According to modernist Buddhist opinion, Buddhism, at its heart, is a philosophy and not a religion, Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities Steven Collins said at his Humanities Day talk, “Buddhist Practices of the Self.”
“The essence of Buddhism is not Buddhist,” he said, quoting French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. When Buddhism is stripped of its rituals and trappings—rebirth, amulets, worshipping the image of Buddha—it is atheistic and individual, he said. Buddhism then simply becomes a philosophy, a practice of mindfulness, the modernist view says.
Collins opened his talk by tracing the history of Theravada Buddhism from pre-modern times to the present day.
It is generally believed that before the 19th century, Collins said, Buddhism was restricted to monks and nuns, who practiced what Michel Foucault and Pierre Hadot call “spiritual exercises”—specific lifestyles dedicated to training.
Since then, however, many laypeople have taken up Theravada Buddhist practices, such as calming meditation and insight meditation. Buddhist practices are also used in modern Western scientific practices such as positive psychology, Mindfulness-Based Stress Relief, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
However, these practices no longer seek specific Buddhist goals of enlightenment and attainment of nirvana. Instead, they seek more vague aims of “happiness, wisdom, flourishing, and well-being.”