Secular Buddhism

you be an atheist and a Buddhist? At first glance, it seems like it
would be inconsistent to be both, to be someone who does not believe
in God, but belongs to a religion. But there is now a growing form of
Buddhism, in the Western world at least, which is based on humanism
and practical values. The supernatural aspects of Buddhism are
ignored, while the teachings of the Buddha, and even the practice of
meditation, are preserved. The British author Stephen Batchelor was
the first person to promote this form of Buddhism and writes about
the compatibility of atheism and Buddhism in books such as
without Beliefs
and Confession
of a Buddhist Atheist

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
Stephen tells the story of how he began his spiritual journey first
by reading classic Indian texts such as the Rig Veda
and the Bhagavad Gita,
while experimenting with drugs such as LSD. Then he travelled to
Dharmasala in India where he was eventually ordained as a monk in the
Gelug (a Tibetan) tradition. He left India in 1975 in order to study
the Buddhist philosophy in Tibet and was again eventually ordained as
a monk. This involved Stephen following a simple lifestyle: wearing
robes, living in a monastery only with men, meditating daily and
spending most of his time studying and translating traditional
Tibetan texts. In the book Stephen confesses to his teacher, Geshe
Rabten, that he was no longer persuaded by the supernatural aspects
of the tradition he was studying and felt obligated to leave the
monastery. He moved to South Korea where he trained in Zen Buddhism,
which he felt more at home with.

Buddhism differs from Tibetan Buddhism in a number of ways. Both
belong to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism (the most popular) but Zen
Buddhism is much more minimalist, while Tibetan Buddhism is much more
elaborate. They differ in terms of meditation: Zen focuses on breath
and emptying your thoughts, whereas Tibetan Buddhism focuses on
mantras and concentrating on complex thoughts. Zen Buddhism is far
less hierarchical than Tibetan Buddhism as well, which has the
authority of the Dalai Lama as part of its tradition. Lastly, Tibetan
Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on the more supernatural aspects of
Buddhism, such as rebirth, different realms of existence and divine

Stephen still felt, however, that he could not reconcile Zen
Buddhism with many of his other beliefs, so he took off his robes in
1985 and moved back to England. From 1990 he has been a teacher at
the Gaia House meditation centre in Devon. Stephen has argued that,
as an atheist, Buddhism can offer some really important lessons and
teachings. First of all, Buddha himself was never described as a
divine being or a god in the Pali Canon (collection of Buddhist scriptures).
He was just a person, so his teachings have a humanistic and natural,
not divine, foundation.

Buddha was born in a palace to a wealthy family and never had an
opportunity to leave. That was until one day he left the palace and
encountered a sick man, an elderly man and a dead man. Seeing this
kind of suffering affected him so much that he decided to leave the
palace and live with ascetic monks. These ascetic monks lived in the
woods, far away from society and spent their time eating little food
and meditating. Gotama did not get a permanent sense of well-being
from this kind of life, so he meditated under a bodhi tree and said
he would not leave until he found what he was looking for. What he
came up with was the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths are: 1. Life is dukkha.
Some translate this as ‘suffering’, but the term has a much broader
meaning, standing for a general dissatisfaction in life. This
dissatisfaction arises from the fact that all things are impermanent
or transient – so pleasure and happiness always ends after a short amount of time. 2. The root of dukkha
is craving, ignorance and hatred. In Buddhist philosophy these are
the three vices. 3. To eliminate dukkha
you have to eliminate cravings, ignorance and hatred. 4. To eliminate
these vices you have to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

The belief
that suffering can be eliminated by avoiding cravings, ignorance and
hatred can easily be adopted by an atheist, humanist or secularist.
The Noble Eightfold Path involves developing Right Vision, Intention,
Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration.
For the secular Buddhist, each of these eight aspects have practical
applications in real life and are useful for a variety of needs and
situations. Secular Buddhism, therefore, does not insist that there
is “one true path to Enlightenment” that you must follow;
instead, it is far less strict and more open-minded and flexible.

generally promotes compassion as a virtue (however in Mahayana
Buddhism you should be compassionate in order to liberate yourself
from suffering, whereas in Theravada Buddhism you should be
compassionate in order to liberate all living beings from suffering).
Since Buddhism inherited the Hindu concepts of karma and
reincarnation, an important aspect of Buddhism is to be compassionate
in this life in order to avoid samsara
(the cycle of death and re-birth). Buddhists want to achieve
Enlightenment or Liberation because avoiding samsara means that all
suffering will end forever. The Self will then exist in some sort of
transcendental world. The secular Buddhist, on the other hand, will
value compassion and avoid cravings, ignorance and hatred because
they want to avoid suffering (for themselves and others) in this
life; the only life we have.

In the same way, one of the main
principles of Jainism is ahimsa
(non-violence to all sentient beings), but Jains follow this
principle in order to be reborn in some heavenly place. But you can
also value ahimsa as a
principle for this life and this life only. The secular Buddhist will
reject concepts such as karma and reincarnation which are
supernatural and have no basis in reality. They will also reject
mystical ideas found in texts such as The Tibetan Book of
the Dead
. In this book, it is
believed that when you die, you travel through different bardos
or realms of existence until you are eventually reborn. Other things
which cannot be empirically tested, such as divine beings and Pure
(celestial realms in
Buddhist cosmology), are likely to be rejected by a secular Buddhist.

certain kinds of meditation do have a supernatural context to them, a
secular Buddhist can still practice meditation for its practical
benefits. Mindfulness, one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path, has
been developed into a form of meditation. There is nothing religious
about this kind of meditation, it just involves bringing your
attention to the present moment, usually by focusing on your
thoughts, breathing and bodily sensations. By doing this, you can
understand the pattern of thoughts in your mind, that is, what
thoughts come up, how long for and how you respond to them.
Mindfulness meditation can supposedly allow you to recognise these
habits and change them for the better. Many studies have empirically
confirmed mindfulness meditation as being an effective way to reduce
stress, anxiety and depression, while simultaneously increasing a
sense of well-being and satisfaction.

In light of this evidence,
mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has been developed in order to
treat major depressive disorders, as well as many other kinds of disorders. The secular
Buddhist can draw on the Buddha’s life and teachings as a way to live
morally and respond to issues such as discrimination, poverty and
animal cruelty. Since meditation has also been ‘secularised’, the
secular Buddhist can use it in order to achieve real benefits in the
real world, as opposed to supernatural benefits in a supernatural



  1. Anonymous
    April 23, 2013 / 6:02 am

    Philosophy, not a religion, no divine being. So atheist-no god, no conflict with Buddhism. Of course westerners always have to pervert things to suit their egos….
    Bases of reality??? nothing is real, everything is only a perception.

    • April 23, 2013 / 6:18 am

      The fact that many Westerners want to say that Buddhism is a philosophy and atheistic does not mean they are 'perverting' Buddhism. The Buddha was not a divine being and his teachings were very practical – that's why Buddhism can be seen as a philosophy. Also, I don't see why religion has to be static. It should be there to suit the needs of the individual, not to suit some unchanging definition of 'Buddhism'.

      When you say that nothing is real, everything is only a perception, what do you mean by that? That only you exist?

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