Comment on "We’ve Been Here All Along" by Ajahn Amaro

I meant to say the Buddhist ideal in relation to marriage is monogamy. There are many teachings in the suttas about conduct in marriage and I have never read any teachings so far attributed to the Buddha where he advises a man or a woman had to conduct themselves in a situation where there are multiple wives or husbands. For example, there are no teachings about how a single man or single woman should sexually accommodate/satisfy his/her multiple spouses. To quote:

Householders, if both husband and wife wish to see one another not only in this present life but also in future lives… AN 4.55

A man, O brahmin, is a woman’s aim…her desire is to be without a co-wife…her ideal is domination. AN 6.52

Monks, these five are the confidences of the woman. What five? She is confident of form, of wealth, of relations, of sons and of virtues. Monks, the woman confident of these five, lives in the household subduing (controlling) her husband. SN 37.27

In five ways, young householder, should a wife as the West be ministered to by a husband:

(i) by being courteous to her,
(ii) by not despising her,
(iii) by being faithful to her,
(iv) by handing over authority to her,
(v) by providing her with adornments.

The wife thus ministered to as the West by her husband shows her compassion to her husband in five ways:

(i) she performs her duties well,
(ii) she is hospitable to relations and attendants
(iii) she is faithful,
(iv) she protects what he brings,
(v) she is skilled and industrious in discharging her duties.

DN 31


The word ‘Brahmin’, here, does not ever refer to ‘caste’. Please refer to Dhp 383, for example.

As for the caste system, AN 8.19 states:

(4) Just as the mighty rivers on reaching the great ocean lose their former names and designations and are just reckoned as the great ocean; even so, when members of the four castes—nobles, brahmins, commoners and menials—go forth from home into the homeless life in this Dhamma and Discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata, they lose their former names and lineage and are reckoned only as ascetics following the Son of the Sakyans. This is the fourth wonderful and marvellous quality in this Dhamma and Discipline…


I would not bother if I was you because I clearly refuted the two points you took up.


In my opinion, your post did not reinforce anything apart from reinforce the assertions made by Funie Hsu, namely:

But an important element of the appropriation occurs through the assumed occupation of white authority status, often legitimized through the intellectual study of Buddhism.

Kind regards :slight_smile:

I still don’t agree. I think any of the passages you provide could be read as working in polygamous or polyandrous relationships. But I can understand people may not agree with me. We are very attached to the idea of monogamous relationships in Western thought…

This is a woman’s (supposed) ideal, not the Buddha’s.

We still can’t escape the fact the Buddha used the language of caste.

What I didn’t do, but should have, was read on from where you quote Gombrich re: castes

This last misunderstanding is of great importance for what has
perhaps been the most insistent theme of this book. Religious individualism
– which we have tended to dub ‘Protestantism’ – does to some
extent imply religious egalitarianism. Certainly for the Christian Protestants
it carried that implication. It carried it for the early Buddhists
too, in that they believed all human beings to share the capacity for
spiritual progress. But that did not lead them (as it did the more extreme
Christian Protestants) to deny all social status: they accepted a fundamental
divide between those who had left the world and those who
remained in it, and the social distinctions prevalent among the latter.
They thus accepted also, as I have shown, a distinction between a
soteriology and a communal religion appropriate to those who
remained in society.

So he meant that the caste separation in early Buddhism was between the monastics, who’s goal was liberation, and the lay practitioners, who’s aim was support, good rebirth, happy life… etc…

Of course you don’t have to agree with that, but it’s an interesting point that’s also reflected in the Protestant movement (dissolving distinctions of priests and laity).

We’re just having a discussion…no need to be nasty. And we are both (all) allowed to express our opinions :slight_smile:

Clearly this cannot be imputed upon AN 4.55, which is about two ‘soul mates’. All of the teachings I have read about wholesome conduct in marriage are about two people living together with higher virtues (rather than merely for sexual gratification & reproduction/breeding of heirs). I think it is very clear by the sutta teachings on marriage that the Buddha viewed marriage as relationship where higher virtue was to be cultivated.

For me, the impression here is a Western enthusiasm or sexual liberalist view towards polygamous or polyandrous relationships. I think to support your arguments, you would need to quote some teachings from the Pali suttas about polygamous or polyandrous relationships.

I disagree. For me, it is an expression of the Buddha’s great compassion towards women, in he was informing men that a woman’s ideal is to have one husband and thus men should try to have one wife and live with the wife as a soul mate (rather than as for mere sexual gratification or breeding purposes).

Actually, the Buddha redefined or debunked the word ‘Brahman’, thus stating the caste of Brahmans were not really ‘Brahmans’ (namely, ‘those that turn away from evil’). The Buddha replaced Brahman priests with the Arahants as the supreme person.

I wasn’t being “nasty”. Instead, I was being selfish to avoid having to reply more. :innocent:

Then, knowing that the venerable Raṭṭhapāla had consented, his father went back to his own house where he had gold coins and bullion made into a large heap and covered it with mats. Then he told the venerable Raṭṭhapāla’s former wives: “Come, daughters-in-law, adorn yourselves with ornaments in the way Raṭṭhapāla found you most dear and loveable.”


My posts are about the Buddhist marriage ideal & about wholesome conduct. The ridiculing of polygamy & the ridiculing of the wives as ‘bimbos’ found in MN 82 is not relevant.

The Buddha regarded women as capable of arahantship thus MN 82 does not reflect the ‘Buddhist ideal’ about marriage or women.

The Buddhist ideal about marriage is found in AN 4.55.


Well, yes the wives in MN 82 are stereotyped as ‘bimbos’, but there are several of them, as there are in a number of other suttas, which can be easily located by searching SC for “wives”…

I doubt this is relevant as only problems (dukkha) will probably be found in these suttas rather than wholesome Buddhist ideals.

As I suggested, it is possibly the tendency of Western Buddhists to celebrate sexual liberalism that leads to this celebration of polygamy. In other words, more Western hubris upon Buddhism.


Why would you write things like that? Does it really make you more happy… ?
My apologies for being off topic.


My statement was made with honesty. The salient points I made in my post are straightforward, very basic & thus difficult to refute, namely, Protestant Christianity does not represent the Gospels and Genuine Buddhism does have a “scientific nature”, which is why every morning & evening, Buddhists chant the Dhamma is “sanditthiko akaliko ehipassiko opaneyyiko paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi”.

Cara appeared to solely rely on the information from a sole Western scholar, namely, Richard Gombrich, whose views appear obvious contrary to Pali Buddhism thus are easily countered. That Buddhism was revived in Ceylon due to Christian pressures does not necessarily make this ‘Westernized Buddhism’ since the reviving of Sinhalese Buddhism was based on the Pali suttas.

This topic is about Western hubris and, for me, suggesting I regard Richard Gombrich as an authority is more of this Western hubris & exemplifies the issue of this topic.

Kind regards :seedling:

@Deeele, I think this discussion has reached it’s natural conclusion.

Let’s remember that as Buddhists we are focused on cultivating right speech, which is not just ‘correct’ but also timely, kind and appropriate to the situation.

Once again, my intention was to support the claim that present day Buddhism is Asia has been influenced by the West (not necessarily ‘Western Buddhism’) over the last 100+ years and the information from Richard Gombrich was the first example that came to mind - not necessarily my idea of the defining authority.

Other authors commenting on this I am sure can be found - on an initial quick inspection Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh mentions the influence of the West on King Mongkut briefly in her book “Thai Women in Buddhism” but I’m sure even better examples can be found by those more widely read, and with more time than I.

You don’t have to agree with this. But please disagree while affording your fellow posters respect and the entitlement to their own opinions.


Is Funie Hsu unaware that Japanese or Chinese Buddhism is also a cultural appropriation, and exhibits “supremacist” attitudes? Didn’t Mahayanists used to refer to Theravada as “Hinayana,” and look down on it? To take the reasoning of “We’ve Been Here All Along” to its conclusion, only Nepalese and Indians should have the right to call themselves Buddhist. They’ve been here all along, too.

Identity politics strikes me as bizarre. People adopting ideas from neighbors has been a constant for as long as there have been people (and there’s evidence that other species do it too). It’s how understanding and efficiency improve. I’m not a big fan of William of Normandy, but imagine how impoverished English would be without his invasion of England and the subsequent importation of non-Germanic words.

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Thank you for that. To me it is also antithetical to what I know, and appreciate, about Buddhism. Doesn’t rebirth create a level playing field for all of us? [a rhetorical question]

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Hi Andy, Rosie,

Mahayana emerged in the Indian subcontinent, so I’m not sure why this is relevant.

I don’t see the parallel. Temples in China have displays celebrating the translation of Indian texts into Chinese and apparently welcomed, and revere, Indian teachers such as Bodhidhamma for transmitting the Dharma to them from India. [Of course the same is true of many Western Buddhists.]

There is a difference between borrowing and developing ideas and appropriating without acknowledgement, or in an insulting way. This is an important issue today for indigenous people in many countries (such as my own), and luckily things have improved immensely over the past few decades.

That sounds like a great argument to use against people such as Bhante @sujato speaking out about Bhikkhuni ordination. Don’t worry about it in this life…

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Although I think Funie Hsu raises and touches on several very important issues about the potential for bigotry, chauvinism and arrogant presumption in religious discourse and practice, I think the positioning of these issues within the currently popular framework of “cultural appropriation” might not be the best approach. That’s because inherent in that framework are some ideas about ownership that are dubious, especially from a Buddhist point of view. Just some thoughts along these lines in response to passages from Hsu’s article:

To be clear, Buddhism belongs to all sentient beings. Even so, Asians and Asian American Buddhists have a rightful, distinct historical claim to Buddhism.

It appears to me that this statement is potentially inconsistent. If something truly belongs to all sentient beings, then no subset of those sentient beings has any special claim to it.

When it is said that Buddhism has been practiced for over 2,500 years, it is important to consider who has been persistently maintaining the practice for millennia: Asians, and more recently, Asian-Americans. It is because of our physical, emotional, and spiritual labor, our diligent cultivation of the practice through time and through histories of oppression, that Buddhism has persisted to the current time period and can be shared with non-Asian practitioners. This is historical fact.

All Buddhists of the present should be grateful to all the the Buddhists of the past whose devotion and laborious efforts have brought the dhamma, discipline and practice traditions down to us. But this applies equally to, for example, both a contemporary American Buddhist derived from some European ancestry and a contemporary Japanese or Japanese-American Buddhist of Japanese ancestry. After all, neither one of those people built all those stupas, temples and monasteries, translated and preserved all those texts, gave all those dhamma talks, or performed 2.5 millennia’s worth of dana.

Everyone can benefit from reflecting on cultural appropriation as a way to deepen our Buddhist practice. We can do this by using the five precepts as a guide. One teacher I study with stresses that the precepts are not merely about refraining from certain actions (no killing, no stealing, and so on); equally as important, they are about proactive efforts we can take to foster our spiritual development. The precept directing no stealing, for example, should be understood as both not taking what is not yours or what is not freely given and as actively practicing dana, or generosity. We can apply this approach to the issue of cultural appropriation.

Yes, but unless one has, for example, stolen a book about Buddhist history, teachings or practice, there is no sense in which simply adopting Buddhist practices or discussing or holding forth on Buddhist ideas, involves illegitimately taking or appropriating something that must be given by others. If the dhamma and discipline are not owned by any particular people or culture, then they can not be taken from that people or culture. On the other hand, it might make sense to say that certain kinds of concrete symbols, institutions and artifacts, which might have been fashioned by human beings in the course of developing a practice tradition around the dhamma, might be something to which the descendants of those people can lay claim.

In order to alleviate the suffering caused by cultural appropriation, we can refrain from asserting ownership of a free teaching that belongs to all.

I agree completely. Nobody should regard themselves, either individually or as part of a collective, as the owners of the Buddha’s teachings. No person, group, nation, ethic group or culture owns the teachings.

We can refrain from asserting false authority and superiority over those who have diligently maintained the practice to share freely with others.

Certainly. Everybody should refrain generally from asserting superiority over others, and refrain from asserting authority over any matters about which they are not, in fact, an authority. However, if a person has spent many years both studying the Buddhist tradition, and possibly also combining that study with the actual practice of that tradition, then their authority is not a false one, but is well earned.

The more important issue is whether there are other people who are equally qualified to speak with authority on some aspect of Buddhism, but whose voices have been suppressed, excluded or ignored because of cultural bigotry or chauvinism. This is a real issue in the United States, where much Buddhist intellectual discourse has been dominated by people in particular practice traditions, and with particular ethnic and class backgrounds, and efforts should be made to diversify the discourse to bring in more voices.

For white practitioners in particular, you can also mindfully investigate the emotions that arise when issues of cultural appropriation are brought to your attention. Robin DiAngelo writes about the concept of “white fragility,” a set of emotions—including anger, defensiveness, guilt, and more—that often accompany the thoughts of white people when they are forced to confront the reality of white supremacy. This concept can be helpful for white Buddhists in thinking about the false self and possible attachments to protecting the ego. Deep contemplation on this can help shatter the fragility of the false self and the delusion of racial colorblindness.

I agree that this is a good thing for “white” practitioners to investigate and think about. I have thought about it a great deal since I read Funie Hsu’s article. However, Buddhists of all kinds might also want to think about the possibility that, due to their own anger over perceived encroachments into a cultural territory over which they consider themselves duly authorized custodians, they might attempt to suppress or discourage perfectly legitimate alternative forms of practice or discourse by shaming or humiliating the practitioners into silence.


Well said!

“Owning nothing…Nothing may be stolen.”

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I agree completely. More problematic than “appropriation” of Buddhist culture by Westerners is the very idea that Buddhism belongs to a culture.

Having said which, I think there are some specific instances where this applies. I apologize if I am going on about one of my bugbears, but consider the case of Buddhist scriptures.

Created and passed down for millennia by the Buddhist traditions, they were freely and without reservation made available to Western scholars who wanted to publish them. Sri Lankan monks taught Pali to Rhys Davids and others, gave them manuscripts, even raised funds to help establish the Pali Text Society. Meanwhile, Thai kings sponsored the printing of books, and Burmese scholars did editing and translation work. This process continues today, as Buddhist publishers, even commercial ones, benefit greatly from the freely offered contributions of volunteers.

But despite this ancient tradition of making all Buddhist texts—both original language and translation—freely available to all humanity, Westerners proceeded to apply the Western legal concept of copyright to the texts, claiming ownership of them, treating them as commercial property, and criticizing and issuing legal claims against those who follow the Buddhist tradition of sharing the Dhamma freely.

Buddhist scriptures should stand outside commercial transactions. Western Buddhists have too easily capitulated to the market, and Buddhism suffers as a result.

What’s worse, it’s not even a good system. Copyright law is broken and dysfunctional, so many people are looking for better ways of doing things. But the Buddha already taught us a better way. It’s called dāna, and it’s worked fine for 2,500 years. While Western Buddhists were busy explaining why dāna can’t work any more, millions of people—from community gardeners to open source programmers, from mothers to aid workers—have shown otherwise.


Again, I do not need to read this because I lived in Thailand for a few enough years. The Buddhism there is Asian, including the more esoteric versions.

To me, your responses continue to be examples of the Western hubris found in the original article. You seem to expect people to disown their personal experiences in order to adhere to these Professors who write books. As far as I am concerned, this is alien to Buddha-Dhamma.

Kind regards :slight_smile:

I came upon a relevant article here, which, if I read it clearly, appears to claim Western & ‘secular’ meditators are practising ‘Heartwood’: :deciduous_tree:

Wendy Cadge’s 2005 book Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America is a fascinating look at the way this form of Buddhism is adapting to contemporary American life. Although the book stems from her PhD dissertation it is readable, filled with descriptions of practitioners and their approaches.

Cadge spent several years doing field work, in both an immigrant and a convert (Western) Buddhist center, and much of the book details the differences she found in their approaches. The immigrant center she chose was the Thai Buddhist Wat Mongkoltepmunee (Wat Phila) outside Philadelphia, and the convert center was the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center (CIMC) in Massachusetts.

A look at her results reveals much about the direction of secular Buddhism in America.

Wat Phila

As one might expect, Wat Phila displays a structure significantly closer to the traditional Theravāda practices of Southeast Asia than does the CIMC. It is more rigidly hierarchical, with ordained monks at its head. Its practices reflect significantly more of traditional Buddhism than the CIMC, for example in its monastic orientation to lay practice, in extended chanting, and in the observation of festivals. (58). Much of its activity (of which Cadge took part, and which she describes) involves the women of the saṅgha preparing food for the monks. Since this is something that must be done on a daily basis, it constitutes a significant portion of the charitable practice within the monastery.

The charitable act of cooking for the monks is one of the reasons Cadge feels that women are overrepresented in the membership of Wat Phila (181), although they also represent over 60% of the membership of the CIMC.

Wat Phila seems to serve as something of a refuge for displaced Thais living in the US; a slice of home life, where they can congregate with other Thai people and speak their own language, engage in cultural activities, eat communally, and do beneficial deeds. (76-77). That is, the aim of engagement at Wat Phila is essentially communal, and merit-based. (138). While there are a handful of non-Asians at the temple, non-Asians seem usually to have been drawn there by marriage to a Thai woman who attends services. Several of the members were not particularly religious, even if they considered themselves nominally Buddhist, before involving themselves in temple activities.

The monks at Wat Phila do not emphasize supernatural aspects of Buddhist belief and practice as much as some of their counterparts in Thailand, and they were not welcoming to a person who wished to engage in fortune telling in their temple. Nevertheless they do reinforce aspects of traditional Buddhist belief about kamma and rebirth. (90). They also promote veneration of both living and deceased monks, and several of the attendees use amulets with depictions of these monks as objects of prayer and good luck. (92-3). Nevertheless others view the practice in more rational terms. (105). There is also a range of views about the Buddha himself within the Thai saṅgha, with some accepting more supernatural interpretations of his abilities and others viewing him in more rationalist terms. (152-3).

Cambridge Insight, and Some Key Similarities and Differences

The CIMC is, of course, a center on a more Western model: explicitly “not a temple” (66). That is to say, it is less religious, less ceremonial, less hierarchical, and non-monastic. Its practices center almost exclusively around meditation and dhamma talks. (138). Dhamma talks typically occur in concert with meditation practice (95), so such practice constitutes an essential part of membership in the community. It would be difficult for a non-meditator to find membership in the CIMC rewarding.

The teachings one finds at the CIMC pointedly avoid discussion of the more supernatural elements of traditional Buddhism. Interestingly, this orientation towards teaching is reflected in the views of the membership. “Only a few practitioners at CIMC believe people have past and future lives, and none are concerned about accumulating kamma or merit to ensure a better rebirth in the next life.” (98, 107). Instead there is the notion that awakening is something that can be pursued in this lifetime. The Buddha is taught “almost exclusively in rational terms” (153) as a wise teacher rather than a superhuman or supernatural agent.

Apart from meditation itself, which can be seen sociologically as a kind of ritual, leadership at the CIMC has tended to avoid ritualism within the center. Although more recently they have found ways that some ritual can support meditation practice, and hence are introducing some modest ones, such as the use of bells or (apparently occasional) bows towards the teacher or Buddha statue. (99). Nevertheless the CIMC’s membership displays “a much more ambivalent attitude” towards Buddha images than one would find at Wat Phila. (154). That is, there is a wider range of views regarding such images at the CIMC, all the way from reverence to disinterest.

One difference between the CIMC and Wat Phila’s approach to saṅgha is that Wat Phila sees itself as a single entity; even smaller groups consider themselves part of the larger community, and festivals or weddings bring out the entire saṅgha. The CIMC instead has tended to self-organize into smaller groups of local interest. (125-133). There is no attempt to celebrate Buddhist holidays at the CIMC, for example. While this undoubtedly goes hand-in-hand with the CIMC’s less overtly religious approach to practice, it also produces a more fragmented or fractured community.

This difference also reveals itself in sound: Wat Phila is a noisy place of chanting and discussion. The CIMC on the other hand was organized around the silence of meditative practice. However over time the CIMC has modified that take somewhat, in the growing understanding that discussion among the membership fosters a livelier sense of community. (134-5). So connection within the CIMC is more at the individual than the communal level (141-2), fostered by discussions between individuals at meditation or dhamma events. Perhaps this is a reflection of the American tendency towards radical individualism.

Cadge highlights the problematic nature of identity within Buddhism as a whole, and notes that this problematic nature is reflected in both communities’ somewhat ambivalent take on what constitutes being “Buddhist”. (151). It is particularly interesting to learn that this ambivalence can even be found within a more traditional Thai context. (157, 161, 164).

One of the larger, recurring questions that arises within the CIMC is to what extent its members or even its teachers can be considered “Buddhist”, and therefore for purposes of the study to what extent it is an example of so-called “convert Buddhism”. Conversion implies religion, and many of the practitioners at the CIMC do not consider themselves to be taking part in a religion, or indeed to be Buddhist at all. (74, 102, 107, 164-70). Indeed Larry Rosenberg, CIMC’s founding teacher, responded “No” to the question “Are you a Buddhist?” during one question and answer session. (165). While his answer was in fact somewhat more nuanced than that word might suggest, it starkly highlights the problems with Buddhist identity at an Insight (Vipassana) center. Some of its members consider themselves simply to be followers of the Buddha’s teachings, rather than to be Buddhists. Others consider themselves to be in a kind of blended religion, e.g., as Jewish Buddhist, or as Christian with a Buddhist practice. Others reject such labels altogether. (166-8).

New York Insight

My own experience at New York Insight (NYIMC) parallels that documented by Cadge at Cambridge, in every facet. In New York, the center is also non-monastic, largely non-ceremonial, non-ritualistic, and non-hierarchical. Its guiding teachers express misgivings about labeling themselves or others as “Buddhist”. While the center does occasionally welcome monks or other religious figures to give talks or lead meditation, most of the time it is led by laypeople.

Anecdotally, while my experience with the membership reveals a broad range of opinions and approaches, there is a significant percentage who are at least skeptical of claims of rebirth, and who are not interested in discussions that stray into the supernatural. I would estimate this to be a majority.

While NYIMC has tried to institute some large collective events, these are rare: for example, during New Year’s Eve or at a fundraiser. As I see it, one significant barrier towards gathering the entire saṅgha together is that the space is not large enough to contain them. This is a problem I suspect some urban Buddhist centers may face: rental costs are high, and until centers can attract the donations required to purchase land or buildings, significant community gatherings may simply prove unfeasible.

That said, my sense from attending events at NYIMC over the years is that much like CIMC togetherness occurs more at the individual than at the collective level: one meets particular individuals at talks or meditation events and makes connections through them. One rarely if ever sees a significant portion of the community together at one time.


The turn towards “insight meditation” as a central, focal practice of Buddhism for laypeople began with Ledi Sayadaw’s revolutionary reinterpretation of the early suttas in late 19th c. Burma. In “Secular Buddhism’s Roots in South Asia” I wrote about how this movement developed into what we now consider secular Buddhism: Buddhism seen as most centrally a this-life practice of meditation and dhamma study.

My experience at NYIMC leads me to believe that it, like the CIMC, is a de facto secular Buddhist center, even though it is not labeled as such. I would estimate that few of its membership knows or cares much about “secular Buddhism” per se (although a recent visit by Stephen Batchelor was well and enthusiastically attended), but they are practicing secular Buddhism nevertheless.

Cadge’s more systematic study of the CIMC reinforces my own experiences within the Insight movement in New York. Insight Buddhism, it seems, is secular Buddhism.

To clarify, there are two senses of secular that should probably be distinguished. One sense of secular is that it is anti-religious. In this sense of course Insight Buddhism is not secular: it is not oppositional to religious belief or practice. NYIMC does host religious teachers, and they are treated with respect. Further, certain of the membership do accept traditional Buddhist views on rebirth and other supernatural claims, even if they may be in the relative minority. In my experience such views are treated with respect as well. They are however typically put to one side, rather than being actively engaged with. In a religious setting, or a setting of confrontational secularism, one would expect such views to be engaged with more fully.

While Insight Buddhist centers like the NYIMC do invite monastics to teach, the monastics invited tend to be those towards the liberal end of the spectrum. It is my understanding that more conservative, traditional monastics are not invited, or perhaps if they are invited they do not agree to attend. Thus for example something of a rift has opened up between monastics who allow for the ordination of women and those who do not. Urban Insight centers tend to support the former position, hence are less open to invite those monastics who espouse the latter position.

A second sense of secular is that it is non-religious. One way to understand this sort of stance sociopolitically is that it involves the creation of a public space where a variety of religious and non-religious views coexist. In this sense Insight Buddhism is secular Buddhism. Of course, as a kind of Buddhism, Insight Buddhism creates a space that is imbued with a particular philosophical background, and a particular background of meditative practice. But it is also one that is open to people of different religions, or of no religion. Both the CIMC and NYIMC have believing Jews and Christians among their membership, both have people who do not accept the Buddhist label or indeed any such religio-philosophical label. In none of these cases is there any need to keep secret such opinions; indeed they often constitute the grist for discussion and practice.

Near the end of her study, Cadge notes that

Like Christians who take yoga classes and Jews who visit Zen centers, visitors to CIMC initially practice meditation devoid of particular beliefs or requirements of organizational memberships. For some practitioners, as Stephen Batchelor argues, the ideas presented at CIMC are “Buddhism without beliefs.” (193).

That is, for some practitioners, the Insight approach constitutes secular Buddhism. For others, it may mean something else, even something religious. But that’s OK; indeed, in an odd sense that’s the very thing that makes it secular.

The Way Forward

Insight (Vipassana) Buddhism is a growing if small, generally urban approach to the dhamma. It appears to be one of the key ways Theravāda Buddhism is adapting to the modern West. If indeed it is a form of secular Buddhism, is there any need to pursue “secular Buddhism” as such beside Insight Buddhism? In one sense there is: while Insight practice is secular, for some of us the beliefs and practice surrounding secularity itself are of interest. In a contemporary urban setting secularity is often as ubiquitous and unseen as water for the fishes. Just as Molière’s Bourgeois Gentleman spoke in prose for forty years without knowing it, many of us have a secular practice without knowing it. Understanding what that is may be of benefit, particularly insofar as it is an aspect of belief and practice that we wish to preserve.

It also may be of benefit to inform secular oriented people within easy reach of an Insight center that they are likely to find a saṅgha to their liking.

There are of course other forms of Buddhist belief and practice that one may take as secular. Cadge notes Zen in particular. Although it is too big a topic to tackle in this post, it is worth saying a few words about Zen. Indeed, Zen is a perfect example of Batchelor’s “Buddhism without beliefs”, and as such a perfect example of a secular approach to the dhamma. However if we set the cognitive aspects to one side, Zen is in many ways prototypically religious. It involves religious hierarchies and lineages, distinctive clothing, complex rites, rituals, and ceremonies, as well as the “smells and bells” we usually associate with orthodoxy. Zen may indeed lack a (well structured) belief system, but it is perhaps most accurately seen a religion, at least in a way that Insight Buddhism is not.

This is by no means to say that Zen is somehow inappropriate for secular practitioners. That is a matter for each practitioner to decide on their own. I myself have been to many Zen centers and enjoyed years of (somewhat irregular) Zen practice; there is much to be said for its quiet, precise aesthetic. But my sense is that many secular-leaning Buddhists will find the approach of Insight Buddhism to be more comfortable and accommodating than Zen.

This is also not to say that Insight doesn’t have its own problems. Perhaps the greatest problem the Insight has is in fostering a true, deep sense of saṅgha or community. I suspect that is mostly due to the urban American culture in which it is embedded, one of individualism and (yes) secular independence, one that looks askance on any request for common belief, action, or purpose. Other overtly secular organizations have had to deal with this problem for decades. Whether it can be overcome in a way that allows for true depth of community, or whether it is a weakness that limits the eventual growth and success of such secularist movements as Insight Buddhism, only time will tell.

…only time will tell…

I have a pet theory for this, and I think it has to do with certain anti-Catholic discourses of certain forms of Protestantism (Puritanism would probably be a more precise term for these historical sects) that became entrenched in the worldviews of embattled religious Protestant minorities fleeing Europe with the hope of building a new society for themselves. In the case of America specifically, many Puritans came to America explicitly feeling that they had failed as a people in Europe, and that this was their bright new home, their new beacon, as it were. As a result, certain cultural leftovers remain contemporaneously, left over from years upon years of violent sectarian conflict in Europe, in British colonial societies: America, Canada, Australia, etc, and this radical “cerebralist essentialism”/“anti-ritualism”/“anti-orthopraxy” seems to be one of them. It is manifest in the notion that any religious praxis: bowing, circumambulating, lighting incense, etc, is necessarily harmful and bad. This is “hard” anti-ritualism (versus the “soft” anti-ritualism of the Buddha, i.e. the belief that rituals alone, in and of themselves, are not valid substitutes for practice) and it informs, in my opinion, much of the cultural conceit that the article in the OP is riffing on.

Although it is no longer related to whether people are Protestant or not, it is, after all, a cultural “leftover” from the years of high hegemonic Christendom in the New World, it can still be observed in certain holdovers from “Protestant America”. Indeed, this ideology has become exported across the world, piggybacking on “American modernism” so often imitated by other societies. There is a radio channel I sometimes listen to on my way home from work that has very radical Evangelical preachers preaching in the general brimstone tradition, that frequently extoll listeners to “pray for the Catholics, locked in their rituals, dead inside, not knowing their faith, just bowing emptily”, etc, etc. The rhetoric they employ (which I will not give any more of here as to respect the polite tone of this forum), albeit Christian and not Buddhist, is exactly identical to the rhetoric used by the kinds of people the OP is in reference to. I take this a soft “circumstantial” evidence for my pet theory.