The Four Axioms for Examining a Buddhist Teaching

To test whether a Buddhist teaching makes sense, we need to examine it carefully. If we want to develop a good quality, we need to know what we need to do beforehand; once we’ve developed it, how will it help; do these benefits make logical sense; and do they accord with the basic nature of things. If the teaching passes all these criteria, we can be confident about putting it into practice.

Success in Dharma practice depends on having a realistic attitude. This means examining the Dharma teachings in a manner that accords with how things actually exist. For such examination, Buddha taught four axioms (rigs-pa bzhi), which are the basic assumptions in Buddhist thinking. Remember, Buddha said, “Do not accept what I teach just out of faith or respect for me, but investigate for yourself as if buying gold.”

The four are the axioms of:

  • Dependency (ltos-pa’i rigs-pa)
  • Functionality (bya-ba byed-pa’i rigs-pa)
  • Establishment by reason (tshad-ma’i rigs-pa)
  • The nature of things (chos-nyid-kyi rigs-pa).

Let us look at how Tsongkhapa explains the four in A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path (Lam-rim chen-mo).

The Axiom of Dependency

The first axiom is that certain things depend on other things as their bases. This is the axiom of dependency. For a result to come about, it must depend upon causes and conditions. This is an axiom we can all accept. It means that if we wish to develop a good quality or an understanding of something, we need to investigate what it relies on. What do we need to develop beforehand to serve as its basis?

Each level of spiritual attainment relies on other attainments and factors as its basis. For example, if we wish to develop the discriminating awareness or understanding of voidness or reality, we need to investigate and know what this understanding relies on. It relies on concentration. Without concentration, we cannot develop understanding. What is the basis that concentration depends on? It depends on self-discipline. If we do not have discipline to correct our attention when it wanders astray, we cannot possibly develop concentration. Therefore, if we wish to develop the discriminating awareness of voidness, we need to work first on building up at least some modicum of self-discipline and concentration.

Applying this first axiom is very important when studying the Dharma. Many of us would like to achieve the wonderful things we read about in the Dharma texts, but if we wish to be realistic about our wishes, we need to investigate what their achievement relies upon. When we know what we need to build up to reach our goals, we know how to reach them. We can then start from the foundation upward. This makes our quests realistic.

The Axiom of Functionality

The second is the axiom of functionality. Every phenomenon that is affected by causes and conditions performs its specific function. Fire, not water, performs the function of burning. This is, again, a basic assumption in Buddhism, an axiom, and is something that we can accept as well. Its application is that in studying and learning the Dharma, we need to investigate the function that this or that performs. We are given instructions about certain states of mind or emotions that we need to develop, such as love and concentration, and about other ones that we need to rid ourselves of, like confusion or anger. We are also taught certain methods to follow. To understand the methods, we need to investigate what they do, what are their functions? Since certain things are compatible and others are not, certain states of mind will function to enhance or increase other states.

For example, investigation and experience of a specific meditation method for developing love increases our confidence in it. We investigate “Is this right or not?” and then we try to gain an experience of it. The function of doing this is that it gives us confidence about the method. What is the function of confidence that a method of practice is correct and that it works? It enhances our ability to practice it deeply. If we lack confidence in what we are doing, we will not practice it. If we understand the function each step has, we will put our hearts into each one. If we do not understand, we will not do any of them.

In addition, we need to understand the function of something to damage or counter another. For instance, confidence in a method destroys indecisiveness about it. Lack of confidence in a method or in our abilities to follow it prevents us from succeeding or getting anywhere with it.

It is very important to know what each thing that we learn and each step of practice we take will strengthen and what it will destroy. Then we have a realistic attitude about what we are doing. For example, why would we want to develop a particular positive state of mind or attitude, such as love? A valid reason is because it functions to bring about peace of mind and enables us to help others. Why would we want to rid ourselves of a particular negative state of mind, such as anger? Because of what it does: it makes trouble for others and us. Knowing this is very important when we wish to stop destructive patterns of behavior that we are attached to, such as smoking. If we understand clearly what an action functions to do, such as what smoking does to our lungs, we understand why we need to stop doing it. That is how we apply the axiom of functionality.

The Axiom of Establishment by Reason

The third is the axiom of establishment by reason. This means that a point is established or proven if a valid means of knowing does not contradict it. First we need to investigate anything we learn as Dharma to determine whether scriptural authority contradicts it. How do we know a teaching is a Dharma teaching? It is consistent with what Buddha taught. Since Buddha taught varying things to different disciples, that on the surface seem contradictory, how do we know Buddha’s deepest intention? The Indian master Dharmakirti explained that if a teaching appears as a recurrent theme in Buddha’s teaching, we know that Buddha really meant it. This is important, especially concerning ethical issues.

The second means of validly knowing something is by logic and inference. Is it logically consistent or does logic contradict it? Does it make common sense or is it completely weird? Then the third valid way of knowing is straightforward cognition. When we actually meditate, does our experience contradict or confirm it?

Let us look at an example of how to apply this axiom. We might receive a teaching that applying a certain opponent eliminates a certain shortcoming or problem, like for instance, “love overcomes anger.” First, we consider is this consistent with what Buddha taught? Yes, it is not contradicted by anything Buddha taught.

Is it logically correct? Yes, love is the wish for others to be happy. Why is this other person who is harming me and with whom I am angry acting this way? This person is doing these terrible things because he or she is unhappy; the person is mentally and emotionally upset. If I had love for this person, I would wish that he or she were happy; I would wish that the person were not upset and were not so miserable. Such an attitude prevents us from getting angry with the person, doesn’t it? It is perfectly logical. If this person is causing a lot of harm, if I want him or her to stop doing that, I need to extend my love. I need to wish the person to be happy, because if he or she were happy, the person would not do this harm. Getting angry with the person is not going to make him or her stop harming me. This teaching makes logical sense.

Lastly, we investigate with straightforward cognition or with the experience of meditation. In other words, we try it out to see whether it works. If I meditate on love does it lessen my anger? Yes, it does. That is the third test of whether something is a reasonable teaching. This is how we apply the axiom of establishment by reason.

The Axiom of the Nature of Things

The last is the axiom of the nature of things. This is the axiom that certain facts are just the nature of things, such as fire being hot and water being wet. Why is fire hot and why is water wet? Well, that is just the way things are. Within the Dharma, we need to investigate which points are true simply because it is the nature of things, such as all beings want to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. Why? That is just the way it is. Take another example. Unhappiness results from destructive behavior and happiness from constructive behavior. Why? That is just the way the universe works. It is not that Buddha created it that way; it is just the way it is. If we investigate and discover that certain things are just the way things are, we need to accept them as facts of life. To drive ourselves crazy about them would be a waste of time.

One of the points regarding the nature of things that is most relevant to Dharma practice is the fact that samsara goes up and down. This refers not simply to taking fortunate and unfortunate rebirths, but also applies moment to moment in our daily lives. Our moods and what we feel like doing go up and down. If we accept that as the way things are, we do not get upset about it. What do you expect from samsara? Of course, some days meditation is going to go well and some days it is not. Some days I am going to feel like practicing, other days I will not. No big deal! That is the just the way things are. Leave it and do not get upset by it. That is very crucial.

If we wish to approach the Dharma in a realistic manner, these four points that Buddha taught are very helpful. To confirm our understanding of them and of how to apply them to a teaching that we learn, let us look at an example, detachment from our bodies.

  1. What does the development of this detachment depend on? It depends on the understanding of impermanence, rebirth, how the self exists, the relationship between body, mind, and self, and so on.
  2. What is the function of developing detachment from our bodies? It functions to help us not get upset and angry when we fall sick, grow old, or become senile.
  3. Is this established by reason? Yes, Buddha taught that detachment from the body eliminates one of the causes of suffering: attachment based on identifying with something transitory. Is it logical? Yes, because the body changes and grows old from moment to moment. Do we experience its function? Yes, as we develop detachment, we see that we do experience less unhappiness and problems.
  4. What about the nature of things? If I meditate on detachment from my body, does my happiness grow stronger each day? No, it does not. This is samsara; it goes up and down. Eventually, from a long-term perspective, I can become happier and my life can get better, but this is not going to happen in a linear fashion. That is not the nature of things.


We can see that by applying the four axioms to investigate a teaching such as the development of detachment from our bodies, we develop a realistic attitude about how to approach it. Thus, when Buddha said, “Do not believe what I teach simply because of faith or respect, but investigate yourself as if buying gold,” he meant to investigate by applying the four axioms.