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Buddhism and Secularism: The Wedding of Old and New

The increasingly globalized world denotes more than just the spread of Western media and brands. It denotes the secularization of society, with the exception of wild cards such as the United States (where fundamentalist Christianity is not only alive, but a driving force behind politics and economics). Many Western philosophers have praised secularization (or humanism) as the best model for free expression. In contrast to a theocracy, all modes of religion in secular societies can coexist as long as no harm is done to anyone, and in this way there will be better cooperation and communication between groups than if one religion is given preferential treatment.

Buddhism is unique because secularization, which is not ideal for many other religions, will actually do Buddhism good by allowing it the opportunity to cooperate with the many institutions and people whose goals are similar to the Sangha’s. Unlike fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, which have much to lose by increasing secularization, all Buddhism asks of the government (as it has always done throughout history) is to be open-minded to supporting its Dharma activities. The government does not need to be affiliated with Buddhism, nor do its members need to be Buddhists. The freedom of expression is only one of many ideas that secularism shares with basic Buddhism.

The secularist idea of the good life (rooted in the Greek tradition of eudemonia, or flourishing) can also act as a supplement to the Buddhist conception of happiness, which begins in mindfulness and ends with Nirvana. Lord Richard Layard, who is the United Kingdom’s foremost economist for happiness, contends that the many problems in the world (ill-health, conflict, poverty, human rights abuses) are really versions of unhappiness. The main concern is really happiness, which can only begin by taking the individual striving for happiness seriously. He has shared these ideas with celebrity monk Matthieu Ricard, who has written an entire book about happiness and devoted numerous studies to the science of contentment. And happily, their opinions overlap to a significant degree.

Reporting on their meeting was Jake Wallis Simons of The Times, who himself notes that his practice of Tibetan Buddhism left him disillusioned by the unbalanced attention given to the mind at the expense of other aspects of life. Buddhism can improve happiness to an extent, but to Simons the total transcendence of human frailty is not possible. In contrast, Matthieu Ricard notes that “secular spirituality” is very helpful and practical indeed, but not entirely complete, because it cuts itself off from the possibility of the Buddhist Nirvana. Undoubtedly, Ricard’s cyclical vision of the cosmos is a religious one, with its many bodhisattvas, the cosmic Buddha, and the liberation of all beings. To Simons, Ricard’s secular advice therefore seems to jar with his deep piety. But is the practical discrepancy really so deep? I agree with Simons’ contention that there will always be differences between the Buddhist and secular ideas of happiness. But as Layard himself put it:

“I think our common ground is more important than our differences. It is the responsibility of government to create a society where we have the space and support to be happy. Meditation and altruism can help to fill this space, enhancing our happiness as individuals. The philosophies of East and West do not need to be mutually exclusive. We can both learn from one another, and combine our approaches to good effect.”

As a basic foundation, Layard recommends that more public funding be allocated to mental health services, parenting support networks, and positive-living education in schools. Buddhist masters would agree and add that happiness begins with a mind nourished by insight into the no-self concept and a developed tendency to altruism. Brought together, a secular society can support Dharma activities with institutions that are open to allowing Buddhist teachers to share their remedies for the suffering in the human condition. This already happens across the world, but it is the actual concepts built into the humanist tradition that Buddhism should seek common ground with. Layard lists five things that are typical of the secular search for happiness, and all of them can be applied in the Buddhist life.

·        Be socially connected: In Buddhism, happiness begins from within, before radiating outwards to touch others’ lives. Regular contact with Buddhists or people from other schools of thought is important in a globalized world. Buddhism is perhaps more introspective or private than other faiths, but the entire point of secular government is to ensure religion does not enforce itself through lobbying or politics. To be socially connected therefore means something much simpler: to make good friends and to give of oneself to them.

·        Be physically active: Masters of old have advised lay and monastic students alike to see the body as a vehicle to enlightenment. But the body needs to be healthy so that extensive meditation and systematic study can be done without harming the individual. For the average person, it is ideal to do frequent exercise of mild to moderate intensity, for either half an hour everyday or one to two hours every other day. People who actively participate in sports can obviously engage in physical exercise with high intensity. Many disciplines can supplement the Buddhist life by emphasizing constant focus and concentration during the session, such as yoga, martial arts, or weightlifting. Other sports such as swimming or football can bring their own hidden benefits.

·        Take notice of your surroundings and savour them: From a Buddhist perspective, this would be akin to practicing mindfulness and meditating on mindfulness. Many people who do not agree with Buddhist philosophy find mindfulness of breathing and how external factors affect that breathing immensely helpful. To savour one’s surroundings is to appreciate them with an unbiased and all-embracing attitude. A deeper meaning to savouring one’s surroundings can be to protect them from harm, especially if they are heritage or ecological sites under threat.

·        Keep learning: In a secular context, to “keep learning” is to strive to understand the universe and pursue knowledge for its own sake. The Buddha also encouraged His disciples to enquire freely into the nature of reality – with a dash of humility and commonsense. Every field of studies in science (including astronomy, physics, neuroscience, biology and psychology) are of great interest to Buddhism. And in the same way that scientists are constantly discovering new things about their work, Buddhists are also discovering new meaning and teachings in the sutras they study and the masters they learn from.

·        Give regularly: Secularism and Buddhism agree completely with each other on this last point. Generosity is the foundation of spiritual merit, and humanist philosophers maintain that giving is the catalyst for meaningful happiness. Giving can be done for anyone, from family to friends and most importantly, to those one does not have a personal attachment to (such as charities). Giving can also be done in different ways. The giving of one’s time and effort can often be more important and helpful than the giving of one’s money or resources.

Simons concludes that parts of meditation in tune with secular society can be incorporated into social policies geared towards happiness. But the benefits actually go both ways. Many humanist ideas are harmonious with the Buddhist tradition and should be taken seriously as part of the movement of “modern Buddhism.” In this modern Buddhism, there is no place for repression and superstition, and there is every place for a deep devotion to the Buddha complemented by an appreciation for secular values.

Link to Simons’ article about Matthieu Ricard and Lord Layard:,8910,0,0,1,0

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