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‘Secularizing Buddhism’ Explores Range of Modern Meanings of Buddhism

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

This collection is called “Secularizing Buddhism” in order to emphasize the dynamic processes of change that are transforming the way Buddhism is understood and practiced in the present.

This choice also avoids the fruitless debates over what is or isn’t “secular.” At the same time, many of the proponents of change have taken the label of “secular” to identify their own efforts, but there is no agency that can impose orthodoxy on those who choose to call themselves “secular Buddhists.” In other words, there is no particular form of secular Buddhism, but rather a variety of efforts to create a form that isn’t constrained by what the proponents consider to be the religion of Buddhism.

The collection includes 14 chapters. The first is an introduction by the editor, and this is followed by essays written by some of the leading scholars of the English-speaking Buddhist world today.

In the opening chapter, Sarah Shaw’s essay examines the history of the modernization of Buddhism, particularly in Southeast Asia, but points further back in the history of Buddhism to point out aspects of the tradition that would today generally be considered secular.

David L. McMahan considers the nature of subjectivity in the present, secular age, and the tensions between traditional Western ideas of a singular self, and a postmodern conception of the self as multiple. He extends this analysis to describe two different approaches to the practice of mindfulness.

The significance of racism in the introduction of mindfulness practice into the American school system is examined by Funie Hsu. She points out that the central rhetoric of Buddhist modernism is returning to original Buddhism, and dispensing with whatever is judged to be “cultural baggage.” This is code for “foreign,” and in the case of Buddhism, “Asian.” It is a strategy that firmly places the authority for defining Buddhism in the hands of white protagonists.

The way that Buddhism is presented in museums is the focus of Pamela Winfield’s essay. Taking Buddhist statues and paintings out of temples and out of the religious life of adherents decontextualizes them, converting them from part of a living tradition into pieces of art. As art they are then judged by the canons of Western beauty, rather than for their function in a setting of lived Buddhism. Winfield nuances this argument in a subtle way, however, pointing out that the museum itself becomes converted from an institution displaying the spoils of empire, into a kind of sacred space itself. As indicated by Sarah Shaw, the modernization of Buddhism, which leads to the current secularizing forms, began in Asia.

Charles B. Jones examines the contributions of the early 20th century Chinese figure Taixu, and specifically his ideas regarding making this world the Pure Land. For her part, Kate Crosby dives more deeply into the shared background of both traditionalism and secularism in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. The historical background of imperialism in Southeast Asia over the 19th century and early 20th century created social turmoil that was the ground for both strains to emerge out of the preexising forms of Theravada.

Bhikkhu Bodhi argues that there are three different kinds of Buddhism in the West that have been shaped by the 20th century. Two of these he calls “Traditional Buddhism,” and “Secular Buddhism.” The third he considers to be in fact more prevalent, and he calls this “Immanent Buddhism,” by which he means an interpretation of Buddhist goals in terms of increased well-being in the present life, rather than transcendence of rebirth, that is, nibbana.

Stephen Batchelor is probably the best known figure promoting Secular Buddhism on the global stage today. Philippe Turenne engages in a critical conversation with Batchelor’s negative characterizations of Tibetan Buddhism, and by implication all of “traditional” Buddhism. Rather than dismissing or deriding Batchelor, however, Turenne seeks to refine out of Batchelor’s criticisms what might be of use for the future development of the Dharma.

Ron Purser, known for coining the phrase “McMindfulness,” examines the ideology of neoliberalism that is basic to much of the secularizing of Buddhism. The dominance of a focus on the autonomous individual characteristic of neoliberalism runs counter to the longstanding commitment to sangha and community found throughout the Buddhist tradition.

Congruent with neoliberalism modern Western culture presumes a psychotherapeutic orientation — an individual’s problems originate in their own orientation toward the world, and their psychology can be healed so that they no longer create their own problems. Kathleen Gregory’s essay looks at how the concepts of psychological and spiritual interact with those of secular and religious, forming a kind of secular Buddhism that is a kind of psychology.

A contentious issue for many modern Buddhists is that of rebirth, whether it is literal or symbolic, and whether it can meaningfully serve as a basis for morality. Roger Jackson starts by examining a now famous debate between Robert Thurman and Stephen Batchelor on this very issue, and goes on to explore the possibility of living between the two extremes of literal or symbolic.

Similarly, Gil Fronsdal presents his own interpretation of the Dharma, which he calls “Naturalistic Buddhism.” This is a Buddhism that does not require any belief commitment to transcendent realities or eternal truths, but rather a focus on consistent and gradual transformation of one’s being in the world in accord with the descriptions of the path. Fronsdal finds support for his interpretation in a very early Buddhist text called “The Book of Eights.”

The final essay, by Richard K. Payne, demonstrates that the conceptual ground of secularizing discourse is the creation of an opposite, that is a religious form of Buddhism. This opposition is deeply rooted in Western intellectual culture, from the early 19th century, and today provides the dichotomy between religious and secular that many secular Buddhists presume. Ironically, then, secular Buddhist arguments help to create a feedback loop reinforcing a religious conception of Buddhism.

This is a rich collection, and the summary presented here only touches on some of the “high points.” While only a snapshot of an ongoing process, it can provide a more informed community of Buddhist adherents with an image of what is happening. It also enriches our understanding and enables informed participation in the future of the tradition as well.

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. He began teaching at the IBS in 1991, and for many years served as the Dean.


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