Secular Buddhism

Does Buddhism Have to Be Religious?

Neon Buddha
Khanh Anh temple, Buddha statue. © Godong/UIG / Getty Images

"Secular Buddhism" is a hot topic in western Buddhism. But what is Secular Buddhism? That depends.

After wading through myriad essays, articles and blog posts extoling or criticizing Secular Buddhism, I infer that the term can mean anything from lay Buddhist practice re-tooled to fit western culture and lifestyles to an increasingly aggressive campaign to strip all vestiges of religion out of western Buddhism and keep the robes, incense and rituals confined to Asia.

Is Buddhism a Religion?

Westerners argue endlessly -- and fruitlessly -- about whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion. The truth is that Buddhism is an ancient Asian discipline that doesn't neatly fit into 21st-century western definitions of either "philosophy" or "religion." Further, to make it fit either definition you have to lop off the ends and crinkle it up a bit -- distort it, in other words.

However, I argue that we in the West define "religion" way too narrowly, especially since Buddhism isn't the only Asian religion that doesn't quite fit the definition box some try to squeeze Buddhism into. I suggest building a bigger and roomier box. It may not matter to dharma what you call it, but there are some practical reasons for defining Buddhism as a religion -- for example, allowing dharma centers to have non-profit tax status.

For that matter, I'd like some clarification of the word "secular." Standard dictionaries generally define "secular" as "religious rather than spiritual," "not belonging to a religious order," or "not pertaining to a church or religion." To me, "secular" is something distinguished from but not necessarily in opposition to religion.

However, these days "secular" and "religious" are framed as being locked in eternal battle, something like the eternal conflict between Good and Evil. And it's easy to see where this comes from. Plenty of conservative religious leaders (including a few Buddhists) use the word "secular" as a pejorative.

And this has caused a backlash among people who have, shall we say, some attitude about religion.

Religious Secularism

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and advocate for atheism, wrote an insightful column for Free Inquiry, a journal of Secular Humanism, in which he said,

"As a worldview, secularism has defined itself in opposition to the whirling absurdity of religion. Like atheism (with which it is more or less interchangeable), secularism is a negative dispensation. Being secular is not a positive virtue like being reasonable, wise, or loving. To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists. ... Criticizing religious irrationality is absolutely essential. But secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice."

As we say in Zen, empty your cup.

I tell people that I'm a religious secularist, in that I'm a religious (as I define it) person who advocates for a secular (by the dictionary definition) society, as opposed to a theocratic society.

My ideal is a secular society that is not hostile to religion but rather neutral to religion, allowing individuals to follow religions, or not, without coercion.

Many Paths

There is nothing at all wrong with borrowing whatever parts of Buddhism appeal to you -- meditation, for example -- and leaving the rest alone. If the "religious" stuff doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you, and this doesn't have to be a problem.

However, I've found there are those who can't bring themselves to say, "I'm not into the robes-and-incense stuff myself, but I respect you if you are." I'm not sure why this is so, but I take it people with a deep-seated animosity toward religion feel compelled to stamp out anything that looks like it.

The Challenge of Lay Practice

Asian Buddhism has had millennia to grow a culture that supports lay Buddhism.

We don't have that in the West, yet. Some schools of Buddhism, in particular Pure Land and Nichiren, are primarily about lay practice, and these schools seem to be managing.

But the more monastic schools, such as Zen, can seem an awkward fit into contemporary western lay life. I've heard beginning Zen lay practice compared to keeping a horse in your living room. It can be an enormous, and sometimes lonely, challenge to try to make it work.

The answer probably will be found in growing Buddhist lay communities in which laypeople can support each others' practice. We may develop new ways of enabling lay and monastic sanghas to support and teach each other that are different from the lay-monastic relationship in Asia. However, I see no useful function in making Zen practice less "religious."

Making It Accessible

Vince Horn of Buddhist Geeks says that the real issue with Secular Buddhism is making Buddhism more accessible, not necessarily less religious. However well-meaning some secularization impulses might be, we must take care that in making Buddhism "secular" we don't turn it into something else.

Zen teacher Norman Fischer wrote for Buddhadharma that "We need a Plan B." He notes the tension between those who believe the religious trappings are superficial and those who believe they are essential, and says, "I have been considering these various perspectives about what Buddhism is and what it has to offer in the West as I try, through no intention of my own, but because I seem to have had no choice, to apply Buddhism thoughtfully and flexibly to life in post-modern Western culture."