I was reading a book titled "Buddha Dhamma for Inquiring Minds" by Ven. Buddhadasa. In this book he says ordinary people are Buddhists in name only and "To be a ‘true Buddhist’ is to be ariya, those of noble practice who understand everything around them correctly to a far higher degree than ordinary people."

He also says "The reward you will reap with nobility is to rise from the level of ordinary commoner to become a true Buddhist in the ariyan discipline."

Does anyone know what he means here? I thought a true Buddhist was someone who took refuge and sincerely follows the Buddhist path. I know the ariya sangha, including stream enterers, are at a higher level and are more knowledgeable, but isn't it wrong to say only they are true Buddhists?

If it was just some random person saying this I would simply ignore it, but Ven. Buddhadasa is renowned and highly respected, so I take what he says seriously.

  • True Buddhist can not be found.😂😂 Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 13:22
  • 2
    Ven. Buddhadasa's intention is merely to motivate and encourage Buddhists to raise their understanding and practice. I don't think we should read too much into it.
    – Desmon
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 5:32

7 Answers 7


Who the "true" Buddhists are, are clearly defined in the sutta below:

“Mendicants, these eight people are worthy of offerings dedicated to the gods, worthy of hospitality, worthy of a religious donation, worthy of greeting with joined palms, and are the supreme field of merit for the world.

What eight? The stream-enterer and the one practicing to realize the fruit of stream-entry. The once-returner and the one practicing to realize the fruit of once-return. The non-returner and the one practicing to realize the fruit of non-return. The perfected one, and the one practicing for perfection.

These are the eight people who are worthy of offerings dedicated to the gods, worthy of hospitality, worthy of a religious donation, worthy of greeting with joined palms, and are the supreme field of merit for the world.

Four practicing the path,
and four established in the fruit.
This is the upright Saṅgha,
with wisdom, ethics, and immersion.

For humans, those merit-seeking creatures,
who sponsor sacrifices,
making worldly merit,
what is given to the Saṅgha is very fruitful.”
AN 8.59

  • But what does "true Buddhist" even mean really. Like I said, I know the ariya sangha, those you listed, are at a higher level and are absolutely more knowledgeable than an ordinary Buddhist, but it doesn't seem right to limit the definition of true Buddhist to just them. That leaves out millions of faithful Buddhists. Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 18:23
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    @AlphabatSoop There are no official "true" Buddhists at all. The suttas talk about Dhamma followers, faith followers and the eight types of higher level practitioners.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 2:53
  • What do you think then of Ven Buddhadasa's language and his use of the term "true Buddhist"? Do you think he meant to imply that all non-ariyas aren't real Buddhists? Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 6:25
  • @AlphabatSoop He is probably differentiating serious practitioners who aim for Nibbana, and casual practitioners.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 7:09
  • He is meaning that the ariyas are walking the path and the non ariyas are hoping to walk the path. As a petty analogy it is like someone who is trying to become a doctor, they are not a "true doctor" until they get their PHD certificate etc, yet micro seconds or even years before being awarded the doctorate they still had the Knowledge and skill a doctor has, yet they were not a (real) "true" doctor until getting the certificate. This is clearly the distinction. Essentially it is being pedantic and using the discriminatory description of "true" and "non true" to differentiate between...
    – Remyla
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 15:17

A true Buddhist should at least adhere to the five precepts of Buddhism. They should have faith in the teachings of Buddha and strive to live a peaceful life, free from violence. It is important for a true Buddhist to continually learn and follow Buddha's teachings.

The main teaching of Buddha was the "path of enlightenment". Anyone who follows this path can indeed be considered a true Buddhist.

Buddha once said, "To see my Dharma (understand my teachings) is to truly see me". This is encapsulated in the phrase "yo dhamman passathi so Mang passathi".

One's status as a true Buddhist is not determined by what is written on their birth certificate or National Identity Card (NIC). Rather, it is their understanding and practice of Buddha's teachings that define them as a true Buddhist.


What he is meaning by using the word ariya as a noble person as in a person who has experienced the goal and is actually following the path. A sottapanna onward on the stages of liberation.

He is making the distinction between ordinary beings who are embroiled in the swirl of emotions of the world, Puttajanna, and those who have experienced the goal and are walking the path towards liberation, Ariya. For the latter liberation is secured, for the former they could spend lifetimes practising and bear no security that liberation will be attained.

There are faith followers who follow the precepts or pray to statues or meditate on what they were told who may not be "true Buddhists" where as there are those who have experienced right view, have experienced nibanna and are walking the path to cessation.

  • I think I understand. Still, I'm bothered by the way his use of the term true Buddhists seems to imply that millions of faithful Buddhists aren't real Buddhists because they aren't "ariya" or enlightened. Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 2:27
  • What other word should he use? "attempted Buddhists" what word can he use to describe the phenomena so that you can understand the concept. Ruben gave sources above as to the Buddha explaining the phenomena, those who are "worthy" (ariyas) of offerings, as a distinction to those who are "not worthy" Which this commentary is just simply explaining as Buddhists and true Buddhists. The Buddha made the distinction himself with putajanna, faith followers, dharma followers and the 8 ariyas. Seems you are being more hung up on the translation/wording than the understanding of the concept.
    – Remyla
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 3:13
  • I think I understand the concept, and the difference between the levels of attainment. It's like you said, Buddhadasa's wording and tone is what is really bothering me. I don't really like the word "true Buddhist" because, like I said before, it implies other Buddhists aren't real Buddhists. Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 3:47
  • @AlphabatSoop I think the talk was in Thai; it's translated, so I don't think we can assess Ven. Buddhadasa's wording and tone. The Preface talks about the translation of some of the words.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 5:47
  • @Remyla Do you think he meant to imply that non-ariyas aren't true or real Buddhists? Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 1:17

Buddhadasa is pointing out the distinction between religious and philosophical practices. Religious practices are more or less passive activities, in which people rely on rituals, symbols, liturgies, the authority and guidance of clergy, the intercession of divine or transcendent masters, or other sorts of revealed or esoteric leadership. Philosophical practices, by contrast, imply a search for understanding through and beyond the superficialities of religious teaching. In specific, he's distinguishing between:

  1. Lay Buddhists, who burn incense, chant invocations or teachings, place offerings of food or flowers before statues of the Buddha, do ritualistic bowing, etc., and…
  2. Monastic Buddhists, who may or may not do any of those things, but who follow the precepts, study the texts, practice meditation, and generally seek out the true substance of the teachings beyond the mere forms and gestures of lay practice.

This isn't specific to Buddhism, incidentally, but is a truism is every faith. For most people a faith is a mere source of authority which they either accept over their lives or reject. For a few, a faith is a path to understanding that needs to be embraced and absorbed. Buddhadasa is suggesting that embracing the faith is more profound and wholesome than merely accepting it as authoritative and I can't disagree, though I suspect he may be dumbing it down a little for his audience (i.e., presenting the philosophical view in an authoritative tone that lay practitioners might respond to).


The Editor's Foreword says that it's translated from talks given in 1966 to students in Bangkok. It spends a few pages explaining the translation of the words in the title (which I take as warning that translations are approximate and inexact). Obviously Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu didn't use the English word "true", that's a translation.

In English the word "true" -- see No true Scotsman -- can mean something like, "conforming to an ideal".

In context I think that Ven. Buddhadāsa is trying to draw a clear distinction, between "ordinary people" who are merely born into a Buddhist society and who don't actually practice, compared with the ideal.

12) ‘How do the minds of ordinary people and dedicated Buddhist practitioners differ?’
We shall consider a perspective that gives some understanding of the difference in level between the minds of ordinary people and the minds of Buddhists who actually practice. ‘Ordinary people’ refers to people who have never been proper Buddhists, know nothing of genuine Buddhism, merely follow customs, are Buddhists in name only, or according to birth records through having been born of Buddhist parents. To be a ‘true Buddhist’ is to be ariya, those of noble practice who understand everything around them correctly to a far higher degree than ordinary people.

The distinction may be exaggerated to more clearly illustrate the difference -- black and white, instead of shades of grey -- I assume his purpose was to tell the students about the "true" Buddhist doctrine and practice and to encourage them to be 'heedful'.

  • so you don't think he meant to imply that non-ariyas aren't true or real Buddhists? Commented Oct 15, 2023 at 20:31

Nobility starts with understanding. As adults, we are so busy with our careers, our spouse and children and chasing after wealth, fame and power. There are times when we would pause for a moment in our worldly pursuits and wonder if this is all there is. When we understand and grew weary with such worldly pursuits and yearn for something more meaningful, that’s when we begin to understand the difference between the ordinary and the noble. Knowing the ordinary is to understand what the world has to offer. Knowing the noble is understand what the mind has to offer.

Nobility begins with seeing reality. When the Buddha saw old age, illness and death, he could no longer bear to live in a façade, in an illusion that nothing bad will happen. When we are young and intoxicated with the vigour of youth, nothing can stand in our way. We may experience personal crisis like the loss of our jobs, the loss of our loved ones, the loss of our reputation, the loss of a marriage and so on. But we can shrug it all off and push ahead with confidence. But as we grew old and come closer to the greatest loss of all, our life; we are not so sure anymore.

Nobility grew with the practice in the Dharma. Struggling to understand, reflect and penetrate the Buddha’s teachings. Doing our regular meditation despite our busy schedules. Seeing the futility of our habitual thoughts, speech and actions in helping us achieve truly meaningful well-being and peace, we begin to change. Strangely, the change in behaviour just happens to align to that described of a Dharma practitioner. It is like we did not mean to visit certain places or attractions. But as we followed the prescribed path, these places just appeared.

We are lucky to be born as Buddhists or to come across Buddhism whether we considered ourselves as true Buddhists or not. In an age where the Buddha’s teachings existed, we have the opportunity to ponder and investigate the Dharma. And if we did make sincere efforts then as we grew older and more mature, many of these teachings began to make sense both logically and experientially. This is when we are genuinely thankful for being Buddhists. As to the question of being a true Buddhist or an Ariyan one that is not important anymore; having peace and well-being within is all that truly matters.


I suppose the uniqueness of the Buddha's Dhamma is realizing not-self & emptiness & knowing Nibbana. The Suttas use the word "true" in relation to certain Dhammas, such as:

For that which is false has a deceptive nature, while that which is true has an undeceptive nature — Nibbana.

Tañhi, bhikkhu, musā yaṁ mosadhammaṁ, taṁ saccaṁ yaṁ amosadhammaṁ nibbānaṁ.

MN 140

As long as my true knowledge and vision about these four noble truths was not fully purified in these three perspectives and twelve aspects, I didn’t announce my supreme perfect awakening in this world with its gods, Māras, and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its gods and humans.

Yāvakīvañca me, bhikkhave, imesu catūsu ariyasaccesu evaṁ tiparivaṭṭaṁ dvādasākāraṁ yathābhūtaṁ ñāṇadassanaṁ na suvisuddhaṁ ahosi, neva tāvāhaṁ, bhikkhave, sadevake loke samārake sabrahmake sassamaṇabrāhmaṇiyā pajāya sadevamanussāya ‘anuttaraṁ sammāsambodhiṁ abhisambuddho’ti paccaññāsiṁ.

SN 56.11

Therefore I guess Buddhadasa may be saying a True Buddhist is one that has realized the True Dhamma.

I suppose if these & other higher unique Buddhism truths have not been directly seen, whatever Buddhist 'path' one is practicing is probably not much different to other religions. This said, the suttas appear to contain teachings saying a non-Ariya is a disciple of the Buddha, such as:

Inasmuch, young householder, a disciple of the Noble Ones (1) has eradicated the four vices in conduct, (2) inasmuch as he commits no evil action in four ways, (3) inasmuch as he pursues not the six channels for dissipating wealth, he thus, avoiding these fourteen evil things, covers the six quarters, and enters the path leading to victory in both worlds: he is favored in this world and in the world beyond. Upon the dissolution of the body, after death, he is born in a happy heavenly realm.

DN 31

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