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date: 13 August 2020

Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy

Abstract and Keywords

This section of the book begins by highlighting the importance to every Buddhist tradition of when the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama achieved awakening at Bodh Gaya, in India. The Buddhist world is vast, the text states, and has generated numerous schools of thought and philosophical systems elaborating on fundamental insights. There is considerable variety within the label “Buddhist Philosophy”. Central to any Buddhist view of reality is the insight that all phenomena are impermanent, without essence (or selfless), and interdependent. While Buddhists generally understand insight into the nature of reality to be necessary for liberation, it is not regarded as sufficient. Insight is an antidote to ignorance, but liberation also requires the overcoming of attachment and aversion, which is achieved through the cultivation of moral discipline and mindfulness.

Keywords: Buddhist tradition, Bodh Gaya, Siddhartha Gautama, liberation, selfless, attatchment, mindfulness

From the standpoint of every Buddhist tradition, the central event in the history of Buddhism was the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, achieving awakening at Bodh Gaya, India. According to these traditions, his awakening under the bodhi tree consisted in his attainment of profound insight into the nature of reality, which in turn enabled the solution of the central problem toward which Buddhism is oriented—the universality and pervasiveness of suffering. The Buddha argued that this suffering is caused most immediately by attraction and aversion, and that the root cause of attraction and aversion is confusion regarding the fundamental nature of reality. As a consequence, the Buddha taught that his liberating insight into the nature of reality is the antidote to the confusion, and hence to the attraction and aversion it causes, and therefore, in the end, to suffering itself. This is the core content of the four noble truths expounded in his first discourse at Sarnath, the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta (Discourse That Sets in Motion the Wheel of Doctrine), and is the foundation of all Buddhist philosophy.

The Buddhist world, however, is vast, and generated numerous schools of thought and philosophical systems elaborating these fundamental insights, with a substantial and internally diverse philosophical canon comparable to that of Western philosophy. Though there are important core views that characterize a philosophical approach as Buddhist, there is considerable variety in detail.

While Buddhist philosophy as a whole is aimed at soteriological concerns, involving the goal of attaining release from suffering or the insight into the nature of reality that enables it, Buddhist philosophical concerns are principally metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical. Metaphysics is foundational simply because the (p. 188) root of samsara—of the world of suffering—is confusion regarding the nature of reality, and liberation from suffering requires insight into that nature. Thus, it is not surprising that much Buddhist philosophy is concerned with an analysis of the fundamental nature of reality. But in order to attain liberation, one must come to know this nature, in a direct and immediate way, and cease to be deceived by merely apparent reality. Epistemology is hence a central concern of the tradition. The path to liberation sketched by the Buddha is a path of ethical perfection as well, as he held that morality is central to developing a real appreciation of the nature of reality and that a great deal of the suffering we encounter is caused by immorality. Buddhist ethics is hence a rich tradition.

Central to any Buddhist view of reality is the insight that all phenomena are impermanent, without essence (or selfless), and interdependent. The confusion the Buddha aimed to extirpate is the view that phenomena are enduring, are independent, and have essential cores. Impermanence is understood in a Buddhist framework in two senses, usually referred to as “gross” and “subtle” impermanence. The gross impermanence of phenomena consists simply in the fact that nothing has been here forever, and nothing lasts forever. All phenomena arise at some point, when the proper constellation of causes and conditions is present; age constantly during their existence, changing in various ways as they age; and eventually pass out of existence. At a more subtle level, on this view, all phenomena are merely momentary. Since to be identical is to share all properties, and later stages of any object fail to share all properties, nothing retains its identity from one moment to the next. Everything arises, exists, and ceases at each and every moment. On this view, the observable phenomena that we take to be enduring, including ourselves, are causal continua of momentary phenomena to which we conventionally ascribe an identity that is nowhere to be found in the things themselves.

Selflessness and interdependence are closely connected to impermanence. Most Western philosophers are accustomed to thinking of selves as personal, and as attached to human beings, and perhaps also to animals. Buddhist philosophers refer to the self so conceived as “the self of the person,” connoting the self attributed by subjects of experience to themselves. But the more general idea of self at work in Buddhist philosophy is broader than this, further encompassing what is referred to in Buddhist traditions as “the self of phenomena.” The idea is this: just as when we ascribe a self to ourselves as subjects we ascribe to ourselves a permanent, independent, enduring entity that is the ultimate referent of the term “I” and the possessor of our body and mind and the subject of our experience, so when we experience the objects around us as relatively permanent, independent, and substantial we thereby, at least implicitly, ascribe to them a substantial core that endures through superficial changes, that is the possessor of their parts, and that is the ultimate referent of a demonstrative “that,” or of a noun phrase denoting the object in question. The idea of a self, then, is the idea of this enduring, independent core, common to the attribution of the self to persons or subjects and to external phenomena or objects.

(p. 189) Buddhists argue that there is no such self, either in the case of persons or external phenomena. Persons, as well as the objects of their experience, in virtue of being merely continua of causally connected episodes, lack a substantial core. Moreover, since all phenomena, including persons, exist only as causally connected continua, and since the causes and conditions of any episode in any continuum are themselves dependent on indefinitely many causes and conditions, both within and external to the conventionally identified continuum of a person or an object, all things exist only in thoroughgoing interdependence on countless other things. In short, things arise in dependence on innumerable causes and conditions, endure in dependence on innumerable causes and conditions, and cease in dependence on innumerable causes and conditions.

The analysis of phenomena, especially persons, and the emphasis on dependent origination and impermanence are already articulated in the early suttas, discourses attributed to the historical Buddha, often embedded in narratives with rich uses of metaphor. The collections of texts known as the “Abhidharma” (supplement to the doctrine) arose in the third and second centuries BCE, as systematic explications of the ideas articulated in the suttas, which present arguments that appeal both to reason and to the suttas to clarify philosophical claims in the discourses of the Buddha. The Abhidharma texts also seek to provide comprehensive classifications of experience, including the moral dimension of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and volitions, thereby supporting meditators in avoiding harmful experiences on the path to realization and cultivating experiences that are conducive to liberation.

In addition to cataloguing the moral and affective dimensions of experience, the Abhidharma texts also emphasize ontology, with their comprehensive presentations of the possible objects of experience. In “Abhidharma Philosophy,” Jan Westerhoff situates the Abhidharma historically and then presents the Abhidharma treatments of a number of significant areas of Buddhist philosophy, including consciousness, time, ontology and metaphysics, and epistemology. Some Ābihdharmikas developed an exhaustive distinction between primary and secondary existents. Secondary existents, they argued, are phenomena that can be analyzed into their constituent parts. Eventually, however, the analysis arrives at partless atoms or partless moments of consciousness, which are said to withstand analysis, and are thus primary existents to which all secondary existents are reducible. For, the Ābihdharmikas argue, there has to be some foundational level upon which secondary existents are dependent.

Nāgārjuna (second to third centuries CE) and his Mādhyamika followers reject the Abhidharmic distinction between primary and secondary existents, arguing instead that because everything is dependently originated, there is nothing that is not susceptible of further analysis and nothing that exists independently as an ontological foundation. According to Nāgārjuna, we are mistaken in attributing essence, or substance, or any kind of irreducible existence to things, for to conceive of an essence is to conceive of something that is unchanging, and thus is not (p. 190) dependently arisen. Following earlier Buddhist accounts, Nāgārjuna distinguished between conventional and ultimate truths or conventional and ultimate reality. Conventionally, things exist as we take them to exist. But, Nāgārjuna argues, the conventional truth of things is, from the ultimate perspective, mentally imputed; thus, things lack essence. Ultimately, that is, things are empty of essence.

It would be a mistake, though, to take this to mean that for a Mādhyamika emptiness is the ultimate nature of things; emptiness, on this view, is itself dependently originated and therefore also empty of inherent existence. This is why Nāgārjuna famously defends the doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness, a doctrine that exerted enormous influence in later Buddhist thought in India, and especially Tibet, China, and East Asia. John Dunne, in “Mādhyamika in India and Tibet,” discusses Nāgārjuna's relationship to the Ābihdharmikas, presents Nāgārjuna's own account, and then traces the diverse interpretations of Nāgārjuna's philosophy as it came to dominate much later Indian Buddhist thought and virtually all Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Mādhyamikas regarded their account as a middle way between the extremes of reification (taking things to exist as unchanging substances) and nihilism (the view that nothing endures at all). For a Buddhist, either one of these views undermined the path to liberation: reification precludes the possibility of the kind of radical change that is the overcoming of suffering; nihilism renders the soteriological path pointless and renders our everyday experience nonsensical, even as illusion. By defending conventional existence but regarding it as ultimately empty, Mādhyamikas take themselves to provide a metaphysical account that also made sense of the path to liberation.

While Yogācārins (also called Cittamātrins or Vijñānavādins) share a Mahāyāna soteriological framework with the Mādhyamikas, they took the Madhyamaka philosophical account to be a form of nihilism. The Yogācāra view, which evolved in the centuries following Nāgārjuna, also distinguishes between conventional and ultimate truth. And like the Mādhyamikas, Yogācārins regarded conventional existence as ultimately empty. But, as John Powers notes in his chapter on Yogācāra philosophy in this section, for the Yogācārins, conventional existence is empty because it consists of mental impressions; there is no access to objects external to the mind. Thus, they argue, the proper understanding of emptiness requires the rejection of any subject-object duality. Emptiness, on this view, is not emptiness of essence, but emptiness of external existence, or of subject-object duality.

While today there is some debate regarding whether Yogācārins were ontological or only epistemological idealists (or perhaps phenomenologists), Buddhist traditions in India and Tibet have generally viewed Yogācārins as rejecting the existence of external objects of phenomena and thus defending a form of ontological idealism.

Buddhist debates concerning the nature of reality and truth naturally lead to concern with questions of how knowledge is attained. Dignāga (fifth to sixth (p. 191) centuries) and Dharmakīrti (seventh century) inaugurated a program of systematic Buddhist epistemology, addressing the causal basis of knowledge and the structure of epistemological warrant. The central philosophical construct in this enterprise is pramāṇa, a term deriving from a root that means to measure. Pramāṇa denotes the quality of being a reliable source or instrument of knowledge, as well as the quality of being a warrant, or validator of a claim. Buddhist epistemologists generally regarded perception and inference as the only two pramāṇas and rejected other candidates accepted as warrants by other Indian schools such as testimony or scripture. Buddhist epistemology emerged as a prominent tradition and exerted significant influence on rival Buddhist schools and also non-Buddhist traditions, which often drew on the work of the Buddhist epistemologists to articulate and defend their own views. Tom Tillemans, in his chapter on “Buddhist Epistemology (pramāṇavāda),” provides a historical introduction to the movement that began with Dignāga, and then discusses Dignāga's and Dharmakīrti's views on epistemology and ontology, concepts and language, logic, argumentation, the philosophy of logic, and soteriology.

Indian Buddhist scriptures and philosophy were enthusiastically assimilated by Tibetans. Indeed, it was Tibet more than any other country that embraced the great Indian Buddhist philosophical traditions after the demise of Buddhism in the land of its birth. Matthew Kapstein, in “Buddhist Thought in Tibet: An Historical Sketch,” presents an overview of the main movements, thinkers, and topics in Tibetan Buddhist thought. One of the important traditions in Tibet that has recently aroused significant interest in the West is Dzogchen, or “Great Completeness,” an esoteric movement within the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Drawing on elements of both the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra traditions, but taking them in a very different direction, Dzogchen presents a view of our ultimate nature as primordially, naturally aware and pure. As Anne Klein argues in her chapter in this section, Dzogchen thus stands in contrast with some Buddhist traditions that regard practice as the cause of eradication of mental afflictions, which discloses the fundamental emptiness of the mind; it is this emptiness, some Buddhists argue, that is Buddha-nature itself, the enlightened mind. For Dzogchen, however, the enlightened empty mind is itself luminous, with pure, positive qualities that manifest upon the removal of mental afflictions. According to Dzogchen, the ultimate nature of the mind is luminosity.

While Buddhists generally understand insight into the nature of reality to be necessary for liberation, it is not regarded as sufficient. Insight is an antidote to ignorance, but liberation also requires the overcoming of attachment and aversion, which is achieved through the cultivation of moral discipline and mindfulness. For this reason Buddhists have devoted much thought to the question of which acts, intentions, consequences, virtues, and states of mind lead to this kind of mental transformation and thereby the alleviation of suffering. In moral thought there is more agreement than in other areas of Buddhist philosophy, yet there is still a great (p. 192) diversity of approaches to moral questions in Buddhist traditions, as Barbra Clayton makes clear in the final contribution in this section. As Clayton notes, ethics was a central component of Buddhist theory and practice from the very first discourse of the Buddha. Clayton gives a systematic presentation of Buddhist moral thought, covering fundamental questions such as the place of ethics in Buddhist theory and soteriology; karma; intentions; merit; precepts and virtues; the distinction between “good” and “bad,” or skillful or unskillful; contemporary Buddhist ethics, especially socially engaged Buddhism; and Buddhist moral theory.