Is Secular Buddhism Possible?

The question whether secular Buddhism is possible might seem absurd at first. Varieties of what has been, or could be called “secular Buddhism” have been around for well over a century, and there is a sizable group of people who consider themselves “secular Buddhists”. So, of course, “secular Buddhism” is possible.

So, let’s be a bit more precise. My question is not really whether there are “things” (in a rather broad sense of “thing”) that could be or have been called “secular Buddhism”, but whether there could be something that is genuinely secular and simultaneously genuinely (a variety of) Buddhism. This question is not absurd, and its answer isn’t obvious either. What should be obvious, is that the answer depends completely on the definitions of “secular” and “Buddhism”, and unfortunately, providing a definition of the first is hard, while providing a definition of the second is nearly impossible. We might not need perfectly watertight definitions to answer the question, however.

While it is not my goal here, satisfying what is needed to answer the question whether secular Buddhism is possible will also provide the tools to asses whether the “things” that could be or have been called “secular Buddhism” are indeed secular Buddhisms – or in other words, whether they are genuinely secular and genuinely varieties of Buddhism. With one notable exception that we’ll get to later, I’m not really interested in this kind of question, however. I don’t really care whether Stephen Batchelor’s “Buddhism 2.0” really is a form of secular Buddhism (i.e., whether it is really secular and really Buddhist), for example. Moreover, the list of “things” that could be or have been called “secular Buddhism” is very long. It includes Stephen Batchelor as well as a number of other Western (mostly American) authors and their followers, but also Inoue Enryō 井上圓了, who coined the Japanese equivalent of the term “secular Buddhism”, 世間仏教, in 1887,1 but also several early and middle 20th century “radical Buddhists”, such as Uchiyama Gudō 内山愚童, Seno’o Girō 妹尾義郎, and B.R. Ambedkar, and much, much more. The list would also include my own attempt at radicalizing radical Buddhism in A Buddha Land in This World (hereafter abbreviated “BLiTW”), which is the aforementioned exception – that is, although I concluded in the last chapter of that book that the view I defend there is a variety of Buddhism, I’m actually not so sure about that conclusion.

Anyway, that book addresses some topics that are equally relevant here, and to avoid unnecessary duplication (which would make this article much too long), I’ll occasionally refer to relevant passages in BLiTW and summarize the main points here. Furthermore, to avoid frequent repetition of phrases like “the view defended in this book” in the last chapter of BLiTW, I used the Sanskrit neologism lokamātra (“this world only”) there to refer to the views/ideas introduced and defended in BLiTW. Although I’m not a fan of such neologisms (and particularly not of this one), I’ll use the same term here for the same reason.

I won’t just comment on the credentials of lokamātra as a secular Buddhism, by the way. Although, as mentioned, an assessment of the various candidate secular Buddhisms is not my goal, commenting on them helps clarify some of the issues addressed here. Hereafter, I will use guillemets to refer to these «secular Buddhisms» to indicate that it has not been established yet whether they are secular and/or Buddhist. (I’m not using quote marks, because that would suggest that all «secular Buddhisms» are called “secular Buddhism” and that is not the case.)

To answer my question whether secular Buddhism is possible, we need three things: (1) a sufficiently precise definition or description of what it means for something to be secular; (2) a sufficiently precise definition or description of what it means for something to be (a variety of) Buddhism; and (3) an assessment of how these definitions or descriptions interact – that is, whether they contradict or exclude each other, or whether they are compatible. I won’t keep these three “things” completely separate, however. That is, I will address these three topics in order, but will make occasional (or maybe quite frequent, actually) excursions to (3) in my discussions of (1) and (2).

Before proceeding to the first sub-topic, one final remark. This a very rough draft of something I have been thinking about for a while, and it is quite possible that I will return to this text occasionally to make significant changes or to add explanations or other material. I don’t think that this will change the main conclusions, however, but please keep in mind that this is (again) merely a rough draft.

What is secular?

The Oxford English Dictionary sorts the various meanings of the adjective “secular” into two categories: (1) “of or pertaining to the world”, and (2) “of or belonging to an age or long period”. Both categories are etymologically related to Latin saeculum, but to different uses (and different contexts of use) of that term. The second category builds on the use of saeculum to refer to a “generation” or “age” or related notions. “Secular” in this sense can mean “once in an age or other (very) long period”, or “lasting for a very long time”. This kind of use of the term is now rare outside some specific (mostly scientific) contexts, and it is largely irrelevant in the present context. When we are using the term “secular” in a context that is associated with religion in one way or other, it is always in one of the senses that belongs to the first category, which traces back to the use of saeculum in Christian Latin to refer to the world, “especially as opposed to the church”. “Secular” in this sense can refer to non-monastic clergy, to worldly affairs as opposed to affairs of the church and religious affairs, to that what is not concerned with religion or what does not serve religious goals, to this world or the natural world as opposed to the spiritual world or a/the supernatural world(s), to this (temporal) world as opposed to the “eternal” world or some kind of heaven or afterlife, and so forth. “Secular” in this sense, can also be an antonym of “religious” or “sacred”. The term “secular”, then, is mostly a negative term – it denotes what something is not: not monastic, not religious, not sacred, not spiritual, not supernatural, not concerned with some kind of afterlife, and so forth. The most central of these oppositions is that to religion. Usually “secular” just means “non-religious”, but this implies that a definition of “secular” (in this sense) is really nothing but a complement or counterpart to a definition of “religion”. Or in other words, to understand what “secular” means, one must first understand what religion is.

The question what religion is, and specifically, what distinguishes religion from science, is the topic of the last section of chapter 6 of BLiTW (pp. 177–84). The three main defining aspects of religion distinguished there (albeit not in exactly these words) are (1) a non-peripheral commitment to some form of immortality, such as beliefs in some kind of afterlife or something like reincarnation, (2) a non-peripheral commitment to supernatural entities and/or supernatural explanations, and (3) a dogmatic attitude with respect to key beliefs – that is, such key beliefs are not open to counter-evidence or revision. Notice that I describe (1) and (2) as “non-peripheral commitments” here, indicating that these beliefs play relatively central roles in religious worldviews.

A “secular” rejection of (1) and/or (2) seems to go a little bit further than what was suggested in the previous paragraph. There, it was noted that “secular” can refer to a focus on this world as opposed to the afterlife, or a focus on this world as opposed to some supernatural world, but this is merely a matter of focus and not of rejection. Nevertheless, in the (common) understanding of “secular” as opposed to the religious this is insufficient. To be “secular” is not just to ignore the supernatural and/or afterlife beliefs, but to deny them. But perhaps, we should instead think of “secular” as a spectrum − something or someone can be more or less secular. Focusing away from the afterlife (etc.) and the supernatural without explicitly rejecting them is more secular than focusing on them, but less secular than explicitly denying them. Hence, the various late 19th century and early 20th century reform movements in East Asian Buddhism that emphasized a this-worldly Buddhism (such as Taixu’s 太虛 “Buddhism for the human world” 人間佛教 or Tanaka Jiroku’s 田中治六 “this-world-ism” 現世主義) are more secular than traditional death-and-rebirth-focused Buddhism, but less secular than, for example, Batchelor’s rejection of rebirth and the supernatural.

Western Buddhists often like to claim that Buddhism already rejects the third defining aspect of religion mentioned above (i.e., a dogmatic attitude with respect to key beliefs), which is usually supported with a reference to the the Kesamutti Sutta (also known as Kālāma Sutta) in which the Buddha advises:

Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence [of a speaker], or because you think: “The ascetic is our guru.” But when you know for yourselves: “These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should live in accordance with them.2

This passage is sometimes called “the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry”, but that qualification makes little sense upon a closer reading. The Buddha explicitly rejects reasoning in this passage, and there is no such thing as inquiry without reasoning – in the contrary, inquiry is almost synonymous with reasoning. Neither is the passage an endorsement of some form as empiricism as sometimes suggested. Rather, the Buddha tells his audience to accept or reject “when you know for yourself” that some practice leads to welfare or suffering and so forth, but what he does not say is how one gets to know something for oneself. It could be by empirical means, but considering that the passage does not advocate to find out for oneself, but instead assumes that one already somehow knows, a more plausible interpretation is that knowing something for oneself refers to something like gut-feeling or intuition, which is the very opposite of rational inquiry. Furthermore, in the Pāli canon, more often than not, the criterion to accept something as true is that it was set forth by the Buddha on the basis of his intuition. Rather than free inquiry, the canonical texts appear to advocate uncritical acceptance of the Buddha’s authority.3 A genuinely secular Buddhism cannot possibly accept the unquestionable authority of the Buddha, the scriptures, or some other kind of dogma (because it rejects the third defining aspect of religion mentioned above), however, which leads to a serious complication: if the criterion used to decide on the acceptance or rejection of specific Buddhist beliefs is not itself a Buddhist criterion, then the result is not likely to be a secular Buddhism, but a borrowing of some (reinterpreted) Buddhist ideas into some non-Buddhist context. It would, in other words, be some kind of quasi-Buddhist secularity (if it is truly secular indeed). We’ll return to this complication below.

Stephen Batchelor opens his paper “A Secular Buddhism” by saying that he “will be using the term ‘secular’ in three overlapping senses”.4 The first is the aforementioned contrast or opposition to religion or the religious. About the second sense he writes that he “will also be using the term in full consciousness of its etymological roots in the Latin saeculum, which means ‘this age’, ‘this siècle [century]’, ‘this generation’ I thus take ‘secular’ to refer to those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social, and environmental experience of living on this planet.”5 This etymology is confused nonsense, however. Batchelor here mixes up two distinct etymologies. Ancient Latin saeculum meant a generation or an age, and not this generation or this age. It is from this etymological root that the aforementioned second category of meanings of “secular” as having to do with very long periods of time derives. In contrast, in (Medieval) Christian Latin saeculum meant the world as opposed to the church, and one of the meanings of “secular” that derives from this is this world as opposed to the afterlife, heaven, or some kind of spiritual/supernatural world. These are two different kinds of uses of saeculum in two different kinds of contexts (leading to two different categories of meanings of “secular” – see above). Batchelor, however, mixes them up and falsely claims that saeculum means “this age”. Hence, Batchelor’s use of the term “secular” “to refer to those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social, and environmental experience of living on this planet” does not have the etymological foundation he thinks it has. Perhaps, it could be interpreted as a creative elaboration or extension of “secular” as a focus on this world rather than the afterlife or spiritual world (etc.), although I think that the reference to “the quality of our experience” stretches this sense of “secular” beyond its breaking point. Less charitably (and probably more accurately), Batchelor’s second sense of “secular” is a creative invention – it is not what “secular” means or has ever meant outside his text.

This does not necessarily disqualify the use of “secular” in this sense, however. Arguably, if Batchelor’s conceptual invention is semantically useful in its context, there is much to say for accepting it. In practice, what “secular” in this sense boils down to (in Batchelor’s writings) is being relevant and/or appropriate to this age and this world. These are extremely subjective categories, however. Opinions probably differ wildly about what is appropriate to some age, and probably even more about what is relevant in some age, world, or context. Furthermore, being relevant to some age usually means something like being congruent with prevailing cultural trends. So in an age of rising individualism, a more individualistic Buddhism would be more “relevant”, for example. Being relevant to some age, them, means something like being fashionable, although cultural fashions tend to be less fleeting than fashions in clothing and so forth. All of this undermines the semantic usefulness of Batchelor’s conceptual invention. If “secular” meant something like relevant or appropriate to its age and/or world almost all Buddhisms were “secular”. The 12th century reforms in Japanese Buddhism were entirely appropriate for their age and context, and most of the «secular Buddhisms» mentioned above are “secular” in this sense as well. For example, Rizaki Kei has convincingly argued that Seno’o Girō’s subsequent Nichirenism, secular Buddhist socialism, and peace-movement involvement followed the cultural/intellectual fashions of his age.6

Moreover, if Slavoj Žižek is right, pretty much all of Western Buddhism is (in some sense, at least) relevant or appropriate to this world or age, as Western Buddhism is – according to Žižek – the “perfect ideological supplement” to capitalism,7 because its “meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way, for us, fully to participate in capitalist dynamics, while retaining the appearance of sanity.”8 Žižek sees Buddhism as a “fetish”, that is, as a tool “to cope with harsh reality”. A fetish allows people “to accept the way things are – because they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to defuse the full impact of reality.”9 And thus,

when we encounter a person who claims he is cured of any beliefs, accepting social reality the way it really is, one should always counter such claims with the question: “OK, but where is the fetish that enables you to (pretend to) accept reality ‘the way it really is’?” “Western Buddhism” is such a fetish: it enables you fully to participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless this spectacle really is – what really matters to you is the peace of the inner self to which you know you can always withdraw …10

On a side note, I was reminded of Žižek’s views on Western Buddhism when reading a discussion in an online forum dedicated to secular Buddhism. Someone was wondering about how to cope with the suffering and violence in the world. “How to be a Buddhist in such a cruel world? Where practically you need to look to the other side to not to get involved helping someone else because we can get hurt too?” someone asked, to which someone else replied: “Turn your mind inward by meditating.” That reply seems to perfectly capture the spirit of Žižek’s critique of Western Buddhism. The issue here is not whether Žižek’s critique is justified as critique – that is, whether it is a bad thing to “turn your mind inward by meditating”– but that this makes (at least some varieties of) Western Buddhism a perfect tool to undermine social engagement and dissent and to maintain the status quo. As such, from the perspective of those who benefit from the status quo, Western Buddhism is very relevant and very appropriate to this age and this world indeed.

The broader point I’m trying to make here, is that virtually every variant of Buddhism was in some sense relevant and appropriate to the age and world in which it was introduced. (Indeed, the last chapter of BLiTW ends with a claim that lokamātra is in some sense appropriate for the current age.) But what makes matters (even) worse is that “being relevant to this age” can also refer to an uncritical acceptance of the dominant/hegemonic ideas in this age. “Secular”, then, could refer to a unconscious/​uncritical acceptance of the dominant (Western) worldview, and “secular Buddhism” would be the dominant Western worldview with some “Buddhist” sauce heaped on top, or some (unconscious) reinterpretation of half-understood Buddhist ideas through a Western lens. Buddhism is, among others, a worldview (or a collection of related worldviews), and accepting a non-Buddhist worldview (either consciously or unconsciously) and then adding some Buddhist elements to it does not automatically change that worldview into a Buddhist worldview. However, interpreting “secular” as “being relevant to this age” invites overlooking this. One can then be a “secular” X-ist without accepting or even investigating the worldview of X-ism, as long as one accepts whatever has been selected as the paradigmatic elements of X-ism(s) into one’s otherwise non-X-ist (i.e., “secular”) worldview. This is a bit like sewing an elephant’s trunk to a horse and then claiming that that horse is an elephant because it has a trunk.

It is for reasons like this that Batchelor’s semantic innovation is worse than useless. Understanding “secular” as “being relevant/appropriate to this age/world” is confusing and meaningless (because all Buddhisms are/were in some sense relevant/appropriate to their age and world), but also threatens to rob the notion of “secularity” of its real content (i.e., the opposition to religion) by reducing it to fashionability and/or unthinking acceptance of dominant/hegemonic values and beliefs.

Batchelor’s third sense of “secular” builds upon the now largely discredited secularization thesis, which was the ruling paradigm in the sociology of religion until a few decades ago. The idea was that modern societies are becoming increasingly secular, but there is a lot of historical evidence against this thesis, or at least against some varieties thereof.11 Nevertheless, even if the secularization thesis is false, it does presuppose a number of variants or aspects of secularity, some of which may be relevant here. The most important are the following three: (1) secularity as the extent of separation between religious and non-religious institutions (such as the state, or political affairs in general), (2) secularity as a measure of the pervasiveness and influence of religious beliefs and practices, and (3) secularity as the extent to which religion has been forced out of the public sphere and into the private sphere. These different variants or aspects of secularity are not singular dimensions, moreover, but include further sub-variants or sub-aspects. Most importantly, (2) includes (2a) the extent to which people adhere to traditional religious beliefs and practices, (2b) the importance of religious beliefs and practices (either traditional or new) to people, and (2c) the extent to which religious beliefs and practices are reinterpreted or reformed to conform to secular, non-religious beliefs and practices.12

What should be noticed is that if “secular” is used in reference to secularization or secularity, it is more likely to be placed in front of a sociological or political term than in front of a name of a religion. It is true of a secular society that there is a great separation between religious and non-religious institutions (i.e., 1) and that religious beliefs and practices have limited influence (i.e., 2). It is only the third variant or aspect of secularity here that is directly relevant for the religion(s) involved themselves. Hence, a “secular Buddhism” could also be a Buddhism that has been forced out of the public sphere and into the private sphere, a Buddhism that stays out of politics and social affairs and that is an entirely private matter. The adjective “secular” is rarely (if ever) used in this sense, however. Moreover, one of the meanings of “secular” mentioned above is “concerned with this-worldly affairs” (as opposed to affairs of the church), which includes social and political affairs. Hence, interpreting “secular” as “private” seems rather incongruous. That is, if we’d accept such an interpretation of “secular X-ism” in which X stands for some religion, then this term, “secular X-ism”, could either mean “X-ism that is concerned with this-worldly affairs” or “X-ism that is private and separate from this-worldly affairs”. These two interpretations are obviously contradictory, which is confusing at best, and which makes the adjective “secular” nearly useless.13 One could, of course, decide to discard one of these interpretations of the term “secular”, in which case, I think that the newer, sociological interpretation is the one that should be discarded, but opinions are likely to differ on this matter, and I don’t see a good way to decide the issue. The alternative is to ignore the sociological and political aspects of the term “secular” and that is (mostly) what I will do here.

Regardless of the sociological issue, “secular” does not mean “relevant to this age” or something like that. What it does mean is – very roughly – “non-religious”. “Secular” is mostly a negative term – it denotes what something is not: not monastic, not religious, not sacred, not spiritual, not supernatural, not concerned with some kind of afterlife, and so forth. Nevertheless, it can sometimes, perhaps even often, be useful to think of “secular” and “religious” as the two endpoints on a scale or spectrum. Something is (more) secular if, or to the extent that it is concerned with this world rather than an afterlife or rebirth or something like that; if, or to the extent that it rejects supernatural entities and/or supernatural explanations; and if, or to the extent that it is undogmatic and open to counter-evidence or revision. The following table summarizes this.

secular (in between) religious
immortality (afterlife,
rebirth, etc.)
reject ignore accept
the supernatural reject ignore accept
status of key beliefs open to counter-
evidence and revision
mixed; few dogmas closed dogmas

Additional rows could be added to the table. An obvious candidate for an additional row would represent the worldly concern mentioned above, but this would be a rather confusing row as different understandings of “secular” would mirror each other. That is, under a traditional understanding of “secular”, the secular end of the spectrum would be concerned with worldly affairs (such as political affairs) and the religious end would merely be concerned with religious/​churchly affairs, while under a more modern, sociological understanding, it is the other way around. As explained above, because of this contradiction, I decided to mostly ignore this aspect of secularity. A better (i.e., less confusing) candidate for an additional row would be the lay/monastic dimension: secular Buddhism tends to be an entirely lay affair, whereas traditional Buddhism tends to emphasize monasticism.

Another kind of additional row could be added to the table to list some of the «secular Buddhisms» mentioned above. Batchelor’s Buddhism 2.0 and my lokamātra would (probably) go in the “secular” column; Inoue’s secular Buddhism and most early 20th century this-worldly Buddhisms would go in the “mixed” column; traditional Buddhism would mostly go in the “religious” column, although some versions of Zen might be close to “mixed”. Uchiyama, Seno’o, and Ambedkar are harder to classify. I’d put them in between “secular” and “mixed” – the first closer to mixed or “in between”; the second and third closer to “secular”.14 It should also be noted that something can be more secular on one of these three “dimension” (i.e., one of the three rows in the column) and less in another (which would be one way of ending up in the “mixed” category). Adding a row for worldly concern would make a row listing «secular Buddhisms» rather difficult, by the way. Under the traditional understanding of “secular” as “concerned with this-worldly affairs” (as opposed to affairs of the church), varieties of radical Buddhism such as Uchiyama, Seno’o, Ambedkar, and lokamātra, would be at the secular end of the spectrum and Batchelor’s Buddhism 2.0 would be at the opposing end; under a more modern, sociological understanding, it would be the other way around. Hence, under the latter understanding, only Batchelor’s Buddhism 2.0 and similar modern, Western «secular Buddhisms» would be consistently “secular” (i.e., secular on all dimensions).

Defining Buddhism — preliminary considerations

Defining Buddhism is hard. So hard, in fact, that any sensible person would give up on the idea before even trying. I’m not a sensible person, however. I needed a definition of “Buddhist” for BLiTW, so that’s what chapter 5 of that book is about. There are some problems with the definitions suggested in that chapter, however, but we’ll get to that later. First, there are a number of more or less methodological points with regards to defining Buddhism that need to be clarified.

First of all, I’ll be treating “Buddhism” as a count noun with a plural form “Buddhisms”, and not as a proper noun. Normally, names of religions are considered to be proper nouns, as they are assumed to refer to singular, (thus) named entities. This isn’t very helpful in trying to come up with a definition, but it is also rather misleading as it suggests that Buddhism is indeed a singular entity, which it most certainly is not. Rather, there are many different Buddhisms, and the question is what exactly makes all of those “things” Buddhisms.

Secondly, a definition of Buddhism(s) should not exclude anything that is typically considered (a) Buddhism by Buddhists, nor include anything that isn’t. This obviously doesn’t mean that something should be included only if all Buddhists agree that it is (a) Buddhism, because that would exclude a lot. Even if they are a small minority, there are Buddhists who consider Pure Land Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, or anything other than Theravāda not “real” Buddhism, for example. There is, however, an obvious example to the rule that (recognized) Buddhisms should not be excluded – «secular Buddhisms» should not be part of the data set from which a definition is abstracted, as those would then be Buddhisms by definitions, which would make this article pointless. When one wants to know whether strawberries are berries, one first finds a definition that applies to all other berries, and only then checks whether strawberries fit that definition. (They don’t.) Including strawberries from the start would make the question pointless.

Thirdly, if a definition of Buddhism(s) is abstracted from a dataset of recognized Buddhisms, then it must be somewhat clear what the relevant characteristics of the Buddhisms in that dataset are – or in other words, what identifies those Buddhisms as such. What complicates this, is that a certain sect or variety of Buddhism may (appear to) have very different characteristics when seen from the perspective of a lay follower, of an ordinary monk or priest, of one of the sect’s doctrinal/​intellectual leaders, or of an academic expert. However, all of these kinds of “stakeholders” (if we can call them that) will most likely defer to the third kind – that is, the sect’s doctrinal/​intellectual leaders – when it comes to questions about the sect’s teachings, practice, and so forth. What determines the teachings of Pure Land Buddhism is not what a lay follower believes, but what the intellectual leaders of that sect claimed or argued, and typically, the lay follower will agree about this. (In chapter 5 of BLiTW, I did not take this sufficiently into account, however, and took lay views to be as authoritative as expert clerical views.) Unfortunately, secularization has somewhat muddled the picture.

It could be argued that secularization continued a project started by the Reformation. The privatization of religious life and religious concerns and the increasing separation between religious and other spheres of life and society builds upon the earlier Protestant rebellion against hierarchies and systems of authority in the Catholic church. Protestantism rejected the traditional division of religious labor in which monks and priests studied, proclaimed doctrine, and performed rituals, while lay followers merely observed and listened (and usually didn’t even understood what they were listening to as they didn’t know Latin). Instead, Protestant lay believers read the Bible themselves. Because of this, Protestantism is much more focused on scripture, while Catholicism is more focused on ritual, and Protestantism is much more lay-oriented, while in Catholicism clergy plays a much more central role. (But it is worth noting that under the influence of Reformation and secularization, Catholicism has become more “Protestant” in these respects as well.)

In late 19th century and early 20th century Buddhism, there was a similar shift towards a more scriptural and lay-oriented approach, which Gananath Obeyesekere has called “Protestant Buddhism”15 and which is related to a broader phenomenon within Buddhism called “Buddhist modernism”.16 Buddhist modernism emphasizes the rational elements in Buddhist thought, increases attention to this-worldly affairs, increases the role of the laity, and is strongly orientation towards a kind of text-based reconstruction of “authentic” Buddhism.

Most Western Buddhism is Buddhist modernism, and «secular Buddhisms» – both Western and Asian – are all closely related to Buddhist modernism (even if not all of them inherit or accept all aspects of Buddhist modernism). One might even say that «secular Buddhisms» attempt to radicalize Buddhist modernism by placing even stronger emphasis on the rational elements in Buddhist thought and on this-worldly relevance, and by completely rejecting monasticism, the priesthood, and any associated formal authority. It is especially the latter that matters here. If there is no recognized formal authority to decide the teachings and practices of some «secular Buddhism», then who does? And how does one even decide what is one variety of «secular Buddhism» and what’s another without some kind of recognized formal authority determining sectarian identity and, thereby, sectarian boundaries? In some cases, questions like this aren’t hard to answer. Stephen Batchelor is the authority with regards to “Buddhism 2.0”, Seno’o Girō is the authority with regards to 1930s Japanese “New Buddhism” 新興佛教, and I am the authority with regards to lokamātra. But for «secular Buddhists» that seem to recognize no doctrinal authority besides their own, the answer is not so clear. Taking Protestantism and (historically related) individualism to their extremes, is every «secular Buddhist» their own sect?

Fortunately, these questions concern a side issue. To define Buddhism(s), I need relatively clear identities of anything that is typically considered (a) Buddhism by Buddhists, except «secular Buddhisms» (for reasons explained above). Although this might include some forms of Buddhist modernism that are secularized to some extent, these are still modernisms within traditional sectarian contexts (i.e., Zen modernism, Pure Land modernism, Theravāda modernism, and so forth), and these still recognize sectarian authority in matters of doctrine and practice. In other words, the problem explained in the last few paragraphs plays a role mainly in determining whether actual «secular Buddhisms» are actually Buddhist, and not so much in defining Buddhism and in answering the question whether a genuinely secular Buddhism is possible.

Definitions in BLiTW

Strictly speaking, chapter 5 of BLiTW is not concerned with defining the noun “Buddhism”, but the adjective “Buddhist”. Specifically, it aims for a criterion (or criteria) to decide whether a philosophical theory is “recognizably and defensibly Buddhist”. What I overlooked in that book is that a philosophical theory may very well be Buddhist without it being a (variety of) Buddhism. The goal of the book was to construct a “radicalized radical Buddhism”, but while lokamātra may be a Buddhist philosophical theory or worldview, I’m not convinced that it is a Buddhism indeed, and if it isn’t, BLiTW failed to achieve what it set out to do. What’s missing in lokamātra is practice. BLiTW is a (mostly) philosophical text and it explicitly excludes practice from its scope,17 but Buddhism is not just a philosophical worldview – it also includes various practices, and arguably these are at least as important as the more theoretical/​philosophical/​doctrinal aspects of Buddhism. This doesn’t mean that lokamātra necessarily lacks practice, however. It merely means that that aspect of “radicalized radical Buddhism” is neglected in BLiTW. (Even though the bodhisattva ideal rather conspicuously lurks in the background and there are some other hints and clues scattered throughout the book as well.18)

Nevertheless, while BLiTW doesn’t provide the definition of Buddhism that we need here, its fifth chapter can still be used as a starting point, and towards that end, it might be useful to briefly summarize it. The general approach of the chapter is similar to that taken here (see previous section): “If a definition of ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Buddhist’ excludes schools of thought, practices, ideas, sects, or people that are generally considered to be Buddhist by Buddhists, then that is not an acceptable definition”.19 Most of the chapter is concerned with assessing candidate conditions for inclusion in a definition, but it ends up rejecting such essentialist approaches (i.e., approaches that assume that there are some necessary and sufficient conditions something must satisfy to be a Buddhism, or in other words, that Buddhism has some set of essential properties or characteristics that all sects and varieties share). “There is too much disagreement even about apparently basic doctrines between schools and sects to identify a substantial shared core, and some widely shared doctrines may not have been taught by the Buddha, or at least not in the same form”.20 This may seem surprising (and indeed, I will cast doubt on this claim in the following) as there are quite obviously doctrines that are shared by all Buddhisms, doctrines like the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. This is true, of course, but what chapter 5 of BLiTW aims to show is that while different sects all have doctrines with these names, they are not necessarily the same doctrines. Interpretations of the Four Noble Truths or the equally central notion of the “Middle Way” vary so widely, that no shared, common core (or a defining essence) can be abstracted from this.21 Other candidate elements of a defining essence are rejected for a number of reasons. Karma and rebirth can also be found outside Buddhism, and the first plays no (significant) role in some schools. Ideas like no-self, impermanence, and dependent origination are not universally accepted and, thus, cannot be defining elements either. (But note that this conclusion was based on the acceptance of lay views as equally valid! See previous section.) Practices like meditation can also be found outside Buddhism, but there are, moreover, hundreds of practices within Buddhism that are called meditation (or one of the Sanskrit, Pāli, Chinese, Tibetan, etc. terms that are commonly translated as “meditation”) that have very little in common.

As an alternative to essentialist approached to defining “Buddhism”, BLiTW takes a more or less historical or genetic approach based on the following – apparently circular – definition:

A life/world-view is Buddhist (and thus a variety of Buddhism) if most of the ideas, doctrines, theories, and so forth that make up that life/world-view are Buddhist.22

A “life/world-view” is “a broad, more or less integrated array of views on life, the nature of reality, the good and the bad, and so forth”.23 This definition is apparently circular because it seems to say that a life/world-view is Buddhist if it is mostly Buddhist. That’s not exactly what it says, however, but to see that, one has to carefully distinguish the noun “Buddhism” from the adjective “Buddhist”. What the definition says is that something is (a) Buddhismnoun if most its parts are Buddhistadjective or more literally, that a life/world-view is (a) Buddhism “if most of the ideas, doctrines, theories, and so forth that make up that life/world-view are Buddhist”. This only helps, of course, if we have a criterion to decide whether an “idea, doctrine, theory, and so forth” is indeed Buddhist. That criterion is the following:

A theory, doctrine, practice, or idea is Buddhist if most of what it is based on or derived from is Buddhist24 and if it could not just as well be based on or derived from non-Buddhist sources.25

This criterion seems mostly OK to me, but I don’t think that the definition of Buddhism proposed in BLiTW is helpful here for two reasons. Firstly, Buddhism is not just a life/world-view, but also a set of practices. (BLiTW ignored this, because it explicitly excluded practice from its scope. See above.) And secondly, the claim in BLiTW that there are no shared doctrines, ideas, and so forth is largely based on a very lax view with regards to doctrinal authority. As I wrote above, what determines the teachings of some sect of Buddhism is not what a lay follower believes, but what the intellectual leaders of that sect claimed or argued, and typically, the lay follower will agree about this. Consequently, if there are doctrines (etc.) that all Buddhisms share (or engage with, at least) in the sense that the doctrinal authorities of those sects accept(ed) them (or engage(d) with them), then such doctrines should be considered defining elements of Buddhism. I don’t think that such doctrinal elements necessarily have to be accepted, however, as this would more or less freeze Buddhism and would preclude any further evolution. (If acceptance of shared doctrinal elements of all 8th century Buddhisms would be required, then some 12th century “Buddhisms” would not be Buddhisms. Buddhism evolves, and a definition should allow for such evolution.) However, engagement is required, and if some element is rejected, that rejection must itself be on recognizably Buddhist grounds. (Notice that one cannot reject too much, as this would leave no Buddhist ground for rejection.)

In the first sentence of the previous paragraph, I wrote that I think that the criterion for “Buddhist” status in BLiTW is “mostly OK”. “Mostly”, because I think there might be something missing – or two “things” even. Firstly, it could be argued that all Buddhist theory and doctrine is (ultimately) based on sūtras, or more extremely, is nothing but explanation and interpretation of sūtras. Secondly, it could be argued that the purpose of all Buddhist theory and doctrine is to ground and support the aim(s) of Buddhist practice (whatever that aim is or those aims are – more about that below). The reason why I’m not completely sure that these two claims are right is that theories and ideas may be many steps away from their original scriptural roots or practical aims, and moreover, that the corpus of Buddhist scripture is rich enough to find support for almost any theory, making the requirement of scriptural roots effectively empty. A Buddhist metaphysical theory X may be proposed in response to a non-Buddhist attack on an earlier Buddhist metaphysical theory that was itself proposed in response to an even earlier theory the first version of which had originally developed as an explanation of something the Buddha had said according to a certain sūtra. In such a case, it could be said that this theory X is ultimately based on a sūtra, but it is doubtful that this is meaningful, and adding such a criterion doesn’t seem to add anything to the historical/​genetic definition of “Buddhist” suggested in BLiTW. Nevertheless, it is probably a good idea to add something like these requirements (although, perhaps, disjunctively rather than conjunctively) to the definition to stress the importance of scripture and practice.

Based on the last two paragraphs, the BLiTW definition of Buddhism could be revised as follows:

(1) Something is (a) Buddhism if it consists of a life/world-view and associated practices that are Buddhist (by criteria 2 and 3, respectively).
(2) A life/world-view is Buddhist if most of the ideas, doctrines, theories, and so forth that make up that life/world-view are Buddhist (by criterion 3) and if it engages with Buddhist core doctrines and accepts all or most of those and if it rejects some core doctrines, it does so on Buddhist theoretical grounds (by criterion 3).
(3) An idea, doctrine, or theory (and so forth) is Buddhist if most of what it is based on or derived from is Buddhist (according to this same criterion) and if it could not just as well be based on or derived from non-Buddhist sources and if it is ultimately based on some scriptural source(s) or ultimately in support of the aim(s) of Buddhist practice.
(4) A practice is Buddhist if …

Before considering what could complete criterion (4), it is worth noting the two underlined phrases. The first, “core doctrines”, refers to the aforementioned ideas, theories, and doctrines that are shared by all Buddhisms – assuming that there are such shared ideas (etc.). The second is the “aim(s) of Buddhist practice”. Obviously, for this rough definition to be meaningful, both these core doctrines and the aim(s) of Buddhist practice(s) need to be specified.

For the fourth criterion there are two obvious candidates:

(4a) A practice is Buddhist if it is typically recognized as “Buddhist” by Buddhists, especially by Buddhist with the authority to do so.
(4b) A practice is Buddhist if it is based on Buddhist ideas, doctrines, theories, and so forth (by criterion 3) and it is in accordance with a Buddhist life/world-view (by criterion 2) and it is in support of the aim(s) of Buddhist practice(s) or some other kind of Buddhist value or goal.

The first of these options might be problematically vague. The second might turn things upside down if it is correct that Buddhist theory is developed in support of Buddhist practice rather than the other way around, but also introduces a further underlined phrase that requires specification. It is also possible that (4a) and (4b) somehow need to be combined (or amended and then combined in their amended forms). Or that that there is another criterion (4) altogether. We’ll return to the problem of identifying and defining Buddhist practice below, but first we’ll look into what is called “core doctrines” in (2) – that is, the ideas, theories, and doctrines that are accepted by all Buddhist sects and schools. One important reason for this order is that the metaphysical ideas included in these “core doctrines” set the stage for Buddhist practice.

(Oh and by the way, don’t worry about the overly complicated definition given here. It is merely a stepping stone or ladder – we won’t need it later.)

Metaphysical core elements

In How Things Are, Mark Siderits lists five “important areas of agreement among all Indian Buddhist philosophers”.26

Non-self:27 all agree that there is no entity that persists over the life (or lives) of a person; none of the empirically given parts of the person endures and there is no sound argument for the existence of a transcendent self; all that is to be found is a causal series of impersonal, impermanent psychophysical elements.
Momentariness: no existent endures for more than an instant; […].
Mereological nihilism: there are, strictly speaking, no mereological sums; […].
Anti-substance: not only are there no composite objects (which are ruled out by mereological nihilism); there are also, strictly speaking, no simple substances (such as atoms or selves) either; substances, understood as the persisting bearers of properties, are seen as conceptual constructions deployed through a bundling process that serves the interest of ease of communication.
Nominalism: universals are rejected on two grounds: as permanent entities they would be devoid of causal efficacy, and causal efficacy is the hallmark of the real; and there is no plausible account of how the inherence; […] in the absence of universals there can be no real similarities either.28

The first of these is probably most familiar. It is the idea that we don’t have souls, essences, or some other kinds of selves as stable “things” that define who we are through time. Mepast and menow are not the same, and there is no “thing” that makes mepast and menow phenomenally the same person (i.e., subjectively experienced by me as the same person).29 There is merely a causal process connecting mepast and menow. Importantly, it is not just Indian Buddhism that accepted the theory of non-self/​no-self, but all East-Asian and Tibetan Buddhist schools as well. Indeed, this theory can very well be considered one of the defining ideas of Buddhism.

The other four shared ideas are – as far as I can see – also accepted by East-Asian and Tibetan schools as well, but are much more technical-philosophical than no(n)-self. I will not attempt to explain them here, but will merely note that there is no reason why a secular worldview could not accept these five metaphysical core ideas of Buddhism. I’m not sure how many of the «secular Buddhisms» actually accept these, on the other hand, as most «secular Buddhisms» that I am aware of are philosophically rather underdeveloped.30 And Batchelor’s “Buddhism 2.0” even seems to reject no(n)-self (or to reinterpret it beyond recognition). He writes, for example, that the “unfindability of the self in no way entails that the self does not exist” and that “one’s self is a work in progress, an unfinished project to be realized, not a fiction that needs to be exposed and eradicated”.31

Siderits’s list is not exhaustive, of course (and obviously he doesn’t claim it is). There are other metaphysical doctrines shared by all Buddhist schools. Some of these are as esoteric as the second to fifth on Siderits’s list, while others are much better known. Anti-essentialism, for example, is largely a corollary of some of the items on Siderits’s list.32 It entails that (like people) things don’t have essences that define or determine what kind of thing they are. There are no essences and there are no natural kinds. The doctrine of impermance, according to which nothing lasts forever, is also a corollary of an item on Siderits’s list (namely, the second). Dependent origination is the idea that everything that exists was caused by something else and depends for its existence on something else. There is considerable variation in the details and elaborations of this basic idea, but all schools of Buddhism adhere to some theory of dependent origination. None of these three doctrines conflicts with a secular worldview, by the way.

Let’s now turn to the metaphysical elephants in the room: karma and rebirth. Again, all schools of Buddhism accept these doctrines (even if they don’t play equally important roles in all of them). The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth holds that death leads to birth. It isn’t the same person who is reborn, of course. Rather, the link is purely causal. According to the doctrine of karma, doing good leads to a better rebirth and doing bad leads to a worse one. Much more can be said about these two doctrines, of course, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. What matters here, is that from a secular point of view neither of these doctrines can possibly be accepted. These being prevailing doctrines, however – like other Buddhist “core doctrines” − they could only be rejected by a secular Buddhist on grounds that are themselves based on Buddhist philosophy. Typically «secular Buddhists» don’t. They reject rebirth and karma (or reinterpret them so radically that this is effectively the same as rejection) on purely secular grounds (i.e., they conflict with a scientific, secular worldview), but that doesn’t mean that it is not possible to reject rebirth and karma on more or less Buddhist grounds. At least, I tried to do so in chapter 9 of BLiTW (which is itself built on the foundation laid in chapter 8). It is hard to overstate the centrality of rebirth and karma in the Buddhist worldview, however, and a rejection of these ideas may have implications for all kinds of other Buddhist doctrines.

Problematic authority

Before turning to more practical matters, let’s briefly consider epistemology, the branch of philosophy that concerns the sources and nature of knowledge and related issues. Theoretically, Buddhist schools accept experience and inference as sources of knowledge, but in practice, scripture is a source of knowledge as well. The Buddha is effectively held to be omniscient and infallible, and thus, anything he said according to scripture is true.33 This is obviously deeply problematic from a secular point of view. What is quite peculiar, however, is that many «secular Buddhists» appear to hold a view very much like this. There are «secular Buddhists» who aim to reconstruct the original teachings of the Buddha, for example, because they believe those to be true, but that belief makes sense only if one accepts that the Buddha had some kind of special, supernatural access to truth and wisdom, much like Mohamed’s (almost) direct line of communication with Allah. From a secular point of view that is absurd. The Buddha may have guessed some things correctly, but he cannot possibly have known everything (relevant) we know now, and he cannot possibly compete as a source of knowledge with centuries of scientific research, experiments, and evidence.

This may very well be the most fundamental problem for secular Buddhism. It may be the case that for something to be (a) Buddhism it must accept the epistemic authority of the Buddha (and thus of scripture), and no secular worldview can accept that. Inoue Enryō, who coined the term “secular Buddhism” in Japanese in 1887, wrote that he “would never be so blind and ignorant to believe those teachings based on biography or origin. I will only believe it if it agrees with today’s philosophical reasoning, and I will reject it if does not”.34 Hence, he effectively rejected the ultimate authority of the Buddha indeed. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop him nor others from thinking of him(self) as a Buddhist, so perhaps – just perhaps – the problem isn’t as fundamental as it appears to be.

Furthermore, it might be possible to reject the authority of the Buddha – and thereby reduce him to a mere sage, rather than an infallible oracle – on more or less Buddhist grounds. I (implicitly) tried to do something like that in chapter 9 of BLiTW (without ever explicitly writing that I was rejecting the ultimate authority of the Buddha, however), and there may be other ways to do so. For example, according to Dharmakīrti we are justified to (provisionally?) accept something from scripture (or other kinds of “testimony”) in certain circumstances, which Jonathan Stoltz summarizes as follows:

If a statement can be established empirically (through perception) or through ordinary (nonscriptural) inferential reasoning, then such a statement is not one that should be established through scripturally based inference [i.e., from testimony]. […] Dharmakīrti goes on to state that a threefold analysis is to be applied to the scripture, s, from which one wishes to draw a scripturally based inference: (a) s cannot be contradicted by ordinary perception. (b) s cannot be contradicted by ordinary inferential reasoning. (c) s cannot contain any internal contradictions with respect to its pronouncements on radically inaccessible matters35.36

In Dharmakīrti’s time, this left a lot of room for scripture as a source of knowledge, but with the shrinking of the sphere of “radically inaccessible matters” and the growth of observational evidence and scientific knowledge (i.e., perception and inference; a and b) there is less and less room for scriptural authority. But even this line of reasoning might not really be acceptable from a secular point of view, as it effectively means that one would still uncritically accept the authority of the Buddha (and scripture) until there is contradictory scientific evidence. Hence, it still assumes the epistemic authority of the Buddha without providing a secularly acceptable ground or explanation for that authority.

One may wonder whether I am overstating the problem. The Dalai Lama has famously said that “if science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change”,37, and in his The Universe in a Single Atom, he wrote that “if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims”,38 and that

if science shows something to exist or to be non-existent (which is not the same as not finding it), then we must acknowledge that as a fact. If a hypothesis is tested and found to be true, we must accept it. Likewise, Buddhism must accept the facts-whether found by science or found by contemplative insights. If, when we investigate something, we find there is reason and proof for it, we must acknowledge that as reality – even if it is in contradiction with a literal scriptural explanation that has held sway for many centuries or with a deeply held opinion or view.39

A closer look shows that statements like these cannot be taken at face value, however. Firstly, it appears that the Dalai Lama expects a very high degree of certainty from science, especially when science appears to contradict his beliefs. Science must “conclusively demonstrate” things. But science does not deal in certainty – that’s religion. All that science can do is tell us what, given the evidence, we should provisionally accept as true. The lack of absolute certainty in science is, of course, a rather convenient tool to anyone who prefers not to accept some scientific finding, and this is one of the tools the Dalai Lama uses to maintain his belief in mind-body dualism and reincarnation. Science has not “conclusively demonstrated” that those beliefs are false, and thus there is no reason to give them up. (Notice, by the way, that this is a kind of fallacious reasoning called “appeal to ignorance”, which is rather common in encounters between science and religion.)

Secondly, Buddhism only needs to give up something if science shows that thing “to be non-existent”. Hence, Buddhism only needs to give up mind-body dualism – the thesis that minds are not existentially dependent on the body and are a separate kind of substances – if science shows that such separate, nonphysical minds do not exist. However, this requirement is absurd. Showing that something exists is easy – just hold it out in front of someone or if it’s too big, point someone in the right direction – but it should be fairly obvious that it is impossible to show something that does not exist. It is fundamentally impossible to show nonexistence of something. The only way to prove that something does not exist is to explain why it cannot possibly exist. (And in case of mental substances in a physical universe, philosophers have done a pretty good job at that centuries ago.) Furthermore, it is impossible to show the nonexistence of something that is not even supposed to be part of the physical universe. Showing or detecting something is a physical act, and therefore, something outside the physical universe cannot possibly be shown, observed, or detected. It cannot possibly interact with the physical universe either, which is one of the main reasons why the notion of mental substances such as souls is nonsensical.

Thirdly, the Dalai Lama does not really accept the authority of science as these quotes might suggest. The Universe in a Single Atom is a good example of a trope that is widely shared among Buddhist modernists: science is discovering what the Buddha already knew.40 The role of science is not that of a teacher telling Buddhism what is true and what is false, but the other way around: science is the student discovering for itself what the teacher (i.e., Buddhism) has already been saying for ages, albeit often in somewhat cryptic terms. Furthermore, there are some areas of knowledge that, in this view, are outside the domain of science. “A real understanding of the true nature of the mind can only be gained through meditation,” said the Dalai Lama elsewhere.41 Science is limited; Buddhism is not. And consequently, science can never be more than some kind of assistant, humbly confirming some of the more superficial teachings of the master, occasionally dis-confirming something trivial, like the flat earth the Buddha believed in, but lacking the ability to delve into anything more important or profound.42

If we take the Dalai Lama on this word (and accept his authority in this matter), then rejecting the epistemic authority of the Buddha is no problem, because that is what he says that he is doing himself. But if we look closer at what he actually means and what he is really doing, then it becomes clear that the authority of the Buddha is as much a dogma for him as it is for virtually every other Buddhist. In other words, we cannot take statements like “if science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change” at face value, because it turns out that the Dalai Lama doesn’t genuinely believe or accept this. And thus, the problem remains: for Buddhism, the epistemic authority of the Buddha and scripture is unassailable (with a possible exception for peripheral statements that are largely irrelevant, such as the Buddha’s belief in a flat earth).

On practice — in theory

With regards to practice, there are two kinds of questions we need to consider. One concerns the what and how of practice; the other the what for and to what end. The second kind of question is the more fundamental one, so that’s where we’ll start.

The fundamental and ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is escaping the cycle of death and rebirth and associated suffering. Buddhists aim for awakening and thereby becoming arhats or bodhisattvas, either in this life or in some future life after many rebirths (through accumulation of good karma or merit).43 This is the whole point of Buddhism – it is what defines and determines everything else.

The doctrine of rebirth obviously plays a central role here, and if that doctrine is rejected (as it should be within a secular worldview), then this has important implications. The idea of escaping the cycle of death and rebirth makes no sense if there is no such cycle, but the other ways of framing the goal (i.e., overcoming suffering, awakening, becoming an arhat or bodhisattva) may not be similarly affected. That doesn’t mean that these ways of framing the goal are without problems, however. In the contrary, they are all quite unclear and – to lesser or greater extent – contested. What does “awakening” even mean exactly? It is rather hard to find a clear answer to that question. (At least, I have never been able to find one. Typical answers are frustratingly vague and obscure.) And what kind of suffering (dukkha or duḥkha) needs to be overcome? Is this just some narrow kind of mental anguish? Or is it as broad as the English term “suffering” suggests? For etymological, textual, historical, psychological and other reasons, I think it is the latter,44 but some Western Buddhists strongly disagree.45 Nevertheless, while I think that the narrow interpretation is mistaken, I don’t think it is “un-Buddhist”.46

Furthermore, the doctrine of rebirth also plays another key role here. Notice that the goal of Buddhist practice is awakening (etc.) either in this life or in some future life after many rebirths through accumulation of good karma or merit. Hence, the idea is that while some people may be able to achieve the goal in this life, for many others that is not an option, which results in two kinds of practice: (1) working towards awakening in this life, and (2) accumulation of good karma or merit. Now, it is sometimes suggested that monks and nuns are concerned with (1) and laymen with (2), but that’s a bit too simple. It is probably more helpful to make a distinction between ordinary and advanced practitioners. Advanced practitioners are/were often monastic, but there are many stories of laymen achieving awakening in the Pāli canon as well.47 And conversely, many monks did/do not really aim for awakening in this life, but for the accumulation of merit instead. Nevertheless, the monastic order (i.e., the saṅgha/​saṃgha) is very much based on this division of religious labor. Working towards awakening is – in most circumstances – a full-time “job” (or very nearly so), and consequently, if a significant number of people is to achieve awakening, this is only possible if they are (financially and otherwise) supported by a larger number of laymen who gain merit by doing so.

In a secular Buddhism, there would be no monastic order, and no gaining of merit (or good karma) resulting from (financially, etc.) supporting that (non-existent) order. But what does this mean for lay practice? The answer cannot be that everyone should aim for awakening (etc.) for at least two reasons. First, only a very small minority of advanced practitioners (supported by very many ordinary practitioners) are supposed to be able to achieve awakening. Second, barring exceptional cases, reaching awakening requires a serious dedication to study and meditation, which would be hard (if not impossible) to combine with a normal lay life (a normal job, especially). So, then, what does practice for the secular ordinary practitioner consist of if she cannot hope to achieve awakening in this life, nor hope to gain merit/karma and a good rebirth allowing awakening in a future life?

Let’s postpone trying to answer that question for a few paragraphs and pay some attention to a way of framing the goal of practice that I have thus far ignored: becoming an arhat or bodhisattva. An arhat is just an awakened being, so saying that the goal is becoming an arhat or being awakened is really the same. What exactly a bodhisattva is differs a bit between schools, but a lot can be gleaned from the bodhisattva vows that are typically taken in East Asia and that were first formulated in the sixth century by Zhiyi 智顗, the founder of Tiantai 天台, in his Exposition on the Dharma Gateway to the Perfection of Meditation 釋禪波羅蜜次第法門:

These are the four Bodhisattva vows. […] Even though sentient beings are unlimited [in number], I vow to liberate [or] save [them all]. […] Even though the kleśas48 are innumerable, I vow to stop [them all]. […] Even though the Buddhist teachings are inexhaustible, I vow to know [them all]. […] Even though Buddhahood is unsurpassable, I vow to attain [it].49

Obviously, realizinging these vows would require much more than what is humanly possible, but making a vow does not commit one to succeeding, merely to trying, and perhaps, it’s the intention (i.e., the trying) that matters. In the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Śāntideva wrote:

If the perfection of generosity consists in making the universe free from poverty how can previous Protectors [i.e., Buddhas and Bodhisattvas] have acquired it, when the world is still poor, even today? The perfection of generosity is said to result from the mental attitude to relinquishing all that one has to all people, together with the fruit of that act. Therefore, the perfection is the mental attitude itself.50

If one has a genuine intention to save everyone, then one will try to get closer to that goal, even if it is just a little bit. And if one has a genuine intention to learn everything that matters, then there is a fairly good chance that there will be at least some success. But still, what ultimately matters is not just the success, but the genuine commitment to save all sentient beings.51

Elsewhere in the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Śāntideva suggested that a bodhisattva would do “nothing to prevent his own suffering out of sacrifice for many sufferers” and that “those who have developed the continuum of their mind in this way, to whom suffering of others is as important as the things they themselves hold dear, plunge down into the Avīci hell as geese into a cluster of lotus blossoms”.52 This rather extreme self-sacrificial attitude is not a Mahāyāna invention, moreover, but can also be found in the Jātaka tales, for example. What is important to realize, is that these tales do not describe things that ordinary people are expected to do. Like Zhiyi’s bodhisattva vows, these stories of extreme self-sacrifice set up an impossible ideal. However, they do not do this to assure failure. Not achieving the impossible goal is not a failure; the only failure is not trying to get at least a little bit closer to the ideal. As Śāntideva wrote, it is the “mental attitude” that matters; not whether one succeeds. And the goal of working towards that shift in one’s mental attitude doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed in this kind of way, moreover. It can also be expressed in much more modest and entirely secular terms, as in Miyazawa Kenji’s 宮澤賢治 beloved poem Undefeated by the Rain, for example.

Undefeated by the rain
Undefeated by the wind
Undefeated by the snow or summer heat
If there is a sick child in the east
going and nursing it
If there is a tired mother in the west
going and carrying her sheaf of rice
If there is someone near death in the south
going and saying “don’t be afraid”
If there is a quarrel or a lawsuit in the north
telling them to stop because it’s boring
When there is drought, shedding tears
When the summer is cold, wandering upset
Called a nobody by everyone
Without being praised
Without being a burden
Such a person
I want to become53

In a discussion on “selfish” and “selfless” interpretations of Buddhist scripture and practice on some internet forum a few years ago, the Theravāda monk Indañano Bhikkhu wrote that:

I think this distinction is (conventionally) meaningful only at the beginning stages of the Path – many of us originally set out with only our own “salvation” in mind, that is true. However, as one progresses in one’s practice, the qualities of karunā [compassion] and mettā [lovingkindness] will naturally increase, whether one consciously intents this or not. In later stages it is simply no longer possible not to care about the suffering others encounter in their lives, and the distinction between selfish/selfless practice ceases to make sense.

Jay Garfield makes a very similar point – albeit far less succinctly – in his Buddhist Ethics, probably the best book about Buddhism I ever read.54 He argues that Buddhist ethics should be thought of as moral phenomenology. It isn’t about a set of rules or something like that, but rather it aims at changing our perception of, and attitude to the world around us. The goal of Buddhist practice is a change of attitude. As Śāntideva wrote, “the perfection is the mental attitude itself”.

Buddhist ethicists aim to correct a “natural” way of experiencing ourselves as standing as independent agents at the center of a moral universe who take their own welfare as the most rational basis for action, and others as of secondary interest. This natural egocentricity induces a mode of comportment to the world that Buddhists take to be fundamentally irrational and to lead to suffering for oneself and others. The aim of ethical practice is— by following a path, or multiple paths— to replace this experience with a non- egocentric experience of oneself as part of an interdependent world. […] Ethical practice is about the transformation not in the first instance of what we do, but of how we see.55

So now we can return to the question of the goal of practice for a secular lay ordinary practitioner could be. It’s not acceptance or peace of mind (as some «secular Buddhists» appear to think), but it is that change in attitude, that change in how one perceives and engages with the world one is part of. And even if it is hard to achieve that goal (to become the kind of person Miyazaki envisions in his poem), one can aim to get closer it, for the sake of others as much as for oneself.

Stages on the path

The other kind of question raised at the beginning of the previous section concerns the what and how of practice. What exactly is a Buddhist supposed to do? How is a Buddhist supposed to achieve the goal(s)/​aim(s) of practice? There is a bewildering variety of Buddhist practices, but there are two important restrictions that matter here. First, as was the case with more theoretical doctrines, an aspect of practice can only be a defining element of Buddhism if it is accepted by all schools. And second, kinds of practice that only serve goals that cannot be accepted by a secular Buddhist are largely irrelevant here. If rebirth, karma, and merit are discarded, then practices to gain merit or to assure a good rebirth are besides the point. The first of these restrictions might seem the most problematic: at first sight there doesn’t seem to be much, if anything, with regards to practice that is shared by all Buddhist schools. Study, meditation, and ritual play roles in all of them, but what is studied differs, and so do the kinds, techniques, and subjects of meditation. (And ritual might be mostly irrelevant for the second reason.) Where there is significant convergence, however, is in the broad outline of the path towards liberation or awakening and the main stages on that path. There are more and less detailed descriptions of the path – partially depending on the audience of a teaching – but in virtually all cases, the various stages can be grouped into three or four sequential categories: moral discipline (sīla), mental discipline (samādhi), and wisdom (paññā). The fourth category concerns the preparatory stage that precedes moral discipline, and which is only mentioned when teaching lay audiences.

Let’s compare three apparently different paths by mapping them onto these categories: the step-wise training as found in the Pāli canon56, the tenfold path (also in the Pāli canon)57, and the pāramitās (perfections) in Mahāyāna Buddhism.58

category step-wise training tenfold path pāramitās
s0 preparatory stage 1. hearing, faith, going forth 1. right view
2. right thought
(0. resolve on awakening)
1. generosity
s1 moral discipline
2. moral precepts (sīla) 3. right speech
4. right action
5. right livelihood
2. virtue
s2.1 mental discipline
3. guarding sense-doors 6. right effort 3. forbearance
4. effort
s2.2 4. mindfulness and awareness 7. right mindfulness
s2.3 5. contentment
6. removing hindrances
s2.4 7–10. the four jhānas 8. right concentration 5. meditation/​concentration
s3.1 wisdom (paññā) 11. recollection of former existences
12. knowledge of death and rebirth
s3.2 13. destruction of the taints,
perceiving 4NT59; liberation60
9. right knowledge
10. right liberation
6. wisdom

The leftmost column in the table numbers various stages and sub-stages for easy reference. I distinguished 4 sub-stages in the mental discipline stage here, but these four could be grouped into two categories. s2.1 to s2.3 together form a preparatory sub-stage for the main focus of this stage, namely, s2.4 jhāna meditation. Conversely, it is also possible to make even more fine-grained distinctions. s2.2 consists of mindfulness and awareness, for example, but this could be split up into s2.2.1 awareness (of what one’s mind and body are doing) and s2.2.3 mindfulness.61 In some other sources (such as the eightfold and tenfold paths) only mindfulness is mentioned here, which makes sense, as awareness is a preparatory step towards (or requirement for) mindfulness. Similarly, s2.1 “guarding the sense-doors” – that is, sense restraint to avoid distraction – is a requirement for s2.2.

The step-wise training is found in more or less this form in at least six texts in the Middle-length Discources (MN),62 with a further variant in MN39 and an extended version adding some superhuman powers (as s2.5) in the Long Discourses (DN2). What most of its stages are about should be fairly familiar to anyone who has made some serious study of Buddhism. As mentioned above, stages are sometimes omitted in (other) versions of the path, depending on the audience, but sometimes stages are also split up if a particular audience needs more explanation. The MN39 version, for example, splits up s1 (moral discipline, ) into purity of conduct of body, purity of conduct of speech, purity of conduct of mind, and purity of livelihood. And of course, the eightfold and tenfold paths famously split up sīla into right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Another set of ten, the kammapatha,63 even splits up sīla into seven, but this list doesn’t map as clearly to the stages on the path (mainly because it isn’t a listing of the stages on the path, even if it is closely related). The first seven items of the kammapatha are abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, harsh speech, and idle chatter. The remaining three items are non-desire and non-malevolence, which map to s2.3 (removing hindrances), and finally, right view, which maps to s3.2.

The “tenfold path” and pāramitās columns probably require some further explanation. First of all, the notion of a “tenfold path” is not particularly well-known, while everyone knows the eightfold path.64 Obviously, the first eight items of the tenfold path are identical to the eightfold path, but as Roderick Bucknell points out, this is weird.65 The first two items of the eightfold path are out of place if they are interpreted as referring to knowledge of the Four Noble Truths and so forth. Their place in the list makes sense only if right view refers to the initial view resulting from “hearing and faith” (i.e., one’s first encounter with and embrace of Buddhism) and if right thought refers to the resolve or intention to step onto the path. But then it makes no sense that the list stops with item 8, right concentration, because that is not where the path ends. Bucknell’s solution to this puzzle is the suggestion that the original eightfold path omitted the preparatory sub-stages of right view and right thought, which makes perfect sense, as the eightfold path was (supposedly) originally taught to people who already had resolved to achieve awakening. (Hence, for that audience, mentioning the preparatory stage s0 was redundant.) Somehow, the eightfold path sequence as we know it got corrupted later through an accidental change into the first eight items of the tenfold path (which is repeated very often in the Numerical Discourses).66 It doesn’t matter much here whether Bucknell is right. In any case, it is obvious that the tenfold path presents a more complete version of the path than the eightfold path (regardless of which two items are omitted), and what matters most is that these descriptions of the path map nicely to the general framework of preparation – moral discipline – mental discipline – wisdom (and liberation/​awakening).

Versions of the path outside the Pāli canon tend not to map as clearly or straightforwardly to that framework, however, but that doesn’t mean those present radically different paths. The Mahāyāna perfections (pāramitās) may look quite different and skip many sub-stages, but the basic idea is largely the same. The first pāramitā is the perfection of generosity, which concerns the mental attitude necessary to start on the bodhisattva path, and which is, thus, an aspect of the preparatory stage s0 (although it could be argued to spill over into moral discipline s1). Virtue concerns s1 sīla and forbearance and effort are preparatory sub-stages of mental discipline (samādhi). The biggest apparent discrepancies in the Mahāyāna path concern meditation. Mindfulness and awareness aren’t mentioned, and the chapter on meditation in Śāntideva’s extremely influential Bodhicaryāvatāra doesn’t address the jhānas either. The latter is exceptional, however. In discussion’s of the pāramitās attributed (possibly falsely) to Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, and others that I consulted, the perfection of meditation is always focused on the jhānas. This doesn’t mean that other kinds of meditation aren’t important, however, and indeed different Mahāyāna schools, as well as Tantric schools, emphasize a large variety of meditational practices. Some of these appear to precede the jhānas (like mindfulness and awareness) and are thus more or less preparatory, while others follow the jhānas, or more specifically, jhāna fluidly transforms into meditation on compassion, non-self, the exchange of self and other, and so forth. This could suggest the inclusion of an additional stage in between s2.4 and s3 (wisdom and liberation), but I don’t think that would be a correct interpretation. Rather, the various results achieved in s3 are (supposedly) achieved through these kinds of meditation, and typically, descriptions of the path here focus more on the achievements or results, than on how they are to be achieved.

Another important description of the path outside the Pāli canon is that of the seven stages of purification in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, which is one of the most important texts (outside the Pāli canon itself) in Theravāda. Buddhaghosa’s seven stages don’t map nearly as straightforwardly to the general framework as the other descriptions of the path mentioned here, however. (1) The purification of conduct and (2) the purification of mind are stages s1 and s2.1, respectively, but the rest is less clear, at least to me. (3) Purification of view, (4) purification by overcoming doubt, (5) purification by knowledge and vision of what is path and not path, (6) purification by knowledge and vision of the course of practice, and (7) purification by knowledge and vision all seem to combine elements of s2 (mental discipline) and s3 (wisdom), but are all discussed in the part of the book that concerns paññā (wisdom; i.e., s3). Be that as it may, the seven stages of purification are certainly not a significant deviation from the general sequence, even if they don’t map as clearly to it. That general sequence – the stages listed in the table above – is (probably) universal within Buddhism. It is what structures and defines Buddhist practice.

The possibility of a secular Buddhism

It seems to me that the previous sections give a reasonably comprehensive overview of what Buddhism is about and what kind of characteristics something must have to be considered (a) Buddhism. For sake of clarity and ease of reference, let’s summarize the main points as follows:

Key doctrinal elements
(t1) no(n)-self;
(t2) anti-essentialism;
(t3) impermanence;
(t4) momentariness;
(t5) mereological nihilism;
(t6) anti-substance;
(t7) nominalism;
(t8) dependent origination;
(t9) rebirth;
(t10) karma;
(t11) epistemic authority of the Buddha and scripture
The goal(s) of practice: (g1) more lofty: awakening, liberation, becoming an arhat or bodhisattva;
(g2) less lofty: a change in attitude and the way one sees and interacts with the world.
The path: (s0) preparatory stage
(s1) moral discipline
(s2) mental discipline
(s3) wisdom and liberation

For something to be (a variety of) Buddhism, it must
(i) seriously engage with the theoretical/​philosophical doctrines (t1) to (t11) (and probably more that isn’t mentioned here) and either accept all of them, or reject a small number of them on grounds that are themselves derived from Buddhist doctrine or Buddhist philosophy;67
(ii) accept the goal(s) of practice (g1) and (g2);
(iii) structure practice in accordance with the path with its four main stages (s0) to (s3).

Notice that this is not intended to be a watertight definition of Buddhism, but a kind of benchmark for assessing the possibility of a genuinely secular Buddhism.68 I don’t think that someone with a secular worldview would necessarily have to reject the goals of practice or the path. Rather, the problem is entirely philosophical, or more specifically, metaphysical and epistemological. (t9) to (t11) are incoherent with a secular worldview. Possibly, (t9) and (t10) – that is, rebirth and karma – can be rejected on more or less Buddhist grounds, but I have some doubts about (t11). If accepting the epistemic authority of the Buddha (and taking refuge in the Buddha) is a requirement or defining characteristic, then a genuinely secular Buddhism would be impossible by definition.

In Mythos, Wisdom, and Scavenger Philosophy I wrote that

if a scavenger has repeatedly found that a certain type of carcass tends to have many edible bits, then this gives it a good reason to be more confident that a newly encountered carcass of that type will prove to be nutritious, as well as to prefer that type of carcass when it has a choice. Something like this applies to a philosophical scavenger as well. If a philosopher has repeatedly found valuable ideas in the work of a certain philosopher, or in a certain school of philosophy, or even in a certain mythos, then this gives her good reason to be more confident in the value of a new idea encountered in/from that same source.

This approach, of course, is available to someone with a secular worldview as well. Having encountered valuable ideas in the Buddhist corpus, she has good reason to be more confident in the value of new ideas encountered therein. This doesn’t go nearly as far as accepting the Buddha’s epistemic authority or taking refuge in the Buddha. It is not the unconditional surrender that is expected from the religious believer, but that unconditional surrender is exactly what is not an option from a secular point of view, and perhaps, this provisional refuge in the Buddha, this acceptance of scripture and other Buddhist writings as a valuable source of ideas and inspiration is just enough. If that’s the case, and I’m right that there are no other fundamental obstacles, then a genuinely secular Buddhism is possible indeed.

One may wonder, of course, whether it actually exists, however. I think the answer to that question might be negative. The most conspicuous «secular Buddhisms» do insufficiently engage with Buddhist philosophy and reject unwelcome doctrines on entirely secular or other non-Buddhist grounds. Moreover, many «secular Buddhisms» do not genuinely embrace the goal of Buddhist practice (nor the path) either. More often, the goal is something like peace of mind or acceptance. I don’t think that lokamātra69 qualifies either, but for different reasons, namely, it neglects practice and it is insufficiently clear whether the goal and the path are fully coherent with it. Perhaps, a genuinely secular Buddhism exists, but I haven’t encountered it yet. The question here, however, was not whether it exists, but whether it is even possible, and the answer that question is “maybe”. (Does that answer matter? Probably not, but I still find the question interesting.)

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  1. Inoue Enryō 井上圓了『, 仏教活論序論』 (1887), in『 井上円了選集』 (Tokyo: Tōyō University 東洋大学, 2003), vol. 3: 327–93, at 388.
  2. AN 3.65. Translation: Bhikkhu Boddhi (2012), The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikāya (Somerville: Wisdom): 281.
  3. e.g. Dale Riepe (1961), The Naturalistic Tradition in Indian Thought (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass). See also BLiTW, pp. 157–9.
  4. Stephen Batchelor (2012), “A Secular Buddhism”, Journal of Global Buddhism 13: 87–107, p. 87. Reprinted in (2018), Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World (New Haven: Yale University Press).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Rizaki Kei 理崎啓 (2016), 『大凡の日々・妹尾義郎と宗教弾圧』 (Tokyo: 哲山堂).
  7. Slavoj Žižek, The Universal Exception (New York: Continuum, 2006), p. 252. In The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2003), Žižek suggested that the same is true for Asian Buddhism, and for largely the same reasons (p. 26).
  8. Žižek, The Universal Exception, p. 253.
  9. Ibid., pp. 253–4.
  10. Ibid., p. 254.
  11. e.g. J.C.D. Clark (2012), “Secularization and Modernization: The Failure of a ‘Grand Narrative’”, The Historical Journal 55.1: 161–94.
  12. See BLiTW, pp. 22ff.
  13. But note that in sociological contexts, when the topic is secular societies rather than secular X-isms, there is no similar ambiguity or contradiction.
  14. See chapter 3 of BLiTW for a review of some of the ideas of the people mentioned here, as well as those of many (other) radical and engaged Buddhists.
  15. Gananath Obeyesekere (1970), “Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Ceylon”, Modern Ceylon Studies 1: 43–63. See also: Richard Gombrich & Gananath Obeyesekere (1988), Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  16. Heinz Bechert (1966), Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus: Grundlagen. Ceylon (Berlin: Metzer). David McMahan (2008), The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  17. See p. 37. See also footnote 18 on pp. 450–1.
  18. See, for example, the last section of chapter 13.
  19. p. 139.
  20. Ibid.
  21. e.g., “If the core doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the badness of suffering are interpreted too broadly, then medicine, for example, would be included in the definition. If, on the other hand, they are interpreted too narrowly, then the definition might even exclude the Buddha himself.” (p. 163)
  22. p. 165.
  23. Ibid.
  24. According to this same criterion!
  25. p. 165.
  26. Mark Siderits (2022), How Things Are: An Introduction to Buddhist Metaphysics (New York: OUP), p. 12.
  27. Also known as “no-self”.
  28. Ibid.: 12–3.
  29. For a very good recent explanation and defense of the theory of no-self / non-self, see: Jay L. Garfield (2022), Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live without a Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  30. Lokamātra, as developed in BLiTW, accepts the first two and the fifth, but doesn’t say anything about the third and fourth (at least, if my memory serves me right). In “What Is Real?”, which builds upon BLiTW, I do address mereological nihilism, however, but neither accept nor reject it. Instead, I argue that what we call “real” is to a large extent a choice, and there is nothing in reality that forces a choice from between the available alternatives. I’m inclined to say that, rather than rejecting or accepting mereological nihilism and anti-substantivism, the argument in “What Is Real?” takes the spirit behind these ideas a step further, but others may disagree about this assessment. — Lajos Brons (2023), “What Is Real?”, Organon F 30.2.
  31. Stephen Batchelor (2015), After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 201 and p. 203.
  32. No(n)-self and nominalism specifically. Conversely, it could also be said that those are corrolaries of the doctrine of anti-essentialism, or that no(n)-self is a special case of anti-essentialism, namely, anti-essentialism applied to persons.
  33. Notice that “taking refuge in the Buddha” (one of the three “refuges”) also effectively means that one accepts the Buddha’s epistemic authority.
  34. […]、余は決して伝記由来をもって、その教を信ずるがごとき無見無識のものにあらず。ただ余がこれを信ずるは、その今日に存するもの哲学の道理に合するにより、これを排するは哲理に合せざるによるのみ。— Inoue Enryō (1887), 『仏教活論序論』, in: 『井上円了選集』 (Tokyo: Tōyō University, 2003), Vol. 3: 327–93, p. 328.
  35. ”Radically inaccessible” means that they cannot “ be established empirically (through perception) or through ordinary (nonscriptural) inferential reasoning”.
  36. Jonathan Stoltz (2021), Illuminating the Mind: An Introduction to Buddhist Epistemology (New York: OUP), p. 104.
  37. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (2005), “Our Faith in Science”, The New York Times, November 12, 2005.
  38. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (2005), The Universe in a Single Atom (New York: Morgan Road), p. 3.
  39. Ibid., pp. 24–5.
  40. e.g., Ibid., p. 50.
  41. Quoted in: Donald Lopez Jr. (2008), Buddhism & Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 34.
  42. The preceding paragraphs about the Dalai Lama were copied (with some very minor changes) from BLiTW p. 106.
  43. BLiTW, p. 170, n. 122.
  44. BLiTW, pp. 149–54 and chapter 13.
  45. e.g., James Deitrick (2003), “Engaged Buddhist Ethics: Mistaking the Boat for the Shore,” in: Christopher Queen, Charles Prebish, and Damien Keown (eds.), Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism (London: RoutledgeCurzon).
  46. Notice that the narrow interpretation matches perfectly with the critique by Žižek and others (see above) that Western Buddhism is a perfect tool for capitalism. By making all this-worldly suffering irrelevant, the narrow interpretation effectively preaches acceptance of the status quo.
  47. e.g., Bhikkhu Anālayo (2023), “Lay Meditation in Early Buddhism”, Mindfulness 13: 318–25.
  48. Kleśas are afflictions or negative emotions such as ignorance, attachment (or craving, desire, and so forth), and aversion, or hatred.
  49. 四弘誓願者。… 亦云眾生無邊誓願度。… 亦云煩惱無數誓願斷。… 亦云法門無盡誓願知。… 亦云無上佛道誓願成。— Zhiyi 智顗 (6th ct),《釋禪波羅蜜次第法門》, T46n1916, 476b.
  50. Śāntideva (8th ct/1995), The Bodhicaryāvatāra, Translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford: Oxford University Press), §5:9–10
  51. The preceding passage (from Zhiyi’s vow until here) has been copied (with minor changes) from BLiTW, pp. 46–7.
  52. Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, §§8.106–7.
  53. 雨ニモマケズ|風ニモマケズ|雪ニモ夏ノ暑サニモマケヌ|[…]|東ニ病氣ノコドモアレバ|行ッテ看病シテヤリ|西ニツカレタ母アレバ|行ッテソノ稻ノ朿ヲ負ヒ|南ニ死ニサウナ人アレバ|行ッテコハガラナクテモイヽトイヒ|北ニケンクヮヤソショウガアレバ|ツマラナイカラヤメロトイヒ|ヒデリノトキハナミダヲナガシ|サムサノナツハオロオロアルキ|ミンナニデクノボートヨバレ|ホメラレモセズ|クニモサレズ|サウイフモノニ|ワタシハナリタイ— Miyazawa Kenji 宮澤賢治 (1931),「雨ニモマケズ」, in: (1997),『【新】校本・宮澤賢治全集』, Volume 13 (Tokyo: 筑摩書房).
  54. Jay Garfield (2021), Buddhist Ethics: A Philosophical Exploration (New York: OUP).
  55. Ibid., pp. 22–3.
  56. In N27, MN51, MN60, MN76, MN79, and MN101.
  57. In AN10:101–155, AN5:211–49, AN5:310, DN33, and MN117.
  58. My main source with regards to interpretation of the Pāli canon here and in the following is: Roderick Bucknell (2022), Reconstructing Early Buddhism (Cambridge: CUP). The “step-wise training” and “tenfold path” columns in the table are mostly copied from his work, as are these terms (i.e., the column headers) themselves.
  59. The Four Noble Truths.
  60. Or awakening. And knowledge of one’s liberation/​awakening.
  61. In this order. See Bucknell, Reconstructing Early Buddhism, pp. 184–4.
  62. MN27, MN51, MN60, MN76, MN79, and MN101.
  63. AN10.167–216.
  64. e.g., SN56.11.
  65. Bucknell, Reconstructing Early Buddhism.
  66. Bucknell also suggests that right action should come before right speech, as tends to be the case in other specifications of moral discipline/​conduct.
  67. See the rough definition of what makes a theory “Buddhist” discussed above.
  68. Notice also that it supplements rather than replaces the more complicated definition based on BLiTW suggested above.
  69. The ideas proposed and defended in BLiTW. See above.

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