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Buddhism in the News


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Buddhism and Secular Humanism

I am one of those "Western Buddhists" who is also a secular humanist. So what exactly is secular humanism you ask? Well, this post will be my attempt to answer that question and show how my interpretation of Buddhism fits into it.

Humanism is often described as a philosophical system/way of life that emphasizes reason, ethics and justice and specifically rejects the supernatural. In this regard I do not believe in the supernatural reality of Bodhisattvas as I can not confirm their existence via reasonable, scientific means which is a hallmark of the Humanism that I bring to my Buddhist beliefs. It is actually also a hallmark of Buddhism as seen in the pragmatic, famous teaching found in the Kalama Sutra that is interestingly somewhat similar to the scientific method:

Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching. Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words. Rely not on theory, but on experience. Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
In fact, Buddhism has a very accepting, positive attitude and view toward science. The Dalai Lama has even stated before that if science proves an aspect of Buddhism in error then Buddhism must change to reflect the new reality:

“One fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds that the truth is different,” he writes in his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality.

If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts.”

That is all a little off track from my train of thought regarding Bodhisattvas. Part of my rejection of supernatural aspects of Buddhism comes from my practice of Zen Buddhism which tends (and I emphasize tends) to de-emphasize Bodhisattvas. I can not absolutely deny their existence and despite what many say, science doesn't and can not deny the possibility of something new being discovered and I, like many science based folks, am very open to new discoveries. That being said, either way, liberation from suffering is ultimately left up to us humans with the exception of perhaps Pure Land Buddhism. I do, however, believe in Bodhisattvas in a metaphoric sense as the ideal of altruistic excellence. As well as believing that certain living people can share many characteristics of the seemingly mythical Bodhisattva. I do take great hope and refuge in the idea that we all have (sometimes latent within us) the wonderful attributes that the many Bodhisattva icons represent and we practice to cultivate those.

In addition, I do not believe all the fantastic stories told in many of the ancient sutras as literal. I prefer to study, contemplate and ponder the essence of the teachings from these sutras rather then focus on the magical nature of some of their accounts.

In addition, Humanism and Buddhism both share the belief that there is no separable soul within sentient beings.

Another aspect of Humanism is the belief in the value of this life. Humanists do not believe in an afterlife as such and thus emphasize realizing happiness now rather then constantly dreaming for some better life to come. For Humanists, the present moment is the only moment that exists and therefore it is in this moment, right here, right now where we find meaning and purpose. This is an idea that fits squarely within the Dharma and is in fact crucial and critical to the Buddha's teachings.

This point could perhaps be a sticking point between the two because of the Buddhist belief in rebirth. Although an argument could be made that evolution is not much different from rebirth as physics allows for the concept that nothing actually disappears but rather changes molecular composition into something entirely different, not unlike what the theory of rebirth postulates. That being said, many Buddhists (especially western and Zen Buddhists) give concepts of an after life (rebirth) little thought preferring instead to focus simply on present circumstances and let any afterlife that might occur take care of itself. I personally believe that seeing the change and rebirth in every present moment to be more beneficial to our practice then constantly obsessing about an afterlife and what kind of rebirth we might experience. I believe that the bliss of enlightenment occurs in the seemingly mundane events of this humble human life. I do not spend much time contemplating Nirvana either as it is often said that such a "state" or concept to be beyond explanation or understanding.

Humanism also gives prominence to individual responsibility which harmonizes with the Dharma as there is no savior in Buddhism. While teachers are very helpful, again, in the end our happiness and liberation from suffering is up to us.

Humanism also believes that to better the world we all need to work together through reason, tolerance and an open minded exchange of ideas which is important to Buddhism as well. We Buddhists believe that we are interconnected and therefore interdependent upon others. We are therefore encouraged to work for the greater good of humanity rather then just for what is good for ourselves. Humanism (as does Buddhism) believes that all lives are precious and equal regardless of religion, faith, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or creed.

For me the secular aspect of my Humanist philosophy definitely emerges from my western culture, upbringing and education. I firmly believe in the separation of religion and state for the good, betterment and survival of both.

I find it important to state one more thing, not all Humanists think alike (in fact some believe in a religious form of humanism) as not all Buddhists think alike. This post has been my simple attempt at explaining the Secular Humanist framework in general terms as compared to Buddhism.

And finally, of course I do not and would never assume that my interpretations here should be taken as "better Buddhism" or in any way taken to mean that others should adopt them. They are merely the result and conclusions that I came to from following the Buddha's advice in the Kalama Sutra.

And before you determine that I am a heretical Buddhist (whatever THAT means) I would refer you to a post made by Zen Master Gudo Nishijima who has been practicing for nearly 60 years where he too finds comparisons as well between Humanism and Buddhism.

~Peace to all beings~

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mike said...

I don't think you are a crackpot or a heretic. Hell, I didn't know that Buddhists could be heretics. Anyway, my take on the spiritual side of Buddhism is that I shouldn't worry about spiritual things unless their existence is apparent to me. For example, I have no idea whether there are devas or hungry ghosts, therefore they don't concern me.



Shovel Bum said...

I found your post refreshing and, no pun intended, enlightening. I've found Buddhism intriguing, though I've not studied it in great depth. I am refreshed to see a secular twist applied to such a beautiful thing, instead of seeing secularism as immoral and ugly (as I see it most often). I love the way you wove together Buddhism and Humanism and I feel happy to agree with and appreciate your words.

TT said...

I appreciate that you don't seek approval from others about what you wrote and are willing to share what you believe. I, too, do not force myself to internalize the concepts that I cannot comprehend or understand (e.g., nirvana and rebirth). Like you said, the teachings of Buddha help us appreciate the here and now as well as all the people around us better.

They call him James Ure said...


I don't either. It's just some people are real purists about Buddhism (whatever THAT means). I think one of the aspects to Buddhism that has helped it survive, thrive and help so many people has been it's elasticity.

As well as it's emphasis upon self-determination and experience.

It seems that we think alike. I bow to the Buddha within you and those who do not agree with me as well. :)

Shovel Bum:

Great comment and I appreciate deeply your kind words. I think that there is a great respect in Buddhism for secular society as Buddhists do not try and force their beliefs upon anyone or more importantly the public square/government.

I really think that Humanism and Buddhism are interconnected quite well.


A trait that I really appreciate in myself and others is honesty. I really to be honest in my dealings, living and writing. I'm not always able to do this but a lot of the time I am. I really value it.

There are so many levels to Buddhism from which to appreciate the Dharma from.

TaraDharma said...

what a good read. the similarities between science and buddhism as discussed are one of the reasons I can understand the value of buddhist thought - understanding and working with human nature, experiential evidence, a real "a-ha" moment over and over again. It appears harmonious with nature, and the nature of things. It supports the individual's experience and encourages new thinking. So very different from other religious philosophies. It's like having a loving, wise grandma sitting on your shoulder.

iconoclasticbuddha said...

Very well written post. Buddhism down through history has been a philosophy/religion that has lent itself to ease of assimilation by the cultural proclivities of other religions and ideologies. Now you find BuJews, christian buddhist, atheist buddhist etc. The one thing that buddhism gives to all these faiths and beliefs is freedom. Freedom to discover your own truth.


Anonymous said...

Wow. You eloquently said what I have been struggling to put into words for the better part of a year. I too, am a secular humanist/Zen practitioner, and I enjoy living the philosophies of Buddhism and Taoism through Zen. It is a good feeling to know that there are others who feel the same way.

Carla said...

James, well said! Ditto to all!

Kwek said...

i agree with you on your interpretation of bodhisattvas and contemplation on the literal words of the sutras. i also agree that buddhists are able to live with the scientific spirit of being open to new discoveries.

however, i'm pretty sure almost all (if not all) seasoned teachers and sangha members would advise that a correct view of karma and rebirth is necessary for the path. it constitutes the "Right View" of the noble eightfold path.

rather than hold a null hypothesis that rebirth does not exist cos it's not proven, why not take possible reliable scientific proof into account to consider its existence?

Prof Ian Stevenson has published his work on rebirth cases in several books. He is a reliable medical doctor and started off as a Christian. His many anecdoctal and powerfully rich case studies should change any skeptic's view of rebirth.

They call him James Ure said...


I believe in rebirth of energy and molecular structure. I was merely saying in this post that obsessing over rebirth keeps us from living fully in the present moment.

In addition I also believe in karma as I see it in many of the life choices I have made in the past. It's the cause and effect of science.

They call him James Ure said...


It's like having a loving, wise grandma sitting on your shoulder.

What a great metaphor!!


I'm glad that I was able to express these views and experiences in a way that brought some connection to you with others. You are never alone. :)


Thanks. :)

Humāinism said...

I have just discovered your site and I find it very interesting. I will read your past blogs and I look foward to reading new ones as they appear.

Peace and joy to you and yours, and to all beings.

Anonymous said...

Dear James,
so many things make us alike that reading your posts every now and then is just recognizing a "brother in mind". I really appreciated your post on secular humanism. I hope to please you in bringing to your attention what Gunasekara wrote on the parallel btw Buddhism and Humanism (if you have not yet read it).


With metta.

They call him James Ure said...


Welcome!! I hope you enjoy your stay here. :)


I'm glad that you connect with me and my blog. I started it to connect with people all over the world and have been humbled and overjoyed by the response.

I too see you as a brother as I do with all beings. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, etc.

I have indeed read that parallel article that you mentioned. Actually I just read it in doing research for this post.

been here before said...

kalama means pen in hindi,,,something you write with :-) thus the derivative kalama mantra - that which is written maybe ? thanks for sharing

They call him James Ure said...

Been Here Before:

that which is written maybe?

They call him James Ure said...

Been here:

Sorry, I meant to add to your quote in my last reply by saying, "Thanks for the insight."

I really like how interactive my readers are, you guys are the best!!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this posting. Thanks!

They call him James Ure said...


Thank-you. I'm glad that you enjoyed it. I like the fluid nature of Buddhism and like how it can adapt to so many different cultures. It's beautiful.

Scribe said...

Insightful post. Are you at all interested in Theraveda Buddhism? I think that the more secular Theraveda school of Buddhism fits into the secular humanist worldview very well. If we see Theraveda as a practical guide towards relieving our suffering, we can fit it nicely into secular humanism and use it to augment the humanistic worldview. In other words, Theraveda would be the part of humanism that teaches one how to alleviate suffering. I think the Buddha was a great philosopher and psychologist more than anything; he figured out the manner in which many people think and created a path toward living a happier life.

I look forward to reading more of your posts as I've just stumbled onto your page.

They call him James Ure said...


Buddha was indeed a great philosopher and psychologist. I don't practice Theravada Buddhism, I'm more a Zen guy but I do appreciate teachings from all traditions. I really have enjoyed the teachings of Ajanh Chah.

julie713 said...

My lucky day! I am searching & new to Buddhism & I have just discovered Humanism & Wicca. I was wondering if I could embrace all without contradictions. Thanks to google here we are. Your articulate expression here really helped me to know I can respectfully embrace 2 of the 3 - So possibly I am a Wiccan Humanist Buddhist..Or in the end perhaps I will avoid all labels & simply be the best person I can be & continue seeking enlightenment.

In Harmony,

PS - I just produced a magnificent a cappella CD & one of the tunes is all about acceptance & that we are all one. It's a masterpiece however it says "He Gives Us All His Love" He being God. I love the message but would the humanists take issue with the God reference? hmm

They call him James Ure said...


I think you can embrace anything that you think will help you in this life. Don't let anyone tell you what you HAVE to believe. :)

Josh said...

I also moved to buddhism from secular humanism. Secular Humanism seems to have a difficult time accepting that it too is imagined just like science was, mickeymouse, and the judeo christian god. Unless they learn to accept the power of imagination, and its ability to create existence; they will forver be ruled by its so called "nonexistent" invisible forces. Recognize the paradox, distingush its properties and rule it, instead of it ruling you.

Anonymous said...

CPBD 053: Tom Clark -- Naturalism as a Positive Worldview

great!!! podcasts on
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (March 14, 1908 May 3, 1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher. At the core of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is a sustained argument for the foundational role that perception plays in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world. Like the other major phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty expressed his philosophical insights in writings on art, literature, linguistics, and politics; however Merleau-Ponty was the only major phenomenologist of the first half of the Twentieth Century to engage extensively with the sciences, and especially with descriptive psychology. Because of this engagement, his writings have become influential with the recent project of naturalizing phenomenology in which phenomenologists utilize the results of psychology and cognitive science.
check out:
The Seer is Seen
Grande finale
Joyful Seeing and Bergson

What Time Is It? May 21, 2010 Famed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and theoretical physicist Brian Greene dissect time as we know it. What is the smallest unit of time, and what does it look like? For starters, you should stop looking at the clock, and start looking at the universe.

Eternal Return
FF: The Philosophy of Nietzsche – Joseph Brisendine
Episode 62 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Warren Brown, PhD, co-author (with Nancey Murphy) of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will. This book was discussed in detail back in Episode 53, but this interview gave me a chance to discuss some of the book’s key ideas with Dr. Brown. We focused on why a non-reductive approach is needed in order to formulate ideas about moral responsibility that are consistent with our current neurobiological understanding of the mind.

much respect

Martin said...

84000 gates...

Anonymous said...

I love this. I think that a lot of humanists need to understand that we need to emphasize freedom of all people to practice the religion of their choosing. Though I am a firm anti-mystic and dedicated athiest I affirm a strong belief that everyone is entitled to find thier own path through life, and if that includes religion so be it. I dont find it at all problematic to take the wonderful ideas held in buddhism into personal practice. I see it more as building upon the foundations of human wisdom, where it comes from is irrelevent.

Well wishes to you and the rest of us trying to find our way on our little rock we call home. :)

johnwillemsens said...

New Facebook page of interest:!/ASecularBuddhistMeetingPlace

Craig O'connor said...

So, you wrtoe this many years ago, but I just stumbled on it, and I think it wonderfully expresses my interest in Buddhism - as a practice that compliments a humanistic worldview.

I don't think there needs to be any belief in the syupernatural to follow Buddhist philospohy. the one sticking point you described - rebirth - I think of similar to you: each moment we are reborn, entirley new but entirely who we were, and it is how we reconcile the two that can deliver us from dhukka.

Yuron said...

ZEN HUMANIST - A believer of Science, disciple of Gautama Buddha, Zen Practitioner and adherent of Golden Rule!

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