How much of Buddhism is Uniquely Buddhist?

It’s widely known and accepted that the Buddha and his teachings didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. I think everyone accepts that the Buddha was one of many samanas, and we know he studied with other samanas before finding his own path. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Buddhism shares many ideas with other Indian religions. So what is uniquely Buddhist? Has anyone ever researched this and complied a table, for example, of things that Buddhism shares with other Indian religions? I read a book that attempted to do this with meditation (this book), but I don’t think I’ve seen a comprehensive list of everything (kamma, rebirth, devas, a layered model of heavenly realms, etc.). Based on my limited knowledge, it seems that there’s very little that’s uniquely Buddhist. Recently I read that the Ficus Religiosa (the kind of tree the the Bodhi tree is) was considered sacred before Buddhism. So it’s no accident that the Buddha is represented as attaining enlightenment under that kind of tree. I guess to limit the scope of this question, I’ll add that I’m only talking about early Buddhism.

To be clear, I’m not talking about arguments like the one that goes “The Buddha only taught rebirth because that idea was prevalent at the time.” I’m also not implying that just because Buddhism shares something with the Upanishads or the Jains it’s automatically wrong. I’m just curious.


Renunciation, Virtue, Rebirth etc were already part of popular culture, it was the knowledge of the 4 noble truths of suffering that were the Buddha’s unique contribution…

The Blessed One then gave me a progressive discourse, that is, a talk on giving, virtuous behavior, and heaven; he revealed the danger, degradation, and defilement of sensual pleasures and the benefit of renunciation. When the Blessed One knew that my mind was pliant, softened, rid of hindrances, uplifted, and confident, he revealed that Dhamma teaching special to the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. Then, just as a clean cloth rid of dark spots would readily absorb dye, so too, while I sat in that same seat, the dust-free, stainless Dhamma-eye arose in me: ‘Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.


I heard that there will be a course on Jayatilleke’s Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge somewhere this year! :face_with_hand_over_mouth:


I think of The Four Noble Truths as a high-level abstraction that encompasses all the Buddhist teachings. I suppose The Four Noble Truths as a framework might be uniquely Buddhist, but the idea of human existence being pervaded by suffering, and that release can be found through different aspects of controlling/training the mind, is not.

I don’t think I have it in me to read dense tomes of philosophy anymore, but I’ll take a peak at Jayatilleke’s Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge and see if there’s anything related to what I’m after.


Jayatilleke’s book is only 526 pages, without front pages and cover included. :cowboy_hat_face:

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I think I’ll say what I think of as uniquely Buddhist, based on my incomplete understanding of the whole of the Dhamma.

I think the Buddha’s understanding of anatta is unique, meaning anatta coupled with rebirth and kamma. I think the centrality of anicca is, too. The connection between anicca, dukkha, and anatta is, I believe, unique. In the book Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India, the author makes a convincing case that anapanasati and the rupa jhanas are uniquely Buddhist, as is the role of blissful states in Buddhist meditation. Lastly, I’d say Nibbana is also unique.

Anyone else want to share their thoughts? How about you Bhante @sujato?

I was recently telling some friends that people can read Harry Potter books in 24 hours, but they take foreverrrr (if ever) to read the four nikāyas! :upside_down_face:

I mention it because it gives a detailed overview of the other beliefs at the time, as well as the interactions between them and Buddhist points of view. I won’t lie, it will take some dedication. But there’s worse ways to spend your time.


Oh, that sounds interesting. I’ll definitely check it out.

Sila, samadhi, panna:
According to the Samaññaphala Sutta this sort of vision arose for the Buddhist adept as a result of the perfection of ‘meditation’ (Sanskrit: dhyāna) coupled with the perfection of ‘ethics’ (Sanskrit: śīla). Some of the Buddha’s meditative techniques were shared with other traditions of his day, but the idea that ethics are causally related to the attainment of “religious insight” (Sanskrit: prajñā) was original.[52]—Wikipedia

Nibbana is unique:

“Great becomes the fruit, great is the gain of concentration when it is fully developed by virtuous conduct; great becomes the fruit, great is the gain of wisdom when it is fully developed by concentration; utterly freed from the taints of lust, becoming, and ignorance is the mind that is fully developed in wisdom.”—DN 16

Hindu meditation does not lead to nibbana:

“In this way did Uddaka Ramaputta, my companion in the holy life, place me in the position of teacher and pay me great honor. But the thought occurred to me, ‘This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.’ So, dissatisfied with that Dhamma, I left.”—MN 26

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I suppose the Buddha’s explanation of kamma as intention is also unique. At the very least, it was different from samanas who were the Buddha’s contemporaries.

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So true! And just like JK Rowling, the Buddhist texts became shockingly transphobic as time went on…

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Is this a joke or true? Apologies for my ignorance.

Both! I’m referring to how the Buddha’s attitude towards gender changes was like " :man_shrugging: Okay, join the Bhikkhunis" and later texts say awful things about the karma of being anything other than cis male.


I’m not sure how unique the Four Noble Truths are, given there are similar themes in the “Hindu” schools, and given that Nibbana is an example of moksha.
What strikes me as unique in the Buddhas teaching is the anatta doctrine, which was a radical departure from the status quo.

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As I see it, there are several unique features of early Buddhism.
Unique would be: khandhas, ayatanas, and dependent origination.

There was a culture of meditation / rebirth / liberation /karma in Kosala-Magadha. Thus, unique would have been their specific Buddhist conceptualizations. Same with anatta, of which there supposedly were several versions around.

Even though not a Buddhist invention, anicca seems to have had a uniquely fundamental place in early Buddhism.


Johannes Bronkhurt’s Greater Magadha is an excellent book on this topic, delving into many sources textual and archaeological to reconstruct a picture of the religious and philosophical framework of the Buddha’s time, giving special attention to the sramanic schools that we normally neglect, like the Charvakas and the Ajivikas.

It has little on the Ajnanas, which is unfortunate, cause it’d be interesting to have a better lens into what Sariputra and Maudgalyayana were doing before they joined the Buddhist sangha.

One of the most interesting things to me in this text is the reveal that the Charvaka school was comprised of Brahmins specifically, and were probably not sramanas at all, appearing to be an independent Vedic tradition that held to a materialist worldview.


Probably a bunch of very rich guys who could afford to live the world under a very cynical and amoral hedonistic approach to things, life and others.

I would say very similar to the way the super-rich or super-powerful and their heirs do enjoy life nowadays! Living “the good life” in massive yatches, driving solid gold cars or flying wherever they want and whenever they want in their private jets! :man_facepalming:

The enjoyment of heaven lies in eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes, perfumes, garlands, sandal paste… while moksha is death which is cessation of life-breath… the wise therefore ought not to take pains on account of moksha.
A fool wears himself out by penances and fasts. Chastity and other such ordinances are laid down by clever weaklings.

— Sarvasiddhanta Samgraha, Verses 9-12
Source: Charvaka - Wikipedia



Oh, that sounds really interesting.

I think the question is better answered through reference to faith. It is the only teachings that leads to nibbana.

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