Buddhist Philosophy


1. Philosophy

Within the Buddhist tradition there exist enormously sophisticated systems of thought:

Whether these systems should be regarded as “philosophy” or “theology” or something else is a difficult question and a topic of much debate:

Philosophy is a Western word and concept, derived from the Greek origins of Western thinking, and no traditional Buddhist language had a word analogous to philosophy prior to the modern era.

The Buddhist term most closely related is Dharma, which means something like truths or teachings, especially teachings about how to live.

It is often said that the Buddhist teachings are more philosophical than religious because of their open spirit of inquiry and their lack of a central concept of God:

In this sense, philosophy means “overarching ideas about the nature of the world and the meaning of human life that guide daily living:”

By this definition, much Buddhist Dharma is indeed philosophy.

But it is important to recognize that this is not what professional philosophers in the modern West mean by that term:

For most contemporary philosophers, philosophy is concerned with logical analysis and the structure of human thinking.

Although a few Buddhists have taken up these issues, especially in India, they have done so under the guidance of what they take to be larger and more important questions that are ultimately ethical and spiritual, e.g.,

What is excellence of human character?
What is Enlightenment and how can it be achieved?

Logic and analysis have no standing on their own as Buddhist concerns:

One reason for this is that early Buddhist Sūtras depict the Buddha rejecting abstract philosophical speculation in preference for practical techniques of self-transformation.

Another reason is that very early in the Buddhist tradition philosophers attained a high level of psychological sophistication:

Through the rigors of meditative practice, they came to realize that -  

what one considers to be true - no matter how good one is at logical analysis - is shaped and conditioned by the state of one’s character.

What this means is that desires, intentions, and thoughts of a certain kind will inevitably lead a person to reason out the truth of the matter in ways that are in part pre-shaped by those same desires, intentions, and thoughts.

Therefore, in much Buddhist thought, truth is not simply a matter of logic or reason, since both logic and reason are themselves dependent on other factors.

For Buddhists, realizing the truth is the result of a great deal of internal work beyond analytical reasoning,

and it is for this reason that philosophy in the Buddhist tradition is best classified as a sub-category under “means to awakening” or, more appropriately, under “meditation.”

Most analytical thinking in the Buddhist tradition takes place in the context of meditation, which can be divided into 2 overarching categories:

1. Śamatha (calming) and
2. Vipassanā (Sanskrit, vipaśyanā; contemplation).

Contemplation, or insight meditation, is a conceptual practice focusing on the analysis of the world and one’s internal conceptions of it:

Most Buddhist philosophical writings are intended to be used in this kind of meditative practice, and most of them were written within a monastic setting.

Buddhist philosophy, therefore, has a practical intention: it is meant to open and transform the mind of the meditator and lead, ultimately, to Bodhi (awakening).

The idea of philosophical thinking outside of that spiritual and ethical setting is utterly foreign to Buddhist culture.

2. Issues

Among the many issues prominent in Buddhist “philosophy,” the following are most instructive for getting a sense of how this tradition of thought is shaped:

1. No-self,
2. change and causality,
3. morality and ethics, and
4. philosophy and truth.

3. No-self

The idea for which Buddhists are perhaps best known is the claim that there is no self (anātman); that what we take to be the true inner core of a human being is actually an illusory process of constant change.

This idea runs against the grain of ordinary thinking, not just in Western cultures but in Asia as well:

The Buddhist critique of the concept of the self is based on the conclusion that in fact people never experience an unchanging inner core,

and that their ideas about that core are derived from a quite natural tendency to understand themselves through their desires and attachments.

Although the idea of the self that was rejected in early Buddhism was quite specific - the concept of Ātman in the Hindu Upaniṣads, the unchanging core that undergirds all experience –

the development of this critique in the history of Buddhist philosophy extends far beyond the specifics of that initial rejection.

The basic anātman position is that there exists no controller, no possessor, no constant self behind experience,

which means that it is not that “I” have a body and thoughts and feelings but that “I am” these elements at any given moment in the process of life.

Rejecting the unchanging self does not mean that no one is here; the idea of no-self is the Buddhist effort to explain who or what is here, and how that person can best live.

In order to clarify the rejection of self, early sūtras posit the 5 Skandha (Aggregates), the 5 components that make up a person:

1. physical body,
2. feelings,
3. conceptions,
4. volition, and
5. self-consciousness.

Sūtras explain how these 5 components of the self are always changing, always dependent on one another, and therefore not constant, not stable, and not the unchanging foundation that one assumes.

Although languages posit an “I” behind these fluctuating states, no such background possessor is ever present to experience. Buddhist sūtras challenge meditators to examine their own experience, and to locate the truth of the posited self.

The Buddhist critique of the concept of the self is unique among the world’s religions, and it provided a powerful starting point for the history of Buddhist philosophy.

4. Change and causality

Perhaps the most basic philosophical principle in Buddhist philosophy is the claim that all things are characterized by anitya (impermanence);

- that is, all things are subject to change, including birth and death.

The initial context for this realization was the 4 Noble Truths, where suffering is caused by desires for and attachments to things that are always changing and passing away.

Failure to recognize the ubiquity of impermanence and failure to adjust one’s life accordingly lead inevitably to poor judgment and subsequent suffering.

That moral context for reflection on change was just the beginning:

Later Buddhist philosophers took the basic principle of impermanence as the starting point for a wide variety of reflections on the nature of the always changing world.

Closely associated with the idea of impermanence was the concept of Pratītya-samutpāda (Dependent Origination), the Buddhist explanation for how it is that things change:

Change is not random; it is caused and conditioned by other surrounding factors.

The principle of Dependent Origination states that all things arise, change, and pass away dependent upon the influence of other things:

Nothing, therefore, is self-sufficient; everything depends.

Buddhist thinkers took this principle to be an example of the “Middle Way” between 2 logically unacceptable views - Eternalism, the view that things exist permanently and on their own, and Annihilationism, the view that things have no existence at all.

Pratītya-samutpāda falls between those extreme views by affirming that things exist within a larger process of dependence.

Although these ideas certainly could be applied to the natural world, and on occasion were, their most important application concerned the workings of the mind:

How is it possible, Buddhist philosophers asked, to live an Enlightened life, in touch with the way things really are and free of delusion, greed, and hatred?

That possibility, like any other, they concluded, arises dependent on the requisite conditions. Living your life in accordance with those conditions gives rise to the state of Nirvāṇa.

The principles of impermanence and dependent origination are the most basic ideas in Buddhist philosophy.

5. Morality and ethics

Like all Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist Ethics is articulated in the context of meditation, and set in the framework of the quest to eliminate the devastating effects of suffering by achieving the state of human excellence called Nirvāṇa.

Suffering and Enlightenment are the central ethical issues. Ethics is a practical matter of shaping one’s life in accordance with the wisdom of the Buddha’s realization.

Far from making Buddhist ethics simple, this setting in the domain of practice gave rise to a voluminous philosophical literature on how it is that human life ought to be lived:

One difference between Buddhist Ethics and modern Western moral philosophy is the Buddhist focus on everyday life, on choices that people habitually make all of the time:

The idea behind this focus is that one’s character is formed in every act one undertakes, especially in the acts that one performs over and over. This is where the Buddhist concept of Karma (action) functions most forcefully.

Modern Western ethics has focused almost exclusively on exceptional situations, on perplexing moral dilemmas that arise occasionally in a person’s lifetime when major choices need to be made.

As a consequence of this focus, very little attention has been given to how one achieves a state from which major decisions will be made with integrity.

From a Buddhist ethical perspective, how one makes major choices in life depends almost entirely on how one has cultivated oneself throughout one’s life.

Buddhist Enlightenment, therefore, depends on daily acts of morality and meditation on the virtues that sustain them.

This focus can be seen clearly in the lists of virtues that function in the context of meditation, including, for example,

1) the “4 immeasurable
(loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) or

2) the “6 Pāramitā (Perfections)”
(generosity, morality, tolerance, effort, concentration, and wisdom).

6. Philosophy and Truth

The pursuit of Truth in Buddhist philosophy is not so much an effort to formulate general doctrines about the world as it is to change people’s lives, to enlighten.

Philosophy is therefore not a theoretical activity abstracted from life, but rather a practical matter of articulating a way of living, placed in the service of human liberation.

As a form of meditation, theoretical thinking is linked to other forms of spiritual practice. The link is important in Buddhism because truth is not simply the product of logical analysis.

The quality of someone’s analysis of the world depends for Buddhists on the purification of their minds and characters:

It is not possible, they reason, for someone entangled in personal desires and self-centeredness to encounter the truth, no matter how intelligent they are.

Truth in Buddhist meditative contexts is more a matter of how clearly someone can see the ways in which their own minds falsify reality based on attachments and self-absorption.

Understanding this psychological prerequisite to truth, calming and insight meditation begin to open the mind to the possibility of truthful understanding.

7. Traditions and styles

Buddhist philosophy has unfolded over a 2 thousand-year history, and continues today, perhaps as strongly as ever. Over these many centuries, numerous traditions and styles of philosophy have thrived. The following are a few of the best known and most representative.

8. Abhidharma

Abhidharma, meaning higher or extended Dharma, is an early Buddhist philosophical literature that has scriptural status. These texts differ from Sūtras in the same way that systematic philosophical analysis differs from practical religious teachings:

Abhidharma is “extended” beyond the first communication of Dharma by pursuing a comprehensive vision and analytical rigor.

Abhidharma works, such as Buddhaghoṣa’s famous Pāli text Visuddhimagga (Path to Purification), attempt to lay out the underlying structures of the Buddhist Dharma by providing lists, definitions, and descriptions of what might be encountered in meditative experience.

Abhidharma breaks ordinary experience down into its component parts - dharmas - the final building blocks of human experience.

The Abhidharma is the earliest and most widely known form of Buddhist philosophy.

9. Madhyamaka

Nāgārjuna, the 2nd century C.E. founder of the Madhyamaka School, is the most famous of all Buddhist philosophers:

His philosophical tradition, which developed for many centuries in Mahāyāna Buddhist cultures such as China and Tibet, began as an extension and correction of Abhidharma thinking.

Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of Śūnyatā (emptiness) is derived from a systematic thinking through of the earlier concept of dependent origination:

From this point of view, the Abhidharma effort to list the ultimate building blocks of human experience was misguided:

If all things lack independence, arising dependent on other equally dependent things, then nothing can be found to possess the secure and permanent status that earlier Buddhists had sought.

In this sense, Madhyamaka extends the Buddhist analysis of existence one step further - all existing things are “empty” of permanent and self-constituting natures.

Although things do indeed exist, this philosophy seeks to articulate the way in which they exist, and, like other forms of Buddhist philosophy, to use this analysis for the purpose of awakening.

10. Yogācāra

Often considered the culmination of Buddhist philosophy in India,

the Yogācāra School represented a renewed effort to accomplish a systematic account of experience in the style of Abhidharma, but now employing the Madhyamaka critique.

Granting that all components of experience are “empty,”

philosophers such as Asaṅga (ca. 320-390 C.E.) and Vasubandhu (4th century C.E.) sought to explain how it is that impermanent and dependent factors come together to shape the world as it is.

Their basic thesis was that the primary factor upon which experience depends is the mind;

since all experience is the mind’s experience, understanding the complexities of the mind was the most important philosophical task.

Well-known for their thesis that reality is “mind only,” Yogācārins based their analysis on meditative experience:

They broke the mind down into 8 types of consciousness and the 3 fundamental “natures” of mind, constructing what is perhaps the most sophisticated statement of Buddhist psychology.

11. Huayan

One of several innovative philosophical schools that began in China and subsequently influenced Buddhism throughout East Asia,

the Huayan School came to prominence during the early Tang dynasty (618-907) as a philosophical articulation of the meaning of certain Mahāyāna sūtras, most notably the Avatamsaka-sūtra (Flower Garland Sūtra):

This Sūtra is unusual in communicating the experiences of Enlightened Bodhisattvas, rather than the Buddha, but the focus of the text is on what the world looks like from the perspective of Awakening.

Reality is “emptiness,” articulated in Huayan as the enormously complex interplay of all elements in existence, each dependent on all others.

Each aspect of the world receives its particular shape through the influence of all other aspects, while its seemingly insignificant influence radiates out into every dimension of the universe.

Huayan philosophy is staggering in its complexity and sophistication, and it is currently exerting a profound theoretical influence on the field of ecological studies.

12. Kyoto school

Working under the influence of modern Western philosophy, a group of 20th century Buddhist philosophers in Japan has attained international recognition:

Nishida Kitaro, Tanabe Hajime, and Nishitani Keiji, all former professors at Kyoto University, are the most famous thinkers in this school.

Although their philosophical writings are too complex and diverse to summarize,

all of them sought to articulate a philosophical vision of reality in the modern Western sense, while simultaneously subordinating this vision to the quest for spiritual awakening, as has been the custom throughout the history of Buddhism.

Philosophical thinking has its goal in self-awakening, and its truth is the effectiveness with which it accomplishes that primary task.

The translation of these works of philosophy into Western languages has provided non-Buddhists throughout the world with substantial examples of the sophistication of the long and impressive tradition of Buddhist philosophy.

It may very well be that the influence of Buddhist philosophy on world affairs is only now in its opening stages.