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Winton Higgins

Jan 28, 2022

Winton Higgins on Secularizing Buddhism

New Books Network 2022

In the practising life, choices must be made. Those choices occur at all levels from big picture views of the world, a whole life, and society, to the everyday choice of how to be in the world, how to act, and what to commit to. In this three part series on Secular Buddhism, we find figures who have made a specific choice to stick with Buddhism and attempt to change it. Winton Higgins notes that there are two lines that characterise the loose network of groups and individuals who identify as Secular Buddhist, one is more scientific, the other philosophical, though inevitably there is overlap. Data or ideas? Experience or observation? Dichotomies such as these never truly exist but signal a stance we might take towards what is.

Winton is a useful figure to start off our series; intelligent, well-read and more towards the philosophical line, Winton is happy discussing Martin Heidegger and Pope Francis and does so in our chat today. One interesting observation the more critical listener may notice is the unashamed reliance of Secular Buddhists on the idea of an original Buddha and an original Dharma and going back to the source. In my preparation for this conversation, the most interesting critique I found was not the contemporary criticisms of the more traditional forms of Buddhism, but a more academically informed concern about the degree to which an original Buddha or Dharma can be traced.

The Pali Canon being like the Bible is a mishmash of reconstruction with wide ranging takes on both the figure of the Buddha and the Dharma and therefore all readings of it end up being necessarily selective. The critique then is not the interpretation but the reliance on a text which has a contested present and contested past. Apart from this tension, Higgins openly states that Secular Buddhism is in line with the lineage of Buddhisms stretching back to our archetypal origins. This is not a problem in my view and the conversation is interesting for what it reveals about an individual working with the present and the past in making sense of how Buddhism may be brought into a contemporary, lived practising life.

Enjoy, the next step in this series will be with the man himself, Stephen Batchelor.

Matthew O'Connell is a life coach and the host of the The Imperfect Buddha podcast. You can find The Imperfect Buddha on Facebook and Twitter (@imperfectbuddha).

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Matthew O'Connell

Matthew O'Connell is a life coach and the host of the The Imperfect Buddha podcast. You can find The Imperfect Buddha on Facebook and Twitter (@imperfectbuddha).


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