Secular Buddhism, II: Protestant Foundations

One on the recent developments in Buddhism is the rise of what is identified by its proponents as “Secular Buddhism.” What makes Secular Buddhism an interesting case for studying the adaptation of Buddhism to Euro–American society is the way in which its proponents, apparently entirely unwittingly, replicate Protestant discourse in support of their views. This does not refer to adopting doctrinal views (though I would argue separately that much of engaged Buddhism does so), but rather refers to the kinds of arguments that are given for their positions.

Despite their assertion of secular status, the realm of discourse in which Secular Buddhism operates is that of popular religious culture. The focus on individual self-improvement through meditation, for example, places Secular Buddhism firmly in the realm of the psycho-therapeutic self-help culture, which is itself a subset of the broader popular religious culture. The discursive dynamics of that culture is deeply imbued with Protestant rhetoric strategies and their concomitant presumptions, and Secular Buddhism employs those for its own ends. In doing so, Protestant presumptions inform Secular Buddhism at a level much more fundamental than any of the specific doctrinal claims that they assert. And because they are operating at a level below the surface of the mindfulness movement as well, of which Secular Buddhism is effectively a subset, these rhetorical strategies are having a more fundamentally transformative effect on Buddhism in the West than many of the more familiar and discussed topics, e.g., medicalization.

At this point, it seems to me that there are six specific kinds of rhetorical strategies that Secular Buddhism has adopted from the Protestant tradition:

1. anti-clericalism and “the priesthood of all believers”
2. textual fundamentalism and textual literalism, particularly employed without the philological skills
3. quest for the purity of origins
4. anti-ritualism
5. claim to distinguish between essentials and cultural accretions (related to anti-ritualism)
6. anti-intellectualism (alternative authority, like anti-clerical)

Each of these six will require separate exploration in detail, and this structure will inform several forthcoming posts.


11 thoughts on “Secular Buddhism, II: Protestant Foundations

  1. I’m discovering that the Buddhism that we are being taught in the West (post Chogyam Trungpa and his tantric practice) is already Protestantized. I’m reading Gil Fronsdal’s Ph.D. thesis, ‘Dawn of the Bodhisattva: Earliest prajnaparamita texts’. He notes that that Protestants were the early translators of ancient Buddhist texts (late 19th to early 20th century). They translated words and texts according to their Protestant sensibilities and they ignored those parts of the texts that contradicted that ethic, texts that spoke of Buddhist ritual and devotional practice, known as “bhakti.” Through Gil’s work and other books, I am recovering an early historic tradition of a Buddhist bhakti, or devotional practice, that was filled with feasts, celebrations, ritual, music, drums, dancing, offerings to sacred Buddhist images, and so forth. The tradition that we are being taught—sitting in silence for hours, days and weeks on end—is an exaggerated form of one aspect of the Buddhist tradition, the monastic tradition. But even the monks and nuns of ancient Indian Buddhism participated in the bhakti devotions and celebrations.

  2. I guess there are worse things a movement can be accused of than borrowing from Protestantism. I’m looking forward to the rest of the commentary.

    It appears to me, though, that if secular buddhism uses the same sorts of strategies that Protestants adopted against the received orthodoxy of establishment religion, we do so for similr reasons. In other words, established religion had rather lost its way, according to the Protestants; many who identify with secular buddhism, at least where I m in contact with it, feel the same way about official Buddhism.

    In general, and without going into any great detail, my interest in secular buddhism evolved out of disenchantment with monasticism, authoritarianism, doctrinal rigidity, orientalism, sexism, homophobia and elitism associated with traditional Buddhism in Australia. It has allowed me to jettison irrational beliefs in karma and rebirth as unverifiable or falsifiable and therefore unnecessary, as well as it has allowed me to approach my on practice with an open and questioning mind.

    Moreover, thanks to some stalwart teachers within the broad secular buddhist community, the latter tends towards democratic practices conducted in an egalitarian fashion, which is no small thing.

    • This is not intended as an accusation, but rather as an analysis.
      Your second paragraph seems to me to confirm my analysis, since the very critique of “establishment religion” that you make of Buddhist traditions is structured by the Protestant critiques of Catholicism, as you yourself call attention to.
      Let me also note, that I am myself quite sympathetic to many of the issues you raise regarding the authoritarian nature of religious institutions of all kinds. I am not seeking to defend some putatively pure or authoritative form of “traditional Buddhism” as it is sometimes called. The emotional energy of my concern originates instead from a resistance to those in the mindfulness and Secular Buddhist movements who themselves claim to know what the original, pure, etc., etc., teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha are. And, yes, of course, I find similar claims by “traditional Buddhists” equally annoying. I would not feel any particular difficulty were they to admit that what they are creating is their own interpretation of Buddhism. Though, of course, I might disagree with them.
      When instead they cloak their interpretation with claims of having better access to the mind of Śākyamuni than two and a half millenia of teachers have had, then I find myself wanting to point out the absurdity and arrogance of their position—so yes, I do have an agenda, but it is purely de(con)structive.

      • I may not have been clear. I’m not suggesting that anyone is programmatically utilising the same strategies that the descendants of Martin Luther did in taking on existing authority. It is that human institutions through history do show a tendency to similar structures, for example, of authority, and this means that dissent from those in authority will be liable to raise similar issues.

        We might be at cross purposes here but most secular buddhists in Australia would readily agree that we are developing our own distinctive, local response to the dharma and one specifically influenced by western values of equality, respect for the individual and rationality.

      • re. ¶ 1: yes, I think you are, so in this we disagree.
        re. ¶ 2: yes, I think you are, so in this we agree.
        hmmm, interesting…or not
        For clarity, in terms of ¶ 1, you’re probably right that it is not programmatic; that is why I suggest that it is unwitting, and taking place at the level of the discourse of popular religious culture; if it were programmatic it would be easier to identify, analyze, describe, and much less interesting.

        That was all very badly done, sorry, see further comment below…

  3. I agree that a “secular” Buddhism has the potential to allow one to raise issues of “monasticism, authoritarianism, doctrinal rigidity, orientalism, sexism, homophobia and elitism associated with traditional Buddhism” everywhere, but IN PRACTICE that is not what happens. Buddhism in white-dominated societies is overwhelmingly white, upper middle class, and made up of members who were formerly (or simultaneously) Christians and Jews. I became interested in Nalandabodhi because it’s founder, Dzogchen Ponlop promised a “secular Buddhism” that is no more than a “science of mind.” And indeed, I think that’s what he intended. But IN PRACTICE, Nalandabodhi functions like a church, like just about every other church I’ve ever belonged to. It’s run by a council of elitist upper-class white people who control everything that happens in their sanghas, who have very rigid, though often unspoken, rules for what constitutes a member—paying dues, mostly, and never challenging their authority—what constitutes correct practice and doctrine, and so forth. They have very subtle but effective ways of weeding out people that don’t ‘fit the bill’, i.e. the working class, ethnic and racial minorities, queers, and non-conformists of any stripe. So much for “secular” Buddhism. I agree with Payne—let’e call the beast what it is—a religion, a church, and understand how it functions like one.

  4. Pingback: General Update | The Non-Buddhist

  5. rkpayne: surely you are not suggesting that my comments are in bad faith. I’ve enjoyed your other articles on issues within secular buddhism in the US without really being able to come to grips with your central complaint.

    In good faith, then, I’ll link to an article (‘The Coming of Secular Buddhism: A Synoptic View’) with which I am in substantial agreement which does, in part, provide an account of the engagement between Buddhist Modernism and Protestantism beginning in Sri Lanka. But please note, the author gives precedence to a consideration of Protestantism because of its singular role in creating a particular kind of self reflective subjectivity which became the foundation of liberal subjectivity in general.

    We could be on the same page but I’m not sure.

  6. My apologies, I hit the “post comment” button too hastily. I didn’t mean you personally, that is, you (singular) but rather, you (plural), as a generalization for secular Buddhists, and with the further qualifier that it is not programmatic. So, no I’m not accusing you of bad faith—sorry for having been so much of a snarkoid dweeb. I will enjoy the article by Higgins, thank you for sending the link. The qualification I have is that I’m not concerned with origins, or subjectivity, but with rhetoric—as I keep saying.
    As for my “central complaint” it has to do with anyone claiming a privileged access to an original, or pure, or authentic Buddhism—which necessarily entails the implication that others are not original, not pure, not authentic. And yes, I’ve been guilty of that myself (oh so very long ago, let me assure you—sins of a callow youth), and yes, lots of Buddhists make that claim, whether Secular, or mindful, or traditional—and yes, they all annoy me. (This is where I found myself feeling in alliance with Glenn Wallis and Tom Pepper in their critiques of what they call X-Buddhism.)
    Oh, and lastly, I’m also in agreement regarding a resistance to authoritarianism, with all of its concomitant potential for abuse. I also like rational, as I hope is in some degree of evidence.

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