NOTE: Secular Buddhist understandings of the traditional views are below, following the traditional views.
The Traditional Buddhist View
The Wheel Of Life – the concept that all living things are eternally born again and again in one form or another. The wheel contains the possibility that one could be born into other realities and in forms not found in this reality. The force that drives rebirth on the wheel is karma, created by greed, hatred and ignorance. There is no escape from the wheel of life. (see Enlightenment below)
Karma – all one’s choices or actions create positive or negative energy. This energy manifests in one’s life in the future as positive or negative events or in one’s future lives i.e. being reborn into pleasant or unpleasant realities or forms of existence.
Reincarnation – what is reincarnated is one’s karma. It is that which manifests into a new self-aware life form.
In the part of the world Buddha lived in, The Wheel Of Life and its component parts and forces was the universal view of reality at that time. What follows is The Buddha’s contribution.
Dependent Origination – the concept that all things exist only because other things upon which they depend exist. No thing has an existence independent of other things but rather all existence depends on pre-existing conditions.
Emptiness – given that all things are dependent on other things, no thing has an independent and permanent existence. This includes all living things, including humans, and therefore there can be no “immortal soul” and no fixed, permanent self.
The Three Characteristics of Existence or The True Nature Of Reality – given that all things are dependent on other things: 1) all things are empty of a separate existence; 2) therefore can only exist temporarily and; 3) therefore no thing can bring lasting happiness.
Enlightenment / Nirvana / Awakening – simply the end of ignorance with the realization of the true nature of reality. One awakened to the truth renounces hatred and greed because of the insight that they cannot bring lasting happiness. Free from the driving forces of ignorance, hatred and greed that create karma, one is freed from future rebirth. This was The Buddha’s revolutionary insight – that there was a way to escape the wheel of life. This is the key to understanding his influence at the time and his legacy.
The Middle Way – the idea that neither blind acceptance of life as it appears to be nor complete denial of the basic requirements of life will lead to enlightenment. Only an approach that includes and transcends them both provides the lifestyle necassary for the mental work required to enable the insight into the true nature of reality.
Taking Refuge In The Three Jewels – traditionally the three jewels referred to are the The Buddha, The Dharma and The Sangha and the refuge is refuge from rebirth on the wheel of life. The word Dharma is an ancient Indian word meaning “teachings” or “natural laws”, in this case, The Buddha’s teachings. Sangha is an ancient Indian word meaning group or community. Buddhist’s are said to take refuge in the three jewels because they view The Buddha’s life as an example, the teachings as the path to his accomplishment and the Buddhist community as support in the efforts required.
The Secular Buddhist View
Secular Buddhist’s view the concepts of the Wheel Of Life, Karma and Rebirth as artifacts of cultural mythology and religion. As traditionally defined they play no part in Secular Buddhist belief or practice. Secular Buddhists also do not take the agnostic view regarding reincarnation i.e. that one cannot know if it does or does not exist, but rather take the view that any group or individual has the right to chose and assert what they believe without having to justify their beliefs to others or secure the approval of others. This is consistent with the Secular Buddhist view that there is no authority required outside of one’s self.
Secular Buddhist’s do however agree with the concepts of Dependent Origination, Emptiness and The Three Characteristics of Existence or The True Nature Of Reality.
Enlightenment / Nirvana / Awakening is viewed in the same light as traditionalists view it, that it brings an end to ignorance with its inherent renouncement of greed and desire. What one is freed from however is not from the wheel of life but from the suffering ignorance, greed and desire bring in this life.
Secular Buddhists embrace the approaches of the Middle Way and Taking Refuge in the same way traditionalists do however with a greater emphasis on community and social connection than most traditional practices currently do in the West.