Buddhist beliefs can’t be lumped into one single category or belief system. Though they share a common source, different Buddhist sects such as Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism have many dissimilarities as well. The starkest contrast, however, is between Traditional Buddhism and the modern movement that’s been termed “secular Buddhism.”
As David L. McMahan relates in The Making of Buddhist Modernism, a standard view of Buddhism in the West is that you don’t have to believe in anything in particular or follow any strict rules to be a Buddhist: “you simply exercise compassion and maintain a peaceful state of mind through meditation” (1). Today, the biggest topics among secular Buddhists tend to be compassion and mindfulness, as opposed to Traditional Buddhists’ focus on the dharma and attaining nirvana (whether in this life or another). But now some are questioning how much can be stripped away from the religion before it ceases to be Buddhism at all.
My intent in this post is not to demean secular Buddhism in any way, but simply to point out the vast divergences of worldview that comprise this modern movement, and to educate those who might not be familiar with the many differences between modern secular Buddhism and more traditional Buddhist beliefs.
Here’s a rundown on how some of these beliefs differ.
1. Buddhist Beliefs on Saṃsāra, Rebirth, and Nirvana
Traditional Buddhism espouses a belief in saṃsāra, which is the wheel of life, death, and rebirth. It teaches the reality of past lives, as well as future ones, with the possibility of attaining the state of nirvana, meaning a cessation of one’s existence or liberation.
Part of the belief in saṃsāra involves a belief in karma as well. Karma is simply cause and effect, not some divine punishment for an action the modern world views as “bad.” McMahan relates that a Buddhist modernist could see karma as the reason a drunk driver got into a car accident. “It is more difficult, however, to make a causal connection between one’s excessive drinking and, say, getting hit by a bus after one has been sober for fifteen years. The traditional view of karma would have no trouble making this connection,” he writes (2). In addition, karma is inextricably tied up in how you came to be born in your present life, even impacting your appearance and status. Traditional Buddhists also feel that a person’s circumstances in future lives will be the result of karma from their current and other past lives.
Secular Buddhists tend to be focused on this life only, and may view the concept of past lives as simply New Age mumbo-jumbo. Given that secular Buddhists don’t believe in the cycle of rebirth, any notion they have of karma is limited to actions taken in this life rather than impacting past or future lives. Their idea of karma is also filtered through a liberal secular humanist perspective, rather than traditional Buddhist morality. As one example, secular Buddhists tend to be pro-choice, whereas Traditional Buddhists are pro-life except in special circumstances like rape or saving the life of the mother, given the Buddhist teaching of ahimsa (non-violence).
2. Secular Buddhism vs. Traditional Buddhism on Hierarchy and Authority
Traditional Buddhists sects tend to be hierarchical. Advice from those who have practiced longer or with better educations is given priority, and those who are new to the religion or haven’t been through proper training aren’t likely to have their opinions taken seriously.
Secular Buddhists, on the other hand, tend to be egalitarian. They view everyone as equal and like to make decisions based on democratic ideals like voting. If someone does have a better education, they may discount their beliefs as wrong if they disagree with their secular humanist outlook. Many of them have only made a cursory study of Buddhist beliefs from modern books, yet will claim to know more than people who have studied from direct sources.
According to McMahan, one’s personal experience counted for very little in Traditional Buddhism. Even in meditation, experiences were checked, tested, and confirmed by a teacher and the tradition itself (3). In addition,
It would have occurred to virtually no one, furthermore, simply to pick up such a book and try to understand it for himself (even less herself). The vast canonical literature of Buddhism was written as an aid to oral and personal instruction by an authorized teacher. To attempt to read such texts without the help of a teacher and outside all established pedagogy would have been—and still is considered by some—folly. (4)
3. Views of the Buddhas of the World
Secular Buddhists view the Buddha as an awakened being, one who obtained to the ultimate truth. They usually know there are multiple Buddhas, and that every person has the potential to be an awakened one. However, they often know nothing about these other Buddhas, and may even mistake statues of bodhisattvas for a statue of “the Buddha” due to this ignorance.
Secular Buddhists may meditate in front of a Buddha statue on an altar, or have a statue in their bathroom as a decoration, but he is seen as an image to respect but not to worship or pray to. They tend to view the Buddha as more of a symbol than a deity.
Traditional Buddhists, on the other hand, talk much more about other Buddhas. In some traditions, such as Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism, there is acknowledgement of these Buddhas’ superhuman powers and miracles.
Secular Buddhists tend to view Gautama Buddha as someone who lived on earth around 500 BC and then died. But Traditional Buddhists will discuss teachings that describe the Buddha manifesting himself in various fantastic realms of the universe at different times. Since secular Buddhists don’t usually believe in the other realms described in Buddhist teachings, they don’t believe the Buddha traveled to these places either.
Some Traditional Buddhists deify the Buddha; others simply take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. But in general, Traditional Buddhists view the Buddha as a unique teacher. Secular Buddhists view the Buddha as a great teacher, but only one of many. They may strip down the message of his teachings and those of Jesus, in order to make their philosophies similar, and numerous books have now been written about the similarities between the Buddha and Jesus.
4. The Psychologization of Buddhism
One of the biggest trends, perhaps even the defining characterization, of secular Buddhism is its attempt to psychologize Buddhist beliefs and practices.
Buddhism is based on the idea of saṃsāra, the wheel of life and rebirth that constitutes the world of suffering. The only way to cease suffering is by attaining nirvana. It doesn’t matter how much of a paradise you create on earth, life is still suffering according to the First Noble Truth. Even the Buddha himself was born into a life of luxury, shielded from all suffering by his father, and sought enlightenment rather than improving his community by charitable acts. This is because the aim of Buddhism is not to make one’s current life better, but to attain liberation in as few lives as possible. Secular Buddhists, in stark contrast to this, view Buddhism as a set of tools that can be used to decrease suffering in this lifetime, with almost no mention of having to put in lifetimes of meditation to reach nirvana.
Secular Buddhists, like psychologists, are primarily interested in making people happy and content in the here and now. When a person is suffering, their advice is to practice mindfulness or short meditation sessions in order to make their work life, or even sex life, more enjoyable. Traditional Buddhist lay members almost never practice meditation, instead focusing on the performance of karmic deeds and rituals in order to secure a favorable rebirth.
Traditional Buddhists tend to focus on the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy as ontological concepts. Buddhist beliefs such as the Four Noble Truths, Three Characteristics, and Twelve Nidānas are taken seriously and thoughtfully. Secular Buddhists, on the other hand, view these in psychological terms. For example, rather than interpreting the Three Characteristics (three marks of existence)—impermanence, suffering, and non-self—as ontological absolutes that can be overcome by attaining absolute liberation, they view them a therapeutic formula for living a happier life.
Combined with an emphasis on mindfulness—a modern concept—secular Buddhists use the dharma as a means for overcoming current psychological pain. They advocate the use of mindfulness practices even outside of Buddhism, using it as a technique in therapy. Some go so far as to deny that additional goals of meditation are not the true teaching of Buddha, despite the fact that such secular Buddhist beliefs can only be traced back a few decades.
5. Secular Buddhist vs. Traditional Beliefs on the Scriptures
Traditional Buddhists hold the sacred canon in high regard and view scriptures with much respect and devotion. Devotees will memorize sacred texts or perform ritual acts of devotion to them. They spend time meditating on these scriptures and use their teachings in their quest for liberation. They realize that they need to seek guidance from a legitimate teacher in order to fully comprehend the meaning of scripture.
Secular Buddhists are apt to discount any of the scriptures they disagree with, thinking they are wiser than the Buddha. Some read a variety of texts, while others view reading them as a hindrance and vain intellectualism. If they do read the texts, they feel they are capable of interpreting them on their own. And if they seek out commentary on a scripture, it will often be from a modern Buddhist, not a traditional commentary.
Secular Buddhists get most of their information from modern books rather than Buddhist scriptures. Some of these authors are Westerners who have converted to Buddhism or are Buddhist scholars, such as Alan Watts. They tend to interpret Buddhism through a Western lens, a process described as Orientalism by historian Edward Said. Likewise, many popular Asian Buddhist teachers have taken a very modern view of their religion, such as D.T. Suzuki, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and even the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Because they were raised in the religion and are ethnically Asian, people tend to view their opinions as “absolute truth,” even when they contradict or have nothing to do with Traditional Buddhism.
This intro-level Buddhism is exacerbated because at Buddhist retreats, discourse is usually kept at a beginners’ level, with the teachings focused on what’s most appealing to modern Westerners. Talking about compassion and how mindfulness can help relieve work stress will bring people in; relating the Buddha’s comments about how letting women in the sangha would decrease the lifespan of the dharma from 1,000 years to 500 years would not be so well-received.
6. The Cost of Buddhist Teachings
Traditionally, Buddhists did not charge for teachings, which were freely given to disciples at monasteries. The Buddha did not charge for his teachings, and ordained monks are not permitted to charge for teaching,
Since the Buddhist teachers lived at the monastery and had few requirements (no big houses, cars, or children to support) the costs to maintain a teacher were relatively low. Today, many monasteries and nunneries will charge for special retreats to cover the room and board of participants. Many modern Buddhist groups in the West follow the same practice by offering classes at no charge or by donation only.
With secular Buddhism a new type of Buddhist teacher has developed—a layperson (one who is not a monastic) who teaches or gives training for money. These are people who have other jobs or who run Buddhist or self-development organizations. Because they live in society rather than as monastics, and consequently have many bills to pay, they charge for their time and teachings.
Aleister Crowley made a great analogy when discussing mental healers, professional diviners, psychics and the like who charge money for services in chapter 21 of Magick in Theory and Practice:
They exchange gold for dross. They sell their higher powers for gross and temporary benefit.
Traditional Buddhists Call for Mutual Respect
To learn about secular Buddhism, I’ve watched several lectures as well as read the book The Making of Buddhist Modernism. None of the Traditional Buddhists outlined these differences in order to set themselves up as the “best” way to practice Buddhism or to call out secular Buddhists for their lack of understanding or inauthenticity. All called for accepting different sides and views and for mutual respect. Given the intolerant nature of many liberal secular humanists who are interested in Buddhism nowadays, it would be interesting to see how tolerant and accepting they will be of those who have very traditional Buddhist beliefs.
In the following video, the Venerable Thubten Chodron of Washington state’s Sravasti Abbey shares her views on the secular mindfulness movement and secular Buddhist beliefs:
- McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. p. 4.
- Ibid. p. 174.
- Ibid., p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 212.