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date: 20 October 2021

Secular Buddhismfree

Secular Buddhismfree

  • Richard K. PayneRichard K. PayneInstitute of Buddhist Studies
  •  and Casey Alexandra KempCasey Alexandra KempUniversity of Vienna

Summary

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.

Subjects

  • Buddhism

Introduction

As a quasi-religious movement, Secular Buddhism builds on the secularizing trends within the Buddhist tradition in the modern era. While this article focuses specifically on the movement known as Secular Buddhism (sometimes called Secular Dharma), secularization and the creation of Buddhist modernism are important parts of the cultural context of Secular Buddhism and are introduced first as background.

Considered next is the history of Buddhism in the modern era (which we stipulate for our purposes here as beginning around the start of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 21st century). That history is marked by engagements between European and American societies on the one hand, and Buddhist societies on the other. Buddhist leaders actively responded to the social, economic, and political changes created by that engagement, and many of those responses can be interpreted retrospectively as contributing to a secularizing of Buddhism. Further contributing to these developments were the distinction between religion and non-religion that informed Victorian apologetics for Buddhism, Perennialist teachings regarding the mystical unity of all religions, and neoliberal structuring of the individual as an isolated agent in competition with others. Cumulatively, all of these were then constructed within the semiotic opposition of secular and religious.

As a distinct self-identified movement, Secular Buddhism began to be institutionalized at the end of the 20th century. Culturally, Secular Buddhism is an instance of Western Buddhism, but it does not fit neatly into the category systems that have been created to understand Western Buddhism. Scholars have proposed a variety of frameworks for sorting the different forms of Buddhism in Westernized nations into meaningful categories.1 In some cases the categories are formed on the basis of social groups that have distinct histories, such as immigrant, convert, and natal, or on the basis of the mode of transmission, such as import, export, and baggage.2 In other instances, the process has been organized chronologically into several processive stages, such as contact, confrontation and conflict, ambiguity and adaptation, recoupment (or reorientation), and innovative self-development.3 Secular Buddhism, however, does not fit well into any of these established academic categories. While most adherents self-identify as secular, identifying oneself as Buddhist appears to be optional. However, those who do self-identify as Buddhists are not converts in the sense of membership in any of the forms of culturally Asian Buddhism that have developed in the West over the last century and a half. Despite these ambivalences regarding the Buddhist tradition, some Buddhist scholars effectively locate Secular Buddhism within a broad conception of the tradition. Philippe Turenne, for example, sees Secular Buddhism as a source for critical reflection and greater responsiveness to the conditions of contemporary society while at the same time preserving important aspects of the tradition.4

Historico-Ideological Background

The context within which Secular Buddhism has been created is the modern history of religion in the cultural West. More specifically, it is located in the larger “spiritual but not religious” trends that have molded popular religious culture in the West from the mid-20th century onward. Robert C. Fuller uses the phrase “secular spirituality” and says that “eight central attributes of secular spirituality can be identified: eclecticism, self-growth, relevance to life, self-direction, openness to wonder, authenticity beyond churches, metaphysical explanations, and communal and ecological morality.”5 While Secular Buddhism employs Buddhist concepts, categories, and concerns, seeing it as located within secular spirituality provides a perspective that highlights other sources that contribute to Secular Buddhist discourse.

Viewing Secular Buddhism from “in front,” it appears to have originated recently and to be a coherent system of thought and practice. If, however, we go around the back, we find that Secular Buddhism is a bricolage, a structure composed of pre-existing elements, appropriated and pasted together, which is not to deny the creativity of the proponents of Secular Buddhism who have constructed it.6 Those elements constitute the ideological “prehistory” of Secular Buddhism. Both perspectives—front and back—are needed for a full understanding of Secular Buddhism.

The historico-ideological background of Secular Buddhism is organized here under five rubrics: Asian movements to modernize Buddhism, liberal Protestant thought, Victorian apologetics of non-religion, Perennialism, and neoliberal ethics. Each of these has been extensively studied, and here we can only summarize key issues and reference relevant research.

Asian Movements to Modernize Buddhism

The modernization of Buddhism began in Asia in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, motivated by resistance to European imperialism. “Resistance” is used here, rather than reaction, so as to emphasize the creative agency of those involved. In many cases Buddhist modernizers promoted changes that, looking back, can be described as secular. In some instances, for example, they sought to involve lay members in meditation practice, and some movements were either founded by lay adherents or with significant lay leadership.7 Other aspects of the modernization include creating a modernized system of thought, that is, ideology, and reforms of the sangha.

An important instance of this modernization is Thailand, where the modernization of Buddhism began under the direction of King Mongkut (r. 1851–1868).8 Mongkut not only mandated the modernization of monastic education, including training in Pāli, and “restructuring the Buddhist order along national political lines,” but also promoted a “demythologized and more rationalized Buddhist worldview, while at the same time standardizing Buddhist ritual observances.”9 Other examples include Anagārika Dharmapāla’s innovations, such as founding the Mahabodhi Society, as well as Soka Gakkai in Japan, Ambedkar’s Buddhist resistance to the Indian caste system, Taixu’s creation of a “humanistic Buddhism,” and Thailand’s Young Buddhist Association.10 Many of these were explicitly anticolonial in nature, such as the Burmese Vipassana movement largely established by Ledi Sayadaw, which identified being Burmese with being Buddhist in a rhetoric of resistance to British colonialism.11

In China, Taixu was a key figure in the modernization of Buddhism in the early 20th century.12 Like many of the early contributors to the project of modernizing Buddhism, and like many Secular Buddhists today, he appropriated modern science. For example, Taixu suggested that the mythic realm of unlimited abundance, Uttarakuru, is a planet in our solar system. This no doubt seems quaint by the standards of the present, but this problem has always plagued the science and religion discourse. Claims of truth or authority, whether Buddhist or Christian, have sometimes been based on scientific theories, but those theories often then become outdated. The emphasis on the scientific in Secular Buddhist rhetoric is another instance of a strategy that stretches back over a century and a half.

There is no one model of secularization, and the processes involved continue into the present. The scholarship on what is referred to as “multiple secularities” is extensive.13 Looking at Buddhist instances, we find work on Japan, Tibet, China, and other Asian countries as well.14

Liberal Protestant Thought

In the process of resisting the criticisms of Buddhism made by Christian missionaries, modernizing Asian Buddhists adopted many of the critics’ conceptions about the nature of religion, which are based in the Liberal Protestant theology of the late 19th century. These conceptions include the ideas of a single historically existing founder with a unique religious revelation recorded in a holy text, who establishes a specific church, usually as a reformer acting in opposition to a corrupt religious tradition burdened by meaningless ritualism and clerical venality. This template for a religion and its religious historiography has its proximate origin in the rhetoric of the Reformation. It was, however, also adopted by Buddhist reformers, to such an extent that the movement was famously dubbed “Protestant Buddhism” by Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere.15 The same themes that pervade post-Reformation Protestant historiography are evident in this quote from the speech given by Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864–1933) at the Chicago Parliament of Religions:

Twenty-five centuries ago India witnessed an intellectual and religious revolution which culminated in the overthrow of monotheism, priestly selfishness, and the establishment of a synthetic religion, a system of life and thought which was appropriately called Dhamma—Philosophical Religion. All that was good was collected from every source and embodied therein, and all that was bad was discarded. Speculation in the domain of false philosophy and theology ceased, and active altruism reigned supreme.16

Dharmapāla’s tribute to Buddhism also includes the theme of the unity of Buddhism and science, such as claims that the Buddha knew what is only now coming to be understood in science and philosophy, such as evolution and monism.

Another important element in the formation of the ideology of Secular Buddhism is the emphasis on interiority and personal experience. As J. Brent Crosson indicates, “according to a resonant bias of both contemporary SBNR [spiritual but not religious] movements and Reformation polemics, the true core of religion is located in an individual disposition.”17 In the sociology of religion, the phrase “privatization of religion” has sometimes been used to mean the view that it is an individual rather than public matter. For example, José Casanova has referred to the “privatization thesis” as the idea that in secular societies “religious belief is reduced to a private matter, lacking the significance it had previously had in the lives of societies.”18 To clarify the rhetoric of Secular Buddhism, however, it is best to distinguish between this sociological conception of religion as an individual rather than a public matter, and the psychological significance of the idea that the (absolute) foundation of religious commitment is experiential and, as such, is private in the sense that the term private is used in philosophical discourse regarding “private language.” For our purposes here, therefore, the privatization of religion refers to the conception that its most important aspect is experiential, that is, a private, transformative experience that individuals claim as a basis for belief and action, including social beliefs and actions. This idea regarding the private character of religion is widespread in Western popular religious culture. This idea of private religious experience also informs the concept of spirituality, and its history. As Ira Helderman has said, “if one looks for it, one can relatively easily detect the Protestant prototype that generates a spirituality of deinstitutionalized, internal religious experience.”19 This Protestant prototype also contributed to the conception of Buddhism in the Victorian era.

Victorian Apologetics: Buddhism as “Non-Religion”

Lois Lee employs the category of “non-religion,” which she distinguishes as more neutral than “areligious” and “secular.”20 She explains that the characteristics of non-religion are diverse, combining with “religious, spiritual, and secular characteristics in numerous configurations.”21 In particular she highlights an anticlerical attitude, atheistic and nontheistic worldviews, ambivalence about or rejection of religious ritual, and instances of non-religious identification. Jack L. Graham employs Lee’s concept of “non-religion” in a study of the Secular Buddhist Association. As background he explores the Victorian rhetoric that created the characterization of religion as irrational and superstitious, and which then understood Buddhism to be rational and therefore non-religious.22

The ideological grounding inherited by Secular Buddhism includes the rhetorical claims of 19th-century Buddhist apologists, who promoted a representation of original, true, pure, authentic Buddhism as both essentially rational and actively opposed to the superstitions of Brahmanic ritualism and the caste system. The dichotomy of reason versus superstition is fundamental to the distinction of religion and non-religion, which served to reinforce apologetic descriptions of Buddhism, such as that given by Dharmapāla quoted in the preceding section. Such descriptions emphasized, for example, interpretations of Buddhist teachings as congruent with modern science, while science and religion were in a state of war with one another.23 The interpretation of Buddhism as atheistic also contributed to its status as non-religion.24 More important for understanding Secular Buddhism than the specific characteristics is that this Victorian rhetoric establishes a representation of Buddhism in contrast to, and in competition with, the religious studies representation of Buddhism as another instance of the overall category of world religions.25 In this Victorian image, because Buddhism is rational and nontheistic, it is not a religion.

Perennialism

Buddhist modernism has become widely accepted by both convert and Westernized natal Buddhists as “what Buddhism really is.”26 Often a central component of that representation of Buddhism is the rhetorical distinction between some true, universal core and later culturally determined “religious” trappings. For many in the cultural West, the Buddhist modernist image of Buddhism is simply the true essence of Buddhism, and what doesn’t fit into that representation is dismissed as merely cultural. This understanding draws on the rhetoric of Perennialism, which promotes an image of all religions as sharing a single universal and ineffable truth, directly revealed to mystical insight, and outside of any particular religious culture. Popularized by Aldous Huxley and propagated widely by Huston Smith, these conceptions of a higher mystical unity of all religions have effectively become a naturalized part of Buddhist modernism.27 In the rhetoric of Perennialism, the differences between religions are explained by the linguistic and cultural limitations imposed when mystics attempt to convey their ineffable experience to others. The claim that the original, pure, authentic teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha are timeless and ultimately in agreement with all other “wisdom traditions” is directly informed by Perennialist conceptions.28 Adopted into Secular Buddhism, the rhetoric of Buddhist modernism frequently includes the self-referential claim that it is the universal and unproblematic structure for understanding Buddhism and Buddhist movements.

An example of Perennialist influence is the grounding of the idea of karma in a modernist, psychologized perspective, such as the claim that “in a nutshell karma and rebirth is an explanation for human hurt, the existential problem at the heart of so much of religion, why do we suffer? It is the Buddhist response to the same question that we find in Christianity’s original sin.”29 This interpretation of karma and rebirth is an instance of the Perennialist universalism that underlies much of Secular Buddhist rhetoric. Couched here in terms of the presumedly universal existential problem of suffering, the implicit rhetoric is that all religions are ultimately the same—or in this specific case, that Buddhist teachings of karma and rebirth and the Christian concept of original sin simply point to the same existential universal of human hurt. This kind of rhetoric evidences the grounding in Perennialism, which often argues that there is a view that transcends any particular religion but encompasses the wisdom of them all.

Neoliberalism

The context of the rise of Secular Buddhism in the West includes profound changes in Anglo-American society in the last part of the 20th century. These changes can be marked by the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in 1979 and 1980, respectively. The ideology that justified those changes is neoliberalism, which has become the unreflectively accepted, hegemonic ideology of the world’s economically, militarily, and culturally dominant societies. By the beginning of the 21st century, it had become not simply an economic or social theory, but effectively a cosmology that views everything in terms of “individuals in competition.”30 Competition between individuals is not only seen in economic and social relations but is structured into the legal system and naturalized as explaining the natural world.

In neoliberal societies, individuals are not only seen as being in competition with one another but are isolated agents who primarily express their agency through consumption. This neoliberal subjectivity constructed the modern self-help and pop-psychology industries. These intertwined social institutions are based on the Western ethos of self-improvement and have become multimillion-dollar businesses. Teachings are marketed through books, workshops, training programs, and retreats of various kinds. In the 20th century, this system of marketing was adopted by a variety of Buddhist teachers.31 The consumer model of the relation between a Buddhist teacher and their audience changes structures of authority—as, for example, away from monastic seniority to experiential accomplishments. Monastic relations of dana being given to the sangha have in large part been replaced by customers purchasing services.32 There is a consequent inversion of power—the consumer holds economic power over which teachings are given value in a competitive marketplace, and therefore demand molds the nature of the teachings presented and the aspects emphasized.

Neoliberal subjectivity contributes not only to a sense of being an isolated individual, but also to splitting the self into a conscious agent, an “I,” and the personal object of agency, “myself.” The “I” as agent seeks to control the workings of a person’s own mind. Self-improvement is embedded in the therapeutic culture that first makes the self into a problem to be solved and then offers solutions in the marketplace of spiritual self-help.33 In this neoliberal framework, meditation becomes a technology of the mind that is context-free and value-neutral, one that can be excised from its culture of origin without damage to the technology and applied without constraint for the benefit of any and all peoples. As the frequently repeated trope has it, “one doesn’t need to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness.”

The treatment of Buddhist practice as a context-free and value-neutral mental technology extends the discourse that treats religion as separable from culture and fails to recognize the cultural basis for this very view. Such a conception of the dharma as existing independently of any particular culture is itself a cultural artifact—a way of conceptually constructing a Buddhism that can then be appropriated and reinterpreted but freed from any entanglement with Asian culture.34 Secular Buddhism has been criticized for this dynamic of extracting meditation from its cultural context of origin. Acknowledging the issue, the Secular Buddhist Association website published a rebuttal to the effect that this construct of a Buddhism denatured from Asian culture is not intended to denigrate Asian culture but is instead a means of avoiding the historical harm of imperialistic appropriation.35 Although not made explicit, the implication would seem to be that those forms of Buddhism in the West that do not attempt to expunge Asian cultural aspects are themselves the ones guilty of imperialistic appropriation of a foreign culture.

The ideological prehistory of Secular Buddhism encompasses influences from the mid-19th century through the end of the 20th century. This period saw movements to modernize Asian societies, including their Buddhist cultures, the rise of liberal Protestant thought, an apologetics for Buddhism as an instance of non-religion, the Perennialist doctrine that all religions are ultimately the same, and neoliberal economic and social ideology emphasizing the isolated individual in a competitive world. All these influences were interpreted in the framework of a semiotic opposition of secular and religious.

Semiotics: Secular and Religious as an Oppositional Pairing

The rhetoric of Secular Buddhism participates in the modern use of the term “secular” as the paired opposite to religious.36 Helderman describes this pairing, saying “with the two terms placed side by side, the borderline between religion/secular made visible by a backslash or dash, the semiotics of such a construct are clear. The concept visually represents the religious and the not-religious as antonyms, but also as intimately connected.”37 This modern construct reflects the post-Enlightenment conceptions of society as the “neutral” container within which a variety of institutions, including a variety of religions, exist in a state of competition with one another.38 The rhetorical grounding for some current understandings of the relation is what Helderman has called the “standard secularization narrative” in which “religious traditions, once so central to human society, will be proven false and made obsolete by scientific truths.”39 The idea that “Buddhism is a religion” is itself a modern construct formed out of 19th-century modernity’s reconstruction of the social order in which religion is defined narrowly as individual, private, experiential, and morally uplifting but separate from the political and economic.40 This conception has been exported globally as part of the social order of late modern, neoliberal capitalism, and as such it provides the conceptual basis for the spread of Secular Buddhism to societies participating in that social system. Most presentations of Secular Buddhism distinguish between secular and religious in the minimal oppositional relation: to be secular is to not be religious.41

This minimal approach (secular is not-religious) itself, however, requires further nuance. In addition to a transcendent divine, secularism may also reject the idea of the supernatural (forces and agencies not explainable by reference to natural law) and the extraordinary (capacities and powers that are beyond those of an ordinary human).42 As a concept whose object is constituted by its usage as a social convention, the meaning of the term secular varies widely from one social location to another. As Mark Juergensmeyer has explained, “secular” is “a complicated notion, or set of notions that are seen differently in different cultures.”43 In addition to a negative conception, that is, rejecting a transcendent divine, supernatural agencies, and extraordinary humans, “secular” can also be used to identify a positive conception, “a worldview laden with value assumptions about the nature of the self and its relationship to society.”44 Sarah Shaw has provided an informative survey of changing meanings of the term and its derivatives—secular, secularization, secularism.45 Most often the Secular Buddhist discourse simply presumes the dichotomous nature of secular and religious, which is only rarely explicitly theorized or nuanced.

Despite the rhetorical opposition between secular and religious in Secular Buddhist discourse, in many ways the movement constitutes its own religious tradition, including a set of faith commitments. One of the sharper critics of Secular Buddhism is Glenn Wallis, as found in several posts on his website “Speculative Non-Buddhism” and in his book A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real.46 One particular post, titled “On the Faith of Secular Buddhists,” was written as a critique of a presentation made by Stephen Batchelor, perhaps the single most visible proponent of Secular Buddhism.47 Wallis groups his analysis under five articles of faith that are in his view axiomatic because “they go unchallenged, indeed unquestioned by Secular Buddhists of all stripes, including the secular–scientistic community around Jon Kabat-Zinn.” In Wallis’s critique these five articles of Secular Buddhist faith undermine any claim that Secular Buddhism constitutes a radical reinterpretation of Buddhism; instead it simply replicates the values and beliefs of the dominant Western religious culture. The first article of faith is that the dharma constitutes a timeless, transcendent truth, beyond conditioned reality. The second is that this timeless dharma was revealed by the human Śākyamuni Buddha, which instances a focus on the founder as the authoritative source of a tradition. Third is the idea that the teachings that can be identified as uniquely those of the founder constitute a pragmatically useful teaching for our time. The self-sufficiency of Buddhism is the notion that one need not look outside the system of Buddhist thought, or in other words, that philosophical and religious sources that pursue the same goals that Secular Buddhism does, but that are not “Buddhist,” can be safely ignored. The last of the five articles of faith is that this is not a matter of faith at all, but rather that the Secular Buddhist view is simply “natural, empirical, pragmatic, and in accord with science. The teachings, as the ancient trope has it, are simply how things are. They are phenomenologically obvious.”48

In contrast, Sarah Shaw argues that the developments of Buddhism in the contemporary world, such as secular mindfulness practice, are a continuation of the universalism that has been part of the Buddhist tradition from its earliest period. Citing the work of Peter Skilling, she explains that the universalism of Buddhism “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.”49

The Discourse of Secular Buddhism: Two Complementary Aspects

Secular Buddhism can be understood under two complementary, though not opposed, approaches: a positive understanding, that is, what its proponents desire to create, and a negative one, that is, being constituted by what it is not.

Creating a New Buddhism

Sometimes Secular Buddhism is represented as being a new form of Buddhism relevant to the modern world, while other representations claim that, being a return to the original teachings and practices of the Buddha Śākyamuni, it is a purification of the tradition. A pragmatic intent to understand the teachings and practices as useful in the present, however, unifies both approaches. Winton Higgins argues that contemporary secularity is “a complex and frequently misunderstood religio-cultural development in the West.”50 With this sense of secularism as a cultural development in mind, he asserts that “Secular Buddhism’s specific reason for being is to participate in that cultural development in aid of the dharma practice of those embedded in it, while situating itself in the Buddha’s living (as opposed to sedimented) tradition of practice and thought.”51

One of the sources actively making Secular Buddhist views available is Tricycle magazine. Tricycle: the Buddhist Review was initiated in 1991 under the editorship of Helen Tworkov and presents itself as a nonsectarian medium for Western Buddhists. As of 2021, it has expanded as an online project including dharma talks, a film club, e-books, a podcast, and online courses, in addition to the magazine itself.52 In an explanatory section of the Tricycle website, a series of articles titled “Buddhism for Beginners” present Secular Buddhism in a systematically codified fashion. Several of the ideas presented there can be traced to earlier arguments by specific figures, such as Stephen Batchelor and Winton Higgins, though without attribution. Included is a normative view, as, for example, in the claims that:

While secular dharma practitioners have been connected with a range of Buddhist lineages, and none, secular dharma is a development out of certain modernizing trends within different schools of Buddhism. A secular space is open-minded and tolerant and does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, gender, ability, beliefs, or faith. Those who engage with a secular dharma community are not required to adopt metaphysical beliefs or become involved in activities generally associated with religion, Buddhist or otherwise, such as chanting or praying.53

The Secular Buddhist Network makes its own set of claims, saying that:

While all secular Buddhists share a skeptical view of the supernatural deities and processes of traditional Buddhism (e.g., rebirth), there is a wide range of views among secular Buddhists concerning various beliefs, perspectives and practices.

Even though there is no secular Buddhist orthodoxy, all secular Buddhists share a framework for a more mindful and compassionate life.

Awakening in the context in which we find ourselves, this framework is in essence a pragmatic program for human flourishing that has no use for metaphysical beliefs and religious truth-claims. A secular dharma stands for a developmental direction that is typically Buddhist in its open-minded skepticism and its desire to let the dharma speak most effectively, that is in culturally available terms.54

While the assertion that “there is no secular Buddhist orthodoxy” is widely repeated, like the claim that Secular Buddhism does not include any social hierarchy, it is a rhetorical claim that plays a key role in the Secular Buddhist discourse.

The constructive motivation for Secular Buddhism is evidenced by “Ten Theses of Secular Dharma,” which are abstracted from Stephen Batchelor’s book After Buddhism and posted on the Secular Buddhist Association website.55 These are:

1.

A secular Buddhist is one who is committed to the practice of the dharma for the sake of this world alone.

2.

The practice of the dharma consists of four tasks: to embrace suffering, to let go of reactivity, to behold the ceasing of reactivity, and to cultivate an integrated way of life.

3.

All human beings, irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, and religion, can practice these four tasks. Each person, in each moment, has the potential to be more awake, responsive, and free.

4.

The practice of the dharma is as much concerned with how one speaks, acts, and works in the public realm as with how one performs spiritual exercises in private.

5.

The dharma serves the needs of people at specific times and places. Each form the dharma assumes is a transient human creation, contingent upon the historical, cultural, social, and economic conditions that generated it.

6.

The practitioner honors the dharma teaching[s] that have been passed down through different traditions while seeking to enact them creatively in ways appropriate to the world as it is now.

7.

The community of practitioners is formed of autonomous persons who mutually support each other in the cultivation of their paths. In this network of like-minded individuals, members respect the equality of all members while honoring the specific knowledge and expertise each person brings.

8.

A practitioner is committed to an ethics of care, founded on empathy, compassion, and love for all creatures who have evolved on this earth.

9.

Practitioners seek to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves.

10.

A practitioner of the dharma aspires to nurture a culture of awakening that finds its inspiration in Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and secular sources alike.56

While including a page devoted to Batchelor’s ten theses, the Secular Buddhist Association offers its own definition.57 That definition, however, is framed in terms of what Secular Buddhism is not, that is, critiquing the old Buddhism. The first of the two definitional claims relates to the often interconnected pair of doctrines, karma/kamma and rebirth.

Critiquing the Old Buddhism

The negative definition, “Secular Buddhism is a Buddhism that is not religious,” locates Secular Buddhism in a semiotic opposition with religious Buddhism, both terms then being constructed dialectically by the oppositional relation between the two.58 Dating from the second half of the 19th century, the modern concept of “religion” constructed “Buddhism” as it has come to be conceived in both popular and academic cultures since that time. It is this modern conception of Buddhism that Secular Buddhists often seem to mean by categories such as “religious Buddhism,” “traditional Buddhism,” or “ancestral Buddhism,” and to which they define themselves in opposition. This oppositional relation takes place on multiple levels. Superficially there is the rejection of what are conventionally referred to as the “trappings” of religion. More deeply, Secular Buddhists question a wide variety of beliefs, values, and practices they associate with religious Buddhism.

The Secular Buddhist Association’s self-definition begins negatively, by calling into question the common Buddhist teachings of karma and rebirth. Karma, translated literally as “action,” is generally taken by both traditional sources and academic scholarship as central to Buddhist thought. It is frequently interpreted moralistically and has been linked to the idea of rebirth in one of the six realms of existence: humans, demi-gods, gods, hungry ghosts, animals, and hell-beings.59 Most Secular Buddhist adherents simultaneously reject the teaching of rebirth and consider the Pāli canon authoritative. As the Pāli canon as a whole includes numerous references to rebirth, the consequence is a need for textual criticism, as a lay practice rather than an academic one.60 The apparent contradiction is resolved by a kind of textual fundamentalism that selects only some texts from the Pāli canon as authentic teachings of Śākyamuni. In some cases the process of selection simply reflects the preconceived ideas that the teachings are rational and eschew superstition, that is, the ones selected are those that reinforce the preconceived view.

Matching the ethical interpretation of rebirth is the moralistic interpretation of karma in which only actions with moral significance are considered to have an effect on one’s status in one’s next birth, and actions in that birth determine one’s status in the following as well—the cycle of saṃsara from birth through sickness and old age to death. In many interpretations, the moral valence of karma is determined by one’s intentions and is symbolically framed in terms of the “three poisons” (triviṣa). The Secular Buddhist Association’s self-definition emphasizes an agnostic attitude toward the teaching of rebirth:

1. We allow questioning of a literal interpretation of rebirth.

A minority of Secular Buddhists believe in literal rebirth. More believe in non-literal rebirth (i.e. that we are reborn from moment to moment). Many are “agnostic” on rebirth (i.e. that belief or non-belief in literal rebirth does affect the truth and power of the rest of Gautama Buddha’s teachings as they have been transmitted—both belief and non-belief can be valid). By allowing such questioning and exploration without excluding questioners and explorers, we allow for more and ultimately deeper engagement with the Dhamma.61

Although given in this self-definition as a kind of agnosticism, much of Secular Buddhist rhetoric does tend to reject the idea of rebirth, particularly when rebirth is treated as central to the Buddha’s teachings, and therefore a necessary marker of Buddhist identity.62 Displacing rebirth from its historically central place in the tradition, Batchelor for example theorizes that it was merely part of the common worldview of Vedic India and was not necessarily supported by the Buddha himself. Any reference to rebirth in the Pāli canon is then bracketed as an expression of the Buddha’s cultural context, rather than central to his own teachings.63

Consequently, Secular Buddhists either reject the idea of karma along with rebirth or reinterpret it as well. One view

reinterprets these [karma and rebirth] as processes which take place within a single lifetime i.e. given The Buddha’s teaching on Dependent Origination, we are in a constant process of incarnation/reincarnation during our lifetimes. Karma is understood to mean that every thought or act will leave an impression on our mind or to some degree effect [sic] a previously made impression.64

Another line of reinterpretation is to replace “the ideas of karma and rebirth with more useful ideas on purpose and ethics.”65 By naturalizing karma and rebirth in this fashion, any reference to the “supernatural” is avoided.

In an interview appearing in Tricycle magazine, Batchelor also gives a negative definition of Secular Buddhism by contrasting it with other forms of Buddhism:

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.66

Another approach to defining Secular Buddhism in terms of what is rejected is found on the website “Secular Buddhism. No Robes. No Ritual. No Religion.”67 The range of new social institutions supporting the movement (see the section “Institutionalizing Secular Buddhism”) is evidenced by this site, which was created by Rick Bateman to serve a weekly Secular Buddhist meeting group.68 The home page for the site gives a concise summary statement of the site creator’s own conception of what Secular Buddhism is not:

Secular Buddhism is a non-religious form of Buddhism unique to the West. Tradition, robes and ritual are absent as are non-English terms. It is devoid of authority through title or lineage. It is atheistic i.e. there is no consideration of the supernatural or reincarnation. Karma is considered only in the sense the word as commonly used in English of one’s intentions, actions and their results in this life. …

It is not however simply a new age mash-up of spirituality. It is still primarily focused on the study and practice of the Buddhism’s core teachings of The Four Noble Truths and The EightFold Path. It is, if anything, an attempt to return to the original teachings of The Buddha.69

As with Batchelor’s statement quoted earlier, notice here again the claim of returning to the original teachings of Śākyamuni.

For some Secular Buddhists there is also a rhetorical identification of religion with the corrupt exercise of power in an anticlerical stance congruent with Reformation-era attacks on the established Church. Implicitly, this entails an inverse claim that because Secular Buddhism is not religious, it does not have the kind of authoritarian power relations that facilitate sexual exploitation, financial manipulation, and other abuses of power.

For example, employing one of the most clichéd critiques leveled against “traditional” Buddhism—that it is not actually Buddhism in the sense of the essential teachings of the Buddha—Sam Harris, a popularizer of atheistic views who writes on Buddhism, has asserted that “the wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped with the religion of Buddhism.”70 Harris goes on to employ the trope that “traditional” Buddhists are mistaken about what they are doing, saying that “most Buddhists worldwide” engage with Buddhism as a religion “in many of the naïve, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced.” Indeed, Harris argues that it is “morally and intellectually indefensible” for Buddhists to continue to identify with Buddhism as a religion as it “lends tacit support to the religious differences in our world.” Harris represents “religion” as the source of conflict and as insistently dogmatic, for example when he says that “given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, and impedes genuine inquiry, I believe that merely being a self-described ‘Buddhist’ is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.”

The desire to create a kind of Buddhism that meets the needs of modern people is the positive, constructive dimension of Secular Buddhism. Secular Buddhism is, therefore, a complex social phenomenon that can in part be understood as being modeled on other kinds of quasi-religious institutions found throughout Western popular religious culture, such as self-help and pop-psychology. Those social institutions also provided vehicles for the promotion of Secular Buddhism. Despite drawing both form and content from self-help and pop-psychology, Secular Buddhism is more complex than simply a version of either of those expressed in Buddhist language.

The negative understanding of Secular Buddhism does not provide the kinds of sharp delineations, either conceptual or sociological, that might be expected of a definition. Taken together with the positive understandings, the two do, however, serve as a way of identifying Secular Buddhism as a discourse‚ that is, a loosely interconnected and mutually supporting set of beliefs, claims, and assertions that offer a convincing view of the human, the social, the environmental, and the cosmological. Secular Buddhism not only functions as a discourse but has a variety of institutional forms.

Institutionalizing Secular Buddhism

Secular Buddhism has moved beyond simply being a matter of personal beliefs and personal identity to the creation of Secular Buddhist institutions. Though there are claims of authority over the movement, as of 2020 it had no central authority, and the institutional forms of Secular Buddhism are varied.71 These include websites oriented toward interested individuals, groups with formal membership, affiliated publishers, YouTube video series, books and online literature, and educational institutions. Institutionalization also necessarily involves strategies for claiming authority, which include personal experience, the rhetoric of original and authentic, a kind of selective textual fundamentalism focused on texts from the Pāli canon, and claiming an identity between Buddhism and science.72

Communities: Into the Virtual

Superficially, Secular Buddhism may seem to be an international phenomenon. While proponents of Secular Buddhism can be found across the globe including in Asia, affiliated institutions and organizations are primarily located in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, and additionally Australia and New Zealand.73 A different perspective, however, reveals that it is largely located in countries where Protestant religious culture is dominant.74 John Torpey makes a distinction between active and latent religiosity that is useful in understanding this fact.

Active religion is the sort of piety that one observes in houses of worship, at religious festivals and pilgrimages, and in the everyday religious practices of the faithful. Latent religion, by contrast, manifests itself more subtly, especially through the organization of public space and time, but also in terms of the sensibilities underlying particular regions and states.75

Protestant religious culture is the latent religiosity that conditions the reception of Secular Buddhism. Rather than being universal in its appeal, therefore, its own cultural accretions appear to somewhat limit its outreach beyond those societies whose religious culture has been formed by modern Protestant thought. This cultural location is not to be confused with racial location. While historically many of the media-familiar figures are white, the Secular Buddhist Association highlights the importance of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) Buddhists among Secular Buddhist sanghas. In the FAQ section of the Secular Buddhist Association website, Jennifer Hawkins points out that the membership of Secular Buddhist sanghas is reflective of the communities in which they are located.76 The Association also actively provides support for a variety of constituencies, including, for example, meetings in Spanish (eSangha eSpañol).

The advent of online communities has created different kinds of institutional structures, ones that are geographically diffuse and decentralized. Even before the move of so many Buddhist groups to the web in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Secular Buddhists actively engaged with digital media as a means of facilitating practice and community. Use of web-based platforms as well as their own websites has created the opportunity for previously local Secular Buddhist groups to establish an increasingly global presence. In 2017, for example, a New Zealand–based Secular Buddhist teacher, Ramsey Margolis, initiated an online group meditation using Zoom called “Online, Together, Meditating, Secular.”77 This was modeled on other Secular Buddhist Association events, known as “Practice Circles.” According to the report on the Secular Buddhist Association website, those in attendance for the first session were evenly balanced by gender, located not only in New Zealand but also Australia, Austria, and the United States, and constituted an ethnically diverse group.

This trend toward online activities accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic and continued into 2021. Events hosted online have facilitated much wider outreach. For example, the Secular Buddhist Network began hosting online meetings via Zoom, and the first of these in January 2021 included some forty-one participants from Costa Rica, Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, Australia, Germany, Canada, and the United States.78 Whether this will continue after the pandemic fades is of course an open question. The range of Secular Buddhist institutions goes beyond meditation groups, either online or in person. The Secular Buddhist Association, for example, has a series of blog posts by Doug Smith, which are also available on his YouTube channel.79

Education: Academic and Informal

While some Secular Buddhists appear to hold a negative view of the academic study of Buddhism, Bodhi College (located in Totnes, between Exeter and Plymouth on the south coast of England) has embraced an academic model of instruction. Founded by Stephen and Martine Batchelor, Bodhi College is explicitly oriented toward a secularized understanding of Buddhism and offers an educational program that integrates both theory and practice in accord with the present-day model of contemplative education.80 The curriculum is structured according to three categories: “Bodhi College courses encompass meditative learning (suta), critical examination (cintā) and practical cultivation (bhāvanā) of the Dharma as found in the early strata of Buddhist texts.”81 This approach is presented as a middle-way approach that is, therefore, congruent with the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha. In keeping with Secular Buddhist ideas more generally, the curriculum focuses on the sutta and vinaya sections of the Pāli canon and excepts the abhidhamma.82 This exclusive focus on the study of sutta and vinaya in Pāli is augmented only by study of these sections in other canonic and paracanonic languages. The program description actively embraces the Secular Buddhist rhetoric of focusing on the “original” teachings of the Buddha, compared to which the rest of the Buddhist tradition is derivative: “The College’s inspiration stems from the Dharma as found in the earliest Buddhist texts, which underlies many of the contemporary forms of meditation—such as mindfulness and vipassana.”83

During 2020, Bodhi College rescheduled its courses and retreats into an online format, and this continued in 2021. While motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic then affecting both Britain and Europe, this shift to online instruction is congruent with a pre-existing engagement with technology found throughout the Secular Buddhist community. In contrast to the longstanding Buddhist modernist trope that meditation is the only requirement for awakening, and that any pedagogy can be an impediment, Bodhi College emphasizes the value of “an in-depth exploration of these teachings [from the early Buddhist canon] that is not usually possible in a traditional silent retreat setting.”84

Another kind of institution that is a vehicle for Secular Buddhism is online instruction programs now offered by some Buddhist publications. For example, although starting out as a glossy print magazine, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review has recreated itself as an online presence, including articles, e-books, podcasts, a film club, and online courses. One course offered through Tricycle by Stephen and Martine Batchelor employs the name “Secular Dharma.” The course description highlights several Secular Buddhist themes:

The Buddha’s teachings—the dharma—arose in a very different world from the one we live in today. This pragmatic online course sets out an encompassing vision for understanding and practicing dharma in the contemporary world. At its heart is an easy acronym we can all learn to apply, ELSA: Embrace, Let go, See, and Act. Join Stephen and Martine Batchelor as they clarify the core elements of Buddhist thought and meditation practice for the way we live today.85

The goal of the course is described using the kind of rhetorical contrast that we have noted already: “human flourishing rather than the attainment of ‘enlightenment’,” with even the scare quotes around the term enlightenment indicating a pejorative view of the goal of Buddhism as traditionally understood.86 Beyond the online resources already mentioned, other informal educational platforms include Noah Rasheta’s (author of No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners) Secular Buddhism website and podcast and Bernat Font’s Spanish-language site, budismosecular.org.87 The creation of institutions separate from traditional ones simultaneously entails a need for creating alternative ways of claiming authority.

Claiming Authority

One of the noteworthy aspects of the development of Secular Buddhism is the strategic shifts in how claims to authority are made. This originally rather anarchic situation has already shifted, however, such that traditional sources of authority, for example monastic status, seniority, and academic training, have largely been displaced by claims based on meditative experience, a claim to represent the true original teachings of the Buddha, the authority of selected texts from the Pāli canon, and identifying Secular Buddhism with science. One way to understand these changes is that they evidence the role of the marketplace in molding the presentation of Secular Buddhism in the mode of self-help programs. These shifts have not taken place without contestation, however, nor have the other types of claims to authority disappeared from the broader Buddhist world.

The Authority of Experience

For over two and a half millennia the transmission of authority within Buddhism has depended on the monastic institutions that originated with the community that formed around Śākyamuni Buddha. Sources in the Pāli canon that describe the order include four basic groups of adherents: monks (bhikkhus), nuns (bhikkhunīs), male lay adherents, and female lay adherents.88 Like much of modern Western popular religious culture following the Reformation, however, some Secular Buddhists reject or at least question the institutionalized authority of monastic lineages, holding a critical attitude toward monks that is reminiscent of Reformation-era anticlericalism.89 Rather than seniority as an initiated member of the sangha, cumulative meditative experience and training is often treated as the primary measure of authority. While historically many of the proponents of Secular Buddhism had some monastic training, the rise of educational and training programs separate from monastic ones means that the next generation of leaders may not.

The emphasis on the authority of direct experience, a theme found throughout Western religious culture since the Enlightenment, provides a congenial context for a pragmatic understanding of the teachings, and more radically to a pragmatic conception of truth. Wiggins, for example, explains that in contrast to a correspondence theory of truth, “truth refers to ethical, practical outcomes. A true statement is one that points the way to human flourishing through skilful ethical practice.”90 Wiggins argues for seeing this claim as congruent with the anti-metaphysical stream of Western thought traceable to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900).

The Authority of the Original

Another strategy for claiming authority frequently employed by Secular Buddhists is the rhetorical conflation of original, pure, and authoritative. This is usually expressed in a form such as the original teachings of the Buddha Śākyamuni are pure of any later corruptions, and therefore it is these teachings that are authoritative. The website for Bodhi College, a Secular Buddhist educational institution discussed in the section “Education: Academic and Informal,” asserts that “our courses draw on the early teachings of the Buddha before they became codified into the doctrines of the different Buddhist traditions.”91 One of the consistent post-Reformation themes reflected here is that it is later sectarianism that obscures or corrupts the original, pure, and authoritative teachings of the Buddha Śākyamuni. Indeed, the slogan of Bodhi College is “Early Buddhist Teaching for Today.”92

The Authority of Textual Selectivity

A consistent theme throughout much of Secular Buddhist discourse is the identification of the Pāli canon with the original teachings of the Buddha. Indeed, one at times encounters the idea that the Buddha spoke Pāli.93 While there are a variety of positions taken within the Secular Buddhist community regarding the status of specific texts and the canon generally, a consistent dynamic is selectivity, that is, selecting those parts of the Pāli canon that are congruent with secular preconceptions, rather than accepting the whole of the canon as authoritative.

The Secular Buddhist movement is diverse, and even an exclusive commitment to the Pāli canon is not universal among Secular Buddhists despite its dominance in the discourse. For example, the fifth definitional statement of the “Secular Buddhism: No Robes. No Ritual. No Religion” website is that “Secular Buddhism recognizes all Buddhist writings, from the Pali Cannon [sic] to contemporary works, save those based on concepts of theism and rebirth.”94 In other words, a determination is made in advance as to what the authoritative teachings are not—those with any kind of “theism,” presumably characterizations of the Buddha as more than simply a human teacher, and rebirth. Selectively excluding those texts leaves a working corpus that reaffirms the pre-existing judgments as to what Buddhism “really” is.

The Authority of Science

As Wakoh Shannon Hickey has noted, “modernist religious movements reinterpret and reform traditional religious doctrines and practices for modern circumstances, adapting them particularly to contemporary scientific understandings of the world.”95 Claiming congruence with science has in many cases manifested as asserting that the Buddha’s teachings are identical with, anticipate, or are explained by modern science, and an emphasis on rationality as the standard for reinterpreting the dharma for a contemporary audience is central to Secular Buddhist discourse.96 This interpretive strategy has a long history in the modern representations of Buddhism to Western audiences. Because both Buddhism and science are socially constructed categories, the relation between the two is malleable. Ira Helderman points out “that all these imagined relationships between religion and science show themselves to be intrinsically unstable.”97

The claim to be scientific, rational, or empirical is frequently encountered in Secular Buddhist discourse. For example, according to one self-definition, Secular Buddhism “is scientific. It is based solely on the natural laws of cause and effect.”98 This is matched by an epistemological claim that Secular Buddhism “is empirical. Personal experience and direct validation are the only authority.” Taken together, these statements indicate a pre-critical, Baconian conception of science. In this view, there is no consideration of the socially constructed nature of science, nor any explicit discrimination between science as method and as content. A more nuanced understanding is, however, offered by Higgins, along with a distinction between two different cultural styles within Secular Buddhism.

In Higgins’s analysis, Secular Buddhism as found in the United States is a form of scientistic atheism, that is, a view in accord with Anglo-American or analytic philosophy with its emphasis on truth claims. Higgins contrasts this “scientistic” version of Secular Buddhism with a version he calls “interpretive” and that he sees as more aligned with Continental philosophy. “Brutally summarised, the first of these pursues knowledge in the form of truth-claims, and prioritises metaphysics and epistemology; whereas the second pursues wisdom and embraces such post-metaphysical schools as phenomenology, existentialism and pragmatism.”99 Higgins goes on to show how the relation between science and Buddhism has changed over time, and that the current commitment to cognitive science understood broadly is simply the latest manifestation.100

Buddhism’s romance with Western natural science has waxed and waned since it first received the accolade of ‘scientific religion’. But now it’s waxing again around neuroscience, genetics and genomics, once more on the basis of a supposedly shared interest in the human mind. The findings of these now heavily commercialised branches of science are contested, but also hyped and oversold, often with Buddhists’ help.101

In this way the Secular Buddhist claim to be scientific is not simply an epistemological position but simultaneously claims the authority that science holds in contemporary Euro-American society. The ability to produce quantifiable changes in brain activity correlated with positive emotions has been taken as proof of the utility of meditation.102 Robert Wright’s work Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment also exemplifies this strategy.103 Viewed critically, Wright’s work may be seen as a circular argument (a petitio principii fallacy) on the grounds that he reinterprets Buddhism so as to accord with modern science, specifically evolutionary psychology, and then says that this Buddhism is true because it is supported by science. More generously, he may be seen as creating a convergence between two distinct fields by emphasizing the similarities of specific parts of each: a naturalistic interpretation of Buddhism, and evolutionary psychology.

Summary: Latour’s Four Traces

The work of Bruno Latour on group formation provides a framework within which we can summarize Secular Buddhism as it exists at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Latour describes group formation as a process having four elements: “groups are made to talk; anti-groups are mapped; new resources are fetched so as to make their boundaries more durable; and professionals with their highly specialized paraphernalia are mobilized.”104 These four—spokespersons, defining anti-groups, defining groups, and second-order spokespersons—constitute the “traces left by the formation of groups.”105 All four of these “traces” reveal important aspects of the ongoing process of group formation in Secular Buddhism.

Several figures have been identified as spokespersons, figures who are either self-identified as Secular Buddhists or are identified as such by other proponents. Speaking on his own behalf, one individual proponent specifically described Secular Buddhism by identifying spokespersons, apparently presuming the reader is already familiar with the style of Buddhism each represents:

Secular Buddhism is an informal term used to describe a style of Buddhism most similar to that practiced and advocated by modern American or European Buddhists such as Jack Kornfield, Stephen Hagen, Sharon Salzberg, Joeseph [sic] Goldstein, Joko Beck and Stephen Batchelor.106

In the first trace, the newly forming group is given voice. Latour explains that “first, to delineate a group, no matter if it has to be created from scratch or simply refreshed, you have to have spokespersons which ‘speak for’ the group existence—and sometimes are very talkative.”107

Defining anti-groups is the second trace of the process of group formation. In the case of Secular Buddhism, displacing existing forms of authority, whether monastic, temple, or academic, necessitates defining them as the anti-group. While much Secular Buddhist rhetoric includes claims of opposing the authority of established Buddhism on the grounds that it is decadent, abusive, or oppressive, at the same time these claims comprise a strategy of claiming authority for oneself.

The anti-group for Secular Buddhism is variously identified, and Latour notes that actors “engage in criticizing other agencies accused of being fake, archaic, absurd, irrational, artificial or illusory. In the same way group performation maps out for the benefit of the enquirer the anti-groups making up their social world, accounts of agency will constantly add new entities while withdrawing others as illegitimate.”108

The anti-group for Secular Buddhism has been named variously. Some authors use the phrase “traditional Buddhism” to signify both Asian antecedents and, in some usages, forms that, having originated in Asia, developed in Europe and the United States over the course of the 20th century. Another phrase employed in this oppositional rhetoric is “ancestral Buddhism,” used for example by Higgins.109 One of his assertions highlights the role of such categories as semiotic opposites, rather than as empirically descriptive. For example, Higgins asserts that “for most Asian Buddhists, both those who have stayed at home and those who have migrated to the West and joined ethnic diasporas, ancestral Buddhist life and observance persevere largely untouched by modern innovations.”110 This description is inaccurate for both groups—those who stayed home and those who migrated. The image serves, however, the longstanding colonialist rhetoric of opposition between the passive, unchanging, pastoral, feminine, and conservative East, and the active, progressive, industrial, masculine, and modernizing West. Such representations are not only inaccurate but can be considered self-serving, patronizing, and antagonistic. These categories‚ such as traditional or ancestral‚ constitute part of a pattern of rhetorical oppositions, ones used not as empirically informed sociological or historical descriptors, but instead creating the anti-group.

Deploying semiotically oppositional pairs in the construction of anti-groups is, of course, not limited to Secular Buddhists, as for example when Secular Buddhist rhetoric in turn molds responses in conformity with the oppositional relation. One instance of this reflexivity is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s distinction between Secular Buddhism and what he calls “Classical Buddhism.”111 As characterized by Bodhi, Secular Buddhism is distinguished by its focus on the present “existential situation” of the human being, without recourse to “non-naturalistic assumptions.” Thus, samsara is interpreted as our present suffering, rather than pointing to repeated rebirth as in Classical Buddhism. This interpretive strategy is then also extended to the concept of nirvana. In Bodhi’s characterization, Secular Buddhists

interpret the idea of samsara as a metaphor depicting our ordinary condition of bewilderment and addictive pursuits. The secular programme thus re-envisions the goal of Buddhist practice, rejecting the idea of irreversible liberation from the cycle of rebirths in favour of a tentative, ever-fragile freedom from distress in this present life.112

Bodhi’s oppositional evaluation continues through additional topics central to Buddhist thought, which he identifies as “the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” The oppositional structuring initiated by Secular Buddhists rejecting what they describe as religious Buddhism also then structures responses to Secular Buddhism. This dynamic replicates the relation between the criticisms of Buddhism made by Christian missionaries in the 19th century and the construction of a response to that criticism by Buddhist apologists in the form of Buddhist modernism. Whatever it is called, the anti-group is often created by projection, that is, like Jung’s concept of the Shadow, or Said’s concept of the exotic Other, the negative qualities, characteristics, practices one wishes to assert are not one’s own are then projected onto the other.

The third trace is the creation of new groups, and the boundaries of those groups made durable. The several Secular Buddhist institutions, such as the Secular Buddhist Association, serve to consolidate a group identity. The Secular Buddhist Network also actively works to create community and maintains a list of local communities, groups, and centers.113 The website encourages viewers to add their own local group to the listings.

Professionals, or what Latour also calls “second-order spokespersons,” reify the group, constituting the fourth trace. They first lend an aura of actuality. In this case, the aura of actuality is created by the repeated assertion, either explicit or implicit, that Secular Buddhism is an actual thing and not just a passing curiosity. Second, at the same time, these representations give Secular Buddhism legitimacy, the status of being a valid option. Latour specifically points to academics and journalists as second-order spokespersons. For him, “any study of any group by any social scientist is part and parcel of what makes the group exist, last, decay or disappear.”114 Thus, not only interviews appearing in popular Buddhist magazines, but also book reviews and essays in professional journals, book-length monographs, and entries in encyclopedias, such as this one, contribute to the aura of actuality and legitimacy.115

Conclusion

The negative formation of Secular Buddhism semiotically binds it not only to religious Buddhism but also to “religion” more generally, and therefore with two other concepts that constellate the meaning of Secular Buddhism‚ superstition and science.116 Like the oppositional relation between secular and religious, there is an oppositional relation between science and superstition. This in turn creates a double semiotic pairing of secular with science, and religion with superstition. Thus, the rejection of aspects of the Buddhist tradition identified as superstition is an essential part of the negative definition of Secular Buddhism. In clearing away those parts of the Buddhist tradition understood as inhibiting its useful application in the present, this negative, or critical aspect of Secular Buddhist discourse is the inverse of the intent to create a new form of Buddhism that is useful of people in the present day.

Secular Buddhism is a rapidly changing and developing phenomenon. One of the more significant developments in contemporary Western Buddhism is what Ann Gleig has called postmodern forms of Buddhism. Her research points to recent developments within the groups that she refers to as “American Buddhist meditation-based convert lineages.”117 While there is some overlap with Secular Buddhism, these developments point to “an increasing interrogation of Buddhist modernism” as such, and a range of postmodern forms.118 One possible future trajectory for Secular Buddhism would be a fuller integration with postmodern interpretations of Buddhist teachings and practices.

It should be noted that as of 2021 the Secular Buddhist movement is not formally institutionalized and continues to change and develop. This article is therefore simply a “snapshot” of its developmental trajectory.

Review of the Literature

The study of Secular Buddhism is a new field, but a collection of essays edited by Richard K. Payne, Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, provides an academic overview.119 In addition to the introductory survey, the volume includes twelve essays by scholars and practitioners on the topic. Moreover, the Journal of Global Buddhism has published half a dozen essays on the topic; see in particular those by Winton Higgins, Jørn Borup, Stephen Batchelor, and David Bubna–Litic and Winton Higgins.120 An important critique of Western Buddhism, including in its secularized forms, is by Glenn Wallis.121

Although the academic study of Secular Buddhism is not well advanced, each of the several themes discussed in this article does have its own literature, some of it quite extensive. Consequently we are here selective regarding which sources provide the most relevant orientation to the topic. The topics are secularity/secularization, including the modern conception of society as a neutral container of different religions, and the category of world religions; Protestant Buddhism and Buddhist modernism; the culture of self-help, including the secularized version of Buddhist meditation under the rubric of mindfulness; and the multiplicity of secularities.

The literature on secularism/secularity is expansive and continues to grow. A comprehensive treatment is provided by Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook, The Oxford Handbook of Secularism.122 Talal Asad, an anthropologist who has been influential for the study of religion, has produced a volume examining the relation between the concepts of the secular, secularism, and secularization, which provides detailed nuancing between the religious, social, political, and historical dimensions of these concepts.123 The creation of the modern conception of society as a neutral container of different religious traditions has been examined by Timothy Fitzgerald.124 Application of the religious–secular binary to Buddhism is based on the idea that Buddhism is a religion, a way of treating Buddhism that originated in the formation of the category of world religions.125

The phrase “Protestant Buddhism” was employed by Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere to describe the kind of Buddhist modernism that was created in Sri Lanka from the latter part of the 19th century.126 This classic continues to be of value for understanding the history of Buddhist modernism as the background to Secular Buddhism. Heinz Bechert established the category of Buddhist modernism in 1966.127 More recently, David L. McMahan has produced both a monograph and a collection of essays devoted to the topic.128 Most usages of the category in Buddhist studies literature now follow from McMahan’s formulation.

The culture of self-help and pop psychology has been very formative for Secular Buddhism, and the best single study is by Eva Illouz, who explains the important role of psychology in Western popular culture.129 The psychologization of popular religious culture, particularly in the form of self-help, is the context for Buddhism in the West. As a secularized version of Buddhist meditation, mindfulness has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. Jeff Wilson provides the best overview of the topic, the thesis of which is that American religious culture and Buddhist meditation are dialectically changing one another.130 The best study of the history of secularized mindfulness and its grounding in Western culture is by Wakoh Shannon Hickey.131 Particularly valuable as an empirical study of how the borders between the concepts of the secular, religion, and Buddhism are negotiated by practicing psychotherapists is by Ira Helderman.132 This work demonstrates how it is that the way that these concepts are structured has societal consequences.

Multiple secularities is the focus of a research group at the University of Leipzig. The project’s website provides access to several publications relevant to the secularization of Buddhism.133 The publications of the research group include both working papers and a “Companion to the Study of Secularity,” which is envisioned as an ongoing online publication. David McMahan’s “Buddhism, Meditation, and Global Secularisms” is also relevant in this regard.134

Further Reading

  • Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.
  • Batchelor, Stephen. “A Secular Buddhist.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Fall 2012).
  • Gleig, Ann. American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.
  • Gombrich, Richard, and Gananath Obeyesekere. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Hickey, Wakoh Shannon. Mind Cure: How Meditation Became Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Lopez, Donald S. The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Payne, Richard K., ed. Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021.
  • Purser, Ron. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London: Repeater Books, 2019.
  • Swearer, Donald. “Lay Buddhism and the Buddhist Revival in Ceylon.” Journal of the American Academy of Religions 38, no. 3 (1970): 255–275.
  • Swearer, Donald. “Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa’s Interpretation of the Buddha.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 2 (1996): 313–336.
  • Wallis, Glenn. A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

Notes

  • 1. See Shannon Hickey, “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms and Racism‚” Journal of Global Buddhism 11 (2010): 1–25.

  • 2. Jan Nattier, “Who Is a Buddhist? Charting the Landscape of Buddhist America,” in The Faces of Buddhism in America, ed. Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 183–195, at 189.

  • 3. Martin Baumann, “The Transplantation of Buddhism to Germany: Processive Modes and Strategies of Adaptation,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 6, no. 1 (1994): 35–61. For an analysis of the Orientalist dimensions of this process, see Ellen Goldberg, “The Re-Orientation of Buddhism in North America,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 11, no. 4 (1999): 340–356.

  • 4. Philippe Turenne, “Buddhism Without a View: A Friendly Conversation With Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism,” in Secularizing Buddhism, ed. Richard K. Payne (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021), 185–205.

  • 5. Robert C. Fuller, “Secular Spirituality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, ed. Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 571–586.

  • 6. Véronique Altglas, From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 2.

  • 7. Donald Swearer, “Lay Buddhism and the Buddhist Revival in Ceylon,” Journal of the American Academy of Religions 38, no. 3 (1970): 255–275.

  • 8. See, for example, Ruth Streicher and Adrian Hermann, “‘Religion’ in Thailand in the 19th Century,” in HCAS “Multiple Secularities—Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities,” Leipzig University, 2019; and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr and Marian Burchardt, “Revisiting the Secular: Multiple Secularities and Pathways to Modernity,” Working Papers Series of the HCAS “Multiple Secularities—Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities” 2, Leipzig, 2017. On King Mongkut, see Donald Swearer, “Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa’s Interpretation of the Buddha,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 2 (1996): 313–336, at 322.

  • 9. Swearer, “Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa’s Interpretation of the Buddha,” 323.

  • 10. Douglas Ober, “Buddhism in Colonial Contexts,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedias/Religion, ed. John Barton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), n.p.; Brooke Schedneck, “International Buddhist Organizations,” in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, ed. Michael Jerryson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 398–416, at 399; Richard Hughes Seager, Encountering the Dharma: Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai, and the Globalization of Buddhist Humanism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Vidhu Verma, “Reinterpreting Buddhism: Ambedkar on the Politics of Social Action,” Economic and Political Weekly 45, no. 49 (December 4–10, 2010): 56–65; and Charles Jones, “Establishing the Pure Land in the Human Realm,” in Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, ed. Richard K. Payne (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021), 115–133.

  • 11. Matthew J. Walton, “Burmese Buddhist Politics,” in Oxford Handbooks Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), n.p.; and Donald S. Lopez, The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 98.

  • 12. Jones, “Establishing the Pure Land in the Human Realm.”

  • 13. For one view of the issues, see Markus Dreßler, “Religionization and Secularity,” in HCAS “Multiple Secularities—Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities,” Leipzig University, 2019.

  • 14. For Japan, see Aike P. Rots and Mark Teeuwen, “Formations of the Secular in Japan,” Japan Review 30 (2017): 3–20; Erica Baffelli, “Contested Positioning: ‘New Religions’ and Secular Spheres,” Japan Review Japan Review 30 (2017): 129–152; Christoph Kleine, “The Secular Ground Bass of Pre-modern Japan Reconsidered: Reflections upon the Buddhist Trajectories Towards Secularity,” Working Papers Series of the HCAS “Multiple Secularities—Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities” 5, Leipzig, 2018. For Tibet, see Dagmar Schwerk, “Buddhism and Politics in the Tibetan Cultural Area,” HCAS “Multiple Secularities—Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities,” Leipzig University, 2019. For China, see André Laliberté, “Multiple Secularities in Culturally Chinese Societies,” HCAS “Multiple Secularities—Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities,” Leipzig University, 2020.

  • 15. Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

  • 16. Dharmapala, “The World’s Debt to Buddha,” in The World’s Parliament of Religions, Vol. 2, ed. John Henry Barrows (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893); cited in Sarah LeVine and David N. Gellner, Rebuilding Buddhism: The Theravada Movement in Twentieth-Century Nepal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 3.

  • 17. J. Brent Crosson, “The Politics of Spirituality and Secularization in Western Modernity,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion, ed. John Barton (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), n.p.

  • 18. John Torpey, “Religion and Secularization in the United States and Western Europe,” in The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society, ed. Philip Gorski et al. (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 288–289.

  • 19. Ira Helderman, Prescribing the Dharma: Psychotherapists, Buddhist Traditions, and Defining Religion (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 45.

  • 20. Lois Lee, “Non-Religion,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion, ed. Michael Strausberg and Steven Engler (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 84–94, at 84–85.

  • 21. Lee, “Non-Religion,” 85.

  • 22. Jack L. Graham, “Nonreligious Buddhism: Understanding Secular Buddhism as the Result of a Dialogue Between Victorian Constructions of ‘Buddhism’ and the Discourse of Non-Religion,” University of Oxford, 2018.

  • 23. Graham, “Non-Religious Buddhism,” 11.

  • 24. Graham, “Non-Religious Buddhism,” 14.

  • 25. Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 121–146.

  • 26. See, for example, Robert Wright, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017).

  • 27. See Richard K. Payne, “How Not to Talk About Pure Land Buddhism: A Critique of Huston Smith’s (Mis)Representations,” in Path of No Path: Contemporary Studies in Pure Land Buddhism Honoring Roger Corless, ed. Richard K. Payne (Berkeley: Institute of Buddhist Studies and Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2009), 147–172.

  • 28. Richard K. Payne, “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism,” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, 3rd series, no. 10 (2008): 177–223.

  • 29. James Ford, “The Problem of Our Suffering: A (Modernist) Zen Buddhist Meditation,” see online, September 16, 2017.

  • 30. Ron Purser, “Secular Buddhism in a Neoliberal Age,” in Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, ed. Richard K. Payne (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021), 207–219.

  • 31. See Richard K. Payne, “Mindfulness and the Moral Imperative for the Self to Improve the Self,” in Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, ed. Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, and Adam Burke (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2018), 121–134.

  • 32. Richard K. Payne, “Religion, Self-Help, Science: Three Economies of Western/ized Buddhism,” Journal of Global Buddhism 20 (2019): 69–86, at 79.

  • 33. Purser, “Secular Buddhism in a Neoliberal Age,” 213–214. See also Payne, “Mindfulness and the Moral Imperative.”

  • 34. Regarding the problematic character of this kind of claim, see Funie Hsu, “American Cultural Baggage: The Racialized Secularization of Mindfulness in Schools,” in Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, ed. Richard K. Payne (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021), 79–93; and Funie Hsu, “What Is the Sound of One Invisible Hand Clapping? Neoliberalism, the Invisibility of Asian and Asian American Buddhists, and Secular Mindfulness in Education,” in Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, ed. Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, and Adam Burke (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2016), 369–381.

  • 35. See online.

  • 36. Akincano M. Weber, in his essay “Secular Buddhism: New Vision or Yet Another of the Myths It Claims to Cure?,” Insight Journal (Aug. 2013), opens with a more nuanced discussion of the semiotics of “secular” that includes several additional connotations. The dialectic of secular and religious is acknowledged by Seth Zuihō Segall, “Why I Am Not a Secular Buddhist,” Secular Buddhist Network.

  • 37. Helderman, Prescribing the Dharma, 42.

  • 38. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

  • 39. Helderman, Prescribing the Dharma, 33.

  • 40. Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions.

  • 41. Richard K. Payne, “Conscious and Unconscious Dynamics in the Secularizing Discourse,” in Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, ed. Richard K. Payne (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021), 285–314.

  • 42. The historical background of this complex of supernatural and extraordinary as the “preternatural” is discused by Crosson, “The Politics of Spirituality and Secularization in Western Modernity.”

  • 43. Mark Juergensmeyer, “The Imagined War Between Secularism and Religion,” in The Oxford Handbook of Secularism, ed. Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 71–84, at 74.

  • 44. Juergensmeyer, “The Imagined War Between Secularism and Religion,” 74.

  • 45. Sarah Shaw, “Has Secularism Become a Religion? Some Observations of Pāli Buddhism’s Movement to the International Stage,” in Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, ed. Richard K. Payne (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021), 29–55, at 32.

  • 46. Glenn Wallis, A Critique of Western Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

  • 47. Glenn Wallis, “On the Faith of Secular Buddhists,” Speculative Non-Buddhism, May 9, 2012.

  • 48. Wallis, “On the Faith of Secular Buddhists,” emphases in original.

  • 49. Shaw, “Has Secularism Become a Religion?,” 51.

  • 50. Winton Higgins, “The Coming of Secular Buddhism: A Synoptic View,” Journal of Global Buddhism 13 (2012): 109–126, at 123.

  • 51. Higgins, “The Coming of Secular Buddhism,” 123.

  • 52. Tricycle.

  • 53. Tricycle, “Buddhism for Beginners: Can Someone Be a Secular Buddhist? Why ‘Secular’? Isn’t Buddhism a Religion?.”

  • 54. Secular Buddhist Network, SBN Editor, “An Introduction to Secular Buddhism.”

  • 55. Mark Knickelbine, “Batchelor’s Ten Theses of Secular Dharma,” November 23, 2015.

  • 56. Knickelbine, “Batchelor’s Ten Theses of Secular Dharma.”

  • 57. See online.

  • 58. David L. McMahan, “Buddhism and Secular Subjectivities: Individualism and Fragmentation in the Mirrors of Secularism,” in Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, ed. Richard K. Payne (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021), 57–78; and Payne, “Conscious and Unconscious Dynamics.”

  • 59. In some schemas there are five realms. These are the desire realms (kāmadhātu), which are the ones most commonly presented in popular teachings regarding rebirth. Other realms include the form (rūpadhātu) and formless realms (ārūpyadhātu) as well. The complex issue of Buddhist cosmology is discussed in Rupert Gethin, Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 112–132.

  • 60. On rebirth in the Pāli canon, see Bhikkhu Anālayo, Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2018).

  • 61. See online.

  • 62. Roger R. Jackson, “Avoiding Rebirth: Modern Buddhist Views on Past and Future Lives,” in Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition, ed. Richard K. Payne (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021), 239–263.

  • 63. Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 3.

  • 64. See online, July 18, 2010.

  • 65. See online.

  • 66. Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” Tricycle, Fall 2012.

  • 67. See online, July 4, 2010.

  • 68. The site points toward the Secular Buddhist Association, but appears to have no formal relations with the SBA.

  • 69. See online, posted July 18, 2010.

  • 70. See online, accessed 11 December 2019; originally published on “Shambhala Sun,” March 19, 2006.

  • 71. This is already beginning to change, for example with claims found on the Secular Buddhist Association website that some people are not “genuine” Secular Buddhists, and the expressed intent to develop an authorized Secular Buddhist teacher training program. Jennifer Hawkins, “Frequently Asked Questions on Secular Buddhism,” Secular Buddhist Association, 2020.

  • 72. See Richard K. Payne, “Buddhism and the Sciences: Historical Background, Contemporary Developments,” Journal of Dharma Studies 3 (2020): 219–243.

  • 73. See online.

  • 74. Bernat Font attempts to obscure this cultural locatedness of Secular Buddhism by claiming that it is part of “the great enterprise of rooting Buddhism not so much in the West but in contemporaneity.” Bernat Font, “Secular Buddhism,” Secular Buddhist Network.

  • 75. Torpey, “Religion and Secularization,” 290.

  • 76. Hawkins, “Frequently Asked Questions.”

  • 77. Jennifer Hawkins, “Online, Together, Meditating, Secular: An Even Announcement from New Zealand!” Secular Buddhist Association, December 2, 2017.

  • 78. See online.

  • 79. See online and online.

  • 80. “Contemplative educators have embraced practices that center on interiority as the critical source for personal and intellectual growth and the strengthening of exterior ways of understanding.” Patricia Owen-Smith, The Contemplative Mind in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018), 20.

  • 81. See online, 2019.

  • 82. For an instance of the attitude toward abhidhamma, see a post on the Bodhi College blog by Letizia Baglioni, “Why ‘Early’ Buddhism?, 2020.

  • 83. See online, 2021; see also Baglioni, “Why ‘Early’ Buddhism?”

  • 84. See online, 2020.

  • 85. See online.

  • 86. Another course representing a Secular Buddhist understanding, “The Four Noble Truths,” is offered by four teachers at Bodhi College.

  • 87. secularbuddhism.com.

  • 88. Bhikkhu Anālayo, “The Four Assemblies and Theravāda Buddhism,” Insight Journal (2015).

  • 89. Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (New York: Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2010), 6.

  • 90. Winton Higgins, “Secular Buddhism and the Western Search for Meaning.”

  • 91. Bodhi College, 2020.

  • 92. Bodhi College, 2020.

  • 93. This has been given authoritative expression by Richard Gombrich, Buddhism and Pali (Oxford: Mud Pie Books, 2018), 69.

  • 94. See online, 18 July 2010.

  • 95. Wakoh Shannon Hickey, Mind Cure: How Meditation Became Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 11.

  • 96. Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 3. See also Lopez, The Scientific Buddha. Science is also seen as providing a tool that can correct Secular Buddhist practice. Dana Nourie, “Why Scientific Scrutiny Is Vital to Buddhist Practice,” Secular Buddhist Association, September 3, 2011.

  • 97. Helderman, Prescribing the Dharma, 37.

  • 98. See online.

  • 99. See online.

  • 100. See also Ramsey Margolis, “Science, Meditation, Emotion, Creativity,” Secular Buddhist Network, reposted from Creative Dharma: A Newsletter, December 2020.

  • 101. See online.

  • 102. Rachel Nuwer, “The World’s Happiest Man Is a Tibetan Monk,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 1, 2012.

  • 103. For a succinct treatment, see “Is Buddhism True? An Interview with Robert Wright,” Garrison Institute, November 30, 2017.

  • 104. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 30–34. My thanks to my friend Wendi Adamek for calling my attention back to Latour.

  • 105. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 31.

  • 106. See online, posted July 18, 2010.

  • 107. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 31.

  • 108. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 56.

  • 109. Higgins, “The Coming of Secular Buddhism,” 113.

  • 110. Higgins, “The Coming of Secular Buddhism,” 112.

  • 111. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Facing the Great Divide,” Inquiring Mind 31, no. 2 (Spring 2015).

  • 112. Bodhi, “Facing the Great Divide.”

  • 113. See online.

  • 114. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 33.

  • 115. For example, Roger Jackson, review of Stephen Batchelor, Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 7, no. 2 (1984): 208–216; Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhism,” Journal of Global Buddhism 13 (2012): 87–107; Higgins, “The Coming of Secular Buddhism”; Winton Higgins, “The Flexible Appropriation of Tradition: Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism,” Journal of Global Buddhism 18 (2017): 51–67; and Richard K. Payne, ed., Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021).

  • 116. For a brief discussion of his ideas about the interconnections of the concept religion with several other discursive categories, see Timothy Fitzgerald, “Critical Religion: ‘Religion’ Is Not a Stand-Alone Category,” in Religion, Theory, Critique: Classic and Contemporary Approaches and Methodologies, ed. Richard King (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 435–454.

  • 117. Ann Gleig, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 5.

  • 118. Gleig, American Dharma, 5.

  • 119. Payne, Secularizing Buddhism.

  • 120. Journal of Global Buddhism.

  • 121. Wallis, A Critique of Western Buddhism.

  • 122. Phil Zuckerman and John R. Shook, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Secularism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

  • 123. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

  • 124. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); and Timothy Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

  • 125. Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions.

  • 126. Gombrich and Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed.

  • 127. Heinz Bechert, Hellmuth Hecker, and Duy Tu Vu, Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda–Buddhismus, Vol. 1 (Berlin: Alfred Metzner Verlag, 1966).

  • 128. David L. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); and David L. McMahan, ed., Buddhism in the Modern World (London: Routledge, 2012).

  • 129. Eva Illouz, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

  • 130. Jeff Wilson, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • 131. Hickey, Mind Cure.

  • 132. Helderman, Prescribing the Dharma.

  • 133. Multiple Secularities, research group, University of Leipzig.

  • 134. David McMahan, “Buddhism, Meditation, and Global Secularisms,” Journal of Global Buddhism 18 (2017): 112–128.