Pragmatic Buddhism

Pragmatic Buddhism is a subset of the Buddhist doctrine which leaves aside beliefs and rituals and advocates the continuous practice of the Buddha Teachings (Dhamma in Pali, Dharma in Sanskrit) with the primary purpose of eliminating suffering and bringing about inner peace and harmony. As such, Pragmatic Buddhism is not affiliated to any of the schools, branches or traditions of religious Buddhism.

Buddhism and pragmatism

In the broadest sense of the word, Buddhism is a religion and a philosophical system originally proposed by Siddhattha Gotama (in Pali; Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit), the Buddha, in northeastern India in the sixth century B.C. As a religion, the fourth largest in the world, it has three main schools (Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana) and dozens of derivate branches. For the strong emphasis it places in introspection and mind states, numerous scholars also consider Buddhism a system of Psychology rather than (or in addition to) a religious creed or a school of philosophy.

The adjective ‘pragmatic’ describes a person who uses a practical approach to problems and matters of everyday life; for such a person, the truth is whatever works and produces results. Rules and behaviors must go together and have beneficial consequences; therefore, theory and practice should not belong to different domains. The word ‘pragmatic’ comes from Greek pragmatikos  meaning “versed in matters of business”.

Pragmatic Buddhism, the combination of the two terms, is a way of living. According to Stephen Batchelor and S. N. Goenka, among an increasing number of scholars, the Buddha did not intend to build a religion when he originally developed his doctrine. In fact, the Teachings of the Buddha precede the word ‘religion’, as modernly understood, by at least five centuries. Furthermore, since it excludes beliefs and rituals, two fundamental components of any creed, Pragmatic Buddhism cannot be regarded as a religion.

Four Noble Truths and Ten Indeterminates

Though the word pragmatism was coined by North American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce twenty-four centuries after the Buddha’s time, the Indian sage was indeed pragmatic when he considered as true and wholesome whatever contributed to the cessation of suffering and, reciprocally, useless or unwholesome those behaviors that led to suffering or deviated from the path that leads to its elimination. Two paragraphs, appearing in many of the Buddha’s discourses, provide solid ground to regard his Teachings as pragmatic. The first one, the shortest summary of the purpose of the whole doctrine, is the statement of his Four Noble Truths:[1] “I only explain the reality of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering”. During his preaching pursuit the Buddha repeated this sentence (or the meaning implied in it) hundreds of times. The second one is the Buddha’s answer to a disciple who was requesting clarity on a number of uncertain questions related to the nature of the cosmos, the immanence of the soul and the existence of the buddhas after their death. Says Siddhattha Gotama then :[2] “In the discussion of any hypothesis about supernatural matters, be they the eternity or finitude of the universe, the existence or nonexistence of the soul, its immortality or its disappearance, rebirth or reincarnation, the affirmation or negation of any position about such issues is only a bunch of opinions, a desert of opinions, a manipulation of opinions that in no way leads to the cessation of suffering.” In other words, the only notions of importance for the Buddha are those few things that lead to the end of suffering; any action or discussion that does not go in that direction is a total waste of time.

The Buddha pronounced similar statements, which Stephen Batchelor considers not only pragmatic but also Agnostic, in several other discourses.[3] These statements, ten in total (four about the universe, two about the body-soul relationship and four about the destiny of the buddhas after death) are identified in the Buddhist literature as the “Ten Indeterminates” (also known as “Undeclared Points” or “Unanswered questions.”).[1] Though they are abstract and verbose, they do specify that the notions of the universe’s eternity and infinitude, the existence of immaterial essences associated with living phenomena, and the rebirth or reincarnation of living beings (on this item the discourses refer specifically to the rebirth of all buddhas) are “indeterminate” or impossible to place into a rational framework. (The notion of “God” does not appear in the list of the indeterminates but a similar reasoning could well apply to the concept of Divinity.)

The Teachings of Buddha are pragmatic, says Anglo-German Buddhist scholar Edward Conze, because they avoid speculation and aim only to the habits and practices that lead to the cessation of suffering. Says Conze :[4] “Buddhist thinking tends in the direction of what we call Pragmatism. The value of a thought is to be judged by what you can do with it, by the quality of life that results from it.”

For Buddhists, pragmatic or otherwise, the four noble truths are the only necessary””the only useful”” truths. Right opinion (also referred to as Right understanding or Right view), the first habit of the Noble Eightfold Path, is the comprehension of the four noble truths. Vietnam Buddhist scholar Thich Nhat Hahn[5] defines right opinion as the absence of opinions. (The actual quote is: “Right view is the absence of views.”). The end of suffering, the final and only goal of Pragmatic Buddhism, results from knowing the four noble truths, recognizing their imperative need and actually living and experiencing them. When suffering ends, harmony and inner peace spontaneously flourishes.

N. Goenka, the founder of the Vipassana Meditation Centers, often repeats that while Buddhism is a religion the Teachings are not.[6] Goenka emphasizes that, “the Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma ‘the way to liberation’ which is universal.” The question that arises then is how appropriate is it to use the word “Buddhism” when cutting the huge size of the Buddhist texts down to the practical essence of “Pragmatic Buddhism” or, in other words, what kind of Buddhism is one that is not a religion. J. Krishnamurti, the twentieth century Indian philosopher, whose thought is often assimilated to the Buddha’s, said at some point:[7] “Nobody listened to the Buddha; that is why there is Buddhism.”


The word “Buddhism” is an invention of Western scholars, states Stephen Batchelor.[8] The word “Buddhist” does not exist in Tibetan language, says Lama Surya Das.[9] According to him, Tibetans use a word roughly equivalent to “insider” (defined as somebody who looks inside for existential meaning), when they want to refer to what we westerners call (would refer as) “Buddhist.” In this context, “insider” has no connotation whatsoever of pursuit of beliefs or affiliation to sects. S. N. Goenka, referring now to Pali language, agrees during an interview with the magazine Buddhadharma with both scholars: “’Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhist’ do not exist in Pali; in the entire words of the Buddha and in the Commentaries such terms are missing.”[2]

Colombian writer Gustavo Estrada says:[10] “If Buddhism did not exist, a Buddhist would be somebody who practiced the Teachings, like a pianist is one who plays the piano with no need to believe in metaphysical hypotheses or to perform strange rituals; Buddhists and pianists only need to practice something. Their level of success depends on how much they exercise. If they practice seldom, results are poor; if they practice a lot, progress is remarkable; if they practice permanently, pianists will become virtuosos and Buddhists will eliminate suffering.”

Simplifying Buddhism

The Pali Canon, a vast body of literature (English translations add up to thousands of pages) is the oldest source of the Buddha’s Teachings. The Pali Canon consists of three large divisions or baskets (pitakas) but only the second one, the Division of Discourses or Sutta Pitaka, and just a fraction of it, is of interest to Pragmatic Buddhism. The Sutta Pitaka, also gigantic by itself, has five collections and consists of more than sixty five hundred titles or independent texts. The number of subjects in the doctrine is quite large and the list of themes or areas within each subject is at times very long.

There is a reasonable agreement among all Buddhist schools about the core concepts of the Teachings (see Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and the Mahayana). On top of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which are widely accepted as universal, most branches of religious Buddhism include in their doctrine two important components.

The first component, the Three Characteristics of Phenomena, also known as the Three Marks of Existence, is the doctrine’s entry point: (1) Everything changes and nothing is permanent (annica in Pali, Anitya in Sanskrit), (2) suffering exists and human existence is predisposed to it (Dukkha in both Pali and Sanskrit), and (3) there are no immaterial eternal entities or substances associated with the world’s phenomena (anattá in Pali, Anatman in Sanskrit).

The second component, the Three Refuges or Three Jewels, comes from the sentence “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Teachings, I take refuge in the community (Sangha)” which is chanted in many Buddhist traditions at the beginning of their meditation sessions. The first refuge, the Buddha, represents the equanimity, emancipation and direct knowledge which are reachable by any human being; the Buddha ­­”the concept, not the person,” says S. N. Goenka, is a symbol of the potential for inner awakening that exists within all of us. The second refuge, the Teachings, relates exclusively to the practical side of them, this is, to their permanent and continued application and practice, not to their memorization and repetition. The third refuge, the community, is the vehicle for spreading the Teachings and the appropriate channel for direction and support to those who are initiating their journey on the Noble Path.

To spread the Teachings, Pragmatic Buddhism does neither promote or imply worship or reverence to the Buddha (or to his symbols or images) nor require the existence or discipline of a religious community (though Pragmatic Buddhism is not opposed to it). Monastic life is in no way a requirement of Buddhism, pragmatic or otherwise; there exist different sets of Buddhist precepts for monks and for lay people. Pragmatic Buddhism, on the other hand, does acknowledge both the Buddha’s extraordinary wisdom and the importance of the role played in the preservation of the Buddha’s words by the perennial communities of Buddhist monks.

Pragmatic Buddhism essence

The Four Noble Truths, which include the Eightfold Path, are the doctrinal notions on which there is unanimous agreement among Buddhist groups of all denominations. The most pragmatic scholars, those who consider that knowledge must be put into action if it is to become wisdom, maintain that not only are the Four Noble Truths the entrance door to the Teachings, but that they alone make up the whole doctrinal essence.

Still the sole Noble Truths might not satisfy those who dislike matters of faith. The Buddha said in his first discourse, Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta in Pali), that the statement of each of the Noble Truths is to be understood, its necessity is to be realized, and its accomplishment is to be actually experienced. The first of these three statements, the need to grasp and comprehend each of the truths, generates the demand for some additional notions. And the selection of these few notions is the source of disagreements about the essence of the Teachings among the several proposals.

Gustavo Estrada, the pragmatic Colombian author, suggests that the Buddha himself might have resolved this issue in the short version of the discourse known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipaát­hana Sutta in Pali). In addition to the Three Characteristics and the Three Refuges, the essence of the Teachings is completed by the five items that the Buddha enumerates in the fourth section of that important discourse. This section, which is known as the Dhammãnupassanã or the contemplation of the Teachings, lists the five items which in their logical sequence (not as they appear in the discourse) are:

The Four Noble Truths (ariya-sacca in Pali, arya-satya in Sanskrit) are the statements that summarize the Teachings (suffering, thirst, extinction and noble path).

The Five aggregates of individuality (khandha in Pali, Skandha in Sanskrit) are the aspects or phenomena of existence (physical body or form, sensations, perceptions, conditioned formations and cognition) that create in human beings the appearance or illusion of a soul””a permanent immaterial substance. The significance of the aggregates is quite important in Buddhist doctrine as they are required for the comprehension of the Buddha’s summary of the First Noble Truth: “The five aggregates of individuality generate suffering.”

The Seven factors of Inner Awakening (Bojjhanga in Pali, bodhyanga in Sanskrit) are the factors (attention or mindfulness, reflection on the Teachings, persistence or energy, enthusiasm or joy, serenity, ecstasy and equanimity) that contribute to progress in the walk of the Noble Path. Attention (more precisely right attention), the first factor, includes both the permanent alertness of everything that happens to or within us and the practice of meditation as the best technique to strengthen our ability to hold awareness.

The Five Hindrances to Direct Knowledge (varana in Pali, varana in Sanskrit) are situations or circumstances (sensuality, hostility, torpor, nervousness, doubt) that obstruct or get in the way of direct knowledge. Together with the Seven Factors of Inner Awakening, the Five Hindrances are expressions of the sixth habit of the Noble Path ”right effort “which encourages all kind of actions that favor progress toward the cessation of suffering and persuade against any deviations from the Noble Path.

The Twelve Spheres of Mind Activity (saláyatana in Pali, Ayatana in Sanskrit), six senses (six internal sense bases) and their corresponding objects (six external sense bases), are the group of the six pairs formed by eyes, ears, nose, tongue, sense body and brain with visible things, sounds, smells, tastes, physical contact and thoughts, respectively. The twelve spheres stress the role of external objects in inner experience. External objects may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; the sensations that result from our contact with them might also be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Control over both external objects and the sensations they generate (second aggregate of individuality) is limited. Control over perceptions, the nervous system processing of sensations, is not only significant but subject to improvement through the application of the Teachings. But most important, this control is instrumental in the elimination of suffering. The six sense side of the twelve spheres acts as intermediary between phenomena, the six sense objects, on one side, and perceptions, conditioned formations and cognition (third, fourth and fifth aggregate respectively), on the other. The phenomena from which the sense objects originate take place either out of our physical form (sights, sounds, smells) or within our body (thoughts, body functions).

Pragmatic Buddhism considers everything beyond these seven notions (characteristics, refuges, noble truths, aggregates, factors of inner awakening, obstacles of direct knowledge, and spheres of mind activity) as indeterminate (metaphysical beings, immaterial entities), unnecessary (spiritual masters or gurus, rituals) or useless (legends, metaphysical places).

Groups and organizations

Pragmatic Buddhists are not affiliated to any specific Buddhist tradition and are not trained on any particular lineage. Though some organizations present themselves as Pragmatic Buddhists, they still follow teachers or practice rituals used by some of the branches of religious Buddhism. Consequently, they do not fit within the definition above. On the other hand, there are groups, followers of the Teachings of the Buddha, that, in spite of not using of such denomination, they are definitely pragmatic. Most branches of the so called Vipassana movement fit in this unspecified “pragmatic” category; in general, their accounts make no reference to beliefs, rituals or any practice that could be associated to religious systems.

Pragmatic Buddhism and spirituality

In spite of any semantic consideration Buddhism is, in the eyes of the entire world, the great twenty-five-century- old religion and a Buddhist is someone who follows such religion. This is why the “pragmatic” qualifier is required. Within such consideration, two points deserve attention. One, Pragmatic Buddhism does share with Buddhism, with the religion and the philosophy, the essence of the Buddha’s Teachings which is common to all Buddhist schools and branches.

Two, Pragmatic Buddhism is spiritual in spite of its reluctance to deal with metaphysical issues. Pragmatic Buddhism fits quite well within the non-religious or atheist spirituality as defined by the French contemporary philosopher André Comte-Sponville. This writer states that it is possible to be spiritual without beliefs in metaphysical entities. The important matter, according to the French philosopher, is not about God, religion or atheism but about spiritual life. Comte-Sponville defines Spirituality as “our finite relationship to infinity, our temporal experience of eternity, our relative access to the absolute.”[11] To the question of whether human beings can do it without religion, Comte-Sponville replies (parentheses are added to the quote): “yes, we can do it with no religion but we cannot live or, at least, we should not live without communion (sense of community: Buddhism’s sangha), fidelity (to a set of principles: Buddhism’s Dhamma) and love (Buddhism’s loving-kindness or Metta which develops when the mind is free from hate or ill-will).” Therefore, the practice of Pragmatic Buddhism””the pragmatic walk of the eightfold path to eliminate suffering”” satisfies the spiritual longings of people of all faiths (as long as their beliefs do not exclude open-mindedness) or of no faith at all, agnostic thinkers or atheists alike.


  1. See, for example, Samyutta Níkaya 56.31:Simsapa sutta.
  2. Majjhíma Nikaya 63: Cuula-malunkhya sutta.
  3. Anguttara Níkāya 10.96: a sutta; Majjhíma Nikaya 72: Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta; Samyutta Níkaya 44.1- 44.11: Abykata-samyutta.
  4. Conze,Edward (1997). Buddhism: Its Essence and Development(New York: Riverhead Books).
  5. Hahn, Thich Nhat (1998). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Berkeley, California: Parallax Press .
  6. William Hart (1987), The Art of Living, Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka (New York: HarperCollins Publishers)
  7. J .Krishnamurti: 3rd Seminar Madras 16 Jan 1981
  8. Stephen Batchelor. Buddhism without Beliefs (1997) (New York: Riverhead Books).
  9. Lama Surya Das(1998) Awakening the Buddha Within (New York: Broadway Books).
  10. Estrada, Gustavo (2008). Hacia el Buda desde el Occidente. Cummings, Georgia: Axess Book Printing.
  11. Comte-Sponville (2007). The little Book of Atheist Spirituality. London: Penguin Group