Secular Buddhism

My personal experience of Buddhism goes back as far as 1985. I became interested in Buddhism and involved in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now the Triratna Buddhist Community) from then – with some gaps – until I finally joined the Western Buddhist Order itself in 2004 and left it in 2008.

I have learnt a great deal in the process both from trying to practise Buddhism, and from my friendships with Western Buddhists. The FWBO (as it was then) did a lot to help me mature when I was in my early twenties. However, there was always a conflict there as well, which at times led me to walk away from it. I would now understand that conflict in terms of the use of metaphysical beliefs as a basis of group identity. I wanted the support of a group, but I also wanted to think freely without any constraints of group approval or disapproval in forming beliefs that related to my experience.

In the end, when I left the Order in 2008, the basic issue seemed to be one of integrity. I felt my intellectual integrity to be undermined by the preponderance of metaphysical beliefs in the Order, together with the perception that by being a member of the Order I subscribed to them. Here I mean beliefs like that in enlightenment providing the Buddha with absolute insights into the nature of the universe, karma and rebirth, conditioned co-production and the Four Noble Truths interpreted as a universal metaphysical theories. Together with this there was allegiance to many practices that I did not find helpful, such as ordination, pujas, and the public worship of leaders. All of this sat alongside strong meditation practices, impressive individuals, lots of friendship and support, and a degree of critical thinking selectively applied, but the more thoughtful aspects often seemed to act as spoilers to get one to uncritically accept the rest.

It was several years after formally leaving Buddhism in this way that I encountered Secular Buddhism. Secular Buddhism is not exactly a group or an organisation as yet, more an ongoing discussion primarily based on the web. However, Stephen Batchelor has given public exposure to the idea of a Secular Buddhism, and it is debated by the nucleus of an online Secular Buddhist community in both the US and the UK. I find myself with a community of interests and ideas with Secular Buddhists. Like them, I want to adapt Buddhist practices in a way that drops all the metaphysical baggage.

However, some Secular Buddhists seem to take little account of, and have little interest in, the Middle Way as a central insight in the Buddha’s teaching. Instead they offer scientific naturalism: a philosophical approach that seems to me just as metaphysical as any belief in karma and rebirth, because it involves the denial of (rather than just agnosticism about) the supernatural and the assumption that science discovers truths about “nature” rather than merely having provisional beliefs about conditions based on the evidence so far. If Secular Buddhism becomes predominantly part of a “religious” v “secularist” shouting match then I’m not very interested. However, there are still plenty of strands of the movement that are open to discussion, and I’m hoping that the Middle Way will gradually come to be seen as a more helpful principle to rely upon. The Middle Way, as a central teaching of the Buddha which is also universal enough to be applied to the most “secular” context, seems to me the obvious principle to use in order to bridge the Buddhist and the secular.

To put this into practice I have now started the Middle Way Society with others. This offers a clearer and more justifiable philosophical basis than Secular Buddhism, and also moves clearly beyond the Buddhist tradition to use the Middle Way in a universal way open to people from any tradition. Not having found quite what I was looking for in secular Buddhism, I am now looking to create it.



3 thoughts on “Secular Buddhism

  1. I found this on your McGilchrist write. I too have not given up on Buddhism but have looked at other eastern ways to the point of Neo- Confucianism. Seems to combine Taoism & Buddhism. I have been looking for someone to put the brain and cognitive behavior into context with the spiritual side, although, I like the middle way idea too. I do not see why we should not have a menu for a faith, some kind of plausible truth in good and tough times for ourselves and others. There is so much cognitive dissonance in capitalism and, well, basically the RH side of the brain.

    Posted by RICHARD MILLER | November 24, 2013, 9:32 am
  2. Hi Richard,
    Thanks for your comment. If I’ve understood you correctly, I agree about the need for a ‘plausible truth’, though I prefer to talk in terms of justified beliefs. If you’re interested in the Middle Way, do have a look at the Middle Way Society site (www.middlewaysociety.org) as there’s a lot more going on there, with more people involved, and a lot of further development of the ideas. I’m not using this site much now that I’m so involved in the Middle Way Society.

    Posted by Robert M Ellis | November 24, 2013, 11:23 am
  3. Good luck with your secular Buddhist movement.

    Posted by douglas ponton | October 21, 2014, 6:09 pm

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