Can we consider the four noble truth or any other core teachings in Buddhism as dogmas that we should accept, or could be learn/understand reality only by experience and mindfulness? Is it possible to come to any other conclusions by meditating and practicing mindfulness? I see dogma as a principle incontrovertibly true. Thanks a lot.

  • 4
    You can come to all sorts of conclusions by practicing mindfulness and meditation. People do it all the time. It doesn't necessarily mean that these conclusions are valid, deeply understood, or even the product of insight.
    – user698
    Oct 28 '14 at 1:50

The Buddha said that we should not take his word as truth if it doesn't match up with our own experience. The test, then, is this: do the Four Noble Truths match with observable experience, or are they rules to be taken on blind faith? To simplify: is this a rule, or is it merely an observation? Do we have to accept on blind faith that this is the way things are? The Buddha himself said that was not the case. Thus, it's not a dogma.

The should part of your question implies judgment. Is it a judgment to call something a truth? Could we not say that they are in fact a part of a process, and not actually true or false, but merely steps to be taken? Thus:

  1. There is suffering.
  2. There is identification of suffering.
  3. There is overcoming of suffering.
  4. There is no suffering.

...could be a guide to how to overcome suffering--and is in fact an early form of self-therapy that we might say is an early foundation for modern psychology.

The "truths" aren't actually true or false in the sense of being true or being false; they are more in the sense of being faithful to the ideal of overcoming suffering.

There is, however, a dogma I've run into in Buddhism: the dogma of having no dogmas. It's almost a rule that we should avoid having dogmas of any kind (especially in forms of Zen and Chan Buddhism, though Soto Zen tends to take this to kind of an extreme, in my experience).

So if you take a leap of faith and believe something blindly, you're somehow a "bad Buddhist". But not taking a leap of faith is also a dogma.

Fun little conundrum, isn't it? :)

  • Can you reference a direct quote for the first sentence, "we should not take his word as truth"? Is there a quote in which he ever says specifically that we shouldn't take his word as truth? In the Kalama Sutta for example he says, "don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, etc." ... which isn't quite the same thing as saying "don't trust my words": shouldn't Buddhists interpret that as, "trust the Buddha's words, not other people's words"? There is such a thing as faith (not 'blind' faith, but faith) in Buddhism.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 4:24
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith_in_Buddhism
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 4:30
  • It wasn't a direct quote. A more direct quote might be: "“Do not believe out of blind faith, do not believe merely on scripture, do not believe on mere tradition. Do not believe me just because it is I who speak. But when you have seen, examined and experienced for yourself, then accept it." Analectic thought is common throughout the Buddhist teachings. The way we translate words into English can also change depending on whom we ask, etc., so mincing words isn't going to be helpful in such a case unless you also speak Sanskrit.
    – Vishwa Jay
    Oct 28 '14 at 4:34
  • Can you give an specific reference for "Do not believe me just because it is I who speak"? I ask because although he also invites people to experience and to benefit for themselves, SFAIK he claims to be enlightened, insightful, truthful, trustworthy. I'm not aware of any scripture in which he suggests people might be correct in not believing him ... and certainly nothing to suggest they'd be correct in believing anything that's contrary to his doctrine.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 4:41
  • 1
    Vishwa Jay, excellent post and I really like that you explain not to get hung up on them as "truths". The 4NT are empty like anything else and I think it's easy for people to attach to them by attributing a sort of absolute "truth" i.e. inherent existence to them. Oct 28 '14 at 13:45

"A principle incontrovertibly true" is not a dogma. E.g. in math the principle of associativity -- a + (b + c) = (a + b) + c -- is incontrovertibly true, so what? A principle must be "incontrovertibly true" within some domain -- otherwise it would be useless.

Instead, dogma is a thesis to be taken on blind faith, with no logical proof nor practical evidence. Another definition of dogma is a thesis mistakenly absolutized outside of domain where it is legitimately valid.

As any science, Buddhism -- the science of Liberation -- has its principles, its truths. And within the context of Buddhism they better be true -- otherwise we'd have to throw them away!

But yeah, we have to be careful not to take Buddhist truths as dogmas. Which means two things: 1) by all means try and map what it really means that e.g. "the origin of dukkha is craving" onto one's direct experience; and 2) not unwittingly absolutize e.g. the celibacy precept for monks to mean that procreation in general is bad.

  • IIRC the fact that the addition operator is associative is dogma: i.e. the associative property is part of the definition of the addition operator. There are other operators (e.g. the subtraction operator) which are not associative but which are also useful. But, that's what I learned in a Mathematics lecture: not in the 'real world'.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 1:46
  • I think you are confusing dogma with axiom.
    – Andrei Volkov
    Oct 28 '14 at 1:50
  • I think that (having quoted a definition of dogma), dogmas are axioms. Some philosophers agree. After I defined dogma as 'axiomatic', I found that Wikipedia supports the corollary I suggested, which is that any given doctrine may not deny or contradict a dogma and still be said to belong to that religion. The addition operator, and associativity, were the subject the first Mathematics lecture I attended at university (starting with 1+1=2 and 0+1=1 etc.).
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 2:32
  • The fact that the words (dogma, axiom, etc.) have these meanings to me doesn't prevent you from saying what you want to, about Buddhism. I found Maths unsatisfactory too (so if Buddhism says that everything is dukkha, it's not wrong there), but I think I recognize an axiom when I see one: and dogma is axiom. Whether the associative addition operator maps to (is useful in) the real world is another question: "applied maths". I don't know why your axiom (or definition) of dogma is that it is "blind faith". I realize that it's the existence of dogma that enables schism, but that's reality IMO.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 2:32
  • I'd take your sentence, "A principle must be incontrovertibly true within some domain -- otherwise it would be useless", and rewrite that as, "An axiom is assumed or defined to true, and the set of axioms define what the domain is." For example in Buddhism the four noble truths etc. are axiomatic. They have theoretical consequences (e.g. renunciation). That set of axioms with all their consequences is the domain (of Buddhism). The practitioner should assess a) are the axioms relevant to the world b) do the theoretical/logical consequences of those axioms (i.e. "theories") match practicalities.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 3:32

I have been searching for the supporting text: Here is one quotation: http://thinkexist.com/quotation/do_not_believe_in_anything_simply_because_you/12103.html

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” Buddha quotes (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)

An almost identical text is also quoted at http://www.noble-buddhism-beliefs.com/buddha-quotes.html

Shakyamuni Buddha taught monks sermons on the four noble truths and other precepts. My memories are that the Buddha encourages people to take the precepts, study them, try to incorporate them into a meditation practice and finally into one's life.

the online dictionary in google also defines dogma

"a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority {emphasis mine} as incontrovertibly true."

I have never studied or read a teacher that speaks of incontrovertible [not able to be denied or disputed]. truth in Buddhist literature. The Dalai Lama talks about monks debating all aspects of Buddhist precepts to strengthen their understanding. Discussion and debate are part of the path, including this website.

Dogma also implies a certain blind acceptance of statements without thoroughly digesting them and struggling with them. Buddhism does have principles but by swallowing them whole you will only get spiritual indigestion. Taking one principle and putting it into practice is a more effective strategy than trying to swallow the fish whole.

It is possible to come to conclusions by meditating and practicing mindfulness, but what you will find out is waiting for your experience to reveal with its fruit. The truth is not in the words, the truth is in non-attachment to everything that impedes a direct experience of what is.

  • The "four noble truths" was the first sermon he gave after gaining enlightenment. I know it as "The Sermon at Benares" or "The Sermon of Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion" a.k.a. the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 27 '14 at 23:14
  • Thank you Chris. It inspired me to look further for the quotation and found the one I was referring to.
    – soulsings
    Oct 28 '14 at 0:00
  • That quotation is from the Kalama Sutta.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 0:07
  • 2
    Actually @ChrisW ... fakebuddhaquotes.com/… Oct 28 '14 at 5:50
  • @yuttadhammo My apologies: "that paraphrase is from the Kalama Sutta."
    – ChrisW
    Oct 28 '14 at 11:05

Given this definition of "dogma"

a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true

If the four noble truths were "dogma", that would mean that statements which deny the four noble truths would not be called Buddhist, and doctrines which denies the four noble truths would not be Buddhism.

Texts like the Kalama Sutta imply that Buddhist doctrine is meant to be helpful, and good to experience:

When adopted & carried out, they lead to welfare & to happiness.

I'd like to say that Buddhist doctrine is not dogmatic, but there are places where the Buddha says that he's perfectly sure that what he says is true.

In the comments to other answers I was trying to understand, whether "dogma" is "blind faith", or whether our personal experience is that it's "incontrovertibly true", or whether Buddhist doctrine defines it as "incontrovertibly true" by definition.

There are places, times, roles for "faith" in Buddhism -- see:

  • Wikipedia's article about Faith in Buddhism
  • The second half of this answer (describing faith in Buddhism) and other answers to that question

I was wondering about the cause-and-effect of it:

  • Do we believe it only after we experience it to be true?
  • Or must we believe it even before we experience it to be true?

Looking in the Kalama Sutta to see how or whether the Buddha "proves" his doctrine, IMO the following is where that argument has a hinge. Immediately after this paragraph,

Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' — then you should abandon them.

There is this:

"What do you think, Kalamas? When greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?"

"For harm, lord."

My guess is that's an example of dependent co-arising, of the Kalamas' previous experience (or their understanding of "greed") being combined with the Buddha's question. So they accept his doctrine.

You might agree that they were right to accept his doctrine: that their choice was skillfully made.

But I'm not sure you can call it "incontrovertibly true" that greed arises for harm and not for welfare. Some modern people might argue that people's economic desires are what drive and shape the free market. That, for example, the "greed" of the founders of StackExchange is a reason why this site exists.

You could counter that argument by saying, "that's not greed: that's right livelihood."

Still I suppose that doctrine is not "incontrovertibly true". Instead some people choose it etc., and it requires skill (right view, wisdom, etc.) to apply it properly.

I think that Vishwa Jay's answer suggests that it's a way, a guide (or several guidelines), a recipe.


On paper, Buddhism has no dogma, and the Kalama Sutra is often cited as evidence of this. Other teachings with a non-dogmatic flavor are...

However, is this true in practice? How do most Buddhist react to dogma? What happens when you walk into a Buddhist Temple (or forum) and express doubt about the Buddha's enlightenment, the nature of Nirvana, Rebirth, Karma and so on? My experience has been that dogma rears its ugly head then.

In fact, one can read some dogmatism into the Wisdom part of the 8-fold path, as some state that belief in Karma and Rebirth are a key part of wisdom. For that matter, some people treat the 4 Noble Truths as propositions to be believed. What if you were to look into your experience and find that the 4 Noble Truths don't hold? Would a typical Buddhist accept this? Would s/he instead claim that the 4 Noble Truths are some kind of law (which sounds suspiciously dogmatic)?

This should come as no surprise. Dogma is a style of thinking, not a particular body of thought. Therefore, nothing is immune. There are dogmatic people of every stripe -- Christian, atheist, Buddhist, scientific, etc... People tend to cling to views, put a premium on believing "the right" things, and react badly to skepticism.

Buddhism isn't magical. It's a philosophy (or religion, depending on your view) and the sangha is made up of people. And people have the same shortcomings everywhere. There's nothing about being Buddhist that magically makes the sangha immune to the rest of the follies that plague humanity.

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