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Buddhist philosophy

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Buddhist philosophy

Buddhist philosophy is the elaboration and explanation of the delivered teachings of the Buddha as found in the Tripitaka and Agama. Its main concern is with explicating the dharmas constituting reality. A recurrent theme is the reification of concepts, and the subsequent return to the Buddhist Middle Way.[1][2]


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. These elaborations and disputes gave rise to various schools in early Buddhism of Abhidhamma, and to the Mahayana traditions and schools of the prajnaparamita, Madhyamaka, buddha-nature and Yogacara.


  • Philosophical orientation 1
  • Life and teachings of the Buddha 2
    • Biography 2.1
    • Philosophy 2.2
      • Emphasis on awakening 2.2.1
      • Attachments to the skandhas 2.2.2
      • Emptiness 2.2.3
  • Early Buddhism 3
    • Basic teachings 3.1
      • Dukkha 3.1.1
      • Dependent origination 3.1.2
      • Anatta 3.1.3
    • Ethics 3.2
      • Eightfold Path 3.2.1
      • Precepts 3.2.2
    • Textual authority 3.3
  • Early Buddhist schools 4
    • Sarvastivadin realism 4.1
    • Theravada 4.2
  • Mahayana 5
    • Indian Mahayana 5.1
      • Prajnaparamita 5.1.1
      • Madhyamaka 5.1.2
      • Tathagatagarbha 5.1.3
      • Yogacara 5.1.4
    • Chinese Buddhism 5.2
      • Tiantai and the Lotus School 5.2.1
      • Huayan and Avatamsaka-sutra 5.2.2
    • Tibetan Buddhism 5.3
  • Comparison with other philosophies 6
  • See also 7
    • Topics 7.1
    • Buddhist philosophers 7.2
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Sources 10
  • External links 11

Philosophical orientation

Philosophy in India was aimed mainly at spiritual liberation and had soteriological goals. In his study of Mādhyamaka Buddhist philosophy in India, Peter Deller Santina writes:[5]

Attention must first of all be drawn to the fact that philosophical systems in India were seldom, if ever, purely speculative or descriptive. Virtually all the great philosophical systems of India: Sāṅkhya, Advaitavedānta, Mādhyamaka and so forth, were preeminently concerned with providing a means to liberation or salvation. It was a tacit assumption with these systems that if their philosophy were correctly understood and assimilated, an unconditioned state free of suffering and limitation could be achieved. [...] If this fact is overlooked, as often happens as a result of the propensity engendered by formal Occidental philosophy to consider the philosophical enterprise as a purely descriptive one, the real significance of Indian and Buddhist philosophy will be missed.

Life and teachings of the Buddha

Gautama Buddha surrounded by followers, from an 18th century Burmese watercolour


According to the traditional accounts, Gautama, the future Buddha, born into a Vedic Kshatriya family, was a prince who grew up in an environment of luxury and opulence. He became convinced that sense-pleasures and wealth did not provide the satisfaction that human beings longed for deep within. He abandoned worldly life to live as a mendicant. He studied under a number of teachers, developing his insight into the problem of suffering.

After his awakening he regarded himself as a physician rather than a philosopher. Whereas philosophers merely had views about things, he taught the Noble Eightfold Path which liberates from suffering.


The Buddha discouraged his followers from indulging in intellectual disputation for its own sake, which is fruitless, and distracting from true awakening. Nevertheless, the delivered sayings of the Buddha contain a philosophical component, in its teachings on the working of the mind, and its criticisms of the philosophies of his contemporaries.

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.

Emphasis on awakening

One explanation for this silence is that such questions distract from activity that is practical to realizing enlightenment[6] and bring about the danger of substituting the experience of liberation by conceptual understanding of the doctrine or by religious faith.

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.[7]

Attachments to the skandhas

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.


Another closely related explanation is that reality is devoid of sensory mediation and conception, or empty, and therefore language itself is a priori inadequate without direct experience.[8]

Thus, the Buddha's silence does not indicate misology or disdain for philosophy. Rather, it indicates that he viewed the answers to these questions as not understandable by the unenlightened.[8] Dependent arising provides a framework for analysis of reality that is not based on metaphysical assumptions regarding existence or non-existence, but instead on imagining direct cognition of phenomena as they are presented to the mind. This informs and supports the Buddhist approach to liberation from adventitious distortion and engaging in 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 unenlightened humans perceive things, and the conceptual framework which underpins their cognitive process, rather than a feature of things as they really are. Going "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.[9]

Early Buddhism

Basic teachings

Certain basic teachings appear in many places throughout the early texts, so most scholars conclude that the Buddha must at least have taught these teachings:[10]

According to these scholars, there was something they variously call "earliest Buddhism", "original Buddhism" or "pre-canonical Buddhism".

Some scholars disagree, and have proposed other theories.[11] 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.[1] 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).


Dukkha, often translated as suffering, is the inherent unsatisfactoriness of life. This unsatisfactoriness drives our yearning for a better way of life, yet keeps us imprisoned in wordly existence and rebirth.

Dependent origination

The working of the rising and ceasing of suffering is explained by Pratitya-samutpada, dependent origination. It states that events are not predetermined, nor are they random. 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 posits 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.

This concept leaves no room for the existence of everlasting, absolute entities. The world must be thought of in procedural terms, not in terms of things or substances.[12] Likewise,


The Buddha asserted the non inherently existent concept of the ego, in opposition to the Upanishadic concept of an unchanging ultimate self. The Buddha held that attachment to the appearance of a permanent self in this world of change is the cause of suffering, and the main obstacle to liberation. The apparent ego is merely the result of identification with the temporary aggregates, the components of the individual human being's body and consciousness at any given moment in time.


Eightfold Path

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.[13]

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.

The part of the Noble Eightfold path that covers morality/ethics is right speech, right action and right livelihood. The other parts cover concentration and wisdom, with wisdom being covered by right view and right intention and the remaining three belonging to concentration.

The three aggregates are not included under the noble eightfold path, friend Visakha, but the noble eightfold path is included under the three aggregates. Right speech, right action, & right livelihood come under the aggregate of virtue. Right effort, right mindfulness, & right concentration come under the aggregate of concentration. Right view & right resolve come under the aggregate of discernment.[14]


While the precepts for monks and nuns differ somewhat depending on which tradition one has ordained in (Tibetan, Thai Theravadan, etc.), the precepts for laymen and laywomen followers of the Buddha are the same.

There are the five precepts that all followers of the Buddha must observe if they hope to be reborn as a human being. Eight precepts are practiced by anagarikas and lay-followers staying in temples. Ten precepts are followed by bhikkhus or other serious practitioners.

  1. Refrain from killing living things.
  2. Refrain from stealing.
  3. Refrain from unchastity (sensuality, sexuality, lust).
  4. Refrain from lying.
  5. Refrain from taking intoxicants.
  6. Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times (after noon).
  7. Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment programs (performances).
  8. Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and garland (decorative accessories).
  9. Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds.
  10. Refrain from accepting money.

Textual authority

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. 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).[2]

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 Nyaya school of Hinduism is one which highly believes in application of logic and reason more than canonical evidence.

Early Buddhist schools

The main early Buddhist philosophical schools are the Abhidharma schools, particularly Sarvāstivāda and Theravāda.

Sarvastivadin realism

Early Buddhist philosophers and exegetes of 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.


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:

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.[15]


Mahayana often adopts a pragmatic concept of truth:[16] doctrines are regarded as conditionally "true" in the sense of being spiritually beneficial. In modern Chinese Buddhism, all doctrinal traditions are regarded as equally valid.[17]

Main Mahayana philosophical schools and traditions include the prajnaparamita, Madhyamaka, Tathagatagarbha, Yogācāra, Huayan, and Tiantai schools.

Indian Mahayana


The Prajanaparamita-sutras emphasize the emptiness of the five skandhas. The Heart sutra, a text from the prajnaparamita-sutras, articulates this in the following saying in which the five skandhas are said to be "empty":

"Oh, Sariputra, Form Does not Differ From the Void,
And the Void Does Not Differ From Form.
Form is Void and Void is Form;
The Same is True For Feelings,
Perceptions, Volitions and Consciousness".[18]


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).[19]

Nagarjuna 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 tathāgathagarbha sutras, in a departure from mainstream Buddhist language, insist that the potential for awakening is inherent to every sentient being. They marked a shift from a largely apophatic (negative) philosophical trend within Buddhism to a decidedly more cataphatic (positive) modus.

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.[20]

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.[21] Language that had previously been used by essentialist non-Buddhist philosophers was now adopted, with new definitions, by Buddhists to promote orthodox teachings.

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.[21][22]

The tathāgathagarbha, the Theravāda doctrine of bhavaṅga, and the Yogācāra store consciousness were all identified at some point with the luminous mind of the Nikāyas.

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 Yogacara-school tries to explain the arising of suffering by explaining the workings of our mind. It takes the concepts of the five skandhas and the six consciousnesses, to explain how manas creates vijnapti, concepts to which we cling.[23]

Chinese Buddhism

Tiantai and the Lotus School

The schools of Buddhism that had existed in China prior to the emergence of the Tiantai are generally believed to represent direct transplantations from India, with little modification to their basic doctrines and methods. However, Tiantai grew and flourished as a natively Chinese Buddhist school under the 4th patriarch, Zhiyi, who developed a hierarchy Buddhist sutras that asserted the Lotus Sutra as the supreme teaching, as well as a system of meditation and practices around it.

Huayan and Avatamsaka-sutra

The Huayan developed the doctrine of "interpenetration" or "coalescence" (Wylie: zung-'jug; Sanskrit: yuganaddha),[24][25] based on the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, a Mahāyāna scripture. 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. Interpenetration and essence-function are mutually informing in the East Asian Buddhist traditions, especially the Korean Buddhist tradition.

In Tibetan Buddhism, it is iconographically represented by yab-yum.

Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan tantra entitled the "All-Creating King" (Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra) also emphasizes how Buddhist realization 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..."[26]

Also later, the famous Indian Buddhist practitioner and teacher, mahasiddha Tilopa discouraged any intellectual activity in his six words of advice.

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." The Buddha taught that the only thing which is eternal is Nirvana. 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 skepticism about causation lead him to opposite conclusions in other areas. Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy parallels Buddhism in his affirmation of asceticism and renunciation as a response to suffering and desire.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's "language-game" closely parallel the warning that intellectual speculation or papañca is an impediment to understanding, as found in the Buddhist Parable of the Poison Arrow. Friedrich Nietzsche, although himself dismissive of Buddhism as yet another nihilism, had a similar impermanent view of the self. Heidegger's ideas on being and nothingness have been held by some to be similar to Buddhism today.[27]

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 considered non-essential views (ditthis) and not to be clung to.[28]

See also


Buddhist philosophers


  1. ^ See for example Thanissaro Bhikkhu's commentary on the Mulapariyaya Sutta, [1].
  2. ^ 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).


  1. ^ Kalupahana 1994.
  2. ^ David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 1.
  3. ^ Gunnar Skirbekk, Nils Gilje, A history of Western thought: from ancient Greece to the twentieth century. 7th edition published by Routledge, 2001, page 25.
  4. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 70.
  5. ^ Santina, Peter Della. Madhyamaka Schools in India: A Study of the Madhyamaka Philosophy and of the Division of the System into the Prasangika and Svatantrika Schools. 2008. p. 31
  6. ^ MN 72 (Thanissaro, 1997). For further discussion of the context in which these statements was made, see Thanissaro (2004).
  7. ^ Karel Werner, Mysticism and Indian Spirituality. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press, 1989: p. 27.
  8. ^ a b Gadjin M. Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogachara. Leslie S. Kawamura, translator, SUNY Press, Albany 1991, pp. 40–41.
  9. ^ Sue Hamilton, Early Buddhism. Routledge, 2000, page 135.
  10. ^ Mitchell, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2002, page 34 and table of contents
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Gunnar Skirbekk, Nils Gilje, A history of Western thought: from ancient Greece to the twentieth century. 7th edition published by Routledge, 2001, page 26.
  13. ^ Samyutta Nikaya LVI.11
  14. ^ Majjhima Nikaya 44
  15. ^ Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.65
  16. ^ Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, 1989, p. 2
  17. ^ Welch, Practice of Chinese Buddhism, Harvard, 1967, p. 395
  18. ^ The Heart Sutra Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra
  19. ^ Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, pages 221-222.
  20. ^ Sallie B. King (1997), The Doctrine of Buddha Nature is Impeccably Buddhist. In: Jamie Hubbard (ed.), Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism, Univ of Hawaii Press 1997, pp. 174-192. ISBN 0824819497.
  21. ^ a b Sallie B. King (1997), The Doctrine of Buddha Nature is Impeccably Buddhist. In: Jamie Hubbard (ed.), Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism, Univ of Hawaii Press 1997, pp. 174-192. ISBN 0824819497
  22. ^ Heng-Ching Shih, The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' -- A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'
  23. ^ Kalupahana 1992.
  24. ^ Neville, Robert C. (1987).New metaphysics for eternal experience, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 14, 357-370
  25. ^'jug
  26. ^ The Sovereign All-Creating Mind tr. by E. K. Neumaier-Dargyay, pp. 111–112.
  27. ^ God Is Dead: What Next
  28. ^ (Ph.D. thesis)A Buddhist theory of moral objectivityRobert Ellis


  • Elías Capriles. The Four Schools of Buddhist Philosophy: Clear Discrimination of Views Pointing at the Definitive Meaning. The Four Philosophical Schools of the Sutrayana Traditionally Taught in Tibet with Reference to the Dzogchen Teachings.
  • William Edelglass and Jay Garfield, Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 0-19-532817-5.
  • Daniel Perdue: Debate in Tibetan Buddhism, Publisher : Snow Lion Publications, 1992, ISBN 0-937938-76-9, EAN 9780937938768

External links

  • Buddhism in a Nutshell
  • 2500 Years of Buddhism by Prof. P.Y. Bapat (1956) at
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