Religious Beliefs

Are doctrine and dogma important to Buddhists?

The Buddha emphasized that all religious and ethical teaching, dharma, is like a raft. You use a raft to get across a body of water. Once on the far shore, you would hardly choose to strap the raft to your back and trudge on under its bulky burden. Doctrine is a tool, a temporary convenience, and not an end in itself. The problem with doctrine, he taught, is that it can easily distract people from their goal. Those who ask too many questions in search of doctrinal clarity and certainty are like a person who has been shot with an arrow. Friends approach to remove the arrow but the wounded person waves them off. Not until he knows who shot the arrow and what he looked like, of what kind of wood it was made, and what kind of bird provided the feathers, will he submit to having the arrow removed. Such speculation is simply a waste of time. Pay attention to the matter at hand, Buddha counseled.

Not long after the Teacher’s death, followers of his dharma nevertheless developed many elaborate doctrinal frameworks with which to interpret the Buddha’s teaching. Each of the various denominations has its preferred scripture and its own theoretical perspective, and some have emphasized correct belief as a criterion of membership. But no major Buddhist school has defined a large body of doctrine in the form of dogmatic pronouncements that require the explicit assent of all members. Buddhists often use the Sanskrit term sasana in reference to the whole package of belief and practice that the Buddha taught as a way of life.


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