What is 'secular Buddhism', and what does it say about Nirvana?


7 Answers 7


Here are some other references (which three people suggested in comments, which I have deleted and moved here):

  • I think you will enjoy this article. The Buddha has taught in Alagaddupama Sutta that his teachings are like a boat to be used for crossing over, but you should not hold on to the boat. That is not it's purpose. Similarly, you may not like the fervour or ardency of some "non-secular Buddhists", but then again, neither does the Buddha, if this fervour is really the fanaticism and over-attachment to his teachings.
  • You'll want to check out two books by Stephen Batchelor on this subject - Buddhist atheist and Buddhism without beliefs. He also has given a few interviews like this one
  • If Kenneth Folk can be considered a secular buddhist, then https://batgap.com/kenneth-folk/ is something to watch -- he speaks about nibbana (in the interpretation of the Burmese Mahasi tradition) as extinction of consciousness.

While there is considerable variety of views amongst people who identify themselves as secular Buddhists, they all seem to converge in rejecting what is often loosely called "metaphysics". This means that they reject all forms of belief that are not rooted in science and/or common sense. Thus they reject any and all supernatural entities, forces, or states, not so much from an ideological point of view, but because of a long history of such things being debunked; because of the exposure of many, many hoaxes; and because the theories of science are so very successful and the supernatural is ruled out by these theories.

Secular Buddhists seem to identify with the European Enlightenment which aimed to free people from the despotism of the Church, the oppression of superstition, and general ignorance. Secular Buddhists take nothing on faith, whereas traditionalist Buddhists take a great deal on faith.

Some answers to these specific questions can be found on the Secular Buddhist Association Website. http://secularbuddhism.org/. Doug Smith, who holds a PhD in philosophy, has written a number of essays on these and related subjects, for example he says:

"Nevertheless from my limited perspective on the path it would seem as though nibbāna is not, should not, and cannot be entirely beyond our ability to comprehend. If it were, it would be of correspondingly scant interest to us. Therefore we are to take expressions of its ineffability as a kind of poetic attempt to express the extremity of its greatness. Nibbāna is the extinction — or perhaps the near extinction — of greed, hatred, and certain forms of ignorance. And parinibbāna does not amount to some “diffuse, indeterminate” way of being, but rather is the simple death of an enlightened person, without remainder." - Two Issues With Nibbāna.

Elsewhere (Can a Layperson Attain Nibbāna?) Smith discusses the traditional view that only monastics can attain nibbāna and gives a response from a secular point of view.

Perhaps the most prominent secular Buddhist is Stephen Batchelor, a former monk and translator of Buddhist texts. He has downplayed the issue of nibbāna

I am a secular Buddhist. It has taken me years to fully “come out,” and I still feel a nagging tug of insecurity, a faint aura of betrayal in declaring myself in these terms. As a secular Buddhist my practice is concerned with responding as sincerely and urgently as possible to the suffering of life in this world, in this century (our saeculum) where we find ourselves now and future generations will find themselves later. Rather than attaining nirvana, I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the eightfold path here on earth. – Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2012.

Of course this rejection of the supernatural, and nibbāna in particular, has wide ranging doctrinal consequences. Secular Buddhists de-emphasise traditional Buddhist theories of the world which seem to revolve around supernatural concepts such as karma, rebirth, saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, and focus on the experience of maintaining ethical and meditation practices.

  • 2
    As always, amazingly clear and straightforward. I'm grateful and relieved. Ironic as this may sound, I say this with absolute honesty: my faith in humanity, in religion and in Buddhism is in fact restored. When I read this sort of clearheaded answer, I am reassured that religion can coexist with rigourous intellectualism. Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 8:05
  • 2
    I do hope they can coexist, though clearly religion must give a little. Keep asking your questions, though the more simply they are phrased the better.
    – Jayarava
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 8:30
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    It would be interesting to know why this answer has been voted down.
    – Jayarava
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 10:36
  • 2
    In "Two issues with Nibbana", Smith voices issues that create dissonance among the intellectually-inclined and titillate the mystically (or superstitiously) inclined. This article helps me find clarity. The conclusion is brilliantly lucid, and lays to rest many of my own difficulties with the concepts of Nirvana and Parinirvana. Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 18:08
  • @Jayarava My guess is that the downvote was unwarranted, not a good comment on this answer, and that you should ignore it.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 21:37

Regarding the secular aspect. Many Mahayana schools of Buddhism, including at least some Zen sects and some Tibetan Vajrayana lineages, understand the supernatural as skillful means (upaya), that is to say, as useful metaphors/simplifications pointing to the real, but non-obvious, aspects of the so-called "reality".

This is not to say that these schools subscribe to a naive form of materialism. Rather, this means that the Mahayana Buddhism (as much as I can claim to understand it) is non-dualistic in its nature. It denies existence of multiple types of principally different stuff, like consciousness made of some essence that scientists can't see with their tools, and other types of dualistic "magic". Instead, in non-dualistic Mahayana view, "the magic" and the mundane are made of the same stuff, and are inherently interlocked as two aspects of the same nature.

From this standpoint, there is no need to posit any special kind of "secular" Buddhism, because Buddhism, from such a standpoint, already is and always has been non-theistic. Now, for practical reasons, I would not mind if Sat-Dharma presented itself as Secular Buddhism in this age, as an time-appropriate kind of upaya. This could work very well, as long as we respect the crucial difference between the perspective presented in the previous paragraph vs. the crude materialistic perspective of pretending that the "subtle" side of phenomena does not exist, which would be like throwing the baby out with the water.

  • 1
    Awakening is a lived experience, there are a good many stages one goes through in the evolution of one's belief system, which likely never stops evolving if one is inquiring steadily. Stephen Batchelor himself is one such example, a former monk who saw things differently years later, however there's no reason to believe that this evolution stopped upon hitting secular Buddhism. I find it is premature to consider an idea such as secular Buddhism reflected upon for only a few decades as anywhere near stable and reliable. I'd wait and watch before leaning too heavily on such ideas yet. +1
    – Buddho
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 20:19
  • I think nearly every splinter group of Buddhism throughout the ages has tried to throw off some ideas and keep others many times using secular arguments. I don't think the modern "secular" movements are any different. When Buddhism spreads to new lands and cultures often some teachings are more in conflict with that land/cultures ideas than others. It is precisely those most in conflict that are usually thrown off in the name of secularism.
    – user13375
    Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 2:03

Different people have different ideas on what secular buddhism is and not all self-proclaimed secular buddhists believe the same things.

However, one of the most prolific self-proclaimed secular buddhists is undoubtedly Stephen Batchelor. He has written books such as Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist as well as Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World which espouses his ideas about secular buddhism.

Here are some of the things he has to say about Nirvana:

"And there is no such thing as the unconditioned, only the possibility of not being conditioned by something. Nirvana, therefore, does not refer to the attainment of a transcendent, absolute state apart from the conditions of life but to the possibility of living here and now emancipated from the inclinations of desire, hatred, and delusion. A life not conditioned by these instincts and drives would be an enriched one. No longer would one be the victim of paralyzing habits; one would be freed to respond to circumstances in fresh, unimpeded ways."


"The experience of nirvana marks a turning point in an individual’s life, not a final and immutable goal. After the experience one knows that one is free not to act on the impulses that naturally arise in reaction to a given situation."


Rather than attaining nirvana, I see the aim of Buddhist practice to be the moment-to-moment flourishing of human life within the ethical framework of the eightfold path here on earth. Given what is known about the biological evolution of human beings, the emergence of self-awareness and language, the sublime complexity of the brain, and the embeddedness of such creatures in the fragile biosphere that envelops this planet, I cannot understand how after physical death there can be continuity of any personal consciousness or self, propelled by the unrelenting force of acts (karma) committed in this or previous lives. For many—perhaps most—of my coreligionists, this admission might lead them to ask, “Why, then, if you don’t believe such things, do you still call yourself a ‘Buddhist’?”


“This process can be conveniently summarized under the acronym ELSA: Embrace, Let go, Stop, Act. One embraces dukkha, that is, whatever situation life presents, lets go of the grasping that arises in reaction to it, and stops reacting so that one can act unconditioned by reactivity. This procedure is a template that can be applied across the entire spectrum of human experience, from one’s ethical vision of what constitutes a “good life” to one’s day-to-day interactions with colleagues at work. Buddhism 2.0 has no interest in whether or not such a way of life leads to a final goal called nirvana. What matters is an ever-deepening, ever-broadening engagement with a process of practice in which each element of ELSA is a necessary and intrinsic part. “Ceasing” is no longer seen as the goal of the path but as those moments when reactivity stops (or is suspended) in order that the possibility of a path can reveal itself and be “brought into being.” Just as dukkha gives rise to craving (rather than the other way round), so the ceasing of craving gives rise to the eightfold path (rather than the other way round). Thus Buddhism 2.0 turns Buddhism 1.0 on its head.”


“We could decide simply to remain absorbed in the mysterious, unformed, free-play of reality. This would be the choice of the mystic who seeks to extinguish himself in God or Nirvana—analogous perhaps to the tendency among artists to obliterate themselves with alcohol or opiates. But if we value our participation in a shared reality in which it makes sense to make sense, then such self-abnegation would deny a central element of our humanity: the need to speak and act, to share our experience with others.”

NOTE: Many of these ideas are controversial and are not necessarily endorsed by other self-proclaimed secular buddhists nor non-secular buddhists.


Speaking as someone who would probably be considered a secular Buddhist by others (and yes, I know that takes some untangling)…

Secular Buddhism in its purest sense is merely an effort to get to the unfiltered essence of Buddhism. We have to keep in mind that it's been two millennia since Gautama walked the earth, and in that time what he taught has become thoroughly formalized. This is normal enough. The process of teaching demands a certain regulative element so that knowledge doesn't slip over time, so buddhists have tried to codify the teachings and practices and elements of faith into doctrine. This entailed the creation of institutions like temple centers, ordination of teachers, ritual practices, etc, and that led to doctrinal disagreements, schisms, and the creation of various sects. Buddhism today is the teachings plus a whole lot of structures meant to preserve the teachings and make them more accessible, understandable, and consistent.

I mean, if we use the old analogy that Buddha gave us a boat to cross the river, that boat has been rebuilt, refurbished, expanded, painted, etc., with old wood swapped out for new and fresh tar everywhere. It's like the Ship of Theseus paradox in that it's both the same boat and not the same boat.

Secular Buddhists prefer to cut away the dogmatic elements and stick with the practical ones. Some people lean that way out of philosophical mysticism, more reach for it because they dislike the intrinsic power dynamic of institutionalized religions. The concept of nirvana itself doesn't change much — still a "transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma" — except that secular Buddhists rarely adhere to traditional notions of the cycle of death and rebirth.


I have never heard of secular Buddhism. The teachings of Buddha are non secular. Politicians can be secular. Buddha says do not even think of harming anybody even if they harm you, but you must adhere to the Truths which he taught and those Truths are ,unfortunately,in direct contradiction to all religions.

There are three main Truths related to existence which can not be compromised:

  1. All conditioned phenomena are impermanent. 2.All conditioned phenomena are suffering. 3.All conditioned or unconditioned phenomena are without any Self.

Therefore religions like Hinduism , Christianity , Islam etc which believes in God or some state of consciousness are wrong.

There is a state of Nibbana which is unborn , unoriginated, unbecoming, uncreated. It is the escape from born , originated , becoming and created. This is the escape from suffering.


The word 'secular' means:

Secularism is the principle of seeking to conduct human affairs based on naturalistic considerations, uninvolved with religion. Secularism is most commonly defined as the separation of religion from civil affairs and the state and may be broadened to a similar position seeking to remove or to minimize the role of religion in any public sphere. The term "secularism" has a broad range of meanings, and in the most schematic, may encapsulate any stance that promotes the secular in any given context. It may connote anti-clericalism, atheism, naturalism, non-sectarianism, neutrality on topics of religion, or the complete removal of religious symbols from public institutions.


In Buddhism, 'nirvana' or 'nibbana' refers to a knowable state of peace; knowable when greed, hatred & delusion end in the mind. The Pali Suttas say:

When, brahmin, one experiences the remainderless destruction of lust, the remainderless destruction of hatred, and the remainderless destruction of delusion, it is in this way, too, that nibbāna is directly visible, immediate, inviting one to come and see, applicable, to be personally experienced by the wise.

AN 3.55

Therefore, Nibbana is not something 'religious' but is, instead, something 'naturalistic' thus something 'secular'.


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