What Are the Basic Dogmas of Buddhism?

In principle, Buddhism has no dogmas. What are closest to being dogmatic are the precepts. But precepts for Buddhists are not a covenant with God, so they are not mysterious as in some religions. Precepts in Buddhism come from principles of ethics and are hence purely rational.

The basic rules of conduct for Buddhists are the five precepts and the ten good deeds or virtues, although the specific precepts someone takes vary according to what class of practitioner he or she is. For example, for laypeople, there are the five precepts, the ten good deeds, and the eight precepts; for monastics, there are the ten precepts, the bhiksu precepts, and the bhiksunī precepts; and in the Mahāyāna tradition, there are the bodhisattva precepts. All these precepts, however, are based on the five precepts and ten good deeds. In other words, other precepts are extensions and detailed sub-branches of the five precepts and ten good deeds. Therefore, if one can keep the five precepts and carry out the ten good deeds, the rest will not be so difficult to follow.

The five precepts are abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct (unchastity), verbal misconduct, and drinking alcohol. The ten good deeds are extensions and expansions of the five precepts, and require one to perform good deeds as well as abstain from misdeeds, as shown in figure.

In summary, the Buddhist precepts are to commit no evil and to perform all good. Any act harmful to one’s physical or mental health, family, society, country, to humanity, or to any sentient being falls under the scope of five precepts, and therefore should not be committed.

Anything truly beneficial to one’s own or to another’s welfare should be carried out with all effort. To commit evil violates the precepts, and not to perform good deeds violates the precepts, too.

However, Buddhism is broad-minded. If someone is unaware that certain behavior violates the precepts, such behavior does not count as an infraction. Also, if someone has no intention to violate the precepts, even if she breaks them she is not guilty [that is, does not generate the negative karma] of the transgression. On the other hand, if someone harbors the intention to break the precepts, even if she ends up not breaking them, she bears some guilt [produces negative karmic energy. One is guilty of fully transgressing the precepts only when one actually, intentionally, and successfully carries out the violation.


Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, What Are the Basic Dogmas of Buddhism, p.26-28

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