BUDDHIST PHILOSOPHY Introduction 0
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.
into the nature of reality that enables it, Buddhist philosophical concerns are principally metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and hermeneutical. Metaphysics is foundational simply because the 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. Finally, the plethora of schools of Buddhist thought, and the large body of literature consisting of confl icting arguments and positions attributed to the Buddha, demands a hermeneutical strategy for explaining and resolving doctrinal conflict, and for ordering commentarial literature. Hermeneutics thus became a highly developed discipline in Buddhist traditions.
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, 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. In the West, we 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 superfi cial 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.
Buddhists argue that there is no such self, in the case of either 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.
A great deal of Buddhist thought is devoted to adumbrating this framework of dependent origination. While this introduction cannot go into great detail, it is important in reading any Buddhist philosophy to keep in mind that dependent origination does not only involve causal interdependence. It is often characterized as tridimensional. The first dimension is the causal dimension emphasized so far. But second, there is synchronic interdependence between any whole and the parts in which it consists. Any complex depends for its existence and character on its parts; its parts, in turn, depend on the wholes that they comprise. I rely on my stomach, lungs, brain, and bone for my existence, but none of these could exist or function were it not part of a whole organism. Finally, in virtue of the lack of any intrinsic identity in spatiotemporally extensive entities, everything that we identify as a thing, once again including ourselves, depends for that identity—and so, for the only existence it has as an enduring or distinct entity—on conceptual designation. The only thing that makes a table a table is a convention that collects four legs and a top into a single entity as a referent for the word “table.”
All of this grounds the idea whose articulation is so central to Buddhist philosophy in the Ma¯ha¯yana schools that dominate later Indian and all Tibetan and East Asian Buddhist philosophy—the emptiness of all things. It is easy to misunderstand the claim that everything is empty. In order to avoid the most basic and tempting misunderstanding, namely, that this is a doctrine of universal nihilism, it is important to remember that to be empty is always to be empty of something. In a Buddhist context, reality
is not empty of existence, but is empty of inherent existence, or of essence (svabhava). On this view, conventional phenomena exist, but they do not exist with essences. Nothing is independent of causes and conditions, partwhole relations, or conceptual imputation; nothing is permanent; nothing has any characteristic on its own that makes it the thing that it is. Things, according to proponents of these systems, are empty of all of that. Having said this, there is considerable dispute within the tradition regarding the relevant notion of essence, and regarding just what it is to be empty in the relevant sense.
Recognizing the emptiness of all phenomena conceptually is, according to most Buddhist philosophers, not all that diffi cult: good philosophical analysis will suffi ce. But coming to perceive and to recognize phenomena as empty, most would argue, is a diffi cult achievement. It requires extirpating deep-seated impulses to reify ourselves and others, to regard ourselves and others as permanent, as consisting of a substantial core over which properties are laid, and to regard ourselves and others as essentially independent and only accidentally interacting agents and objects. These are the delusions, Siddhartha Gautama argued, that trap us in suffering.
The fact that everything exists in a causally interdependent, conventional way but is at the same time ultimately empty grounds the doctrine of the two truths. The first truth is the conventional, or concealing (sam. vn. i, vyavahara) truth or reality (satya); the second is the ultimate (paramartha) truth or reality. Conventional truth is the realm of persons, objects, dogs, cats, trees, tables, and hard currency. Conventionally, objects exist, endure, and have a whole range of fascinating properties. But ultimately, they are empty. They exist only as impermanent, conventional designations, as we can see when we pursue careful philosophical analysis. The conventional truth is what appears to uncritical consciousness, and is regarded as deceptive, in that conventional phenomena appear to ordinary folks as though they exist inherently, even though they do not. The ultimate truth is what appears on careful analysis, or to those who have cultivated their cognitive powers to the point where they apprehend things spontaneously as empty. When things appear in this way, they appear nondeceptively.
Much of Buddhist thought is dedicated to understanding the complex relation between the two truths, and there is much diversity of opinion on this question. It is important, however, to note that they are presented as two truths, not as truth and falsehood, or as appearance and reality. Working out how this can be the case is no easy matter. Part of the agenda is set for the Maha¯ ya¯ na schools by the famous declaration in the Heart of Wisdom Sutra that “form is empty; emptiness is form; emptiness is not different from form; form is not different from emptiness.” In some deep sense, on this view, the two truths are one. To be conventionally real is to be empty of inherent existence; to be empty of inherent existence is what it is to be conventionally real.
Buddhist debates concerning the nature of reality and truth naturally lead to concern with questions of how knowledge is attained. For the most part, Buddhist philosophers have argued that perception and inference are the only valid sources of knowledge; first-person verification is systematically valorized over the authority of scriptures or teachers. Ultimately, though, because most Buddhist philosophers believe that words can only denote nonexistent universals, and the particulars that actually exist are inexpressible, they argue that since inference is always verbal and conceptual, and therefore engaged with the nonexistent, even inference is to be abandoned by the awakened mind.
The Buddha, however, employed language to teach the Dharma, and Buddhist philosophers have devoted much attention to considering how linguistic meaning is achieved and how language should be employed on the Buddhist path. For some, the answer to the question of how to use language has resulted in systematic treatises that proceed via linguistic argument, inference, and conceptual thought. For others, the only way to point to the linguistically inexpressible truth has been through employing enigmatic silence or the provocative, and noninferential, use of language found in the koan.
While Buddhists understand insight into the nature of reality to be necessary for liberation, it is generally 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 diversity of approaches to moral questions in Buddhist traditions. These include elements that resemble virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism, but Buddhist ethics is best approached on its own terms rather than as a species of one of the Western traditions. It is best characterized as a kind of moral pluralism, as a sustained
effort to solve a fundamental existential problem using a variety of means. Its scope is sometimes broader than that of Western ethical theory, inasmuch as such cognitive states as ontological confusion are regarded as moral, and not simply as epistemic failings; and sometimes narrower, taking vows as grounding fundamental moral concerns, as opposed to general sets of obligations. Many important debates in contemporary Buddhist moral thought concern the relation between Buddhist ethics and questions of social, political, and economic justice. These are addressed in the fi nal chapters of this volume.
Texts purporting to express the words of the Buddha and historical commentaries provide a multiplicity of conflicting accounts of the doctrines that are supposedly basic to a Buddhist worldview. In response to these competing accounts, Buddhist thinkers developed hermeneutical methodologies
to distinguish between those texts that offer a merely provisional account intended for a particular audience at a particular time, and those texts that articulate a definitive account of the nature of reality. To justify a particular text as defi nitive required a discussion of fundamental philosophical questions of metaphysics and ontology, epistemology, language, hermeneutics, philosophy of the person, and ethics. For more than two thousand years, then, Buddhists have been arguing about these methodological questions with each other and also with non-Buddhist philosophers, resulting in an extensive set of texts on the philosophy of language and hermeneutic theory.
Our purpose in this volume is to present some of these Buddhist philosophical debates as they appear in historically influential and philosophically significant texts. While no anthology of Buddhist philosophy could possibly be complete, either historically or topically, we have selected texts that illustrate the varied and rich philosophies of Buddhist traditions that represent diverse responses to core philosophical questions. We have ordered our selections of Buddhist primary texts into five parts:
(5) Ethics. Each part begins with a brief introduction that situates the questions and debates that will follow. Each selection, in turn, is preceded by an introductory essay, contributed by an eminent scholar of Buddhist philosophy. These introductions provide commentary on the selected texts, situating them historically and clarifying their philosophical contributions. The aim of these introductions is to make the selected texts accessible to students of Buddhist intellectual traditions who lack extensive training in Buddhist thought and to enable those trained primarily in Western philosophy to approach and to teach these texts as philosophical works that can fruitfully engage with Western philosophical texts and concerns. A bibliography of suggested readings follows each selection for those interested in pursuing further explorations of the issues it addresses.
The texts selected here raise numerous perplexing questions. Indeed, the very project of “Buddhist philosophy” itself raises questions concerning the nature of philosophy and how one ought to pursue crosscultural interpretation. For the editors, engaging these questions over the years has been an enduring source of intellectual excitement and philosophical insight. With this volume we hope to make that excitement and insight accessible to a new generation of students of the vast and rich traditions of Buddhist philosophy.