The sources of secular Buddhism


~ by Winton Higgins •


This was written for the German journal, Buddhismus aktuell, in response to two ill-informed critiques of secular Buddhism that it had published. Some German-speaking Buddhists had wanted to bring some balance to the discussion by having an article published in the next number of the journal. Written for a German-speaking readership, it was translated by Evamaria Glatz who submitted it to the journal, where it was initially accepted. Immediately before publication date, major changes were requested which couldn’t be made in time.

The German version appears at


The last issue of this journal [Buddhismus aktuell] contained some perplexing commentary about secular Buddhism; my aim here is to help clarify this development by reviewing its principal sources. The term ‘secular Buddhism’ has appeared only in recent years, but it provides a name for certain spontaneous developments among some Buddhist practice groups and teachers in the west over the last four decades.

Most Buddhist practitioners in western countries belong to Asian diasporas and preserve the practices of their countries of origin. The next most numerous group of practitioners consists of ethnic westerners who have adopted one of the longstanding Asian forms of practice, with their associated beliefs and organisational culture (including discriminatory gender relations, hierarchy, and concepts of authority). Neither of these groupings is secular.

The third, emerging category of Buddhist practitioners in the west encompasses those who seek to develop forms of practice, community and thought that harmonise with their own culture and its more progressive values – starting with egalitarianism, inclusiveness and democratic self-rule. It is this third group which attracts the secular Buddhism label.

In seeking to re-articulate the dharma in its own cultural terms and for its own time, it is doing no more nor less than earlier recipient societies did as the dharma spread from its ancient Indian birthplace into other Asian communities. For instance, when the Chinese gradually sinified it, starting two millennia ago, they not only made its practice accessible to themselves, but also uncovered hidden depths in the dharma’s original expression by crystallising them in terms of their own rich cultural heritage.


Secularity and culture

Human life as we know it depends on culture, which complements our bare neurobiological existence in much the same way as software potentiates otherwise inert computer hardware. Culture (including language) allows us to understand ourselves, our conditions of life, and our immediate experience. And like everything else, cultures (and software) confirm an ancient Buddhist insight by arising and being superseded according to conditions.

At its core, secularity insists on the cultural specificities of time and place, and invites us to ground ourselves in them as we practise living consciously, constantly returning to the root question we must all face, ‘How should I live?’ Secularity focuses on living well in this life – in this world at this time – rather than seeking redemption in some other life and world.

When Buddhists in the west follow the Chinese example in this secular spirit, the three great progenitors of modern western cultures open up for them – the classical heritage (including its foremost practical-philosophical schools of scepticism, stoicism and epicureanism, with their striking affinities with the dharma); western Judeo-Christianity; and the culture of modernity itself, in which religious doctrine has made diminishing contributions to robust inquiry into the natural and social worlds, and our inner lives.


Secular religion

In religious affairs, secularity invokes a subtle and profound trend in western religious development over the last seven centuries, one that has gained new momentum in our own time, as Charles Taylor shows in his magisterial A secular age (2007). The medieval church promoted alternately beguiling and terrifying pictures of heaven and hell, a vengeful god, a fiendish devil, pretty angels and ugly martyrs’ deaths. Its practice was riddled with saintly cults, and relic- and image-worship. Consistent with its ethos of religious hysteria, torture and spectacular death awaited anyone who questioned the orthodoxy. But as Taylor shows, even before the Reformation (which greatly accelerated the change) all this gradually gave way to a sober abandonment of ‘superstitious uses’, some of the worst aspects of dogmatism, a gradual opening to the classical heritage (and thereby humanism), and some toleration of diversity.

Fast-forward to our own time, and we find a growing number of secular-Christian practitioners, including ordained priests and theologians who have abandoned all the supernatural, no longer culturally supported beliefs usually associated with Christianity. Their mission is to retrieve what Jesus actually did, said and probably meant about how to live this life well, and interpret it in terms relevant to our own times. The Sea of Faith movement in Britain, New Zealand and Australia, and the US-based Jesus Seminar, exemplify this development.

Unsurprisingly, secular Buddhists now engage in collegial public dialogue with secular Christians (see for instance this page on the US Secular Buddhist Association website:, who first announced their presence in the 1950s and 1960s. They were there before us, we have much to learn from them, and they must count as a formative influence on the development of secular Buddhism.

A clear point of convergence is that both the Buddha and Jesus, in their several idioms, taught a way of life based on reflectivity, integrity, generosity and compassion, and used the same metaphor for it – a path. Not a belief system, not a badge of identity. A meaningful way of life or path of practice does not need to be buttressed by extravagant claims about matters beyond our accessible sensory world.

So secularity has no argument with religion as such – indeed, it is the product of western religious development, and the concept of ‘secular religion’ is now gaining acceptance. But secularity finds little welcome at the table of institutionalised religions, such as the old Christian denominations and the often even older Buddhist monastic orders (’traditions’). Institutions as such tend to forget their original purposes in their more pressing interest in perpetuating themselves (don’t mention impermanence around the Vatican!), and consolidating and extending their own power.

Religious institutional elites have typically pursued these ends in alliances with similarly entrenched temporal elites, for whom they have provided political legitimation – not least in wartime – and social integration around elite moral codes. With a wink at Carl von Clausewitz, one may say that institutional religion, like war, is the continuation of politics by other means. (For translation purposes, note Clausewitz’s original formulation: Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln.) Naturally it resists change in all its forms, and in particular defends dogmatic beliefs, which are a major power resource. Its hostility to a harbinger of change like secularity – which is zeitgenössisch by definition – is thus a given.


The German sources of secular Buddhism

It is fitting that secular Buddhism is now manifesting in German-speaking countries, since modern German philosophy has proved a major resource for it. This story begins with the first glimmer of secular Buddhism in the English-born Theravādin monk Ñanavīra Thera’s 1965 Clearing the path. The author makes energetic use of Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, Sein und Zeit (1927), which arguably remains the single most prominent philosophical influence on secular Buddhism, both directly and as mediated through the works of theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and John Macquarrie.

Heidegger’s central, intertwined concepts of Dasein and In-der-Welt-sein generate a dynamic, contextualised sense of human agency that braces the Buddha’s own account of the dynamics of perception and action. Human being comes across as more event-like than entity-like, and more dependent on each individual’s shifting Umwelt than on her supposedly static, endemic characteristics (’human nature’) considered contextlessly.

More broadly, Friedrich Nietzsche’s revolution against metaphysics cleared the ground for secular Buddhism, along with the broad grouping of post-metaphysical thought known to the English-speaking world as ‘Continental philosophy’, much of which has a strong affinity with the dharma. The Buddha, too, had a marked distaste for cosmologies and metaphysical beliefs as guides to how we should live and practise, and he accordingly developed a path of practice that in no way depended on them. (He could thereby claim to be the world’s first post-metaphysical thinker!) For instance, in the Kalama sutta he affirms the value of dharma practice whether one believes in rebirth or not.

The equally significant but less celebrated modern German source of secular Buddhism is hermeneutics – the return to the ancient art of interpretation which the Greeks named after the messenger of the gods, Hermes. The relevant lineage here runs through Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey and (more recently and importantly) Hans-Georg Gadamer. What we understand from any text depends on the interpretation we bring to it; the result is a ‘fusion’ of the author’s words and the reader’s activity in receiving and processing them.

In this way, Gadamer argues, interpretation is ‘always a productive activity’, one that usually depends on earlier interpretations as well. The reader is thus a co-author of the text, and she will bring her own formative influences and context to bear on the productive activity in question. Here we have a middle way between a dogmatic literalism (the idea that the text is complete and intractable as it stands) and an incoherent subjectivism.

Secular Buddhism lays great emphasis on returning to the earliest teachings of Buddhism and interpreting them, in this hermeneutic spirit, for application in our own modern world. Its critics often denounce this productive activity in literalist terms, which is ironic given that they themselves usually hold to a version of ‘the pristine dharma’ that comes from the third-century BCE Abhidhamma – possibly the most drastic reinterpretation of the Buddha’s teaching ever.

There is a wider point here. All the myriad expressions of the dharma are mediated by culture (encompassing language and current reigning assumptions), including the Buddha’s own. That is why there is no pristine dharma, no ‘real deal’ (as Bernard Faure has shown in his 2009 Unmasking Buddhism), any more than there exists a pristine Christianity. We have to accept that we are self-interpreting beings living in an interpreted world, and learn to work with both. There is no certitude or solid ground from which fideists can declare secular Buddhism anathema.


Buddhism and science

In the west in the late nineteenth century, Buddhism attracted the flattering sobriquet of ‘scientific religion’, amid the controversy between evolutionary biology and Christian cosmology based on Genesis, and the first appearance of the ‘science’ of psychology. Buddhism had no creation myth or cosmology of its own to be threatened by the new findings, and it had a developed interest in the mind, so there was no conflict there either. That is as ‘scientific’ as Buddhism ever got: it could comfortably co-exist with western science, where Abrahamic religions could not, and the science label made for a nice selling point among the western cognoscenti.

According to a widespread perception, today’s secular Buddhism owes a great deal to science, or perhaps to scientism understood as a messianic sub-culture around science and its celebrity representatives, such as ‘the new atheists’ and some neuroscientific publicists. That perception notwithstanding, it is hard to see how secular Buddhism has gained any more substance from these sources than Buddhism as a whole has taken from natural science over the last 150 years.

Because of its post-metaphysical leanings, it has no interest in ‘the God question’. And today’s flood of new findings from neuroscience hardly addresses the questions about how I should live, and how I should best practise the dharma as a reflective (self-interpreting) discipline. Which is not to deny that these findings might find useful applications elsewhere.


In conclusion

Secular Buddhism is not a ‘school’ of Buddhism: it has no orthodoxy, no separate canon, and no institutional presence. For the most part its sympathisers participate in lay practice communities (sanghas) with dharma friends of other Buddhist persuasions or of none in particular. Rather, secular Buddhism stands for a developmental direction that is typically Buddhist in its open-minded scepticism and its desire to let the dharma speak most effectively, that is, in culturally available terms.


• 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.



  1. Jonathan Casbolt
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    A beautifully written and researched article Winton. It challenges one’s thinking in many ways and opens up many possibilities. Thank-you.

  2. Rod MacKenzie
    Posted October 6, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Awesome. This is totally in line with my own lebenswelt. I have read soem of Charles Taylor and have just requested A Secular Age. Will revisit Being and Time… this article got me wanting to read more about our context and that we are interpeting beings, that there is no inert text (and therefore, there is no “One book” and after that NO more books as the fundamentalists will say). But the most important is the “sitting” and finding and developing community.

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