I have just come back from the conference of Buddhist teachers in Europe. While I was there I heard much discussion about secularisation and how it is necessary to secularise the Dharma in order to make it palatable to modern people. Personally, I am resistant to this idea. The Dharma is, in essence, a faith that lodges deeply in people’s hearts and that means that it is a religion. If you take the religion out what you are left with is a variety of techniques and protocols that can be intrinsically useful but is far short of real Dharma.
Furthermore, technique Buddhism takes up a lot of space in people’s already over full lives. A busy person who is hoping to get something from Buddhism does not really need telling that he should do an hour of medtation in addition to all the other things he has to do in a day. He is likely to try it for a short while and then find that it just gets squeezed out by all the other things that are on his agenda, whereas if he were to develop a sense of faith and gratitude for the Dharma, he can carry this with him wherever he goes. He can say a mantra or nembutsu while stopped at the traffic lights. He can gesture towards his heart anytime and this will help him to stay in touch with the wonderful sense of refuge that is the core of Buddhist faith. A less secular and more religious attitude is far more practical, apart from being the real thing.
However, some people say that I am in self-contradiction because I am in favour of a psychological perspective. Thus, for instance, I understand the life of Sidhartha Gotama in personal terms. His mother died giving birth to him. If you read the diary of the great 20th century Chan master Tzu Yun who had a similar beginning to life, you can see clearly how such a circumstance creates a deep personal and existential dilemma for a person and how one of the ways of dealing with this is to try to attone, which Siddhartha did by throwing himself into penitential practices, starving himself, going without sleep and trying all the extremes of yogic discipline. It then happened, when he was at an extremity, that Sujata showed kindness to him and I reason that this touched his heart and must have been a significant element in triggering his “one good night” of enlightenment.
Some Buddhists do not see the Buddha this way. They imagine that he was as he was as a result of many lifetimes of preparation and that he arrived in this life direct from the Tushita Heaven already equipped with all the knowledge that a Buddha needs; that he only went through the motions of being a human being in order to demonstrate the Dharma to us lesser beings. They do not, therefore, see the enlightenment as a result of a personal history or struggle. They think that if you psychologise the Buddha story in the way that I do, then you are effectively secularising the Dharma. I do not agree.
I do not agree because being religious does not imply that one has to be super human. Even if one does come into this life direct from Tushita, one comes as a human. To talk about Jesus’ passion on the cross does not make Christianity any less religious. Jesus and Sidhartha were human, but because they dealt with their humanity in a particular way they became channels for what is more than human to become manifest in the world. They became, as it were, mirrors for the light of the Dharma. In this way they are both fully human and fully divine. They are fully divine in that the ultimate truth shines through them. They are fully human in having the same instincts, the same human equipment, the same struggles that everybody has. They, however, took things further than most people do and, by doing so, revealed the highest truth.
Literally, "psychology" means the study of the soul and we shall not get far with religion if we do not study the soul’s perilous journey, both in the cases of the great exemplars and in our own lives. Furthermore, all psychological problems and obstacles are essentially spiritual and vice versa. To live a life of great compassion the Buddha had to understand the people who came to see him. He had to understand the mentality of Angulimala, the murderer. He had to understand that of Kisagotami who could not believe that her child was dead. He could only help by understanding and tailoring his response to that comprehension. Spiritual work is psychological and psychological work is spiritual. If it is not, it is not the real thing.
So I find a psychological understanding immensely useful and Buddhism provides me with a mass of psychological tools, but this does not mean that I am secularising the Dharma nor that the idea of doing so has any great appeal to me. For me the Dharma answers to my spiritual experience, search and struggle and the fact that the Dharma is full of wonderful psychological insights helps greatly. It all gives shape and expression to my faith and shows how unconditional grace operates in the midst of this conditioned existence.