In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Secularization of Buddhism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Secularization Theories
  • Regional Studies
  • South Asia
  • China
  • Tibet and the Himalayas
  • Korea
  • Japan
  • Europe and North America

Buddhism Secularization of Buddhism
Jørn Borup
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0268


Secularization is a major theoretical concept with its own paradigm in different scholarly fields, including the study of religion. While there are several uses and definitions of the term, it has generally referred to a cultural process in which religious institutions lose authority and religion has declining relevance for the individual. Conceptually, “secular” has been viewed as the opposite of “religious,” and “secularism” as an ideology expressing the idea of separating state from religion. Scholars of religious studies (and scholars of Buddhism) have begun challenging this binary, suggesting processes of secularization to also reinforce the importance of the “religious” within society and culture so that religion is revitalized. Others have underlined the necessity of using the concept as relevant tool in the comparative study of religion. Secularization is typically used as an explanatory concept related to the modernization processes of the 18th–19th centuries, which was a period characterized by Enlightenment thinkers, rationality ideals, functional differentiation, and/or general disenchantment of the world. But the concept also reflects postmodern and global transformations in recent decades, which have had further effects on the continuing decrease of religious authority in some regions. Some of the elements of secularization can be traced much further back in history. Critical reflections on religious assertions, the humanization of cosmologies, and the desacralization of the world were known in early Axial religions, not least Buddhism. As a religion questioning its own epistemological assumptions, Buddhism did not, however, relativize its own institutional importance, but rather established the sangha as a religious organization balancing between monastic religiosity and criticism of (traditional) religion. The reform Buddhism of the 19th century also had elements of proto-secular Buddhism, formulated by important Buddhist figures such as Anagarika Dharmapala (b. 1864–d. 1933), Taixu (b. 1890–d. 1947) and D. T. Suzuki (b. 1870–d. 1966). Spokesmen of this “modern Buddhism” claimed that the religion was convergent with natural physics, Darwinian evolution, humanism, and individualism, seeing modernity as an inspiration for renewal and reformation. Interpretations of Buddhist ideas and practices in the light of modern ideals beyond traditional religious worldviews have been further developed in the transformation of these ideas and practices to Western settings. What has sometimes been called “secular Buddhism” is one such phenomenon, deconstructing what is seen as traditional or cultural elements while at the same time contributing new ideas and practices. Another kind of state-sanctioned and forced secularism can be seen in the policies of Communist China, where Buddhism (and all religion) was previously officially removed from society and in reality banned from the public sphere. In Japan, religious crises have forced Buddhist communities and organizations to rethink their own role in an increasingly secular society. With negative demographic developments in Buddhist Asia, new generations of Buddhists will decline in numbers, and, combined with increased individualization and decreasing religious authority, Buddhism in Asia will probably continue to experience aspects of secularization, even though the Eurocentric connotations of the concept are not directly transferable, the religious and cultural patterns in Asia are diverse, and secularization is not necessarily an irreversible development.

General Overviews

Not all scholars of modern Buddhism find the concept of secularization relevant, either because of its Western connotations or because of its lack of explanatory value in concrete empirical contexts, where the decline of Buddhism does not seem to be an empirically observable reality. No textbooks or monographs have focused specifically on secularization and Buddhism, but several important books and articles have discussed the topic, typically in relation to modernity. Payne 2021 is a new anthology specifically discussing Buddhism and secularization mainly in a Western setting. Bilgrami 2017, Bubandt and van Beek 2012, Dean and van der Veer 2018, and Eggert and Hölscher 2013 generally discuss the relevance of the concept in Asian contexts, while McMahan 2017 and Prebish and Baumann 2002 analyze modern and contemporary Buddhist contexts in which secularity is discussed or implied. While not addressing secularization as such, both Lopez 2008 and Wallace 2003 assume its presence in their analyses of Buddhism and science, and McMahan and Braun 2017 analyze meditation as a concrete secularized phenomenon in contexts often understanding Buddhism as scientific.

  • Bilgrami, Akeel, ed. Beyond the Secular West. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

    Based on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, this anthology takes the questions of secularity into non-Western contexts, asking if secularism and secularization processes are also applicable to Asian, Latin American, and African spheres.

  • Bubandt, Niels, and Martin van Beek, eds. Varieties of Secularism in Asia: Anthropological Explorations of Religion, Politics and the Spiritual. London: Routledge, 2012.

    The editors aim to problematize the dichotomic concepts of religion and secularism, seeking ethnographic analysis of real, existing multiple secularisms and their effects on culture, society, and politics, including the concept of spirituality, which they claim goes beyond both religion and secularity. The book focuses mainly on the Himalayas.

  • Dean, Kenneth, and Peter van der Veer, eds. The Secular in South, East, and Southeast Asia. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    Claiming that “secularism is of utmost importance in Asia despite the fact that there has been no decline of the importance of religion,” this anthology investigates cases of religion-secular relations in several Asian countries, including China, India, Vietnam, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Hong Kong.

  • Eggert, Marion, and Lucian Hölscher, eds. Religion and Secularity: Transformations and Transfers of Religious Discourses in Europe and Asia. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.

    This anthology investigates secularity and the semantic history of secularization in European and Asian contexts, with theoretical reflections on the concept and examples of its historical functionality in China, Japan, Korea, and Sri Lanka.

  • Lopez, D. S., Jr. Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226493244.001.0001

    Lopez traces the historical roots of the scientification of Buddhism from the 19th century, discussing the transformation and negotiation of cosmology, meditation, race, and science.

  • McMahan, David L. “Buddhism and Global Secularisms.” Journal of Global Buddhism 18 (2017): 112–128.

    McMahan analyzes the concept of secularism as something that is historically embedded and contingent, tracing some of the important figures and periods in modern Buddhism, and in Asian, Western, and global perspectives.

  • McMahan, David L., and Erik Braun. Meditation, Buddhism, and Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190495794.001.0001

    This anthology contains a collection of articles on a concrete example of how Buddhism has (also) been secularized and adjusted to suit a scientific worldview, primarily in an American context and through one specific ritual: meditation.

  • Payne, Richard K., ed. Secularizing Buddhism: New Perspectives on a Dynamic Tradition. Boulder, CO: Shambala, 2021.

    An anthology analyzing different aspects of Buddhism and secularization, focusing mainly on modern and contemporary Buddhism in secular Western contexts, including topics such as mindfulness, racialization, museum display, naturalism, and neoliberalism.

  • Prebish, Charles S., and Martin Baumann, eds. Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    While not specifically addressing secularity, this anthology consists of articles dealing with the transplantation and transformation of Buddhism to and in Western countries and regions (Europe and America, but also Africa and Israel).

  • Wallace, Alan, ed. Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

    This collection of articles, several of which are quite normative, discusses relations between Buddhism and science from historical contexts, in the cognitive sciences and the physical sciences.

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