One on the recent developments in Buddhism is the rise of what is identified by its proponents as “Secular Buddhism.” What makes Secular Buddhism an interesting case for studying the adaptation of Buddhism to Euro–American society is the way in which its proponents, apparently entirely unwittingly, replicate Protestant discourse in support of their views. This does not refer to adopting doctrinal views (though I would argue separately that much of engaged Buddhism does so), but rather refers to the kinds of arguments that are given for their positions.
Despite their assertion of secular status, the realm of discourse in which Secular Buddhism operates is that of popular religious culture. The focus on individual self-improvement through meditation, for example, places Secular Buddhism firmly in the realm of the psycho-therapeutic self-help culture, which is itself a subset of the broader popular religious culture. The discursive dynamics of that culture is deeply imbued with Protestant rhetoric strategies and their concomitant presumptions, and Secular Buddhism employs those for its own ends. In doing so, Protestant presumptions inform Secular Buddhism at a level much more fundamental than any of the specific doctrinal claims that they assert. And because they are operating at a level below the surface of the mindfulness movement as well, of which Secular Buddhism is effectively a subset, these rhetorical strategies are having a more fundamentally transformative effect on Buddhism in the West than many of the more familiar and discussed topics, e.g., medicalization.
At this point, it seems to me that there are six specific kinds of rhetorical strategies that Secular Buddhism has adopted from the Protestant tradition:
1. anti-clericalism and “the priesthood of all believers”
2. textual fundamentalism and textual literalism, particularly employed without the philological skills
3. quest for the purity of origins
5. claim to distinguish between essentials and cultural accretions (related to anti-ritualism)
6. anti-intellectualism (alternative authority, like anti-clerical)
Each of these six will require separate exploration in detail, and this structure will inform several forthcoming posts.