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Buddhism and the seven dimensions

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Since the beginning of time humans have endeavoured to explain the causes and reasons behind their existence. As a result of this thirst for knowledge many different beliefs and values have been formulated with the aim of explaining this age-old question. Most of these beliefs are prevalent today in the form of institutionalised religions. In order to gain an understanding of the word ‘religion’, we need to fully analyse and compare the components of religions in order to gain a more cultivated understanding of this enigmatic term. An extremely valuable way of classifying religion and its many aspects is through the Seven Dimensions, developed by Ninian Smart. (See Appendix 1)

These dimensions explore the many aspects of religion in a systematic and logical way. This theory of classifying religions can be lucidly applied to the Buddhist tradition in order to gain a wider understanding. The core element of Buddhism is the Experiential Dimension, as the ultimate goal of all Buddhists is to attain Enlightenment or Nirvana. The other aspects of the faith all concern the achievement of this experience. However, in stating this, the other dimensions are still important to Buddhists but exert less significance.

The Experiential Dimension of Buddhism is essentially the most important of all the dimensions as the core belief of Buddhism concerns obtaining the experience of Enlightenment. ” The Buddha’s personal experience of gaining enlightenment is the bedrock of the entire Buddhist tradition.” (Keown, 1996: 7) Enlightenment is achieved by an adherent realising the truth by expelling all suffering. “Indeed the simplest definition of nirvana-in-this-life is as the end of greed, hatred and delusion.” (Keown, 1996: 7) The way an adherent goes about expelling all suffering is contained in the Buddhist doctrines. However in stating this, Buddha warned that doctrines, without being validated by personal experience, are of little value therefore indicating that the experience associated with the religion is central to all other aspects. In conjunction with this, Buddhists regard life as a course in self-metamorphosis through the attainment of wisdom and experience, which is gained through methods such as meditation. This in turn indicates that a large emphasis is placed on experience within the Buddhist faith with the other dimensions being merely a means to achieve such experience. (Mudge et al, 1993) The Experiential Dimension of Buddhism is essentially the main focus of the adherents thus making it the central, and consequently the most important, of all the dimensions.

The Doctrinal Dimension of Buddhism is a fundamental aspect of the faith, which exerts great importance as it is through the following of doctrines that the experience of Nirvana is obtained. The ideals central to the doctrinal aspect of Buddhism is contained in the ‘ Dharma’, which essentially is comprised of Buddha’s teachings. The four elements upon which all Buddhist doctrines and teachings are based include: the Four Noble Truths, (See Appendix 2) the Anatman or doctrine of denying a permanent soul, Karma the belief that through rebirth a person is rewarded or punished for their good or bad actions and Nirvana the achievement of enlightenment or pure bliss by expelling all suffering. (Maguire, 2001)

These elements all concern themselves with the three universal Buddhists’ truths “impermanence (anitya), suffering (dukkha), and non-substantiality or no-soul (anatman)” (Encarta, 2000) The observance of these doctrines along with specific rituals are the keys to Buddhists acquiring enlightenment. Whilst these aspects of the religion are of immense importance, they still deal with the ever-present issue of gaining enlightenment. This would therefore suggest that the Buddhist doctrines are merely a means by which members attempt to achieve Nirvana. As a result, the Doctrinal Dimension of Buddhism is significant as it through the observance of doctrines that the core aim of Buddhism is achieved.

The Ritual Dimension of Buddhism is where the observance of the Buddhist doctrines is practised in order to fulfil the Buddhist experience. While this dimension is not as important as in some other faiths of a strongly sacramental kind, it is still highly regarded. This can be attributed to the fact that it is through certain rituals that the core experience of enlightenment is obtained. (Hope, 1995) The ritual central to the Buddhist faith is the practice of meditation. The importance of meditation is paramount because it was through meditation that Buddha was able to gain enlightenment. Consequently, Buddhists attempt to emulate Buddha when meditating by endeavouring to cultivate wisdom and compassion, whilst also trying to gain control of the mind and expel suffering. (Mudge et al, 1993)

If a Buddhist is successful in accomplishing this then they are said to have gained enlightenment. In terms of mass rituals, Buddhism maintains a plethora of ceremonies dealing with both the ‘Sangha’ (Order of monks and nuns) and laity. The primary rituals concerning the ‘Sangha’ includes; the initiation ritual in which the shaving of the head is a common practice and the annual Kathina Festival, in which the laity of the faith offers fabric to the monks for their new robes. For the laity, worship is more personal than congregation. A common practice is the taking of the three refuges (See appendix 3), in which adherents chant the same three sayings in repetition. This type of chanting, along with meditation, are common acts of devotion in Buddhism. Recently the development of some marriage ceremonies has occurred, particularly in more liberal schools, to mirror that of more western faiths. However, officially such rituals are not standard in Buddhism. (Keown, 1996) As a result, it can be concluded that the Ritual Dimension of Buddhism is quite significant as it is through rituals that the core aim of Buddhists is achieved.

Buddhism could be considered as one of the most ethical religions with an abundance of rules and guidelines applicable to followers. (Hope, 1995) However, due to the fact that it does not directly affect the way in which members achieve their core objective, its influence is less pronounced than that of other dimensions. Buddhists take a very personal attitude towards ethics. Followers are encouraged to apply their own understanding in deciding the right ethical attitude pertaining towards the lives of members. (Bruilly, 1997) Nevertheless, Buddhism also has abundant literature concerning ethics within the religion. The most prevalent features of this literature include: the Four Noble Truths (See Appendix 2) as well as the Noble Eightfold Path. (See Appendix 4)

Yet these rules pertain specifically to the Buddhist ideal of reaching enlightenment and limitedly influence the appropriate everyday behaviour of the followers. (Lovat, 1993) Broadly speaking, however, ” Buddhist morality is based on the principle of harming neither oneself nor others, thus showing respectively insight and compassion.” (Mudge et al, 1993). This simple principle is summarised in the Buddhist teaching of the Five Precepts. (See Appendix 5) The Buddhist attitude towards ethics takes a far more personal approach than that of many other religions. Whilst it may use guidelines to help wayward members, it relies more on the personal nature of the follower than strict regimented rules.

‘ Often experience is channelled and expressed not only by ritual but also by sacred narrative or myth. This is the third dimension — the mythic or narrative’ (Smart, 1992: 17) Like most religions Buddhism exerts a large importance on narratives and myths as a means to articulate wisdom amongst adherents. However, most Buddhist agree that interpreting written scriptures as reality is foolish thus most scriptures a viewed from a metaphorical sense. (Maguire, 2001) Scriptures are employed by some schools of Buddhism to assist the faithful in allowing them to understand the nature of the ultimate reality. Most Buddhist myths and stories have not only narrative content like a parable but also symbolic content, which can be explained in many ways. Some of the popular Buddhist myths include the Agganna Sutta (Buddhist creation myth) and the Jataka, which is a collection of popular narratives and moral tales concerning Buddha’s previous lives. (Hope, 1995) Dramatic entities such as supernatural figures of gods and demons are prevalent within Buddhist literature. Even though ” The Buddha saw no usefulness in discourse with such beings since they, like humans, are finite in their essence. They do, however, have a useful function in illustrating Buddhist principles to the common people.” (www.stormwind.com) Due to the fact that the narratives of Buddhism form the theoretic content for the teachings of Buddha, it is an important aspect of the Buddhist philosophy.

‘ Social Dimension includes both religious institutions that arise from religious systems of belief, and the reality of how the religion is lived out.’ (Smart, 1992: 19) Buddhism has a rich social dimension stemming from many years of existence. The centre of the Buddhist society is the order of monks and nuns known as the Sangha. Yet ” early sources offer a sociological classification of Buddhism as ” The Fourfold Order”, consisting of monks, nuns and devout male and female lay disciples” (Keown, 1996: 11) The Buddhist tradition exerts a large emphasis on inclusiveness and interdependence. The organisation of the religion can possess many forms from small groups led by individuals to large clusters with many followers and a rigid hierarchy.

The original wandering teacher of Buddhism was Buddha. Through his dynamism and charisma, many people started to follow his teachings. Consequently, a large institutional hierarchy was developed with a monastical community. Currently there is no central figurehead and there are many different schools of Buddhism. However, with the push into the West the social organisation of the faith is set to evolve and change in accordance with the needs of the communities espousing the faith. (Hope, 1995) The Social Dimension of Buddhism is of little influence in regards to the core aim of the faith, however it forms the structure to which adherents can achieve enlightenment thus it does provide an important function in the Buddhist faith.

‘ This Social or Institutional Dimension of religion almost inevitably becomes incarnate in a different way, in material form, as buildings, works of art, and other creations.’ (Smart, 1992: 20) The Material Dimension may not be as important as the other Dimensions due to the fact that it has no relevance in regards to the aim of Buddhists. However, it still exerts some influence on the followers, as it is the physical aspect of the religion. The most prevalent objects in which the spirit of the religion becomes incarnate are the many temples, works of arts, statues, sacred sites and holy places devoted to the faith. In India, many sites connected with Buddha’s life have become subject to pilgrimages such as the place of his birth, enlightenment and the place where he delivered his first sermon. Other places in Asia of real significance are the huge rock carvings in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and China. Other artefacts that exert great importance to Buddhists is the text. Buddhists hold scriptures in the highest regard as they contain the teachings of Buddha and embody his wisdom. (Maguire, 2001) These materialities of the faith are of great importance to all followers of Buddhist because they are the tangible personification of the religion.

Whilst there is no general definition for the term ‘Religion’, we can gain an understanding of what it is by analysing the very fabric of many faiths. In terms of Buddhism, the Seven Dimensions can clearly be applied to various extents. The core element of Buddhism is the Experiential Dimension, as the ultimate goal of all Buddhists is to attain Enlightenment or Nirvana. The other aspects of the faith all concern the achievement of this experience. However, in stating this, the other dimensions still are important to Buddhists but exert less significance. By studying the essence of religion we can gain a wide knowledge as to why and how man explains his existence and within this awareness we can satisfy the desire for our own answers to the mysteries of life.

Appendix 1 – The Seven Dimensions:

Ritual:Every religious tradition has some practices to which it adheres and which provide a spiritual awareness.

Experiential:All religions are responses to certain significant experiences of their founders and followers.

Narrative:In many traditions, stories and records of the past serve to establish and maintain a tradition.

DoctrineIn the major belief systems, leaders and scholars have sought to provide a systematic explanation of what adherents are meant to believe.

EthicalReligious beliefs underpin a value system defined by laws that promote specific behaviours.

Social Many religious movements develop organisational structures that provide for the collective experience of their adherents and identify the group within the wider society.

MaterialMost religions have a material dimension, manifest not only in the works of people (buildings, art, statuary), but also in the preservations of artefacts and sacred places.

(Smart’s Dimensions (Online) Available: http://www.uq.net.au/~zzrmarri/smart.html, 28th of February 2003)

Appendix 2 – The Four Noble Truths

1)All life is suffering

2)The cause of suffering is desire

3)Suffering can be ended

4)The way to end suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path

(Maguire, J. (2001) Essential Buddhism, New York: Pocket Books.)

Appendix 3 – The Three Jewels of Buddhism

1)I take refuge in the Buddha;

This means following in the path of Buddha, and, especially trying to emulate his earnest, self-effort filled striving for Nirvana.

2)I take refuge in the doctrine;

This means coming to know the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as the practical way in which salvation can be effected.

3)I take refuge in the Sangha.

This means being prepared to be serious about the striving for Nirvana that one is prepared to withdraw into the sort of environment where this might be possible.

(Lovat, T. (1993) Studies In Religion, 2nd edition, New South Wales: Social Science Press.)

Appendix 4 – The Noble Eightfold Path


1)Right understanding

2)Right thought


3)Right speech

4)Right action

5)Right livelihood

Mental Discipline

6)Right effort

7)Right mindfulness

8)Right Meditation

(Maguire, J. (2001) Essential Buddhism, New York: Pocket Books.)

Appendix 5 – The Five Precepts

1)Not to destroy life;

2)Not to steal;

3)Not to engage in sexual immorality;

4)Not to tell untruths;

5)Not to drink alcohol.

In addition to these five precepts, monks are required to adhere to five additional precepts.

6)Not to eat after noon each day;

7)Not to dance, sing or go to the theatre;

8)Not to adorn oneself with extravagant clothes, ornaments or perfumes;

9)Not to sleep on comfortable beds;

10)Not to have money.

(Mudge, P., Taylor, A., Morrissey, J., Bailey, G., Gregor, H., Magee, P., Mills, L. and Sheerin, J. (1993) Living Religion, Melbourne: Longman.)


Bruilly, E., O’Brien, J., Palmer and Palmer, M. (1997) Religions of the World, Great Britain: Macdonald Young.

Buddhism (Online) Available: http://www.stormwind.com/common/buddhism.htm, 29th of February.

Clarke, P. (1993) The Worlds Religion, New York: Reader’s Digest.

Encyclopaedia Encarta. (CD Rom). Los Angles, Microsoft, 2000.

Hope, J. and van Loon, B. (1995) Buddha for Beginners, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin.

Keown, D. (1996) Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Great Britain: Oxford.

Lovat, T. (1993) Studies In Religion, 2nd edition, New South Wales: Social
Science Press.

Maguire, J. (2001) Essential Buddhism, New York: Pocket Books.

Mudge, P., Taylor, A., Morrissey, J., Bailey, G., Gregor, H., Magee, P., Mills, L. and Sheerin, J. (1993) Living Religion, Melbourne: Longman.

Smart, N. (1992) The World’s Religion, Melbourne: Cambridge University.

Smart’s Dimensions (Online) Available: http://www.uq.net.au/~zzrmarri/smart.html, 28th of February 2003.

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