I recently read an article criticizing the view of Buddhism as a religion. This is an attitude shared by many so called Secular Buddhists, but one that I reject outright even as I call myself a Secular Buddhist. The reason is all wrapped up in understanding both the word “religion” and the word “secular”. Let’s look at the traditional meaning of these words - and the meanings that so upset the “secular” practitioner - and what we can do as Western Buddhists to reclaim both words.
I’m going to start out easy - with “secular”. Merriam-Webster defines secular as:
“not spiritual : of or relating to the physical world and not the spiritual world
: not religious
: of, relating to, or controlled by the government rather than by the church
In this sense Secular Buddhists may be right in rejecting the label of being a religion; however, I would argue that one cannot be concerned with this world, with humanity, without being concerned with the non-material needs of humanity.
The origin of “secular” is the Latin “saeculum” which means simply, “the present world” - the entire present world, including both material and non-material (psychological) needs. If secular referred to only the material needs of humanity the Buddha would have concerned himself with only bringing an end to material dukkha; but he expressly dealt with that as a secondary concern to his interest in ending existential dukkha. So I am here and now reclaiming the word secular as being related to ALL aspects of the present world and its beings and I proudly proclaim myself to be a Secular Buddhist - by this definition.
So how about “religion”. If we again go to Merriam-Webster we see that religion is:
: the belief in a god or in a group of gods
: an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
: an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group
If we look only at the first two definitions I would whole-heartedly acclaim that Buddhism is NOT a religion, but where does this third definition come from? We’ve all heard the phrase, “money is his religion” and can recognize the third definition in it; but that still doesn’t say where it comes from - does this hypothetical person actually see money as his god? I would say no - and go back to word origins for my justification.
The Latin from which we draw the term “religion” is “religio” or sanction, itself coming from “religare” to tie back or tie together. For me - and what I’d like to propose to you all - religion is those actions, beliefs and teachings that tie a group of people together. Many people who criticize the notion of Buddhism as a religion point to the fact that the original followers of the Buddha were rarely together. They tended to wander the forests practicing meditation on their own and only coming together during the rainy season; yet I would still argue that they shared a common set of beliefs - in the teachings of the Buddha - and actions - meditation for detachment - that bound them together into a group that WOULD come together to share the rainy season.
As we move from Theravada to Mahayana we move into the ethic of the Bodhisattva Vow:
However innumerable all beings are, I vow to strive for their liberation.
However inexhaustible my delusions are, I vow to strive for their extinguishment.
However immeasurable the Dharma teachings are, I vow to strive for their mastery.
However endless the Buddha's Way is, I vow to strive to follow it always.
Practitioners no longer practice for themselves alone but for all beings. Everything we do is to be not only for the extinguishment of our own delusions but for the liberation of all beings. We vow that we are bound together by our striving to follow the Buddha Way always and to master the Dharma teachings.
This is the very definition of religion. We don’t need to cower in the corner afraid that our religion isn’t good enough for the name because it has no god. We need to proudly reclaim the term religion and proclaim that we do share a system of beliefs, actions and teaching that bind us together. If we are not bound together then to what do we take refuge when we say “the sangha”?
I am a Secular Buddhist who proudly proclaims my religion to be the teachings of human beings - the Buddha and all the sages who have followed him.