Why Secular Buddhism is Not True

Many people don’t believe the Buddha’s authentic statements are true, but most of them dont call themselves Buddhists

I think almost everyone who calls themselves a Buddhist can identify at least one thing that they think the Buddha asserted and sincerely believed, but which is probably not true.

But in any case, the two questions are clearly distinct. There are vast scholarly efforts underway to identify those purported statements and discourses of the Buddha that are authentic, and to distinguish them from those that are not. But the scholars who participate in that effort have a wide variety of different attitudes about which of those authentic statements are true.

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Yes, we have different ideas about right speech.

Hello, everyone. As there are limits to the number of posts I may make in a day, I’ll bundle them here with my apologies for any difficulty following threads that may cause.

Hi, AM, nice to see you. Hoping we may sit together someday and speak together as friends on the path.

That would be a different post, volumes have been written on it and I wanted to focus on just A) sharing the perspectives of secular Buddhists which appear to differ from how they were described by Ajahn Sujato, in the hopes of further exploration of these topics together, and B) asking for greater kindness than the original article included. The last part was wonderful, was hoping for more of that.

As do I. From my response:

Hopefully that helps?

I don’t think of Gotama as delusional, that might be a stretch. Just suggesting that my worldview is informed differently than someone from another time and culture. Please note – this is not a derision, this is acknowledgment of the realities of my own cultural bias.

Hi, Garrib. For me it’s not about Gotama’s journey, but our own. I don’t think of him as delusional, I simply connect much more viscerally due to my cultural and personal context with rebirth (for example) as having very real and pragmatic meaning to me moment by moment. In this way, the dhamma has meaning and value to me in ways that it otherwise doesn’t.

I agree! One challenge to a sincere dialogue is one side insisting they are correct and the other side is “wrong-headed.” If someone says that about you, does that foster equitable discussion? It doesn’t for me, and that was one reason why my response was written.

Hi, Mike. Totally agree. Non-overlapping Magisteria as far as I’m concerned. Will respond further down to the “scientism” concept.

As fellow living beings. Our most intricate conversations on the SBA site were regarding the suffering of animals.

Hi, Dave. Yes, based on the experiences in hurtful discussions from orthodox Buddists over the years, I’m about done with Buddhism and may dispense with the sangha entirely. My daughter just posted a lengthy description in no uncertain terms about what that’s been like for her, including others coming to her just this week in tears over the harshness of just having another point of view in Buddhism.

Yes, well said, DK. Interestingly, Gotama also indicated he taught one thing only, suffering and the extinguishing of it. I don’t have to ascribe meaning to all circumstances to find value in the dhamma, and it’s fine if someone else does.

The Four Noble Truths are quite visible, demonstrable, and predictive from what I’m seeing in day to day life. Not so big on faith, unsurprisingly, but confidence, yes. Curiosity led to exploration led to understanding led to experience led to confidence.

To harvest a quote from Clay Shirky, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” This isn’t a characterization of right speech as a hammer, my friend. It’s calling out condescention as such.

I agree, and that’s what secular Buddhists are doing. Not rejecting. Innovating.

That may be very helpful, we may have grown in a very short time to have that need for further elaboration.

Thank you for your kind words, they are appreciated, truly. Bearing in mind again that I speak primarily for myself though seem to be voicing the views of many other secular Buddhists, I would suggest that literal rebirth simply isn’t as valued to me as receiving this teaching in daily life – that is extremely beneficial, and doesn’t preclude or dismiss any unseen or unclear benefits that others take as having fruit in future lives. I don’t find the evidence clear and compelling, and hold Buddhism to the same standards as any other assertion: make your case with valid evidence, I’m happy to be convinced of any view that can be clearly demonstrated in the world. If not, none of us has a way to distinguish what is so from what is not.

You bring up a fine example with Stephen and John of us not all thinking exactly alike; I’m not as interested in trying to interpret the intentions of someone from thousands of years past. I am interested in how they might help provide insight about being a better person today, right now, and leaving the world a better place than I found it if I can.

I’m so sorry you’re hurting on this engagement, F. As you’ve pointed out here and has been the repeated experience over the course of years, our questions go unanswered with further questions as the response, if not outright condemnation. As mentioned elsewhere, you are not alone in this, my daughter just received someone else in tears over this same attitude towards how we engage with the dhamma – as misguided lesser beings, the new Hinayana.

Happy to talk, Mike. Sorry to have been away from the sincere attempts to dialogue on this stuff.

Did you miss us being called “intellectual lightweights”? I didn’t. It was rude, plain and simple. I will provide an extensive and in-context set of what was demeaning if it would help, but another person has done a pretty good job of it.

Dave, I admit to avoiding agnosticism. I’m not agnostic about Thor – I don’t find compelling reason to accept his existence and / or historicity and / or value in my life. I’m not agnostic about Jesus or literal rebirth for the same reason. That being said, I’m happy to be convinced. Indeed, I would be delighted if those who accept literal rebirth could make a case that’s more convincing than other post-mortem beliefs, but they haven’t, and when that’s pointed out the response is always about my not being really Buddhist because I have no such faith.

I agree on all counts! It’s one of the points I tried to make in my response, that secular Buddhists (overall, not completely) do not suggest Gotama did not teach rebirth – we see it, we accept that it’s in the canon.

Hello, Dhammarakkhita. My sincere apologies for not responding as quickly as we both woud have preferred, there have been other more pressing activities requiring my attention, no disrespect or disturbance was intended by my absence. I hope that meets with your expectations, and I’m perfectly willing to have a cordial if not friendly dialogue in this space.

You are quite right, our site does restrict registration to manual approval. That’s because when we had open enrollment, we got over 3,000 false accounts created. So, yes, now I manually review and approve every request, as often as I am able. That is primarily filtered by the bio – if there isn’t one, or if it doesn’t include anything about their background or interest in Buddhism, I have no way to distinguish a real request from a fake one. You are quite welcome to join us there as is anyone, please make the request and I’ll approve it if I recognize the name when it arrives. And once approved, your Comments are not subject to further approval, we would be very intereted in having your insights shared in the community.

If I might suggest, Ajahn Sujato would be well within his purview to say we’re misrepresenting Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana beliefs with clear articulation of why if that’s what we were doing. We are not, however, claiming to represent any of those forms of Buddhism. We are absolutely clear we are not; we are doing something else, and Sujato seemed to get a few points not quite on the mark for what many secular Buddhists think, say, and do in our living of the dhamma. My response was an effort to clarify some of those which didn’t align with my understanding of the secular approach, and to as him to ease up on the harsh – it’s not necessary, we can have friendly disagreements as we did in our recorded conversation about his work.

Hi, Kay. Thank you for this, it’s appreciated. Yes, it was upsetting to many of us who are secular Buddhists, Feynman is not the only person to have shed tears because of the Venerable’s choice of words. For what it’s worth, please do know I was sincere on the first page of my response:

My hope is that we may be able to do that overall, as this… has been hard. For years.

Yes. This. If you’re one of the folks here who don’t think this kind of wording would be taken personally, I suggest you use a racial epithet and then try to deny that was personal, too.

As I shared, Dhammarakkita, other priorities kept me from this space. I’m not able to be here continuously, nor do I have full ownership of my schedule. And please re-read the sentences above – if you can point out where I make any statements in the tone of others being “shallow and arrogant,” as Sujato has towards secular Buddhists, please point them out – but if you can’t I would suggest this is a false equivalence. It is not at all what I believe, and it’s not how I’ve behaved.

Thank you for your ongoing practice of khanti.

Hi, Laurence. I don’t find that the scientific method speaks to what we find meaningful in our lives, that’s not its purpose. Another definition of the word scientism is this: “Scientism is a term generally used to describe the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method.” (Scientism - Wikipedia) To those who practice this method, it’s falsely equating what is just a method with a very different ideological stance, typically contrasting it with religious views that do not stand up to the rigors of that method.

But put another way by Steven Novella, “What do you think science is? There’s nothing magical about science. It is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with? Do you disagree with being thorough? Using careful observation? Being systematic? Or using consistent logic?”

Where exactly do you see us making such claims, Laurence? I do not. I say quite the opposite:

What deeds are you seeing from secular Buddhists that claim moral superiority, rather than practicing differently from other forms of Buddhism? That’s something we try to avoid, and are certainly imperfect and prone to mistakes, so please do let me know if you see us doing that.

If I might share this quote from the original article above, this is Ajahn Sujato talking, not a secular Buddhist:

Presuming we both accept that statement, isn’t it a colonialist attitude to belittle the practices endemic to other cultures? How is this not a “… new and improved form of understanding that sheds new light in a place that was occupied by myths and fairy tales”?

I’m not willing to suggest the Tibetan’s engagement with Buddhism is mere superstitious nonsense and wrong. It’s different than mine, certainly. But I’m not willing to superimpose my beliefs and their measure onto the value someone else may derive from their way of living – I’m not in their shoes, if they have shoes, or feet.

I hear the call to action, Laurence, and want to offer the insights of this one secular Buddhist on each of them. You’re right, I do not see this as a problem – because I find your premise to be an inaccurate expression of my understanding of science. I don’t look to science for meaning, I look to it to help me understand as best we can the natural world – that which we can mutually observe and hopefully come to an acceptable level of agreement. It’s not indifference, it’s that this simply isn’t an issue when my meaning is not derived from such things as the rate of a falling object in a vacuum.

Does that make sense? Happy to discuss further if it would help.

Hi, Mike. Ah, I think it’s coming closer, thank you for your patience with my slowness. I can see that my statement would be grating in those circumstances, and I apologize, that wasn’t my intention. Please understand that my taking the Buddha sasana differently doesn’t mean it’s not taken seriously and with the appropriate gravity. It’s been transformative in my life and in the lives of those around me – that is much more important than (to revisit this topic) the scientific study of meditation, for example. I teach that way, every day, even as someone who enjoys the science and what it provides.

Including blogs :slight_smile:

Again, no disrespect for those who have literal interpretations, it’s simply not what secular Buddhism is about.

Again, thank you for providing this rich dialogue. My suggestion is not at all condemning of other’s faiths, it’s asking that mine not be disparaged by asking the thought experiment. I’ve been a regular panelist on interfaith dialogues – yes, as a Buddhist, however much that may not be accepted here. Again, my words were asking for respect whatever the faith, “John Smith and anyone else who wishes to practice Islam in an institution that matches their beliefs, are welcome to do so and have whatever beliefs resonate with them on a cultural, social, and personal level.”

So are secular Buddhists.

I agree, intellectual rigor would be helpful. And yet, when we apply intellectual rigor by questioning assertions or extraordinary claims, we’re derided and dismissed as not even being real Buddhists.

“The secularist ideology is shallow and arrogant.” Those are not critical statements. They are personal judgments. This is from Qualia Soup on Critical Thinking (YouTube).

Yes, very well said. Thank you!

There are bound to be disagreements, yes :slight_smile: I would suggest the arbiter of what is disrespectful is the receiver, not the giver.


We agree on the first sentence above.

The research quoted is believed to apply to most people, not just narcissists. The quote is from a post in a thread about narcissistic behavior. Unfortunately the website software did not cooperate with my attempt to change the heading of the blockquote.

A couple of observations make those results all the more striking:

  • In broad terms most participants had the same or similar espoused beliefs about how they would like to respond to the issue in the role playing exercise.
  • All results reflect the participants own evaluation of their efforts. Afterwards the participants themselves agreed that their responses in the role playing was inconsistent with their values. Nobody played ‘neutral judge’ on behalf of someone else.
  • The participants were generally unaware of their own inconsistency until it was pointed out by others or they examined the evidence and considered the reasoning/analysis of others. If need be the participants listened to a recording of their own words and compared them to their written statement of values.
  • After a short time other participants in the room learned how to ‘hear’ the inconsistency in others speech. But that skill did not transfer to an ability to hear the inconsistency in their own words in real time or directly afterwards.

These results are both disconcerting and ‘spooky’ as well as hopeful.
My take away? Take refuge! A trusted sanga or ‘spiritual friends’ can be vital for some aspects on the path.


A section of a Comment my daughter made today about this topic, different context and space, posted with her permission:


I said this above: “If delusional is too much for you, then substitute completely mistaken in this regard or misled by his own experience or whatever else suits your fancy.”

Derision might be a stretch, but claiming that the Buddha misunderstood his own experience and taught what are ultimately falsehoods is at minimum brazen and more than acknowledgement of your own cultural bias.

He did. He also taught about rebirth and other realms. He taught about the “craving that causes rebirth” in the 2nd Noble Truth.

Call if confidence if you want. You certainly have faith/confidence in your current understanding of the 4 Noble Truths. But if you don’t realize that you may not yet have the whole picture, that your understanding may still be incomplete…Well, hopefully you realize this later. If you do realize this, then I simply don’t get why you blatantly reject the parts of the Buddha’s teachings as wrong instead of having the humility to admit you simply might not understand them yet.

Thanks for responding Ted,

And let me use this as an opportunity to express my appreciation for your secular Buddhist podcast, which I have listened to and enjoyed many times over the years!

With Metta,



I have no issue with science. I was talking about scientism - as an ideology. Scientific discussion is welcome in Buddhist circles. Dogmatic intolerance of alternative approaches to inquiry - other than empiricism - is unwelcome. Why - the Buddha was not an empiricists - IMO.

The Buddha developed a method of inquiry that is of interest to Buddhists and to those who are open-minded inquirers. Therefore, to the degree that a practitioner is looking through a ‘scientistic’ prism at the Buddha’s teachings then they are going to have trouble understanding how the Buddha came up with his findings. They may even disparage or denigrate the Buddha because he does not conform to their ideological requirements regarding his research methods. They may conclude that his findings are speculative or delusional.

The problem is not with the Buddha - it is with the preset conclusions of the devotees of Scientism regarding their notions of valid methodology and their preset conclusions about what is possible and, what is not! To the degree that ‘some’ Secular Buddhists are committed to the ideology of Scientism they take issue with Buddhists who do not share their insular convictions.

I do believe Secular Buddhists should address this issue head-on! Many Secular Buddhists believe that their Buddhism is an improvement over traditional Buddhism - such as the Theravada tradition - because of its intellectual integrity, its willingness to incorporate the insights of Science into its belief system. I don’t find that troubling!

Secular Buddhists may point out the difficulties earlier Buddhist schools encounter when dealing with meaningful change to their belief systems - due to being stuck in the past!

Instead of insisting that ‘stuck’ and immobile people should unstick themselves, why not show them how this is done? Address the problem of the dogmatic ideologues in your midst - prove you have the intellectual integrity you claim to possess!

This is my ‘advice’ to Secular Buddhists. But it seems to be falling on deaf ears? If you see the issue I am pointing to perhaps you could start a Secular Buddhist group that refuses to sweep the issue under the carpet. Such a group would be appreciated by traditional Buddhists - IMO.

‘WHO’ in the Secular Buddhist community is willing to heed the call? Their ‘right effort’ will be greatly appreciate by ‘one and all’ - who would find this development disagreeable? If a Secular Buddhist creates a ‘Home-Page’ that reflects their complete commitment to open-minded Dharma-Inquiry we may find the issues around Secular Buddhism may largely disappear? Surely, that would be a step in the right direction?

What is the source of your hostility here? It seems to annoy you greatly that some people have different views than you do about who the Buddha was, and what his attainment consisted in.

Honestly, what is it to you? Why the urge for inquisitorial purification?

Play the ball, not the man. I will continue to disregard your repeated ad hominems.

I call hypocrisy. Your response to Ted Meissner’s extended, thoughtful and courteous comments were derisive and disrespectful. You characterized his views as brazen, lacking in humility and a symptom of cultural bias.


Your interjections into other people’s conversations just to throw psychoanalyzing ad hominems is derisive and disrespectful. Please stop butting in.

Hello everyone

Perhaps a good option might be to ignore anyone that seems to want to enter into the “yes it is,”, “no, it isn’t”, “yes! it is!” “NO! it isn’t”, style of debate. Sometimes the best option is to let something be; readers will decide for themselves anyway.

With metta


The call is not for inquisitorial purification but for intellectual rigor. I believe that ‘more than a few’ Secular Buddhists have adopted ‘scientistic’ attitudes and convictions without being fully aware of what they are thinking and doing.

The problem is that Scientism - as a belief system - is diametrically opposed to what Buddhism ‘requires’ to make it work.

Buddhism ‘requires’ an understanding of methodologies, practices and ‘findings’ that are not the province of empiricism - as understood in Scientism. Therefore, Secular Buddhists who are aware of this issue need to educate those members in their Sangha - perhaps new-comers - about the issue!

I believe that Secularists have a responsibility to go further and distance themselves ‘unambiguously’ from proponents of Scientism. As I said earlier: the devotees of Scientism are notorious for their intolerant attitude towards open-minded inquiry that goes beyond empiricism.

This is a science issue and a Buddhist issue. Those who love Science and Buddhism who are Secular Buddhists need to confront this problem head-on! Instead of doing this there seems to be mass-complacency and indifference. And now - it would appear - antagonism. I hope you now understand the point? ‘Ted Meissner’ acknowledged what I was getting at and agreed. :wink:

Looks like all this selective picking of the Dhamma is happening because answering the Buddha’s call for asceticism and total renunciation is too hard these days.

Best of luck with the total renunciation and asceticism - how are you going on that front? :slight_smile: