Secular Buddhism as a foundation or crow’s food?


Nothing to do with the post...I just like crows

Inspired by a post from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Listserve.  Largely a forum for the random musings (whining) of professional academics who have long since lost touch with the real world (wouldn’t that make them Arahants?), the SVP listserve occasionally pops in something of interest in the realm of my randomly chosen field of study – mammalian paleontology.

This time, however, something mentioned stuck a strangely Buddhist tone (try striking a fossilized Archaeotherium femur with a wooden mallet and you will get a delightful tone).

From Dr. Christine Janis:

I also provide a “text” for my students in both my classes (Vert Evolution and Comparative Anatomy), in addition to the actual textbooks that they buy, although it’s printed out (?analog) not digital, which I update every year(and also do post lots of web resources on the MyCourses website). However, I think it much more important that the students really understand the basics of the discipline and how to think about the information than that they are bang up to date with the latest findings.

That’s the icing on very considerable layers of cake. A textbook, even if a bit outdated, provides them with a constant source from which they can grasp the fundamentals. Better to add (say) Tiktaalik to their basic source than to expect them (at least undergrads) to generate a structure for themselves from widely disparate sources.

For most of out there in the rural, convert Buddhist world, we are desperately trying to find a base or root knowledge.  Something from which we can start to build the many layered cake that is Buddhist practice.  For me secular Buddhism serves this purpose.  For all the bitching and moaning about whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy and the constant complaints over which are the root teachings and which is “cultural baggage” (a ridiculous statement by the way.  Nothing like telling a culture that has practiced Buddhism for at least 2000 yrs that they got it all wrong.  Nothing but western arrogance), the secular approach does give a nice and understandable base for the neophyte (I love that term, it sounds so condescending) to build from.

Like Christine’s example of Tiktaalik, when you expect students or practitioners to build their own base of understanding without some sort of established framework you doom them from the start.

I would rather have an incorrect or dated textbook to which I can amend and correct than no textbook at all.  Maybe Batchelor’s “Buddhism Without Beliefs” or Asma’s “Buddha for Beginners” can supply that subtle foundation.

Now, my foundation was secular Buddhism and I think it served its purpose well, but what do you use as your base text?  What formed your foundation?  Don’t say the Pali Canon, far too large.  I guarantee that it was a smaller, abridged version or commentary that you started with and still refer back to.

…or maybe not.




19 thoughts on “Secular Buddhism as a foundation or crow’s food?

  1. Goddard’s “The Buddhist Bible” was one of the first purchases I made when I started my practice. From the name of the book, I expected it to be an exhaustive collection of Buddhist canonical literature but was disappointed. It was also too dense for me at that point of time.

    Cheers and thanks for the comment!

  2. Yeah, Rahula’s WtBT was one of my first books as well. But books weren’t really the place I got my foundation. I did a lot of reading off of the net, including the About Buddhism website. Personally, I think that the internet, because of the tremendous amount of information, can provide probably a better source than one book alone. Other websites including Access to Insight also helped me form a basic foundation.

    I imagine that the internet will provide a stronger roll in academics as well. In fact, I don’t see why universities can’t go paperless, especially with the advent of document readers and iPods. I have about 280 texts alone that I can carry on my iPod and have with me all the time. Much more handy and practical than a bulky textbook.

    • When I started out 10 years ago, I never even thought about accessing the internet as a resource. This has changed, of course, and there is plenty of material out there.

      My main concern is that there is too much information available (some good and some bad) and it leads to the same problem of having far too much information and to little foundation to build on. I was feeling lost just today with my massive “to read” pile both on my night-stand and on GoogleReader. Too much!

      I sorta hope that this blog can provide a tiny foundation to start with but I know that it is severely limited by its owner. I still love Zen Under the Skin as an example of a great blog to get someone started with home-practice.

      BuddhaNet was one of my favorite web resources since it starts at a very basic level and works up from there. The same is true of the podcasts over at AudioDharma. Those two sites together as well as Access to Insight should provide more than enough foundation for anyone just beginning to explore Buddhism.

      Thanks for the comments!

  3. My introduction to Buddhism was short and sweet. After reading the work of Dr. David Hawkins on modern enlightenment in 2002 and completing the year-long ‘A Course In Miracles,’ I took the advice from a classmate to attend the local Dharma center. I stopped by for a meditation one evening and it was very interesting, albeit foreign and exotic. There was a gathering the following Saturday that I decided to attend, which turned out to be the Refuge ceremony. I figured what the heck, it couldn’t hurt anything and I took refuge in 2004.

    Since then its been an extremely wild rollercoaster ride of Mahayana sutras, stupas, prayer wheels and empowerments. I’m come to realize over the course of seven years since seriously starting my ‘enlightenment sequence,’ that I’ve been slowly reconnecting with material from past-lives. I love hearing Sanskrit, so I searched far and wide for a Buddhist tradition that was more Indian/Sanskrit-based to no avail. I treasure finding esoteric Mahayana sutras to read and collect. My exploration in Buddhism has not been in the secular realm but in looking for scraps of a tradition I’m sure I once followed. I looked for the core teachings rather than books written by modern authors.

    Presently, I’ve been lead to the Vajrayana, which is a world full of incense, deities on fire, water bowl offerings and I absolutely love it. Under direction from my Dharma instructor, I’m absorbed with Tara and Lama Tsongkhapa right now and embarked on a self-study of the Lam-Rim Chenmo–including reading the translated works of Lama Tsongkhapa.

    My ‘sequence’ has been a little different than most people I’ve talked to about Buddhism and practice. There is plenty of information out there now, lots of books and seminars to choose from in the secular world. They do have their place. I think the sight-seers or ‘fad’ Buddhists will drop away and find some other activity to occupy their time. The hardcore practitioners will look for other teachings to satisfy that craving that there is something greater out there.

    It’s only a matter of time.

    • Haha! Thank you, GK! Nice tale that you tell. I think that I am on a somewhat similar path but with a different foundation. I am slowly moving towards more devotional (although I don’t think I am at the Vajrayana just yet with their fiery deities, although I have been known to place an offering of water (tea or sake) occasionally.

      I think we all have our childhood of Buddhism as well as adolescence, adulthood and doddering old fool. I know some that have taken your path (at least similar) and then turned 180 and went towards secular, “root” based Buddhism. You just never know. All part of the journey and explorations!



  4. There were two very thin but hugely helpful books I used for a long time as my base, and both are available for free from the Metta Forest Monastery. Both are also by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. The first is “Noble Strategy: Essays on the Buddhist Path,” and the other is “Refuge: An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.” I thought Noble Strategy was the easier book to deal with because it relied less on quoting excerpts from the Pali Canon. But Refuge is still quite good. I have long ago given away my copies, maybe I should see about getting them again.

    My practice is very secular, in that I pay little attention to various rites and rituals, I pay no attention to the calendar of “holy days” and I keep very few icons around. I do some chanting and I struggle to maintain a regular meditation practice.

    Thanks Jack.

  5. What Buddhists Believe By Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda was given to me by the temple I attend. It was the first “Buddhist textbook” I read. I had read other Buddhist books before, including the Buddhism for Dummies book, but this was the first book that I read that covered all of the core teachings in such detail.

    • Sounds like a good one, I know of another book by the same title but different author. I was happy with Essential Buddhism by Jack Maquire. I liked it because it layed everything out concerning the belief systems and beliefs; sects and vehicles; of buddhist thought, religion and philosophy. Very accessible to the beginning. It helped me organize all the crap that was crammed into my head during my Buddhism class in college.

      It would be nice if there was a good free online copy available. I am sure that BuddhaNet has got something but I haven’t looking in a while.

      Just found What Buddhists Believe free online.

  6. My introduction to Buddhism was through my serious desire for Enlightenment, not a whimsical interest in spirituality or a form of ‘Buddhism Lite.’ My preference has been for the hardcore Dharma material but if I were recommending a book to a friend who was interested in Buddhism but had very little background, I would *give* (not merely recommend) them a copy of ‘Old Path White Clouds’ by Thich Nhat Hanh. The book came about from one man’s heartfelt devotion to the Buddha, many years spent as an actual ordained monastic and from his scholarly, academic research into the classic texts.

    To hear stories about the Buddha, to read his life stories, is in itself a Dharma practice. So, this is actually one way to give them a head-start by getting them to practice without it being something ‘ritualistic’ or too advanced. It supports them also by giving a background into the teachings and where they came from. The book is well written and flows beautifully like a gentle, mountain stream.

    To give away Dharma is another practice that benefits the giver. When you give away Dharma texts, you exercise the Paramita of Giving and you help them plant seeds for future practice by giving them texts/words that are highly transformative at the level of the mind. One should jump at the chance to give away beneficial texts, like sutras and appropriate Dharma books.

    • I also have a drive towards the “hardcore” Dharma material but again I was (and am) always stumped by the shear magnitude of material from each of the three vehicles. Even narrowing it to one vehicle is enough to blow my mind.

      I have actually never read Thich Nhat Hanh (isn’t that some sort of Western Buddhist sin?) but I do agree that memoirs are good introductions but do have a great variety (that is a good thing and a bad thing).

      I tend to *give* out “Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind” by Suzuki because it is a delightfully deep book that is still accessible and because it is free online. Thus the giving part doesn’t hurt too much.

      I also occasionally receive books to review that I will donate to the local library that I work at. It keeps some good Dharma books in circulation and once something is given to you, it behooves you to give it in return.

      I am surprised that you jumped right into serious a Dharma quest of enlightenment. I wonder if that was predicated by any past spiritual quests? I know that I tested the shallow end first (I think I am still doggy-paddling) before even considering the deep end.

      or maybe there is no pool at all.



      • Actually “Old Path White Clouds” is the story of the life of the Buddha, not a memoir of Thich Nhat Hanh.

        I spent a number of hours at bookstores looking through various books on spirituality. I flipped through all the modern books on Buddhism and I was bored. It was all fluff and I didn’t find anything filling. Even some of the Dalai Lama’s books I found to be too general in scope. The books of suttas from the Pali for some reason didn’t agree with me either.

        Then I found a translation of the small Amitabha sutra and I was hooked–it was exactly what I was looking for. After that, Mahayana sutras became my passion. I mainly follow intuition and instinct when it comes to seeking direction in practice. Opportunities just seem to present themselves and I’ve benefitted greatly.

        Its hard to describe how its all worked. Its been very non-linear but somehow the pieces have all fit together because everything that I have studied up to this point has helped my understanding. Everything from Christian mysticism to Hinduism, its all been laying a foundation of gnosis.

        Which is why I usually say that I’m a ‘student of the Dharma’ rather than calling myself a Buddhist.

  7. Returning to Silence by Katagiri. I didn’t know it then but I didn’t get it… just thought I did. Then again, I read it sitting by an Alberta river that was a fly-fishing mecca while the fish weren’t biting. Under the right conditions, it’s easy to feel enlightened even when uninformed.

    Probably the book that changed my life practice was/is Thich Nhat Hanh’s Our Appointment With Life. (For your penance have it read by dawn and the report on my desk! 😉 ) I think the right time, right suffering, right words have to converge. I had spent a long time wanting to be free of everything – “live alone” and the Sutra on a Better Way to Live Alone seemed to promise me that liberation. Little did I know what was in store for me.

    It stopped the struggle of years of trying to “get It” and revealed that “It” is not “it”. 🙂

  8. I first read Zen Mind, Beginners Mind 30 years ago. I have since accumulated quite the dharma library, but think this is still a very worthy candidate.

    I like it mostly because it is so very practice oriented.


  9. I disagree with your statement:
    ” Nothing like telling a culture that has practiced Buddhism for at least 2000 yrs that they got it all wrong.”

    Tibetan Buddhism took a simple Lamrim practice brought by Atisha and married it to the old bloody demon infested Bon religion. This is not only cultural baggage, it is a baroque burial of the core teachings. After a few hours of these visualizations, you begin to wonder where you are. It has its uses but, I think it is difficult for Westerners.

    • Nothing wrong with disagreeing with me! I have no tree-house club to ban you from. 🙂

      Now, I am not an authority on Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, it is an area of extreme weakness in my understanding of Buddhism. However, if integrating Buddhist principles into indigenous religions helps to spread that Dharma, I don’t see the problem. Whether or not it buries the Dharma in cultural baggage, I have no idea. I am not a huge fan of visualization practice, myself but I don’t see it (as I understand it) as a marring of core teachings.

      Perhaps not the best path by some opinions but a path nonetheless for those that it connects with. It does not connect with me but then again, secular Buddhism doesn’t connect with many Buddhists either. I just have a difficult time denigrating someones’ practice when I don’t fully understand it. Nor when I fully understand how that person integrates with his/her practice. Nor can I, IMO.

      But then again, I am not one to drive towards core written teachings. I’m much more flaky.

      Cheers and thanks for the comment Don!


      Also it seems that Tibetan Buddhism loves to take basic (but not simple) concepts and make them insanely elaborate. I think that is what drives many converts in the West towards that practice in particular.

    • You don’t have to read the Lam Rim and follow Tibetan Buddhism. Just read it with an open mind, one that does not judge but is open to learning Truth and the Truth will be revealed to you. Truth is Truth, matter how you dress it up.

      Some people need the fiery deities to follow the Buddha, some do not. Some minds are disciplined by different means, it all depends on one’s karmic dispositions. That does not mean that the other path your fellow Dharma practitioner follows, regardless of one’s judgement and fixated notions, is altogether invalid. Its only your judgement that makes it so.

      Sakyamuni Buddha had full omniscience, that means that in all periods of time, instantaneously He is aware of everything, Beyond the Beyond. Don’t you think that a Buddha, with His Infinite Wisdom would not have devised different methods by which some sentient beings need to be awakened by?

      Let’s give the man a little credit, I’m sure He knew what he was doing.

    • I sometimes think that Buddhism doesn’t adapt to anything but the Dharma does. The Dharma was adapted to Indian, Chinese, Japanese, SE Asian, Mongolian and fairly recently into Western society. I think that some people are more likely to move towards one specific aspect of the cultural elements of that practice and thus end up practicing Tibetan, Ch’an, Pureland etc when they don’t have cultural ties to that form of Buddhism.

      Doesn’t make it any less of a practice, just one that fits better for the individual. If anything defines “Western” Buddhism it should be the ability to choose a practice that fits.



Comments are closed.