Areas of inquiry

In the sections that follow, topics in Buddhist scholasticism will be discussed in a general way under headings familiar to students of Western philosophy.


Given that the first premise of Buddhist doctrine is that human discontent arises out of unrealistic expectations, it is natural that Buddhists would have concerned themselves with determining what is realistic, which of course entails determining what is real. The need to determine what reality is leads naturally to a number of metaphysical issues, which will be the focus of the questions concerning metaphysics.

The most fundamental idea of Buddhism is that people are unhappy for a reason; that is, there are causes of human unhappiness, and removing this unhappiness requires removing its causes. This very simple observation led naturally to increasingly complex discussions of causality in general. Various attempts were made to classify the kinds of cause and their effects and to show how the kinds of cause were related to one another. One Buddhist thinker who devoted himself to this project of classifying causes was Vasubandhu. The classification scheme he put forward was criticized by Nāgārjuna, who offered a critique of the standard view of causation presented in his time on the grounds that discussions of causation imply that there are beings with fixed natures that interact with one another in various ways. In fact, argued Nāgārjuna, there are no beings with their own natures, since every being’s nature is supposedly derived from the conditions out of which it arises. But these conditions also have no natures of their own, since they also are conditioned. No matter how far back into a things underlying conditions we go, we will never encounter beings with natures of their own. All things, argues Nāgārjuna, are empty of fixed natures; to speak of things as if they had fixed natures is to participate in delusion of the very sort that prevents people from being liberated from the root causes of their discontent. So while Vasubandhu provides an attempt to arrive at a system of metaphysics, Nāgārjuna argues that no system of metaphysics can be coherent in the final analysis. These issues of metaphysics and anti-metaphysics will be part of the subject matter of the first part of this study course.

The discussion of causality leads to discussions of the kinds of beings there are. A general principle advocated by most Buddhist philosophers is that complex beings have only a derivative existence; that is, complex beings are really nothing more than collections of ultimately simple beings. This essentially reductionist theory of being gives rise to numerous problems. For example, what does it really mean to say of a being that it is ultimately simple? Can a being that is not composed of several parts be said to be caused at all? How can such a being come into existence or go out of existence? Must simple beings be eternal? If so, how does this square with the Buddhist dogma that everything is impermanent? How can complex beings have properties that their simpler parts do not have? The prevalent Buddhist view of particulars is that they are bundles of properties. But what are properties? Are they something like individual transitory phenomena, similar to what some Western philosophers have called qualia or tropes, or are they more like universals, which occur simultaneously in many places at once and recur (or endure) through time? Most Buddhist philosophers reject the idea of universals as beings that occur in more than one place; indeed, most Buddhist philosophers propose a kind of nominalism or conceptualism, that is, the view that universals do not exist outside the mind and are generated by awareness somehow. Others went further and argued that everything of which we are aware is generated essentially by awareness itself and has a connection with an external world that can never be determined (if there is a world external to consciousness at all). In the discussion of these topics, material will be drawn from Theravādin canonical texts, from Milinda’s Questions and from the writings of later scholastics such as Vasubandhu, Dharmakīrti and Śāntarakṣita.

Discussions of causality in Buddhism have involved strong critiques of claims that all that exists derives from a single being, such as an impersonal and eternal ground of being or from a personal creator god. Buddhist atheism and its implications will therefore be the subject matter of a section within the part on metaphysics. This discussion of theology will lead into a discussion of what exactly the nature of a buddha might be, and various answers to that question will be explored. The most strongly atheistic thinkers were Indian Buddhists such as Dharmakīrti and Śāntarakṣita, whose theories of the Buddha’s nature were essentially humanistic. In contrast to this view are various East Asian views of the Buddha, which merit discussion.

Finally, in the section on metaphysics, there will be an exploration of the counterpart of the issue of what in the West has been called anti-realism, that is, a radical questioning of the very possibility of sorting out any of these thorny metaphysical issues. Nāgārjuna and his commentator Candrakīrti can be seen as anti-metaphysical philosophers who were intent to show that all attempts to solve these metaphysical issues succeed in generating nothing more than unsatisfactory dogmatic convictions.

Personal identity and human psychology

Although the discussion of personal identity can be seen as a special instance of the more general problem of the nature of particulars discussed in part one, personal identity is such a complex issue in Buddhism that it warrants a unit devoted to it alone. A question that has always faced Buddhists is how to account for the apparent fact that human beings endure through time. Not only does some kind of personal continuity tie together all the events of what we intuitively call a single human life, say Buddhist philosophers, but there is a continuity of some kind over the course of several lifetimes. If the human being, like all other particulars, is seen as nothing but a bundle of transitory properties or events, how is one to account for continuity throughout a single life, let alone through several lifetimes?

The discussion of personal identity in Buddhism cannot be explored without a discussion of the relationship between physical events and mental events—or between what we call body and mind. A common view among Buddhists is that awareness or consciousness is a flow of events that cannot be fully reduced to physical causes but that is somehow influenced by the physical senses and the physical body as a whole. If what we call the body is nothing but a bundle of physical properties, and if what we call the mind is nothing but a flow of mental events, how are these two bundles related to one another? This problem proved to be as difficult for Buddhists as it has been for Western philosophers.

Independently of how the human mentality is related to the physical body, Buddhists spent a considerable amount of energy exploring the various components of what we call mentality. A discussion of Buddhist psychology must therefore include a discussion of what Buddhists said about how sensual awareness arises, what (if anything) ties together the separate kinds of awareness such as vision and tasting and touching, how internal states such as joy and sorrow are known and how they relate to sensual modes of awareness, and how decisions are made on how to respond to all these stimuli. In gathering material for this section, the principal material upon which I intend to draw is the systematic writings of Vasubandhu and Buddhaghosa.

One attempt to respond to the question of how the separate bundles of mental events are related was to posit an abiding substratum of all consciousness out of which particular instances of awareness arose. Called by various names, this notion of an abiding core of awareness eventually evolved into the East Asian Buddhist notion of Buddha-nature, the claim being that this Buddha-nature occurs in all beings and that therefore all beings are in some sense parts of a single being. This doctrine was staunchly supported by some and vigorously rejected by others; the arguments used on both sides of this controversy will be examined.


All the issues explored in the first two parts of this work presuppose the possibility of distinguishing defensible knowledge from fancy or mere whim. This presupposition invites inquiry into the sources of knowledge. All Buddhists placed confidence in sense perception, and most Buddhists also accepted that reasoning can yield knowledge. Where there was controversy was on how sense perception relates to reasoning. Do sense perception and logical reasoning operate on entirely different kinds of being—beings with very different properties—, or are some beings know by both perception and intellectual judgment? If they are entirely separate, how do reasoning and language connect to the data of the senses? Two thinkers who dealt at length with these problems were Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, both of whom were embroiled in controversies with non‐Buddhists as well as with other Buddhists; their ideas will be explored in the third part of this study course.

An important aspect of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti’s treatment of these problems was a discussion of the possibility of human knowledge being complemented by divine revelation; like most Buddhists, these two Indian Buddhists argued strongly against this possibility, claiming that everything that is passed off as divine revelation is in fact the invention of human beings. If one accepts their arguments against the possibility of bolstering fallible human understandings with some sort of insight that is deemed superior to that of ordinary human beings, then what is the place of the teachings of the Buddha? Does it deserve a special place in the corpus of human literature? Is it in some way authoritative, or is it simply a set of hypotheses that each of us must test before accepting. If the latter, then why give any Buddhist teachings a privileged status; why not regard everything that is said by everyone as equally worthy of being tested in the crucible of experience and therefore equally worthy of respect? Most Buddhists were decidedly not what we would today call religious pluralists; so how did they defend their exclusion of other teachings, and was this defense rational or polemical in nature?

Finally, just as Nāgārjuna offered a radical questioning of the possibility of solving metaphysical puzzles, he also offered a radical questioning of the possibility of finding a satisfactory method of distinguishing knowledge from fancy. He, and his commentator Candrakīrti, can be seen as radical skeptics. If that is a correct reading of their stance, how can one reconcile a radical skepticism with the fundamental Buddhist claim that human beings suffer because of ignorance and they can eliminate suffering only by replacing misunderstanding with insight?

Ethical theory

Traditional Buddhism makes the claim that it is possible to eradicate the root causes of suffering—namely, desire, aversion and delusion—and that doing so requires following a method. An indispensable part of that method is leading a pure life, a life in which one does not deliberate harm to oneself or to others. Typically Buddhist teachers present lists of actions to avoid as a beginning of leading a pure life. These lists invite inquiry into whether there are principles underlying these particular prohibitions and injunctions.

One can fruitfully ask whether Buddhists had an ethical (or meta-ethical) theory, and, if so, whether that theory has a counterpart in Western ethical theory. One can see similarities between Buddhist ethics and each of the predominate theories of ethics in Western thought. There will therefore be in this section a discussion of whether Buddhist ethics is best seen as a version of deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics, or whether it is an ethical theory unto itself, not quite like any Western theory.

Essential to any discussion of Buddhist ethics is a discussion of Buddhist views of karma (deliberate action) and its psychological (and perhaps physical) consequences. A discussion of karma brings us back to a discussion of causality in general, for karma is seen as but a particular kind of causation. Karma is usually described as having the effect of reinforcing habits; that is, the more a type of action is done, the more likely one is to do the same kind of action again in the future. Any discussion of habit formation invites questions about the extent to which agents have freedom to choose; the clear Buddhist assumption is that beings do have free will, but that this freedom to choose can be significantly diminished by consistently making bad decisions. Can this capacity to choose good paths of action become so diminished that a being in effect loses the freedom to choose? Can beings become so depraved that the very idea of doing good no longer occurs to them? Some Buddhists argued yes, while others claimed otherwise.

Among those who argued that a being could become so depraved as to lose the will to do good, there arose the notion that they could nevertheless be brought out of depravity by a kind of grace. One being of exceptionally high virtue might transfer the benefits of that virtue to a being of exceptional depravity. How might such a transfer of merit take place? How could belief in such a doctrine be defended? This issue will be explored in this section on ethics, and the question will be tied to metaphysical and epistemological concerns discussed in previous sections.

Although karma is usually discussed mostly from an individual point of view, no discussion of Buddhist ethical theory would be complete without some discussion of collective action, especially political theory. What, from a Buddhist point of view, are the responsibilities of a government for its citizens, and how should one country conduct itself in a community of nations? Is war ever justifiable? If so, under what circumstances? Is an individual Buddhist best advised to stay out of the disturbing fray of public life or to work out a path of personal liberation by working for the liberation of others?

5 thoughts on “Areas of inquiry

  1. Sonny Day

    Another great section; however, I wonder if the western advancements in quantum mechanics can shine light on the topic of how consciousness, or mental properties, affects matter, or physical properties. After all, the perspective that our universe is not Netwonian, 3D may have great implications on how we can solve the philosophical conundrum of how mind affects matter. Discussing things in gross terms:

    With the amalgamation of string theory, which posits that point-like particles in physics can be seen as 1D strings interacting with one another, and our understanding of how light can be observed on a different dimension, 4D (See the ideas behind the tesseract for more information), it might not be a far fetched conjecture that consciousnesses happens at a higher dimension, which simply means it happens at faster frequencies. Then it filters down to lower dimensional planes, such as the 3D one we currently perceive. That is not to say that it is clear one affects the other, but it is definitely possible — and therefore what happens to us, in the waking world that we all perceive now, is but a result of matters that occur on a higher dimension.

    My understanding of these topics is not deep, so I strongly hesitate to put the idea out as more than a fun direction to pursue; but it is a direction that I hope to be able to pursue and find more insight from.

    Great discussion so far! Look forward to more reading!

    1. Richard P. Hayes Post author

      Although I enjoy reading popular presentations on quantum physics and string theory by authors such as Lisa Randall and Brian Greene, I don’t feel confident about writing on how Buddhism and quantum mechanics might shed light on each other. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than I will eventually weigh in.

  2. Mac

    Ordinary people were deluged with greed hatred and ignorance so that birth and rebirth appears in different realms, buddist philosophy is one of the medicine to solve this significant problem.


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