As the winding river of Buddhist tradition flows beyond the boundaries of its Asian homelands and enters the modern West, it has arrived at a major watershed from which two distinct streams have emerged, which for convenience we may call “Classical Buddhism” and “Secular Buddhism.” The former continues the heritage of Asian Buddhism, with minor adaptations made to meet the challenges of modernity. The latter marks a rupture with Buddhist tradition, a re-visioning of the ancient teachings intended to fit the secular culture of the West.
The expressions “Classical Buddhism” and “Secular Buddhism” are to a certain extent abstractions. They do not define fixed categories but stand as the end points of a spectrum of possibilities that may blend and merge in any given individual’s personal commitment to the Dharma. Nevertheless, at certain key points the two branch off in different directions, presenting us with a choice between incompatible alternatives. As we endeavor to find our own orientation to the Dharma, it is helpful to clearly understand where these divergences occur and to recognize the choices before us.
The contrast between Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism stems primarily from different ways of understanding the human condition. Classical Buddhism seeks light on the human condition from the canonical texts of Buddhism, particularly from the Buddha’s discourses. Secular Buddhism looks for illumination to modern science and the value systems of secular society. These different perspectives govern their distinctive ways of understanding the Three Jewels of Buddhism—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. They also determine their assessments of the nature and purpose of Buddhist practice.
Classical Buddhism sees human existence as embedded in the condition called samsāra, understood literally as the beginningless chain of rebirths. From this standpoint, humans are just one class of living beings in a vast multidimensional cosmos. Through time without beginning all beings have been roaming from life to life in the five realms of existence, rising and falling in accordance with their karma, their volitional deeds. Life in all these realms, being impermanent and fraught with pain, is inherently unsatisfactory—dukkha. Thus the final goal, the end of dukkha, is release from the round of rebirths, the attainment of an unconditioned dimension of spiritual freedom called nibbāna. The practice of the path is intended to eradicate the bonds tying us to the round of rebirths and thereby bring liberation from repeated birth, aging and death.
Secular Buddhism, in contrast, starts from our immediate existential situation, understood without bringing in non-naturalistic assumptions. Secular Buddhism therefore does not endorse the idea of literal rebirth. Some Secular Buddhists regard rebirth as a symbol for changing states of mind, some as an analogy for biological evolution, some simply as part of the dispensable baggage that Buddhism drags along from Asia. But Secular Buddhists generally do not regard rebirth as the problem the Dharma is intended to resolve. Accordingly, they interpret the idea of samsāra as a metaphor depicting our ordinary condition of bewilderment and addictive pursuits. The secular program thus reenvisions the goal of Buddhist practice, rejecting the ideal of irreversible liberation from the cycle of rebirths in favor of a tentative, ever-fragile freedom from distress in this present life itself.
This difference in fundamental worldviews between Religious and Secular Buddhism shapes their respective ways of regarding the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. For Classical Buddhism, the Buddha is an exalted being, the teacher not only of humans but of deities and beings in other realms. He attained buddhahood as the culmination of countless lives spent as a bodhisattva perfecting the paramitas, the supreme virtues. His enlightenment involved a breakthrough to ultimate truth, by which he eradicated the mind’s defilements, penetrated the spiritual laws of the universe and acquired various kinds of psychic powers. As the indispensable guide to liberation, the response he evokes is one of awe, reverence and devotion.
Secular Buddhism has no concern with a multilife background to the Buddha’s achievement, and devotion plays a minor role in its program. The Buddha is seen as a wise teacher who awakened to the truth of the human condition. His teaching was pragmatic and therapeutic, aimed at the alleviation of suffering here and now. Those who aspire to learn from the Buddha need not place trust in principles that transcend the bounds of ordinary cognition. All are welcome to adopt from his teaching whatever provides concrete benefit in their lives.
Divergent attitudes toward the Dharma also distinguish Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths, the bedrock of the Dharma, provide a sterling example of how they differ. Classical Buddhism gives priority to a “horizontal” view of the Four Noble Truths, seeing them as an evaluation of samsaric becoming. The truth of suffering underscores the defective nature of life in the round of rebirths. Craving and ignorance function as the hidden levers driving the cycle, propelling the stream of consciousness forward from life to life. The end of suffering is attained by eliminating craving and ignorance through insight into the real nature of things. In contrast, Secular Buddhism gives precedence to a “vertical” view of the Four Noble Truths. It understands them as a diagnosis of our present life itself, offering a pragmatic therapy that can lead to a life of equanimity and contentment lived fully in the here and now.
These different outlooks on the Four Noble Truths in turn determine their divergent views on Buddhist practice. Classical Buddhism affirms the value of practices designed to secure a favorable rebirth and promote gradual progress toward the realization of nibbāna. It thus includes such elements as ritual, the formal observance of precepts, support for monasteries and monastics, and devotional recitations and meditations. The higher meditation practices of serenity and insight (samatha and vipassanā) aim at disenchantment, dispassion and ultimate release from the round of rebirths.
Where Classical Buddhism grounds practice in the cosmology of the Buddhist scriptures, Secular Buddhism seeks to integrate Buddhist practice with existential psychology. It assigns the devotional and ritualistic practices to the sidelines or drops them entirely. The path centers on meditation as a means of dealing with uncertainty and stress and alleviating the ordeal of afflictive emotions. Secular Buddhism locates ultimate meaning in the immediacy of life in the here and now, lived deliberately with keen curiosity and open attention.
Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism also differ in their understanding of the Sangha. For Classical Buddhism the ideal focus is on the “Sangha of noble ones” (ariyasangha), those who have attained the stages of awakening culminating in arahantship, or in Mahayana Buddhism, on the exalted bodhisattvas. However, because the Sangha of noble ones is a purely spiritual entity, without manifest signs, most forms of Classical Buddhism direct their communal veneration toward the monastic Sangha, the order of monks and nuns. The monastics function as the field of merit, recipients of respect and offerings. They are also the supreme teaching authority, whose years of training qualify them to transmit the Dharma.
In Secular Buddhism, the Sangha of noble ones is not recognized as such, or is treated as marginal. While Secular Buddhists may respect individual monastics as teachers and models, they generally do not give priority to establishing a monastic order. The word sangha is in fact broadened in scope to designate all practitioners. Precedence may be given to lay teachers, who share the lifestyles and values of lay students and are thus felt to be more accessible than renunciant monks and nuns. Where Classical Buddhism regards the conservation of tradition as the guarantee of authentic teaching, Secular Buddhism prizes creativity and innovation.
As Buddhism evolves in the West, it is likely that the encounter between these two camps will generate competition and rivalry. Yet it may be the attempt to bring together the respective strengths of each that holds the most promise for the future vitality of the Dharma. This is the case not only in the West but in Asia as well, where educated Buddhists now often look to Western Buddhism for inspiration and models to emulate.
In my own opinion, each of these two expressions of Buddhism has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses. The strength of Classical Buddhism lies in its commitment to preserving the teachings that have defined Buddhism through the ages. Classical Buddhism stresses fidelity to the Buddha’s words and thereby keeps intact the ancient heritage of the Dharma and the potential for deep practice and attainment. By endorsing the ideal of transcendent liberation, it fosters the spirit of renunciation that motivates the traditional quest for awakening. Its values of restraint and fewness of desires directly challenge the rampant greed and self-seeking fostered by free-market capitalism. With its respect for the monastic life, it upholds the lifestyle that the Buddha himself made available by creating a monastic order governed by a stringent code of discipline.
The weaknesses of Classical Buddhism are typical of other forms of traditional religion. These include a tendency toward complacency, a suspicion of modernity, the identification of cultural forms with essence, and a disposition to doctrinal rigidity. At the popular level, Classical Buddhism often shelves the attitude of critical inquiry that the Buddha himself encouraged in favor of devotional fervor and unquestioning adherence to hallowed doctrinal formulas.
The main strength of Secular Buddhism lies in its ability to make the Dharma meaningful to people nurtured by a secular culture with a deep distrust of religious institutions and skepticism about tenets outside the range of normal experience. Secular Buddhism thereby opens doors to the Dharma for people inclined to the experiential emphasis of the hard sciences. Secular Buddhists have also devised new applications of the Dharma neglected or bypassed by the tradition, bringing Buddhist practices into such arenas as health care, education, prison work and psychotherapy. These last features, however, are generic to Western Buddhism, whether secular or religious, and are not unique to the secularist approach.
The principal weakness of Secular Buddhism may be overconfidence in the naturalistic premises with which it starts. This can lead to a disregard, even disdain, for principles that clearly spring from the Buddha’s own realization. This is particularly the case with the principles of rebirth and karma. To dismiss these teachings as mere trappings of Buddhism’s Asian heritage is to cast off the essential backdrop to the spiritual quest that the Buddha himself emphasized by including them in Right View, the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. If they are discarded in favor of materialistic naturalism, there is a real danger that the very pillars that sustain the Dharma will collapse, leaving us stranded in the wilderness of personal opinion and reducing Buddhist practice to an assortment of therapeutic techniques. On the other hand, if Classical Buddhism holds fast to its original standpoint, it may well expand the horizons of science beyond materialist reductionism, opening the scientific mind to subtler dimensions of reality.
Although a cross-fertilization between Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism can inspire a revitalization of the Dharma in ways fitting for our time, in my view the relation between them cannot be symmetrical. Since it is Classical Buddhism that has firmer roots in the original teaching, it provides a more solid basis than Secular Buddhism for preserving the integrity of the Dharma against the temptation to dilution and commercialization. Nevertheless, while unbridgeable differences between them will remain, Classical Buddhism can learn from Secular Buddhism how to respond effectively and intelligently to the unique pressures of modernity. For example, while most forms of traditional Buddhism in Asia still follow a hierarchical organizational structure, Secular Buddhist communities have adopted lateral power-sharing and more egalitarian models better suited to the democratic standards of national governance. At the popular level, where Classical Buddhism tends to posit a sharp contrast between serious Dharma practice and everyday life, Secular Buddhism takes everyday life to be the field for successful practice and thus bridges the two domains. Secular Buddhism has also purged ancient biases that still infect traditional Buddhism, affirming the equal capacities of women and giving full respect to people of diverse sexual orientations.
Some Dharma teachers go a step beyond standard Secular Buddhism and hold that Buddhist mindfulness practice must be recast as a nondenominational technique stripped of its Buddhist identity. This, they claim, will enable the Dharma to blend unobtrusively into the cultural mainstream. Few Secular Buddhists, however, endorse this proposition, which even they deem too drastic. For traditional Buddhists, bare mindfulness training without the support of refuge in the Three Jewels and the rest of the Eightfold Path loses its transcendent orientation and risks being turned into a mere adornment to a comfortable life. Even more concerning, however, is the fact that this approach can easily be taken up by the corporate mindset to suit its own agenda, culminating in the triumph of what some have called “McMindfulness.”
With some exceptions, adherents of both Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism have tended to treat political and social activism as marginal to their understanding of Dharma practice. While they may engage in certain types of humanitarian service—assistance to the sick and dying, care for orphans and animals, the operation of soup kitchens, or work among prisoners—they often shy away from overt political advocacy, which they may see as a threat to the purity of their practice. This, I feel, is where Buddhism in all its varieties has much to learn from the Abrahamic religions with their prophetic concern for social justice. For billions of people around the world the principal causes of the real suffering they face on a daily basis are endemic poverty, social oppression and environmental devastation. If Buddhism is to live up to its moral potential, its followers must make a stronger commitment to peace, justice and social transformation. Inspired by the ideals of lovingkindness and compassion, they must be ready to stand up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, for those burdened by harsh and exploitive social structures. For all its unsavoriness, politics has become the stage where the critical ethical struggles of our time are being waged. Any spiritual system that spurns social engagement to safeguard its purity risks reneging on its moral obligations. Its contemplative practices may then turn into the intellectual plaything of an upper-middle-class elite or a cushion to soften the impact of the real world.
It is still far too early to determine how in the long run the encounter between Classical Buddhism and Secular Buddhism will play out, much less the broader encounter between Buddhism and modernity. These are matters for the future to determine, and to learn the answers we must be patient. But as followers of the Dharma, it’s not enough just to sit on the sidelines as observers. Whether we lean toward Classical Buddhism or Secular Buddhism, we must be ready to promote fruitful exchanges between the two, undertaken in a shared quest for a wider understanding of the Dharma in its full range, relevance and depth.