One Secular Humanist’s Buddhist Practices

Does religion aid or hinder the spiritual journey? Can you practice Buddhism without becoming Buddhist?

OnFaith question: The Dalai Lama, who is in Washington, D.C., for a ten day event, has written: “I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.”… “That is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. ”It seems many in the West agree with the spiritual leader, as millions report that they incorporate Buddhist practices such as meditation or mindfulness into their own spiritual activities without necessarily adopting Buddhism as their religion. Does religion aid or hinder the spiritual journey? Can you practice Buddhism without becoming Buddhist?

As a secular humanist, I believe we can gain knowledge of the world through observation, experimentation, reading, and critical thinking. I believe that ethical values are derived from human needs and interests, and are tested and refined by experience. I believe that our deeds are more important than our creeds, and that dogmas should never override compassion for others. I don’t think we should give credit to a deity for our accomplishments or blame satanic forces when we behave badly. I believe we should take responsibility for our actions.

I think the Dalai Lama would agree with everything I just said. I applaud him for saying we can do without religion, and that whether a person is a religious believer is not as important as whether the person is a good human being. I also agree with the Dalai Lama when he says, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

Practicing parts of Buddhism certainly doesn’t make me a Buddhist. I probably “practice” parts of most religions, the portions I consider reasonable and consistent with my secular humanism. This means, of course, that I reject almost all beliefs and practices in most religions. My patriotic Fourth of July celebration included reading the rather short Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson used a razor to cut out the supernatural parts of the New Testament and other passages he thought were morally wrong. Jefferson called what remained, “Diamonds in a dunghill.” I recommend reading all books skeptically and looking for whatever diamonds or pearls of wisdom they may contain.

I expect meditation helps many people relax and gain insights. I tried it, and found that going on a long run in the woods works better for me. Back in 1970, I took a yoga class to become more relaxed and flexible. Our teacher told us about a weekend yoga retreat, which I attended. In addition to yoga, we were introduced to reincarnation. Whether in Buddhism or any other religion, reincarnation is not one of my diamonds. A retreat leader regressed several participants to “past lives.” After the session, I talked to a couple of the regressed who believed their past life experiences were real. Otherwise, they seemed normal, which made me question the meaning of “normal.” More than 40 years later, I’m still questioning “normal.”

The Dalai Lama and I differ significantly on a central tenet of Tibetan Buddhism, that he (born Lhamo Dondrub) was reincarnated to become the 14th Dalai Lama. I believe that neither he nor I have past lives or that we will have future lives. Nevertheless, if all religious believers showed as much compassion as the Dalai Lama does to those of different faiths and none, we would have a far more peaceful world.


Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

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