Re: Secularizing Buddhism–Making it Accessible or Stripping the Roots?

I posted a comment on my geeky Buddhist friend’s guest post on One City: Secularizing Buddhism–Making it Accessible or Stripping the Roots?

The comment was long enough that I think it warrants a blog post. So here it is.


i share your concerns in not throwing the Buddhist baby with the secular bathwater πŸ™‚ i appreciate the various expressions of different Buddhist traditions. however, whenever i think of “secularizing” Buddhism, i also look at it from a different perspective. instead of just thinking of it as “stripping” Buddhism of its cultural baggage, i like to think of it as recognizing the *common threads* in most (if not all) mystical traditions.

for example (i’m using Shinzen Young’s formulation here), let’s take the concept of enlightenment as a “goal” (which it is in traditional Buddhist formulation; e.g. 4 Noble Truths, 8-Fold paths). there are three main factors in meditation practice which can help cultivate one’s awakening process. these are concentration, clarity, and equanimity. at first look these factors are Buddhist concepts. however, if we broaden our perspective and step back a bit, these factors are common to most (if not all) mystical traditions, from Shamanism, to Sufism, to mystical Judaism, to Christian contemplatives, to sport athletes. so, if these are common to all mystical traditions, are they Buddhist or are they universal factors? if we take them as universal factors, then can we proceed to treat them as secular ideas (or scientific formulations) without exclusive ties to Buddhism? my opinion is yes.

Sam Harris has a good analogy for this in his contemplative science article: we [dont’] talk about Christian Chemistry, or Islamic Algebra (even if those ideas were developed within those religious traditions). in the same vein, concentration, clarity, equanimity can be thought of as neutral (or secular) scientific terms, like atoms, neutrons, energy, mass, inertia, etc. even if some of those scientific terms evolved within a religious tradition, no one thinks about Islam when performing mathematical or algebraic calculations. in short, those ideas have become so universal/scientific/secular that we forgot their religious roots. whether [or not]Β  we remember their religious roots, those concepts work for us, across cultures, across generations.

for a geekier example check out Shinzen Young’s historical musings on Algorithm and Emptiness. you see how the concept of emptiness correlates to “zero”? πŸ™‚

bottom line: i believe that we can use whatever language (secular or otherwise) to express the dharma. i’m one of those who believe that Buddhist practice (and concepts) can be expressed in secularized form *without losing its potency as a liberation oriented technology*. this will not appeal to everyone, just as science doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. there will those who will continue to prefer the traditional teachings along with its cultural expressions. nothing wrong with that. Western Buddhists owe a lot from those people who chose to follow the traditional paths. without them, Buddhism will not thrive today. but still, for me, secularized flavor of Buddhism is a parallel dharma. i don’t think it will replace the different Buddhist traditions. it will be a different thread on its own.

so whenever someone asks me whether i’m a Buddhist, i can now answer with a straight face: i’m technically a non-practicing Catholic who does Buddhist practice.

my two cents.


Comments (9)

  1. C4Chaos:

    I relate to what you are saying so much. I’m a Christian Contemplative, and I practice Buddhist meditation intensively. At the place that is beyond the root there is no difference. Thank you for bringing your perspective to the discussion.

    LOL — the photo with the sign. πŸ™‚

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 10:51 pm #
  2. Vince wrote::

    Hi Mel,

    Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. It sounds similar to me, to what Ken Wilber has tried to do with his Integral Psychology models, where he lines everything up to see the commonalities, and then from there you are in a position to do a more kind of intelligent distillation and re-packaging.

    I respect that drive, and I think folks like Wilber and Young are doing a decent job at it, and I’m glad they are. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve become more and more a post-modernist thinker though, in that I’ve been questioning that drive, within myself, to want to find commonalities and universals and then titrate them down into some sort of super-essence. Because though I’ve bought into theories that do that, and even constructed some of my own, I always find that new information surfaces and my previously held beliefs about how things connected get challenged and they are undermined slightly.

    For example, as I write about on my blog, while doing Robert Kegan’s Immunity to Change process recently, I unearthed an invisible assumption that, “I should be able to resolve all paradoxes and contradictions that I encounter.” That assumption was one of the primary things driving me to try and bring everything together, see commonalities, and build theories. It seems like what Kegan refers to as the “self-actualizing mind.” But I don’t think that is how Wilber (or perhaps even Shinzen) came to their synthesis. When Wilber talks about his process of writing SES (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality) he talks about how he took in all this information, reading for like 3 years straight, and how he was completely stuck, not knowing how things fit together, or even if they did. He had to bang his head against that no knowing for YEARS! It was only then that his theories “emerged”.

    My sense is that his process (and his understanding and conclusions) were quite different from say, you or I, picking up a book, reading it, and agreeing with or including, the points into our meta-theory of how things are, and how they relate. That, while it can be difficult at times, is fairly easy in comparison to the process he describes. And I’m not convinced that everyone doesn’t need to go through that process before they can really value the fruits of such conclusions…

    Anyway, I guess my core concern is with the methodology by which we agre or disagree with what is “essential” or what is “core” in Buddhism. My method for years was to resolve paradoxes and contradictions into an ever-evolving super-theory about how everything makes sense, but i personally found the very structure behind that drive to be “not me”. It became an object in my attention, and now recently I’ve been feeling like a better methodology is to rest in not knowing how things fit together, and as Kegan would say, letting that mystery “solve us” rather than us “solve it”. It seems paradoxical, but it’s clear to me that I can’t go back to building sand castles during high-tide. πŸ™‚

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 6:59 am #
  3. Vince wrote::

    I realize that I contradicted myself pretty heavily up there, by first saying what you’re doing sounds like Wilber and then saying that it wasn’t like Wilber. As Walt Whitman said,

    “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    I am vast, I contain multitudes.”

    A multitude of errors! πŸ˜€

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 7:04 am #
  4. I practice Buddhism, I am not a Buddhist.

    Every honest thing is simple. Every original teaching of The Buddha is simple, i. e., “If you want happiness, help someone.” Complexity is added later to sell things.

    Of course, not every simple thing is honest. One must pay full Attention.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 7:57 am #
  5. VS wrote::

    Hmmm…. I’m not convinced, I have to say. I liked the parent article of Vince Horn, but I have to disagree here.

    You’re describing secularising the Dharma as a twofold process. Firstly, it’s stripping Buddhism of its cultural baggage, which is generally a good thing, if it’s done by someone who’s deeply versed in both Western Culture and Traditional Buddhism.

    But secondly you’re describing it as also looking for the common threads in mystical traditions, which I don’t see the point of. It seems to me that Vince Horn is right on the money that this second kind of secularisation comes from simply being uncomfortable and “embarrassed by certain components of Buddhism–the adherence to strict moral codes, the magical and mythical pantheon of Buddhist cosmology, the metaphysics of enlightenment, etc.–that we feel the need to throw them all out without further discourse?”

    Also, I think there’s a modern psuedo-egalitarianism going on here, where all religions are considered to be basically the same. Which isn’t my experience. All the major world religions may have broad similarities, but they’re definitely not the same. Buddhism, to me, has the subtlest take on the nature of reality, denies the existence of a creator god, and has emptiness (and even this emptiness is itself empty), as a core, well, ‘belief’, using that word guardedly. (In reality, even beliefs in Buddhism are just the finger pointing to the moon.)

    And who would we be to think we know the Dharma well enough to radically re-invent it? Those people who I consider modern translators of the Dharma invariably go back to the word of the Buddha to validate the principles of his system of practice. And they are out-and-out Buddhist, not Catholics!

    Finally, if we were to secularise Buddhism and remove all the religious associations, we would be left with one of two things: a ‘Dharma’ stripped of it’s profundity, or a Dharma which retains the profundity, but looks almost exactly like the Dharma we already had, only using more western words for the terms. But I think the likelihood of it being the first would 99.999999%.

    IMHO, of course…


    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 8:45 am #
  6. c4chaos wrote::

    Vince said: “My sense is that his [Wilber’s] process (and his understanding and conclusions) were quite different from say, you or I, picking up a book, reading it, and agreeing with or including, the points into our meta-theory of how things are, and how they relate. That, while it can be difficult at times, is fairly easy in comparison to the process he describes. And I’m not convinced that everyone doesn’t need to go through that process before they can really value the fruits of such conclusions…”

    exactly! i agree. this sounds like the Christian concept of “revelation” and “grace” to me. which corresponds to Buddhist “insight” and “fruition.”

    although i’m still interested in grand narratives, i don’t take them very seriously a “truths”. they are useful as maps and for other applications (e.g. philosophy, psychology, health and well-being). in Daniel Ingram’s model, i treat them as ” Training in Morality”.

    integration can be very useful as we navigate our way in our everyday relative existence. however, from a hardcore Buddhist perspective, what ultimately counts is our own experience, perception, and realization of what is. that’s why i put more emphasis on practice over philosophizing and metaphysical conjecturing πŸ™‚


    P.S. the fact that we exist and communicate like this is already a contradiction. so yeah, i have no problem with it πŸ™‚

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 10:29 am #
  7. Okir wrote::

    I have also responded to the “secularizing Buddhism” issue on my blog,


    Sunday, August 16, 2009 at 2:40 pm #
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