Buddhist philosophy

Buddhist philosophy
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Buddhist philosophy deals extensively with problems in metaphysics, phenomenology, ethics, and epistemology.

Some scholars assert that early Buddhist philosophy did not engage in ontological or metaphysical speculation, but was based instead on empirical evidence gained by the sense organs (ayatana).[1] Buddha is said to have assumed an unsympathetic attitude toward speculative thought in general.[2] A basic idea of the Buddha is that the world must be thought of in procedural terms, not in terms of things or substances.[3] The Buddha advised viewing reality as consisting of dependently originated phenomena; Buddhists view this approach to experience as avoiding the two extremes of reification and nihilism.[4] Nevertheless, Buddhist scholars have addressed ontological and metaphysical issues subsequently.

Particular points of Buddhist philosophy have often been the subject of disputes between different schools of Buddhism. While theory for its own sake is not valued in Buddhism, theory pursued in the interest of enlightenment is consistent with Buddhist values and ethics.



Historical context

The historical Buddha lived during a time of spiritual and philosophical revival in Northern India when the established mythologies and cosmological explanations of the vedas came under rational scrutiny. As well as the Buddha's own teachings, new ethical and spiritual philosophies such as those of Mahavira became established during this period when alternatives to the mainstream religion arose in an atmosphere of freethought and renewed vitality in spiritual endeavour. This general cultural movement is today known as the Sramanic tradition and the epoch of new thought as the axial era. These heterodox groups held widely divergent opinions but were united by a critical attitude towards the established religion whose explanations they found unsatisfactory and whose animal sacrifices increasingly distasteful and irrelevant. In Greece, China and India there was a return to fundamental questions and a new interest in the question of how humans should live. In this atmosphere of freethought the Buddha discouraged his followers from indulging in intellectual disputation for its own sake, saying that this is fruitless and distracting from true awakening. The Buddha saw himself as a physician rather than a philosopher. Like a doctor he was concerned with identifying the fundamental problem of human existence (diagnosis), its cause (etiology), and treatment. However, the Buddha's doctrine did have an important philosophical component: it negated the major claims of rival positions while building upon them at a new philosophical and religious level.

The Buddha's method of enquiry in disputation with others was like the Socratic method, his approach to metaphysical questions apophatic and his attitude to the accepted pantheon of gods and goddesses somewhat iconoclastic. He asserted the insubstantiality of the ego and in doing so countered those Upanishadic sages who sought knowledge of an unchanging ultimate self. The Buddha created a new position in opposition to their theories, and held that attachment to a permanent self in this world of change is the cause of suffering and the main obstacle to liberation. He broke new ground by going on to explain the source for the apparent ego: it is merely the result of identification with the temporary aggregates (skandhas) which constitute the sum total of the individual human being's experience at any given moment in time. His avoidance of theological speculation or assertions and non-assertion of the existence of any Supreme Being or essential substance may be seen as evidence of his mystical apophasis rather than skepticism or nihilism. The Buddha was concerned with advancing human happiness by teaching people the correct method of liberation.

The Buddha's teaching is rationalistic, scientific and empirical. Though he uses parables and similes in common with other religious teachers he is somewhat unique in bringing a highly logical and analytical approach to questions of ultimate significance for human beings. In this breaking down into constituent elements, the Buddha was heir to earlier element philosophies which had sought to characterize existing things as made up of a set of basic elements.[citation needed] The Buddha, however, eliminated mythological rhetoric, systematized world components into five groups, and used this approach not to characterize a substantial object, but to explain a delusion. He coordinated material components with psychological ones. The Buddha criticized the Brahmins' theories of an Absolute as yet another reification, instead giving a path to self-perfection as a means of transcending the world of name and form.[5]


Decisive in distinguishing Buddhism from what is commonly called Hinduism is the issue of epistemological justification. All schools of Indian logic recognize various sets of valid justifications for knowledge, or pramāṇa – Buddhism recognizes a set that is smaller than the others'. All accept perception and inference, for example, but for some schools of Hinduism and Buddhism the received textual tradition is an epistemological category equal to perception and inference (although this is not necessarily true for some other schools).[6]

Thus, in the Hindu schools, if a claim was made that could not be substantiated by appeal to the textual canon, it would be considered as ridiculous as a claim that the sky was green and, conversely, a claim which could not be substantiated via conventional means might still be justified through textual reference, differentiating this from the epistemology of hard science.

Some schools of Buddhism, on the other hand, rejected an inflexible reverence of accepted doctrine. As the Buddha said, according to the canonical scriptures:[7]

Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.

Early Buddhist philosophers and exegetes of one particular early school (as opposed to Mahāyāna), the Sarvāstivādins, created a pluralist metaphysical and phenomenological system, in which all experiences of people, things and events can be broken down into smaller and smaller perceptual or perceptual-ontological units called "dharmas". Other schools incorporated some parts of this theory and criticized others. The Sautrāntikas, another early school, and the Theravādins, now the only modern survivor of the early Buddhist schools, criticized the realist standpoint of the Sarvāstivādins.

The Mahāyānist Nāgārjuna, one of the most influential Buddhist thinkers, promoted classical Buddhist emphasis on phenomena and attacked Sarvāstivāda realism and Sautrāntika nominalism in his magnum opus, The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā).[8]

Speculation versus direct experience

According to the scriptures, during his lifetime the Buddha remained silent when asked several metaphysical questions. These regarded issues such as whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal (or whether it is finite or infinite), the unity or separation of the body and the self, the complete inexistence of a person after Nirvana and death, and others. One explanation for this silence is that such questions distract from activity that is practical to realizing enlightenment[9] and bring about the danger of substituting the experience of liberation by conceptual understanding of the doctrine or by religious faith.[10] Another explanation is that both affirmative and negative positions regarding these questions are based on attachment to and misunderstanding of the aggregates and senses. That is, when one sees these things for what they are, the idea of forming positions on such metaphysical questions simply does not occur to one.[11] Another closely related explanation is that reality is devoid of designations, or empty, and therefore language itself is a priori inadequate.[12]

Thus, the Buddha's silence does not indicate misology or disdain for philosophy. Rather, it indicates that he viewed these questions as not leading to true knowledge.[12] Dependent arising provides a framework for analysis of reality that is not based on metaphysical assumptions regarding existence or non-existence, but instead on direct cognition of phenomena as they are presented to the mind. This informs and supports the Buddhist approach to liberation via the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha of the earliest Buddhists texts describes Dharma (in the sense of "truth") as "beyond reasoning" or "transcending logic", in the sense that reasoning is a subjectively introduced aspect of the way humans perceive things, and the conceptual framework which underpins it is a part of the cognitive process, rather than a feature of things as they really are. Being "beyond reasoning" means in this context penetrating the nature of reasoning from the inside, and removing the causes for experiencing any future stress as a result of it, rather than functioning outside of the system as a whole.[13]

Most Buddhists agree that, to a greater or lesser extent, words are inadequate to describe the goal of the Buddhist path, but concerning the usefulness of words in the path itself, schools differ radically.[14]

In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha insists that while pondering upon Dharma is vital, one must then relinquish fixation on words and letters, as these are utterly divorced from liberation and the Buddha-nature. The Tibetan tantra entitled the "All-Creating King" (Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra) also emphasizes how Buddhist truth lies beyond the range of discursive/verbal thought and is ultimately mysterious. Samantabhadra, states there: "The mind of perfect purity ... is beyond thinking and inexplicable..."[15] Also later, the famous Indian Buddhist practitioner and teacher, mahasiddha Tilopa discouraged any intellectual activity in his six words of advice.

Professor C. D. Sebastian describes the nature of enlightenment according to one Mahayana text:[16]

Bodhi is the final goal of a Bodhisattva's career and it is indicated by such words as buddha-jnana (knowledge of Buddha), sarvjnata (omniscience), sarvakarajnata (the quality of knowing things as they are), ... and acintyam jnanam (inconceivable knowledge) ... Bodhi is pure universal and immediate knowledge, which extends over all time, all universes, all beings and elements, conditioned and unconditioned. It is absolute and identical with Reality and thus it is Tathata. Bodhi is immaculate and non-conceptual, and it, being not an outer object, cannot be understood by discursive thought. It has neither beginning, nor middle nor end and it is indivisbile. It is non-dual (advayam)... The only possible way to comprehend it is through samadhi by the yogin

The early texts, in contrast, contain explicit repudiations of attributing omniscience to the Buddha.[17][18] Furthermore, the non-duality ascribed to the nature of enlightenment in the early texts is not ontological.[19]

Mahayana often adopts a pragmatic concept of truth:[20] doctrines are "true" in the sense of being spiritually beneficial. In modern Chinese Buddhism, all doctrinal traditions are regarded as equally valid.[21]

Theravada promotes the concept of vibhajjavada (Pāli, literally "Teaching of Analysis") to non-Buddhists. This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith. As the Buddha said according to the canonical scriptures:[22]

Do not accept anything by mere tradition ... Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures ... Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions ... But when you know for yourselves—these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness—then do you live acting accordingly.

Dependent origination

What some consider the original positive Buddhist contribution to the field of metaphysics is dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda). It states that events are not predetermined, nor are they random, and it rejects notions of direct causation, which are necessarily undergirded by a substantialist metaphysics. Instead, it posits the arising of events under certain conditions which are inextricable, such that the processes in question at no time, are considered to be entities.

Dependent origination goes on to posit that certain specific events, concepts, or realities are always dependent on other specific things. Craving, for example, is always dependent on, and caused by, emotion. Emotion is always dependent on contact with our surroundings. This chain of causation purports to show that the cessation of decay, death, and sorrow is indirectly dependent on the cessation of craving.

Nāgārjuna asserted a direct connection between, even identity of, dependent origination, selflessness (anatta), and emptiness (śūnyatā). He pointed out that implicit in the early Buddhist concept of dependent origination is the lack of any substantial being (anatta) underlying the participants in origination, so that they have no independent existence, a state identified as emptiness (śūnyatā), or emptiness of a nature or essence (svabhāva).


The doctrine of "interpenetration" or "coalescence" (Wylie: zung-'jug; Sanskrit: yuganaddha; Chinese: 通達)[23][24] comes from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, a Mahāyāna scripture, and its associated schools. It holds that all phenomena (Sanskrit: dharmas) are intimately connected (and mutually arising). Two images are used to convey this idea. The first is known as Indra's net. The net is set with jewels which have the extraordinary property that they reflect all of the other jewels. The second image is that of the world text. This image portrays the world as consisting of an enormous text which is as large as the universe itself. The words of the text are composed of the phenomena that make up the world. However, every atom of the world contains the whole text within it. It is the work of a Buddha to let out the text so that beings can be liberated from suffering. The doctrine of interpenetration influenced the Japanese monk Kūkai, who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. It is iconographically represented by yab-yum.[citation needed] Interpenetration and essence-function are mutually informing in the East Asian Buddhist traditions, especially the Korean Buddhist tradition.


Although there are many ethical tenets in Buddhism that differ depending on whether one is a monk or a layman, and depending on individual schools, the Buddhist system of ethics can be summed up in the eightfold path.

And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering -- precisely this Noble Eightfold Path – right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.[25]

The purpose of living an ethical life is to escape the suffering inherent in samsara. Skillful actions condition the mind in a positive way and lead to future happiness, while the opposite is true for unskillful actions. Ethical discipline also provides the mental stability and freedom to embark upon mental cultivation via meditation.


Early development

Certain basic teachings appear in many places throughout the early texts, so most scholars conclude that the Buddha must at least have taught something of the kind:[26]

Some scholars disagree, and have proposed many other theories.[27] According to such scholars, there was something they variously call "earliest Buddhism", "original Buddhism" or "pre-canonical Buddhism". The Buddha rejected certain precepts of Indian philosophy that were prominent during his lifetime.[28] According to some scholars, the philosophical outlook of earliest Buddhism was primarily negative, in the sense that it focused on what doctrines to reject more than on what doctrines to accept. This dimension is also found in the Madhyamaka school. It includes critical rejections of all views, which is a form of philosophy, but it is reluctant to posit its own.

Only knowledge that is useful in achieving enlightenment is valued. According to this theory, the cycle of philosophical upheavals that in part drove the diversification of Buddhism into its many schools and sects only began once Buddhists began attempting to make explicit the implicit philosophy of the Buddha and the early suttas. Other scholars reject this theory. After the death of the Buddha, attempts were made to gather his teachings and transmit them in a commonly agreed form, first orally, then also in writing (the Tripiṭaka).

Later developments

The main Buddhist philosophical schools are the Abhidharma schools, (particularly Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda), and the Mahāyāna schools (the latter including the Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, Huayan, and Tiantai schools).

Cataphatic presentations

The tathāgathagarbha (or Buddha-nature) doctrine of some schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Theravāda doctrine of bhavaṅga, and the Yogācāra store consciousness were all identified at some point with the luminous mind of the Nikāyas.

The tathāgatagarbha sutras, in a departure from mainstream Buddhist language, insist that the true self lies at the very heart of the Buddha himself and of nirvana, as well as being concealed within the mass of mental and moral contaminants that blight all beings. Such doctrines saw a shift from a largely apophatic (negative) philosophical trend within Buddhism to a decidedly more cataphatic (positive) modus. The tathāgatagarbha does not, according to some scholars, represent a substantial self; rather, it is a positive language expression of emptiness and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. In this interpretation, the intention of the teaching of tathāgatagarbha is soteriological rather than theoretical.[29][30] The word "self" (atman) is used in a way idiosyncratic to these sutras; the "true self" is described as the perfection of the wisdom of not-self in the Buddha-Nature Treatise, for example.[30] Language that had previously been used by essentialist non-Buddhist philosophers was now adopted, with new definitions, by Buddhists to promote orthodox teachings.

Prior to the period of these scriptures, Mahāyāna metaphysics had been dominated by teachings on emptiness in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the tathāgatagarbha genre of sutras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these sutras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used previously in Indian philosophy by essentialist philosophers, but which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.[31]

Comparison with other philosophies

Baruch Spinoza, though he argued for the existence of a permanent reality, asserts that all phenomenal existence is transitory. In his opinion sorrow is conquered "by finding an object of knowledge which is not transient, not ephemeral, but is immutable, permanent, everlasting." Buddhism teaches that such a quest is bound to fail. David Hume, after a relentless analysis of the mind, concluded that consciousness consists of fleeting mental states. Hume's Bundle theory is a very similar concept to the Buddhist skandhas, though his denial of causation lead him to opposite conclusions in other areas. Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy had some parallels in Buddhism.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's "word games" map closely to the warning of intellectual speculation as a red herring to understanding, in a similar fashion as the Buddhist Parable of the Poison Arrow. Friedrich Nietzsche, although himself dismissive of Buddhism as yet another nihilism, developed his philosophy of accepting life-as-it-exists and self-cultivation, which is extremely similar to Buddhism as better understood in the West. Heidegger's ideas on being and nothingness have been held by some to be similar to Buddhism today.[32]

An alternative approach to the comparison of Buddhist thought with Western philosophy is to use the concept of the Middle Way in Buddhism as a critical tool for the assessment of Western philosophies. In this way Western philosophies can be classified in Buddhist terms as eternalist or nihilist. In a Buddhist view all philosophies are to be considered non-essential.[33]

See also

Buddhist philosophers


  1. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 70.
  2. ^ Gunnar Skirbekk, Nils Gilje, A history of Western thought: from ancient Greece to the twentieth century. 7th edition published by Routledge, 2001, page 25.
  3. ^ Gunnar Skirbekk, Nils Gilje, A history of Western thought: from ancient Greece to the twentieth century. 7th edition published by Routledge, 2001, page 26.
  4. ^ David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 1.
  5. ^ Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, page 202. [1]
  6. ^ The Theravāda commentary, ascribed to Dhammapala, on the Nettipakaraṇa, says (Pāli pamāṇa is equivalent to Sanskrit pramāṇa): "na hi pāḷito aññaṃ pamāṇataraṃ atthi (quoted in Pali Text Society edition of the Nettipakaraṇa, 1902, page XI) which Nanamoli translates as: "for there is no other criterion beyond a text" (The Guide, Pali Text Society, 1962, page xi).
  7. ^ Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.65, [2].
  8. ^ Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, pages 221-222.
  9. ^ MN 72 (Thanissaro, 1997). For further discussion of the context in which these statements was made, see Thanissaro (2004).
  10. ^ "Experience is ... the path most elaborated in early Buddhism. The doctrine on the other hand was kept low. The Buddha avoided doctrinal formulations concerning the final reality as much as possible in order to prevent his followers from resting content with minor achievements on the path in which the absence of the final experience could be substituted by conceptual understanding of the doctrine or by religious faith, a situation which sometimes occurs, in both varieties, in the context of Hindu systems of doctrine", Karel Werner, Mysticism and Indian Spirituality. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press, 1989: p. 27.
  11. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "Introduction to the Avyakata Samyutta"
  12. ^ a b Gadjin M. Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogachara. Leslie S. Kawamura, translator, SUNY Press, Albany 1991, pp. 40–41.
  13. ^ Sue Hamilton, Early Buddhism. Routledge, 2000, page 135.
  14. ^ Philosophy East and West. Vol. 26, p. 138
  15. ^ The Sovereign All-Creating Mind tr. by E. K. Neumaier-Dargyay, pp. 111–112.
  16. ^ Professor C. D. Sebastian, Metaphysics and Mysticism in Mahayana Buddhism, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 2005, p. 274)
  17. ^ A. K. Warder, Indian Buddhism. Third edition published by Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 2000, pages 132-133.
  18. ^ David J. Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. University of Hawaii Press, 1992, page 43: [3].
  19. ^ Alexander Wynne, The Origin of Buddhist Meditation. 2007, page 109.
  20. ^ Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, 1989, p. 2
  21. ^ Welch, Practice of Chinese Buddhism, Harvard, 1967, p. 395
  22. ^ Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.65
  23. ^ [4]
  24. ^ http://rywiki.tsadra.org/index.php/zung_'jug
  25. ^ Samyutta Nikaya LVI.11
  26. ^ Mitchell, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2002, page 34 and table of contents
  27. ^ Skorupski, Buddhist Forum, vol I, Heritage, Delhi/SOAS, London, 1990, page 5; Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol 21 (1998), part 1, pages 4, 11
  28. ^ See for example Thanissaro Bhikkhu's commentary on the Mulapariyaya Sutta, [5].
  29. ^ Heng-Ching Shih, "The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' – A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata.'" http://zencomp.com/greatwisdom/ebud/ebdha191.htm.
  30. ^ a b Sallie B. King, The Doctrine of Buddha Nature is Impeccably Buddhist, http://www.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications/nlarc/pdf/Pruning%20the%20bodhi%20tree/Pruning%209.pdf )
  31. ^ Sallie B. King, The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature is impeccably Buddhist. [6], pages 1-6.
  32. ^ God Is Dead: What Next
  33. ^ Robert Ellis A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity(Ph.D. thesis)


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