I'm curious what minimal tenets a person must accept in order to be considered a Buddhist.

As an example of the type of answer I'm looking for, I'll give you the minimal tenets of Christianity as I know them. A person must...

  • Accept that there is only one God and that Jesus, his son, walked the Earth for some time in order to be a model for his followers.
  • Accept Jesus/God as their lord and savior.
  • Recognize that they are born in a state of sin, and that acceptance of Jesus/God is the one and only way to attain a happy eternal life.

Is there a similar set of statements that can be made about Buddhism?


9 Answers 9


Sure - the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is characterized by anguish,
  2. the thirst for impermanent things is the cause of that anguish,
  3. that this anguish can be extinguished, and
  4. there is an eightfold path leading to that extinguishing consisting of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
  • added line breaks, hope you don't mind my skull on your answer :)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 11, 2014 at 19:04
  • 1
    FWIW I think that the third noble truth is worded as being the cessation of suffering, not the cessation of thirst, though the two are connected by the second truth.
    – ChrisW
    Sep 11, 2014 at 20:40
  • 1
    Yeah I too had some issues with this rendition...
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 11, 2014 at 20:47
  • 1
    Though in protest - "And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving." SN 56
    – user698
    Sep 12, 2014 at 1:47
  • 1
    Tried to by pithy and get all of the meaning. Hah. Didn't happen. But - "And this, monks is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming." SN 56 "Becoming" (bhava tanha) is a thirst for self-making - a self that is ultimately fabricated (anatta) and impermanent (anicca).
    – user698
    Sep 12, 2014 at 13:41

You just need to take refuge in the Triple Gem sincerely.

  1. Buddham saranam gacchami - I go to the Buddha for refuge.
  2. Dhammam saranam gacchami - I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
  3. Sangham saranam gacchami.- I go to the Sangha for refuge.

Refuge here means spiritual refuge. It doesn't mean you reject medicine for physical ailments like in some Christian sects.

Taking refuge will be broken for ordinary people when they die, but this breaking is blameless and does not bring bad results. On the other hand, breaking the taking of the Triple Refuge during one's life is very serious. This is broken whenever a person goes for refuge to a teacher outside the Buddha's Dispensation or when a person is disrespectful to the Triple Gem. Those who are Noble Ones will never break with their refuge. But ordinary people, through ignorance, doubt, and wrong knowledge about the special qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, are susceptible to breaking their refuge.

Read more at How to Take the Triple Refuge.

  • 2
    I thought taking refuge in the triple gem is the basic entry for every Buddhist. By looking at other answers I get the feeling that there are different opinions on this as well :)
    – dmsp
    Sep 11, 2014 at 20:07
  • At what physical age, after how much education, does a lay person or child typically 'take refuge'?
    – ChrisW
    Sep 11, 2014 at 21:02
  • @ChrisW, there's no minimum age given, AFAIK. As soon as a child can speak the language and have a basic understanding of what it means, he can take refuge. Sep 12, 2014 at 2:24

I'm not even perfectly sure about your Christian tenets; for example,

  • So far as I know, it's only opinion (it's not canonical) that those are the minimal tenets
  • There's even perhaps a dispute about one of your tenets: a dispute between mainstream Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant) about whether "accepting Jesus" is the way to life (the Catholic church teaches that faith is not sufficient)

There are several (many) Schools of Buddhism.

Here is one article, titled Two Main Schools of Buddhism, which claims that,

The areas of agreement between the two schools are as follows:

  • Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.
  • The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
  • The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.
  • The Pattica-Samuppada or teaching on Dependent Origination is the same in both schools.
  • Both reject the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world.
  • Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any difference.

All of these are words which you can easily look up; for example, Four Noble Truths, Anicca, etc.

IMHO the central, first, or 'minimal' part of the Christian Bible is the Gospels, which describe the life and words of Jesus.

Similarly, IMHO the central part of the Buddhist scriptures are the parts which describe the life and words of the Buddha.

The most central part of the Buddha's doctrine is perhaps what/everything he taught in his first sermon after he became enlightened, which is called "The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma", a.k.a. "The Sermon at Benares".

You might have noticed that Buddhists like numbered lists: four noble truths, eightfold path, etc. Another is the "triple jewel", i.e. "the Buddha (himself), the Dharma (his teaching), and the Sangha (his 'church')".

The "four noble truths" are, approximately:

  1. Suffering exists (gives various example including poverty, disease, old age, death)
  2. Suffering is caused by desire/attachment/craving (to have what you don't have, or to keep what you can't keep)
  3. There's a way which leads to the end of suffering
  4. That way is the eightfold path, which is: Right views; right aspirations; right speech; right behavior; right livelihood; right effort; right thoughts; and right contemplation.

Note that what I listed above is tenets of doctrine (i.e. words or beliefs); but (at least one school of) Buddhism is or requires more than only doctrine or faith: it requires or consists of "right effort", "right behaviour", etc. (as listed above and as described/defined/analysed in considerable detail).

  • "I'm not even perfectly sure about your Christian tenets" -- I like that this answer points out the inherent difficulty with determining fundamental tenets to begin with.
    – Caleb Paul
    Sep 11, 2014 at 23:43
  • If I were to try to quote the Christian church's own statement of what the fundamental tenets are, it would probably be the creed, perhaps its use in baptism and mass; or if I were to try to quote Jesus himself instead of the church, it might be his Great Commandment.
    – ChrisW
    Sep 12, 2014 at 9:10

Main tenets? Here how I see them:

  • There is good (health, peace, nirvana) and bad (sickness, trouble, suffering, samsara) -- versus "nothing matters" i.e. nihilism.
  • By acting a certain way we can change our life, and the lives of people, away from the bad and towards the good. -- versus "everything is predetermined" i.e. fatalism or "it's all because of society, I cannot do anything" -- i.e. victim consciousness.
  • Enlightenment is real and achievable in one life -- versus "Enlightenment is a fiction" or "It takes 10000 lives to attain".

In the Zen tradition in which I've practiced, I was taught "Refrain from evil, do good and purify this mind." Everything else was guidance about practices (particularly seated meditation) that could help accomplish those goals. There was not any particular emphasis on 'being' a Buddhist. It doesn't really matter what I think, imagine or believe; things are what they are. So, while I would say that there are plenty of useful lists of tenets, ultimately you don't need to believe anything to be a Buddhist or, more to the point, to be a Buddha. It's about the practice.

  • I agree with you, but I think the issue has two sides: 1. initially I must have some kind of "faith" that something will help me - the car will start if I put the key in. 2. The more I know, the more effective I can be: I started a car with a pencil once (it was flooded) and with a broomstick another time (starter cable grounded on manifold). So, knowing how to drive a car is the basic level, and knowing some things about how it works can be useful. People will get in the car and learn to drive if they see us going places safely and happily! (initial acceptance / faith)
    – user2341
    Nov 30, 2014 at 15:01

What tenets must a person accept to be a Buddhist?

Here's what the Buddha had to say about it:

In what way, Bhante, is one a lay follower?”

“When, Mahānāma, one has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha, in that way one is a lay follower.”

“In what way, Bhante, is a lay follower virtuous?”

“When, Mahānāma, a lay follower abstains from the destruction of life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from liquor, wine, and intoxicants, the basis for heedlessness, in that way a lay follower is virtuous.”
-AN 8.25 & SN 55.37 (They are both worth reading in their entirety)

And what does it mean to take refuge? It means trusting that the Buddha [as the name implies] awakened, that what he taught is realizable & verifiable for oneself and that his community of followers are worthy of generosity & respect:

'We will be endowed with verified confidence in the Buddha: "Indeed, the Blessed One [the Buddha] is worthy & rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the cosmos, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed."

'We will be endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: "The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves."

'We will be possessed of verified confidence in the Sangha: "The Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples who have practiced well... who have practiced straight-forwardly... who have practiced methodically... who have practiced masterfully — in other words, the four types [of noble disciples] when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world."
-SN 41.10, Seeing the Sick

  • I like this answer, because it quotes the Buddha. But it's a bit of a circular definition, isn't it? Because it pre-supposes that the person asking the question knows that "the Dhamma" is.
    – ChrisW
    Sep 12, 2014 at 12:50
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    @ChrisW Usually, the 'refugee' takes refuge after hearing a Dhamma talk. So, in the end of the talk the person is already filled with enough confidence to take refuge. In cases where the person doesn't hear a Dhamma talk and only knows about the Buddha & his message by hear-say, she will ask the meaning of the words if she is curious enough. So in the end, it doesn't really matter whether it's one way or the other because a wise person will always try to investigate the meaning.
    – Unrul3r
    Sep 12, 2014 at 13:14

In Buddhism your should follow the 3 fold training:

  • Live a life of morality
  • Develop control over your mind
  • Develop wisdom towards the working and natural of your mind with a view to eradicate all sources of stress

In addition you should seek inspiration from the Triple Gem and develop confidance / refuge in the Triple Gem with a view towards developing the qualities in the Triple Gem to complete your 3 fold training and come out of stress. Lack of confidence / refuge in the technique and practice would entail you to not practice properly hence not getting out of stress.

To come out of you should identify stress, the reason behind the stress, that you should overcome stress and the way out of stress which is the 3 fold training.


No argument with any of the answers.

Here is what might be called "barebones Buddhism" 1) follow the breath with awareness 2) have compassion and understanding for all beings including oneself 3) dedicate one's efforts and life for the benefit of all.

There are ways to express that in Buddhist terms, but if you wanted to explain it to a child and hit the major points, that is enough.


I have no formal education in Buddhism, and have never been part of a Buddhist community, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but given I didn't feel a deep sense that any of the existing answers were saying what I'd want to share on this topic, here I am, for whatever it's worth.... (Andrei Volkov came close though!)

What follows is a perspective on the core of the Four Noble Truths.... I see Buddhism as a path - motivated by and cherishing empathy and compassion - to improving quality of life. This is completely achievable given the insight that quality of life is a direct function of:

  1. lacking attachment/lust/longing/avarice/neediness

  2. lacking aversion/hatred/fear/disgust/contempt

  3. being fully involved in the moment - to:

    • appreciate whatever enjoyment, empathetic engagement, experience and/or learning is on offer,

    • perceive and accept reality, and

    • plan and act to guide the future towards increased likelihood of a better quality of life for others and ourselves

      • this despite understanding and accepting (per 1.) that those plans/efforts may not actually pan out; we just need sincerity of intent combined with best effort to make educated decisions, though there's often very subtle and complex ways in which we affect future quality of life

Everything else - recommended codes of conduct, exercises of breathing and mind - they're tools to help use the moment to better realise and act consequent to an understanding of the three factors above.

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