So, what are Buddhists to make of all this?
Well, my reference is HH Dalai Lama who lays out his vision for ‘Buddhism without religion’ in two key books, Ethics for the New Millennium and Beyond Religion. For a world religious leader his take is extraordinarily compassionate and generous. Making a distinction between the basic spirituality of our innate human nature, with a natural disposition towards compassion and kindness, and our religion-based spirituality, based on beliefs acquired during our upbringing and cultural conditioning, he points that that of the seven billion people on the planet only one billion shows any interest in the second kind of spirituality, whereas everyone is in urgent need of support for the first kind. He claims that Buddhist study and practice can be separated into what he calls, ‘Buddhist business’, which is the approach suitable for people who wish to make Buddhism their spiritual path and general guidance on meditation and compassion, which can be of benefit to everyone—whether they are interested in religion or not.
Based on this approach, I offer workshops and trainings offering guidance on mindfulness, meditation and compassion to people in the workplace. It never fails to amaze and move me how much people crave this kind of guidance and support and how deeply these techniques work for people with no religious background or interest.
Of course, there are numerous dangers here. The kind of training out there varies greatly in quality and authenticity and too many people holding them have very little practice experience themselves. When you take away the religious context and offer these techniques on the open market, so to speak, people will tend to pick the parts they want and leave out things that are harder to adapt to a secular audience. There is a tendency to dismiss the roots of these practices as just being mystical stuff more suitable for dreamers and old hippies, and to want to create something newer and more relevant for today’s needs. Even the experts—the psychologists and the scientists—can have a sense of ownership that they feel gives them license to merge the original practices with their current theories. Even this can work, as the series of Mind and Life conferences illustrate, but only with dialogue and mutual respect between disciplines.
So here’s the key. As Buddhists we cannot retire to an ivory tower of pure, unsullied Dharma from the heights of which we look down on all this activity with a weary sigh and slightly smug air of self-righteousness. The Buddha did not teach for a select few but for everyone who wanted to hear. In our modern world the way people want to hear, and what they can do with what they hear, has changed dramatically but this is still the dharma doing its thing and touching people. If those of us who have been lucky enough to receive teachings and training from qualified Buddhist teachers can enter the dialogue with all those who are interested in applying the practices of meditation and compassion in their lives then we can help prevent the Dharma being used like a slot-machine solution to our problems and help this new phase of ‘secular dharma’ to be of benefit in the greatest possible way.