Individuals who adhere to the basic premises of traditional Buddhism but do not embrace its more supernatural elements are referred to as secular Buddhists. This branch of Buddhism arose after Buddhism was introduced into the mainstream Western world.
Secular Buddhism is distinct from the Mindfulness movement, which uses practices like meditation primarily as a stress-management technique. However, mindfulness is a general technique used by Buddhists. Secular followers view Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion. Secular Buddhists can come from atheistic, agnostic, skeptical, or other religious backgrounds. Followers vary widely in their acceptance of Buddhist doctrine. However, several concepts define this practice.
Most secular Buddhists follow the core tenets of traditional Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths were first taught by Siddhartha Gautama, a prince turned religious aesthetic who achieved enlightenment through deep meditation. Gautama concluded that suffering is inevitable and is caused by desire. Ending suffering requires letting go of earthly desires and following the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path instructs Buddhists on the actions, thoughts, and beliefs that promote wisdom and enlightenment.
Secular Buddhists also believe in several key concepts, such as Karma, living ethically, and the existence of the Nirvana state. Where secular Buddhism differs from traditional Buddhism is in the belief of concepts that have not been proven by science or direct experience. For example, many forms of traditional Buddhism believe in reincarnation. Secular Buddhism also does not directly acknowledge the existence of supernatural beings.
Accordingly, there are also considerable contrasts in how Buddhism’s Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, are viewed in traditional and secular Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama and other enlightened teachers are not viewed as deities as in traditional Buddhism, but they are still held in reverence.
Secular Buddhism does not elevate the status of the Buddha beyond his role as a wise teacher. In secular Buddhism, the Dharma, a word that describes Buddhist teachings and practices, is meant to help individuals navigate their present life rather than influence the outcomes of rebirth.
Lastly, secular Buddhists place less emphasis on the importance of the Sangha, or religious group. The groups that secular Buddhists tend to create have much fewer rituals and hierarchies than those found in traditional Buddhism.