Buddhist Philosophy in a nutshell
The Buddha during meditation was enlightened about the path which would lead to the salvation of human beings in this world and he preached this path to his followers. The Buddha preached Four Noble Truths, these are:
The Truth of Suffering: that all human beings on this world are suffering.
The cause of this suffering is Desire.
This suffering can be got rid of.
The way to get rid of this suffering is by following the eight-fold path.
The eight-fold path is:
Stated baldly like this, this may seem a rather simple philosophy, but this is a system of ethical conduct which is intuitive to follow and logical, and it has been proven to be helpful by so many millions of followers since the days of the Buddha.
Beyond this practical philosophy, the Buddha expressly forbade any further metaphysical speculation. The arrow of suffering was lodged in our hearts, and at this stage we cannot waste time asking who shot the arrow, where it came from, and so on. The immediate need was to get this arrow out, and for this the eight fold path was the solution.
But for followers of any religion, metaphysical questions are bound to arise and so it was in Buddhism also. In time, and after the Buddha's death, different Buddhist scholars came up with different concepts of metaphysics which they felt were most in line with Buddha's thinking, and thus several schools of Buddhism arose, each with their own philosophy.
Gautama Buddha had led down two important truths on which all Buddhist metaphysics is based. These are that the world or Dukkha exists, and that the world or Dukkha is not permanent. Based on these two principles, Buddhism developed into different metaphysical schools.
The Hinayana or Theraveda school is based on Realistic metaphysics/ ontology. This means that it accepts the world as having the same level of reality as the ‘I’ or our consciousness. Both the world and the ‘I’ exist independently and the world is not dependent on the ‘I’ for its existence.
In Theraveda, the outside phenomena exists, but not with absolute reality. They have only partial reality. When we examine anything deeply, we will find that it does not have a true reality, each phenomena is found to be dependent on another phenomena and so on with nothing in the world having a true independent reality. It is compared to the peeling of a banana stalk or an onion. Each layer depends on the subsequent layer and right at the end there is nothing which holds it together. Hence the world is not a permanent reality and the goal of a spiritual aspirant is to recognize this reality and thus get free of Dukkha
Through following the eight fold path, a person gains equanimity and is thus able to distance himself or herself from the pulls and pressures of the world. During further meditation, they finally realize that there is indeed nothing permanent in the world and with this realization, they obtain Nirvana and are freed from further binding with Dukkha.
The Mahayana school is based on Idealistic ontology/metaphysics. Idealism begins from the ‘I’, our individual consciousness. This ‘I’ or our consciousness is considered the first to exist, independent of the world, and the reality of the world is dependent on this ‘I’. Now, when we make the world dependent on our consciousness, questions arise about the reality of the world. We know that in dreams, we can conjure up a world which is not real. So also it may be that the world that we see around us is also a dream, and hence does not truly exist. Hence in Mahayana, the world is denied as having a true reality and it is said to have only a dream like reality.
Sautantrika school: This school starts from Idealistic Metaphysics. But after recognizing that the existence of the world cannot be ascertained in itself, it goes on to assert that the world does exist based on inference, i.e., we infer that it exists from our common sense, because we see that it exists all around us and it goes against common sense to deny its existence. Once the world is accepted to exist on the grounds of inference, the rest of the philosophy follows the Theraveda in its principles, and accepts the same goal for spirituality.
Yogachara school : The Yogachara school also follows Idealistic metaphysics and is led to denial of the world and considers it to have only a dream–like reality. Hence the world is unreal because it does not exist ( In Theraveda Buddhism, the world exists but is unreal, in Mahayana, the world does not exist at all). The only thing that exists is the ‘I’. The world in this philosophy is considered to be a dream, and its existence is like the clouds of phenomena, our thoughts and sensations, that float across the blue sky of our consciousness.
The effort then is to concentrate the mind so that we are free from these phenomena, and we exist as the sky alone. This is the state of Nirvana in Yogachara. We are then free of seeing the phenomena of the world, and exist in our own original nature which is free of this world.
Madhyamaika School : The Madhyamika school of Buddhism is the most radical of the Mahayana schools. This is a philosophy of extreme nihilism. In Madhyamika, the existence of the world is denied first as in the Yogachara school, as a dream. The Madhyamika then examines our ‘I’. When we examine our consciousness, we see that it does not have any independent existence apart from the phenomena that arises in the world. Our ‘I’ exists only because there are clouds of thoughts, sensations, etc. which float across it. Without this, says the Madhyamika, there is no ‘I’, there is no independent ‘base’ which supports the whole thing, just as in a banana stalk or in an onion. Hence Madhyamika denies both the world and our ‘I’; nothing exists, according to Madhyamika, and we have only to realize this to obtain our freedom from the world.
Various logical problems come to the mind when we consider these metaphysical positions of Buddhism. When we consider the Theraveda school, we can question how, if the world does exist, it can exist without any basic reality holding it together. The Mahayana schools are even more problematic; it is very difficult for us to accept the Yogachara thinking and consider that the world is only a dream and does not exist, and the Madhyamika position, that nothing exists, is far too astounding for anyone to consider as a rational philosophy.