Secular Buddhism in the Making. an Empirical Approach to the Challenges of Establishing a Secular Buddhist Group

Friday, 20 July 2018: 10:45
Oral Presentation
Jonathan HARTH, Universität Witten/Herdecke, Germany
Ulrike OFNER, Witten/Herdecke University, Germany
Currently, secular Buddhism is a worldwide trend. Both the representatives and the followers of secular Buddhism hope for a more natural, personalized and modern access to the Buddhist teachings (McMahan, 2008; 2012). At the same time, it implies a more or less implicit renouncement from traditional Buddhist schools. This is mainly due to the fact that traditional schools are regarded as (too) hierarchically organized and based on obsolete religious principles. Secular Buddhists, on the other hand, view everyone as equal and like to make decisions based on democratic ideals. In the end, the pragmatic approach of secular Buddhism aims at trying to become a better “whatever-they-already-are” (Rasheta, 2016).

The reformation of traditional Buddhism is mainly associated with Stephen Batchelor (2015; 2017). To him it is crucial to identify the basic insights of Buddhism which are relevant to the contemporary world of modern practitioners. At the same time, Batchelor insists that this project should remain open and flexible, not be the basis for a new orthodoxy. Secular Buddhism should solely focus on the four noble truths and the eightfold path (Fronsdal, 2016).

This contribution focusses on an empirical approach to the challenges in the foundation of such a secular group. The empirical data is part of the research project »Buddhism in the West« (Vogd/Harth, 2015) and consists of interviews with members of a group that is associated with Stephen Batchelor. The following points are of particular interest:

  • Which criteria are selected for the renouncement of traditional Buddhist approaches?
  • How do the members find a (commonly shared) practice that does not require a dedicated (authoritarian) teacher’s role? How do they keep their practice together?
  • Which aspects of the Dharma are selected and which group dynamics lead to a consensus about that?