The Full Wiki

Buddhist philosophy: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Part of a series on


Dharma Wheel
Portal of Buddhism
Outline of Buddhism

History of Buddhism

Timeline - Buddhist councils

Major figures

Gautama Buddha
Disciples · Later Buddhists

Dharma or concepts

Four Noble Truths
Noble Eightfold Path
Three marks of existence
Dependent origination
Saṃsāra · Nirvāṇa
Skandha · Cosmology
Karma · Rebirth

Practices and attainment

Buddhahood · Bodhisattva
4 stages of enlightenment
Wisdom · Meditation
Smarana · Precepts · Pāramitās
Three Jewels · Monastics

Countries and regions


Theravāda · Mahāyāna


Chinese canon · Pali canon
Tibetan canon

Related topics

Comparative studies
Cultural elements

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

Buddhist philosophy does not depend on ontological or metaphysical speculation that is based on empirical evidence gained by the sense organs (Ayatana).[1] Buddha is said to have assumed an unsympathetic attitude toward speculative and religious 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]

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

Early Buddhism displays a strong streak of skepticism; the Buddha cautioned his followers to stay aloof from intellectual disputation for its own sake, saying that this is fruitless and distracts from the practices leading to enlightenment. 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.

In a skeptical vein, 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. The same skeptical approach negates the existence of any high god or spiritual substance, and undercuts both traditional and iconoclastic spiritual goals. He broke new ground by going on to explain the source for the apparent ego: it is merely the result of the aggregates (skandhas) which make up experience.

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. 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 religious sages' 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 pramana – 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]

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.

Early Buddhist philosophers and exegetes of one particular early school (as opposed to Mahayana), the Sarvastivadins, 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 Sautrantikas, another early school, and the Theravadins, the only surviving early Buddhist school, criticized the realist standpoint of the Sarvastivadins.

The Mahayanist Nagarjuna, one of the most influential Buddhist thinkers, promoted classical Buddhist emphasis on phenomena and attacked Sarvastivada realism and Sautrantika nominalism in his magnum opus The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way.[8]

Dependent Origination

What some consider the original positive Buddhist contribution to the field of metaphysics is 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.

Pratitya-samutpada 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, anatta, and 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 (sva-bhāva).


'Interpenetration' or 'coalescence' (Wylie: zung 'jug; Sanskrit: yuganaddha; Chinese: 通達).[9][10] This doctrine comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra, a Mahayana 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 upaya doctrine of interpenetration influenced the Japanese monk Kūkai, who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. The upaya doctrine of interpenetration is iconographically represented by Yab-yum. 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 resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.[11]

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.

Philosophy or religion

Buddhism can be regarded as either a practical philosophy or a belief-based religion. In the South and East Asian cultures in which Buddhism developed, the distinction between philosophy and religion is not always strongly present. As such, the need to classify Buddhism as one or the other may be a mere semantic problem.

Proponents of the view that Buddhism is a philosophy argue (a) that Buddhism is non-theistic, having no particular use for the existence or non-existence of a god or gods; and (b) that religion entails theism. However, both prongs of this argument are contested by proponents of the alternative view, that Buddhism is a religion. Namely, (a) in the Mahayana branch a vast pantheon of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, many of which are also Hindu deities, serve as the object of prayer and worship and (b) the Tathagatagarbha doctrine may be interpreted in a theistic sense. Another argument for Buddhism as a philosophy is that Buddhism does not have doctrines in the same sense as other religions; instead, Buddhism offers specific methods for applying its philosophical principles, although this too is contentious.

Regardless of its formal classification, Buddhism is a religion rich with philosophical content. Lama Anagorika Govinda expressed it as follows in A Living Buddhism for the West:

Thus we could say that the Buddha's Dharma is,

  • as experience and as a way to practical realisation, a religion;
  • as the intellectual formulation of this experience, a philosophy;
  • and as a result of self-observation and analysis, a psychology.

Whoever treads this path acquires a norm of behavior that is not dictated from without, but is the result of an inner process of maturation and that we – regarding it from without – can call morality.


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:[12]

Some scholars disagree, and have proposed many other theories.[13] 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.[14] 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 Tripitaka).

Later developments

The main Buddhist philosophical schools are the Abhidharma schools, (particularly Theravada and Sarvastivada), and the Mahayana schools (the latter includes the Madhyamika, Yogacara, Huayan, and Tiantai schools).

Cataphatic presentations

The Tathagatagarbha doctrine of some schools of Mahayana Buddhism, the Theravada doctrine of bhavanga, and the Yogachara store consciousness were all identified at some point with the "luminous mind" of the Nikayas.

The Tathagatagarbha sutras, in a depature 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 tathagatagarbha (or Buddha-nature) does not, according to some scholars, represent a substantial Self; rather, it is a positive language expression of "sunyata" and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. In this interpretation, the intention of the teaching of tathagatagarbha is soteriological rather than theoretical.[15][16] The word "atman" is used in a way idionsyncratic to these sutras; the "true self" is described as the perfection of the wisdom of not-self in the Buddha-Nature Treatise, for example.[16] 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, Mahayana 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 Tathagatagarbha 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 in Indian philosophy previously by essentialist philosophers, but which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.[17]

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, such as the 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 as 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. [18]

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.[19]

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 Theravada commentary, ascribed to Dhammapala, on the Nettipakarana, says (Pali pamāṇa is equivalent to Sanskrit pramāṇa): "na hi pāḷito aññaṃ pamāṇataraṃ atthi (quoted in Pali Text Society edition of the Nettipakarana, 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
  8. ^ Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, pages 221-222.
  9. ^ [2]
  10. ^'jug
  11. ^ Samyutta Nikaya LVI.11
  12. ^ Mitchell, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2002, page 34 and table of contents
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ See for example Thanissaro Bhikkhu's commentary on the Mulapariyaya Sutta, [3].
  15. ^ Heng-Ching Shih, "The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' – A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata.'"
  16. ^ a b Sallie B. King, The Doctrine of Buddha Nature is Impeccably Buddhist, )
  17. ^ Sallie B. King, The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature is impeccably Buddhist. [4], pages 1-6.
  18. ^ God Is Dead: What Next
  19. ^ Robert Ellis A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity(Ph.D. thesis)


  • 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. Published on the Web:
  • Daniel Perdue: Debate in Tibetan Buddhism, Publisher : Snow Lion Publications, 1992, ISBN 0937938769, EAN 9780937938768

External links

Guru Rinpoche challenged and defeated five hundred upholders of wrong views in debate at Bodhgaya. He reversed their magic with the aid of a wrathful mantra given him by the lion-faced dakini Marajita. He is known as Sengé Dradok, 'The Lion's Roar'.


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address