Core Buddhist Beliefs

This page is a companion to Buddhist Schools, which presents an overview of the transmission of the Buddhist teachings. Here we present an even briefer overview of the teachings themselves. The two may be read in either order.

The main branches of Buddhism, the Southern or Theravada and Northern or Mahayana schools, have gradually drifted apart in the 2400 years since Buddha taught his followers in Northern India. A World Buddhist Congress in 1966 brought together representatives of all traditions and agreed on a ‘common basis’ which all accepted.

Other individuals have drawn up similar lists of common beliefs, too, and I have melded them together here.

For a consistent formulation accessible to those with no background in Buddhism, they are all stated in English with original Pali or Sanskrit terms in brackets where they might be useful. I have split them rather arbitrarily into an ‘overview’ and the ‘teachings’ and commented on each group.


1. Sakyamuni Buddha is the original and historical founder of Buddhism and we accept him as our teacher and guide.

2. We consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness and peace; and to develop wisdom leading to the realization of ultimate truth.

3. We do not believe that the world was created, or is ruled, by a God.

4. We acknowledge that in different countries there are different popular Buddhist beliefs, practices and rituals, and differences in the ways of life of Buddhist monks; but these external forms and expressions of belief should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha, which are respected by all.

5. We take refuge (place our trust) in the Buddha, the Teachings (Dharma) and the Religious Community (Sangha) – the ‘Three Jewels’.

6. We believe the highest and noblest aspiration is to strive for enlightenment for the benefit of others.

7. We believe that one can attain enlightenment by listening to the teachings of a fully enlightened teacher (buddha) or, exceptionally, through one’s own efforts.

Notes on the Overview:
  • Point 5 extends 1 and is the statement of belief which marks formal entry into the Buddhist religion.
  • Point 6 similarly extends 2. Theravada Buddhism tends to emphasise personal enlightenment while Mahayana tends to emphasise helping others (the bodhisattva ideal), but both advocate a balance of the two.
  • The only query raised by the first six points might be the meaning of ‘ultimate truth’. It is truth as it appears to the enlightened person and it is approached through the teachings below.

The Teachings

8. We accept the universal law of cause and effect (‘dependent origination’) and accordingly we accept that everything in this universe is relative and interdependent and nothing is absolute or eternal.

9. We accept that all phenomena are imperfect and unsatisfactory (dukkha) and impermanent (anicca), and that all things are without self (anatta). (Dukkha, anicca, and anatta are known as the ‘Three Marks of Existence.’)

10. We accept the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha.

The Four Noble Truths are:

  • Our existence in the world is unsatisfactory (dukkha).
  • Its unsatisfactoriness is due to our attachment to what is impermanent.
  • We can only be freed from its unsatisfactoriness by eradication of our attachment.
  • The attachment can be eradicated by adherence to the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path, in turn, comprises:

  • Right understanding
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness (sati)
  • Right concentration (samadhi)

11. The Thirty-seven Qualities conducive to Enlightenment (bodhipakkhiyadhamma) are part of the ‘Common Basis’ agreed at the World Congress. They do not appear as a group, though many of them appear individually, in other lists of shared beliefs.

  • Four Forms of Presence of Mindfulness (satipatthana);
  • Four Right Efforts (sammappadhana);
  • Four Bases of Supernatural Powers (iddhipada);
  • Five Faculties (faith, energy, mindfulness concentration and wisdom) (indriya: saddha, viriya, sati, samadhi, panna);
  • Five Powers (bala) same five qualities as the five faculties;
  • Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhanga);
  • Eight-fold Noble Path (ariyamagga / aryamarga).
Notes on the Teachings:
  • Dependent origination is an objective/rational exposition of an insight of unitive consciousness and the Eightfold Path is a practice designed to lead towards subjective/intuitive experience of it.
  • 8 and 9 overlap considerably. Dependent origination implies anicca and anatta, impermanence and not-self. However, it does not imply dukkha, suffering: dukkha is a (subjective) response to everyday reality.
  • I have yet to see a satisfactory English translation of the Four Noble Truths. The formulation I have used above is my own, and it is still not quite right. See my Four Noble Truths (pdf) for a longer attempt.
  • 10 complements 9, presenting a way of dealing with the world around us based on the analysis set out in 8 and 9.
  • The branches of the Eightfold Path are often grouped as a threefold practice:
    • wisdom (panna): right understanding and intention;
    • ethical conduct (sila): right speech, action and livelihood; and
    • mental discipline (samadhi): right effort, mindfulness and concentration.
  • My Eight-fold Noble Path (pdf) complements my Four Noble Truths, being laid out as a one-page chart showing the structure of the Path.
  • Each aspect of the threefold practice can be extended into more detailed prescriptions. For instance, the rules of conduct for lay, novice and ordained Buddhists are sequentially more detailed than, but not essentially different from, the three ‘sila’ elements of the Eightfold Path.
  • For more detail on the ‘Thirty-seven Qualities’, which could easily fill another page on their own, wikipedia ( is a good starting point.

Beyond these ten or eleven points, differences of opinion and interpretation become significant, and technical terms and their translations become (even) more problematic. However, Buddhists of different schools tend to accept that the differences are far less important than the commonalities, getting along much better than equivalently divergent groups of Christians or Moslems.

References and pages it points to. Peter della Santina: Four Lectures

Created 12 April 2008,
checked and republished to this site March 2021