It is good that the Guiding Principles of Secular Buddhism remain open to amendment. There have been so many attempts to circumscribe what is and is not Buddhism that it is refreshing to find such principles described as ‘suggestions’, ‘not a perfect description’, and a ‘starting point…to be developed’. In this spirit, I suggest some amendments to the initial, brief definition. Even if not acceptable, my attempt could be thought of as a ‘guest’ version, to provoke discussion.
Secular Buddhism is concerned with the practice of Siddhattha Gotama’s four noble truths in this world. It encourages a naturalistic and pragmatic approach to the teaching, seeking to provide a framework for personal and social development within the cultural context of our time.
Secular Buddhism is committed to practice in the tradition of Siddhattha Gotama, while encouraging pragmatic, naturalistic and imaginative approaches to the teaching, and providing a framework for personal, social, cultural and ecological development within the context of our time.
1) It is worth continuing the search for the most effective ‘joining’ words, even though they are not of prime significance to the overall meaning.
2) Brief definitions are best restricted to a single sentence.
3) ‘…committed to…’ is more positive than ‘…concerned with…’ and suggests the possibility, although not the necessity, of some kind of formal commitment to Secular Buddhism, should an organisational structure eventually emerge.
4) Some (but not all) of the force of ‘…in this world…’ is included in ‘naturalistic’. Addition of ‘imaginative’ allows for the function of veridical fictions: those parts of Buddhist teaching, such as the Jatakas or the Mahayana/Vajrayana pantheon, which may not be entirely true from the perspective of naturalism, but which may be a beneficial part of practice as skilful means.
5) Ian Harris argues cogently that, on balance, Buddhism was not particularly concerned with environmentalism until the modern era . The addition of ‘ecological’ to the definition makes it clear that this issue is now of particular concern to contemporary Buddhists. There could be an additional mention in the Guiding Principles that follow the definition.
6) ‘Cultural’ is moved to a position that enables it to carry the implication that Secular Buddhism can alter the cultural context, not just operate within cultural constraints.
7) There is no mention of the four noble truths in my suggested version. In her study of the Atthakavagga of the Sutta-nipata, Grace Burford argues that there were two different approaches to practice in the very early Buddhist tradition: according to ‘right view’ and according to ‘no-view’. She suggests that a path of practice could include both approaches, but that practice according to a right view (for our purposes the example is the four noble truths) is subsidiary to practice according to no doctrinal formula whatsoever. It is on this basis that I suggest that the four noble truths are not included in the brief definition, although they should be included in the guiding principles that follow. There has been plenty of argument about the right view/no-view distinction, along the lines that practising a view is not the same as holding a view; I doubt if that position is philosophically coherent. Sadly, Burford’s book is out of print, with few used copies on the market, but her thesis is worthy of attention by Secular Buddhists, not least because of her finding that the highest ideal of early Buddhist practice was the perfection of ‘virtue-wisdom-compassion’ in this very life, not ‘escape from continued existence’ .
 Harris, I. C., 2000, ‘Buddhism and Ecology’, Contemporary Buddhist Ethics, (Richmond, Curzon).
 Burford’s argument has been critiqued by Fenn and by Fuller. Vetter and Gomez also discuss the Atthakavagga.
Burford, G., 1991, Desire, Death, and Goodness: The Conflict of Ultimate Values in Theravada Buddhism, (New York, Peter Lang).
Fenn, M., 1996, ‘Review: Ultimate Values in Therav?da’, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 3, pp. 80-84.
Fuller, P., 2005, The Notion of Ditthi in Therav?da Buddhism, (London, Routledge Curzon).
Gomez, L.O., 1976, ‘Proto-Madhyamaka in the Pali Canon’, Philosophy East and West, 26 (2), pp. 137-165.
Vetter, T., 1988, The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, (Leiden: Brill), pp.101-106.