non buddhist

Buddhist philosophy

Buddhist philosophy deals extensively with problems in metaphysics, phenomenology, ethics, and epistemology. Buddhism uses philosophy as a means to understanding morality and what it means to live a meaningful life without regrets in the end. Unlike most religions, Buddhism has no creator god. Buddhism rejects certain Indian philosophical concepts, some of which were already prominent during the Buddha's life. The Buddha taught dependent origination as the correct model for causality.

The Buddha is said to have questioned all concepts of metaphysical being and non-being, and this critique is seen as a fundamental aspect of the Buddha's approach. 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.



Buddhism as a whole is a practical philosophy rather than a religion. In the South and East Asian cultures in which Buddhism achieved most of its development, the distinction between philosophy and religion is somewhat unclear and possibly quite spurious, so this may be a semantic problem arising in the West alone.It is "practical" in that it has specific methods of application of various sets of philosophical principles. Proponents of such a view may argue that (a) Buddhism is non-theistic (i.e., it has no special use for the existence or non-existence of a god or gods (see non-theism or atheistic)) and (b) religions necessarily involve some form of theism. Others might contest either part of such an argument. Other arguments for Buddhism "as" philosophy may claim that Buddhism does not have doctrines in the same sense as other religions.

A third perspective might take the position that Buddhism can be practiced either as a religion or as a philosophy. A similar distinction is often made with reference to Taoism. 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."


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).

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:

"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 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. These dharmas (roughly synonymous with "phenomena") were interpreted differently by different schools: some held they were real, some held only some were real, some held all were illusory, some held they were empty, some held they were intrinsically associated with suffering, etc.

The Tathagatagarbha (Buddha womb) doctrine of some schools of Mahayana Buddhism, the Theravada doctrine of bhavanga, and the Yogachara store-consciousness can all be seen as developments of the Buddha's statements regarding the "luminous mind" in the Nikayas. These can be seen as the fundamental level of mind that acts as the carrier of karma. The Tathagatagarbha sutras insist that the true self lies at the very heart of the Buddha himself and of nirvana (the two being One), as well as being concealed within the mass of mental/moral contaminants which blight all beings. In what claim to be the final Mahayana teachings of the Buddha, the eternal Self is distinguished from the five impermanent skandhas (constituents) which make up the non-Self or worldly ego, and the True Self is identified as the dharmakaya of the Buddha in deathless Nirvana. Such doctrines saw a shift from a largely apophatic (negative) philosophical trend within Buddhism to a decidedly more cataphatic (positive) modus. The "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha nature does not, according to some scholars, represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language expression of "sunyata" (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. In this interpretation, the intention of the teaching of 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical. 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. 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.

In many or all of these debates, some would point out the irony of pursuing questions some might consider similar to some of those which the Buddha of the agamas / Pali Suttas is often prone to refuse to answer, on the grounds that they were non-conducive to enlightenment. The Buddha of the Mahayana, however, would on occasion take a different stand and speak of allegedly higher doctrines suitable for the more advanced of his monks. For more information, see Schools of Buddhism, Mahayana, Tathagatagarbha and articles devoted to the individual schools.

Dependent Origination

What some consider the original positive Buddhist contribution to the field of metaphysics is pratītyasamutpāda, which arises from the Buddhist critique of Indian theories of causality. It states that events are not predetermined, nor are they random, and it rejects notions of direct causation owing to the need for such theories in the Indian context to be undergirded by a substantialist metaphysics. Instead, it posits the arising of events under certain conditions which are inextricable, such that the units in question at no time have independent existence.

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, and ultimately dependent on an all-encompassing stillness.

, one of the most influential Buddhist philosophers, 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). This element of 's thought is relatively uncontroversial, but it opens the way for his identification of and nirvana, which was revolutionary.


This doctrine comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra, a Mahayana scripture, and its associated schools. It holds that all phenomena are intimately connected. 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. This idea influenced on the Japanese monk Kūkai, who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism.


Main Article: Buddhist ethics

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.

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.

Although early Buddhism (sometimes called by the derogatory name Hinayana given to it by Mahayana) is contrasted with later Buddhism (Mahayana) in that the latter emphasizes striving for the enlightenment of all (apparent) beings rather than simply oneself, in neither case can the motivation for ethical living be called 'selfish', because Buddhist doctrine holds the notion of a 'self' to be illusory. Buddhist teachings claim that there is no real difference between ourselves and others; therefore one should attempt to increase the happiness of all living things as eagerly as one's own. This is why some Buddhists choose to be vegetarians.


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:

Some scholars disagree, and have proposed many other theories. According to such scholars, there was something they variously call Earliest Buddhism, original Buddhism or pre-canonical Buddhism. According to some of them, its philosophical outlook 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 (the latter includes the Madhyamika, Yogacara, Huayan, and Tiantai schools).

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 anatta. 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.

See also

Buddhist philosophers



  • 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:

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