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Secular Buddhists also known as “Atheist Buddhists” Cheung, Kin


Since the end of the 20th century, Secular Buddhist communities have been gathering in-person and growing through English-language online spaces with audiences in the UK, continental Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. The communities with a large online presence include the Secular Buddhist Association and the Secular Buddhist Podcast, founded by Americans Ted Meissner and Noah Rasheta, respectively, and the Secular Buddhist Network, which has a team based primarily in Europe. Secular Buddhists settled on this term over other ways to present themselves, such as atheist Buddhist or agnostic Buddhist. All three terms owe their popularity to the work of Stephen Batchelor, who is based in the UK. His 1997 publication, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, mentions “agnostic Buddhist” and “secular agnosticism.” Those who identify as secular Buddhists typically subscribe to a form of Buddhist modernism that denies metaphysical interpretations of rebirth and karma (though some would allow for psychological interpretations), and the existence of Buddhist deities such as the Medicine Buddha, devas, or wish-granting bodhisattvas. Secular Buddhists tend to focus on teachings found in the Pali Nikayas, neglecting other portions of the Buddhist canon such as Mahayana texts or the vinaya. An earlier motto of the Secular Buddhist Association sums up secular Buddhism as a “natural, pragmatic approach” to the theory and practice found in the Nikayas. Natural denotes the rejection of the “supernatural” from the standpoint of modern materialist physicalism. By pragmatic, they mean the central practice of quiet sitting meditation is elevated, while Buddhist practices of chanting spells to deities, prostration to statues, and circumambulation around relics are dismissed as unnecessary “superstitious” ritual. They tend to argue their interpretation of Buddhism is scientific and more of a philosophy than a religion, without the need for belief of faith. The goal of quiet sitting is to cultivate insight into the nature of reality, such as three marks of existence: dukkha (suffering or dis-ease), annica (impermanence), and anatta (non-self). This type of meditation is also used to develop focused attention and concentration. The Secular Buddhist Network recommends a reading that distinguishes secular meditation as different from “traditional Buddhist lineages” because “the purpose of meditation for Secular Buddhists is to cultivate certain virtues and insights which are crucial to promoting human flourishing in this world, not the attainment of nirvana.” Nirvana and the liberation from the cycle of samara are part of the “the cultural and supernatural overlays” that Secular Buddhists reject. Rasheta, of the Secular Buddhist Podcast, focuses on what works for him and repackages his personal experience with Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist lineages into a form that is “accessible and easy to understand for secular-minded, ‘westerners’ like [him].” In other words, he presents Secular Buddhism as “ancient wisdom” that can help everyone, including those who identify as “Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Hindu, Believer, Non-believer,” etc.

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