Buddhist Philosophy


Buddha, it is said, used the popular language of the area he lived in, which was a Prakrit, a derivative of Sanskrit. He must have known Sanskrit, of course, but he preferred to speak in the popular tongue so as to reach the people. From this Prakrit developed the Pali language of the early Buddhist scriptures. Buddha’s dialogues and other accounts and discussions were recorded in Pali long after his death, and these form the basis of Buddhism in Ceylon, Burma, and Siam, where the Hinayana form of Buddhism prevails.

Some hundreds of years after Buddha there was a revival of Sanskrit in India, and Buddhist scholars wrote their philosophical and other works in Sanskrit. Ashvaghosha’s writings and plays (the earliest plays we have), which are meant to be propaganda for Buddhism, are in Sanskrit. These Sanskrit writings of Buddhist scholars in India went to China, Japan, Tibet, and Central Asia, where the Mahayana form of Buddhism prevailed.

The age which gave birth to the Buddha had been one of tremendous mental ferment and philosophic inquiry in India. And not in India only for that was the age of Lao-tze and Confucius, of Zoroaster and Pythagoras. In India it gave rise to materialism as well as to the Bhagavad Gita, to Buddhism and Jainism, and to many other currents of thought which were subsequently to consolidate themselves in the various systems of Indian philosophy. There were different strata of thought, one leading to another, and sometimes overlapping each other.

Different schools of philosophy developed side by side with Buddhism, and Buddhism itself had schisms leading to the formation of different schools of thought. The philosophic spirit gradually declined giving place to scholasticism and polemical controversy.

Buddha had repeatedly warned his people against learned controversy over metaphysical problems. ‘Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent,’ he is reported to have said. Truth was to be found in life itself and not in argument about matters outside the scope of life and therefore beyond the ken of the human intellect. He emphasized the ethical aspects of life and evidently felt that these suffered and were neglected because of a preoccupation with metaphysical subtleties. Early Buddhism reflected to some extent this philosophic and rational spirit of the Buddha, and its inquiries were based on experience. In the world of experience the concept of pure being could not be grasped and was therefore put aside; so also the idea of a creator God, which was a presumption not capable of logical proof. Nevertheless the experience remained and was real enough in a sense; what could this be except a mere flux of becoming, ever-changing into something else? So these intermediate degrees of reality were recognized and further inquiry proceeded on these lines on a psychological basis. Buddha, rebel as he was, hardly cut himself off from the ancient faith of the land. Mrs. Rhys Davids says :

‘Gautama was born and brought up and lived and died as a Hindu…. There was not much in the metaphysics and principles of Gautama which cannot be found in one or other of the orthodox systems, and a great deal of his morality could be matched from earlier or later Hindu books. Such originality as Gautama possessed lay in the way in which he adapted, enlarged, ennobled, and systematized that which had already been well said by others; in the way in which he carried out to their logical conclusion principles of equity and justice already acknowledged by some of the most prominent Hindu thinkers. The difference between him and other teachers lay chiefly in his deep earnestness and in his broad public spirit of philanthropy.’

Yet Buddha had sown the seeds of revolt against the conventional practice of the religion of his day. It was not his theory or philosophy that was objected to—for every conceivable philosophy could be advocated within the fold of orthodox belief so long as it remained a theory—but the interference with the social life and organization of the people. The old system was free and flexible in thought, allowing for every variety of opinion, but in practice it was rigid, and non-conformity with practice was not approved. So, inevitably, Buddhism tended to break away from the old faith, and, after Buddha’s death, the breach widened.

With the decline of early Buddhism, the Mahayana form developed, the older form being known as the Hinayana. It was in this Mahayana that Buddha was made into a god and devotion to him as a personal god developed. The Buddha image also appeared from the Grecian north-west. About the same time there was a revival of Brahminism in India and of Sanskrit scholarship.

Between the Hinayana and the Mahayana there was bitter controversy and the debate and opposition to each other has continued throughout subsequent history. The Hinayana countries (Ceylon, Burma, Siam) even now rather look down upon the Buddhism that prevails in China and Japan, and I suppose this feeling is reciprocated.

While the Hinayana adhered, in some measure, to the ancient purity of doctrine and circumscribed it in a Pali Canon, the Mahayana spread out in every direction, tolerating almost everything and adapting itself to each country’s distinctive outlook. In India it began to approach the popular religion; in each of the other countries—China and Japan and Tibet—it had a separate development. Some of the greatest of the early Buddhist thinkers moved away from the agnostic attitude which Buddha had taken up in regard to the existence of the soul and rejected it completely.

Among a galaxy of men of remarkable intellect, Nagarjuna stands out as one of the greatest minds that India has produced. He lived during Kanishka’s reign, about the beginning of the Christian era, and he was chiefly responsible for formulating the Mahayana doctrines. The power and daring of his thought are remarkable and he is not afraid of arriving at conclusions which to most people must have appeared as scandalous and shocking. With a ruthless logic he pursues his argument till it leads him to deny even what he believed in. Thought cannot know itself and cannot go outside itself or know another. There is no God apart from the universe, and no universe apart from God, and both are equally appearances.

And so he goes on till there is nothing left, no distinction between truth and error, no possibility of understanding or misunderstanding anything, for how can anyone misunderstand the unreal? Nothing is real. The world has only a phenomenal existence; it is just an ideal system of qualities and relations, in which we believe but which we cannot intelligibly explain. Yet behind all this experience he hints at something—the Absolute—which is beyond the capacity of our thinking, for in the very process of thought it becomes something relative.*

This absolute is often referred to in Buddhist philosophy as Shunyata or nothingness (Shunya is the word for the zero mark) yet it is something very different from our conception of vacancy or nothingness.** In our world of experience we have to call it nothingness for there is no other word for it, but in terms of metaphysical reality it means something transcendent and immanent in all things.

Says a famous Buddhist scholar: ‘It is on account of Shunyata that everything becomes possible, without it nothing in the world is possible.’

All this shows where metaphysics leads to and how wise was Buddha’s warning against such speculations. Yet the human mind refuses to imprison itself and continues to reach out for that fruit of knowledge which it well knows is beyond reach. Metaphysics developed in Buddhist philosophy but the method was based on a psychological approach. Again, it is surprising to find the insight into the psychological states of the mind. The subconscious self of modern psychology is clearly envisaged and discussed. An extraordinary passage in one of the old books has been pointed out to me. This reminds one in a way of the Oedipus Complex theory, though the approach is wholly different. ***

Four definite schools of philosophy developed in Buddhism, two of these belonged to the Hinayana branch, and two to the Mahayana. All these Buddhist systems of philosophy have their origin in the Upanishads, but they do not accept the authority of the Vedas. It is this denial of the Vedas that distinguishes them from the so-called Hindu systems of philosophy which developed about the same time. These latter, while accepting the Vedas generally and, in a sense, paying formal obeisance to them, do not consider them as infallible, and indeed go their own way without much regard for them. As the Vedas and the Upanishads spoke educational with many voices, it was always possible for subsequent thinkers to emphasize one aspect rather than another, and to build their system on this foundation.

Professor Radhakrishnan thus describes the logical movement of Buddhist thought as it found expression in the four schools. It begins with a dualistic metaphysics looking upon knowledge as a direct awareness of objects. In the next stage ideas are made the media through which reality is apprehended, thus raising a screen between mind and things. These two stages represent the Hinayana schools. The Mahayana schools went further and abolished the things behind the images and reduced all experience to a series of ideas in their mind. The ideas of relativity and the subconscious self come in. In the last stage—this was Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika philosophy or the middle way—mind itself is dissolved into mere ideas, leaving us with loose units of ideas and perceptions about which we can say nothing definite.

Thus we arrive finally at airy nothing, or something that is so difficult to grasp for our finite minds that it cannot be described or defined. The most we can say is that it is some kind of consciousness —vijyana as it is called.

In spite of this conclusion arrived at by psychological and metaphysical analysis which ultimately reduces the conception of the invisible world or the absolute to pure consciousness, and thus to nothing, so far as we can use or comprehend words, it is emphasized that ethical relations have a definite value in our finite world. So in our lives and in our human relations we have to conform to ethics and live the good life. To that life and to this phenomenal world we can and should apply reason and knowledge and experience. The infinite, or whatever it may be called, lies somewhere in the beyond and to it therefore these cannot be applied.

* Professor Th. Stcherbatsky of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., in his book ‘ The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana’ (Leningrad, 1927) suggests that Nagarjuna should be placed ‘among the great philosophers of humanity.’ He refers to his ‘wonderful style’ which never ceases to be interesting, bold, baffling, sometimes seemingly arrogant. He compares Nagarjuna’s views with those of Bradley and Hegel: ‘Very remarkable are then the coincidences between Nagarjuna’s negativism and the condemnation by Mr. Bradley of almost every conception of the everyday world: things and qualities, relations, space and time, change, causation, motion, the self. From the Indian standpoint Bradley can be characterized as a genuine Madhyamika. But above all these parallelisms we may perhaps find a still greater family likeness between the dialectical method of Hegel and Nagarjuna’s dialectics.’
Stcherbatsky points out certain resemblances between some of the Buddhist schools of philosophy and the outlook of modern science, especially the conception of the final condition of the universe according to the law of entropy. He gives an interesting story. When the educational authorities of newly founded republic of Burials in Transbaikalia in the U.S.S.R. started an anti-religious propaganda, they emphasized that modern science takes a materialistic view of the universe. The Buddhist monks of that republic, who were Mahayanists, retorted in a pamphlet, pointing out that materialism was not unknown to them and that, in fact, one of their schools had developed a materialistic theory.

** Professor Stcherbatsky who is an authority on the subject, having personally examined the original texts in various languages, including Tibetan, says that ‘shunyata’ is relativity. Everything being relative and interdependent has no absoluteness by itself. Hence it is ‘shunya.’ On the other hand, there is something entirely beyond the phenomenal world, but comprising it, which might be considered the absolute. This cannot be conceived or described in terms of the finite and phenomenal world and hence it is referred to as ‘tathata’ or thatness, suchness. This absolute has also been called ‘shunyata’.

*** This occurs in Vasubandhu’s’ Abhidharmakosa’, which was written in the early fifth century A.C., collecting previous views and traditions. The original in Sanskrit has been lost. But Chinese and Tibetan translations exist. The Chinese translation is by the famous Chinese pilgrim to India, Hsuan Tsang. From this Chinese translation a French translation has been made (Paris-Louvain, 1926). My colleague and companion in detention, Acharya Narendra Dev, has been translating this book from the French into Hindi and English, and he pointed out this passage to me. It is in the third chapter.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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