Indian Philosophy: Buddhism


The Buddhist path combines both philosophical reasoning and meditation. The Buddhist traditions present a multitude of Buddhist paths to liberation, and 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 these paths.

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. The early Buddhist texts mention that a person becomes a follower of the Buddha’s teachings after having pondered them over with wisdom and the gradual training also requires that a disciple “investigate” (upaparikkhati) and “scrutinize” (tuleti) the teachings. The Buddha also expected his disciples to approach him as a teacher in a critical fashion and scrutinize his actions and words.

The Buddha defined his teaching as “the middle way” (Majjhimāpaṭipadā). 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 ascetic groups) 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. Thus, Buddhism’s main concern is not with luxury or poverty, but instead with the human response to circumstances

In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths (“The four Arya satyas”) are a central feature of the teachings . The truths are:

  1. dukkha (suffering, incapable of satisfying, painful) is an innate characteristic of existence in the realm of samsara;
  2. samudaya (origin, arising) of this dukkha, which arises or “comes together” with taṇhā (“craving, desire or attachment”)
  3. nirodha (cessation, ending) of this dukkha can be attained by the renouncement or letting go of this taṇhā
  4. magga (path, Noble Eightfold Path) is the path leading to renouncement of tanha and cessation of dukkha

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. 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 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. Nirvana also means that after an enlightened being’s death, there is no further rebirth.

Skandhas (The Five Aggregates) are explained as the five factors that constitute and explain a sentient being’s person and personality. They are: form (or material image, impression) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vijnana). Skandhas  are also explained as the five material and mental factors that take part in the rise of craving and clinging.

Anatta (Anatman)

The Buddha argued that compounded entities lacked essence, correspondingly the self is without essence. This means there is no part of a person which is unchanging and essential for continuity, and it means that there is no individual “part of the person that accounts for the identity of that person over time“. This is in opposition to the Upanishadic concept of an unchanging ultimate self (Atman) 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. Anatta marks one of the major difference between Buddhism and Hinduism.

Buddha opposed the concept of an unchanging ultimate self based on the observation of the five aggregates (Skandhas) that make up a person and the fact that these are always changing. The apparently fixed self is merely the result of identification with the temporary aggregates, the changing processes making up an individual human being

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. Buddhism has defined nirvana as that blissful state when a person, amongst other things, realizes that he or she has “no self, no soul”

Buddhist Epistemology

Buddha’s epistemic project is different than that of other philosophies; it is primarily a solution to the fundamental human spiritual/existential problem. Buddha emphasised on the knowledge into the arising and cessation of suffering in human experience rather than on metaphysical and cosmological knowledge.

Thus Buddha’s epistemology has been compared to empiricism, in the sense that it was based on experience of the world through the senses. Only philosophy and discussion which has pragmatic value for liberation from suffering is seen as important.

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. The Dharma is like a raft in the sense that it is only a pragmatic tool for attaining nirvana (“for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto“); 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.

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. Thus, the Buddha’s silence does not indicate misology (hatred for reasoning) or disdain for philosophy. Rather, it indicates that he viewed the answers to these questions as not understandable by the unenlightened

Buddhist Ethics

The Buddha’s ethics are based on the soteriological need to eliminate suffering and on the premise of the law of karma. Buddhist ethics have been termed eudaimonic (with their goal being well-being) and also compared to virtue ethics. There are various reasons the Buddha gave as to why someone should be ethical:

  • from a pragmatic point of view, it is best to abstain from these negative actions which bring forth negative results
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 such as Prajnaparamita, Madhyamaka, Buddha-nature and Yogācāra.

Nagarjuna’s Sunyata and Madhyamika

Nāgārjuna’s major thematic focus is the concept of śūnyatā (emptiness) which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anātman “not-self” and pratītyasamutpāda “dependent origination”, to refute the metaphysics of some of his contemporaries. For Nāgārjuna, as for the Buddha in the early texts, it is not merely sentient beings that are “selfless” or non-substantial; all phenomena (dhammas) are without any svabhāva (own-being/self-nature/inherent existence) and thus without any underlying essence. They are empty of being independently existent; thus the heterodox theories of svabhāva circulating at the time were refuted on the basis of the doctrines of early Buddhism. This is so because all things arise always dependently: not by their own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into existence, as opposed to being.

Nāgārjuna’s main goal is refuting the essentialism of certain Buddhist abhidharma schools (mainly Vaibhasika) which posited theories of svabhava (essential nature) and also the Hindu Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika schools which posited a theory of ontological substances (dravyatas). He used reductio ad absurdum arguments (prasanga) to show that any theory of substance or essence was unsustainable and therefore, phenomena (dharmas) such as change, causality, and sense perception were empty (sunya) of any essential existence.

For madhyamaka, the realization of emptiness is not just a satisfactory theory about the world, but a key understanding which allows one to reach liberation or nirvana. Dependent origination is the fundamental Buddhist analysis of the arising of suffering and therefore, according to Nāgārjuna, the cognitive shift which sees the nonexistence of svabhāva leads to the cessation of the first link in this chain of suffering, which then leads to the ending of the entire chain of causes and thus, of all suffering.

Two truths: Nāgārjuna was also instrumental in the development of the two truths doctrine, which claims that there are two levels of truth in Buddhist teaching, the ultimate truth (paramārtha satya) and the conventional or superficial truth (saṃvṛtisatya). The ultimate truth to Nāgārjuna is the truth that everything is empty of essence, this includes emptiness itself (the emptiness of emptiness, ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth).

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