On the Authentic Revisionism of Secular Buddhism

Over the years I’ve developed a more open and soft orientation to “Secular Buddhism,” a movement that aims to return to what it thinks is the original intent of the historical Buddha, namely, the practice of mindfulness to attain a state of supreme eudaimonia without dependence on any so-called “supernatural” or “superstitious” beliefs, rituals, mediators (like gurus) or divinities — basically without anything that counts as “religious.”

Originally I was quite skeptical of the movement, and I considered it as nothing more than a neo-colonial distortion of Asian Buddhism by Western scholars and enthusiasts motivated by a very particular kind of post-Christian atheist ideology (in spite of it pretending to be post-ideological in many respects). But after reading about it more and listening to people who are trying to embed Buddhist practice into their lives but struggle to identify with it as a religion, I opened up to the possibility that this movement had something genuinely useful to offer to people who couldn’t be traditionally “religious” with their Buddhism but also desperately wanted or needed something more, something more totalizing, than the occasional mindfulness exercises.

If traditional Buddhists categorically reject this secularizing movement and gatekeep what it means to be a “real” Buddhist, then we risk actually driving people away from Buddhism. It is much better, I think, for people to take up some kind of “Secular Buddhist” practice than to be driven away from Buddhism altogether if they just weren’t born in the right conditions that would allow them to be receptive to receiving Buddhism in its traditional form. Gatekeeping by traditional Buddhists would actually be lacking in compassion for such people, and thus we would be failing to live by our own Buddhist values even though ironically we gatekeep because we consider ourselves the “genuine” Buddhists who can dictate to others what counts and doesn’t count as “real” Buddhism.

However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t something insecure about the idea of Secular Buddhism being an “authentic” form of Buddhism. There are a lot of different criticisms of Secular Buddhism: that it tends to cherry-pick and interpret scripture and doctrines to the extent that they conform to pre-existing secular assumptions, or that it tends to lack grounding in a living lineage of masters, or that it ends up re-defining Buddhism rather than extracting its pragmatic core from the shell of religious dogma. These are all good and valid criticisms, but they are “external”: they are posed on the basis of opposing traditional Buddhist ideas to Secular Buddhist ideas. I want to briefly offer an “internal” or “immanent” critique, that points out an inconsistency within Secular Buddhism that is understandable on its own terms.

One of the bigger points Secular Buddhism tends to make is that the historical consolidation of Buddhism as a religion of the masses is a deviation from the original Buddha’s intent on giving sensible and empirically verifiable teachings that individuals can put into practice on a pragmatic basis. Styling itself in opposition (whether softly or strongly) to “Traditional” Buddhism, Secular Buddhism aims to rescue this original, universally applicable intent from the encrusted dogmas that have accumulated upon it from all of its provincial encounters throughout history. Strongly oppositional Secular Buddhism styles itself to be the authentic expression of the Buddha’s teachings, and considers all other forms to be varying degrees of revisionism.

Yet in its strongly oppositional form, Secular Buddhism actually does something that is quite traditional: it carries on the same supersessionist logic of many Buddhist traditions throughout history that re-conceptualized past (and extant, rival) forms of Buddhism as impoverished and incomplete instances of themselves, instances that the superseding Buddhism in question re-contextualizes in light of the privileged epistemic standpoint that it considers itself to occupy. In this way, in spite of protestations to the contrary by *both* Traditional and Secular Buddhists, Secular Buddhism is quite traditional in this respect.

So instead of being a purely authentic expression of the dharma in opposition to the in-authentic revisions of it, Secular Buddhism is actually an “authentic revision” of the dharma because it repeats the same, relatively unchanging logic of supersession in the history of Buddhism wherein past forms are re-articulated as imperfect versions of its own perfect form. Yet to the extent that the Buddha taught that there is no such thing as an ultimately perfect form due to his teachings on the three marks of existence — that all conditioned things are impermanent (anicca), incoherent (dukkha) and inconsistent (anatta) — then even Traditional Buddhism is as inauthentic (or as authentic) as Secular Buddhism. This would mean that the essence of the Buddha’s teachings go beyond any form of Buddhism — whether ancient-traditional or modern-secular — and the whole agonistic dialectical exchange between Traditional Buddhists and Secular Buddhists distract from, and obstruct the realization of, this essence.

So Secular Buddhism is more revisionary than it understands itself to be, and for the same reason is more traditional than it understands itself to be. For this reason — that it repeats the same supersessionist logic by which Buddhism has developed itself over history — it fails to actually establish itself the way it wants to on its own terms. This makes the movement fundamentally open-empty (that is, without a coherent foundation of its own) and thus dooms it to be a momentary instance of an inclusively-transcendent process that is greater than itself (since its foundationless character ensures that it will not be final, but serve as a condition for a succeeding movement that is destined to invariably include and transcend it).

Because all forms of Buddhism have always been open-empty moments of a greater process of inclusive-transcendence, Secular Buddhism is more traditionally Buddhist than it, or its critics, are prepared to admit. For this reason there is no problem for traditional Buddhists to practice traditional Buddhism and for Secular Buddhists to practice Secular Buddhism, without feeling like either of them are in competition with one another for the crowning status of the “Real Buddhism”. The critical question they should both pose for themselves is: is there even such a thing as “Real Buddhism,” and to what extent is the assumption or belief that there is such a thing, or that there ever could be such a thing, itself an obstruction to the direct, lived experience that the Buddha Shakyamuni taught about and pointed to?

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