Gaia Education: Secular Buddhism?

I presented the article written by Daniel Wahl on on Gaia Education. If you read through the article carefully, you will notice some terms-of-art that are culturally ‘Buddhist’, although they are not identified as such: ‘inter-being‘, ‘meditation‘, ‘right livelihood‘, and ‘socially-engaged spirituality‘. Granted, most of the terms-of-art used in the article and the teaching syllabus (downloadable for free) are not derived from Buddhism or any other spirituality or religion. Most of the terms-of-art are derived from the sciences of ecology. However, as a dharma scholar I can’t help noticing those few terms that do register as ‘Buddhist.’

So this provokes the question: Is it ethically justifiable to ‘secularize’ Buddhist principles and integrate them into a secular curriculum that supports a secular development program?

I don’t have a decisive answer to this question myself, because I see merit on both (or many) sides of the argument.

The secularization of Buddhist principles like ‘compassion'(see Gilbert, Neff), and ‘interdependence’ follow a similar pattern with the secularization of ‘mindfulness’.

My pro-secularization argument goes like this: Perhaps Buddhism would have a greater and more beneficial effect on the world if it de-emphasized it’s identity as a religion and allowed its principles and practices to be secularized to serve the world for the sake of social improvement. Perhaps Buddhism itself needs to practice “non-self” by letting go if its tendency to conserve and perpetuate itself as a distinct religious ideology and institution, and thereby allow access to its teachings and practices to people of all faiths or secular persuasions.

My anti-secularization argument goes like this: Placing Buddhist terms-of-art into secular education programs, without explicitly labeling them as Buddhist, is not entirely transparent to non-Buddhists and perhaps somewhat deceptive. It’s a way of grafting Buddhist ideology into secular programs without being flagged as representing a particular ideology or worldview. Granted, ‘compassion’ and ‘interdependence’ are by no means exclusively Buddhist. But principles like ‘inter-being’ and ‘right livelihood’ certainly are.

In another example from the ‘mindfulness’ movement, some First Nations (indigenous tribes) in Canada have objected to the teaching of ‘secular mindfulness’ in their schools because it is teaching a particular spiritual tradition, supported by the government, while their own native teaching and spiritual practices are not taught or supported by the government. I think this is a valid argument.

I suppose on balance I prefer the first argument, that Buddhist principles and practices be secularized to serve the world in a self-less way that might benefit people from all faiths and secular persuasions. But I would caution that it is not without costs and risks: we must not be deceptive. We must tell people honestly that the principles are derived from a Buddhist perspective, and allow people to accept or reject them based on their own values and religious or secular beliefs.



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