The development and character of Buddhist philosophy

ALTHOUGH IT IS customary to speak of Eastern philosophy with Buddhism as its most influential exponent, every serious student of Far.

Eastern thought is struck by the fact that none of the Oriental languages has a word which in any way corresponds to our ‘philosophy’. This in itself is not a defect, rather it compels us to reconsider the meaning of the word ‘philosophy’. It is evident that any dealings with Eastern thought involve comparative studies, but to take one’s own premise for granted, as is most often done, and then to criticize other premises with these bias, is a travesty of comparative research. It will readily be admitted that we may mean many things by ‘philosophy’, such as, for instance, the sum of the beliefs which man has held about himself at different times and, above all, about the universe, or the examination of these beliefs. On closer inspection, however, much of what is labeled philosophy turns out to be a mere sham and basically a negation of philosophy. What, then do we have to understand by ‘philosophy’? Certainly, it can never be an achievement; it remains a movement, a continual striving for truth by pre-eminently intellectual means. In this quest for truth philosophy brings about a change in ourselves by opening our eyes to wider horizons. Such a vision is personality. Moreover, philosophy as an encompassing vision wants to know all that is knowable; unlimited cognition is its basic characteristic. Any limitations imposed on it will inevitably kill it. But the most decisive point is that in this striving for truth, truth itself is the primal source of our thinking. Yet it becomes perverted easily by positing as absolute something which is valid from certain points of view and in certain respects and at a particular level of thinking. It also becomes false by considering the particular knowledge of something within being as the knowledge such and as a whole. Philosophy as a quest for truth born out of truth is therefore constantly struggling against its two foes: absolutization and concretization. This is the theme of Buddhist philosophy in particular. It beings with a vision of what there is, and then progressively enlarges this vision. . its rejection of the non-Buddhist systems, all of which is some way succumb to anti-philosophical tendencies, as well as its trenchant critique of its own digressions, into this dangerous territory, are due to, and reflect, the endeavour to keep the philosophical spirit alive.

In course of time there developed within Buddhism four major lines of thought, each in its own way endeavouring to fathom the message of the Buddha. The earliest systematic attempt was that of the Vaibhasikas who favoured a ‘realistic’ approach in dealing with the first great division within Reality as a whole: the distinction between that which is transitory and that which is (or seems to be) eternal. For the Vaibhasikas both ‘departments’ consisted of substances, and for this reason they may roughly be classified as ‘substantival dualists.’ But inasmuch as there are apparently fundamental differences of kind among the many things and substances constituting the same department, the Vaibhasikas held different views about them. The eternal was believed to comprise three or four substances of a ‘natural kind’ that were eternal, but which had specific properties, so concerning the realm of the eternal the Vaibhasikas were specific-property pluralists.

In the department of the transitory each substance, apart from being of the ‘natural kind’ is transitory, had a special attribute which made it of such and such a kind. There were material substances, mind-substances, mind-related substances, and substances which could not be defined as being either of the others, yet had being of their own. Thus, concerning the transitory they were differentiating- attribute pluralists. Believing in different kinds of substance, even within a single department, the Vaibhasikas had to accept a great plurality of substances and, on the whole, they accepted a much greater plurality of substances than of kind.

The Vaibhasikas’ theory of transitory and eternal substances became the target of the Sautrantikas’ critique. Within Reality as a whole, they distinguished between that which exists and that which is real but not existent. The former consisted of the concrete thing we encounter in common experience and being a concrete thing entailed its transitoriness, just as everything which is not a concrete thing entails its permanence and not being a concrete thing must be abstract. The Sautrantikas then initiated the systematic development of the science of logic and developed different epistemological theories. If we accept the account the account of the dGe-lugs-pas who became the most influential school of thought in Tibet and who were almost exclusively interested in epistemological problems, the Sautrantikas’ line of thought on the whole resembles phenomenalism in the West, not representational realism, as has often been stated. The latter’s absurd theory that something unexperienceable can be experienced contradicts the Buddhist claim od all knowability. A common feature of both Vaibhasikas and Sautrantikas was their belief in physical objects as coinciding with what is assumed to be real and having an ontological status. For the Vaibhasikas any physical object of the nature of being reducible to a substance; for the Sautrantikas the notion of physical object had been abstracted from the data of sense. This idea of things existing really became the target of all other philosophical trends in Buddhism.

The third great movement was that of the Yogacara. This doctrine is usually called idealism, which is a misnomer for what is implied by it both in the West and in the East. The Western form should have been termed idea-ism or mentalism which is its essential feature, and the Eastern one experientalism, since experience counts. By idealism, to use this common, though inappropriate, term, we understand the doctrine that nothing exists except minds and their ideas. This is easily misinterpreted and caricatured by the failure to distinguish between sensations and imaginations. Idealism rests its case on two principal contentions: (a) physical objects such as mountains, trees, houses and the like are genuine objects of knowledge; and (b) to know these things is to have an experience of them. It is easy to develop these two these in terms of sensations, and since sensations are events in a mind, all reality must be sensations and hence mental. While idealists of the Western type insist on this conclusion, the Yogacara philosophers thought otherwise. They declared that physical objects must be defined in terms of what can be experienced, but that which can be experienced is not just sensations or mental events. The yellows and blues which are the objects of my immediate and direct awareness, are not the awareness itself, but that of which I am aware. There is no point in saying that not only my awareness but also that of which I am aware is mental. Similarly it is meaningless to assert that the colours which I see are physical. After all, to which physical objects do the red spots belong which I see when I get hit on the head? To putit concisely, seeing blues and yellows is doubtless a mental event, as any seeing is; but this does not for a moment imply that what is thus seen is mental or physical. The mental and the physical are special constructs within the field of experiences, and another such construct is the relation of externality which makes me believe that things exist as such and external to the observer. Once we appreciate that it is the experience matters, we will never bring up any questions of things existing unexperienced. The Yogacara philosophers did not deny that there were things external to the observer, but they disclaimed their independent existence and they objected to their being equated lumps of coal are colonies of spirits of low sentience.

The bifurcation of Nature into the material and the mental with an unbridgeable gulf between them, which found its extreme expression in Descartes’ reasoning and which ever since has overshadowed the thoughts of Western philosophers, makes the understanding of the Yogacara doctrine rather difficult, inasmuch as certain superficial resemblances make us overlook the tremendous differences between it and the Western mentalistic trends. Some Yogacara philosophers held sensa-particular existents which resemble physical objects as ordinarily conceived, but which in their dependence on the observer are like mental states-to be either true or delusive, but they would never declare that material characteristics were delusive appearances of certain mental characteristics, as was done by Leibniz, Hegel< Ward, Bradley, Mc Taggart, and Berkeley who, however, held that sensa do have some material characteristics. Nor would the Yogacara philosophers claim with Bradley that the Absolute or as they termed it, the Ideal consisted of ‘experience’. A little reflection shows that no experience occurs more than once and that all repeated experiences are in fact analogous. It is this particularity as well as the Ideal which they considered as existing really.

This remnant of the earlier beliefs in something really existing became the target of critique by the Madhyamikas, the fourth great movement within Buddhism. The Madhyamikas divided into two larger branches, the Svatantrikas who took over certain ideas from the Sautrantikas and the Yogacara philosophers, and the Prasangikas. All of them were unanimous in rejecting the assumption that something exists really. In this respect they followed up the distinction made by the Yogacara philosophers between that which is held to coincide with what is assumed to be real and that which does not as, for instance that which is termed the notional-conceptual, comprising first and second intentions which have been known in the West since Aristotle. For the Svatantrikas things existed as being-things, as self-evident, and by virtue of that which makes a thing what it is, its essence. But they also realized that the concept of what something is not as such indicative of the fact that it exists, and even to conceive of it as existing, i.e., of the actual existence of a particular thing, still leaves open the question whether such conceived existence is in fact true.

The Prasangikas realized that no salutation can be reached by pursuing this line of thought any further and they embarked on a philosophical venture which is akin to what the later Wittgenstein has called the ‘language-game’, although they would not have equated philosophy with a mere critique of language. However, they recognized that a name is logically independent of the characteristics of the thing named and that the christening ceremony is not the use of the name but the way in which we give it a use.

This short survey of the main trends in the four major lines of thought within Buddhism and their formulation in concise statements might suggest that the task of philosophy is to provide compelling rational insight which everyone must see and can know. This, however, would mean that the nature of truly philosophical thinking has been overlooked. In philosophizing we travel the path to the primal source of our being. As a methodical reflection it can be subsumed under three questions: What do I know? What is authentic or true? How do I know?

The answer to the first question is that everything I know is relational in structure. The objective as well as the subjective are given with the same evidence. Although this becomes evident again and again, there is a strong tendency to slur over this unique intentional phase of our being, and either to reduce the object to a state of the subject, or the subject to that of an object. Buddhism has never lost sight of the intentional and relational structure of our awareness, and thus has avoided both a pan-objectivism and a pan-subjectivism.

The second question cannot be answered by referring to the many existents we encounter, but by apprehending that which only inadequately can be referred to as that in itself. This differentiation between that which is in itself and knowable and that which in ordinary parlance is said to exist is technically known as the two Truths. These have nothing to do with Western distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, the one knowable and the other forever unknowable. To interpret the Two Truths in this way is to overlook the all-knowability on which Buddhism insists; and to interpret them as appearance and reality, the one delusive and the other true, is to fail to take into account the Buddhist conception of the unconditional realness of what there is. The Vaibhasikas tried to answer this question, in the same way as the philosophers and physicists in the West before the modern age. They thought of the world as composed of things, an idea which they developed into that of material substance, and this, in turn, they thought of as consisting of particles, each very small, and each persisting through all time. It was these ‘atoms’ that were believed to be ultimately real, while the concrete ‘thing’ was relatively or conventionally real. The Sautrantikas and the other philosophical schools understood the Two Truths in the sense of epistemic correlation. It is the aesthetic, intuitive factor that is declared to be ultimately real, while the theoretically designated factor in our experience is only relatively so.

The third question is solved by inquiring into the limits of knowledge. Here it becomes clear that all truth is apprehended in specific modes of thought and in studying these modes we provide a basic tool for philosophical thought. This study makes us aware of what is valid and invalid and thus we are enabled not only to know, but to know how and by what means we know, which is particularly important for the problem pointed out by the second question.

The three points discussed so far are the basic for setting out on a path which is not so much an inert link between a starting point and a goal, but a name given to the process of inducing and experiencing a change in our outlook. Hence ‘path’ and ‘knowledge’ and ‘awareness’ are synonymous in Buddhism. It is here again that the intentionality of all our experiences is most clearly marked. In order to travel a path I must have an idea of where it will lead to, because I cannot go unless I go somewhere. But since the path is my very being I must have an idea of myself as I am going to be. This does not contradict the statement that the objective pole of the ‘path’ the content of my ‘cognition’, is the fact that there is no self as some unchanging and forever existing individual and ‘objective’ entity. As a matter of fact, to conceive of myself as either this or that, and thus to pre-judge the outcome of my striving, is to block any progress, and such bias instead of clearing my view will only add to my blindness and make me emotionally unstable. But since the way which I travel is said to remove all bias and blindness, its nature must not be predetermination in the progress along it to a point which is free from all bias.

Such progress comprises different stages. Although the number of the stages is the name for all the three spiritual pursuits, the sravakas’, Pratyekabuddhas’, and Bodhisattvas’, their nature is not of the same order. Each path signifies a specific mode of human response and partakes of an anticipatory response, and each course denotes a variety of fundamental frames of references or leitmotifs which come to characterize man’s entire life. The path is therefore essentially a process of learning which beings with the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge is not merely an accumulation of intellectual data, it is tied up with the social environment. Man learn through being with others, and this social aspect is referred to as ‘acquisition of merits’. Both merits and knowledge are futile if they are not used properly, if we fail to gain insight and understanding and through them a more satisfactory mode of being with our fellowmen. But when we succees in doing so, we have already progressed in the direction of transcending our pettiness, and prepared ourselves for seeing ourselves and others (persons and things) as they are and without the emotional instability that characterizes our self-centred seeing. Afterwards work on ourselves can begin, which is all the harder because it demands that we remain true to ourselves.

Such work, however, is facilitated by ‘warmer’ feelings which principally tend to reinforce mental life and conduct, although they do not initiate activity. The four degrees of intensity that have been classified clearly illustrate the fact that these warmer feelings lend added strength to action already in progress, and cause it to be continued. Although here the elimination of wishfulness and intellectual fog begins, this does not, as is often assumed, lead to a state of emotional undernourishment and intellectual blankness. Rather it produces a heightened perceptivity and responsiveness which is all the more satisfactory since the disturbing and upsetting elements have been eliminated. Seeing properly, which evolves in the course of this striving, is both a process and a product. As the former, it consists of the phases of eliminating the obstacles which prevent us from seeing things and ourselves as they are and of the free passage after the removal of the obstacles, the security in feeling that the obstructing forces will not make themselves felt again. As the latter, it is the outcome of both the elimination of the obstacles and the feeling of security, although it cannot be designated as being either of the two. what we see and immediately experience is nothing determinate or definite which any adjective referring to a specific quality can designate. It is an utter openness which nevertheless is emotionally moving and aesthetically vivid, even more so than anything else. Seeing properly is but the preliminary step to the essential phase of our being, attending to that which has been seen, making it the leitmotif of our further conduct. This in particular relates to a change in our personality. ‘Seeing’ is deemed to be sufficient for eliminating all that is due to our upbringing, our environment with all its superstitions and traditions, all of which can easily be overcome by broadening our mental horizon. But ‘attending to that which has been seen’ is more difficult to practice. It means to live up to that which is absolute in the sense that it holds for all people under all circumstances, that it is not transitory and variable from person to person. In the last analysis it relates to the conquest of the deep-rooted individual self-idea which prevents us from seeing and acting properly and colours our view by some bias or other. Free from all determination, positive or negative, the noetic power is now enabled to understand and appreciate things as they are in themselves, and not merely from a certain point of view and from the demands elicited by a certain fixed position. But al what point the thinker believes he has reached the end of his striving, remains his secret and no universal absolutizations are possible; otherwise Buddhism would not have been able to distinguish between Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, and Bodhisattvas.

A major division in Buddhism is known as Hinayana and Mahayana. These two appellations are used to indicate attitudinal rather than philosophical differences. Mahayana refers to a socially-orientated attitude, Hinayana to an individualistically-orientated one. Since historically the philosophical systems of the Yogacara adherents and of the Madhyamikas came after those of the Vaibhasikas and Sautrantikas, and since the development of the former systems coincided with the change in attitudes, it has become customary to list the Yogacara philosophers and Madhyamikas as representatives of Mahayana and the Vaibhasikas and Saitrantikas as those of Hinayana. However, dKon-mchog Jigs-med dbang-po makes it clear that a particular social attitude does not necessarily coincide with a certain philosophical belief. A mentalist-idealist can be extremely selfish, just as a ‘materialist’ can be thoroughly altruistic.

While the philosophical systems that evolved in time represented the speculative aspect of Buddhism, they were not an end in themselves, but essentially a means to come to a deeper, more basic form of existence stripped of the fictions of consciousness about it. This ‘existential’ Buddhism is called Vajrayana. Vajra is the symbol term for Being-as-such which as the indestructible core underlies all growth and self-realization in the same way that truth itself underlies the quest for truth. It has to be noted that truth itself in self-realization does not imply the glorified ego of subjectivistic philosophies with their postulate of a Self. Similarly, ‘existential’ is not a defining characteristic of some human subject, but refers to Being-as-such. ‘Existential’ Buddhism is therefore totally different from the various forms of Western existentialism which is purely anthropocentric and ego-centric, unable to realize that Bein-as-such and egoness are two different categories. ‘Existential’ Buddhism, claimed to be the climax of the philosophical quest, is concerned with Being, not with an ego, in however idealized a way it may be presented.

Before the major philosophical systems developed, a great many ideas had been propounded, unsystematically, yet deeply affecting the continual quest. This intellectual activity is reflected in the list of schools, eighteen according to tradition that we find mentioned in the numerous indigenous works. Sometimes these schools were no more than splinter-groups gathering around a gifted teacher or communities in various parts of India . Although for the most part we have merely the names of these schools, not their ideas, because the tenets attributed to them vary in the various listings, the very existence of these schools indicates the impact of the Buddha’s teaching on his contemporaries and on subsequent generations.

In the following passage Mi-pham ‘Jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal rgya-mtsho gives us a glimpse of the beginnings of Buddhist philosophical thought which was both the outcome and the source of a way of life. It is true he give us this picture of early Buddhism in retrospect and he criticizes its tenets from the viewpoint of a later logician and metaphysician. But his criticism is not meant to destroy, but to open our eyes to wider horizons. Much of what the early Buddhists belived to be something of the remote past. Nevertheless these questions and answers made the subsequent development of Buddhist philosophy possible.

nother important point to be noted in his criticism is that he does not attack the early tenets from the outside, but that he reveals their inner weaknesses. When lastly he extols the Mahayana he merely re-emphasizes the positive character of Buddhist philosophy as a quest for truth born out of truth.

HERBERT V. GUENTHER, 1972. BUDDHIST PHILOSOPHY IN THERORY AND PRACTICE. First published in pelican Books 1972. Published by special arrangement with Shambala Publications, Inc., Berkeley , California

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