Making the most of the human condition #3


~ by Winton Higgins


Third talk: Tradition and culture

Before secular Buddhist practices and groups appeared in western countries, by and large westerners entertained two basic conceptions of what Buddhism was:

  1. Buddhism was exotica: strange rituals and mystical beliefs like rebirth; temples and gold-plated Buddha images in Thailand and elsewhere; the occasional glimpse of shaven-headed and besheeted individuals on the street; chic but delphic snippets of Zen wisdom, with accompanying book titles such as Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance; a giggling but profound Dalai Lama sporting colourful robes and an eyeshade, and appearing momentarily on the TV screen.
  2. A repository of wonderfully effective meditative techniques – unknown to the western tradition, forged by centuries of Asian monasticism – with which to salve one’s miseries and solve one’s personal problems.

Both conceptions were potent, packageable, and marketable. So Buddhism took off in the west.

Now secular Buddhism is arriving as something of an uninvited guest at the wedding of Buddhism and western society. Uninvited guests can quite often be ill-mannered without really meaning to be. This one is a bit critical of exotica, having read Edward Said on ‘orientalism’ and Marina Warner on ‘stranger magic’. And lacking marketable packages of its own, it wants to open up other folks’ packages and scrutinise their contents. More positively put, it wants to honour the Buddha’s living tradition by adapting it – rather than just adopting it into – western culture. In order to greatly increase its accessibility and applicability in the west. In this way, secular Buddhism accentuates the importance of tradition and culture.



To its critics, secular Buddhism is the antithesis of ‘traditional’ Buddhism: it abandons beliefs (like rebirth) which many see as essential to Buddhism; it does away with monasteries, robes and rituals, and abandons meditative techniques associated with them. In answer to the accusation that secular Buddhism subverts ‘true’ Buddhism, let me introduce a distinction – drawn from Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After virtue – between living and dead traditions.

All practices worthy of the name are held and informed by their traditions, whether living or dead. But a living tradition is a conversation (occasionally rising to heated argument) going on, generation after generation, as it’s constantly being adapted and deepened. Those conducting the conversation know what the founder’s original questions were, and how the questions and answers have been reworked ever since. This historical sense of the living tradition equips each generation with parameters within which to update it. ‘To have a future, one must first have a past,’ as the old saying goes. By contrast, a dead tradition is one in which the practitioners have lost this vital historical knowledge, and are thereby reduced to mechanically re-enacting its rituals and certitudes, reproducing it just as it is, just as they’ve inherited it.

Most expressions of secular Buddhism are highly traditionalist in the living-tradition sense. To the greatest possible extent, we want to get started by going back to the dharmic heartwood as it was in the Buddha’s lifetime. What questions did he ask? Why did he couch them in the way he did? What was the rationale for his teaching in the terms he did? What practices and forms of association did he encourage? Beyond that, we need to know why the tradition developed in the manifold ways it did after his death. What impact did monasticism – with its political and institutional imperatives – have on the tradition’s development? And given the unviability of monasticism as a vehicle of widespread Buddhist practice in the west, how should lay practice develop? What principles of association should apply to it?

At its most basic level, secular Buddhism seeks to acculturate the dharma in the west, allowing it to sink deep roots in western cultural soil. This project is no more surprising than its putting down roots, long ago, in Chinese, Korean, Tibetan or Thai cultures – and many others. To be practised at a deeper level in each new host society, it needs to express itself in terms of the new practitioners’ culture. Western culture has a bad reputation for colonising arrogance, but in this instance, western practitioners have hitherto actually been self-effacing, meekly embracing unacculturated Tibetan, Burmese, Japanese and Thai practice traditions, to name just a few.

To my mind, this pattern creates incoherences in our inner lives. Most of us operate from a basic western reality construct whose main ingredients are a cosmology based on the big-bang theory, evolutionary biology, and updated scientific findings in everything from neuroscience to medicine. So most of us are sceptical about birthing virgins, the dead coming back to life, spirits, angels, and a personal god. We shun that sort of magical thinking. And yet, if we take up most Asian versions of Buddhism, karma-driven rebirth, hell-realms and so on go with the territory as working hypotheses.

Sometimes we undertake to chant in Pali, Sanskrit, Japanese or Tibetan, though we’d make for the door if someone suggested we join in a Latin mass.

It’s no better at the communal level. Especially we children of the large north, south and west islands of Oceania are citizens of the world’s two oldest extant democracies. Social deference is foreign to our cultures. If we choose to join or form an association around our enthusiasms – cricket, netball, philately, overthrowing capitalism, or whatever – we assume that as active members we’ll have the same say and the same voting rights as any of our colleagues. Freedom understood as self-rule underpins our sense of ourselves.

But if we join a typical Buddhist outfit we’re expected to show deference – in the first instance to monks (usually in the absence or near-absence of nuns) and to male hierarchs. In the worst cases we’re explicitly told never to question a teacher. Authority in most of the Buddhist world does not derive from rank-&-file sovereignty, but rather rests on the transmission of charismatic authority from on high. How are we going to buy into all that without compromising our civic sense of ourselves, including such fundamental moral commitments as gender equality and inclusiveness?

Finally, there’s the cultural issue I half-raised yesterday afternoon: the incongruity of women and men who lead complex lives – with study, jobs, lovers, spouses, kids, dogs, mortgages and so on – being asked to intensively practice meditation techniques that were designed to drill celibate males in austere total institutions. We don’t have to be meditating for long to realise that our actual meditation experience mirrors our way of life. Hence we should look for an approach to meditation that meshes with our way of life, and does not assume that a drastically simplified, celibate way of life would constitute a much better starting point for spiritual practice.

Hold that thought until this afternoon.


In conclusion

From the time we acquire language as small children, language – a cultural artefact – encodes our perceptions and the rest of our emotional and cognitive processing. All our experience is mediated by language. We can extend that insight into the centrality of language to other aspects of culture. Culture is to our biological being as the operating system is to our computer hardware. Nothing works without the operating system; and we could not begin to lead human lives without our omnipresent culture.

And cultures are specific, each typically with its own language (or at least dialect), conventions, manners, rituals, tacit understandings, modus vivendi and operandi, and so on. These are the aspects of culture we use to understand ourselves, communicate with others, build trust, and co-ordinate our intricate societies.

Most of us take up dharma practice with the ambition that it will penetrate deeply into our way of being in the world. For this to happen, the dharma must speak our language and take on acculturated forms and practices that we can make our own. Coherently.


  • Read the fourth talk in the series here
  • Download all four talks as a PDF here
  • See the conversation between Winton Higgins and Lloyd Geering
    Is secular religion a contradiction in terms? here


– • This talk was given to a Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand workshop in Wellington, New Zealand in February 2013. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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