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 🙂 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]  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”? 🙂

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.


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