Secular Buddhism

Has a new Buddhist sect formed in the West?



I recall more than 30 years ago asking Gaia House, the much loved meditation centre, a few miles north of Totnes, south Devon, England, to display only beautiful plants and flowers in the front of the meditation hall rather than a Buddha image. Trustees and co-Dharma teachers kindly agreed. I also requested that we name the meditation centre as Gaia House. Gaia, a Greek goddess, means ‘Living Earth’ and, coincidentally, has the same pronunciation as (Bodh) Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s awakening. Co-teachers and trustees also kindly agreed to this proposal.


Hundreds of people every year come to Gaia House to learn skills to develop mindfulness, meditation and wisdom. I felt concern that the appearance of a Buddha image might give an immediate association to new meditators that Gaia House promoted Buddhism and encouraged conversion rather than offer Dharma teachings. I also preferred to use a name from ancient Greece for the centre to reflect our European heritage, rather than a Buddhist name imported from the East. Gaia reflects the web of life,  the inter- connection of the inner and the outer, and points to the values of wisdom and compassion,


On a visit to Gaia House several years ago for the 25th birthday celebration, I noticed a Buddha image in the hall – a decision that the senior Dharma teachers and trustees had made some years before. In the scheme of things, it probably does not matter. The practice quickly makes clear to participants that Gaia House has no interest for people to become Buddhists, religious or secular. The teachers provide the yogis (as we call participants) with practical skills and tools for daily life. Gaia House has stayed true to its mission.


I have been hearing about and reading online of the development of what seems to be a new Buddhist sect in the West known as Secular Buddhism. I receive regular emails asking about secular Buddhism. as well as responding to questions on my retreats and workshops.


I have googled ‘secular Buddhism,’ ‘secular Buddhists’ and read online some prominent Buddhists who identify themselves as secular Buddhists. I have read several of the critiques of this new branch of Buddhism. I have spent hours reading about the values, explanations and priorities for secular Buddhists. Fascinating stuff. Well, mostly. It would appear that secular Buddhists have stripped away any religious, spiritual or sacred association with the teachings to make the practices accessible to those with little or no interest in Buddhism, past or present.


One of the Gaia House teachers started a discussion with me last weekend about secular Buddhists as we drove in her car to a mutual friend’s birthday party. A Dharma teacher in Australia emailed me the following day. She wrote: “I would be interested in your thoughts about the new ‘secular Buddhist’ designation. Many friends here now want to identify themselves in this way.”


I am also asked regularly if I am a secular Buddhist. No.


I am also asked (occasionally) if I am a traditional Buddhist. No.


I am just a Buddha wallah, a Dharma wallah, a Sangha wallah.


What are some of the concerns about traditional Buddhism?


Some of us express concern about the patriarchy of traditional Buddhism. Some of the religious beliefs in traditional Buddhism distract from the radical changes needed. None of the Buddhist leaders in the East of any traditions have taken any steps to enable women to have equal opportunity to teach the Dharma, given equal opportunity for women to take full ordination and equal opportunity for women to practice in Buddhist monasteries. I regard this mediaeval attitude as a blight on religious Buddhism. Yes, there are a few honourable exceptions to the domination of patriarchy.


Secular Buddhists seems to be making some impact among Western Buddhists, who wish to distance themselves from traditional forms of religious Buddhism. Generally speaking, secular Buddhists have little appetite for religious forms, such as monasticism, temples, flowers, candles, incense and the world of rites and rituals found in traditional Buddhism, whether Theravada, Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism or Zen.


Far too many religious Buddhists with power and influence cling to the past while preaching about impermanence. Thoughtful Christians, especially in the Protestant community, continue to make significant steps to bridge the gulf between men and women in religious life. Buddhist leaders and hierarchy have a stranglehold on the religion In general, Buddhism remains deeply conservative and tied to disciplinary rules, out of date forms and a determination to hold onto the past.


Secular Buddhists also have distanced themselves from some of the religious beliefs such as rebirth, psychic powers, miracles, religious devotion, gods, angels, the heaven and hell realms. Such Buddhists share something in common with the Protestant reformation movement of the 16th century with all the rejection of the power of the Church, an inflexible hierarchy and questionable beliefs. Protestant reformers took great personal risk to move away from the domination of the Church. Buddhists will probably tend to regard the new secular Buddhists as simply expressing a view in the thicket of views (as the Buddha would say) in the Dharma/Buddhist world.


What are some of the concerns about Secular Buddhism?


Secularism is a common belief in our society for those who identify themselves with non-religious values. The dictionary defines secularism as that which “relates to what is not connected to the religious spiritual and sacred.”


I have a concern about secular Buddhism. Have secular Buddhists cut off far too much in their desire to keep to the bare bones of the teaching with a subsequent neglect of the flesh that goes with the skeleton? I know there is no wish for secular Western Buddhists to sound like Buddhist fundamentalists or advocates of the Protestant work ethic but there is growing concern.


Secular Buddhism gives priority to the development of the eightfold path along with proficient meditation techniques and an ethical foundation for practice. Is this enough for one life? Are secular Buddhists engaged in a secular reductionism that limits the potential of practitioners for full awakening and also misses out on the benefits of the religious, spiritual and sacred experience? Is it wise to dispense with the religious, spiritual and sacred?


Secular Buddhists may not wish to become a Buddhist sect but these wishes do not rest in their hands, nor, more seriously, secular Buddhists do not wish to trigger a rift in the Sangha. Other Buddhists and non-Buddhists will determine whether secular Buddhists in West have become another Buddhist sect.

Secular Buddhists need to be mindful that they do not identify themselves with a small corner of the teachings. Dharma teachings advocate an expansive and adventurous way of life, rather than an exclusive religious or secular set of beliefs.


By identifying with secular Buddhism, the followers of this branch of Buddhism will feel a gap from those who love and appreciate the religious life of Buddhism. Such devotees of traditional Buddhism, East and West, enjoy chanting, mantras, guru devotion, prostrations, visualisations, merit making, offerings, use of the triple refuge to become a Buddhist and heartfelt support of the religion and monasticism. Many of these expressions of traditional Buddhism are not my cup of tea either but why appear to form a Buddhist sect to distance oneself and encourage others to do the same?


Buddhist secularists express various thoughtful views about their relationship, if any, to the Buddha, awakening, the suttas (texts), Buddhist masters and the various traditions and lineages. Under pressure, some secular Buddhists have started to harden their views and that might become a shadow over an insightful secular Buddhist approach.


The Spiritual and the Sacred


While reading the online literature of leading secular Buddhists, I found little or no relevance to the wealth and depth of the teachings outside the pragmatic application of the eightfold path. For example, I regard the deep aspiration towards the spiritual as indispensable to the teachings and practices. By the termspiritual, I mean a non-material, non-constructed transcendence. The realisation of transcendence puts into place and perspective all the relative conventions, religious and secular, from birth to death.


We need also the regular experience of the sacred. Again, I find little reference to the sacred in the writings of secular Buddhists. We benefit immensely from the wisdom found in sacred texts, sacred music, sacred places, sacred pilgrimages and a whole range of sacred moments. The sacred refers to specifics in experience and contact worthy of respect and reverence. We need the capacity to distinguish the sacred from the profane also found in texts and places. The sacred matters deeply in the field of human experience. The realisation of the sacred in our perceptions reveals expressions of transcendence amidst the ordinary and familiar.


Secular Buddhists may reject the religious, spiritual and sacred or they may claim the spiritual and the sacred are implicit in their approach. I would strongly advise secular Buddhists to make the spiritual and the sacred explicit.


It is fine to point out the emptiness of religion, robes and rituals in the temple, as long as one points out, with equal clarity, the emptiness of secularism, conventional dress codes and habits in the supermarket. Nothing is worth taking up and becoming identified with.


A Dharma to meet the wide needs of people


It is not surprising that the believers in secular Buddhism see themselves as a positive move forward in bringing the Dharma to the West. They show a genuine concern that the trappings of the religion can act as a major deterrent to Westerners to explore the Dharma. I get asked plenty of questions about the peculiar beliefs and views found in religious Buddhism. I have a get-out clause. I say: “You should ask a Buddhist. I am just a Buddha wallah.”


The application of discernment constitutes an indispensable feature of wisdom. Buddha-Dharma teachers and fellow practitioners certainly have the responsibility to separate the grains of rice from the gravel. We have a responsibility to ensure that the Dharma teachings meet the wide range of emotional, psychological and spiritual needs in our society.


I wonder whether forming another Buddhist sect, intentionally or not, expresses a step in the right direction.


The Problem of Identity


The desire to take up an identity, such as a secular Buddhist, religious Buddhist or a plain Buddhist, feeds the self, the formation, sustenance and continuity of the self. As a liberation teaching, the making of an identity generates an obstruction to liberation. The teachings unhesitatingly point out the emptiness of self, of identity, through religious and secular beliefs.


The teachings of the Four Truths of the Noble Ones, dependent arising/conditionality and the Noble Path give no support whatsoever to identification with any set of beliefs and standpoints. The teachings do not advocate that the self identifies with a religious standpoint or a secular standpoint of a mixture of both.

Transcendence through non-grasping takes priority.


An appreciation for traditional Buddhism


Some of us experience an incredible gratitude for our years of practice in the monastery despite all the religiosity in the air. Religious Buddhists provided us with a suitable monastic environment, supported the Abbot, the monks and nuns so we could practice morning, noon and night. Religious Buddhists provided us with the necessities of food, clothing, huts and medicine, as well as money for bus, train and air flights. We were never asked for a single cent in return. East and West, such traditional Buddhists engage in deep practice reflecting their religious and spiritual needs.


I had the immense privilege of spending six years as a Buddhist monk in Thailand and India. I lived in Buddhist monasteries and spent months in various Hindu ashrams. I received immeasurable benefits from people of faith of Buddhism and Hinduism during my 10 years in the East. I cannot recall a single monastery or ashram asking this Buddha wallah for a single Thai bart or Indian rupee for my stay, whether weeks, months or years.


I am not going to turn my back on such hospitality, on daily offerings, and wealth of teachings and become a secular Buddhist. Western travellers in India also gave me huge support as a Buddhist monk, a prominent symbol of religious Buddhism. I benefitted from all this practical dana to enable me to practice and then gave me support as a servant of the Dharma when I offered teaching. The Buddha firmly reminded Ananda we live the whole of the spiritual life to express loving kindness, friendship and love.


Religious devotion  and secular minded Buddhists have helped to establish monasteries and Dharma centres in the West, open and available for a wide variety of practices. Without long term practice in centres and monasteries, East and West, how will a new generation of teachers emerge in the West? The four kinds of people in the Sangha, monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, form an essential network to explore and offer the Dharma.


Listening to wisdom


Perhaps the hippy generation of the 1960s and early 1970s had a romantic view of Buddhism but a single retreat can bring such idealisation down to earth. The people I meet in three continents every year have generally moved on from a romantic view and express an interest to explore a real alternative to consumerism and maximisation of the self. Religious Buddhism and secular Buddhism can support this exploration or obstruct it.


We need to listen to the wise voices in traditional and contemporary practices. These wise voices,  found among  monks,  nuns, and householders, have much to offer. The best of Buddhist monasteries in the East and West still enable men and women to explore Dharma teachings and practices. We may not have much appetite for the pod of the religion but monasteries provide potential access to the peas, namely awakening and liberation. Buddhist monasteries also provide environments for practice and places of refuge from the stress and pressure of an intensely secularised culture.


We need more and more monasteries in the West and more and more Dharma centres as an oasis in a stressed out, addictive and obsessive society.


The fusion of religious and secular Buddhism


Western society remains prone to extremism in political, economic, secular and religious institutions. We live in a society rampant with extremists. A formation of a sect of secular Buddhism could give rise to extreme secular Buddhists sects in the coming decades. Today, some committed secular Buddhists lead groups of pilgrims to India to visit the sacred sites of Lumbini (birthplace of Gautama), Bodh Gaya (the place of full awakening), Sarnath (the place where he offered the first teaching) and Kushinagar where he died. The Buddha encouraged his practitioners to go on pilgrimage to these four sacred places.


Secular Buddhists will bow down before Buddha images in the temples, place both hands together in a prayerful supplication, and engage in traditional chanting. This is all the stuff of religion, not secularism. There is nothing secular about visits to holy sites. In the years ahead, another orthodox sect of secular Buddhism could develop. These adherents might claim that anyone who goes on a sacred pilgrimage, enters temples, bows down before Buddha images, kneels and puts their head to the floor before respected Buddhist masters or reads sacred texts cannot call themselves a true secular Buddhist. This orthodox sect will refer to themselves as the only true secular Buddhists.


Thus extremism develops.


I find it unhelpful of Western Buddhists to create a polarity of religious Buddhists and secular Buddhists. I know it is not the intention but it sews the seeds of discord making for a gap with the capacity to lead to alienation on both sides. Religious Buddhists may find it hard to listen to secular Buddhists and secular Buddhists may find it hard to listen to religious Buddhists. We read regularly about extreme Buddhist sects, East and West.


Both religious and secular Buddhists may find themselves in a polarity, a dualism, an extremism conferred by holding to a position. This division happens gradually even though the founders of Secular Buddhism never intended it. The cost is the loss of the Middle Way – an indispensable feature of the Buddha Dharma and the Buddha’s main subject matter in his first talk in Sarnath.




Later this month (July 2015), we hold our 15th annual pilgrimage (Sanskrit: yatra)in the foothills of the French Alps. The yatra is fully booked two months before with a waiting list. Around 120 adults and 25 children participate. It is a pilgrimage, not a hike. We walk in a long, silent, single file, not a casual stroll through the day or engage in a hike as a kind of military exercise. These are holydays, not holidays. Apart from the modest registration to rent the vehicles, equipment etc., the yatra depends on the kind dana of the participants.


The sky is the roof of our temple. The trees are the pillars of our temple. The fields are the floor of the temple. We share the teachings, the practices, the Dharma enquiry, the vegan food, the creativity. We play and we laugh. We experience the silence and we experience communication. The Sangha enjoys being together and sharing much together; joy and pain. There are no Buddha images, nor Buddhist masters to bow down to.


The conceptually constructed world of religious Buddhism and secular Buddhism seem far, far away. Nirvana and liberation seem much, much closer.


 May all beings explore awakening

May all beings explore the Dharma

May all beings explore the Sangha



 May all beings enquire into the experience of being human 

 Christopher Titmuss's

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