It must be explained at the outset how philosophical inquiry fits within the context of Buddhism as a whole. Some Buddhist traditions, especially in East Asia, have taken the stance that conceptual thinking is an obstacle to the practices that lead to the ultimate goal of realizing one’s true nature. Given the influence that such forms of Buddhism as Chan (Zen) and Pure Land have had in forming the Western perception of Buddhism, a case must be made for the importance of systematic philosophical inquiry as a form of Buddhist religious practice.
Showing that philosophical inquiry is a Buddhist practice requires first discussing in general what the goal of Buddhist practice is, and then showing that philosophical inquiry is a method of reaching that goal. In what tradition records as the first talk given to the five wandering ascetics who became the Buddha’s first disciples, the newly awakened (buddha) teacher says that there are two extremes that a person who has renounced the world and undertaken the homeless life should avoid. The first extreme is the pursuit of sensual pleasures, since this pursuit “does not lead to the goal.” The other extreme is self-mortification, since this pursuit is painful and also does not lead to the goal. The path of moderation, which avoids these two extremes, says the Buddha, produces vision and knowledge and leads to peace, higher knowledge, full awakening, and nirvana.1 Nirvana is described as the eradication of the root causes of discontent, those conditions that lead to dissatisfaction, frustration and alienation. Three root causes of discontent are traditionally enumerated in the Buddhist tradition: desire, aversion and delusion. These root causes of discontent are also called kleśas, a word that can be translated as “afflictions.” They are also called āśravas, a word that literally means “flowing” and that conjures up a mutliplicity of images ranging from a flow of wine that causes intoxication, to the discharge of pus from a suppurating wound that resists healing. The goal of Buddhist practice, then, is nirvana, which is the final elimination of these three afflictions or toxins; by “final elimination” is meant their removal with no possibility of their returning.
Of the three afflictions, one is usually said to be the root cause of the other two. Since both desire and aversion arise from a warped understanding of the nature of things, it must be delusion that gives rise to them both. Delusion, then, turns out to be the root cause of all discontent. A person who sees things just as they are neither hankers for anything nor resists anything. Such a person has no expectations that things will be any other way than they are, and therefore is free of all the frustrations that go with having unrealistic expectations. The Buddha apparently realized that different people have different temperaments and different abilities, so he offered a variety of methods of reducing desire and aversion. For delusion, which consists in being convinced that things are other than they in fact are, an important antidote is learning to think carefully and critically. This means changing the habits of thinking that have been acquired over a lifetime. To some extent this changing of old habits of thinking entails thinking differently about things, and to some extent it entails thinking about different things than one used to do. Both of these kinds of change are facilitated by at least one of the enterprises that in the West is called philosophy.
Changing old patterns of thinking may involve thinking differently about the kinds of things one has always thought about. It may help to examine some examples of this shift in perspective. The most important shift has to do with what the Buddha called inverted views, that is, the tendency to think that things have exactly the opposite features than what they in fact have. There is a classical enumeration of the inverted views, namely, 1) the tendency to think that something can provide satisfaction when it really cannot, 2) the tendency to think that something is attractive when in fact it is not, 3) the tendency to think that something can last when in truth it cannot, and 4) the tendency to see something as being personal or as part of oneself when it really is not, or as capable of being owned when it really cannot. The overall picture of reality that Buddhism most often promotes is that all the objects with which one deals in everyday life arise as they do because of a complex network of constantly changing conditions. Because the conditions are changing at every moment, the composite objects that those conditions produce are also changing from one moment to the next. Even if those momentary changes are subtle, the changes that occur over time are more noticeable. Things decay and eventually fall apart; to the extent that one hoped that these things would not degenerate and break down, one is disappointed. Moreover, one’s own mentality and values are constantly undergoing subtle changes, with the result that things that one were pleasing and entertaining become ordinary and boring. As a result, most people are never quite satisfied and are constantly driven to seek things that will bring pleasure, comfort and contentment. Realizing that things of the world, whether they are concrete objects or abstract ideas, are ultimately incapable of providing lasting satisfaction can help one reduce the frustration that comes from constantly striving to attain the unattainable.
Learning to think differently about the ordinary things of daily life is, as was said above, part of what must be done in changing old habits of thinking. Another part of what must be done is to learn to think about different things, that is, to focus one’s attention away from the ordinary objects of everyday life and to focus attention instead on the basic conditions that give rise to the experience of those ordinary objects. It was said above that an important antidote to delusion is learning to think carefully and critically. There is a Sanskrit word used by Buddhists for the kind of thinking that liberates one from delusion. The word is yoniśas manaskāra,2 which is often translated as “thinking [about something] thoroughly.” Literally, the word yoniśas means “from the source.” The basic idea of the whole expression, then, is thinking about things by paying attention to their sources. What this means in practice can best be illustrated by giving an example. In the course of ordinary daily life, one might encounter an object such as an apple, apply the word “apple” to it and never give the matter any further thought. Buddhist practice, on the other hand, consists in putting the idea of the whole apple aside and focusing attention instead on all the ways in which what we call an apple is presented to the senses. There is the visual sensation of a particular color and shape; there is the olfactory sensation of a particular aroma; there are the tactile sensations of texture and temperature; there is the gustatory sensation of a distinctive taste; when one bites into the apple, there is the audible sensation of sound; and finally there are the subjective sensations that arise in the mind of the beholder from all these impressions coming in through the sense faculties. Thinking about the apple as an abstract whole experience is, according to Buddhist teachings, more likely to lead to desire, aversion and delusion than is focusing the attention on the concrete sensory experiences that are the basis for the idea of an apple. It is not obvious that this Buddhist teaching is true, and for this reason Buddhists provided arguments in support of their claim. Some of those arguments will be examined in modules to come.