Book Review of Revamp: Writings on Secular Buddhism


Winton Higgins is a prominent Australian secular Buddhist, and Revamp: Writings on Secular Buddhism (Tuwhiri, 2021) has been hailed by Stephen Batchelor, as “the most comprehensive account of secular Buddhism currently available.” Since Stephen Batchelor’s name is, in some ways, almost synonymous with secular Buddhism, this is high praise indeed. Higgins has been influenced by many of the same authors who have been important to my own development—Stephen Batchelor, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, David McMahan, Alasdair McIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Rorty—just to name a few. We have similar views on what modern Buddhism ought to look like: focused on individual and collective flourishing, pragmatic, ethical, humanistic, non-metaphysical, and socially engaged. We also agree on a Buddhism that leads to an enlarged sense of being—more present, embodied, heartfelt, and caring—and not a relinquishment of that which makes us most human.

Revamp is easily readable and a good place to start for readers wanting a quick snapshot of what an important stream of secular Buddhism looks like today. (Actually, Stephen Batchelor’s books might be better places to start—but Revamp thoroughly summarizes Batchelor’s thinking.) The book includes discussions on how Buddhism intersects with existential phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and other contemporary currents of thought; an extended commentary on Pope Francis’s encyclical on protecting the Earth, Laudato Si’; a critique of neoliberalism; and an extended argument for economic democracy.

While I agree with much of what Higgins has to say, I wish I could say I liked the book better. While Higgins is sympathetic to the pragmatist philosophical tradition, his book contains a good deal of black-and-white thinking on a variety of topics. He contrasts secular Buddhism (good) with traditional, institutional, religious, and monastic Buddhism (bad). He contends (along with Stephen Batchelor) that we can discern what the historical Buddha thought apart from (what Higgins would call) the layers of superstition, mythology, metaphysics, cosmology, ontology, self-purification, hierarchy, patriarchy, and ritual he believes got added by those who came later. It’s no accident that this excavated historical Buddha sounds suspiciously like a contemporary secular Buddhist: non-metaphysical, pragmatic, and existential.

The idea we that we can extract an authentic historical Buddha apart from all the ways the Buddha is portrayed in the traditional Buddhist canons parallels the belief that we can discover the real Socrates apart from Plato’s dialogues, the real Jesus apart from the Gospels, the real Confucius apart from the Analects, or the real Laozi apart from the Daodeching. I personally think these are hopeless tasks. We can make highly educated guesses about the historical context in which these sages lived (Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha is a case in point), but the only Socrates, Confucius, Laozi, Jesus, or Buddha we can really know are the ones who are the protagonists of narrative or epigrammatic texts—the living people who were the bases for these texts are forever lost to history. What we can do is discover which of the actions and words of the protagonists in these texts resonate for us today and speculate about what they might have meant to hearers long ago. I suspect every culture and era interprets or reconstructs a Buddha for its time and place.

Higgins ends his book with a one-sided analysis of the history of capitalism, market economies, neoliberalism and globalization and the need to transition society towards some form of democratic socialism. This section of the book is more jeremiad than thoughtful analysis.

The following quote from the book will give you the general flavor of his analysis:

“The earth and its creatures will never be safe while the institutions of the Washington consensus and Wall Street’s and the City of London’s kleptocrats continue to dictate the basic settings for economic activity – notwithstanding the temporary gains that activists in civil society achieve.”

If this style of analysis appeals to you, you will like the rest of this chapter. To me, it’s another example of black-and-white thinking. I don’t think Higgins has a deep understanding of economics—the reasons how and why things have evolved as they have or the forces that might facilitate or impede an evolution towards greater economic democracy. His heart is in the right place—he has a grand moral vision of how a better society might differ from ours—but no roadmap for how to get from here to there.

I agree with Higgins that the way we carry on our economic activity needs reform, and that the levels of inequality we see in industrialized societies and between the global north and south is a moral disgrace. I also agree that our economic activity is destroying the eco- and  bio-systems our lives and the lives of many species depend on. Finally, I agree that morally realigning our priorities is an important part of an engaged Buddhism. But I believe the best way to achieve improvement is not by “ending” capitalism, globalization, or multinational corporations, but by strengthening the countervailing powers that constrain them: i.e., labor unions, environmental groups, governmental anti-trust, consumer, and environmental watchdogs, political parties that favor progressive taxation, universal healthcare, affordable post-high school education, affordable housing, and a living wage, and so on. As awful as the world is, and as much work as there is left for us to do, Higgins never really grapples with the fact that the capitalism he laments, for all its warts, has lifted more people out of dire grinding poverty and hopelessness in both rich and poor countries alike than any system that preceded it. So, one cheer for capitalism.  Now let’s try to do better.

To summarize, this book is best when it describes the reasons why a naturalized, psychologically- and ethically-oriented understanding of Buddhism might be the best fit for people like us living in late modern cultures. It is weakest when it tries to read this modern Buddhism back into ancient history, when it sets other forms of Buddhism up as strawmen to define itself against, and when it ventures from moral into economic analysis.