of authority. In general, claims to authority are made on the basis of personal experience, of a return to the original, pure, authentic teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, of particular texts as authoritative, and of being in accord with modern science.