Core Elements of a Secular and Socially-Engaged Buddhism

While secular Buddhism has become an increasingly significant trend within western Buddhism, there is no consensus among secular Buddhists about our basic principles, values, and goals. In an article posted last year on the U.S. Secular Buddhist Association website, Three Paths for Secular Buddhists, I identified three distinct trends within secular Buddhism. This diversity among secular Buddhists is actually a good thing. As Stephen Batchelor has repeatedly pointed out, we would be making a huge mistake if we attempted to establish a set of unitary, officially-sanctioned secular Buddhist beliefs and practices. Instead of trying to create an institution to represent secular Buddhism, he argues that we need to engage in a process of dialogue and discussion about how the Buddha’s insights about human experience can become relevant and impactful in today’s world.

I offer below some “Core Elements of a Secular and Socially-Engaged Buddhism” as a contribution to this ongoing conversation. I’ve tried to lay out succinctly the essential building blocks of a secular Buddhism that is strongly linked to socially-engaged action. I do so recognizing that my views have been shaped both by my own personal history and the debates and discussions among Buddhists within the country in which I live, the USA.

I began to meditate and find value in Buddhist insights fairly late in life. As a lifelong political and labor activist, I’ve always had a strong orientation toward perspectives that supported social change based on working class self-activity and democratic participation. In particular, a humanistic, non-dogmatic version of Marxism blended with Deweyan pragmatism has been central to my approach to the theory and practice of social transformation.

However, I eventually came to see that these perspectives – as valuable as they were – failed to grasp that human suffering occurs not just because of exploitative and oppressive social institutions, but also because of the ways in which human beings tend to experience and understand themselves and the world at an existential-psychological level. Believing that both a radical social theory and Buddhist insights are crucial, I’ve attempted to figure out how these approaches/perspectives can complement and enrich each other.

I have explored these issues at length in two articles in Contemporary Buddhism in 2011 and 2015. For those who would like to read more, if you send me an email I will send you these articles. I’d appreciate your comments, feedback, and questions.

 

Core Elements

  1. The goal of a secular and socially-engaged Buddhism is to promote human flourishing through the fullest possible development of capacities which are essential for individuals to have a fulfilling and happy life. The notion that human flourishing is the summum bonum or highest good of human life can be found in ancient Greek and modern philosophies. In Aristotle’s view, human flourishing is based on our capacity for reason and living a virtuous life, including being temperate and courageous. Following Aristotle, several Hellenistic philosophies – Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism – also linked the development of certain human capacities to a flourishing life. In the modern era, Marx argued that the creation of an ideal communist society in which the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” is premised on human beings’ capacity for creative labor (praxis). The Buddha’s notion of human flourishing, however, requires the cultivation of a broader range of experiential and emotional capacities than these other perspectives. In addition to wisdom, ethical action and mindfulness, he emphasized that loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (the four immeasurables) are essential to human flourishing.
  1. The Buddha also provided us with profound insights about how individuals tend to think, feel, and act in ways which run counter to the cultivation of capacities essential to human flourishing. Not only do we tend to have a false understanding of our experiences at an existential-psychological level, but our actions tend to be instinctively reactive, dominated by anger and/or greed, capacities which cause suffering.
  1. The capacities essential to human flourishing emerged as part of our evolutionary development as a unique form of sentient being. They coexist with other human capacities, also biologically-evolved, which cause suffering and unhappiness. All these capacities constitute our complex make-up. While a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist places a positive value on the capacities essential to human fulfillment and happiness, they don’t constitute our “true nature” or “basic goodness” in comparison to capacities which cause suffering and unskillful actions. Human beings are complex creatures who are capable of a wide range of actions and beliefs based on a variety of capacities.
  1. Since we emerged from and are embedded in the natural world, we will always be subject to the causes and conditions of that world. Contrary to the perspective of many traditional forms of Buddhism, the goal of human flourishing is not achieved through an end-state or experience of unconditioned liberation from afflictive and reactive emotions (whether on a temporary basis, or a permanent basis). Such a state or experience which transcends the causes and conditions of the natural world is inconsistent with a secular, naturalistic approach to Buddhism. Instead of seeking transcendence, our goal in this life should be to cultivate and develop the capacities conducive to human flourishing while limiting the impact of capacities which are not conducive to our own happiness and have a negative effect on the other beings that inhabit this planet.
  1. The capacities essential to human fulfillment and happiness are developed only in and through social interaction; they are not, in this sense, owned like a personal possession by human beings. Even when we meditate alone, we are engaging in an ongoing internal dialogue shaped by and based on previous social interactions. Beginning with our earliest interactions with parents/caretakers and then in and through various social relationships, formal education processes, and the impact of such macro-social institutions as the economic and political systems, the capacities for human flourishing are either stunted or promoted to one degree or another.
  1. Given the inherently social nature of human beings and our unique capacities, the furtherance of human flourishing must be based on the combined and mutually constitutive processes of individual and social transformation. The obstacles to human flourishing are based on both the tendency of individuals to cause themselves and others unnecessary suffering, as well as the ways in which social institutions directly harm individuals and promote capacities like greed and anger which in turn cause more harm to individuals. These processes interact with and mutually constitute each other. For this reason, a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist understands that promoting human flourishing requires effort at both the individual level, such as meditative practices that reduce the role of capacities which promote reactivity and unskillful actions, as well as actions which contribute to changing or transforming the institutions which harm human and other beings.
  1. A secular and socially-engaged Buddhism, then, needs to incorporate a philosophical and social theory which grasps the complex interaction between the individual and society as a complement to the Buddha’s core insights about human experience. One such perspective can be found in a non-deterministic, humanistic Marxism which, as a radical social theory and guide to activism, helps us to understand the specific causes and conditions that produce human suffering as well the potential for human flourishing.
  1. Western Buddhism, traditional and secular, places overwhelming emphasis on meditation as the path to freedom and liberation. While a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist values the crucial role of meditation in reducing reactivity and gaining wisdom, it also recognizes that the development of vibrant and democratic communities of practitioners (sanghas) is equally, if not more, important.
  1. Sanghas provide essential support for individuals to develop their own practice. In addition, they can play a crucial role in developing in sangha members the capacities and skills needed to create a society in which the flourishing of each individual is mutually dependent on the flourishing of all individuals. Such capacities include greater discernment, the ability to participate with others and make decisions democratically, and the development of increasingly broader and richer forms of mutual solidarity.
  1. In short, a secular and socially-engaged Buddhism is humanistic in its ultimate goal, naturalistic in its understanding of reality, cognizant of both the individual and social sources of human suffering, and radically democratic in both the means and the ends of social transformation.
  1. While a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist respects and values the teachings and practices of other forms of Buddhism, she/he believes they are problematic in three key respects. First, traditional forms of Buddhism presuppose, in one way or another, non-naturalistic entities or processes, such as nirvana, rebirth, devas, etc. Second, the Buddha’s insights about and his pragmatic approach to the alleviation of suffering and the facilitation of human flourishing have been mistakenly elaborated by virtually all Buddhists (including some secular Buddhists as well) into metaphysical beliefs based on ontological assertions about human beings and the world, such as the four noble truths, the three marks of existence and the notion of emptiness. Third, lacking a social theory that grasps the mutual interaction of the individual and society, most Buddhists overemphasize the role of the individual. For them, the root of suffering initially and primarily resides in individuals, and the solution to suffering thus is mainly based on individual transformation.
  1. The critique of traditional forms of Buddhism entails neither a militant defense of secular humanism and atheism nor an aggressive, dismissive stance toward those who do not share our perspectives. If our goal is to contribute to a movement toward human flourishing, then our attitude must be one of openness, an appreciation of diversity, and a willingness to dialogue and work with others in any way that helps promote human flourishing.
  1. Similarly, a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist does not elevate any one perspective and practice in the “secular” sciences, arts, and culture as dogma or the model for understanding human affairs. For example, she/he rejects scientism and other perspectives which foreclose other ways of approaching and understanding the natural world. Rather, a secular and socially-engaged Buddhist understands that our path to human flourishing will be guided by a number of perspectives and practices in addition to those provided by the Buddha’s insights; and that we should be open to appreciating and incorporating any perspective and practice which contributes to our ultimate goal.
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10 Comments

  1. Posted May 28, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    My own sense of what secular Buddhism is about generally coincides with Mike’s, including our need to avoid reducing it to an orthodoxy. So I welcome his formulation of its ‘core elements’. But I do have three quibbles.

    1. We’d do ourselves a favour by dropping the traditional terminology of ‘suffering’ and ‘happiness’. ‘Suffering’ is a poor translation of the Pali ‘dukkha’, which refers to the inevitable difficulties of life which – when worked through in a dharmic way – deepen, season and mature us. The dharma should not be confused with an analgesic one takes for a toothache ‘to avoid suffering’. Similarly, instead of chasing ‘happiness’ (absence of ‘suffering’?) we should orient our practice towards cultivating the much more challenging value of what the Greeks called eudaimonia – developing our ethical, human capacities to the hilt and thus finding fulfilment in a dignified, meaningful life. This life includes social and political engagement.

    2. Similarly I think we should drop talk about ‘the goal’ of dharma practice. It invites in all sorts of hobgoblins of the western mind, mainly ones associated with means-ends rationality. One cultivates eudaimonia by practising the dharma. Thus the practice itself is the goal. ‘The goal’ of the dharma is to practise the dharma, and thus live skilfully and meaningfully.

    3. For almost all purposes I think we should desist from ‘critiquing’ traditional Buddhism at this stage. Our disagreements with it have been well identified by Stephen Batchelor and others, and we can leave it at that. Traditional Buddhism is a religion like any other, and serves the sociopolitical functions of any religion – moral instruction; social cohesion and political legitimation; ritualising life events; and providing off-the-shelf consolation and meaning to individuals on a mass basis. In western countries, by and large, most Buddhists are traditional ones and belong to diasporas trying to preserve a minority ethnic identity in the face of inevitable pressures to dissolve into the mainstream. None of this cuts across the business of secular Buddhism, and we shouldn’t meddle in it.

    • Michael Slott
      Posted June 1, 2018 at 3:11 am | Permalink

      Winton,

      Thanks for your comments. Your three “quibbles” bring up important points and help me to clarify some of the arguments that I put forward:

      1. Dukkha and happiness – I agree with you that dukkha is not just suffering as we commonly think of it, but encompasses a broader experience of distress, unsatisfactoriness, etc. The skillful response to dukkha does not simply result in happiness, in the sense of feeling good, but, as you say, in the development of capacities which lead to a dignified and meaningful life. The Greek notion of eudomonia provides us with a better sense of what we mean by human flourishing than the achievement of happiness. I recently read a book by Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, that addressed this issue. Flanagan does an excellent job of highlighting the distinction between the goal of happiness as a feeling and living a meaningful, contented, and full life based on the cultivation of capacities conducive to human flourishing. I appreciate you bringing up that important difference.

      2. Goal of dharma practice? – You and I don’t believe that the goal of dharma practice is the attainment of nirvana or some unconditioned state as an end-point. This goal is not only inconsistent with a naturalistic version of Buddhism, but plays into our society’s demand for individual striving and achievement. However, I don’t think that we should avoid discussion of a goal of a dharma practice as long as we are clear about the nature of that goal. The goal in dharma practice is not a special state or experience, but the maximum cultivation of capacities for human flourishing, which results in our living more skillfully, compassionately, and meaningfully. In this sense, the goal is progressive movement within a process, becoming “more” than we currently are and continuing to engage in that process for the rest of our life.

      3. Critique of traditional Buddhism – Yes, I agree that, as secular Buddhists, our focus should not be on critiquing traditional forms of Buddhism, but on trying to figure out how the Buddha’s insights can become relevant for our society. As secular Buddhism is in an early state of development, we sometimes need to clarify the differences between traditional forms (and their modernized versions such as vipassana/insight) and a secular approach. But that shouldn’t be our main concern.

      Mike

    • Posted June 2, 2018 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      Winton, I had to smile – were you aware that ‘The Hobgoblin’ was a Marxist-Humanist journal that ran for a little over a decade at the turn of this century?

      As for your third point, I sometimes wonder whether there are as many shades of secular Buddhism as there are secular Buddhists. My feeling is that there are many whose understanding is that if they simply drop beliefs in deities and what they deem ‘the supernatural’ that’s all they need to do. Dialogue among those who are developing a contemporary understanding of what dharma practice entails needs to be encouraged.

  2. Mark Knickelbine
    Posted May 31, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    This is certainly the most well worked out expression of your ideas I’ve read, Mike. I think your description of a “non-dogmatic, humanist Marxism” needs to fleshed out more fully in order to explain why this social theory, as opposed to any other, is particularly suited to secular Buddhism.

    I think, to Winton’s point about critiquing traditional lineages, perhaps you could reframe this by pointing out that the secular positions are the natural extension of a naturalistic viewpoint that is unique to this form of Buddhism. You could make the same points by indicating why we are focused on human eudemonia in a this-worldly, social context, without having to appear to label traditional beliefs as deficient.

    • Michael Slott
      Posted June 1, 2018 at 5:08 am | Permalink

      Mark,

      Thanks for your comments as well.

      In the two articles in Contemporary Buddhism mentioned in the introduction I have provided the reasons why I think a humanistic Marxism is a valuable social theory that can complement a secular Buddhism. Of course, there are secular Buddhists who are skeptical and/or critical of any kind of Marxism and believe that, to the extent that we need a social theory as part of the dharma path, we should be looking at other theories (e.g. Giddens’ theory of structuration) which also connect the individual and society. That’s fine. I’m oriented toward a humanistic Marxism because of my personal and intellectual history, but certainly recognize that a humanistic Marxism does not have an exclusive claim to truth or utility.

      Regarding traditional lineages, see my response to Winton above. And I certainly agree with you that we shouldn’t demean traditional beliefs. However, while I provided a critique of traditional forms of Buddhism shared by all secular Buddhists, I did so in the spirit of dialogue, being honest about differences, but not denigrating those who follow this path. For example, in the realm of socially-engaged Buddhism, the vast majority of activists are folks involved in all the traditional lineages – Zen, vipassana, Tibetan Buddhism, etc. Frankly, I feel more in common with a Bhikku Bodhi (Theravada) or angel Kyodo williams (Zen) than I do a secular Buddhist who solely focuses on their own meditative practices.

      Mike

      • Posted June 2, 2018 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        I read through your two Contemporary Buddhism articles again, and didn’t get a really clear idea of the kind of Marxism you were suggesting might blend well with the dharma Mike. Would it be useful to examine the early Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, perhaps? Or the work of Raya Dunayevskaya from the middle of the 20th century?

        I guess I’d like to see some suggestions as how a secular sangha would engage, examples of what has been attempted and worked and what didn’t. Early days though.

        By way of an example, a suggestion has been floated in Wellington’s One Mindful Breath community that we involve ourselves in pressuring the Council, property developers and others to hugely increase the availability of water fountains which provide free drinking water. This ticks so many boxes: less plastic used; nothing to charge for so it’s an expression of generosity; better for Earth; and more. It’s a ‘green’ action rather than a ‘class’ action, that I admit, and we’re still talking…

        Another thought that arose is that just as the Buddha’s dharma adapted and changed to better fit the needs of the societies it entered over the centuries – a process we are engaged in right now – so too have the ideas of Marx been adapted to the circumstances in which they were used. The movements which live on after the death of a founder frequently contain a conservative element though, in which the followers set out to codify the founder’s message, when the founder was in fact trying to get people to be more creative.

        My two pennyworth, for now.

        • Michael Slott
          Posted June 4, 2018 at 1:31 am | Permalink

          Ramsey,

          Your question about what kind of Marxism can connect well with a secular dharma is very important. This is such a huge topic that I can only just scratch the surface with a response.

          The early writings of Marx, including the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and The German Ideology, are valuable because they provide both a materialist conception of history and a condemnation of capitalism as a system which not only causes poverty and exploitation, but completely alienates people from their true humanity – their capacity for creative, intelligent labor (praxis) and social interactions based on mutual recognition and cooperation. While Marx focuses more on economics and politics in the later writings, he retains the basic understanding of alienated labor. In Capital, for example, the section on the “fetishism of commodities” provides a brilliant analysis of how the social interactions and human praxis that are the real foundations of the economy are totally hidden by the “power” of the market and the value of commodities.

          In general, I think that Marx provides both a radical, systemic analysis and an insightful understanding of how individuals both reproduce and (at times) transform socio-economic systems.

          Following in Marx’s path, there have been theorists who have had both an historical materialist understanding of human society and recognized the role of human activity in social change. My short list of favorites: Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, Erich Fromm (and other progessive Marxist/Freudians), Leszek Kolakowski (before his conservative turn), and Hal Draper.

          Mike

  3. Peter Davies
    Posted June 1, 2018 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    You’ve written something I generally agree with. The key issue for me is the balance between mindfulness/meditation and action. Mindfulness without congruent action is meaningless. Action involves movement and speech as in the Bodhisattva vow, and includes all the eightfold path of the fourth task (noble truth), the precepts and the four immeasureables (brahmaviharas). It is this action that leads to flourishing and joy.

    However it needs to be discussed in our sanghas and our extended sanghas, ie our total life. What is meaningful action? This is a question that every sangha needs to discuss as a group and on an individual basis.

    As western Buddhists we often fall behind other groups in our meaningful action, such as the Quakers. Let’s change this perception.

    • Michael Slott
      Posted June 2, 2018 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      Peter,

      I agree with both your points. There needs to be an appropriate balance between meditation and action, between individual and social transformation. It would be nice if there was a formula that we could use to determine the right balance between the two, but there isn’t. So we have to try to discern the appropriate balance in terms of what makes sense for the situation we’re in, including what’s happening with us personally, the specific needs for social change, etc.

      That is why your point about sanghas needing to discuss the question, “What is meaningful action?”, is so important. We’re more likely to find an appropriate balance when we we have the benefit of different viewpoints and perspectives from those who share our basic values as part of a sangha.

      Mike

      • Posted June 2, 2018 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        Mike, your response to Peter appears to me to show a key point of difference between your ethical framework and his. Peter outlines the basis of ‘meaningful action’ as being based on Buddhist principles, and hence can be framed as a ‘legalistic ethic’. In your response by writing that ‘we have to try to discern the appropriate balance in terms of what makes sense for the situation we’re in’ you are framing action in terms of a ‘situational ethic’. My understanding of dependent origination, conditionality, conditioned arising, sits better within a situational ethic than within a legalistic ethic. Meaningful action, I would suggest, cannot easily be legislated for secular Buddhists.

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