Why I’m Not a Buddhist

Illustration by Kim Scafuroby Stephen Schettini

On the fringes of mainstream society lies a pool of thoughtful people looking for relief from daily stress, intermittent tragedy, and a lurking sense of unease. They don’t want to become Buddhists and probably never will, but they’re clear on the reality of suffering and its cause. They want to let go of their racing thoughts and self-destructive habits. There is little dust on their eyes.

I’ve been teaching people like this for years. I stick to plain language, but this isn’t stealth dharma; I talk openly of the Buddha and my past without calling myself a Buddhist. My time as a monk is at the core of who I am. I was trained to teach but didn’t like the way monkhood distanced me from ordinary people and everyday life. After eight years I returned to consumer society with no dharma props, and was sorely tested. The theory and esoterica withered while something simple took root.

Twenty years passed before I began teaching, another ten before I found myself once again in the company of old friends—at the Buddhist Teachers Council at the Garrison Institute last June. I stood alongside 250 venerable, lettered, and famous Buddhists, feeling cautiously at home.

After a day and a half of conversations, there was an extraordinary exercise organized by members of the next generation and led by Vinny Ferraro. A line was drawn, everyone stood to one side, and Ferraro guided us with a series of instructions, each starting with “Cross the line if…” After each one, people crossed, turned, and faced those who remained—or not. This was no parlor game. It tore down walls—between people, and between your own heart and mind. When Ferraro said, “Cross the line if you’re a Buddhist” my heart skipped a beat. Part of me simply thought I should cross; a deeper part yearned to rejoin my peers. I felt my long exile as a wave of emotion, and that was the decisive moment for me. As the crowd surged forward, I stayed put.

Mindfulness teaches you to resist what you feel like doing. As I resisted, I recalled that passage from the Kalama Sutta: “Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought, ‘This monk is our teacher.’”

This is where the Buddha’s words ring especially true for the disillusioned, the irreligious, and the skeptical. For the record, I’m all three. I draw a line between the Buddha, a man with something to say, and Buddhism, an institution with an agenda. What I didn’t acknowledge when I first encountered the dharma was my desire to belong to this ancient tradition. I rationalized my conversion with elevating theories of epistemology, psychology, and contemplation. On those topics I hung my hat and shaved my head, all the while blind to my motives. Just when I most identified myself as a Buddhist, I behaved least like a follower of the Buddha.

Now, here I stood facing my demons and my peers. My chest thrummed, tears welled. What irony! My identification with the crowd had lent me the courage to stand apart. The nostalgia I’d felt since arriving sharpened into an acute sense of loss. How far they’d all come, it seemed, and how much I’d abandoned. In that moment I recalled my students. With no need to belong to or believe in anything, they sought nothing but peace of mind. How many times had I reminded them that stress, tragedy, and unease didn’t set them apart? It took Ferraro’s emotional sledgehammer to drive that point back into focus.

The “Buddhists” looked back at me with kindness in their eyes. I didn’t have to cross the line to belong. I felt newly unjudged; my defenses fell. Only superficially were they dharma teachers, celebrity Buddhists. Underneath, they were human beings like me, vulnerable, driven by emotion, yearning for peace.

The creativity of Ferraro and the next generation startled and reassured me. We boomers, for all our pioneering success, were shaped by beguiling Asian forms and are in part mired in that romance. Ferraro’s lot is less bogged down in form, tradition and terminology. They helped me uproot myself again. They reminded me that my generation doesn’t have all the answers, and that the path of freedom begins in experience, not in theory—and certainly not with the mere desire to fit in.


Stephen Schettini is the author of The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit, and What I Learned



  1. says

    Dear Stephen,
    I appreciated your sharing your story and your 'bravery' in being willing to step outside group consensus, identity and the need to fit in and belong. I particularly appreciated your recognition 'that the path of freedom begins in experience, not in theory.' I think the new generation of committed practitioners are facing that reality with regards to the whole Buddhist path within whichever tradition they find themselves. Stripping away the exotic elements of Buddhism and participating in the process of making the dharma our own, is an ongoing and fascinating endeavor that has to be based primarily on actual experience. I think many people are doing great work to this end, quietly, and out in the open with the likes of Buddhist Geeks.
    I have jostled with the label Buddhist, but in the end decided to keep it as it saves time and a lot of explanation, but then I live in a predominantly Catholic country. I don't mind the label as we are inevitably unable to rid ourselves of them in our social identity. It becomes an interesting topic though when curiosity emerges or when dealing with students. Then the label Buddhist opens up a wide reaching discussion on the symbolism that gets associated with the term Buddhist and Buddhism and how if one is interested in ending suffering and waking up, the labels can actually be major obstacles through their oft association with myth making.
    Is the term Buddhist a badge with which we create a new identity which we then cling to for security, or to affirm our position in the world?
    Perhaps doing Buddhism is better than being a Buddhist as it would mean more likely being Buddhist in the real sense of the term.
    Matthew O'Connell


  2. Chad says

    I really enjoyed this book and especially after reading Stephen Batchelor Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. I wish Alan Wallace would write a book detailing his time at the monastery because then you would have 3 completely different view points. As Schettini details all 3 had very different mental approaches to the dharma and being a monk.

    MOST of the time I find myself much closer to Batchelor's approach and I guess Schettini. I call myself a non-religious Buddhist. I can't sustain any type of practice (such as reciting mantras) if the purpose is overly beautific. The world can be found as profoundly sacred without imposing a mystical layer on top of what is already existing. I wrote a little article discussing that idea for the the elephant (email me if you would like the link).

    If a line was drawn in the sand I would cross to the Buddhist side but I sadly admired Schettini for refusing to cross the line. But like the "Buddhist" I understood his decision


  3. says

    It seems that saying one is not religious or a member of a religion while espousing the beliefs and practices of said religion is a very popular thing to do nowadays.


    In fact it is so popular that a religious magazine publishes articles about why someone is not a member of their religion. Why? I find all of this very curious.