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.
So, 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.