Buddhist philosophy

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The Buddhist Nalanda university and monastery was a major center of learning in India from the 5th century CE to c. 1200

Buddhist philosophy refers to the philosophical investigations and systems of inquiry that developed among various Buddhist schools in India following the death of the Buddha and later spread throughout Asia. Buddhism's main concern has always been freedom from dukkha (unease),[1] and the path to that ultimate freedom consists in ethical action (karma), meditation and in understanding the nature of reality (prajña). Indian Buddhists sought this understanding not just from the revealed teachings of the Buddha, but through philosophical analysis and rational deliberation.[2] Buddhist thinkers in India and subsequently in East Asia have covered topics as varied as phenomenology, ethics, ontology, epistemology, logic and philosophy of time in their analysis of this path.

Early Buddhism was based on empirical evidence gained by the sense organs (ayatana)[3] and the Buddha seems to have retained a skeptical distance from certain metaphysical questions, refusing to answer them because they were not conducive to liberation but led instead to further speculation. A recurrent theme in Buddhist philosophy has been the reification of concepts, and the subsequent return to the Buddhist Middle Way.[4][5]

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 Abhidharma, and to the Mahayana traditions and schools of the prajnaparamita, Madhyamaka, Buddha-nature and Yogacara.

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:[6]

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.

The goal of Buddhist philosophy was nirvana and to achieve this it needed to investigate the nature of the world. For the Indian Buddhist philosophers, the teachings of the Buddha were not meant to be taken on faith alone, but to be confirmed by logical analysis (pramana) of the world.[2]

The Buddha and early Buddhism

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

The Buddha (circa 5th century BCE) was a north Indian sramana from Magadha. He cultivated various yogic techniques and ascetic practices and taught throughout north India, where his teachings took hold. These teachings are preserved in the Pali Nikayas and in the Agamas as well as in other surviving fragmentary textual collections. Dating these texts is difficult and there is disagreement on how much of this material goes back to a single religious founder. While the focus of the Buddha's teachings are about attaining the highest good of nirvana, they also contain an analysis of the source of human suffering, the nature of personal identity, and the process of acquiring knowledge about the world.

The Buddha defined his teaching as "the middle way". In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, this is used to refer to the fact that his teachings steer a middle course between the extremes of asceticism and bodily denial (as practiced by the Jains and other sramanas) and sensual hedonism or indulgence. Many sramanas of the Buddha's time placed much emphasis on a denial of the body, using practices such as fasting, to liberate the mind from the body. The Buddha however, realized that the mind was embodied and causally dependent on the body, and therefore that a malnourished body did not allow the mind to be trained and developed.[7]

Certain basic teachings appear in many places throughout these early texts, so various scholars conclude that the Buddha must at least have taught some of these key teachings:[8]

Some scholars disagree, and have proposed other theories.[9] 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.[lower-alpha 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 texts.

The noble truths and causation

The four noble truths or "truths of the noble one" are a central feature of the teachings and are put forth in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The first truth of Dukkha, often translated as suffering, is the inherent unsatisfactoriness of life. This unpleasantness is said to be not just physical pain, but also a kind of existential unease caused by the inevitable facts of our mortality and ultimately by the impermanence of all phenomena.[10] It also arises because of contact with unpleasant events, and due to not getting what one desires. The second truth is that this unease arises out of conditions, mainly 'craving' (tanha) and ignorance (avidya). The third truth is then the fact that if you let go of craving and remove ignorance through knowledge, dukkha ceases (nirodha). The fourth is the eightfold path which are eight practices that end suffering, they are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right samadhi (mental unification, meditation). The goal taught by the Buddha, nirvana, literally means 'extinguishing' and signified "the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and delusion (i.e. ignorance), the forces which power samsara".[11] Nirvana also means that after a enlightened being's death, there is no further rebirth.

The working of the rising and ceasing of suffering is explained by dependent origination, the dynamic arising of events based on causal conditioning. The Buddha understood the world in procedural terms, not in terms of things or substances.[12] His theory posits a flux of events arising under certain conditions which are interconnected and dependent, such that the processes in question at no time, are considered to be static or independent. Craving, for example, is always dependent on, and caused by sensations. Sensations are always dependent on contact with our surroundings. Buddha's causal theory is simply descriptive: ‘This existing, that exists; this arising, that arises; this not existing, that does not exist; this ceasing, that ceases.’ This understanding of causation as 'impersonal lawlike causal ordering' is important because it shows how the processes that give rise to suffering work, and also how they can be reversed.[11]

The removal of suffering then, requires a deep understanding of the nature of reality (prajña). While philosophical analysis of arguments and concepts is clearly necessary to develop this understanding, it is not enough to remove our unskillful mental habits and deeply ingrained prejudices, which require meditation, paired with understanding.[13] According to the Buddha, we need to train the mind in meditation to be able to truly see the nature of reality, which is said to have the marks of suffering, impermanence and not-self. Understanding and meditation are said to work together to 'clearly see' (vipassana) the nature of human experience and this is said to lead to liberation.


 The Five Aggregates (pañca khandha)
according to the Pali Canon.
form (rūpa)
  4 elements


  mental factors (cetasika)  



 Source: MN 109 (Thanissaro, 2001)  |  diagram details

The Buddha argued that there is no permanent self, no 'essence of a person' or 'what makes me me'. This means there is no part of a person which is unchanging and essential for continuity, it means that there is no individual "part of the person that accounts for the identity of that person over time".[14] This is in opposition to the Upanishadic concept of an unchanging ultimate self and any view of an eternal soul. 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 most widely used argument that the Buddha employed against the idea of an unchanging ego is an empiricist one, based on the observation of the five aggregates that make up a person and the fact that these are always changing. This argument can be put in this way:[15]

  1. All psycho-physical processes (skandhas) are impermanent.
  2. If there were a self it would be permanent.
IP [There is no more to the person than the five skandhas.]
∴ There is no self.

This argument requires the implied premise that the five aggregates are an exhaustive account of what makes up a person, or else the self could exist outside of these aggregates.[14]

This argument is famously expounded in the Anattalakkhana Sutta. According to this argument, the apparently fixed self is merely the result of identification with the temporary aggregates, the changing processes making up an individual human being. In this view a 'person' is only a convenient nominal designation on a certain grouping of processes and characteristics, an 'individual' is a conceptual construction overlaid upon a stream of experiences just like a chariot is merely a conventional designation for the parts of a chariot and how they are put together. The foundation of this argument is empiricist, for it is based on the fact that all we observe is subject to change, especially everything observed when looking inwardly in meditation.[16]

Another argument for 'non-self', the 'argument from lack of control'[17] and it is based on the fact that we often seek to change certain parts of ourselves, that the 'executive function' of the mind is that which finds certain things unsatisfactory and attempts to alter them. Furthermore it is also based on the Indian 'Anti Reflexivity Principle' which states an entity cannot operate on or control itself (a knife can cut other things but not itself, a finger can point at other things but not at itself, etc.). This means then, that the self could never desire to change itself and could not do so, the Buddha uses this idea to attack the concept of self. This argument could be structured thus:[18]

  1. If the self existed it would be the part of the person that performs the executive function, the "controller."
  2. The self could never desire that it be changed (anti-reflexivity principle).
  3. Each of the five kinds of psycho-physical element is such that one can desire that it be changed.
IP [There is no more to the person than the five skandhas.]
∴ There is no self.

This argument then denies that there is one permanent "controller" in the person. Instead it views the person as a set of constantly changing processes which include volitional events seeking change and an awareness of that desire for change. According to Mark Siderits:

"What the Buddhist has in mind is that on one occasion one part of the person might perform the executive function, on another occasion another part might do so. This would make it possible for every part to be subject to control without there being any part that always fills the role of controller (and so is the self). On some occasions a given part might fall on the controller side, while on other occasions it might fall on the side of the controlled. This would explain how it's possible for us to seek to change any of the skandhas while there is nothing more to us than just those skandhas."[19]

The Buddha extended this argument to the Upanishadic belief that the self was indeed the whole world, or Brahman. Since we cannot control the world as we wish the world cannot be the self. Also, the Buddha argued that the world can be observed to be a cause of suffering (Brahman was held to be ultimately blissful) and that an individual could not experience the suffering of the world. He used the example of someone burning wood; where the person doing the burning does not feel pain, and hence the self cannot be the whole world (MN 22, Alagaddupama Sutta).

The Buddha also held that understanding and seeing the truth of not self led to un-attachment, and hence to the cessation of suffering, while ignorance about the true nature of personality led to further suffering.


All schools of Indian philosophy recognize various sets of valid justifications for knowledge, or pramāṇa and many see the Vedas as providing access to truth. The Buddha denied the authority of the Vedas, though like his contemporaries, he affirmed the soteriological importance of having a proper understanding of reality. However, this understanding was not conceived primarily as metaphysical and cosmological knowledge, but as a knowledge into the arising and cessation of suffering in human experience.[20] Therefore the Buddha's epistemic project is different than that of modern philosophy, it is primarily a solution to the fundamental human spiritual/existential problem.

The Buddha's epistemology has been compared to empiricism, in the sense that it was based on experience of the world through the senses.[21][22] The Buddha taught that empirical observation through the six sense gates (ayatanas) was the proper way of verifying any knowledge claims. Some sutras go further, stating that "the All", or everything that exists (sabbam), are these six sense spheres (SN 35.23, Sabba Sutta).[23] Furthermore, in the Kalama sutta the Buddha tells a group of confused villagers that the only proper reason for one's beliefs is verification in one’s own personal experience and denies any verification which stems from personal authority, sacred tradition (anussava) or any kind of rationalism which constructs metaphysical theories (takka).[24] In the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13), the Buddha rejects the personal authority of Brahmins because none of them can prove they have had personal experience of Brahman. The Buddha also stressed that experience in the only criterion for verification of the truth in this passage from the Majjhima Nikaya (MN.I.265):

"Monks, do you only speak that which is known by yourselves seen by yourselves, found by yourselves?"
"Yes, we do, sir."
"Good, monks, That is how you have been instructed by me in this timeless doctrine which can be realized and verified, that leads to the goal and can be understood by those who are intelligent."

Furthermore the Buddha's standard for personal verification was a pragmatic and salvific one, for the Buddha a belief counts as truth only if it leads to successful Buddhist practice (and hence, to the destruction of craving). In the "Discourse to Prince Abhaya" (MN.I.392–4) the Buddha states this pragmatic maxim by saying that a belief should only be accepted if it leads to wholesome consequences.[25] This tendency of the Buddha to see what is true as what was useful or 'what works' has been called by scholars such as Mrs Rhys Davids and Vallée-Poussin a form of Pragmatism.[26][27] However, K. N. Jayatilleke argues the Buddha's epistemology can also be taken to be a form of correspondence theory (as per the 'Apannaka Sutta') with elements of Coherentism [28] and that it is causally impossible for something which is false to lead to suffering and evil.

The Buddha discouraged his followers from indulging in intellectual disputation for its own sake, which is fruitless, and distracts one from the goal of awakening. Only philosophy and discussion which has pragmatic value for liberation from suffering is seen as important. According to the scriptures, during his lifetime the Buddha remained silent when asked several metaphysical questions which he regarded as the basis for "unwise reflection". These 'unanswered questions' (avyākata) 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. The Buddha stated that thinking about these imponderable (Acinteyya) issues led to "a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views" (Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta).

One explanation for this pragmatic suspension of judgment or epistemic Epoché is that such questions distract from activity that is practical to realizing enlightenment[29] and bring about the danger of substituting the experience of liberation by conceptual understanding of the doctrine or by religious faith. According to the Buddha, the Dharma is not an ultimate end in itself or an explanation of all metaphysical reality, but a pragmatic set of teachings. The Buddha used two parables to clarify this point, the 'Parable of the raft' and the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow.[30] The Dharma is a like a raft in the sense that it is only a pragmatic tool for attaining nirvana (crossing to the other shore), once one has done this, one can discard the raft. It is also like medicine, in that, the particulars of how one was injured by a poisoned arrow (i.e. metaphysics, etc.) do not matter in the act of removing and curing the arrow wound itself (removing suffering). In this sense the Buddha was often called 'the great physician' because his goal was to cure the human condition of suffering first and foremost, not to speculate about metaphysics.[31]

After the Buddha's death, some Buddhists went on to use the sayings of the Buddha as epistemological evidence equal to perception and inference.[lower-alpha 2]


Another possible reason why the Buddha refused to engage in metaphysics is that he saw ultimate reality and nirvana as devoid of sensory mediation and conception and therefore language itself is a priori inadequate to explain it.[32] 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.[32] 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 in yogic meditation.

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.[33]


Main article: Buddhist ethics

The Buddha's ethics are based on the soteriological need to eliminate suffering and on the premise of the law of karma. The Buddha outlined five precepts (no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or drinking alcohol) which were to be followed by his disciples, lay and monastic. There are various reasons the Buddha gave as to why someone should be ethical.

First, the universe is structured in such a way that if someone intentionally commits a misdeed, a bad karmic fruit will be the result (and vice versa). Hence, from a pragmatic point of view, it is best to abstain from these negative actions which bring forth negative results. However the important word here is intentionally, for the Buddha, karma is nothing else but intention/volition, and hence unintentionally harming someone does not create bad karmic results. Unlike the Jains who believed that karma was a quasi-physical element, for the Buddha karma was a volitional mental event, what Richard Gombrich calls ‘an ethicised consciousness’.[34]

This idea leads into the second moral justification of the Buddha; intentionally performing negative actions reinforces and propagates mental defilements which keep persons bound to the cycle of rebirth and interfere with the process of liberation, and hence intentionally performing good karmic actions is participating in mental purification which leads to nirvana, the highest happiness.

The third meta-ethical consideration takes the view of not-self and our natural desire to end our suffering to its logical conclusion. Since there is no self, there is no reason to prefer our own welfare over that of others because there is no ultimate grounding for the differentiation of "my" suffering and someone else's. Instead an enlightened person would just work to end suffering tout court, without thinking of the conventional concept of persons.[35] According to this argument, anyone who is selfish does so out of ignorance of the true nature of personal identity and irrationality.


Buddhaghosa (c. 5th century), the most important Abhidharma scholar of Theravāda Buddhism, presenting three copies of the Visuddhimagga.[36]
Main article: Abhidharma

The main Indian Buddhist philosophical schools practiced a form of analysis termed Abhidharma which sought to systematize the teachings of the early Buddhist discourses (sutras). Abhidharma analysis broke down human experience into momentary phenomenal events or occurrences called "dharmas". Dharmas are impermanent and dependent on other causal factors, they arise and pass as part of a web of other interconnected dharmas, and are never found alone. The Abhidharmic schools held that the teachings of the Buddha in the sutras were merely conventional, while the Abhidharma analysis was ultimate truth (paramattha sacca), the way things really are when seen by an enlightened being. The Abhidharmic project has been likened as a form of phenomenology or process philosophy.[37][38] They not only outlined what they believed to be an exhaustive listing of dharmas, or phenomenal events, but also the causal relations between them. In the Abhidharmic analysis, the only thing which is ultimately real is the interplay of dharmas in a causal stream, everything else is merely conceptual (paññatti) and nominal.

This view has been termed "mereological reductionism" by Mark Siderits because it holds that only impartite entities are real, not wholes.[39] Abhidharmikas such as Vasubandhu argued that conventional things (tables, persons, etc), "disappear under analysis" and that this analysis reveals only a causal stream of phenomenal events and their relations. The mainstream Abhidharmikas defended this view against their main Hindu rivals, the Nyaya school, who were substance theorists and posited the existence of universals.[40] Some Abhidharmikas such as the Prajñaptivāda were also strict nominalists, and held that all things - even dharmas - were merely conceptual.

Competing philosophical views

An important Abhidhamma work from the Theravāda school is the Kathāvatthu ("Points of controversy"), by the scholar-monk Moggaliputta-Tissa (ca.327–247 BCE). This text is important because it attempts to refute several philosophical views which had developed after the death of the Buddha, especially the theory that 'all exists' (sarvāstivāda), the theory of momentariness (khāṇavāda) and the personalist view (pudgalavada)[41] These were the major philosophical theories which divided the Buddhist Abhidharma schools in India.

The Sarvāstivāda was one of the major Buddhist philosophical schools in India, and they were so named because of their belief that dharmas exist in all three times: past, present and future. Though the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma system began as a mere categorization of mental events, their philosophers and exegetes such as Dharmatrata and Katyāyāniputra (the compiler of the Mahavibhasa) eventually refined this system into a robust realism, which also included a type of essentialism. This realism was based on a quality of dharmas, which was called svabhava or 'intrinsic existence'.[42] Svabhava is a sort of essence, though it is not a completely independent essence, since all dharmas were said to be causally dependent. Other Buddhist schools such as the Prajñaptivadins ('nominalists'), the Purvasailas and the Vainasikas refused to accept the concept of svabhava. The Sarvāstivāda system extended this realism across time, effectively positing a type of eternalism with regards to time, hence the name of their school means "the view that everything exists".[41]

The Theravādins and other schools such as the Sautrāntikas attacked the realism of the Sarvāstivādins, especially their theory of time. A major figure in this argument was the scholar Vasubandhu, an ex-Sarvāstivādin, who critiqued the theory of all exists and argued for philosophical presentism in his comprehensive treatise, the Abhidharmakosa. This work is the major Abhidharma text used in Tibetan and East Asia Buddhist today. The Theravāda also holds that dharmas only exist in the present, and are thus also presentists.[43] The Theravādin presentation of Abhidharma is also not as concerned with ontology as the Sarvāstivādin view, but is more of a phenomenology[37] and hence the concept of svabhava for the Theravādins is more of a certain characteristic or dependent feature of a dharma, than any sort of essence or metaphysical grounding. According to Y Karunadasa:

In the Pali tradition it is only for the sake of definition and description that each dhamma is postulated as if it were a separate entity; but in reality it is by no means a solitary phenomenon having an existence of its own...If this Abhidhammic view of existence, as seen from its doctrine of dhammas, cannot be interpreted as a radical pluralism, neither can it be interpreted as an out-and-out monism. For what are called dhammas -- the component factors of the universe, both within us and outside us -- are not fractions of an absolute unity but a multiplicity of co-ordinate factors. They are not reducible to, nor do they emerge from, a single reality, the fundamental postulate of monistic metaphysics. If they are to be interpreted as phenomena, this should be done with the proviso that they are phenomena with no corresponding noumena, no hidden underlying ground. For they are not manifestations of some mysterious metaphysical substratum, but processes taking place due to the interplay of a multitude of conditions.[44]

An important theory held by some Sarvāstivādins, Theravādins and Sautrāntikas was the theory of "momentariness" (Skt., kṣāṇavāda, Pali, khāṇavāda). This theory held that phenomena only last for minute moment (ksana) after they arise. The Sarvāstivādins saw these 'moments' in an atomistic way, as the smallest length of time possible (they also developed a material atomism). Reconciling this theory with their eternalism regarding time was a major philosophical project of the Sarvāstivāda.[45] The Theravādins initially rejected this theory, as evidenced by the Khaṇikakathā of the Kathavatthu which attempts to refute the doctrine that "all phenomena (dhamma) are as momentary as a single mental entity.".[46] However momentariness was later adopted by the Sri Lankan Theravādins, and it is possible that it was first introduced by the scholar Buddhagosa.[47]

All Abhidharma schools also developed complex theories of causation and conditionality to explain how dharmas interacted with each other. Another major philosophical project of the Abhidharma schools was the explanation of perception. Some schools such as the Sarvastivadins explained perception as a type of phenomenalist realism while others such as the Sautrantikas preferred representationalism and held that we only perceive objects indirectly.[48] The major argument used for this view by the Sautrāntikas was the "time lag argument." According to Mark Siderits: "The basic idea behind the argument is that since there is always a tiny gap between when the sense comes in contact with the external object and when there is sensory awareness, what we are aware of can't be the external object that the senses were in contact with, since it no longer exists."[49] This is related to the theory of extreme momentariness.

One major philosophical view which was rejected by all the schools mentioned above was the view held by the Pudgalavadin or 'personalist' schools. They seemed to have held that there was a sort of 'personhood' in some ultimately real sense.[43] This controversial claim was in contrast to the other Buddhists of the time who held that a personality was a mere conceptual construction (prajñapti) and only conventionally real.


The work of the Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu is very influential in East Asia. He wrote in defense of Vijñapti-matra (appearance only) as well as writing a massive work on Abhidharma, the Abhidharmakosa.

Mahayana often adopts a pragmatic concept of truth:[50] 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.[51]

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

Indian Mahayana


The Prajanaparamita-sutras emphasize the emptiness (Shunyata) 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".[52]


Main article: Madhyamaka

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).[53]

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).


Main article: Tathagatagarbha

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.[54]

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.[55] 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.[55][56]

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.


Main article: Yogacara

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.[57]

Chinese Buddhism

Tiantai and the Lotus School

Main article: Tiantai

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

Main article: Huayan school

The Huayan developed the doctrine of "interpenetration" or "coalescence" (Wylie: zung-'jug; Sanskrit: yuganaddha),[58][59] 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..."[60]

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

Modern philosophy

Main article: Buddhist modernism
Anagarika Dharmapala

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist modernists such as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) and the American convert Henry Steel Olcott sought to show that Buddhism was rational and compatible with modern Scientific ideas such as the theory of evolution.[61] Dharmapala also argued that Buddhism included a strong social element, interpreting it as liberal, altruistic and democratic. Important Sri Lankan Buddhist thinkers include WS Karunaratne, Ven Ñāṇananda, Walpola Rahula, R. G. de S. Wettimuny, K. N. Jayatilleke and his student David Kalupahana.

In 20th century China, the modernist Taixu (1890-1947) advocated a reform and revival of Buddhism. His promoted an idea of a Buddhist Pure Land, not as a metaphysical place in Buddhist cosmology but as something possible to create here and now in this very world which could be achieved through a "Buddhism for Human Life" (Chinese: 人生佛教; pinyin: rénshēng fójiào) which was free of supernatural beliefs.[62] Taixu also wrote on the connections between modern science and Buddhism, ultimately holding that “scientific methods can only corroborate the Buddhist doctrine, they can never advance beyond it”.[63] Like Taixu, Yin Shun (1906–2005) advocated a form of Humanistic Buddhism grounded in concern for humanitarian issues and his students and followers have been influential in promoting Humanistic Buddhism in Taiwan. This period also saw a revival of the study of Weishi (Yogachara), by Yang Rensan (1837-1911), Ouyang Jinwu (1871-1943) and Liang Shuming (1893–1988).[64]

In Southeast Asia, thinkers such as Buddhadasa, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Sulak Sivaraksa and Aung San Suu Kyi have promoted a philosophy of socially Engaged Buddhism and have written on the socio-political application of Buddhism. Likewise, Buddhist approaches to economic ethics (Buddhist economics) have been explored in the works of E. F. Schumacher,[65] Prayudh Payutto, Neville Karunatilake and Padmasiri de Silva. The study of the Pali Abhidhamma tradition continued to be influential in Myanmar, where it was developed by monks such as Ledi Sayadaw and Mahasi Sayadaw.

Japanese Buddhist philosophy was heavily influenced by the work of the Kyoto School which included Kitaro Nishida, Keiji Nishitani, Hajime Tanabe and Masao Abe. These thinkers brought Buddhist ideas in dialogue with Western philosophy, especially European phenomenologists and existentialists. The most important trend in Japanese Buddhist thought after the formation of the Kyoto school is Critical Buddhism, which argues against several Mahayana concepts such as Buddha nature and original enlightenment.[62] In Nichiren Buddhism, the work of Daisaku Ikeda has also been popular.

The Japanese Zen Buddhist D.T. Suzuki (1870–1966) was instrumental in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West and his Buddhist modernist works were very influential in the United States. Suzuki's worldview was a Zen Buddhism influenced by Romanticism and Transcendentalism, which promoted a spiritual freedom as "a spontaneous, emancipatory consciousness that transcends rational intellect and social convention."[66] This idea of Buddhism influenced the Beat writers and a contemporary representative of Western Buddhist Romanticism is Gary Snyder. The American Theravada Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu has critiqued 'Buddhist Romanticism' in his writings.

Western Buddhist monastics and priests such as Nanavira Thera, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Nyanaponika Thera, Taigen Dan Leighton, Matthieu Ricard have written texts on Buddhist philosophy. A feature of Buddhist thought in the West has been a desire for dialogue and integration with modern science and psychology, and various modern Buddhists such as Alan Wallace, James H. Austin, Mark Epstein and the 14th Dalai Lama have worked and written on this issue.[67][68] Another area of convergence has been Buddhism and environmentalism, which is explored in the work of Joanna Macy. Another Western Buddhist philosophical trend has been the project to secularize Buddhism, as seen in the works of Stephen Batchelor.

Contemporary westerners such as Mark Siderits, Jan Westerhoff and Jay Garfield have written various works which interpret traditional Buddhist ideas by using Western philosophy and contemporary philosophical methods.

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[who?] to be similar to Buddhism today.[69]

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.[70]

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. Gunnar Skirbekk, Nils Gilje, A history of Western thought: from ancient Greece to the twentieth century. 7th edition published by Routledge, 2001, page 25.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy, 2007, page 6
  3. David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 70.
  4. Kalupahana 1994.
  5. David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 1.
  6. 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
  7. Panjvani, Cyrus; Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach (2013), page 29
  8. Mitchell, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2002, page 34 and table of contents
  9. 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
  10. Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy, 2007, page 21
  11. 11.0 11.1 Williams, Paul; Tribe, Anthony; Wynne, Alexander; Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, 2011, page 48.
  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. Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy, 2007, page 25
  14. 14.0 14.1 Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy, 2007, page 33
  15. Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy, 2007, page 39
  16. Panjvani, Cyrus; Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach (2013), page 131.
  17. Cyrus Panjvani, Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach, page 123.
  18. Siderits, Mark, "Buddha", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/buddha/>.
  19. Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy, 2007, page 48.
  20. Emmanuel, Steven M (editor); A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, 2013, page 223.
  21. Emmanuel, Steven M (editor); A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, 2013, page 224.
  22. Jayatilleke, K. N.; Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge
  23. D. J. Kalupahana, A Buddhist tract on empiricism, https://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/kk3n/80-300/kalupahana1969.pdf
  24. Jayatilleke, K. N.; Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, page 177; 206.
  25. Emmanuel, Steven M (editor); A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, 2013, page 228.
  26. Jayatilleke, K. N.; Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, page 356.
  27. Poussin; Bouddhisme, Third Edition, Paris, 1925, p. 129
  28. Jayatilleke, K. N.; Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, page 352-353.
  29. MN 72 (Thanissaro, 1997). For further discussion of the context in which these statements was made, see Thanissaro (2004).
  30. Jayatilleke, K. N.; Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, page 357.
  31. Williams, Paul; Tribe, Anthony; Wynne, Alexander; Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, 2011, page 36.
  32. 32.0 32.1 Gadjin M. Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogachara. Leslie S. Kawamura, translator, SUNY Press, Albany 1991, pp. 40–41.
  33. Sue Hamilton, Early Buddhism. Routledge, 2000, page 135.
  34. Williams, Paul; Tribe, Anthony; Wynne, Alexander; Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, 2011, page 72-73.
  35. Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy, 2007, page 82.
  36. Kalupahana, David; A history of Buddhist philosophy, continuities and discontinuities, page 206.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Nyanaponika, Abhidhamma studies, page 35
  38. Ronkin, Noa; Early Buddhist metaphysics
  39. Siderits, Mark; Buddhism as philosophy, 105
  40. Siderits, Mark; Buddhism as philosophy, 117-118
  41. 41.0 41.1 Kalupahana, David; A history of Buddhist philosophy, continuities and discontinuities, page 128.
  42. Kalupahana, David; A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities, page 128
  43. 43.0 43.1 Williams, Paul; Tribe, Anthony; Wynne, Alexander; Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, 2011, page 124.
  44. Prof. Dr. Y. Karunadasa, THE DHAMMA THEORY, page 9.
  45. Ronkin, Noa, "Abhidharma", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/abhidharma/>.
  46. Von Rospatt, Alexander; The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness: A Survey of the Origins and Early Phase of This Doctrine up to Vasubandhu, page 18.
  47. Von Rospatt, Alexander; The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness: A Survey of the Origins and Early Phase of This Doctrine up to Vasubandhu, page 36.
  48. Ronkin, Noa, "Abhidharma", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/abhidharma/>
  49. Siderits, Mark; Buddhism as philosophy, 132
  50. Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, 1989, p. 2
  51. Welch, Practice of Chinese Buddhism, Harvard, 1967, p. 395
  52. The Heart Sutra Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra
  53. Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, pages 221-222.
  54. 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.
  55. 55.0 55.1 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
  56. Heng-Ching Shih, The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' -- A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'
  57. Kalupahana 1992.
  58. Neville, Robert C. (1987).New metaphysics for eternal experience, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 14, 357-370
  59. http://rywiki.tsadra.org/index.php/zung_'jug
  60. The Sovereign All-Creating Mind tr. by E. K. Neumaier-Dargyay, pp. 111–112.
  61. McMahan, David L. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. page 91-97.
  62. 62.0 62.1 Bingenheimer, Marcus (2007). "Some Remarks on the Usage of Renjian Fojiao 人間佛教 and the Contribution of Venerable Yinshun to Chinese Buddhist Modernism". In Hsu, Mutsu; Chen, Jinhua; Meeks, Lori. Development and Practice of Humanitarian Buddhism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (PDF). Hua-lien (Taiwan): Tzuchi University Press. pp. 141–161. ISBN 978-986-7625-08-3. 
  63. McMahan, David L. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. page 75.
  64. Yih-Hsien Yu, Modern Chinese Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  65. E. F. Schumacher, "Buddhist economics" (1973)
  66. McMahan, David L. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. page 122
  67. Austin, James H. Zen and the Brain
  68. 14th Dalai Lama, the Universe in a single atom
  69. God Is Dead: What Next
  70. 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.
  • William Edelglass and Jay Garfield, Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 0-19-532817-5.
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1992), The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications 
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1994), A history of Buddhist philosophy, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited 
  • Daniel Perdue: Debate in Tibetan Buddhism, Publisher : Snow Lion Publications, 1992, ISBN 0-937938-76-9, EAN 9780937938768

External links