What is Secular Buddhism

There are many schools of Buddhism and they all explain/teach Buddhism in different ways. Some traditions emphasize reason; others devotion; others mysticism; most combine several of these things. The end goal for all of them is to help people to arrive at a state of “awakening” or “enlightenment”. When I started studying Buddhism, I had a hard time understanding many of the concepts being taught. As my understanding grew, many of the differences between these schools became much less significant. Rather than focusing on which one was “right” or “wrong”, I focused on which one spoke to me. Secular Buddhism takes a pragmatic approach to explain and apply Buddhist teachings and is based on humanist values. I practice/teach Secular Buddhism because it makes the most sense to me. I have a deep love for Buddhist wisdom and I respect all Buddhist traditions.

Secular Buddhism is a non-dogmatic way of understanding and practicing Buddhism. Buddhism is often referred to as the path of liberation. But liberation from what? From our habitual reactivity and self-inflicted suffering. The aim of Buddhist teachings is to understand the nature of reality, the nature of suffering and to let go of the causes of suffering. The process starts by taking a look at how we see the world. When we understand the way we see things, the way we see things will change. This introspection will give us insight into the nature of our own minds. Rather than trying to change the world (our circumstances), we focus on changing ourselves and in that process the world around us changes.

“The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.” – Thich Nhat Hanh.

We are the prisoners of our own minds. We are bound by our concepts & ideas. Rather than presenting us with a set of beliefs that we can choose to believe in or not, Buddhist teachings are something we do. These teachings help us to learn to look inward, to discover that nothing is permanent and that everything is constantly changing and that all things are interdependent. With this wisdom, comes the understanding that the things we seek outside ourselves, are actually found within.

The Secular Buddhism podcast is a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics, and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. Episodes 1 – 5 are an introduction to Buddhism and all episodes after that are geared around specific topics. I recommend listening to the first 5 episodes in order and then picking and choosing the desired topic after that.

Why Secular Buddhism?

In my years of studying and researching Eastern philosophy, and Buddhism specifically, I spent countless hours reading through hundreds of books and listening to lecture series on the topic of Buddhism. As I studied the teachings on the nature of suffering, emptiness, impermanence, and interdependence, I found them to be incredibly powerful and enlightening. I quickly realized that these teachings were relevant and useful to anyone, regardless of their beliefs or non-beliefs. Secular Buddhism allows for this ancient wisdom to be added to whatever background/world view you already possess. Whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Hindu, Believer, Non-believer, it doesn’t really matter; Secular Buddhism is about helping you to become a better whatever you already are. This website, podcast, and the content I share represents my own individual understanding of the essential teachings of Buddhism without any of the supernatural or cultural attachments that have been added in the past 2500 years.

What does Buddhism teach?

The collective teachings of the Buddha are called “Dharma”. In it’s simplest form, Dharma can be defined as the teachings that lead to an awakened mind.
It’s important to understand that Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice”) rather than a belief system. The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. It’s an action method. Dharma teachings are a challenge for people to understand the nature of anguish, let go if its origins, realize how to end anguish, and bring into being a way of life that is resistant to anguish (not immune but resistant). It is a method to be investigated…something you can try out. It starts by understanding anguish (which we’re all familiar with), then applies a set of practices to understand this human dilemma so we can work toward a resolution.

Impermanence
EVERYTHING is impermanent. Jobs, relationships, good times, hard times, loved ones, our own life, and even the universe itself will end. The problem is that we know this and yet we continue to cling to things as if they were permanent because we want these thing to last (at least during our lifetime). When we truly understand impermanence, the less we cling to outcomes and expectations. That doesn’t mean its suddenly easy when we lose a job, or a loved one, it just means that the recovery from suffering will go more smoothly when we learn to see things as they really are, impermanent.

Spend some time thinking about impermanence. Find what areas you currently cling to because you expect them to last. Does the clinging affect the desired outcomes or expectations? What happens if you recognize that everything is impermanent?

Interdependence
The Buddhist teaching of interdependence asks us to explore the reality of objects and their connection to ourselves more than any other teaching I know of. The main idea here is that EVERYTHING is interdependent. Nothing that exists, including you, exists in and of itself, without dependencies, and as a single, permanent thing. Think of a cake…it exists because of it’s interdependence on all the things that make it a cake (eggs, flour, sugar, an oven, etc…). Everything about us is in constant change from the trillions of cells that make up our body, to the multitude of processes that create thoughts, emotions, reactions, opinions, and beliefs. We are not static objects, we are works in progress, with mind-boggling complex processes that all depend on each other.

Suffering
Suffering is a natural part of living. Suffering emerges from craving for life to be other than it is. Life is impermanent and change is constant – we grow frustrated when the world doesn’t behave the way we think it should and our lives don’t conform to our expectations. While we try to do everything in our power to avoid suffering, the reality is that we can’t avoid it. By understanding the nature of suffering, we can approach each moment with a bit more clarity and confidence, relaxing into it rather than resisting it or being overwhelmed by it.

The Buddha’s core teachings can be summed up in four key points — these are known as the Four Noble Truths

The truth of suffering
In life, there is suffering. Suffering is a part of life. Simply acknowledging the fact that, at any given moment, we may face some type of uneasy or uncomfortable experience constitutes the essential lesson of the First Noble Truth.

The truth of the cause of suffering
Suffering emerges from craving for life to be other than it is. Life is impermanent and change is constant – we grow frustrated when the world doesn’t behave the way we think it should and our lives don’t conform to our expectations. The cause of suffering lies not in events or circumstances, but in the way we perceive and interpret our experience as it unfolds.

The truth of the end of suffering
The cause of suffering can be ended. Understanding that all things are impermanent and ending the chase after satisfaction is enlightenment. It is not suffering that ceases, it’s craving. The essential lesson of the 3rd noble truth is that the limiting ideas we hold about ourselves, others, and every other experience can be unlearned.

The truth of the path that frees us from suffering
There is a way, or “path” to end the cause of suffering. We need to abandon our expectations about the way we think things should be and begin to develop awareness about the way things are. The 4th Noble Truth teaches us that in order to bring an end to suffering we need to cut through the dualistic habits of perception and the illusions that hold them in place, not by fighting or suppressing them, but by embracing and exploring them. The path has 8 main points and is known as the Eightfold Path.

The eightfold path is the heart of dharma practice. The path is intended to be a guide for everyday life. In following the path, you will learn to see life as it really is. The path is depicted as a wheel with 8 spokes because the path is not linear and each area is equally important. The eight points of the path are:

Wise or Right View
Right view means seeing the world as it is. What are your views of the world? Do you cling to your views? Understanding Impermanence, Interdependence, and Suffering along with the Four Noble Truths will help you to have the right view of yourself and the world.

Wise or Right Intention
Right intention means understanding what the true intentions are behind our actions. Our thoughts, words, and actions are all driven by intentions. For example, when our intentions stem from anger, fear, resentment, or greed we are more likely to do harm with our thoughts, words, and actions. A great way to practice is to ask ourselves questions about intent like:
Why am I thinking this?
What caused me to say that to my spouse?
What made me angry enough to throw the remote?
Once you are aware of your intentions, it’s easier to try to set new ones and to replace old intentions.

Wise or Right Action
Right action means acting or behaving in a way that is not harmful to ourselves or others. Wholesome intentions help lead to wholesome actions.

Wise or Right Speech (Communication)
Right speech means communicating with others in a way that doesn’t cause harm. Lying, gossiping, and hurting other peoples feelings is not right speech. This covers all forms of communication (speech, texting, emailing, writing, etc). This doesn’t mean withholding opinions or ideas, it means we are mindful of the intention behind the communication to decide if what we are going to say will do more good or more harm.

Wise or Right Livelihood
Right livelihood addresses how we earn a living. We must determine for ourselves if what we do for a living is causing harm to ourselves and others, or if it is neutral or helping. Right livelihood also includes how we interact with others while doing our jobs.

Wise or Right Effort
The right effort is what it will take to be able to put into practice all the other parts of the path. Without effort, there is no practice. We must be determined to put into practice all the other points of the path if we want to experience any kind of positive change. Right effort affects all of our interactions in the world.

Wise or Right Mindfulness
Right mindfulness means paying attention to everything we think, say, and do. It’s important that mindfulness should be anchored in the present. With proper intention, effort, and mindfulness, you can train yourself to be present in everything you do. Right mindfulness goes hand in hand with all the other points of the path. Example: Right speech will determine what I’m saying to someone when I’m talking to them…Right mindfulness will prevent me from checking my phone while I’m talking to someone in person. Meditation is the tool to develop mindfulness. As you develop mindfulness in the quiet, still environment of meditation, you then extend mindfulness to include all your daily life.

Wise or Right Concentration (Meditation)
Right concentration is the practice of focusing the mind solely on one thing. Like mindfulness, concentration is a tool to anchor us in the present. Concentration improves through meditation and it requires the use of right effort, right intention, and right mindfulness. Once mindfulness and concentration are established, then you can develop greater insight overall because your mind is no longer cluttered with thoughts that inhibit wisdom.

The eightfold path is something we need to practice continually. You’ll notice how various segments of the path overlap and rely on each other. “Walking the path” is an ongoing lifetime effort that will bring many rewards and improve the overall quality of life.

Learn More

When I first started studying Buddhism, I found it difficult at times to comprehend the concepts that were being taught. I ultimately decided to start writing about Buddhism and my goal was to take the deep philosophical concepts taught in Buddhism and make them accessible and easy to understand for secular-minded, “westerners” like me. As a result of this work, I now have 3 books available. These may be useful to you on your path of exploring Secular Buddhism and Buddhism in general: