Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Growing Deeper, Engaging Further: a future for Progressive Buddhism

As this blog enters its 10th year, I find myself wondering: what next?

The blog has had its ebbs and flows, as has Buddhist blogging in general (and all blogging perhaps?). Perhaps it has been replaced by facebook groups? (such as our own, founded in 2015) Maybe it has been replaced by a few 'big name' thinkers?

In any case, what next? I imagine we all have requests and ideas, and I'd love to hear them - here in the comments section of the blog.

As for myself, an idea has been percolating for a while to clarify and develop the ideas of "Progressive Buddhism." The hope is to make Progressive Buddhism clearer both to us (this very loosely knit band of writers and readers) and to the greater world. Think of the development of Secular Buddhism in recent years, or if you're a historian you can think of the ways that Buddhism developed unique and new schools in places like Tibet, China, and Japan. Existing schools will remain, but in a new land, new needs and new contexts present new challenges, and we can respond creatively or ossify and either cut ourselves off, or as often happens, find that [our narrow version of] Buddhism doesn't work for us.

The idea would be to develop on the progressive side a "platform" of sorts: a set of ever-changing ideas and principles to adhere to, movements and developments we tend to support, prejudices and "regressive" tendencies we hope to move humanity away from, etc.

On the Buddhism side, a set of characteristics and practices we might affirm, not as a creed or dogma, but perhaps more in line with the Unitarian Universalist tradition, adopting general principles and sources.

A start:

Progressive - (dedicated to, in no particular order)

  1. Tackling climate change
  2. Fighting racism and structural racial injustice
  3. Reducing wealth and income inequality
  4. Increasing understanding, tolerance, and kinship among all peoples
  5. Ensuring access to healthcare, education, clean air and water and food and shelter for all
For example, we can pool ideas, seek out experts, and work together for small and large-scale solutions to these issues. Some of us can enact them. Others can help existing schools of Buddhism sign on and help. This is not about establishing and us-vs-them mentality, but about bringing all of humanity together through our ideals and practices. 


  1. Welcoming and affirming all Buddhisms
  2. Establishing a broad curriculum in Buddhist history, philosophy, and practice
  3. Supporting and engaging with practices that bring ancient tradition into the current world
Lively discussions can bring out our understandings of Buddhism as individuals and as a community. Essays could be collected, books written, etc. The Buddhist canon is ever-evolving and grew in Tibet and grew in China, and so on. Some people consider Gary Snyder's 1969 "Smokey the Bear Sutra" to be part of the Buddhist canon. Why not? As long as it delivers the wisdom or practical instruction of the tradition in ways appropriate to the age, it should at least be considered.
Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

One might look to the Unitarian Universalist "Seven Principles" and "Six Sources" for further inspiration. The principles, for instance, might go virtually unchanged as borrowed into Progressive Buddhism:

UU Seven Principles

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
(replacing congregations with either sanghas or communities)

And the six sources can likewise be borrowed, though with greater emphasis on Buddhist traditions as primary, but not exclusive, sources of the new tradition.

UU Six Sources, repurposed slightly

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of reformers and philosophers which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from Western religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • The many Buddhist traditions' in all of their manifestations
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Establishing this community of ideals, we might argue less about specifics of faith (a favorite pastime it seems of many convert Buddhists) and focus more on growth and development, both as individuals and as a community.

Given this, I must recognize that I'm mostly just an 'ideas person' - I'm not a natural organizer or leader or any number of key roles that will need to be filled for the launch of a New Progressive Buddhism. What would you like to see here? What role can you play?

Some guidelines:

If you're not interested, that's fine. Perhaps some aspect of the Buddhist status quo is 100% just fine with you. Good. Join them, practice, learn, etc.

We're not interested just now in debate (there has been plenty of that). The affirmed aim of Progressive Buddhism is already to bring the tradition anew into contemporary life. This implicitly critiques existing traditions, but not wholesale and not lightly. In fact, we would argue that this critique (and change and growth) is part of living traditions already and is essential for their continued existence.