Did The Buddha Teach a Doctrine of Salvation?

The western scholarly study of religions includes a branch of study or analysis called “soteriology.” As I understand it, this is an extension into secular scholarship of what was traditionally a branch of Christian theology dealing specifically with the Christian plan and promise of salvation. Jesus Christ is traditionally regarded as a savior or redeemer, who redeems us from the penalty of our sins, frees us from our bondage, and delivers us into eternal life.

Some scholars of comparative religion have tended to argue that this notion of salvation (Gr. soteria) generalizes to all religions. So they will speak of Muslim soteriology, Buddhist soteriology, Hindu soteriology, etc. Western translations of, and discussions of, Buddhist teachings, often employ the term “salvation” in relation to the goal of the Buddha’s path.

Is this or is this not an apt expression?

on the whole, disregarding the tension between the doctrine of anatta and idea of personal salvation, i think it very much is, after all we’re trying to eradicate our own personal suffering, put an end to our own personal birth, aging and death, or those to which we are a party

in Mahayana they vow to save all sentient beings

the difference from Christianity for example would be that Buddhists don’t rely on external power for salvation but salvage themselves
but even in Christianity one is saved and promised heaven only as a reward for being in compliance with Christian ideals, which requires lots of ground work in personal development done by a person themself, the grace is there but it must be earned, as the saying goes ‘God helps those who help themself’


Thanks for an interesting question @DKervick

I’m sure you can find extensive scholarship from Christians on this matter, but I think the salvation Jesus offered is one based on faith. Certainly in modern Protestantism that is true. Whereas you must accept yourself as continually sinful, through faith in Jesus, you can be saved. While you should act in accordance with this, in my experience, the actions or who you are wouldn’t interefere with your being saved.

Interestingly, Pure Land Buddhism (the most popular Buddhist sect in Mahayana, and therefore perhaps the world) if I have understood it correctly has a similar soteriological message. Based on the premise that we are in an age of Dhamma decline where it isn’t possible to be enlightened, practitioners can attain to the “Pure Land” (a heaven presided over by Amitabha Buddha) by invocation of the name of Amitabha or a mantra, with faith. But there are other aspects as well, including attaining samadhi, and keeping good moral conduct too.

Thus, in a general sense this could fit the bill of “soteriological buddhism”. Maybe I have misunderstood some aspect, but that’s what came to mind when you said that.

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Thanks Cara and LXNDR. My question wasn’t really primarily about whether Buddhism is a religion with a savior - the Buddha makes it clear that he can’t save anybody - but whether, or to what extent, it offers a path to salvation at all. I’m thinking about such passages as those in which even the state of the Tathagata after death cannot really be characterized, although it seems clear that there is no personal survival of of death for the Arahant or Tathagata.

Is it fair to say that to the extent Buddhism articulates a form of salvation, that salvation can only be temporary?

Within the context of your question, what constitutes salvation?

however nibbana if final and irreversible, so the results of salvation are permanent (even achievement of the noble levels is), otherwise what do you understand by ‘salvation’ (Aminah has beat me to it)? salvation is from the web of samsara and talons of Mara

what’s the aim of the N8P if not salvation?

Well, I assume someone can’t be saved from something unless they are saved to something. If a fireman attempts to save a person from a burning building and does it by dropping them onto the street 30 stories below, they haven’t really saved them. To save them, they have to bring them from the place of danger to a place of safety, no?

That’s the question, I suppose. What is the aim?

I think this is a good question, which has wider implications in the field of interreligious dialogue. It regularly happens that we have to deal with concepts, words, and ideas whose provenance is Christianity, and which they assume apply to everyone else.

One of my earliest experiences at an interreligious gathering featured a Baha’i speaker, who opined that we are really all one because we worship the one God. Umm, hello, Buddhists here! :raised_hand:

We’re put on a field that doesn’t play to our strengths. We never describe our religion as a “faith”, for example: we have faith, but it doesn’t define us. The same applies to all the Dharmic religions. A word like “path” would be much more suitable.

The assumption that a religion is about a savior is so deeply hard wired into theist consciousness that it is almost impossible for people to grok the fact that, no, we don’t expect anyone to save us; our teacher is our guide and support, who offers us words of wisdom.

Having said which, the roots of the word soteria—which I had never looked at before, so thank you!—are about sanctuary and safety, and it sounds very close to the Buddhist idea of khema. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but the idea of khema is probably derived from something like “oasis”—a sanctuary of fresh water and shade, enjoyed by pastoral nomads and their beasts at the end of a long hot day. It is found in several of the most beautiful Jatakas, and is a common term in the EBTs. Anuttara yogakkema, “supreme sanctuary” is one of the standard epithets of Nibbana.


Thank you for your comments Bhante. I also didn’t know much before about the root meanings of soteria. Yes, it does seem as though Buddhist texts and traditions use many words that are in the same general area. But something about the application of the Christian-rooted concept of salvation to the Buddha’s teaching seems awkward to me. I think it is because the latter is more silent or cryptic about the after-death state of the arahant.

There is one “version” of Buddhism one sometimes encounters that goes something like this: life is irremediably bleak. It is so bleak that it would be better for you just to end it. But you can’t end it in the usual ways because you are trapped on the wheel of rebirth, and any such attempt to end it will fail. But fortunately, there is a path of spiritual practice that will enable you to bring it completely and finally to an end.

This is a pretty miserable doctrine, so it is hard to imagine it would appeal to more than a relatively small proportion of humans. You could say that the kind of salvation or liberation it extols is “permanent” - but only in the rather bleak sense that it is a kind of liberation from horribleness to be permanently not alive! I suppose if one believes one is already in hell, one might dream of nothing more than bringing an end to it all.

But it seems relatively clear to me that that is not the only kind of liberation that the Buddha taught. The poems of the old theras and theris seem to record exhultatations of sheer bliss, joy and happiness, and a liberation from the pain of mortality, experienced in this very life. Without that prospect - and living example - of happiness in this life, it is hard for me to imagine the Buddha’s teaching would have endured for very long.

But where the teaching seems to differ from Christianity, then, is that by being silent on the fate of the arahant after death, it leaves open the possibility that that Summum Bonum might only be temporary, and last only up until the point at which one’s life processes finally come to an end altogether with a peaceful and cheerful death.


a description not dissimilar to that of the Eden once upon a time and now the Heaven :relaxed:

that’s i guess why so many Buddhists still believe in some kind of a soul

consider the feeling after unloading a heavy load or a burden you’ve been carrying on your back for 1 mile, 10 miles, 100 miles, 1000 … 100 000 miles, isn’t it blissful?
without vouching my impression from so far read gathas of the theras and the theris is that the realization is usually expressed in terms of abandonment and ending rather than of acquisition of something

by that do you imply that in your view after death of an arahant his transmigration resumes? or don’t you consider the end of birth THE summum bonum, which it’s actually postulated as, and see it rather in the experiences of an arahant while alive?

what would be your suggestion?

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I think we should not miss that EBTs postulate bliss and happiness of nibbana as simply the confirmation and attainment to the total absence and cessation of suffering.

It is a mistake to treat happiness as a thing or something, it is just a label, notion and ideal we attribute for experience void of suffering.

By this way, the confirmation in vivo of the reality and possibility of cessation of suffering would make both “versions” of Buddhism you describe just different due to the angle from which one approaches the root problem the Buddha solved and had as only focus of his Dhamma-Vinaya (i.e. the presence and reality of suffering, its causes and origination, the possibility of its end and the path to confirming this possibility ourselves).

A yet-non-awakened entity would definitely approach and invest itself in the four noble truths and its respective ennobling tasks for nothing but the salvation from suffering they offers (and calls everyone alive to confirm and verify for themselves).

On the other hand, an awakened entity (if we can call it this way) - i.e. an arahant who is beyond the threshold of that verification / confirmation step - would only be able to reiterate to those around it the insubstantial nature of the suffering-void experience (aka happiness) they now abide in.

I have no problem with equating cessation of suffering to salvation provided that those yet “to the left” of the threshold of the fulfillment of the ennobling task of verifying the end of suffering don’t turn it into a positive and dogmatic concept / ideal out of their practical ignorance to what it really means.

Yes, I agree completely. The picture that emerges in the suttas is that the life experience of the ordinary person, and also the unliberated person in the higher training consists of carrying around the burden of a “body of pain”, so to speak. (In this context, by “body” I mean to include all mental and physical objects of our experience: all of the aggregates.) As a result of the training, they are eventually able to achieve a total detachment from this burdensome mental-physical body. They no longer experience it as part of themselves or pertaining to themselves. They have “put down the burden” and at that point often exclaim something like, “What bliss!”

Neither one. What I had in mind is that the summum bonum is the experienced bliss of total liberation from the burden of dukkha-fraught existence. When the arahant dies, that bliss comes to an end.

From an external point of view, others can then say that the arahant is no longer suffering and no longer bound to samsara. But the arahant is gone, and so the non-suffering of the arahant can no longer be regarded as a blissful attainment experienced by that arahant.

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i view the bliss as simply a byproduct of liberation available insofar as there’s psychological apparatus to experience it

this is the gist, as i see it, that birth can only end with the one who is being born, as long as there’s something to be born, birth continues

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Yes, this is definitely one picture that sometimes emerges in the sutta accounts. This picture construes the actual experience of Buddhist liberation as similar to a western protestant Christian’s experience of “the assurance of salvation”. The happiness that is experienced, then, is not the goal itself, but only a brief psychological by-product of the conviction that one has achieved the goal. The goal is instead nothing but the complete cessation of the arahant’s life-processes. The exultations that are recorded are then basically only of this kind: “Yippee! This is my last body! I’m not coming back! The final dead end of my weary life is in view!”

I would place this in the category of the “miserable” version of Buddhism. It portrays the Buddhist path as the execution of a suicide wish among desperately sad people who have convinced themselves that they can’t even commit suicide in the normal ways because they are trapped in perpetual rebirth. Although there is some textual support for this picture, I think it is primarily the result of gross misunderstanding among some of the Buddha’s followers. The Buddha discovered the key to the path when he realized that entering the first jhana brought with it a pleasure that is without taint, and wholly different from carnal, sensory and other worldly pleasures. This, he realized, was a direction worth pursuing guiltlessly, and one very different from the wholly negative (Jain) asceticism he had been practicing to that point. He determined to explore deeper down that path whose opening he had discovered. At each stage, some form of dukkha is dropped, but what is gradually revealed as the dukkha is dropped is a happiness that is pure, peaceful and radiant. At the end, what is left is a totally purified and liberated state, one completely and utterly happy, without any remaining trace of grief and misery, and beyond all ego-construction. That state is the goal. It is sometimes analogized to the sun emerging from behind clouds, and the arahant is said to “shine”.

Unfortunately, the tradition was then carried on by many disciple monks, only some of whom had a real grasp of the goal. Some tended to reduce and re-construe the Buddha’s path as another version of bleak pleasure-hating asceticism, with no distinction drawn between the higher, guiltless and purifying pleasures, and the lower carnal and worldly pleasures. Some probably didn’t even know how to meditate, or when they did meditate they understood it solely as a mysterious thaumaturgical practice for achieving Jain karmic “inaction”. Their lives were sometimes dominated by ascetic practices and other rituals - recitation of texts, ascetic denial for its own sake, adherence to large multiplicities of behavioral rules drained of liberating meaning, alms-rounds, etc.

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I think we better agree to disagree here.

We would be clearly endeavoring the topic of the third noble truth. And the Buddha gave us a very clear task in regard to that truth: not to discuss it but to verify it

I really think it is just not nice or fair to call “miserable Buddhists” those who take as a reference point what the suttas tell us about the third noble truth of the cessation of suffering.

I would recommend checking out how the Buddha is recorded in suttas like the AN9.47 poiting us a non-provisory nibbana which is directly visible and immediate (sandiṭṭhikaṃ nibbānaṃ), lying beyond the threshold of cessation of perception and feeling.

In that sutta the blissful journey which starts with jhana and is called provisory (pariyāyena) and is not an end in itself, it does not end in a happiness-made nibbana but is a mean for attaining the cessation of perception and feeling (saññā­ve­dayi­ta­nirodhaṃ).

That attainment is said in then presented as the catalyst for the complete and definitive destruction of the āsava, which is born of vision and understanding (paññāya cassa disvā āsavā parikkhīṇā) it brings about into the truth of suffering, its causation and the path required for its cessation.

Thus, the fire that ceases with the fulfillment of the third noble truth is not replaced by a anti-fire, it simply ceases. While the cooling must definitely be blissful the coldness it brings about is another thing (or better, nothing! :grin:)

The Pali for that is:

Puna caparaṃ, āvuso, bhikkhu sabbaso neva­saññā­nā­sañ­ñāyata­naṃ samatikkamma saññā­ve­dayi­ta­nirodhaṃ upasampajja viharati, paññāya cassa disvā āsavā parikkhīṇā honti.
Ettāvatāpi kho, āvuso, sandiṭṭhikaṃ nibbānaṃ vuttaṃ bhagavatā nippariyāyenā”ti.

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Not all of the presentations of the attainments include the ninth state of perception of perception and feeling. But some do include it that describe that state as a sublime, non-sensory pleasure:


Saññā and vedana are khandas. They arise depending on some kind of mental contact with the mental and physical objects that are perceived and felt. But it doesn’t follow from the non-presence of perception and feeling in the experience of the one who has attained their cessation that nothing at all is happening in that experience. There can be a non-sensory pleasure left, a pleasure that is not fabricated and does not depend on contact with anything external to that pleasure as an object.

The SN36.19 is an example of what I meant by:

While the cooling must definitely be blissful the coldness it brings about is another thing (or better, nothing! :grin:)

The AN9.47 I pointed above instead depicts the Buddha presenting a detailed account of how a non-provisory nibbana is brought about.

And clearly, something really special seems to take place at the attainment of cessation of perception and feeling (saññā­ve­dayi­ta­nirodhaṃ). I don’t think we can find anything in the EBTs that does not endorse that understanding…

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Yes, that’s a different translation of the same sutta I posted above. In the last two paragraphs we see that the cessation of perception and feeling is described as a kind of happiness - although not a kind of happiness based on sensory pleasure.