What is Secular Buddhism?


If you are shopping around for a religion, there are better ones around than Buddhism.

Secular Buddhists conduct their lives according to the dictates and suggestions the Buddha put forth in his very first sermon: the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. They have nothing to do with any metaphysical crap whatsoever. What they say is that, if you want to live a life that is happy and free from fear, live one that is moral, ethical and compassionate, full of wisdom and mental discipline.

Although hundreds of millions of people practice the Buddhist religion, it really doesn’t measure up as one. Whole cultures have been built up around the notion of a Buddhist “religion,” when in its purest form, Buddhism isn’t a religion, and denies being a religion.


Buddhism’s source material is called the Pali Canon – the Buddha’s words recorded shortly after his death, pulled from the memories of those who dedicated their lives to committing the Buddha’s words to heart. The Pali Canon (called because of the Pali language, the one the Buddha spoke) claims that the Buddha was just a man, albeit a gifted one, and that he preached, among other things, against belief of any kind without personal verification. That included what he himself said, and the things that the traditions insisted upon – karma and rebirth. Don’t believe, the Buddha advised. Don’t believe anything.

That hasn’t stopped many cultures from riffing on the Buddha’s message, and creating a religion around what is only a moral philosophy – a way to live a happy life. You have to have a god of some kind to make a religion, and supernatural beliefs. Even the Theravada Buddhists, the “keepers of the Pali canon,” have borrowed (from Hinduism) or constructed their own metaphysical mumbo-jumbo full of hells and heavens and demigods – and it only gets worse from there. Somebody in China, purporting to uncover a long-lost “sutra” dictated by the Buddha (in Sanskrit, no less) threw a “Pure Land” into the mix, a heaven where good Buddhists go when they die. There are a lot of good Buddhists who believe, for example, that they can pray to the Buddha and receive favors.

But the Buddha never went there. He railed against superstition, and condemned the Indian caste system. Ask him about God or gods, and he would shrug his shoulders, or even turn his back on a questioner: how the hell should I know, he was saying. I’m only a human being like you.

That being said, the Buddha seemed to give an out to religionists when he said (at the end of the Kalama Sutta) that, hey, if a religion fills a void for you, is in keeping with reason and preaches love, then, hey, go for it. He wasn’t legitimizing religion. But he knew that most imperfect humans needed to believe in something hereafter, whether it’s reincarnation, heaven or hell, or 48 virgins; if they didn’t, they’d sit around all day being morose, smoking cigarettes and drinking like Russians, and neglecting their children.

Many westerners gravitate toward Buddhism because it offers sanctuary from religion. And probably just as many gravitate to Buddhism for spiritual, mystical, new-age reasons. It’s the non-Buddhists I worry about, people who are interested in learning what Buddhism is, but are then confused by the ENORMOUS array of total bullshit they encounter, just on a Google search alone. Some of it is too erudite, or too out in la-la land, or cultish bastardizations of the core principles of Buddhism that border on the pernicious, like SGI Buddhism. And there’s lots of great stuff, of course.

But I’m a guy who doesn’t believe in God or gods, or haunts, or demons, or angels, or ESP or telekinesis, or rebirth or karma or Santa Claus. All is delusion based on man’s primal fear of death. Hell, even Santa Claus is eternal. Only by freeing onesself of all irrational belief do we find the freedom that comes from fearlessness. I don’t trust people who are too far off the deep end metaphysically. The further off the deep end they are, the less I trust them. I know murderers I can trust more than pastors.

The reward isn’t in the future. The reward is now, and you’re on your own when it comes to being happy and spiritual and free from fear. And the Buddha gave us an instruction manual called the Noble Eightfold Path to help you be happy and spiritual and free from fear. But you have to take responsibility of your life, and develop your mental toughness. There isn’t anything supernatural about it. All exists between your ears.



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