Ethan Nichtern is a Shastri (senior teacher) in the Shambhala tradition, and the founding director of The Interdependence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Buddhist-inspired meditation and philosophy, integral activism, mindful arts, and meaningful media. He is the author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence (Wisdom Pubs).

This post originally appeared on the Interdependence Blog.

As I frequently participate in discussions about whether or not Buddhism is a religion, I realize that the question itself comes from an implicit frame with which I don’t agree.

If the framing of a discussion is flawed, the conversation will often spin in irreconcilable loops. Within the framing that exists, I prefer to say that my approach to Buddhism is a “secular psychology and ethics system, a full mental wellness path.”

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who has a profound influence on many aspects of how I conceptualize my practice, as well as my teaching style (although I bring less of the “crazy” and certainly less of the “wisdom”), had this to say as far back as 1966, before he came to North America.

“There are many people who are more learned than I and more elevated in their wisdom. However, I have never made a separation between the spiritual and the worldly. If you understand the ultimate aspect of the dharma, this is the ultimate aspect of the world. And if you should cultivate the ultimate aspect of the world, this should be in harmony with the dharma.”

I don’t think the discussion has anything to do with separation of church and state from a governmental standpoint, but rather the bipolarity that individual human beings have been taught to live with in modern society. This split way of regarding our lives and experiences is quite problematic.

So, my view of whether or not Buddhism is a religion is in accord with Trungpa Rinpoche’s view. The question itself is flawed. However, in our world, where institutions are either labelled and categorized legally as religious or secular, where that split already exists and is constantly fortified by the bureaucracy of thought and language, I continue to argue that it’s best to promote Buddhism as secular. Is it really secular? No, it’s secular/spiritual. But in a world that separates the two, it feels much more effective to further Buddhism’s secular progress than its religious status, and that is how I view the path and our job in building genuine and compassionate sanghas.

Find Ethan at his Website, on Twitter, and Facebook.


  1. avatar Richard says:

    The post feels perfect if one considers the “view”, or the “theory”. But I’d like very much to hear what Shastri Nichtern would have to say about the actual practices guiding actual Buddhist institutions.

    In some of them, for example, dissenting views — sometimes on very basic points, not necessarily on “dogmas” — are not allowed, or stigmatized as “aggression”, “betrayal”, etc.

    Again, the “view” of these same institutions is for openness, diversity, dialogue, even if their practices are systematically (not for one person or two) the opposite.

    This stigmatization or denial of dialogue, or even this growing gap between what’s said and what’s practiced, are not characteristics of a religion, and in some cases of a sect or cult, when the gap becomes so big that one doesn’t care if what one says has no connection with what one does?

    For me, the way institutions actually work says much more about their religious or sectary character than the words that guide them.

  2. avatar BobInBrooklyn says:

    Yes, it is interesting that the doctrine on the separation of church and state creates a fundamental disconnect on the spiritual / secular life. The pluralism that we live in today only reinforces this doctrine.

    The Abrahamic religions of the world were founded on monotheism, which is inherently dualistic in nature. God and Man are separate, and that salvation is from this world rather then being in this world.

    Buddhist tradition is founded on the non dualistic premise of self-actualization through the discipline of meditation; which, fundamentally is the union of mind and body ~ there is no separateness ~ there are no labels. It recognizes the interdependence of life.

    The fundamental flaw of having to label Buddhism as either religious or secular is founded in the dualistic nature of monotheistic beliefs, as opposed to the interdependent nature of Buddhist beliefs.

  3. avatar Brian Malone says:

    I agree that the question is flawed, and that the dichotomy in modern society between sacred and secular reflects a rift in modern thought which hobbles the thinker. Rather than look at this problem from the perspective of how Buddhism is perceived by society at large, I think the perception of the individual practitioner is more significant. To one of a secular, philosophical inclination, Buddhism is a secular philosophy. To one of a religious inclination, Buddhism is a religion. To both, it contains a view, a path, and a fruition of ultimate well being for the individual and everyone with whom the individual is connected. If Buddhism is to be promoted, it will happen based on connected individuals recognizing that something positive is going on with “one of their own” and wishing to share in its benefits.

  4. avatar jonckher says:

    I think that many people (myself once included) often conflates religion with ethics. So maybe the question should be read – Does Buddhism come with a set of ethics that one must follow? I believe the answer to this is yes.

    The other thing is that religion is also often conflated with the after-life. In that case, the question should read – Does Buddhism offer a great after-death plan? Well, for most people who identify as Buddhists in Asia, this is also a yes.

    So, in essence, I think that for the majority of Buddhist traditions and the way it is practised – there is no doubt it is a religion. Which is the reason why I tell people I’m an atheist Buddhist.

  5. avatar Susanne Petri says:

    I think Buddhism is more than a “secular psychology and ethics system, a full mental wellness path.” or should be at least. –
    That reminds me of people who seek sex without the burden of true emotion, – that’s alienation, even perversion. Also religion or practice without deep emotion won’t lead very far.
    There is an intrinsic need of religion and Buddhism fulfills it. There are specific religious feelings that buddhism provides and supports. All these rituals and prayers are no science. Why should they even be?
    When you meditate f.i. you get in contact with something, call it god or ‘numinous’ or nothing. May be only the status of your transmitters has changed. Whatever is out there behind my interface I don’t know but this experience seems to be similar in all religions. So even if you call buddhism a religion you don’t have to chose between different ones because they are all equal means to get there. The numinous has no name. All religions are man-made ideas trying to describe these phaenomena. Even Buddhism.
    We are no smooth zoon politikon like ants or bees. We need strong ethical systems to cope with our dysfunctions. They should best be emotionally implemented. A rational categorical imperative alone is usually not enough. And that’s what religions (should) do. But if any manager gets an idea of ethics and compassion while searching for wellness that’s a success.