Why is there philosophy in Buddhism?

Not so fast!

Questions, no less than assertions, rest upon presuppositions. Asking why there is philosophy in Buddhism assumes that there is, in fact, philosophy in Buddhism. This assumption, like most assumptions, turns out to be controversial. So before doing anything else, we should explore some of the dimensions of the controversy surrounding the question of what philosophy is and whether Buddhists in Asia participated in it.

According to tradition, Buddhist texts were first translated from South Asian languages into Chinese in 67 C.E. The first efforts to translate texts written in an Indo-European language into a language belonging to a completely different language family and having a totally unrelated system of writing presented the translators with several problems. Among the many problems to be solved was how to translate the technical vocabulary of Sanskrit and other South Asian languages into Chinese. Most of the special vocabulary that had evolved in Buddhism over the course of 500 years had no obvious counterparts in Chinese. So translators were faced with the task of finding Chinese characters that got across the ideas of such Sanskrit words as dharma, śīla, nirvāṇa and even buddha.

At first Chinese translators used the strategy of translating key Buddhist concepts with the key concepts of familiar Chinese systems of thought, especially Daoism. This had the advantage of making Buddhism accessible to most people, but it carried with it the disadvantage of blurring the real and important distinctions between Buddhism and Daoism. It made Buddhism seem like nothing more than a slightly exotic flavor of Daoism. Making Buddhism seem already familiar was a way of adding an element of distortion to the explanation of what Buddhism was really all about.1

I use the Chinese example just to make the point that problems of translation have been with us for a very long time. These problems are always present whenever one culture comes into contact with a different one and an exchange of ideas begins to occur. When Buddhism was first introduced to Europeans, the tendency was to translate key Buddhist ideas by using words from Christianity. And so it was not unusual to read of Buddhism having the counterparts of salvation, saints, savior figures, heavens, hells, grace, faith and spirituality. Some early interpreters of Buddhism, however, were very much opposed to Christianity, so they went out of their way to avoid speaking of faith and instead spoke of reason, rationality, empiricism, scientific spirit and enlightenment. Some people argued that Buddhism should not be seen as a religion but rather as a philosophy. This debate, of course, made people clarify what exactly they meant by the words “religion” and “philosophy” and ask whether there are any words in Asian languages that quite correspond to those European words.2

It has been observed that in some Asian languages the first equivalents of the words “religion” and “philosophy” were introduced in the late nineteenth century and that they came about as a result of trying to coin equivalents of the European words. These words probably would have been almost meaningless to educated Asians of previous centuries. Even now they tend to be used only by Asians who are speaking of Western intellectual history.

So if the people of ancient China and India had no words for what Westerners call philosophy and religion, what does that mean? Does it mean that they had the activities and enterprises that we call religion and philosophy but that they simply had no words to name those activities? Or does it mean that they did not really have any activities that could properly be called religion and philosophy? People have argued both sides of this question.

The arguments against Asian philosophy

Several authors in the twentieth century argued that philosophy is a distinctively European activity and that nothing quite like it ever existed in Asia until Asians were exposed to Western culture. Let us review the principal line of argument of two of these people.3

The first claim that we shall consider is that of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859‒1938). In an address entitled “Philosophy and the crisis of humanity,” delivered in Vienna in 1935, Husserl acknowledged that there are certain resemblances in the activities of Western thinkers and certain Chinese and Indian thinkers. These similarities, however, are, he argued, superficial and serve to mask profound differences that are far more important. First, the similarities that Husserl acknowledged were: 1) an all-encompassing interest in finding universal truths; 2) a tendency for this pursuit in truth to lead to the formation of vocational communities, that is, to guilds whose purpose was to live in accordance with the truths that had been discovered; and 3) the working out of methods to pass on the truths, and the lifestyles associated with them, from one generation to another.

Just about every civilization in the world has had these things in common, said Husserl. But philosophy, as that term is understood in the West, is not simply the enterprise of discovering universal truths and living in accordance with them and forming social organizations dedicated to educating future generations. More than anything else, said Husserl, the enterprise of philosophy should be understood as “a purely ‘theoretical’ attitude.” In Greece, which is where the word “philosophy” was coined, the word referred to the enterprise of discovering truth for the pure joy of discovery. Philosophy, said Husserl, was the development of theory for the sake of developing theories. Philosophy is the discovery of truth without any regard whatsoever for practical consequences. It is a purely intellectual practice, and its descendants are pure mathematics and pure theoretical science.

Indian and Chinese intellectuals, argued Husserl, never got away from the practical issues of serving humanity and ordering the human being’s life in the world and making the human being as happy and free from disease and distress as possible. Asian thinkers were always preoccupied with the problem of how to free people from the root causes of suffering and distress, how to make people well and how to face death with dignity. These may be noble enterprises, but no matter how noble they may be, they are not philosophy.

Husserl went on to argue that a distinction has to be made between two kinds of thinking. One kind of thinking is the theoretical sort of thinking that Greek and European philosophy embodied. The second kind of thinking is mythological thinking. It is the function of myth to convey values, especially practical values in the everyday world. Myth is a name given to stories and ways of seeing the world that supports social stability, political harmony, predictability and the preservation of traditions through many generations. Myth has its place in the world, but it has to be understood as being essentially different in nature from what the Greeks called theoria. Theory is characterized by the deliberate turning away from the practical affairs of ordinary life. The true theorist, said Husserl, cultivates an attitude of being a disinterested observer of the world, unaffected by his or her own personal interests. This entails a self-conscious awareness of the difference between the way the world is portrayed by various human cultures and the way the world actually is. Given all these points, Husserl concluded “It is a mistake, a falsification of their sense, for those raised in the scientific ways of thinking created in Greece and developed in the modern period to speak of Indian and Chinese philosophy and science…i.e. to interpret India, Babylonia, China, in a European way.”

The case for comparative philosophy

One of the most eloquent spokesmen in favor of the enterprise of comparative philosophy is a remarkable figure named Jitendra Nath Mohanty (born 1928). Mohanty was born into a traditional Brahman family in the Indian state of Bengal. As a Brahman child he learned Sanskrit as a young child and spent his childhood and adolescence memorizing key Sanskrit religious texts and studying their commentaries. As a young adult he was recognized as a pundit in the very technical literature of the Nyāya school of Hindu thought. Like many young Indians of his time, he also sought a European education. He undertook the study of Western philosophy and eventually distinguished himself as one of the foremost experts in the world on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl. After retiring from a distinguished career as professor of philosophy at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mohanty turned his attentions once again to the study of the Sanskrit texts he had studied in his youth. After leaving them aside for some forty years, he returned to them with a very different mentality than he had had as a young adult.

Having studied both Western philosophy and classical Indian texts, Mohanty came to hold a view diametrically opposed to that of Husserl. Husserl had argued that the similarities between Greek and Indian thought are superficial while the differences are profound. Mohanty came to believe that the differences are superficial but the similarities profound.

First of all, Mohanty argues that Husserl’s distinction between theoria and mythos is itself a myth. It is a story that scientists tell to justify what they do, but the story is not necessarily true. It takes only a little observation to conclude that none of the Greeks divorced themselves from practicality and myth. None of them were really interested in theory for the pure sake of theory. On the contrary, they were every bit as preoccupied as the Indians and the Chinese were with finding a way to live in this world, in how to organize society and in how to live a fulfilling life in which one is liberated from the root causes of suffering. As for scientists in modern times, it is not difficult to observe that they are not nearly as free from prejudice, personal bias and various cultural assumptions as they might like to believe they are. As for philosophers, they are not really as distinct from scientists and poets and politicians and economists as they might like to believe they are.

Mohanty’s case does not rest with the observation that there has never really been, even in the West, such a thing as philosophy of the sort that Husserl talks about. His real case rests on the observation that both Asian and European thought is based on careful observation of human experience and on attempts to arrive at rational and logically consistent accounts of what is behind human experience. Both Western and Asian philosophical systems involve critical reflections of the state of the world as it is. Both are grounded in a conviction that the world need not be as it now is but that in fact the world could be much better than it now is. So whether we are speaking of China, India, Europe or the Americas, we can always find visionaries who dared to criticize the status quo and dared to be true to their own observations and experiences and ideas. These people, says, Mohanty, deserve to be called philosophers whether they are found in Greece, Babylonia, China, India, Africa or pre-Columbian America.

It is not necessary to regard this question as having been definitively answered. Suffice it to say that in this course we shall be dealing with philosophy as it is understood by Mohanty rather than how it is described by Husserl.

Next module

  1. A good discussion of this can be found in Kogen Mizuno, Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Company, 1982), 41‒55. ↩︎
  2. My own attempt to grapple with this issue of terminology appears in Richard P. Hayes, Land of No Buddha: Reflections of a Sceptical Buddhist (Birmingham, England: Windhorse Publications, 1998), 139‒152. ↩︎
  3. A full discussion of these positions can be found in Jitendranath Mohanty, Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought: An Essay on the Nature of Indian Philosophical Thinking (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 288‒300. ↩︎

3 thoughts on “Introduction

  1. Sonny Day

    Beautiful analysis and introduction. In the context of modern day, I believe there should be a good analysis of western versus eastern thought to reconcile the gaps in the understanding of one another. Buddhism may be a good way to do that because of its emphasis on logic, reason, and questioning, which are pillars of science. Using that as a mutual understanding and meeting point, it is possible to use both perspectives to refine on another, as both offer advantages in different situations.

    Look forward to reading more.

  2. Gonpo Dorje

    Vasubandhu Asanga Dignaga Nagarjuna Aryadeva Dolpopa all magnificent philosopers.


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