The Philosophy of Buddha

The person known as “the Buddha” (c.480–400 bce) was Siddhattha Gotama (in Pali; in Sanskrit Siddhartha Gautama). “Buddha” means “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One,” and is a descriptive title rather than a name. Gotama lived in north-east India at a time of lively religious and philosophical debate. The prestige religion then was Brahmanism, an early form of Hinduism administered by Brahmins, the upper, priestly class of a fourfold system of sacred classes, and based on a sacred canon of (oral) texts, the Veda. Its central ritual was a fire sacrifice, which by the Buddha’s day involved animal sacrifice, used to contact one or other deity so as to benefit the sacrificer and his patron. The Upanisads, composed from around 700 bce, also sought the atman, the essential Self, which was seen as the “inner controller” of both body and mind, but beyond both, being identical with Brahman, the holy power sustaining the universe.


There was also an “alternative” tradition of samanas, wandering ascetic-philosophers, who rejected the authority of the Veda, the pretensions of the Brahmins to be superior, and the efficacy of sacrifice. This group came to include the Buddhists. Their goal was to find true and lasting happiness through a proper understanding of the nature of reality and an appropriate response to it. Apart from the Buddhists, some were Materialists, who denied any form of survival after death, including reincarnation, which Brahmanism had come to believe in. The Materialists sought a life of simple, balanced pleasures. The Sceptics denied the possibility of human beings gaining knowledge of ultimate matters. The A¯jı¯vakas believed in reincarnation but denied that living beings could affect how they were reborn: it was all in the hands of blind “destiny.” Lastly, the Jains believed in reincarnation according to the nature of one’s karma – action – (as in Brahmanism) and emphasized ascetic self-deprivation so as to purge the jıva – the life-principle or soul – of accretions which kept it within the cycle of reincarnations.

Gotama was born the son of an elected aristocratic ruler of a small republic, later swallowed up by one of the expanding kingdoms of the day. Though brought up in comfort, in his twenties he came to ponder on human frailty – ageing, sickness and death – and was inspired by the sight of a calm samana to renounce his well-off life, to live off alms, and become a religious seeker of the “unborn, unageing, deathless.” After six years of trying yogic trance and then a determined course of ascetic self-deprivation, he came to develop his own path. One night, when aged around thirty-five, he is said to have finally become a Buddha, through the power of his own meditation. He first attained progressively refined levels of lucid trance, through careful observation of breathing-related sensations. Once in a state of profound, alert calm, with the mind highly sensitive, he then attained the “three knowledges”: the contents of his enlightenment experience. First, he is said to have remembered several hundred thousand of his past lives. Second, to have traced other beings as they died and were reborn, noting that the nature of their rebirth depended on the quality of their karma. Third, he attained insight into the “Four Ennobling Truths” (see below), which brought him liberation from the round of rebirths. He went on to share his insights with many disciples, the more committed of whom were usually ordained in the order of monks or nuns that he instituted. His disciples would practice the path mapped out by him so as to attain similar insights and transformations for themselves, which they also used in teaching others.

The Buddha described himself as both an “experientialist” and an “analyst.” By the first term, he meant that he looked to neither tradition nor a priori reasoning as the source of truth, but to experience, both normal and meditatively based paranormal. On the thesis that he therefore advocated a form of “empiricism,” see Jayatilleke (1963) and Kalupahana (1992), with Hoffman (1987) and Harvey (1995b) assessing the thesis. Yet the Buddha was aware that the mind could easily filter out aspects of direct experience, misinterpret it due to preconceived ideas, and jump to unwarranted conclusions from very little experiential evidence. He therefore also emphasized that:

  1. The mind must be carefully calmed and refined, by meditation, to get closer to direct experience, unbiased by moods, preferences, fears, and habits.
  2. Experience must then be carefully analysed, to discern what its components actually are, and what one can safely conclude from it.

In his disciples, he valued the quality of faith, in the sense of an inspired aspiration to develop admirable qualities seen in others such as himself, but also wisdom, experientially based direct insight which enabled individuals to see the truth for themselves, rather than just accept it from another.

While some (Kalupahana, 1992) have seen the Buddha’s theory of truth as a pragmatic one, it is better to characterize it as a correspondence one (with incoherence also seen as one test of falsity). His pragmatic bent comes in as regards what truths he saw as worth teaching to others (Harvey, 1995b). Here, the test was whether such a teaching (a) could in general contribute to people’s spiritual development, and (b) was appropriate to the particular situation and psychological/spiritual state of the individual who came to him for discussion or instruction. Some questions he answered directly, some after clarifying their nature, some after a counter-question, but others he set aside unanswered (Woodward, 1933, pp. 53–4). The last are the ten “undetermined questions”: is the world finite or infinite, eternal or non-eternal; is the life-principle the same as or different from the mortal body; which is a true statement on an enlightened person after death, that he or she “is,” “is not,” “both is and is not,” or “neither is nor is not”? The Buddha refused to affirm any of the propositions contained in these questions, seeing concern over them as a time-wasting sidetrack from moral and spiritual development. He also rejected the questions as implicitly postulating an essential, unchanging Self that was eternal or non-eternal, finite or infinite like its world, identical with or different from the body, and had some particular destiny after death. As the Buddha saw no evidence for such a Self, he saw questions implying its existence as, in a sense, meaningless (Collins, 1982, pp. 131–8; Harvey, 1995a, pp. 78–95). On the topics of the ten questions, he seems to have seen the world as without any discernible beginning, and as going through a series of cosmic cycles; he also talked of thousands upon thousands of world-systems spread out through space. He seems to have accepted some kind of changing life-principle that is primarily mental but usually interdependent with the body (Harvey, 1993, 1995a, pp. 91–5). On the liberated person, he did not accept that such a person was destroyed after death, and he implied that, beyond any rebirth, however subtle, and beyond time, some form of inconceivable liberated state existed (Harvey, 1995a, pp. 227–45).


During the Buddha’s day, the idea of a series of lives was a topic of widespread belief as well as of doubt and denial. The Buddha accepted some form of the doctrine as he felt he had experiential evidence for it. He taught that each sentient being had had innumerable past rebirths, which would continue until liberation from this “wandering on” was attained (Harvey, 1990, pp. 32–9). Rebirth could be in either (a) one of two good destinies – as a human, or as a god in one or other of a range of heavenly rebirths – or (b) one of three bad destinies – as an animal of some kind, as a frustrated ghost, or in a painful hellish realm. Life in all such realms was finite – though the lifespan of hellbeings, and particularly the gods, could be huge – and was followed by some other form of rebirth. Rebirth as a human was seen as a rare and precious opportunity for moral and spiritual growth. The gods were capable of such growth, but their long lifespan meant that they were liable to forget that they were mortal, and so neglect to seek liberation.

Good or bad rebirths were not seen as “rewards” or “punishments” meted out by some divine being. Indeed, the Buddha did not accept the idea of a creator of the world, since the world, and even the gods, proceeded according to natural laws. In the case of rebirth, the determining factor was the quality of a person’s action/karma (Harvey, 1990, pp. 39–46). While Brahmanism taught something similar, it tended to be primarily concerned with action which was ritually correct or incorrect. The Buddha saw the moral aspect of an action as its key factor. He also saw the prime factor in a karma as the impelling will or intention (cetana) behind it (Keown, 1992, pp. 213–18): this is what generates future karmic results. (By contrast, the Jains focused on the overt side of the action.) Action that was motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion, or was intended to harm a being, was seen as unwholesome, and as therefore generating unpleasant karmic results. Action that was motivated by greedlessness (including meditative calm), kindness, or wisdom, or was intended to genuinely benefit a being, was seen as wholesome and as generating pleasant results. Such results included the form of rebirth, certain character traits, and the subjective impact of some events, but it was not held that everything that happened was due to karma (Woodward, 1933, p. 97). A human was seen as a relatively free agent who, while affected by environment and character, could initiate new action not fatalistically fixed by past events or actions.

The Buddha showed a considerable concern for ethics, in the form of the cultivation of wholesome actions or virtues, and the systematic restraint and transcending of unwholesome ones (Harvey, 1990, pp. 196–216). A set of five ethical precepts were given to his disciples. These were undertakings to avoid (a) injuring living beings (as all sentient beings share a dislike of pain and a like of happiness), (b) taking what is not given, (c) sensual misconduct, such as adultery, (d) lying, and (e) intoxication. In the case of monks and nuns, many more training rules were added in order to develop a life of balanced, mindful sense-restraint, including complete celibacy. Keown (1992) gives a good account of Buddhist ethics, arguing for its likeness to Aristotelian virtue-ethics. Harvey (2000) discusses the dynamics of Buddhist ethics as applied to various issues.

For those who were ready to benefit from them, the Buddha taught the Four Ennobling Truths (Harvey, 1990, pp. 47–72), which can be explained as follows:

  1. A pervading feature of life is dukkha, “suffering” or, more subtly, “unsatisfactoriness.” This is seen in: the pain of being born, and of ageing, sickness, and death; stress, anxiety, loss, and sadness; frustration, arising from the fact that things are only ever temporarily as one wants them to be, and often not even that; the fragility of the life of any sentient being, subject as it is to various limitations.
  2. A crucial cause for dukkha is craving: demanding desire for something more pleasurable, more ego-inflating, less unpleasant. This craving is seen to cause future rebirth, and thus re-sickness etc., to set up situations where frustration is felt (proportional to the strength and number of one’s cravings), and to form the basis of conflicts with others.
  3. By removing the cause(s) of dukkha, dukkha can be ended in the realization of Nirvana, a timeless, blissful experience which destroys craving and all attachment, hatred and delusion. One who has fully experienced this becomes an Arahat, and at death will no longer be reborn. To tread the path to Nirvana, a person must first desire it, to help motivate practice, but to finally attain it, everything must be let go of, including Nirvana itself.
  4. The path to the end of dukkha is the Ennobling Eightfold Path, of wisdom (right understanding and resolve), moral virtue (right speech, action, and livelihood), and calm and joyful meditation (right effort, mindful observation of body and mind, and mental unification). These all reinforce one another.



The Buddha advocated that, after calming the mind, a disciple should engage in careful experiential investigation of the processes making up body and mind. He emphasized that everything (except Nirvana) was impermanent and subject to change. In the world and persons, he discovered no unchanging substances, physical or mental, just streams of interacting processes or dhammas, all of which were limited in various ways, and thus dukkha. He saw a human as composed of five “groups” or “aggregates” (khandhas) of such processes:

  1.  “Material form”: processes such as “earth” (solidity), “water” (cohesion), “fire” (heat), and “wind” (motion).
  2. “Feeling”: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral hedonic tone.
  3. “Cognition”: the classifying and labeling of sense- or mind-objects, as in recognition and misinterpretation.
  4. “Constructing activities”: will and various emotions, which give shape to a person’s character and destiny.
  5. “Discriminative consciousness,” or “discernment”: awareness of the presence of a sense- or mind-object, and discernment of its parts or aspects, labeled by cognition.

These are all seen to be in a state of constant dynamic flow, with nothing “owning” them. The Buddha held that everything, when carefully examined, can be recognised to be not-Self or non-Self (anatta/anatman): not a permanent, substantial, autonomous Self or I (Collins, 1982; Harvey, 1995a, pp. 17–77). This claim is not, as such, a straightforward denial of such a Self, though such a denial is implied. Rather, it is an invitation to examine each thing one tends to fondly identify with as “I” – “what I truly and really am” – and, in realizing its changing, conditioned, nonsubstantial nature, to let go of it, i.e. not be attached to it (which is not the same as pushing it away). This allows the occurrence of the experience of Nirvana, which is beyond all attachment and clinging, and totally lacks anything that could be mistaken for a Self.

The Buddha saw the sense of “I-ness,” the “‘I am’ conceit” or ego, as real enough, but he regarded it as a conditioned, limited and deluded state, certainly no real Self. Moreover, he saw it as leading to much suffering for oneself and others, being the root of self-ishness. He also accepted what one can call the empirical or conventional “self”: the cluster of changing aggregates – including the ego-sense – as described above. He taught that it was good to cultivate the inner strength and integrity of this changing self, and that the undermining of the “‘I am’ conceit” actually contributed to this. So an Arahat is one who has destroyed this conceit, by seeing all as not-Self, yet has a strong, calm, open, balanced empirical self, free of such limitations as craving.

A principle running through much of the above, and said to have been discovered in the Buddha’s enlightenment, is that of Conditioned Arising, or Dependent Origination (paticca-samuppada). At its most abstract, this principle states that any thing only arises due to factors which condition it, and ceases when these are absent. Only Nirvana, being unconditioned, is beyond arising and passing away. This principle of conditionality is applied rigorously to the working of the aggregates and to the working of the Ennobling Eightfold Path, as well as to a detailed analysis of a chain of twelve processes culminating in dukkha. This chain includes craving, but also spiritual ignorance, a deep-seated misperception of the nature of reality which persists in overlooking its qualities as impermanent, dukkha, and not-Self, thus feeding the craving and clinging that perpetuate dukkha.

Just as the Ennobling Eightfold Path is seen as a “middle way” of practice, avoiding the extremes of harsh asceticism and sensual indulgence, so Conditioned Arising is seen as an intellectual “middle way.” Thus the world is seen neither as “existing” – in a solid, unchanging way – nor as a “non-existent” illusion; for it does arise as a stream of changing processes. Likewise, an unliberated person neither eternally exists after death, as no eternal Self can be found to exist, nor is annihilated. The truth lies in the middle: a stream of changing processes, particularly those of discriminating consciousness and karmic traces, spill over after death and, with appropriate physical conditions in a mother’s womb, help another life to start. Thus Buddhists prefer to talk of “rebirth” rather than “reincarnation,” which implies a reincarnated Self/Soul. While some passages of the early texts indicate that the Buddha accepted a between-lives spirit-being (a gandhabba; Harvey, 1995a, pp. 89–108), this form of being was still seen as a cluster of impermanent states, and thus as not-Self. As to what “remains” of a liberated person beyond death, some passages suggest it is a radically transformed, objectless, and thus unconditioned form of discriminating consciousness (Harvey, 1995a, pp. 198–245).

Soon after the Buddha died, a monastic council was held to agree on the contents of his teachings, which were to be passed on by communal chanting. Thus was formed the core of the Vinaya and Sutta collections, on monastic discipline and the Buddha’s discourses, respectively. In the two or three following centuries, Abhidhamma texts were composed, systematizing and thus interpreting the teachings in the form of intricate analyses of the working of the mind. In the early centuries ce, new texts emerged which heralded the gradual emergence of a new movement in Buddhism, the Mahayana. The new texts were attributed by the Mahayanists to the Buddha, as they held that visionary and meditative experience could still contact him or draw on the wisdom that had informed him. The Mahayana saw the earlier teachings as provisional ones, and included in their texts a critique of the early schools, of which there had developed around eighteen (Harvey, 1990, pp. 73–94, 323–4). Of these, only the Theravada survives today, being found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. The Mahayana is found in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Both strands of Buddhism include strong traditions of textual study of “the word of the Buddha.”


The Buddha did not write anything. The existing sources most indicative of his oral teachings are the Suttas collected by the Therava¯dins, in the Pali language: the five Nika¯yas or “collections,” first written down around 80 bce.
The Dı¯gha Nika¯ya, trans. M. Walshe as Thus Have I Heard: The Long Discourses of the Buddha (London: Wisdom, 1987).
The Majjhima Nika¯ya, trans. I. B. Horner, in three volumes, as Middle Length Sayings (London: Pali Text Society, 1954, 1957, 1959).
See also Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom, 1995).
The Sam. yutta Nika¯ya, trans. C. A. F. Rhys Davids (volume I) and F. L.Woodward (volumes II–V) as Kindred Sayings (London: Pali Text Society, 1917, 1922, 1924, 1927, 1930).
The An. guttara Nika¯ya, trans. F. L. Woodward (volumes I, II, V), and E. M. Hare (volumes III, IV) as Gradual Sayings (London: Pali Text Society, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936).
The Khuddaka Nika¯ya: fifteen small texts, including (both in verse): the Dhammapada, trans. e.g. Na¯rada Thera, The Dhammapada (London: John Murray, 1954); the Sutta-nipa¯ta, trans. H. Saddhatissa, The Sutta-Nipa¯ta (London: Curzon Press, 1985).

Further reading
Collins, S.: Selfless Persons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). ——: “Buddhism in recent philosophy and theology,” Religious Studies, 21 (1985), 475–93.
Harvey, P.: An Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
——: An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
——: “The mind-body relationship in Pa¯li Buddhism,” Asian Philosophy, 3 (1993), 29–41.
——: The Selfless Mind (London: Curzon Press, 1995a).
——: “Contemporary characterisations of the ‘philosophy’ of Nika¯yan Buddhism,” Buddhist Studies Review, 12 (1995b), 109–33.
Hoffman, F. J.: Rationality and Mind in Early Buddhism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987).
Jayatilleke, K. N.: Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge (London: Allen & Unwin, 1963; reprinted Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, no date).
Kalupahana, D. J.: A History of Buddhist Philosophy (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992).
Keown, D.: The Nature of Buddhist Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1992).

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  1. It giving more knowledge of Buddha. Amazing.

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