I’m reading Secularlizing Buddhism, the last chapter by the editor, Richard K. Payne. He (and many other academics) appear to be ‘flipping the script’ on Secular Buddhism. Some secular Buddhists, like Batchelor and Meisner, presented Secular Buddhism as “better” than so-called Traditional Buddhism, as more ‘original’, ‘authentic’, etc., as ‘getting rid of cultural baggage’ of Asian Buddhism, as distinctly ‘American’ or ‘Western.’ Because of this earlier position, which is admittedly chauvinistic (and a view which I never held), there is now a whole movement in Academic Buddhism to “flip the script” and assert that so-called “Traditional” Buddhism is better, more original, authentic, as truly American (arriving first with Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century), and as ‘getting rid of the cultural baggage’ of Western Buddhism. In this new script, Secular Buddhism is “bad”, colonialist, racist, crass consumerism, competitive, neoliberal, self-centered, not authentic or original, lacking any religious authority of its own, and spiritually degenerate.
So now they’ve flipped the script. They’ve started a counter-movement to reverse the Western trend towards democratization of Buddhism and lay empowerment; to ensure that broad access to a readily available Buddhist culture and practice will be locked behind the paywalls of high-priced membership in Buddhist churches and temples, where the ordained hold the authority and power, where the ordained have the sole authority to interpret scripture and teach.
So now we’re the bad guys, the ones who hold an atheistic/agnostic view of Buddhism, who value democracy and lay empowerment, who dislike superstition and the supernatural, or don’t find any particular meaning in it. We’ve been ostracized by the Buddhist Intelligentsia, who claim that we’re not the real Buddhists..
I never identified much as a Secular Buddhist. I considered myself to be more of a Naturalist and Modernist, which are forms of Secular Buddhism that find meaning in ritual practice and symbolic language. I enjoy mantra chanting and ritual prayer, etc. But that’s not the point. I’m still an atheist when it comes to the supposed divinity of the Buddha, an agnostic about the supernatural, and I believe in a democratized Buddhism that empowers the laity.
Buddhist academics are lining up behind this new turn toward “Traditional” Buddhism because it cements their power as academic elites behind an ordained clergy, privileges their facility with scriptural languages and interpretations that only the highly educated could understand or appreciate. They are the legitimizing source for Traditional Buddhism, reinforcing the power of ordained elites. The Academic elites and the Ordained elites have joined forces to reassert clerical power and hierarchy within American/Western Buddhism.
But they will not prevail, because most American Buddhists don’t attend religious services. This was shown in the most recent (2015) Pew survey: most American Buddhists attend religious services “a few times a year”, “seldom”, or “never.” Most Western Buddhists, therefore, will never set foot in a Buddhist temple or shrine, never donate to their church building funds or retreat centers, never support their clergy. This was before the Pandemic, which shut down Buddhist temples and in-person services throughout North America. Everyone moved online to ‘Zoom sanghas’, where democracy reigns. The ones who hold power there, if you can call it that, are those who know how to run the software machinery of the Zoom app.
The Elites, or the New Brahmins as I have called them, will not prevail because the study and practice of Buddhism now takes place almost entirely on the Internet. This trend began long before the Pandemic, going back to the early, 2000s when Buddhists began publishing their blogs, papers, podcasts and chat forums. But it has accelerated exponentially since the Pandemic of 2020. Now everything is online, on Zoom, on free access websites like the Open Buddhist University, Buddhist Studies Online, thousands of YouTube channels that feature Buddhist teachings, music, rituals, conferences, retreats, tens of thousands of Facebook groups, Twitter accounts and chat forums. You can even get “traditional” ritual empowerments online; I personally have received three such empowerments.
So for all you “Secular Buddhism is racist, colonialist genocide”, all you who oppose the democratization of Buddhism, the empowerment of the laity and (dare I say it) the individual; who despise atheism, agnosticism, doubt, empiricism, rationality, and a healthy respect for science: You’re screaming into the wind. It doesn’t matter what you say or do, because you can’t stop this now. Because of the Internet, you have lost all control over what happens to Buddhism from here on out. No one has any control over it any more. The Internet is as vast as the Milky Way Galaxy, with its 400 billion stars, and there’s plenty of room for all of us. You can’t shut us up, you can’t get rid of us, so you might as well accept that we, the Buddhist Anarchists, Secularists, Modernists, are here to stay, like it or not.
So now, my anarchist comrades, it’s time to continue to unfold the Anarchist Buddhist Revolution. We will be on the run, the homeless, the outcasts, the Untouchables, but we will create a virtual refuge for other Buddhist Revolutionaries who valorize democracy, freedom, human rights and individual agency. We, the unordained, outside the academy, the Buddhist Precariat, aka the Dangerous Class.