A secular approach to the dharma will take how long to develop?

In Tibet, in China, it took two to three centuries before the dharma was appropriate for the cultural situation in which it had found itself. A dharma that westerners could easily relate to arrived in the West in the 1960s, just fifty years ago, so despite the relative difference in the speed of change in these different societies it really is too early to claim that we have evolved it into a secular form which is well and truly integrated into our lives.

Interestingly, looking at the growth in the number of publications on mindfulness between 1980 and 2013, the benefits of these practices appear to have been felt by significant numbers of people, many of whom would not identify as Buddhist.

Mindfulness publications by year, 1980-2012So, we are seeing a multiplicity of approaches to the practice along with a multiplicity of practices. The dharma, it is clear, is no longer practiced solely by those who identify as Buddhist, rather it is present in people’s lives as a result of transformative experiences.

People come to Buddhism in search of an ethical and philosophical framework in which to embed a pre-existing meditation practice, so it becomes well rounded rather than one-dimensional. They are exploring the possibility of developing a well-rounded and comprehensive way of life that is firmly based on Buddhist values, teachings and ethics, one which is concerned with the way we live our lives now, on this planet, circling this sun.

The secular approach to the dharma, and to Buddhism, that many of us are talking about and practicing, is not looking to create a new orthodoxy. It is developing as a loose and disparate coalition of individuals and communities, around the world and there is both strength in this diversity, and weaknesses.

A secular space is an open, tolerant space in which we can learn from many different sources, according to the different needs we have in our lives at any particular point in time. This new, ‘secular’ approach does not simply mean considering only our personal welfare in the short span of the life we have, rather it views the dharma as a response to how humans and all other forms of sentient existence might not merely survive but flourish after our death on this planet.

Unfortunately, it is not too horribly difficult to imagine what this planet will be like after we die. It is becoming increasingly clear that the behaviour of the human species, driven by what the Buddha called greed, hatred and confusion (or delusion), is threatening the very survival of much of life itself on earth.

This is the secular setting for the dharma of today; despite all the efforts of the very rich to find a way to shuttle themselves to another planet, for almost all beings this planet is the only one we have, and this situation makes engaged, collective social action a key part of a secular dharma.

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One Comment

  1. Martin Goldstein
    Posted September 23, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Interesting. I had some thoughts about the idea of ‘how much time for an appropriate integration’ into the ‘West’.

    Historical conditions are vastly different now than they were in the Tibet and China of those times. These times are marked by qualities of acceleration (both technology and cultural) disposability and the merging of identifications resulting from a globalized culture. Certainly Tibet was a much more specific and simple or unified and localised culture where change was much slower.

    In this very different world I can more easily imagine Buddhism becoming unrecognizable after some time. Or we have pretty much already reached the limit of ‘Western Buddhism’ while neutered ‘mindfulness’ will develop as part of the advances in neurological science and the integration of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. To the latter it may become meaningless to even refer to it as ‘Buddhism’ at all.

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