Secular Buddhism and the Quest for a Lived Ethics

{title}Summer Buddha{/title} by Gonkar Gyatso. Credit: Gonkar Gyatso ({link url=""}{/link}).


Being human has never been more complex. Technology and information inundate us. Change has never been so intense or rapid. Nearly everything has been commoditized, and the dominant for-profit culture makes spiritual clarity and community belonging difficult to engender.

I’m interested in how secular Buddhism—a relatively new development in the world of Buddhist practice—can serve as a resource for people who are seeking to escape atomization and instead create loving connections with each other and nature. Offering a humanistic and pragmatic essence that eschews metaphysical absolutes, secular Buddhism suggests an approach to lived ethics without being sectarian or necessarily incompatible with religious practices from other traditions.

The primary Buddhist impulse was and is democratic: all humans have the same nature as a potentiality for personal and social understanding and loving behavior. All of us are equally deserving of happiness, awareness, and spiritual attainment. This democratic view, deeply personal and simultaneously communitarian, is the wellspring for Buddhism’s relevance to our times. As a political activist, I also appreciate Buddhism’s inherent tolerance, its respect for individuals’ freedom to come to their own conclusions, and its profound insistence on our interdependency.

While dogmatization has occurred over the 2,500 years of Buddhist practice, there has also been an ongoing dynamic impulse to shed such dogmas and to create independent mindfulness. Seen in relation to the older Buddhist traditions from which it builds, secular Buddhism can be characterized as both restorative (in that it re-examines the original teachings of Gautama Buddha as a person living in his time) and modernizing (in that it attempts to remove all unprovable elements and metaphysical assertions from the tradition). What is left is a pragmatic praxis, or “Buddhism 2.0,” as its principle exponent Stephen Batchelor has inelegantly characterized it. A closer look at secular Buddhism thus reopens for examination questions about Buddhism’s boundaries and constitutive elements.

The Flesh-and-Blood Buddha


A mural in Chiang Mai, Thailand, shows Siddhartha, the man who became the Buddha, witnessing death and disease for the first time. Credit: Creative Commons/Akuppa John Wigham.

Our contemporary encounters with the Buddha are with imagery, symbols, and statuary that are meant to convey to us a being in a relaxed and contemplative state. Most of us are not acquainted with the meanings of the various postures and gestures (mudras) that are designed to trigger reminders for spiritual practice among the practitioners of Buddhism. In truth, the intention of these images is not to remind us of an actual person or resemblance, but rather to remind us of the teachings that were offered by that being—to remind us to return to our essential practice.

In the metaphysical lore of Buddhism, it is said that we cannot become the Buddha and be released from this wheel of rebirth save through lifetimes of earning merit, although each of us is said to have his nature. Each of the many strains that comprise religious Buddhism has its own view of how many lives are needed and what is to be done.

To pierce through to the historical Buddha in his actual existence is not really possible. We can do distant approximations at best. To regard the Buddha as an actual human being like all other human beings—of his time and also vastly ahead of it—takes an effort to bring him out of the metaphysical realm of religious Buddhism, out of the idealized god realm.

By appreciating the Buddha as a human, secular Buddhism breaks a metaphysical “absolute.” If it is not provable by rational means and experience that the Buddha himself transcended death—if the Buddha was in fact impermanent—it is not possible to assert reincarnation for anyone. It is an extraordinary feeling to make him one of us—a sense of breathtaking possibility. For the Buddha must have lived as a practical person, struggling to understand his context, considering his choices within the frame of limited personal freedom, and creating a lived ethics based on non-harm and positive benefits. He had a deep and complex understanding of the nature of this impermanent existence, of the truth that once we arise, we shall cease—that all creation inevitably engenders disintegration.

The Buddha was a human being! Knowing that as fact, he becomes approachable, although we know so little of him. Even the dates of his life are controversial. There are no portraits. Each culture that has embraced the Buddha has created its own vision of the man: he looks quite different in Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, etc. There are no writings from the Buddha himself. We can only infer what he actually said and did from others who came significantly later. Personal details are scant, and imagining the Buddha stepping into his actual consciousness and emotional body is a lovely exercise in projection with no validation.

Perhaps no one has tried more intensely to envision the flesh-and-blood Buddha in recent times than the former monk and present-day teacher, writer, and practitioner Stephen Batchelor.

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