The Secularisation of Buddhism

Stephen Batchelor

As someone immersed in the practice of Buddhism for the past forty years – as a student, translator, writer, interpreter and teacher – I may not be best placed to appreciate the impact of this tradition on the wider British society of which I am a part. I may be unable to see the forest, as we say, precisely because of my professional concern with some of its trees. Nonetheless, I sense that seismic changes are afoot in the ways Buddhism is currently evolving in its adaptation to modernity.

In a recent article, ‘Facing the Great Divide’, the eminent American scholar-monk Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests that Buddhism ‘has arrived at a major watershed from which two distinct streams have emerged, which for convenience we may call “Classical Buddhism” and “Secular Buddhism”.’ Bodhi explains how the former largely perpetuates the heritage of Asian Buddhism, be that of the Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, Nichiren or Pure Land schools, while the latter ‘marks a rupture with Buddhist tradition, a re-visioning of the ancient teachings intended to fit the secular culture of the West.’

That Buddhism may indeed have arrived at such a watershed is further suggested by a recent book by the Dalai Lama, the world’s most famous Buddhist monk, entitled Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. ‘What we need today,’ he argues, ‘is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.’ Without for a moment rejecting his own Buddhist faith, he acknowledges how ‘the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I believe the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.’

Yet without addressing concrete issues people face in their day-to-day lives, such stirring remarks remain vague and abstract. The deeper challenge confronting both these Buddhist authors is not merely one of ‘re-visioning ancient teachings’ or finding ‘a new way of thinking about spirituality and ethics’ but of advocating practices that can make a palpable difference to the way we live in this world now.  And it is here, I believe, that the seismic change in Buddhism’s relation to modernity is actually taking place: through the widespread practice of mindfulness.

‘Mindfulness,’ writes its foremost proponent, the American Emeritus Professor of Medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn, ‘is a way of being in wise and purposeful relationship with one’s experience, both inwardly and outwardly. It is cultivated by systematically exercising one’s capacity for paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, and by learning to inhabit and make use of the clarity, discernment, ethical understanding, and awareness that arise…’  What Kabat-Zinn presents here as mindfulness is more than just a short-term therapeutic intervention to treat a transient health problem. It is a practice that not only demands considerable mental discipline but also a revaluation of the purpose of one’s life and the ethical values needed to realize that purpose.

The above definition of mindfulness is found not in a book on psychotherapy or meditation but in Kabat-Zinn’s foreword to Mindful Nation UK: Report by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG), published in October last year in London. This group was set up to review the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of mindfulness, develop policy recommendations for government, and provide a forum in Parliament to explore the role of mindfulness in public life.  The report recommends four areas in which mindfulness could be implemented:  healthcare, education, the workplace and the criminal justice system. This was not just a theoretical exercise. One hundred and fifty parliamentarians and eighty of their staff have taken part in mindfulness courses offered in Parliament itself.

It is, of course, entirely appropriate that mindfulness be presented in such contexts as a practice that is effective irrespective of whether or not one regards oneself as a Buddhist. The report acknowledges the Buddhist origins of mindfulness as an historical fact, but insists that the practice has been ‘freed from any religious or dogmatic content.’ This does not imply, however, that mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that is entirely value-free. By using terms such as ‘wise,’ ‘non-judgmental,’ ‘ethical understanding,’ and ‘awareness,’ Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness endorses certain values. Such a set of values may be pointing to the kind of secular ethics envisioned by the Dalai Lama, but, at the same time, it has a distinctly Buddhistic ring.

Mindfulness is not a marginal practice among Buddhists. Mindfulness is the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path, the doctrine the Buddha declared to constitute the very heart of his teaching. Together with appropriate vision, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and concentration, it is a core value to be developed on the way to awakening. The Buddha even declared mindfulness to be the ‘sole path’ to nirvana itself. So when someone uses Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to counter relapse into depression, for example, she is employing a practice that potentially leads to the still, non-reactive freedom of nirvana.

I am as concerned as anyone else that the practice of mindfulness in secular contexts be entirely disassociated from the dogmas of the Buddhist religion. Beliefs in reincarnation or the law of karma, for example, are irrelevant in terms of its therapeutic benefits. That it was originally taught by a person Buddhists believe to be ‘enlightened’ likewise has no bearing at all on whether one should adopt or reject it. The only criterion for its use in healthcare or elsewhere must be whether it can be shown to work in alleviating suffering and improving the quality of human life.

I cannot think of a single meditative discipline from any other world religion that could be utilized outside a religious setting in the way mindfulness is being used today. This leads one to wonder whether, in its essence, what we call ‘Buddhism’ is best described as a ‘religion’ at all. While the secularisation of mindfulness is deplored by some classical Buddhists as a dumbing down or commodification of a revered practice within their tradition, one could also argue that the discovery of the effectiveness of mindfulness in reducing suffering allows Buddhism to recover its secular soul that has long been obscured by the encrustation of religious beliefs.

What matters for secular Buddhists is to live life in such a way that it results in a better world for those who are alive now as well as those who will inhabit it after their death. They understand how both their personal actions and the deeds of a society or state that they endorse will have consequences long after their own death. In accepting degrees of responsibility for these acts, they affirm a belief in natural justice, but they can do so without needing to entertain the idea that they will survive in any form to experience the results of those acts themselves.

For traditional Buddhists, by contrast, it is incoherent to consider oneself a ‘Buddhist’ without believing that this life is but a brief moment in a succession of lifetimes in different realms of existence, driven by the moral force of one’s deeds (karma). For without this belief, the Buddhist goal of enlightenment would make no sense, since the ‘enlightened one’ is regarded as the person who has achieved liberation from this repetitive cycle of death and rebirth. To remove such core beliefs would be comparable for them to what denying the existence of God would be for a devout Jew, Christian or Muslim. In both cases, they would argue, it would deprive the tradition of its very raison d’être.

Without underestimating the doctrinal and philosophical difficulties involved, I attempt in my book After Buddhism to imagine what the dharma (i.e. what Buddhists call ‘Buddhism’) would be like were it divested of the cosmology and metaphysical beliefs of ancient India. By carefully and systematically removing from the Buddha’s teaching any statement that could just as well have been uttered by a contemporary Brahmin priest or Jain monk, one arrives at four distinguishing features: the principle of conditionality or causality; the practice of a fourfold task (embracing life, letting go of reactivity, experiencing the suspension of reactivity, and creating an ethical path); the perspective of mindful awareness; and the power of self-reliance. I maintain that such a rethinking of Buddhism reveals a foundation on which to build a secular dharma that is based on the earliest texts and provides an entirely adequate framework for human flourishing.

The emergence of Secular Buddhism is seen by its advocates as an overdue reformation of the tradition: one that empowers the individual by returning him or her to the core principles, values and practices taught by the historical Gotama before they mutated into an Indian religion. In this light, Secular Buddhism may be far closer in spirit and style to the Hellenistic philosophies of Scepticism, Epicureanism or Stoicism than to Judaism, Christianity or Islam. A secular Buddhist celebrates the adoption of mindfulness in non-religious settings, while recognizing that for its potential to be fully realized a meditative practice alone is insufficient. Just as Jon Kabat-Zinn and others have secularized Buddhist mindfulness, the challenge now is to secularize Buddhist ethics and philosophy in such a way that they can address the current conditions of our world by articulating a way a life in which humans and other beings can flourish together on this earth.

• Stephen Batchelor is the author of After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, published in January 2016 by Yale University Press. An edited version of this essay was published in The Times (London) on 6 February 2016.