Why Secular Buddhism is Not True

I see your point.
But your answer is not complete.
There is a Sutta which says what the level of each person (Arahants and buddha and Asekkha) knowledge in these matters.
I can’t locate that Sutta right now.

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I think it is said that the true Dhamma disappears because of people teaching a false Dhamma appears - and not because of attackers from outside the Dhamma. Secular Buddhism appeals to those who have not time or expertise to ferret out what the true Dhamma is, but is nevertheless attracted to what the Dhamma offers.

I think we must necessarily view Secular Buddhism as doorway to real Buddhism, for those who want to have deeper meaning and real transformation the kind ‘gym-class’ Buddhism cannot ever deliver. Those with real mindfulness and awareness will soon realise that secular Buddhism is unsatisfying on the longer run and look to its roots.

The main thing is to clearly differentiate secular mindfulness practices from Buddhism and identify those two as separate entities, so that they are no confused with each other.

with metta


Thank you for this post Bhante. I have a quick question, what is your opinion on someone who chooses to take an agnostic approach - not attacking the theory of rebirth or claiming it is wrong, but just with-holding judgement about it until he has seen it for himself? Is this supported by the suttas?


I’m sorry but I don’t understand. When the Buddha said:
“There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance; such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my span of life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there.”
If there is no self, what does “I re-arose” mean? The answer is Dependent Origination, but why he told the story in first person if there is not such a person?

Sorry for my English.


The problem is not that the secularists present only a small part of Buddhism; it’s that they, implicitly or explicitly, regard their own small viewpoint as better. In doing so, they don’t just misrepresent the Dhamma, they undermine its transformative potential.

I think that point is moot as many non-secular Buddhists think the same way about types of Buddhism that are not their own. Mahayanists think Theravadans have been short changed on extra suttas and extra ideas that were kept from earlier Buddhists. Theravadans believe that the power of the teachings have been diluted in Mahayana Buddhism with extra suttas and extra ideas added later. People who meditate look at people who do not as missing one of the most transformation parts of Buddhism. Sutta wonks feel the same way about people who do not study the suttas. People brought up in Buddhist countries think people new to Buddhism are missing out without doing their rituals, without having things from their culture that got associated with Buddhism. People new to Buddhism see those things as just superfluous religious baggage.

Like your point about secular Buddhists above, the non-secular Buddhists believe their type of Buddhism is the best, that other types misrepresent Buddhism, and deprive people of some of the transformative power. So, there is really no difference, in this regard, between secular and non-secular Buddhists.


There are two rational positions that secularists can take with regards to the teaching of rebirth in the suttas.

The Buddha taught rebirth, but rebirth is not real, so the Buddha was wrong.
The Buddha taught rebirth, and rebirth is real, so the Buddha was right.

I don’t agree with this point that these are the only possible approaches.

A secular Buddhist could posit that the historical Buddha taught a secular self help system consisting of behavioral restraint, tranquility meditation, insight meditation, metta meditation, seeing the 3 marks of existence.

That original self help system could have combined with preexisting religions and cultures. Rebirths, divas, hungry costs, many heavens, many hells, etc.

People have written things into religions before, it has been 2500 years, and it was several centuries before the teachings were written down.

Additionally, a secular historical Buddha could have even encouraged combining his secular teachings with local religions and cultures. The benefit being a wider audience.


Some preliminary notes:

First: “secular” is a term like “atheist”, because in each case there is no ideology, there is a lack of one or more specific ideologies. Atheism is a lack of theism; Secularism is a lack of religion/spirituality. It is NOT in and of itself a materialism, nor is it a scientism, etc.

Second: some Buddhists have superstitions and charms and such as part of their practices & beliefs, but these are not representative of the Dhamma, and we would not expect them to be the best sources of precise Dhamma description & instruction. In the same way, secular individuals have a wide variety of beliefs & practices, but we would not expect them to be the best sources of precise philosophical description & instruction.

Third: rebirth is central to the EBTs, and trying to say otherwise is misrepresentative, even ludicrous.

So then:

This is misleading. Some secularists are also materialists; others are not. Some secularists are fully aware of & engage with the vibrant discourse surrounding these issues; others, not so much - and of course, all this admits of degrees.

Again, there is no secularist ideology. You seem to think secularism equals materialism, but they are not equivalent.

I think everyone claims they are using these three things. Everyone takes their ideological stance on these things; they often simply disagree about what is included in each category, or how best to engage with that category.

IF rebirth is an observable, empirical phenomenon, THEN so too are Xian experiences of Heaven, Amerindian experiences of their rebirth ideas, New Age experiences, and so on. The fact that humans have these actual experiences hasn’t got anything to do with whether or not these things are actually true.

With respect to inference:

Not all inferences are the same; first we’d need to differentiate between deductive, inductive, and abductive inference, and then explore which sorts are being used when. The point I’ll make here is that scientific & meditative inferences do not offer certainty, only relative likelihoods.

Which brings us to metaphysics; here is a simple example of a metaphysical claim (AN 3.134):

Monks, whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands…

An empirical inference becomes metaphysical when it’s claimed that the inference operates always, in all cases, everywhere, at all times, forever, eternally, etc. This is because finite empirical access can never have access to an infinite fact; this finitude requires all metaphysical claims to be hauled back into empiricism by adding the caveat, “…so far.” (It can be fun to point out to e.g. materialists that their claims about always-facts are also metaphysical; haha!)

So, what of Kalupahana’s academic relationship with metaphysics? Here’s a quick blurb:

Clearly, Kalupahana sought to eliminate some of the metaphysical sedimentations that had begun to weigh down early Buddhist thought. This is not to say that he abandoned metaphysics totally. No one does. In his exegeses of rebirth (punabbhava) for example, he draws significantly on metaphysical thinking. I think Immanuel Kant got it right when he said that, ‘we shall always return to metaphysics as to a beloved, one with whom we have had a quarrel.’

Metaphysics is all over Buddhism. It’s all over materialism too, and scientism, and so on. It’s quite difficult to shake the habit, moreso than even a nicotine or heroin addiction.

As to Jayatilleke, I was delighted to read his book Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. He discusses Buddhist empiricism quite a bit, and points out (as do the Suttas) that the mind-sense operates similarly to the other senses, except it has a unique access to the other sense-data as well as its own type of sense-data.

This is where Buddhists & other religious sorts of folk jump ship into metaphysical waters: they think the mind-sense here can have ‘mystical’ sources of data beyond the operation of the senses, that it can have some sort of access to infinite truth(s) or otherwise wield supernormal powers.

This assertion is interesting, even enticing, but the contradictory varieties of cultural & religious conclusions based on assertions like this indicates the main problem with this idea.

In brief, this thread should probably be called “Why Materialism is a Foolish Assertion”, with concomitant changes in terms. (It just so happens that all metaphysics are foolish & illegitimate assertions, including rebirth… and even with respect to Noble attainments! Consider how the Buddha points out the impossibility of certainty in this respect, at AN 9.12.)



By leaving out “superstitious” elements, the secularists aren’t just shedding Buddhism of unnecessary dross, they’re completely redefining the whole thing, starting with the four noble truths, in a way that has little to do with the Buddha’s intentions.

What part of the Four Noble Truths is dependent upon rebirth?

What I find lacking in the secular vs non-secular conversations is typically a lack of attention given to non-secular elements other than rebirth.

I’m just not that offended by the concept of rebirth. I have seen enough things that I am an agnostic in regards to the concept.

I do however have a small problem with multiple planes of existence, multiple hells, multiple heavens, a collection of supernatural beings, the Buddha automatically transporting himself across large distances through the power of his mind, sending metta to other people, and with other sects of Buddhism, praying to Boddhisatvas.

Why aren’t these other things brought up in the secular vs non-secular debates? Is it that Western laity and monastics are so arrogant that these other things don’t even make it onto the radar to be questioned as real or unreal?

I think that is the case with myself. I can enjoy sutta classes at the local vihara because I just see mentions of these things as being harmless as stories of George Washington chopping down cherry trees. However, once in a blue moon I talk with people who take those things as truth, even to the point of it causing them emotional stress when thinking about it.


In my experience, people tend to see it in definitions of dukkha (included in Truth #1) or right view (included in Truth #4).

They are; I think rebirth is simply the easiest shorthand for the whole mess.

(FWIW, as I recall the Buddha isn’t magically flying, he’s alleged to be using a mind-made body, i.e. astral travel. Maybe this difference matters, to some.)

is this devil’s advocate or your opinion?

Okay, okay, I take all your points, but lets not get crazy with the:

It’s quite difficult to shake the habit, moreso than even a nicotine or heroin addiction.

I’ve personally dealt with both, quite extensively, and let me tell you, that comparison is not one to just throw around. I’ve never systematically destroyed my body, mind, life, and the lives of those I love, just so I could make metaphysical claims…



I have some things in common with secular Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor, in that I don’t insist upon a literalistic interpretation of scriptures and doctrines. At the same time, I have little patience for when secular Buddhists dismiss devotionalism, chanting, and other traditional Buddhist practices as “folk Buddhism.” It comes off as very elitist.

hmm ok

I’m not unfamiliar, myself. I simply consider religious persecutions & fundamentalism a significant harm as well. I am not trying to minimize either one. I apologize for the awkward comparison.

The secular perspective is a fine place to start from, even a smart place to begin from. “Come and see” and all that. Over months and years of practicing meditation and the 8 fold path, eventually one would think you would begin to develop trust/faith in the Buddha’s teachings (even if you don’t have actual insight into the 4NT) and the reality of rebirth would become clearer. I don’t understand those who ardently, earnestly practice maintaining a secular perspective after say, 20 years of practice.


Haha definitely no need to apologize, tone is difficult to convey with text alone; try reading my comment with kind of a sardonic sly drone and with a crooked smile on my face, I certainly wasn’t trying to get serious in any sense of the term. You’d be hard pressed to actually push me to staunch seriousness about anything. Thank you though.

I think there is definitely some truth to this - at the same time, these are people who might be building inroads for secularists who will eventually just get on with it, and become fully fledged Buddhists.


Sure. I should have included this as an option. In fact, I will modify my essay to take this into account. Thanks! To be clear, the suttas themselves are not agnostic on the question of rebirth. But they do address agnosticism, and offer advice and guidance for people who are undecided. The Buddha, it seems, regarded agnoticism on such points as reasonable, even inevitable to a certain degree. We shouldn’t accept things too quickly.

First person is used in talking about rebirth in exactly the same way as it is about anything else. Why is it problematic to say “I was reborn” as opposed to “I had a cup of coffee”? It’s just how language is used. Again, this is the point of the Buddha’s critique of metaphysics: these are just conventions, and they do not correspond to any real entities.

This was an article about a specific set of problems with a specific approach to Buddhism. Different people have different problems.

They could indeed, and they do. They’re just wrong, is all.

You can’t be serious. Abrahamic religions explictly reject empiricism as a source of final knowledge in religious matters, and proudly base their religion on faith in the unseen.

I’m not talking about secularism. I’m talking about “secular Buddhism”, which is a specific movement involving a specific set of people with specific beliefs and teachings. So far as I know, all Buddhist secularists are materialists, or at least, that’s the impression I get from their teachings.

No, you’re missing the point. Christian heaven is eternal, and is hence metaphysical and unobservable in principle. Buddhist rebirth lasts a long time, which is an empirical and measurable claim that might be either true or false. Confusing these fundamentally different positions is one of the basic fallacies of the Buddhist secularists, which I tried to explain in my essay.

Such statements seem metaphysical on the surface, I agree. But this is a mistake. Why? Because the Buddha has already defined the scope of his teaching: the four noble truths, i.e. when sentient beings are suffering. So long as sentient beings are suffering, the principles of dependent origination may be observed. This is the “so far” that you want to drag in: there is no need, the Buddha already did that.

The word “metaphysics” is used in so many ways, I cannot assess this without more background. The same author, Wimal Dissanayake, in the same article also says:

according to him, this is borne out by the fact that the Buddha rejected metaphysics, absolutism and essentialisms of any form or kind

Dissanayake, it turns out, is a teacher of literary and cultural criticism, not a philosopher, and this is an obituary, not an academic article. Anyway, why should I care what academics think about Kalupahana? I’m quite capable of reading his work and making up my own mind.

In the sense I am using it here—a claim that is regarded as true but which cannot be derived from either observation or inference—Kalupahana explicitly and at length argued against all forms of metaphysics in Buddhism. He even disagreed with his teacher Jayatillecke as retaining a metaphysical view of nibbana.

No, they don’t. That’s precisely the point. Buddhists claim that through mental development the senses can be honed and improved so that they know things that are not accessible to an undeveloped mind. There is nothing mystical about it.

I couldn’t climb Mount Everest, so I can’t see the view from on top. But if I went to the gym, and trained in mountain climbing for a long time, I could, and then I could see the view. (Okay, well, I’m old and have bad knees, so this is just an example!) To me, the ability to climb Mount Everest seems superhuman. But this is just my lack of imagination.