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Buddhists/Buddhist dogmatism


QUESTION: Hello.  I have been studying and practicing Tibetan Buddhism for the past 4 years.  I grew up in organized religion and have rejected it mostly due to the dogma of the teachings.  I love the concepts of Buddhism.  However, I find that even in Buddhism the dogma of the rules and rituals appear to become more important than the purpose of the practice.  Hence I see many contradictions.  I see a practice based on non-attachment yet I see practitioners extremely attached to "their way", going as far as telling me my way is wrong or ineffective.  I am told that Buddhism is scientifically based, offering provable evidence of its foundational beliefs.. such as emptiness being proven at an atomic level.  Yet many core beliefs, Karma, reincarnation, samsara, the six realms and the five precepts, etc are NOT proven or provable.  The more I read and research the more discouraged I become and start to feel like Buddhism is as dogmatic as all other religions.  I also believe that Buddha Shakyamuni did not create most of these rules, but rather others did, sometimes centuries later.  My question is not an easy one.  How do I reconcile this?  How do I come to terms with the contradictions? How do I decide if Buddhism is really for me?  Sometimes I think really?  If I decide that I want to drink on occasion.. so that means I can't be Buddhist?  some would say that is true.  Again, the basics...  be nice.. be compassionate... help others...  I totally believe in as well as finding lessons on impermanence, the 4 noble truths, and emptiness.. very helpful.  Any advice or recommendations would be appreciated. Obviously I am struggling with coming to terms with some of the rules that I just can't or am not willing to live by.  Thank you.

ANSWER: Dear Jeff,

Thank you for the opportunity to answer your questions. To be honest, I actually feel the same way as you! You place a lot of interesting questions. I hope I can answer them for you.

Unfortunately, no matter where you go, whatever religion you choose, you cannot escape dogmatism. Dogmatism is designed to make religion easily accessible for the people who might decide to follow it. It also makes teaching the religion easier. As you well know, most dogmatism comes from the PEOPLE trying to teach the religion itself. However, this is not always true. Some dogmatism makes it way down the lines to us.

The Buddha was actually presented with this exact question in a town called Kalama. This town was a meeting grounds for people from many religions who all come and profess their religion as the end all be all. So when the Buddha came around saying that he was the Buddha, the Kalama people were reluctant to believe another savior. So, they asked him why they should believe him, and he answered simply, "Don't."

What the Buddha said next was quite revolutionary at that point. He said that legends should not be believed. Reports should not be believed. Traditions should not be believed. Scriptures should not be believed. Logical conjecture should not be believed. Inference should not be believed. Analogies should not be believed. Teachers should not be believed.

The Buddha answered them very simply, if any legends, reports, traditions, scriptures... lead to harm and suffering, greed, aversion and delusion, then don't believe or follow them.

On the other hand, if the legends, reports, traditions... lead to happiness and welfare, growth and understanding, releasing of greed, aversion and delusion, then those teachings should be followed and believed.

He stressed that we should not just believe become someone trustworthy told us, we should not just believe because the person who told us is older, wiser or even in a position of authority. What is important is not the messenger, but the message itself.

Try not to get caught up in the religion itself, but try to see through the religion for the powerful teachings contained within. The Buddha said that Buddhism will only last for 5000 years. However, it has already been 2556 years since his passing. Therefore, anything that is over 50% decayed, will have obvious problems. So, we have to try hard to decipher which teachings are actually the Buddha's and which teachings were added later by other people.

Let me give you a few examples of some issues I had:

In my country's Buddhism, I was taught that good or bad actions are judged by how your mind perceived them. That drove me crazy! So many people would say they were not wrong, because they meant well. Even when they hurt people. I really didn't like this, so I studied this concept. I thought and compared it to worldly events, calling upon many situations - both personal and in actual courts of laws all over the country. I came to the conclusion that it is not completely true. I came to understand that not only our intentions, but also their results decide whether an action is good or bad. In addition, I also came to understand that not only the present, but the past AND future are responsible for determining good or bad actions. This is also a teaching of the Buddha that is not as popular, because it is hard to follow. It is much simpler to just say, Intention is king. This is easy for kids to remember. However, for the wise, this is not enough. There are many factors - all of which the Buddha taught - that determine good or bad, intention is just one of the main ones, not the only one.

As I am writing this, a couple walked into my temple and asked me the significance of a Buddha statue that is lying down. He wanted to know what powers or blessings he will get from this particular statue (of which he didn't even know was the Buddha's Parinibbana(death) pose) He asked me what blessings he would get.

I told him that he would not get many blessings without knowing and understand what he had. The statue he has is of the Buddha lying on his side preparing for his final rest. What mystical powers can this give? None. However, what benefit can it bring? A lot. For example, every time I see this statue I think. I think of how even the Buddha was not immune from physical suffering. I thought of how the Buddha did not scream, cry or whine about his pain. I thought about how he still made sacrifices for the people around him even in his moment of extreme mortal pain. This reminds me to have gratitude for the people who help me. It reminds me to be tougher and accept my physical ailments as natural and unavoidable. It reminds me to practice diligently to not waste time in a fragile life. By these thoughts, I will be more gracious, appreciative, aware, resilient and kind. I will not allow life to just pass me by without striving. Through these thoughts, I will most likely be a better person, therefore have more friends, success and happiness. This is the blessings I get - they are not magical or mystical. Easily explained through my own experiences and the experiences of others in the past, present and future. True then, true now and true in the future.

I have a lot more examples, but I fear this will make this answer too long! As for some of your questions:

"How do I reconcile this?"

First of all, don't waste time arguing the theories, your time is too valuable. Spend your time testing the teachings by personal experience. Even if the teachings turn out wrong, you will still have learned something profound about yourself. But if you just debate and argue the theories or dogma, you will just end up bitter, confused and doubtful. Not much benefit there.

I know this, not because this is what is taught, but because that is how I felt. I hated religion for this exact reason. So I spent so much of my time trying to break it down and disprove it. I found that in my quest to break people's belief that religious dogma is a good thing, I ended up creating and clinging to my own belief, that religious dogma is a bad thing. In fact, by doing this, I realized I was no better than those religious fanatics who spout scripture this scripture that. I was spouting scripture wrong this, scripture wrong that. We were just two sides of the same coin. The Republicans in their never ending battle against the Democrats.

I also disliked when people said their way was better than someone else's. However, I actually found this to be true sometimes. But this depends on what you want. If you want happiness, most religions work. If you want happiness based on freedom to do what you want, no religion is best. If you want happiness based on fear of evil and punishment, many religions will work. If you want happiness based to servitude and traditions, most religions will work. If you want happiness that is final enlightenment (that is never having to play this broken game called life in which no one EVER finally wins), than only Buddhism teaches that. This is not saying Buddhism is better, but other religions and theories don't even address Nirvana or a way to destroy the ego. This is only saying that is gives what some people are searching for.

Many religions are based on certain concepts. For example, Christianity is based on doing good out of love for God and fear of his punishment. So, it runs mostly on the faith that God exists. You believe this without question.

Buddhism is based on doing good out of understanding the consequences of doing evil. If you do evil, it hurts you and others and leads to future pain and suffering. If you do good, it leads to happiness for you and others in the present and future. Therefore, we do good, not out of faith, but out of logic and reasoning.

This is not to say which religion is better, but rather addressing the core concepts. Different people gravitate to different concepts. They all teach people to be good people, but for different reasons.

"I find that even in Buddhism the dogma of the rules and rituals appear to become more important than the purpose of the practice."

It is, you are right. This is unfortunate, but necessary. Not all people have the capacity to fully understand why they are doing something before they do it. However, this doesn't mean they shouldn't always do it. For example, parents force the ritual of brushing our teeth, taking showers, taking medicine, eating in a timely manner and going to school on children. Most children are not aware of the purpose of these things, however, as adults, we can agree that they have some benefit in the child's future. It would be ideal if the children understood the reasoning, they would buy in more to the practice. However, for their current mind state, it might be better for them to do it and learn on the go. It is too risky and potentially harmful to just let them do what they want and hope they learn later when they are grown up.

That being said, not all things parents teach are right. Some parents even teach bad habits to children. Some parents even teach racism and discrimination to kids. So, eventually, it is up to the children to pick and choose which rules and rituals lead them to a better place and which rules and rituals lead them to a place of suffering.

The parents can not be blamed, since they themselves were taught flawed teachings and rituals. It is the duty of the individual to break the cycle or else we are doomed to repeat it.

We do not break the cycle through ignoring all rules and rituals, this is too extreme. We break it by striving to understand the pros and cons of each particular rule and ritual and extracting the maximum benefit from it. Just like you are trying to do now!

"I see a practice based on non-attachment yet I see practitioners extremely attached to "their way", going as far as telling me my way is wrong or ineffective."

The people that tell you that their way is better or that your way is wrong or ineffective can come from two places:

1. They actually know better and see flaws in your way of practice.
2. They are too attached to see past their own flaws and push their style on everyone.

In this case, what do you do? First of all, we must see that the reason this bothers us is that we cling to OUR style. Otherwise, people saying OUR style is wrong would not affect us. Therefore we are clinging to our style just like they are clinging to their style. If a Democrat said Republicans suck, we would only be bothered if we considered ourselves Republicans. However, it we did not, then it would not bother us.

A good thing for us to try is to assume they are right and try to see the points they are trying to make. Go at it with an open mind and see if maybe there are flaws to our approach that we can fix or make better. If after we contemplate fairly (like a judge in court should do), and we find our style is a good fit for us, then continue to practice earnestly. However, if we find that is it lacking, look elsewhere for a better style.

There is no way we can avoid people's criticism or their opinions. We are all full of it - opinions and criticism that is.

"I am told that Buddhism is scientifically based, offering provable evidence of its foundational beliefs.. such as emptiness being proven at an atomic level.  Yet many core beliefs, Karma, reincarnation, samsara, the six realms and the five precepts, etc are NOT proven or provable."

Buddhism is based on Dhamma which means truths. Not all truths can be proven with the current state of science. However, this does not mean all that is not proven is not true. Back then, Galileo know that the world was not flat, but did not have proof of this. Not until later was proof available.

However, the core beliefs are provable. For example, Karma. Karma refers to action and reaction. This refers to every action have a cause, and every action having a result. There is not action that we commit that had no cause. Nor is there an action that has no result. This is the meaning of karma.

Reincarnation is not scientifically provable, however, if we believe in science, we have the law of conservation of energy and mass. If even our physical bodies die and then are assimilated back into the earth and our elements are reused in another form, what is to make us think that our souls just suddenly stop existing? Nothing in the world that we can observe does not continue on and change and continue and change into different forms. What is to make us think that our souls act differently that everything that we observe in this world? What is to make us think that they are exempt?

There are a lot of things that are "not provable" - Where does fire go when it is put out? Do our souls actually exist? How do we know tomorrow exists? How do we know next year exists?

Even though we can't prove it, we can gather as much evidence and make an educated assumption. How do we know tomorrow exists? Well, in the past XXXX years, there has always been a day, and a day after it. That day being known as tomorrow for the previous day. There has not been any interruption and disruption of this as far back as we can go. Therefore, we make the educated assumption that tomorrow exists and will come to pass.

As for the Five Precepts - do they really need to be proven? Not killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, harmful speech and intoxicant tend to lead to suffering, deterioration of the individual and society and creates harms for the body and others involved. The Buddha didn't invent this concept, he just taught it. Does it have to come from someone to be true? Do these things and we avoid as much suffering as we can. Break these precepts and suffering ensues. Not a big leap of faith if you ask me. =)

"How do I reconcile this?  How do I come to terms with the contradictions? How do I decide if Buddhism is really for me?  Sometimes I think really?  If I decide that I want to drink on occasion.. so that means I can't be Buddhist? "

YOU must be the one to reconcile this. The contradictions exist in your mind, so through discovery, studying (just like you are doing in this question and your quest for knowledge)and contemplation, you will dispel the contradictions. Buddhism as a religion might not be for you at this moment.

However, the truth behind the rules and ritual work for all beings. Buddhism is not based on the word of the Buddha. It is not based on faith in the Buddha. Buddha taught truths that already exist. He just brought them to the forefront. He didn't invent them nor did he claim them as only his. He just said what we should have known already. Do this - this is your result. Do that - that is your result. Every action has a cause. Every action has a result. Each person is responsible for their own actions, causes, and results. All the rules and rituals are just dressing people have put onto Buddhism to make it more marketable and easier to understand (harder in some cases).

As for drinking and being Buddhist. Drinking or not drinking does not make you "not" Buddhist. What being a Buddhist means is that we understand cause, actions and results. If you drink and are unaware of the results - good and bad than you are not being a good Buddhism. If you drink and are simultaneously aware of the cause of why you are truly drinking, observe the action of drinking, and observe the results of your drinking. You are contemplating the pros and cons of drinking and trying to understand it better, all while deciding whether to drink more or less often. This does not only apply to drinking but to all things. All things done without thinking it through, without contemplation and awareness are risky and can lead to harm.

What you do or don't do does not make you a Buddhist, but how you think, learn and contemplate is what distinguishes you as a Buddhist. If you use cause and effect, self-reflection, understand suffering and impermanence, whether you call yourself one or not, you are practicing Buddhism. If you disregard cause and effect, seek only to blame others, ignore the existence of suffering and impermanence, whether you call yourself one or not, you are NOT practicing Buddhism.

I hope I have answered your questions.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Ven. Anandapanyo

Thank you so much for your answer to my questions.  It was helpful.  I find that I am falling into the same trap that I am 'complaining' about, becoming overly attached to finding an answer or a 'right' way. I really don't take  issue with the general concepts and practices or Buddhism, as an example, do believe  in the five precepts.  I get caught up in splitting hairs...  is x really a violation of y precept.. but what about under these circumstances...  and what about this situation...  that is when I get myself confused and really, there is not the need to get so caught in the details.  

Where I think I got off track.. just an FYI.. was that I purchased a very nice Buddha Shakyamuni statue.  I had not known about 'filling' statues and when someone told me about it I started researching online.  Or course I encountered some very strict rules about this, and was kinda thrown by some of the more conservative views that stated the statue was basically worthless unless filled correctly and consecrated by a trainer Lama.  There is no one around here who does this, and I wanted the experience of printing, and rolling, and placing the mantras myself, not sending my statue away.  I found some info on how to do this online and again was amazed at the variety of information and practices.. from 'blindfolding' the statue until it is ready to be consecrated, to warnings of terrible consequences for putting the wrong mantras into the wrong places inside the statue, to inadvertently bringing in evil spirits... all the dogmatic rules that lead to my departure from Judaism.  This all is what lead me to contacting you.  

I really liked your summary:

If you use cause and effect, self-reflection, understand suffering and impermanence, whether you call yourself one or not, you are practicing Buddhism.

Given this, yes, I am a Buddhist and yes, this is the right path for me.

I admire the path you have chosen.  I read your biography on all experts and looked up your center's webpage.

So thank you for helping me get back on track and remembering what it really is about Buddhism that is attractive to me.  I say Kalu Rinpoche speak last year and he summed it all up very well.  He said "Be nice....  and if you can't be nice, at least do no harm"

I live in Ashland Oregon, just over the California Border.  If you are ever up this way, I would welcome the opportunity to meet you.  My email is .  You have made a new friend.

Jeff Danzik

Dear Jeff Danzik,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you again.

I think the statue story got you flipped around a bit. Personally, I think the problems comes from a lack of information combined with personal desire. These two things together can be very dangerous. When you have a desire for something, but lack the information necessary to achieve it, it is very easy for people with just a little more knowledge than us to mislead or confuse us.

For me personally, a statue is just that - a statue. In my order, we do not believe statues (especially ones made by man out of the four elements) contain mystic or spiritual powers. What they are is a representation of beautiful and powerful teachings and actions from higher beings (not spirits - enlightened individuals in the past). When I see a Buddha image, I don't get power from the statue. That power comes from me. When I think about how sacrificing the Buddha was and compassionate he was for coming to teach ignorant humans like me, I feel grateful. That gratefulness washes over me and reminds me to be humble and steadfast in my practice. This is the power I get. When I see the Buddha, sometimes I think about how hard his ministry was and how he always found the time and energy to keep moving forward. It makes me put my problems into perspective. This is the power I get. And it is an awesome power and has done great things to help move me forward in my life and practice. Did it come from the Buddha or statue? Did they zap me with energy? Not quite. But they acted as a representation, a reminder of greater things. This is what I get from it.

I know you didn't directly ask me about this, but I wanted to share. I hope I didn't overreach.

People can only scare you and threaten you as long as you lack information. The spirits that reside inside statues and other sacred items are not actually sacred beings. They are just spirits of regular people who have not moved on to rebirth yet. They can't harm you. They exist in a different realm. All the supernatural stuff can be overwhelming...that is why Buddha didn't teach it. No where in his scriptures did he profess that we must do this or that to statues or spirits will harm us. He only taught the same thing from day 1 to his last day. Do good actions, refrain from evil, purify the mind.

I would like to respectfully ask what you hope to get from Buddhism? Have you ever studied Theravada Buddhism? If you are interested, I would definitely not mind a phone conversation, or maybe email correspondence. You can email me at and I will give you my phone number.



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Anandapanyo Bhikkhu


I can answer questions about Buddhist practice, Buddhist understanding and how to apply Buddhism to daily life. I can help analyze Buddhist sayings and teachings. In addition, I can help with questions Buddhism stories, fables and Vinaya(rules). I have meditated for over 10 years and can help you start with meditation. In addition, I can help provide insight into what to do when you feel that you have hit a wall with your meditation. My main area of expertise is how to think in accordance with Sammaditthi (the right view - and number 1 in the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. If I cannot answer your question, I have many able teachers with over 20 years experience to help me, so chances are I will be able to find an answer for you.


I have been practicing Buddhism since I was born, but as a serious practice since 2003. I started studying under various famous Thai Theravada masters. Finally, I met and studied under Phra Acariya Thoon Khippapanyo who has recently passed away on Nov 11, 2008 and is widely accepted as a great Arahant (fully enlightened) teacher of our time. In addition, I have personally read and studied much of the Buddhist scriptures and popular literature available. I have recently undertaken the ordination vows and have become a Buddhist monk in the theravada forest monk tradition. I reside at a temple with many dedicated practitioners and great teachers. I have been practicing training my mind to be aligned with right view (sammaditthi) for over 10 years. I have also been meditating for over 10 years. In my time spent with Acariya Thoon, I learned many things and was able to incorporate them into my life. In addition to practicing Buddhism within temples and my home, I used to own two restaurants and managed commercial real estate. I had to deal with many different and problems. I learned how to use Buddhism to fix my problems, both externally (my environment) and internally (within me).

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Electrical Engineering Degree from the University of California Santa Barbara MBA from San Francisco State

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