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:
“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~