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.