The story of Buddhism might be said to have begun with a loss of innocence. Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince of the Shakhya clan in India, had been raised in a life of royal ease, shielded from the misery and cruelties of the world outside the palace gates, distracted by sensual pleasures and luxurious living. But one day the fateful encounter with the real world occurred, and Siddhartha was shaken to the core. There in his own kingdom, not far from his gardens and delights, he encountered people suffering from sickness, old age and death; he brooded over these things, deeply disturbed that such was the fate of all beings. Then he encountered an ascetic holy man, a renunciate dedicated to liberation. The prince then undertook the great renunciation, forsaking his family, fortune and kingdom in pursuit of the path of liberation. The central, profound question that burned in Gautama was this: "How may suffering be ended?"
He became a wandering ascetic, practiced yogic disciplines and meditation, studied with various teachers, and attained high states of consciousness; but still he did not find the answer to his question. He practiced severe forms of asceticism, almost to the point of death by starvation, all without gain. Finally he sat under a bodhi tree, determined not to rise from meditation until he had gained the insight he sought. Not long after, he attained enlightenment; he became the Buddha -- the Awakened One. He had ascended through various stages of meditative awareness, he had seen all of his past lives, and he had seen directly into reality, into the nature of existence and the causes of suffering and rebirth. He pondered whether to try to teach these insights, so subtle and difficult to grasp to others; perhaps it would be futile. But finally he decided that at least some of the people would be able to understand; perhaps more importantly, they could be shown the path to arrive at these insights themselves. He gave his first sermon to a few disciples in the Deer park at Benares, and then continued to wander and teach for the next forty-five years, until his death at the age of eighty.
He was born in the 6th century BCE, a time of great turmoil and political change in India; many were unsatisfied with the Vedic religion, and new teachings had emerged, among them the Upanishads. The Buddha stood largely outside the Vedic tradition, criticizing many of its central teachings. Nevertheless, he had been influenced by that tradition and his teachings in turn would have a profound effect on later teachers in the Hindu tradition, such as Shankara; even in such Hindu classics as the Bhagavad Gita, some reaction can be seen to Buddhist teachings. But later centuries would see the Buddha’s influence wane in India and instead spread to other Asian countries. Today Buddhism has spread throughout the world. Various sects have arisen as later teachers have reinterpreted and expounded upon the Buddha’s basic teachings. Buddhism may be considered a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, or all three; here we will deal mainly with Buddhism as a philosophical system.
The Buddha’s main concern was to eliminate suffering, to find a cure for the pain of human existence. In this respect he has been compared to a physician, and his teaching has been compared to a medical or psychological prescription. Like a physician, he observed the symptoms -- the disease that human kind was suffering from; next he gave a diagnosis - the cause of the disease; then he gave the prognosis -- it could be cured; finally he gave the prescription -- the method by which the condition could be cured.
His first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, follows this pattern. First, the insight that "life is dukkha." Dukkha is variously translated as suffering, pain, impermanence; it is the unsatisfactory quality of life which is targeted here -- life is often beset with sorrow and trouble, and even at its best, is never completely fulfilling. We always want more happiness, less pain. But this ‘wanting more’ is itself the problem: the second noble truth teaches that the pain of life is caused by ‘tanha’ -- our cravings, our attachments, our selfish grasping after pleasure and avoiding pain. Is there something else possible? The third noble truth says yes; a complete release from attachment and dukkha is possible, a liberation from pain and rebirth. The fourth noble truth tells how to attain this liberation; it describes the Noble Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana, the utter extinction of the pain of existence.
Another main teaching of Buddhist metaphysics is known as the Three Marks of Existence. The first is Anicca, impermanence: all things are transitory, nothing lasts. The second is Anatta, No-Self or No-Soul: human beings, and all of existence, is without a soul or self. There is no eternal, unchanging part of us, like the Hindu idea of Atman; there is no eternal, unchanging aspect of the universe, like the Hindu idea of Brahman. The entire idea of self is seen as an illusion, one which causes immeasurable suffering; this false idea gives rise to the consequent tendency to try to protect the self or ego and to preserve its interests, which is futile since nothing is permanent anyway. The third mark of existence is that of Dukkha, suffering: all of existence, not just human existence but even the highest states of meditation, are forms of suffering, ultimately inadequate and unsatisfactory.
The three marks of existence can be seen as the basis for the four noble truths above; in turn the three marks of existence may be seen to come out of an even more fundamental Buddhist theory, that of Pratityasamutpada: Dependent Origination, or Interdependent Co-arising. This theory says that all things are cause and are caused by other things; all of existence is conditioned, nothing exists independently, and there is no First Cause. There was no beginning to the chain of causality; it is useless to speculate how phenomenal existence started. However, it can be ended, and that is the ultimate goal of Buddhism - the ultimate liberation of all creatures from the pain of existence.
Sometimes this causality is spoken of as a circular linking of twelve different factors; if the chain of causality can be broken, existence is ended and liberation attained. One of these factors is attachment or craving, tanha, and another is ignorance; these two are emphasized as being the weak links in the chain, the place to make a break. To overcome selfish craving, one cultivates the heart through compassion; to eliminate ignorance one cultivates the mind through wisdom. Compassion and wisdom are twin virtues in Buddhism, and are cultured by ethical behavior and meditation, respectively. It is a process of self-discipline and self-development which emphasizes the heart and mind equally, and insists that both working together are necessary for enlightenment.
If Buddhism can be seen as a process of personal development, one may well ask: what is a person, if not a soul or self? In keeping with the ideas of dependent origination, Buddhism views a person as a changing configuration of five factors, or ‘skandhas.’ First there is the world of physical form; the body and all material objects, including the sense organs. Second there is the factor of sensation or feeling; here are found the five senses as well as mind, which in Buddhism is considered a sense organ. The mind senses thoughts and ideas much the same as the eye senses light or the ear senses air pressure. Thirdly, there is the factor of perception; here is the faculty which recognizes physical and mental objects. Fourth there is the factor variously called impulses or mental formulations; here is volition and attention, the faculty of will, the force of habits. Lastly, there is the faculty of consciousness or awareness. In Buddhism consciousness is not something apart from the other factors, but rather interacting with them and dependent on them for its existence; there is no arising of consciousness without conditions. Here we see no idea of personhood as constancy, but rather a fleeting, changing assortment or process of various interacting factors. A major aim of Buddhism is first to become aware of this process, and then to eliminate it by eradicating its causes.
This process does not terminate with the dissolution of the physical body upon death; Buddhism assumes reincarnation. Even though there is no soul to continue after death, the five skandhas are seen as continuing on, powered by past karma, and resulting in rebirth. Karma in Buddhism, as in Hinduism, stems from volitional action and results in good or bad effects in this or a future life. Buddhism explains the karmic mechanism a bit differently; it is not the results of the action per se that result in karma, but rather the state of mind of the person performing the action. Here again, Buddhism tends to focus on psychological insights; the problem with bad or selfish action is that it molds our personality, creates ruts or habitual patterns of thinking and feeling. These patterns in turn result in the effects of karma in our lives.
Many other metaphysical questions were put to the Buddha during his life; he did not answer them all. He eschewed the more abstract and speculative metaphysical pondering, and discouraged such questions as hindrances on the path. Such questions as what is Nirvana like, what preceded existence, etc., were often met by silence or what may have seemed like mysterious obscurity. Asked what happens to an Arhant, an enlightened one, upon his death, the Buddha was said to have replied: "What happens to the footprints of the birds in the air." Nirvana means ‘extinction’ and he likened the death of an arhant to the extinction of a flame when the fuel (karma) runs out. He evidently felt that many such questions were arising out of a false attachment to self, and that they distracted one from the main business of eliminating suffering.
The Path to Liberation: the Buddhist Way of Life
The Buddha intended his philosophy to be a practical one, aimed at the happiness of all creatures. While he outlined his metaphysics, he did not expect anyone to accept this on faith but rather to verify the insights for themselves; his emphasis was always on seeing clearly and understanding. To achieve this, however, requires a disciplined life and a clear commitment to liberation; the Buddha laid out a clear path to the goal and also observations on how to live life wisely. The core of this teaching is contained in the Noble Eightfold Path, which covers the three essential areas of Buddhist practice: ethical conduct, mental discipline (‘concentration; or ‘meditation’), and wisdom. The goals are to cultivate both wisdom and compassion; then these qualities together will enable one ultimately to attain enlightenment.
The path is laid out in eight steps, but one may practice all of the steps simultaneously, since they work together.
The first two steps or factors constitute Wisdom. Right understanding (or right views) is the grasping of true reality, as seen in the Buddhist teachings; it is not merely an intellectual understanding, although this helps. Rather it is a direct insight and penetration into the nature of things. Right thought (or right intentions) is that frame of mind which is selfless, detached and free of malice; that generosity of spirit which extends loving benevolence to all beings.
The next three steps on the eightfold path constitute ethical conduct. Right speech involves abstaining from lies, from rude or malicious language, from foolish gossip, and from slander or backbiting that may cause disharmony. One should speak a gentle, kind, and useful truth, or not speak at all. Right action requires abstaining from killing and all violence, stealing, dishonest practices, intoxicating drinks and improper sexual behavior. Right livelihood means that one should abstain from any profession that brings harm to others, such as weaponry, butchering animals or selling liquor. Also one’s career should develop one’s talents, overcome the ego by joining in a common cause, and provide what is needed for a worthwhile existence -- basic comforts and necessities, but not ostentatious luxuries.
The last three steps on the path are those which promote mental discipline. Right effort is the will to cultivate wholesome states of mind and eliminate evil or unwanted ones. Right mindfulness (or attentiveness) involves being keenly aware of the processes involved in one’s daily existence, those of the body, the sensations, the mind and the experiencing of thoughts and ideas. Mindfulness is practiced in Buddhist forms of meditation such as vipassana, through techniques like observation of the breath and bodily sensations. Right concentration refers to the progressive stages of dhyana (this is closer to what is called meditation in most Hindu traditions). In this discipline, the mind is gradually cleared of passionate desires, then thoughts, then finally even feelings of joy, until only pure awareness remains, in a state of perfect calm and equanimity.
Other teachings speak of the Four Friends and the Five Hindrances that one encounters along the path; these are qualities in the heart which may aid or distract one from the process. The four friends are: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Loving kindness is universal love for all beings, without distinction. Compassion is the ability to empathize with others -- to feel what they are feeling. Sympathetic joy is the quality that takes delight in the happiness of others. Equanimity is a calm acceptance of all that happens, based on the insight of the impermanence of all things; in the end, the only thing that really matters is liberation, so the vicissitudes of life don’t really have much significance.
The five hindrances are: sensual desire; ill will; sloth and torpor; restlessness and worry, or distraction; and skeptical doubt. Everyone has these hindrances in common, so it is important to find ways of eliminating them; they are like toxins or weeds which prevent the cultivation of those qualities essential for self-discipline and stand in the way of our liberation.
The Buddha’s teachings on ethics and living a good life also extended to the realm of the social and political. He was ahead of his time in many ways; considering all people as equal, he rejected the caste system and openly encouraged women to become students and teachers. He taught that governments had a responsibility to lead by example, to teach people ethics and to eliminate poverty by providing opportunities for the people to become prosperous. He was clearly opposed to all forms of war, and taught that violence can never create security. In keeping with these teachings, Buddhism is rare among world religions in that its followers never attempted to spread their beliefs through the use of force. Unique among victorious leaders, the Buddhist emperor Asoka in the third century BCE renounced violence and war, and put Buddhist ethical virtues at the center of his government.
Regarding the Buddhist path as a philosophy, one may consider its epistemology: certain claims of knowledge have been made, but how can they be known to be true? As stated above, the Buddha himself never asked anyone to accept unproven claims on faith, and in fact discouraged them from doing so. He maintained that his teachings could be verified by direct insight and reasoning, by anyone willing to consider them and to follow the necessary path of self-discipline. Starting from a few basic assumptions, such as impermanence and dependent origination, he derived a complex and consistent system of philosophy which has stood for centuries. Later teachers have validated his claim that others could reach the same insights, and they have expanded upon his basic teachings with impressive intuitive depth and intellectual rigor.
In this way the Buddhist teaching has itself become a kind of interactive and self-evolving process, much like its idea of pratityasamutpada. However, the end goal is still Nirvana, which is an experience ultimately beyond all concepts and language, even beyond the Buddhist teachings. In the end even the attachment to the Dharma, the Buddhist teaching, must be dropped like all other attachments. The tradition compares the teaching to a raft upon which one crosses a swift river to get to the other side; once one is on the far shore, there is no longer any need to carry the raft. The far shore is Nirvana, and it is also said that when one arrives, one can see quite clearly that there was never any river at all.
Buddhist philosophy deals extensively with problems in metaphysics, phenomenology, ethics, and epistemology.
Some scholars assert that early Buddhist philosophy did not engage in ontological or metaphysical speculation, but was based instead on empirical evidence gained by the sense organs (ayatana). Buddha is said to have assumed an unsympathetic attitude toward speculative thought in general. A basic idea of the Buddha is that the world must be thought of in procedural terms, not in terms of things or substances. The Buddha advised viewing reality as consisting of dependently originated phenomena; Buddhists view this approach to experience as avoiding the two extremes of reification and nihilism. Nevertheless, Buddhist scholars have addressed ontological and metaphysical issues subsequently.
Particular points of Buddhist philosophy have often been the subject of disputes between different schools of Buddhism. While theory for its own sake is not valued in Buddhism, theory pursued in the interest of enlightenment is consistent with Buddhist values and ethics.
Philosophy Historical context
The historical Buddha lived during a time of spiritual and philosophical revival in Northern India when the established mythologies and cosmological explanations of the vedas came under rational scrutiny. As well as the Buddha's own teachings, new ethical and spiritual philosophies such as those of Mahavira became established during this period when alternatives to the mainstream religion arose in an atmosphere of freethought and renewed vitality in spiritual endeavour. This general cultural movement is today known as the Sramanic tradition and the epoch of new thought as the axial era. These heterodox groups held widely divergent opinions but were united by a critical attitude towards the established religion whose explanations they found unsatisfactory and whose animal sacrifices increasingly distasteful and irrelevant. In Greece, China and India there was a return to fundamental questions and a new interest in the question of how humans should live. In this atmosphere of freethought the Buddha discouraged his followers from indulging in intellectual disputation for its own sake, saying that this is fruitless and distracting from true awakening. The Buddha saw himself as a physician rather than a philosopher. Like a doctor he was concerned with identifying the fundamental problem of human existence (diagnosis), its cause (etiology), and treatment. However, the Buddha's doctrine did have an important philosophical component: it negated the major claims of rival positions while building upon them at a new philosophical and religious level.
The Buddha's method of enquiry in disputation with others was like the Socratic method, his approach to metaphysical questions apophatic and his attitude to the accepted pantheon of gods and goddesses somewhat iconoclastic. He asserted the insubstantiality of the ego and in doing so countered those Upanishadic sages who sought knowledge of an unchanging ultimate self. The Buddha created a new position in opposition to their theories, and held that attachment to a permanent self in this world of change is the cause of suffering and the main obstacle to liberation. He broke new ground by going on to explain the source for the apparent ego: it is merely the result of identification with the temporary aggregates (skandhas) which constitute the sum total of the individual human being's experience at any given moment in time. His avoidance of theological speculation or assertions and non-assertion of the existence of any Supreme Being or essential substance may be seen as evidence of his mystical apophasis rather than skepticism or nihilism. The Buddha was concerned with advancing human happiness by teaching people the correct method of liberation.
The Buddha's teaching is rationalistic, scientific and empirical. Though he uses parables and similes in common with other religious teachers he is somewhat unique in bringing a highly logical and analytical approach to questions of ultimate significance for human beings. In this breaking down into constituent elements, the Buddha was heir to earlier element philosophies which had sought to characterize existing things as made up of a set of basic elements. The Buddha, however, eliminated mythological rhetoric, systematized world components into five groups, and used this approach not to characterize a substantial object, but to explain a delusion. He coordinated material components with psychological ones. The Buddha criticized the Brahmins' theories of an Absolute as yet another reification, instead giving a path to self-perfection as a means of transcending the world of name and form.
Decisive in distinguishing Buddhism from what is commonly called Hinduism is the issue of epistemological justification. All schools of Indian logic recognize various sets of valid justifications for knowledge, or pramāṇa – Buddhism recognizes a set that is smaller than the others'. All accept perception and inference, for example, but for some schools of Hinduism and Buddhism the received textual tradition is an epistemological category equal to perception and inference (although this is not necessarily true for some other schools).
Thus, in the Hindu schools, if a claim was made that could not be substantiated by appeal to the textual canon, it would be considered as ridiculous as a claim that the sky was green and, conversely, a claim which could not be substantiated via conventional means might still be justified through textual reference, differentiating this from the epistemology of hard science.
Some schools of Buddhism, on the other hand, rejected an inflexible reverence of accepted doctrine. As the Buddha said, according to the canonical scriptures:
Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them.
Early Buddhist philosophers and exegetes of one particular early school (as opposed to Mahāyāna), the Sarvāstivādins, created a pluralist metaphysical and phenomenological system, in which all experiences of people, things and events can be broken down into smaller and smaller perceptual or perceptual-ontological units called "dharmas". Other schools incorporated some parts of this theory and criticized others. The Sautrāntikas, another early school, and the Theravādins, now the only modern survivor of the early Buddhist schools, criticized the realist standpoint of the Sarvāstivādins.
The Mahāyānist Nāgārjuna, one of the most influential Buddhist thinkers, promoted classical Buddhist emphasis on phenomena and attacked Sarvāstivāda realism and Sautrāntika nominalism in his magnum opus, The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā).
Speculation versus direct experience
According to the scriptures, during his lifetime the Buddha remained silent when asked several metaphysical questions. These regarded issues such as whether the universe is eternal or non-eternal (or whether it is finite or infinite), the unity or separation of the body and the self, the complete inexistence of a person after Nirvana and death, and others. One explanation for this silence is that such questions distract from activity that is practical to realizing enlightenment and bring about the danger of substituting the experience of liberation by conceptual understanding of the doctrine or by religious faith. Another explanation is that both affirmative and negative positions regarding these questions are based on attachment to and misunderstanding of the aggregates and senses. That is, when one sees these things for what they are, the idea of forming positions on such metaphysical questions simply does not occur to one. Another closely related explanation is that reality is devoid of designations, or empty, and therefore language itself is a priori inadequate.
Thus, the Buddha's silence does not indicate misology or disdain for philosophy. Rather, it indicates that he viewed these questions as not leading to true knowledge. Dependent arising provides a framework for analysis of reality that is not based on metaphysical assumptions regarding existence or non-existence, but instead on direct cognition of phenomena as they are presented to the mind. This informs and supports the Buddhist approach to liberation via the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Buddha of the earliest Buddhists texts describes Dharma (in the sense of "truth") as "beyond reasoning" or "transcending logic", in the sense that reasoning is a subjectively introduced aspect of the way humans perceive things, and the conceptual framework which underpins it is a part of the cognitive process, rather than a feature of things as they really are. Being "beyond reasoning" means in this context penetrating the nature of reasoning from the inside, and removing the causes for experiencing any future stress as a result of it, rather than functioning outside of the system as a whole.
Most Buddhists agree that, to a greater or lesser extent, words are inadequate to describe the goal of the Buddhist path, but concerning the usefulness of words in the path itself, schools differ radically.
In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha insists that while pondering upon Dharma is vital, one must then relinquish fixation on words and letters, as these are utterly divorced from liberation and the Buddha-nature. The Tibetan tantra entitled the "All-Creating King" (Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra) also emphasizes how Buddhist truth lies beyond the range of discursive/verbal thought and is ultimately mysterious. Samantabhadra, states there: "The mind of perfect purity ... is beyond thinking and inexplicable..." Also later, the famous Indian Buddhist practitioner and teacher, mahasiddha Tilopa discouraged any intellectual activity in his six words of advice.
Professor C. D. Sebastian describes the nature of enlightenment according to one Mahayana text:
Bodhi is the final goal of a Bodhisattva's career and it is indicated by such words as buddha-jnana (knowledge of Buddha), sarvjnata (omniscience), sarvakarajnata (the quality of knowing things as they are), ... and acintyam jnanam (inconceivable knowledge) ... Bodhi is pure universal and immediate knowledge, which extends over all time, all universes, all beings and elements, conditioned and unconditioned. It is absolute and identical with Reality and thus it is Tathata. Bodhi is immaculate and non-conceptual, and it, being not an outer object, cannot be understood by discursive thought. It has neither beginning, nor middle nor end and it is indivisbile. It is non-dual (advayam)... The only possible way to comprehend it is through samadhi by the yogin
The early texts, in contrast, contain explicit repudiations of attributing omniscience to the Buddha. Furthermore, the non-duality ascribed to the nature of enlightenment in the early texts is not ontological.
Mahayana often adopts a pragmatic concept of truth: doctrines are "true" in the sense of being spiritually beneficial. In modern Chinese Buddhism, all doctrinal traditions are regarded as equally valid.
Theravada promotes the concept of vibhajjavada (Pāli, literally "Teaching of Analysis") to non-Buddhists. This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith. As the Buddha said according to the canonical scriptures:
Do not accept anything by mere tradition ... Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures ... Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions ... But when you know for yourselves—these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness—then do you live acting accordingly.
Dependent origination Dependent origination
What some consider the original positive Buddhist contribution to the field of metaphysics is dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda). It states that events are not predetermined, nor are they random, and it rejects notions of direct causation, which are necessarily undergirded by a substantialist metaphysics. Instead, it posits the arising of events under certain conditions which are inextricable, such that the processes in question at no time, are considered to be entities.
Dependent origination goes on to posit that certain specific events, concepts, or realities are always dependent on other specific things. Craving, for example, is always dependent on, and caused by, emotion. Emotion is always dependent on contact with our surroundings. This chain of causation purports to show that the cessation of decay, death, and sorrow is indirectly dependent on the cessation of craving.
Nāgārjuna asserted a direct connection between, even identity of, dependent origination, selflessness (anatta), and emptiness (śūnyatā). He pointed out that implicit in the early Buddhist concept of dependent origination is the lack of any substantial being (anatta) underlying the participants in origination, so that they have no independent existence, a state identified as emptiness (śūnyatā), or emptiness of a nature or essence (svabhāva).
The doctrine of "interpenetration" or "coalescence" (Wylie: zung-'jug; Sanskrit: yuganaddha) comes from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, a Mahāyāna scripture, and its associated schools. It holds that all phenomena (Sanskrit: dharmas) are intimately connected (and mutually arising). Two images are used to convey this idea. The first is known as Indra's net. The net is set with jewels which have the extraordinary property that they reflect all of the other jewels. The second image is that of the world text. This image portrays the world as consisting of an enormous text which is as large as the universe itself. The words of the text are composed of the phenomena that make up the world. However, every atom of the world contains the whole text within it. It is the work of a Buddha to let out the text so that beings can be liberated from suffering. The doctrine of interpenetration influenced the Japanese monk Kūkai, who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. It is iconographically represented by yab-yum. Interpenetration and essence-function are mutually informing in the East Asian Buddhist traditions, especially the Korean Buddhist tradition.
Ethics Buddhist ethics
Although there are many ethical tenets in Buddhism that differ depending on whether one is a monk or a layman, and depending on individual schools, the Buddhist system of ethics can be summed up in the eightfold path.
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering -- precisely this Noble Eightfold Path – right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
The purpose of living an ethical life is to escape the suffering inherent in samsara. Skillful actions condition the mind in a positive way and lead to future happiness, while the opposite is true for unskillful actions. Ethical discipline also provides the mental stability and freedom to embark upon mental cultivation via meditation.
History Early development
Certain basic teachings appear in many places throughout the early texts, so most scholars conclude that the Buddha must at least have taught something of the kind:
- the three marks of existence
- the five aggregates
- dependent arising
- karma and rebirth
- the four noble truths
- the eightfold path
Some scholars disagree, and have proposed many other theories. According to such scholars, there was something they variously call "earliest Buddhism", "original Buddhism" or "pre-canonical Buddhism". The Buddha rejected certain precepts of Indian philosophy that were prominent during his lifetime. According to some scholars, the philosophical outlook of earliest Buddhism was primarily negative, in the sense that it focused on what doctrines to reject more than on what doctrines to accept. This dimension is also found in the Madhyamaka school. It includes critical rejections of all views, which is a form of philosophy, but it is reluctant to posit its own.
Only knowledge that is useful in achieving enlightenment is valued. According to this theory, the cycle of philosophical upheavals that in part drove the diversification of Buddhism into its many schools and sects only began once Buddhists began attempting to make explicit the implicit philosophy of the Buddha and the early suttas. Other scholars reject this theory. After the death of the Buddha, attempts were made to gather his teachings and transmit them in a commonly agreed form, first orally, then also in writing (the Tripiṭaka).
The main Buddhist philosophical schools are the Abhidharma schools, (particularly Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda), and the Mahāyāna schools (the latter including the Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, Huayan, and Tiantai schools).
The tathāgathagarbha (or Buddha-nature) doctrine of some schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Theravāda doctrine of bhavaṅga, and the Yogācāra store consciousness were all identified at some point with the luminous mind of the Nikāyas.
The tathāgatagarbha sutras, in a departure from mainstream Buddhist language, insist that the true self lies at the very heart of the Buddha himself and of nirvana, as well as being concealed within the mass of mental and moral contaminants that blight all beings. Such doctrines saw a shift from a largely apophatic (negative) philosophical trend within Buddhism to a decidedly more cataphatic (positive) modus. The tathāgatagarbha does not, according to some scholars, represent a substantial self; rather, it is a positive language expression of emptiness and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. In this interpretation, the intention of the teaching of tathāgatagarbha is soteriological rather than theoretical. The word "self" (atman) is used in a way idiosyncratic to these sutras; the "true self" is described as the perfection of the wisdom of not-self in the Buddha-Nature Treatise, for example. Language that had previously been used by essentialist non-Buddhist philosophers was now adopted, with new definitions, by Buddhists to promote orthodox teachings.
Prior to the period of these scriptures, Mahāyāna metaphysics had been dominated by teachings on emptiness in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the tathāgatagarbha genre of sutras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these sutras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used previously in Indian philosophy by essentialist philosophers, but which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.
Comparison with other philosophies
Baruch Spinoza, though he argued for the existence of a permanent reality, asserts that all phenomenal existence is transitory. In his opinion sorrow is conquered "by finding an object of knowledge which is not transient, not ephemeral, but is immutable, permanent, everlasting." Buddhism teaches that such a quest is bound to fail. David Hume, after a relentless analysis of the mind, concluded that consciousness consists of fleeting mental states. Hume's Bundle theory is a very similar concept to the Buddhist skandhas, though his denial of causation lead him to opposite conclusions in other areas. Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy had some parallels in Buddhism.
Ludwig Wittgenstein's "word games" map closely to the warning of intellectual speculation as a red herring to understanding, in a similar fashion as the Buddhist Parable of the Poison Arrow. Friedrich Nietzsche, although himself dismissive of Buddhism as yet another nihilism, developed his philosophy of accepting life-as-it-exists and self-cultivation, which is extremely similar to Buddhism as better understood in the West. Heidegger's ideas on being and nothingness have been held by some to be similar to Buddhism today.
An alternative approach to the comparison of Buddhist thought with Western philosophy is to use the concept of the Middle Way in Buddhism as a critical tool for the assessment of Western philosophies. In this way Western philosophies can be classified in Buddhist terms as eternalist or nihilist. In a Buddhist view all philosophies are to be considered non-essential