Revamp: Writings on Secular Buddhism by Winton Higgins
The Tuwhiri Project, Wellington, June 2021
Review by Alex Carr
Some of us will remember Winton Higgins as a keynote speaker at the 2013 National Conference. Here is a review of his latest book, reprinted with permission from the Secular Buddhist Network (https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org).
With the growing popularity of a secular approach to the dharma over the last 10 years, it is important for us to take a step back and see the big picture to understand the current state of secular Buddhism. Winton Higgins’s latest book, Revamp: writings on secular Buddhism, successfully charts the history of this relatively new trend within Buddhism and identifies some of its core characteristics. In doing so, Higgins has created the best account of the history of secular Buddhism available today, while also reflecting on its key perspectives and practices, as well as its upcoming challenges.
The book could be roughly divided into two parts. The first part is focused on the rise of secular Buddhism, locating it within wider historical and cultural influences. The second is composed of a more free-flowing series of essays on key topics connected to secular Buddhism, including a secular approach to meditation, the role of democratic sanghas, and the need for secular Buddhists to engage with the challenges of climate change and social inequality.
Reading Higgins’s analysis of the history of secular Buddhism (and Buddhism more generally) I started to see the Dharma like it was a wagon, where every component of a wagon was an idea. Perhaps each wheel was one of the four tasks, the eight-fold path part of the carriage. The wagon’s value, its ability to transport people from one place to another, depended not on each of the individual component ideas (you can’t get far with just one wheel!) but rather on how those components worked together. Revamp is a book that tells the story of the wagon – the bundle of ideas, concepts and philosophies that are Buddhism, and traces its journey through human minds over 2,500 years. We see that almost from the moment the Buddha died, people started to change the size, appearance and purpose of the wagon of Buddhism. People heaped on top shrines and statutes, metaphysical concepts, breath-taking temples and sterile monasticism.
Higgins contextualises the journey of the wagon of Buddhism as it went across Asia, but one of the most fascinating parts of Revamp is where he analyses what happened when the wagon stopped in the west. What were secular westerners, with thousands of years of their own political, cultural and social outlooks, to make of the wagon of Buddhism? Many of the components that had been added on to the Dharma in the years since the Buddha’s death made no sense to westerners; and the cultural embellishments and decorations that had been shoe-horned on were making the wagon unstable and unroadworthy. Most westerners wouldn’t be seen dead riding in something that looked so strange and alien, though some bravely contorted their bodies and tried to clamber onto the wagon of Buddhism – I think of middle-aged white men with shaved heads and saffron robes who have the unenviable task of convincing themselves that rebirth is true.
Higgins traces the first tentative attempts to restore and renovate that wagon of Buddhism for the secular western mind, that gradual revamp of the Dharma. The slow cautious checking of each component to see if it was needed or if it was an ornamental embellishment. The evaluation of the wheels and body to see if it could be made to carry western minds to their destinations. Reading Revamp, a picture emerges of an effort by thinkers such as Stephen Batchelor to pare Buddhism back to its core and a careful process of restoration and renovation in the minds of practitioners to authentically reconnect with the Dharma.
One area where Higgins’ analysis illuminates is its evaluation of why westerners wanted to practice Buddhism. Why did we engage in this task of revamping the bundle of ideas of Buddhism in an effort to make them work for us? What appeal did we collectively see? Drawing on western political and social philosophy, Higgins undertakes a through exploration of aspects of western philosophy and culture that resonate with Buddhism to help us to understand, in effect, why we are secular Buddhists. He connects secular Buddhism with ideas of the protestant reformation and secular Christianity, as well as the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Martin Hägglund, Sigmund Freud and Peter Watson.
In this exploration of western philosophy Higgins’ background as an academic is a blessing, adding depth supported by impeccable research and references, though at the expense of quick readability. Those wishing to explore Revamp will need time and patience, but it’s an immensely rewarding journey.
Revamp is especially valuable to those already familiar with secular Buddhism. There were several points where Higgins’ analysis helps slide different pieces of the puzzle together sometimes in quite entertaining ways. For example, he humorously sheds light on the mystery of why secular Buddhists from the United States sometimes get caught up debates on whether God exists and on whether the benefits of Dharma practice align with our present understanding of science (especially neuroscience), whereas secular Buddhists from other Western countries generally manage to stay clear of those swamps.
While the first part of the book outlines what is essentially secular Buddhism’s past and present, the second half of Revamp gives us a picture of its possible future. Higgins begins to explore themes that I think connect with an emerging theme or direction in secular Buddhism: what I like to think of as Secular Buddhism version 2.0. Secular Buddhism 1.0 was a movement inevitably defined by what it wasn’t – a movement breaking free of religious, metaphysical Buddhism, but weighed down with the concern with whether their interpretation of the Dharma is ‘correct’ and often getting drawn into mostly pointless arguments with religious Buddhists. In Revamp we start to see the outline of Secular Buddhism 2.0, a liberated, mature and confident practice of the Dharma that draws strength from its secularity – it’s deep concern for this world, and this life, for the communities that Dharma practitioners live in and for all people regardless of gender or race or economic status. A practice that draws strength from its agility and openness to ideas and philosophies that are sympathetic to the Dharma while ignoring the cries of religious Buddhists wanting to get into arguments about ‘truth’.
Revamp’s second half demonstrates the potential strength of this Secular Buddhism 2.0, highlighting the benefits of more flexible, self-chosen ways to meditate, as well as more democratic and egalitarian sanghas. On a broader theme, Higgins enthusiastically analyses and highlights inequality, racism and the destruction of our climate as key concerns for secular Buddhists. and as a responsibility of those who choose what he calls ‘Dharmic citizenship’. Secular Buddhism’s confidence and appreciation for useful wisdom (regardless of its source) is illustrated in Higgins’s analyses of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’: on care for our common home to decry the destruction of our environment as the greatest ethical issue of our time, and Albert Camus’s The Plague to highlight social issues around COVID-19.
Revamp is a brave, insightful book that breaks new ground for secular Buddhists and may prove to be a building block in a new direction for secular Buddhism.