In the second part of lesson one, Stephen offers a short history of secular Buddhism. Discussing several Buddhist traditions throughout history, he reflects on the secular aspects of these traditions and how they have shaped his perspective of a secular dharma.


Talk ‘A Short History of Secular Buddhism’ [Download this audio file here]

Discussion Question
What, for you, distinguishes Buddhism from the Dharma? In yourself, would you say that you practice Buddhism or the Dharma?
Try to explore the tension, the difference, the compatibility or otherwise of Buddhism and the Dharma.


Questions and Answers [Download this audio file here]


Preparation for lesson 2

As a preparation for the next lesson, ‘Reactivity and suffering’, Stephen invites you to have a look at the 32 dimensions of awakening, a ‘roadmap’ for this course.

Specifically, read sections 4 and 5 of chapter 3 of After Buddhism (pp 70-78).



#Parabel of the City, Samyuta Nikāya

#Vinaya: text about monastic life

#Dalai Lama: “Beyond Religion” (book)

Stephen's Notes

Chapter 2: A Very Short History of Secular Buddhism

Gotama envisioned a new civilisation in this world not another world renouncing religion

“I will not leave this world until I have men and women mendicants and men and women adherents who are accomplished, trained, skilled, learned, knowers of the dharma, trained in the dharma, walking in the path of the dharma, who will pass on what they have gained from their teacher, teach it, declare it, establish it, expound it, analyse it, make it clear; until they shall be able by means of the dharma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the miraculous dharma.” [Selected Discourses, no. 3.]

We know quite a lot about how the monastics at the Buddha’s time lived because we have the Vinaya that they lived by and other canonical texts that present the teachings and the world of that time from a monastic perspective. By contrast we know very little about the non-monastic community either of the Buddha’s time or of later periods in Indian history. How did these “lay” people lead their lives? We have very little evidence apart from some carved inscriptions that record the names of donors in rock cut temples.

I will present during this course a case for a thriving non-monastic community of adherents — artisans, business people, doctors, government officials — who lived their lives according to a model of the dharma based on Four Paths rather than Four Truths.  These paths were lost in Theravada Buddhism but survived in the Indian Sarvastivada school and subsequently made their way to Tibet, where I encountered them. This community of adherents was a secular as opposed to a religious movement of monastics, and thus the lost and forgotten precursor of Secular Dharma, which is founded on a task-based ethics of four paths rather than a truth-based metaphysics of four truths.

From a secular perspective, the goal of the dharma is to flourish as a socially embedded human being. After Gotama’s death his dharma mutated into the monastic, Indian (and now world) religion we call “Buddhism”. The goal of Buddhism is the realisation of nirvana, understood as the ending of the cycle of birth and death. This is true both of the early schools and the later Mahayana movements. This is also the goal of Buddhism sister religions of Brahminism and Jainism.

The emergence of Mahayana Buddhism in India countered the world denying emphasis in early Buddhism by emphasising compassion over renunciation — this is a secular move, a return to the concerns of the world we live in.

The first historical antecedent of secular dharma began in China with the Chan movement.

In 14th century Japan both Shinran and Nichiren formed schools of Buddhism with a strong secular dimension.

The anti-colonial reform movements in Sri Lanka and Burma in the 19th century advocated a rational, “Protestant” approach to Buddhism that sought to bring it into alignment with the natural sciences. This led to Vipassana courses and eventually the worldwide mindfulness movement.

In the 1920’s, the Soka Gakkai was founded, which, after the 2nd world war became the largest and most influential movement in Japan.

Dr. Ambedkar and the mass conversions to Buddhism among the Dalit community in the 1950’s.

Chogyam Trungpa devised “Shambhala Training” as an explicitly secular counterpart to Vajradhatu Buddhism.

In his book Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama advocates a “Secular Ethics” inspired by the Indian constitution. A secular state affords a space of tolerance of all religions without any one predominating.

Most of these secular movements did not move beyond the views of the classical worldview of ancient India, i.e. belief in rebirth, karma, final nirvana etc., but marginalised them instead.

Dr. Ambedkar remained faithful to the model of the four noble truths, which he reinterpreted as a social and political doctrine.

The mindfulness movement too offers a secular reading of the four noble truths by turning them into a psychological doctrine.

The Dalai Lama advocates a Secular Ethics but not a Secular Buddhism.

(I live in a secular state called France. The local school declares itself as an “école laïcque” — a secular school — founded on the principles of “liberté, égalité and fraternité. Laïcité (secularity) respects the private religious beliefs of all citizens but prohibits religious discourse from playing any role in public life.)

The secular dharma that will be taught on this course seeks to rewrite the operating code of the dharma and start all over again. We might call this Buddhism 2.0 [cf. Batchelor. Secular Buddhism, Section Two].