Buddhist philosophy, Indian

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

Article Summary

Buddhism was an important ingredient in the philosophical melange of the Indian subcontinent for over a millennium. From an inconspicuous beginning a few centuries before Christ, Buddhist scholasticism gained in strength until it reached a peak of influence and originality in the latter half of the first millennium. Beginning in the eleventh century, Buddhism gradually declined and eventually disappeared from northern India. Although different individual thinkers placed emphasis on different issues, the tendency was for most writers to offer an integrated philosophical system that incorporated ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. Most of the issues addressed by Buddhist philosophers in India stem directly from the teachings attributed to Siddhārtha Gautama, known better through his honorific title, the Buddha.

The central concern of the Buddha was the elimination of unnecessary discontent. His principal insight into this problem was that all dissatisfaction arises because people (and other forms of life as well) foster desires and aversions, which are in turn the consequence of certain misunderstandings about their identity. Discontent can be understood as frustration, or a failure to achieve what one wishes; if one’s wishes are generally unrealistic and therefore unattainable, then one will naturally be generally dissatisfied. Since the Buddha saw human frustration as an effect of misunderstandings concerning human nature, it was natural for Buddhist philosophers to attend to questions concerning the true nature of a human being. Since the Buddha himself was held as the paradigm of moral excellence, it was also left to later philosophers to determine what kind of being the Buddha had been. A typical question was whether his example was one that ordinary people could hope to follow, or whether his role was in some way more than that of a teacher who showed other people how to improve themselves.

The Buddha offered criticisms of many views on human nature and virtue and duty held by the teachers of his age. Several of the views that he opposed were based, at least indirectly, on notions incorporated in the Veda, a body of liturgical literature used by the Brahmans in the performance of rituals. Later generations of Buddhists spent much energy in criticizing Brahmanical claims of the supremacy of the Veda; at the same time, Buddhists tended to place their confidence in a combination of experience and reason. The interest in arriving at correct understanding through correct methods of reasoning led to a preoccupation with questions of logic and epistemology, which tended to overshadow all other philosophical concerns during the last five centuries during which Buddhism was an important factor in Indian philosophy.

Since the Buddha saw human frustration as an effect that could be eliminated if its cause were eliminated, it was natural for Buddhist philosophers to focus their attention on a variety of questions concerning causality. How many kinds of cause are there? Can a multiplicity of effects have a single cause? Can a single thing have a multiplicity of causes? How is a potentiality triggered into an actuality? Questions concerning simplicity and complexity, or unity and plurality, figured prominently in Buddhist discussions of what kinds of things in the world are ultimately real. In a tradition that emphasized the principle that all unnecessary human pain and conflict can ultimately be traced to a failure to understand what things in the world are real, it was natural to seek criteria by which one discerns real things from fictions.

    Citing this article:
    Hayes, Richard P.. Buddhist philosophy, Indian, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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