Why secular?

Why secular, and isn’t Buddhism a religion? Well, the word ‘secular’ has three overlapping meanings:

  • in contemporary media, it is often contrasted with or in opposition to ‘the religious’
  • from the Latin word saeculum meaning ‘this age’, it refers to our concerns about this world, the quality of our personal, social and environmental experience as we live on this planet
  • in the west, it refers to a profound cultural transformation whereby metaphysical beliefs and religious truth claims no longer hold sway, and even traditional religions tacitly or explicitly abandon them, emphasising belonging and ethical values instead.

This third reason sets out why a contemporary, secular approach to dharma practice is worthwhile.

A secular space is generally seen as one that is open and tolerant, and does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, gender, ability, beliefs or faith. It doesn’t require that we adopt metaphysical beliefs or get involved in activities that are generally associated with religion, Buddhist or otherwise, such as chanting or praying.

In his 2015 book, After Buddhism, rethinking the dharma for a secular age, Stephen Batchelor writes:

My secular Buddhism has a religious quality because it is rooted in “ultimate concerns”: the four Ps, which are:

• the principle of conditionality
• the practice of a fourfold task
• the perspective of mindful awareness
• the power of self-reliance.