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Buddha (c. 480 BCEc.

400 BCE)
The historical Buddha, also known as Gotama Buddha, Siddhrtha Gautama, and Buddha
kyamuni, was born in Lumbini, in the Nepalese region of Terai, near the Indian border. He is
one of the most important Asian thinkers and spiritual masters of all time, and he contributed to
many areas of philosophy, including epistemology, metaphysics and ethics. The Buddhas
teaching formed the foundation for Buddhist philosophy, initially developed in South Asia, then
later in the rest of Asia. Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy now have a global following.

In epistemology, the Buddha seeks a middle way between the extremes of dogmatism and
skepticism, emphasizing personal experience, a pragmatic attitude, and the use of critical thinking
toward all types of knowledge. In ethics, the Buddha proposes a threefold understanding of
action: mental, verbal, and bodily. In metaphysics, the Buddha argues that there are no self-caused
entities, and that everything dependently arises from or upon something else. This allows the
Buddha to provide a criticism of souls and personal identity; that criticism forms the foundation
for his views about the reality of rebirth and an ultimate liberated state called Nirvana. Nirvana
is not primarily an absolute reality beyond or behind the universe but rather a special state of mind
in which all the causes and conditions responsible for rebirth and suffering have been eliminated.
In philosophical anthropology, the Buddha explains human identity without a permanent and
substantial self. The doctrine of non-self, however, does not imply the absolute inexistence of any
type of self whatsoever, but is compatible with a conventional self composed of five psycho-
physical aggregates, although all of them are unsubstantial and impermanent. Selves are thus
conceived as evolving processes causally constrained by their past.

1. Interpreting the Historical Buddha


a. Dates

There is no complete agreement among scholars and Buddhist traditions regarding the dates of the
historical Buddha. The most common dates among Buddhists are those of the Theravda school,
623-543 B.C.E. From the middle of the 19th century until recently, Western scholars had believed
the dates of the Buddha to be ca. 560-480 B.C.E. However, after the publication in 1991-2 of the
proceedings of the international symposium on the date of the historical Buddha held in Gttingen
in 1988, the original consensus on these dates no longer exists.

Although there is no conclusive evidence for any specific date, most current scholars locate the
Buddhas life one hundred years earlier, around the fifth century B.C.E. Some of the new dates for
the Buddhas death or more accurately, for his parinirva are: ca. 404 B.C.E. (R. Gombrich),
between 410-390 B.C.E. (K.R. Norman), ca. 400 B.C.E. (R. Hikata), ca. 397 B.C.E. (K.T.S.
Sarao), between ca.400-350 B.C.E. (H. Bechert), 383 B.C.E. (H. Nakamura), 368 B.C.E. (A.
Hirakawa), between 420-380 B.C.E. (A. Bareau).

b. Sources

The historical Buddha did not write down any of his teachings, they were passed down orally
from generation to generation for at least three centuries. Some scholars have attempted to
distinguish the Buddhas original teachings from those developed by his early disciples.
Unfortunately, the contradictory conclusions have led most scholars to be skeptical about the
possibility of knowing what the Buddha really taught. This however, does not mean that all
Buddhist texts that attribute teachings to the Buddha are equally valuable to reconstruct his
thought. The early stras in Pli and other Middle Indo-Aryan languages are historically and
linguistically closer to the cultural context of the Buddha than Mahyna stras in Sanskrit,
Tibetan, and Chinese. This does not imply that later translations of the early stras in Chinese
(there are no Tibetan translations of the early stras) are less authentic or useless in reconstructing
the philosophy of the Buddha. On the contrary, the comparative study of Pli and Chinese
versions of the early stras can help to infer what might have been the Buddhas position on a
number of issues.

Following what seems to be a growing scholarly tendency, I will reconstruct the philosophy of the
historical Buddha by drawing on the Sutta Piaka of the Pli canon. More specifically, our main
sources are the first four Pli Nikyas (Dgha, Majjhima, Sayutta, Aguttara) and some texts of
the fifth Pli Nikya (Dhammapada, Udna, Itivuttaka, and Sutta Nipta). I do not identify these
sources with the Buddhas ipsissima verba, that is, with the very words of the Buddha, even
less with his actual thought. Whether these sources are faithful to the actual thought and
teachings of the historical Buddha is an unanswerable question; I can only say that to my
knowledge there are not better sources to reconstruct the philosophy of the Buddha.

According to the traditional Buddhist account, shortly after the Buddhas death five hundred
disciples gathered to compile his teachings. The Buddhas personal assistant, nanda, recited the
first part of the Buddhist canon, the Stra Piaka, which contains discourses in dialogue form
between the Buddha, his disciples, and his contemporaries on a variety of doctrinal and spiritual
questions. nanda is reported to have recited the sutras just as he had heard them from the
Buddha; that is why Buddhist sutras begin with the words Thus have I heard. Another disciple,
Upli, recited the second part of the Buddhist canon, the Vinaya Piaka, which also contains
sutras, but primarily addresses the rules that govern a monastic community. After the recitation of
nanda and Upli, the other disciples approved what they had heard and communally recited the
teachings as a sign of agreement. The third part of the Buddhist canon or Abhidharma Piaka, was
not recited at that moment. The Theravda tradition claims that the Buddha taught the
Abhidharma while visiting the heaven where his mother was residing.

From a scholarly perspective, the former account is questionable. It might be the case that a large
collection of Buddhist texts was written down for the first time in Sri Lanka during the first
century B.C.E. However, the extant Pli canon shows clear signs of historical development in
terms of both content and language. The three parts of the Pli canon are not as contemporary as
the traditional Buddhist account seems to suggest: the Stra Piaka is older than the Vinaya
Piaka, and the Abhidharma Piaka represents scholastic developments originated at least two
centuries after the other two parts of the canon. The Vinaya Piaka appears to have grown
gradually as a commentary and justification of the monastic code (Prtimoka), which
presupposes a transition from a community of wandering mendicants (the Stra Piaka period ) to
a more sedentary monastic community (the Vinaya Piaka period). Even within the Stra Piaka it
is possible to detect older and later texts.

Neither the Stra Piaka nor the Vinaya Piaka of the Pli canon could have been recited at once
by one person and repeated by the entire Buddhist community. Nevertheless, the Stra Piaka of
the Pli canon is of particular importance in reconstructing the philosophy of Buddha for four
main reasons. First, it contains the oldest texts of the only complete canon of early Indian
Buddhism, which belong to the only surviving school of that period, namely, the Theravda
school, prevalent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Second, it has been preserved in a Middle
Indo-Aryan language closely related to various Prakrit dialects spoken in North of India during
the third century B.C.E., including the area where the Buddha spent most of his teaching years
(Magadha). Third, it expresses a fairly consistent set of doctrines and practices. Fourth, it is
strikingly similar to another version of the early Stra Piaka extant in Chinese (gamas). This
similarity seems to indicate that a great part of the Stra Piaka in Pli does not contain
exclusively Theravda texts, and belongs to a common textual tradition probably prior to the
existence of Buddhist schools.

c. Life
Since the Pli Nikyas contain much more information about the teachings of the Buddha than
about his life, it seems safe to postulate that the early disciples of the Buddha were more
interested in preserving his teachings than in transmitting all the details of his life. The first
complete biographies of the Buddha as well as the Jtaka stories about his former lives appeared
centuries later, even after, and arguably as a reaction against, the dry lists and categorizations of
early Abhidharma literature. The first complete biography of the Buddha in Pli is the
Nidnakath, which serves as an introduction to the Jtaka verses found in the fifth Pli Nikya.
In Sanskrit, the most popular biographies of the Buddha are the Buddhacarita attributed to the
Indian poet Avaghoa (second century C.E), the Mahvastu, and the Lalitavistara, both
composed in the first century C.E.

The first four Pli Nikyas contain only fragmented information about the Buddhas life.
Especially important are the Mahpadna-suttanta, the Ariyapariyesan-suttanta, the
Mahsaccaka-suttanta, and the Mahparinibbna-suttanta. According to the Mahpadna-suttanta,
the lives of all Buddhas or perfectly enlightened beings follow a similar pattern. Like all Buddhas
of the past, the Buddha of this cosmic era, also known as Gautama (Gotama in Pli), was born
into a noble family. The Buddhas parents were King uddhodana and Queen My. He was a
member of the akya clan and his name was Siddhartha Gautama. Even though he was born in
Lumbin while his mother was traveling to her parents home, he spent the first twenty-nine years
of his life in the royal capital, Kapilavastu, in the Nepalese region of Terai, close to the Indian
border.

Like all past Buddhas, the conception and birth of Gautama Buddha are considered miraculous
events. For instance, when all Buddhas descend into their mothers wombs from a heaven named
Tuita, a splendid light shines forth and the entire universe quakes; their mothers are immaculate,
healthy, and without pain of any sort during their ten months of pregnancy, but they die a week
after giving birth. Buddha babies are born clean, though they are ritually bathed with two streams
of water that fall from the sky; they all take seven steps toward the north and solemnly announce
that this is their last rebirth.

Like former Buddhas, prince Siddhartha enjoyed all types of luxuries and sensual pleasures
during his youth. Unsatisfied with this type of life, he had a crisis when he realized that
everything was ephemeral and that his existence was subject to old age, sickness, and death. After
seeing the serene joy of a monk and out of compassion for all living beings, he renounced his
promising future as prince in order to start a long quest for a higher purpose, nirva (Pali
nibbna), which entails the cessation of old age, sickness and death. Later traditions speak of the
Buddha as abandoning his wife Yaodhar immediately after she gave birth to Rhula, the
Buddhas only son. The Pli Nikyas, however, do not mention this story, and refer to Rhula only
as a young monk.

According to the Ariyapariyesan-suttanta and the Mahsaccaka-suttanta, the Buddha tried


different spiritual paths for six years. First, he practiced yogic meditation under the guidance of
lra Klma and Uddaka Rmaputta. After experiencing the states of concentration called base
of nothingness and base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, he realized that these lofty
states did not lead to nirvana. Then the Buddha began to practice breathing exercises and fasting.
The deterioration of his health led the Buddha to conclude that extreme asceticism was equally
ineffective in attaining nirvana. He thus resumed eating solid food; after recovering his health, he
began to practice a more moderate spiritual path, the middle path, which avoids the extremes of
sensual self-indulgence and self-mortification. Soon after, the Buddha experienced enlightenment,
or awakening, under a bodhi-tree. First he was inclined to inaction rather than to teaching what he
had discovered. However, he changed his mind after the god Brahm Sahampati asked him to
teach. Out of compassion for all living beings, he decided to start a successful teaching career that
lasted forty-five years.

d. Significance
It would be simplistic to dismiss all supernatural aspects of the Buddhas life as false and consider
historically true only those elements that are consistent with our contemporary scientific
worldview. However, this approach towards the Buddhas life was prevalent in the nineteenth
century and a great part of the twentieth century. Today it is seen as problematic because it
imposes modern western ideals of rationality onto non-western texts. Here I set aside the question
of historical truth and speak exclusively of significance. The significance of all the biographies of
Buddha does not lie in their historical accuracy, but rather in their effectiveness to convey basic
Buddhist ideas and values throughout history. Even today, narratives about the many deeds of
Buddha are successfully used to introduce Buddhists of all latitudes into the main values and
teachings of Buddhism.

The supernatural elements of the Buddhas life are as historically significant as the natural ones
because they help to understand the way Buddhists conceived and in many places continue to
conceive the Buddha. Like followers of other religious leaders, Buddhist scribes tended to
glorify the sanctity of their foundational figure with extraordinary events and spectacular
accomplishments. In this sense, the narratives of the Buddha are perhaps better understood as
hagiographies rather than as biographies. The historical truth behind hagiographies is impossible
to determine: how can we tell whether or not the Buddha was conceived without sexual
intercourse; whether or not he was able to talk and walk right after his birth; whether or not he
could walk over water, levitate, fly, and ascend into heaven at will? How do we know whether the
Buddha was really tempted by Mra the evil one; whether there was an earthquake at the moment
of his birth and death? The answers to these questions are a matter of faith. If the interpreter does
not believe in the supernatural, then many narratives will be dismissed as historically false.
However, for some Buddhists the supernatural events that appear in the life of Buddha did take
place and are historically true.

The significance of the hagiographies of the Buddha is primarily ethical and spiritual. In fact,
even if the life of Buddha did not take place as the hagiographies claim, the ethical values and the
spiritual path they illustrate remain significant. Unlike other religions, the truth of Buddhism does
not depend on the historicity of certain events in the life of the Buddha. Rather, the truth of
Buddhism depends on the efficacy of the Buddhist path exemplified by the life of the Buddha and
his disciples. In other words, if the different Buddhist paths inspired by the Buddha are useful to
overcome existential dissatisfaction and suffering, then Buddhism is true regardless of the
existence of the historical Buddha.

The fundamental ethical and spiritual point behind the Buddhas life is that impermanent,
conditioned, and contingent things such as wealth, social position, power, sensual pleasures, and
even lofty meditative states, cannot generate a state of ultimate happiness. In order to overcome
the profound existential dissatisfaction that all ephemeral and contingent things eventually
generate, one needs to follow a comprehensive path of ethical and mental training conducive to
the state of ultimate happiness called nirvana.

2. The Buddhas Epistemology


a. The Extremes of Dogmatism and Skepticism

While the Buddhas view of the spiritual path is traditionally described as a middle way between
the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, the Buddhas epistemology can be
interpreted as a middle way between the extremes of dogmatism and skepticism.

The extreme of dogmatism is primarily represented in the Pli Nikyas by Brahmanism.


Brahmanism was a ritualistic religion that believed in the divine revelation of the Vedas, thought
that belonging to a caste was determined by birth, and focused on the performance of sacrifice.
Sacrifices involved the recitation of hymns taken from the Vedas and in many cases the ritual
killing of animals.
Ritual sacrifices were offered to the Gods (gods for Buddhism) in exchange for prosperity, health,
protection, sons, long life, and immortality. Only the male members of the highest caste, the
priestly caste of Brahmins, could afford the professional space to seriously study the three Vedas
(the Atharva Veda did not exist, or if it existed, it was not part yet of the Brahmanic tradition).
Since only Brahmins knew the three Vedas, only they could recite the hymns necessary to
properly perform the ritual sacrifice. Both ritual sacrifice and the social ethics of the caste system
were seen as an expression of the cosmic order (Dharma) and as necessary to preserve that order.

Epistemologically speaking, Brahmanism emphasized the triple knowledge of the Vedas, and
dogmatic faith in their content: in regard to the ancient Brahmanic hymns that have come down
through oral transmission and in the scriptural collections, the Brahmins come to the definite
conclusion: Only this is true, anything else is wrong (M.II.169).

The extreme of skepticism is represented in the Pli Nikyas by some members of the ramanic
movement, which consisted of numerous groups of spiritual seekers and wandering philosophers.
The Sanskrit word ramana means those who make an effort, and probably refers to those
who practice a spiritual discipline requiring individual effort, not just rituals performed by others.
In order to become a ramana it was necessary to renounce ones life as householder and enter
into an itinerant life, which entailed the observance of celibacy and a simple life devoted to
spiritual cultivation. Most ramanas lived in forests or in secluded places wandering from village
to village where they preached and received alms in exchange.

The ramanic movement was extremely diverse in terms of doctrines and practices. Most
ramanas believed in free will as well as the efficacy of moral conduct and spiritual practices in
order to attain liberation from the cycle of reincarnations. However, there was a minority of
ramanas who denied the existence of the after life, free will, and the usefulness of ethical conduct
and other spiritual practices. Probably as a reaction to these two opposite standpoints, some
ramanas adopted a skeptic attitude denying the possibility of knowledge about such matters.
Skeptics are described by the Buddha as replying questions by evasion (D.I.58-9), and as
engaging in verbal wriggling, in eel-wriggling (amarvikkhepa): I dont say it is like this. And I
dont say it is like that. And I dont say it is otherwise. And I dont say it is not so. And I dont say
it is not not so (M.I. 521).

b. The Role of Personal Experience and the Buddhas Wager

In contrast to Brahmanic dogmatism, the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas did not claim to be
omniscient (M.I.482); in fact, he proposed a critical attitude toward all sources of knowledge. In
the Majjhima Nikya (II.170-1), the Buddha challenges Brahmins who accept Vedic scriptures out
of faith (saddh) and oral tradition (anussava); he compares those who blindly follow scripture
and tradition without having direct knowledge of what they believe with a file of blind men each
in touch with the next: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one
does not see. The Buddha also warns Brahmins against knowledge based on likeability or
emotional inclination (ruci), reflection on reasons (kraparivitakka), and consideration of
theories (dihinijjhnakkhanti). These five sources of knowledge may be either true or false; that
is, they do not provide conclusive grounds to claim dogmatically that only this is true, anything
else is wrong.

Dogmatic claims of truth were not the monopoly of Brahmins. In the Majjhima Nikya (I.178),
the Buddha uses the simile of the elephant footprint to question dogmatic statements about him,
his teachings, and his disciples: he invites his followers to critically investigate all the available
evidence (different types of elephant footprints and marks) until they know and see for themselves
(direct perception of the elephant in the open). The Pli Nikyas also refer to many ramanas who
hold dogmatic views and as a consequence are involved in heated doctrinal disputes. The conflict
of dogmatic views is often described as a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of
views, a vacillation of views, a fetter of views. It is beset by suffering, by vexation, by despair,
and by fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to
higher knowledge, to enlightentment, to Nibbna (M.I.485).

Public debates were common and probably a good way to gain prestige and converts. Any reputed
Brahmin or ramana had to have not only the ability to speak persuasively but also the capacity to
argue well. Rational argument played an important role in justifying doctrines and avoiding defeat
in debate, which implied conversion to the others teaching. At the time of the Buddha many of
these debates seem to have degenerated into dialectical battles that diverted from spiritual practice
and led to disorientation, anger, and frustration. Although the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas utilizes
reasoning to justify his positions in debates and conversations with others, he discourages
dogmatic attachment to doctrines including his own (see the simile of the raft, M.I.135), and the
use of his teachings for the sake of criticizing others and for winning debates (M.I.132).

Unlike the skepticism of some ramanas, the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas takes clear stances on
ethical and spiritual issues, and rejects neither the existence of right views (M.I.46-63) nor the
possibility of knowing certain things as they are (yathbhta). In order to counteract skepticism,
the Buddha advises to the Klma people not go by oral tradition, by succession of disciples, by
hearsay, by the content of sacred scripture, by logical consistency, by inference, by reflection on
reasons, by consideration of theories, by appearance, by respect to a teacher. Instead, the Buddha
recommends knowing things for oneself as the ultimate criterion to adjudicate between conflicting
claims of truth (A.I.189).

When personal experience is not available to someone, the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas proposes
taking into account what is praised or censored by the wise, as well as a method to calculate the
benefits of following certain opinions called the incontrovertible teaching (apaakadhamma),
which, in some ways, resembles Pascals wager. According to the incontrovertible teaching, it
would be better to believe in certain doctrines because they produce more benefits than others.
For instance, even if there is no life after death and if good actions do not produce good
consequences, still a moral person is praised in this life by the wise, whereas the immoral person
is censured by society. However, if there is life after death and good action produce happy
consequences, a moral person is praised in this life, and after death he or she goes to heaven. On
the contrary, the immoral person is censured in this life, and after death he or she goes to hell
(M.I.403). Therefore, it is better to believe that moral actions produce good consequences even if
we do not have personal experience of karma and rebirth.

c. Interpretations of the Buddhas Advice to the Klma People

Some have interpreted the Buddhas advice to the Klma people as an iconoclast rejection of
tradition and faith. This, however, does little justice to the Pli Nikyas, where the Buddha is said
to be part of a long and respectable tradition of past Buddhas, and where the first Brahmins are
sometimes commended by their holiness. The Buddha shows respect for many traditional beliefs
and practices of his time, and rejects only those that are unjustified, useless, or conducive to
suffering for oneself and others.

Faith in the Buddha, his teachings, and his disciples, is highly regarded in the Pli Nikyas: it is
the first of the five factors of striving (M.II.95-6), and a necessary condition to practice the
spiritual path (M.III.33). Buddhist faith, however, is not unconditional or an end in and of itself
but rather a means towards direct knowledge that must be based on critical examination,
supported by reasons, and eventually verified or rooted in vision (dassanamlik) (M.I.320).

Another common interpretation of the advice to the Klmas is that for the Buddha of the Pli
Nikyas only personal experience provides reliable knowledge. However, this is misleading
because analogical and inferential reasoning are widely used by the Buddha and his disciples to
teach others as well as in debates with non-Buddhists. Similarly, analytical or philosophical
meditation is a common practice for the attainment of liberation through wisdom. Personal
experience, like any other means of knowledge is to be critically examined. Except in the case of
Buddhas and liberated beings, personal experience is always tainted by affective and cognitive
prejudices.

The Pli Nikyas might give the first impression of endorsing a form of nave or direct realism:
that is, the Buddha and his disciples seem to think that the world is exactly as we perceive it to be.
While it is true that the Pli Nikyas do not question the common sense connection between
objects of knowledge and the external world, there are some texts that might support a
phenomenalist reading. For instance, the Buddha defines the world as the six senses (five ordinary
senses plus the mind) and their respective objects (S.IV.95), or as the six senses, the six objects,
and the six types of consciousness that arise in dependence on them (S.IV.39-40).

Here, the epistemology of the Buddha is a special form of realism that allows both for the direct
perception of reality and the constructions of those less realized. Only Buddhas and liberated
beings perceive the world directly; that is, they see the Dharma, whose regularity and stability
remains independent of the existence of Buddhas (S.II.25). Unenlightened beings, on the other
hand, see the world indirectly through a veil of negative emotions and erroneous views. Some
texts go so far as to suggest that the world is not simply seen indirectly, but rather that it is
literally constructed by our emotional dispositions. For instance, in the Majjhima Nikya (I.111),
the Buddha explicitly states that what one feels, one perceives (Ya vedeti, ta sajnti).
That is, our knowledge is formed by our feelings. The influence of feelings in our ways of
knowing can also be inferred from the twelve-link chain of dependent arising, which explains the
arising and cessation of suffering. The second link, sakhra, or formations, conditions the arising
of the third link, consciousness. The term sakhra literally means put together, connoting the
constructive role of the mental factors that fall into this category, many of them affective in
nature.

Similarly, the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas says that with what one has mentally constructed as
the root cause (Ya papaceti tato nidna), perceptions, concepts, and [further] mental
constructions (papacasasakh) beset a man with respect to past, future, and present forms
soundsodoursflavorstangiblesmind-objects cognizable by the eyeear nose
tonguebodymind (M.I.111-112). That is, the knowledge of unenlightened beings has
papaca, or mental constructions, as its root cause. The word papaca is a technical term that
literally means diversification or proliferation; it refers to the tendency of unenlightened minds to
construct or fabricate concepts conducive to suffering, especially essentialist and ego-related
concepts such as I and mine, concepts which lead to a variety of negative mental states such
as craving, conceit, and dogmatic views about the self (ananda 1971).

It is precisely because our experiences are affectively and cognitively conditioned that the Buddha
of the Pli Nikyas advocates a critical approach toward all sources of knowledge, including
personal experience. Even the lofty experiences derived from meditation are to be analyzed
carefully because they might lead to false opinions about the nature of the self, the world, and the
after life. The epistemological ideal is to know things directly beyond mental constructions
(papaca), which presupposes the tranquilization of all mental formations
(sabbasakhrasamatha).

d. Higher Knowledge and the Question of Empiricism

Contemplative experiences are of two main types: meditative absorptions or abstractions (jhna),
and higher or direct knowledge (abhi). There are six classes of higher or direct knowledge: the
first one refers to a variety of supernatural powers including levitation and walking on water; in
this sense, it is better understood as a know-how type of knowledge. The second higher
knowledge is literally called divine ear element or clairaudience. The third higher knowledge is
usually translated as telepathy, though it means simply the ability to know the underlying mental
state of others, not the reading of their minds and thoughts.
The next three types of higher knowledge are especially important because they were experienced
by the Buddha the night of his enlightenment, and because they are the Buddhist counterparts to
the triple knowledge of the Vedas. The fourth higher knowledge is retrocognition or knowledge of
past lives, which entails a direct experience of the process of rebirth. The fifth is the divine eye or
clairvoyance; that is, direct experience of the process of karma, or as the texts put it, the passing
away and reappearing of beings in accordance with their past actions. The sixth is knowledge of
the destruction of taints, which implies experiential knowledge of the four noble truths and the
process of liberation.

Some scholars have interpreted the Buddhas emphasis on direct experience and the verifiable
nature of Buddhist faith as a form of radical empiricism (Kalupahana 1992), and logical
empiricism (Jayatilleke 1963). According to the empiricist interpretation, Buddhist faith is always
subsequent to critically verifying the available empirical evidence. All doctrines taught by the
Buddha are empirically verifiable if one takes the time and effort to attain higher or direct
knowledge, interpreted as extraordinary sense experience. For instance, the triple knowledge of
enlightenment implies a direct experience of the processes of karma, rebirth, and the four noble
truths. Critiques of the empiricist interpretation point out that, at least at the beginning of the path,
Buddhist faith is not always based on empirical evidence, and that the purpose of extraordinary
knowledge is not to verify the doctrines of karma, rebirth, and the four noble truths (Hoffman
1982, 1987).

Whether or not the Buddhas epistemology can be considered empiricist depends on what we
mean by empiricism and experience. The opposition between rationalism and empiricism and the
sharp distinction between senses and reason is foreign to Buddhism. Nowhere in the Pli Nikyas
does the Buddha say that all knowledge begins in or is acquired from sense experience. In this
sense, the Buddha is not an empiricist.

3. The Buddhas Cosmology and Metaphysics


a. The Universe and the Role of Gods

The Buddha of the Pli Nikyas accepts the cosmology characteristic of his cultural context: a
universe with several realms of existence, where people are reborn and die again and again
(sasra) depending on their past actions (karma) until they attain salvation (moka). However,
the Buddha substantially modifies the cosmology of his time. Against the Brahmanic tendency to
understand karma as ritual action, and the Jain claim that all activities including involuntary
actions constitute karma, the Buddha defines karma in terms of volition, or free will, which is
expressed through thoughts, words, and behavior. That is, for the Buddha, only voluntary actions
produce karma.

Another important modification is that for the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas, sasra refers
primarily to a psychophysical process that takes place within the physical universe. For instance,
when the Buddha speaks about the end of the world, he says that it cannot be reached by traveling
through the physical universe, but only by putting an end to suffering (sasra), where one is
not born, does not age, does not die, does not pass away, and is not reborn Accordingly, salvation
is not understood in world-denying terms or as an escape from the physical universe, but rather as
an inner transformation that takes place within ones own psychophysical organism: It is, friend,
in just this fathom-high carcass endowed with perception and mind that I make known the world,
the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the
world. (S.I.62; A.II.47-9).

There are five kinds of destinations within sasra: hell, animal kingdom, realm of ghosts,
humankind, and realm of devas or radiant beings, commonly translated as gods (M.I.73). There
are many hells and heavens and life there is transitory, just as in other destinations. In some
traditions there is another destination, the realm of asuras or demigods, who are jealous of the
gods and who are always in conflict with them.

The Pli Nikyas further divide the universe of sasra into three main planes of existence, each
one subdivided into several realms. The three planes of existence are sensorial, fine-material, and
immaterial (M.I.50). Most destinations belong to the sensorial realm. Only a minority of heavens
belong to the fine-material and immaterial realms. Rebirth in a particular realm depends on past
actions: good actions lead to good destinations and bad actions to bad rebirths. Rebirth as a human
or in heaven is considered a good destination; rebirth in the realm of ghosts, hell, and the animal
realm are bad. Human rebirth is extremely difficult to attain (S.V.455-6; M.III.169), and it is
highly regarded because of its unique combination of pain and pleasure, as well as its unique
conductivity for attaining enlightenment. In this last sense human rebirth is said to be even better
than rebirth as a god.

Rebirth also depends on the prevalent mental states of a person during life, and especially at the
moment of death. That is, there is a correlation between mental states and realms of rebirth,
between cosmology and psychology. For instance, a mind where hatred and anger prevails is
likely to be reborn in hell; deluded and uncultivated minds are headed toward the animal
kingdom; someone obsessed with sex and food will probably become bound to earth as a ghost;
loving and caring persons will be reborn in heaven; someone who frequently dwells in meditative
absorptions will be reborn in the fine-material and immaterial realms. Human rebirth might be the
consequence of any of the aforementioned mental states.

Perhaps the most important modification the Buddha introduces into the traditional cosmology of
his time was a new view of Gods (gods within Buddhism). In the Pli Nikyas, gods do not play
any significant cosmological role. For the Buddha, the universe has not been created by an all-
knowing, all-powerful god that is the lord of the universe and father of all beings (M.I.326-7).
Rather, the universe evolves following certain cyclic patterns of contraction and expansion
(D.III.84-5).

Similarly, the cosmic order, or Dharma, does not depend on the will of gods, and there are many
good deeds far more effective than ritual sacrifices offered to the gods (D.I144ff). Gods for the
Buddha are unenlightened beings subject to birth and death that require further learning and
spiritual practice in order to attain liberation; they are more powerful and spiritually more
developed than humans and other living beings, but Buddhas excel them in all regards: spiritual
development, wisdom, and power. Even the supreme type of god, Brahm, offers his respects to
the Buddha, praises him, and asks him to preach the Dharma for those with little dust in their eyes
(M.I.168-9).

Since the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas does not deny the existence of gods, only their cosmological
and soteriological functions, it is inaccurate to define early Buddhism as atheistic or as non-
theistic. The word atheistic is usually associated with anti-religious attitudes absent in the Buddha,
and the term non-theistic seems to imply that rejecting the theistic concept of God is one of the
main concerns of the Buddha, when in fact it is a marginal question in the Pli Nikyas.

b. The Four Noble Truths or Realities

One the most common frameworks to explain the basic teachings of early Buddhism is the four
noble truths (ariyasacca, Sanskrit ryasatya). The word sacca means both truth and reality. The
word ariya refers primarily to the ideal type of person the Buddhist path is supposed to generate, a
noble person in the ethical and spiritual sense. Translating ariyasacca by noble truths is
somehow misleading because it gives the wrong impression of being a set of beliefs, a creed that
Buddhists accept as noble and true. The four noble truths are primarily four realities whose
contemplation leads to sainthood or the state of the noble ones (ariya). Other possible translations
of ariyasacca are ennobling truths or truths of the noble ones.
Each noble truth requires a particular practice from the disciple; in this sense the four noble truths
can be understood as four types of practice. The first noble truth, or the reality of suffering,
assigns to the disciple the practice of cultivating understanding. Such understanding takes place
gradually through reflection, analytical meditation, and eventually direct experience. What needs
to be understood is the nature of suffering, and the different types of suffering and happiness
within sasra.

A common misconception about the first noble truth is to think that it presupposes a pessimistic
outlook on life. This interpretation would be correct only if the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas had
not taught the existence of different types of happiness and the third noble truth, or cessation of
suffering; that is, the good news about the reality of nirvana, defined as the highest happiness
(Dhp.203; M.I.505). Since the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas teaches the reality of both suffering
and the highest happiness, perhaps it is more accurate to speak of his attitude as realist: there is a
problem but there is also a solution to that problem.

The second noble truth, or reality of the origin of suffering, calls for the practice of renunciation
to all mental states that generate suffering for oneself and others. The mental state that appears in
the second noble truth is tah, literally thirst. It was customary in the first Western translations
of Buddhist texts (Burnouf, Fausboll, Muller, Oldenberg, Warren) to translate tah by desire.
This translation has misled many to think that the ultimate goal of Buddhists is the cessation of all
desires. However, as Damien Keown puts it, it is an oversimplification of the Buddhist position
to assume that it seeks an end to all desire. (1992: 222).

In fact, there are many terms in the Pli Nikyas that can be translated as desire, not all of them
related to mental states conducive to suffering. On the contrary, there are many texts in the Pli
Nikyas that demonstrate the positive role of certain types of desire in the Buddhas path
(Webster, 2005: 90-142). Nonetheless, the term tah in the Pli Nikyas designates always a
harmful type of desire that leads to repeated existence (ponobhavik), is associated with
delight and lust (nandirgasahagat), and delights here and there (tatra tatrbhinandin)
(M.I.48; D.II.308; etc). There is only one text (Nettipakaraa 87) that speaks about a wholesome
type of tah that leads to its own relinquishment, but this text is extra-canonical except in
Myanmar.

The most common translation of tah nowadays is craving. Unlike the loaded, vast, and
ambivalent term desire, the term craving refers more specifically to a particular type of desire, and
cannot be misinterpreted as conveying any want and aspiration whatsoever. Rather, like tah in
the Pli Nikyas, craving refers to intense (rga can be translated by both lust and passion),
obsessive, and addictive desires (the idiom tatra tatra can also be interpreted as connoting the idea
of repetition or tendency to repeat itself).

Since craving, or tah, does not include all possible types of desires, there is no paradox of
desire in the Pli Nikyas. In other words, the Buddha of the the Pli Nikyas does not teach that
in order to attain liberation from suffering one has to paradoxically desire to stop all desires.
There is no contradiction in willing the cessation of craving. That is, for the Buddha of the Pli
Nikyas it is possible to want, like, or strive for something without simultaneously craving for it.

The Pli Nikyas distinguish between three kinds of tah: craving for sensual pleasures
(kmatah), craving for existence (bhavatah), and craving for non-existence (vibhavatah).
Following Webster, I understand the last two types of craving as predicated on two extreme
(wrong) views, those of eternalism and annihilationism (2005:130-1). In other words, craving for
existence longs for continued existence of ones self within sasra, and craving for non-
existence is a reversed type of desire or aversion to ones own destruction at the moment of death.
The underlying root of all suffering, however, is not craving but spiritual ignorance (avijj). In the
Pli Nikyas spiritual ignorance does not connote a mere lack of information but rather a
misconception, a distorted perception of things under the influence of conceptual fabrications and
affective prejudices. More specifically, ignorance refers to not knowing things as they are, the
Dharma, and the four noble truths. The relinquishing of spiritual ignorance, craving, and the three
roots of the unwholesome (greed or lobha, aversion or dosa, delusion or moha) entails the
cultivation of many positive mental states, some of the most prominent in the Pli Nikyas being:
wisdom or understanding (pa), letting go (anupdna), selflessness (alobha), love (avera,
adosa, avypda), friendliness (mett), compassion (karu), altruistic joy (mudit), equanimity
(upekkh), calm (samatha, passaddhi), mindfulness (sati), diligence (appamda).

The third noble truth, or reality of the cessation of suffering, asks us to directly realize the
destruction of suffering, usually expressed with a variety of cognitive and affective terms: peace,
higher knowledge, the tranquilization of mental formations, the abandonment of all grasping,
cessation, the destruction of craving, absence of lust, nirvana (Pali nibbna). The most popular of
all the terms that express the cessation of suffering and rebirth is nirvana, which literally means
blowing out or extinguishing.

Metaphorically, the extinction of nirvana designates a mental event, namely, the extinguishing of
the fires of craving, aversion, and delusion (S.IV.251). That nirvana primarily denotes a mental
event, a psychological process, is also confirmed by many texts that describe the person who
experiences nirvana with intransitive verbs such as to nirvanize (nibbyati) or to parinirvanize
(parinibbyati). However, there are a few texts that seem to indicate that nirvana might also be a
domain of perception (yatana), element (dhtu), or reality (dhamma) known at the moment of
enlightenment, and in special meditative absorptions after enlightenment. This domain is usually
defined as having the opposite qualities of sasra (Ud 8.1), or with metaphoric expressions
(S.IV.369ff).

What is important to point out is that the concern of the Pli Nikyas is not to describe nirvana,
which, strictly speaking, is beyond logic and language (It 37), but rather to provide a systematic
explanation of the arising and cessation of suffering. The goal of Buddhism as it appears in the
Pli Nikyas does not consist in believing that suffering arises and ceases like the Buddha says,
but in realizing that what he teaches about suffering and its cessation is the case; that is, the
Buddhas teaching, or Dharma, is intended to be experienced by the wise for themselves
(M.I.265).

The fourth noble truth, or reality of the path leading to the cessation of suffering, imposes on us
the practice of developing the eightfold ennobling path. This path can be understood either as
eight mental factors that are cultivated by ennobled disciples at the moment of liberation, or as
different parts of the entire Buddhist path whose practice ennoble the disciple gradually. The eight
parts of the Buddhist path are usually divided into three kinds of training: training in wisdom
(right view and right intention), ethical training (right speech, right bodily conduct, and right
livelihood), and training in concentration (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration).

c. Ontology of Suffering: the Five Aggregates

A prominent concern of the Buddha in the Pli Nikyas is to provide a solution to the problem of
suffering. When asked about his teachings, the Buddha answers that he only teaches suffering and
its cessation (M.I.140). The first noble truth describes what the Buddha means by suffering: birth,
aging, illness, death, union with what is displeasing, separation from what is pleasing, not getting
what one wants, the five aggregates of grasping (S.V.421).

The original Pali term for suffering is dukkha, a word that ordinarily means physical and mental
pain, but that in the first noble truth designates diverse kinds of frustration, and the existential
angst generated by the impermanence of life and the unavoidability of old age, disease, and death.
However, when the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas mentions birth and the five aggregates of
grasping, he seems to be referring to the fact that our psychophysical components are conditioned
by grasping, and consequently, within sasra, the cycle of births and deaths. This interpretation
is consistent with later Buddhist tradition, which speaks about three types of dukkha: ordinary
suffering (mental and physical pain), suffering due to change (derived from the impermanence of
things), and suffering due to conditions (derived from being part of sasra).

When the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas speaks about personal identity and the human predicament,
he uses the technical expression five aggregates of grasping (pacupdnakkhandh). That is,
the Buddha describes human existence in terms of five groups of constituents. The five aggregates
are: material form (rpa), sensations (vedan), perceptions (sa), mental formations
(sakhra), consciousness (via). While the first aggregate refers to material components, the
other four designate a variety of mental functions.

The aggregate material form is explained as the four great elements and the shape or figure of our
physical body. The four great elements are earth, water, fire, and air. The earth element is further
defined as whatever is solid in our body, and water as whatever is liquid. The fire element refers
to that by which one is warmed, ages, and is consumed, and the process of digestion. The air
element denotes the breathing process and movements of gas throughout the body (M.I.185ff).

The aggregate sensations denote pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings experienced after there
is contact between the six sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) and their six
objects (forms, sounds, odors, tastes, tangible objects, and mental phenomena). The aggregate
perceptions express the mental function by which someone is able to identify objects. There are
six types of perceptions corresponding to the six objects of the senses. The aggregate formations
express emotional and intellectual dispositions, literally volitions (sacetan), towards the six
objects of the senses. These dispositions are the result of past cognitive and affective conditioning,
that is, past karma or past voluntary actions. The aggregate consciousness connotes the ability to
know and to be aware of the six objects of the senses (S.III.59ff).

d. Arguments for the Doctrine of Non-self

The Buddha reiterates again and again throughout the Pli Nikyas that any of the five aggregates
whether past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or
near, ought to be seen as it actually is with right wisdom thus: this is not mine, this I am not, this
is not my self. When the disciple contemplates the five aggregates in this way, he or she
becomes disenchanted (nibbindati), lust fades away (virajjati), and he or she attains liberation due
to the absence of lust (virg vimuccati) (M.I.138-9).

The Buddha of the Pli Nikyas justifies this view of the five aggregates as non-self with three
main arguments, which are used as a method of analytical meditation, and in polemics with
members of other schools. The assumption underlying the Buddhas arguments is that something
might be considered a self only if it were permanent, not leading to suffering, not dependently
arisen, and subject to ones own will. Since none of the five aggregates fulfill any of these
conditions, it is wrong to see them as belonging to us or as our self.

In the first and most common argument for non-self the Buddha asks someone the following
questions: What do you think, monks, is material form permanent or impermanent?
Impermanent, venerable sir. Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness? Suffering,
venerable sir. Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, fit to be regarded as:
this is mine, this I am, this is my self? No, venerable sir (M.I.138, etc). The same reasoning
is applied to the other aggregates.

The first argument is also applied to the six sensual organs, the six objects, the six types of
consciousness, perceptions, sensations, and formations that arise dependent on the contact
between the senses and their objects (M.III.278ff). Sometimes the first argument for non-self is
applied to the six senses and their objects without questions and answers: Monks, the visual
organ is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is non-self. What is
non-self ought to be seen as it really is with right wisdom thus: this is not mine, this I am not, this
is not my self (S.IV.1ff).

The second argument for non-self is much less frequent: Monks, material form is non-self. If it
were self, it would not lead to affliction. It would be possible [to say] with regard to material
form: Let my material form be thus. Let my material form not be thus. But precisely because it
is non-self, it leads to affliction. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to material form: Let
my material form be thus. Let my material form not be thus (S.III.66-7). The same reasoning is
applied to the other four aggregates.

The third argument deduces non-self from that fact that physical and mental phenomena depend
on certain causes to exist. For instance, in (M.III.280ff), the Buddha first analyzes the dependent
arising of physical and mental phenomena. Then he argues: If anyone says: the visual organ is
self, that is unacceptable. The rising and falling of the visual organ are fully known (payati).
Since the rising and falling of the visual organ are fully known, it would follow that: my self
arises and falls. Therefore, it is unacceptable to say: the visual organ is self. Thus the visual
organ is non-self. The same reasoning is applied to the other senses, their objects, and the six
types of consciousness, contacts (meeting of sense, object and consciousness), sensations, and
cravings derived from them.

The third argument also appears combined with the first one without questions and answers. For
instance, in (A.V.188), it is said that whatever becomes, that is conditioned, volitionally formed,
dependently arisen, that is impermanent. What is impermanent, that is suffering. What is
suffering, that is [to be regarded thus]: this is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.

If something can be inferred from these three arguments, it is that the target of the doctrine of
non-self is not all concepts of self but specifically views of the self as permanent and not
dependently arisen. That is, the doctrine of non-self opposes what is technically called views of
personal identity or more commonly translated personality views (sakkyadihi). Views of
personal identity relate the five aggregates to a permanent and independent self in four ways: as
being identical, as being possession of the self, as being in the self, or as the self being in them
(M.I.300ff). All these views of personal identity are said to be the product of spiritual ignorance,
that is, of not seeing with right wisdom the true nature of the five aggregates, their origin, their
cessation, and the way leading to their cessation.

e. Human Identity and the Meaning of Non-self

Since the Pli Nikyas accept the common sense usages of the word self (attan, Skt. tman),
primarily in idiomatic expressions and as a reflexive pronoun meaning oneself, the doctrine of
non-self does not imply a literal negation of the self. Similarly, since the Buddha explicitly
criticizes views that reject karma and moral responsibility (M.I.404ff), the doctrine of non-self
should not be understood as the absolute rejection of moral agency and any concept of personal
identity. In fact, the Buddha explicitly defines personal identity (sakkya) as the five aggregates
(M.I.299).

Since the sixth sense, or mind, includes the four mental aggregates, and since the ordinary five
senses and their objects fall under the aggregate of material form, it can be said that for the
Buddha of the Pli Nikyas personal identity is defined not only in terms of the five aggregates,
but also in terms of the six senses and their six objects.

If the meaning of non-self were that there is literally no self whatsoever, no personal identity and
no moral agency whatsoever, then the only logical conclusion would be to state that the Buddha
taught nonsense and that the Pli Nikyas are contradictory, sometimes accepting the existence of
a self and other times rejecting it. Even though no current scholar of Buddhism would endorse
such an interpretation of non-self, it is still popular in some missionary circles and apologetic
literature.

A more sympathetic interpretation of non-self distinguishes between two main levels of discourse
(Collins 1982). The first level of discourse does not question the concept of self and freely uses
personal terms and expressions in accordance with ordinary language and social conventions. The
second level of discourse is philosophically more sophisticated and rejects views of self and
personal identity as permanent and not dependently arisen. Behind the second level of discourse
there is a technical understanding of the self and personal identity as the five aggregates, that is, as
a combination of psychophysical processes, all of them impermanent and dependently originated.

This concept of the self as permanent and not dependently arisen is problematic because it is
based on a misperception of the aggregates. This misperception of the five aggregates is
associated with what is technically called the conceit I am (asmimna) and the underlying
tendency to the conceits I and mine (ahakra-mamakra-mnnusaya). This combination
of conceit and ignorance fosters different types of cravings, especially craving for immortal
existence, and subsequently, speculations about the past, present, and future nature of the self and
personal identity. For instance, in (D.I.30ff), the Buddha speaks of different ascetics and Brahmins
who claim that the self after death is material, immaterial, both material and immaterial, neither
material nor immaterial, finite, infinite, both, neither, of uniform perception, of varied perception,
of limited perception, of unlimited perception, wholly happy, wholly miserable, both, neither.
The doctrine of non-self is primarily intended to counteract views of the self and personal identity
rooted in ignorance regarding the nature of the five aggregates, the conceit I am, and craving for
immortal existence.

A minority of scholars reject the notion that the Buddhas doctrine of non-self implies the
negation of the true self, which for them is permanent and independent of causes and conditions.
Accordingly, the purpose of the doctrine of non-self is simply to deny that the five aggregates are
the true self. The main reason for this interpretation is that the Buddha does not say anywhere in
the Pli Nikyas that the self does not exist; he only states that a self and what belongs to a self
are not apprehended (M.I.138). Therefore, for these interpreters the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas
only claims that impermanent and conditioned things like the five aggregates are not the true self.
For these scholars, the Buddha does talk about the true self when he speaks about the
consciousness of liberated beings (M.I.140), and the unconditioned, unborn and deathless nirvana
(Bhattacarya 1973; Prez Remn 1981).

However, the majority of Buddhist scholars agree with the traditional Buddhist self-
understanding: they think that the doctrine of non-self is incompatible with any doctrine about a
permanent and independent self, not just with views that mistakenly identify an alleged true self
with the five aggregates. The main reason for this interpretation relates to the doctrine of
dependent arising.

f. Causality and the Principle of Dependent Arising

The importance of dependent arising (paiccasamuppda) cannot be underestimated: the Buddha


realized its workings during the night of his enlightenment (M.I.167). Preaching the doctrine of
dependent arising amounts to preaching the Dharma (M.II.32), and whoever sees it sees the
Dharma (M.I.191). The Dharma of dependent arising remains valid whether or not there are
Buddhas in the world (S.II.25), and it is through not understanding it that people are trapped into
the cycle of birth and death (D.II.55).

The doctrine of dependent arising can be formulated in two ways that usually appear together: as
a general principle or as a chain of causal links to explain the arising and ceasing of suffering and
the process of rebirth. The general principle of dependent arising states that when this exists, that
comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to
be; with the cessation of this, that ceases (M.II.32; S.II.28).

Unlike the logical principle of conditionality, the principle of dependent arising does not designate
a connection between two ideas but rather an ontological relationship between two things or
events within a particular timeframe. Dependent arising expresses not only the Buddhas
understanding of causality but also his view of things as interrelated. The point behind dependent
arising is that things are dependent on specific conditions (paicca), and that they arise together
with other things (samuppda). In other words, the principle of dependent arising conveys both
ontological conditionality and the constitutive relativity of things. This relativity, however, does
not mean that for the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas everything is interdependent or that something is
related to everything else. This is a later development of Buddhist thought, not a characteristic of
early Indian Buddhism.

The most comprehensive chain of dependent arising contains twelve causal links: (1) ignorance,
(2) formations, (3) consciousness, (4) mentality-materiality, (5) the six senses, (6) contact, (7)
sensations, (8) craving (9) grasping, (10) becoming, (11) birth, (12) old age and death. The most
common formulation is as follows: with 1 as a condition 2 [comes to be]; with 2 as a condition 3
[comes to be], and so forth. Conversely, with the cessation of 1 comes the cessation of 2; with the
cessation of 2 comes the cessation of 3, and so forth.

It is important to keep in mind that this chain does not imply a linear understanding of causality
where the antecedent link disappears once the subsequent link has come to be. Similarly, each of
the causal links is not to be understood as the one and only cause that produces the next link but
rather as the most necessary condition for its arising. For instance, ignorance, the first link, is not
the only cause of the process of suffering but rather the cause most necessary for the continuation
of such a process. For the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas, as well as for later Buddhist tradition, there
is always a multiplicity of causes and conditions at play.

The traditional interpretation divides the twelve link chain of dependent arising into three lives.
The first two links (ignorance and formations) belong to the past life: due to a misperception of
the nature of the five aggregates, a person (the five aggregates) performs voluntary actions:
mental, verbal, and bodily actions, with wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral karmic effects.
The next ten factors correspond to the present life: the karmic effects of past voluntary formations
are stored in consciousness and transferred to the next life. Consciousness together with the other
mental aggregates combines with a new physical body to constitute a new psychophysical
organism (mentality-materiality). This new stage of the five aggregates develops the six senses
and the ability to establish contact with their six objects. Contacts with objects of the senses
produce pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations. If the sensations are pleasant, the person
usually responds with cravings for more pleasant experiences, and if the sensations are
unpleasant, with aversion. Craving and aversion, as well as the underlying ignorance of the nature
of the five aggregates are fundamental causes of suffering and rebirth: the three roots of the
unwholesome according to the Pli Nikyas, or the three mental poisons according to later
Buddhist traditions.

By repeating the affective responses of craving and aversion, the person becomes more and more
dependent on whatever leads to more pleasant sensations and less unpleasant ones. This creates a
variety of emotional dependencies and a tendency to grasp or hold onto what causes pleasure and
avoids pain. The Buddha of the Pli Nikyas speaks about four types of grasping: towards sensual
pleasures, views, rites-and-observances, and especially towards doctrines of a [permanent and
independent] self (D.II.57-8).

The original term for grasping is updna, which also designates the fuel or supply necessary to
maintain a fire. In this sense, grasping is the psychological fuel that maintains the fires of craving,
aversion, and delusion, the fires whose extinction is called nirvana. The Buddhas ideal of letting
go and detachment should not be misunderstood as the absence of any emotions whatsoever
including love and compassion, but specifically as the absence of emotions associated with
craving, aversion, and delusion. Motivated by grasping and the three mental fires, the five
aggregates perform further voluntary actions, whose karmic effects perpetuate existence within
the cycle of rebirth and subsequent suffering. The last two links (birth, aging and death) refer to
the future life. At the end of this present existence, a new birth of the five aggregates will take
place followed by old age, death, and other kinds of suffering.

The twelve-link chain of dependent arising explains the processes of rebirth and suffering without
presupposing a permanent and independent self. The Buddha of the Pli Nikyas makes this point
explicit in his passionate rebuttal of the monk Sti, who claimed that it is the same consciousness
that wanders through the cycle of rebirth. For the Buddha, consciousness, like the other eleven
causal links, is dependent on specific conditions (M.I.258ff), which entails that consciousness is
impermanent, suffering, and non-self.

Instead of a permanent and independent self behind suffering and the cycle of rebirth, the Buddha
of the Pli Nikyas presupposes five psychophysical sets of processes, namely, the five
aggregates, which imply an impermanent and dependently-arisen concept of self and personal
identity. In other words, the Buddha rejects substance-selves but accepts process-selves (Gowans
2003). Yet, the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas explicitly refuses to use personal terms such as self
in technical explanations of rebirth and suffering, and he prefers to speak in terms of causes and
conditions that produce other causes and conditions (S.II.13-4; S.II.62; M.III.19). But what
happens to consciousness and the other aggregates when grasping no longer exists and the three
mental fires have been extinguished? What happens when suffering ceases and the cycle of rebirth
stops?

4. Nirvana and the Silence of the Buddha


a. Two Kinds of Nirvana and the Undetermined Questions

When the fires of craving, aversion, and ignorance are extinguished at the moment of
enlightenment, the aggregates are liberated due to the lack of grasping. This is technically called
nirvana with remainder of grasping (saupdisesa-nibbna), or as later tradition puts it, nirvana of
mental defilements (kilesa-parinibbna). The expression remainder of grasping refers to the five
aggregates of liberated beings, which continue to live after enlightenment but without negative
mental states.

The aggregates of the liberated beings perform their respective functions and, like the aggregates
of anybody else, they grow old, get sick, and are subject to pleasant and unpleasant sensations
until death. The difference between unenlightened and enlightened beings is that enlightened
beings respond to sensations without craving or aversion, and with higher knowledge of the true
nature of the five aggregates.

The definition of nirvana without remainder (anupdisesa-nibbna) that appears in (It 38) only
says that for the liberated being all that is experienced here and now, without enchantment
[another term for grasping], will be cooled (sta). Since all is defined in the Pli Nikyas as the
six senses and their six objects (S.IV.15), which is another way of describing the individual
psychophysical experience or the five aggregates, the expression all that is experienced refers to
what happens to the aggregates of liberated beings. Since (It 38) explicitly uses the expression
here and now (idheva), it seems impossible to conclude that the definition of nirvana without
remainder is intended to say anything about nirvana or the aggregates beyond death. Rather (It 38)
describes nirvana and the aggregates at the moment of death: they will be no longer subject to
rebirth and they will become cooled, tranquil, at peace. The question is: what does this peace or
coolness entail? What happens after the nirvana of the aggregates? Does the mind of enlightened
beings survive happily ever after? Does the liberated being exist beyond death or not?

These questions are left undetermined (avykata) by the Buddha of the the Pli Nikyas. The ten
questions in the the Pli Nikyas ask whether (1) The world is eternal; (2) The world is not
eternal; (3) The world is infinite; (4) The world is finite; (5) Body and soul are one thing; (6)
Body and soul are two different things; (7) A liberated being (tathgata) exists after death; (8) A
liberated being (tathgata) does not exist after death; (9) A liberated being (tathgata) both exists
and does not exist after death; (10) A liberated being (tathgata) neither exists nor does not exist
after death. In Sanskrit Buddhist texts the ten views become fourteen by adding the last two
possibilities of the tetralema (both A and B, neither A nor B) to the questions about the world.

Unfortunately for those looking for quick answers, the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas does not
provide a straightforward yes or no response to any of these questions. When the Buddha is asked
whether the liberated being exists, does not exist, both, or neither, he sets aside these questions by
saying that (1) he does not hold such views, (2) he has left the questions undetermined, and (3) the
questions do not apply (na upeti). The first two answers are also used to respond to questions
about the temporal and spatial finitude or infinitude of the world, and the identity or difference
between the soul and the body. Only the third type of answer is given to the questions about
liberated beings after death.

Most presentations of early Buddhism interpret these three answers of the Buddha as an eloquent
silence about metaphysical questions due primarily to pragmatic reasons, namely, the questions
divert from spiritual practice and are not conducive to liberation from suffering. While the
pragmatic reasons for the answers of the Buddha are undeniable, it is inaccurate to understand
them as silence about metaphysical questions. In fact, the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas does
address many metaphysical issues with his teachings of non-self and dependent arising.

The answers of the Buddha to the undetermined questions are due not only to pragmatic reasons
but also to metaphysical reasons: the questions are inconsistent with the doctrines of non-self and
dependent arising because they assume the existence of a permanent and independent self, a self
that is either finite or infinite, identical or different from the body, existing or not existing after
death. Besides pragmatic and metaphysical reasons, there are cognitive and affective reasons for
the answers of the Buddha: the undetermined questions are based on ignorance about the nature of
the five aggregates and craving for either immortal existence or inexistence. The questions are
expressions of identity views, that is, they are part of the problem of suffering. Answering the
questions directly would have not done any good: a yes answer would have fostered more craving
for immortal existence and led to eternalist views, and a no answer would have fostered further
confusion and led to nihilist views (S.IV.400-1).

In the case of the undetermined questions about the liberated being, there are also apophatic
reasons for answering it does not apply. The Buddha of the Pli Nikyas illustrates the
inapplicability of the questions with the simile of the fire extinct: just as it does not make sense to
ask about the direction in which an extinct fire has gone, it is inappropriate to ask about the status
of the liberated being beyond death: The fire burned in dependence on its fuel of grass and
sticks. When that is used up, if it does not get any more fuel, being without fuel, it is reckoned as
extinguished. Similarly, the enlightened being has abandoned the five aggregates by which one
might describe himhe is liberated from reckoning in terms of the five aggregates, he is
profound, immeasurable, unfathomable like the ocean (M.I.487-8).

b. Eternalism, Nihilism, and the Middle Way

There are three possible interpretations of the simile of the extinct fire: (1) liberated beings no
longer exist beyond death (2) liberated beings exist in a mysterious unfathomable way beyond
death (3) the Buddha is silent about both the liberated being and nirvana after death. The first
interpretation seems the most logical conclusion given the Buddhas ontology of suffering and the
doctrine of non-self. However, the nihilist interpretation makes Buddhist practice meaningless and
contradicts texts where the Buddha criticizes teachings not conducive to spiritual practice such as
materialism and determinism (M.I.401ff). But more importantly, the nihilist interpretation is
vehemently rejected in the Pli Nikyas: As I am not, as I do not proclaim, so have I been
baselessly, vainly, falsely, and wrongly misrepresented by some ascetics and brahmins thus: the
ascetic Gotama [Buddha] is one who leads astray; he teaches the annihilation, the destruction, the
extermination of an existing being (M.I.140).

The second interpretation appears to some as following from the Buddhas incontrovertible
response to the nihilist reading of his teachings: since the Buddha rejects nihilism, he must
somehow accept the eternal existence of liberated beings, or at least the eternal existence of
nirvana. For eternalist interpreters, the texts in the Pli Nikyas that speak about the
transcendence and ineffability of liberated beings and nirvana can be understood as implying their
existence after or beyond death.

There are several eternalist readings of the Buddhas thought. We have already mentioned the
most common: the doctrine of non-self merely states that the five aggregates are not the true self,
which is the transcendent and ineffable domain of nirvana. However, there are eternalist
interpretations within Buddhism too. That is, interpretations that are nominally consistent with the
doctrine of non-self but that nevertheless speak of something as eternally existing: either the mind
of liberated beings or nirvana. For instance, Theravda Buddhists usually see nirvana as non-self,
but at the same time as an unconditioned (asakhata) and deathless (amata) reality. The
assumption, though rarely stated, is that liberated beings dwell eternally in nirvana without a
sense of I and mine, which is a transcendent state beyond the comprehension of
unenlightened beings. Another eternalist interpretation is that of the Dalai Lama who, following
the standard interpretation of Tibetan Buddhists, claims that the Buddha did not teach the
cessation of all aggregates but only of contaminated aggregates. That is, the uncontaminated
aggregates of liberated beings continue to exist individually beyond death, though they are seen as
impermanent, dependently arisen, non-self, and empty of inherent existence (Dalai Lama
1975:27). Similarly, Peter Harvey understands nirvana as a selfless and objectless state of
consciousness different from the five aggregates that exists temporarily during life and eternally
beyond death (1995: 186-7).

The problem with eternalist interpretations is that they contradict what the Pli Nikyas say
explicitly about the way to consider liberated beings, the limits of language, the content of the
Buddhas teachings, and dependent arising as a middle way between the extremes of eternalism
and annihilationism. In (S.III.110ff), Sriputta, the Buddhas leading disciple in doctrinal matters,
explains that liberated beings should be considered neither as annihilated after death nor as
existing without the five aggregates.

In (D.II.63-4) the Buddha makes clear that consciousness and mentality-materiality, that is, the
five aggregates, are the limits of designation (adhivacana), language (nirutti), cognitions
(viatti), and understanding (pa). Accordingly, in (D.II.68) the Buddha says it is inadequate
to state that the liberated being exists after death, does not exist, both, or neither. This reading is
confirmed by (Sn 1076): There is not measure (pama) of one who has gone out, that by which
[others] might speak (vajju) of him does not exist. When all things have been removed, then all
ways of speech (vdapath) are also removed.

Given the Buddhas understanding of the limits of language and understanding in the Pli
Nikyas, it is not surprising that he responded to the accusation of teaching the annihilation of
beings, by saying that formerly and now I only teach suffering and the cessation of suffering.
Since the Buddha does not teach anything beyond the cessation of suffering at the moment of
death, that is, beyond the limits of language and understanding, it is inaccurate to accuse him of
teaching the annihilation of beings. Similarly, stating that liberated beings exist after death in a
mysterious way beyond the four logical possibilities of existence, non-existence, both or neither,
is explicitly rejected in (S.III.118-9) and (S.IV.384), where once again the Buddha concludes that
he only makes known suffering and the cessation of suffering.

If the eternalist interpretation were correct, it would have been unnecessary for the Buddha of the
Pli Nikyas to put so much emphasis on the teaching of dependent arising. Why would
dependent arising be defined in (S.II.17) as right view and as the middle way between the
extremes of eternalism and annihilationism if the truth were that the consciousness of liberated
beings or the unconditioned nirvana exist eternally? If knowing and seeing dependent arising
precludes someone from speculating about a permanent self in the past and the future (M.I.265),
why would the Buddha teach anything about the eternal existence of liberated beings and nirvana?

In order to avoid the aforementioned contradictions entailed by eternalist readings of the Pli
Nikyas, all texts about nirvana and the consciousness of liberated beings are to be understood as
referring to this life or the moment of death, never to some mysterious consciousness or domain
that exists beyond death. Since none of the texts about nirvana and liberated beings found in the
Pli Nikyas refer unambiguously to their eternal existence beyond death, I interpret the Buddha
as being absolutely silent about nirvana and liberated beings beyond death (Vlez de Cea 2004a).
In other words, nothing of what the Pli Nikyas say goes beyond the limits of language and
understanding, beyond the content of the Buddhas teachings, and beyond dependent arising as the
middle way between eternalism and annihilationism.

Instead of focusing on nirvana and liberated beings beyond death, the Buddha of the Pli Nikyas
emphasizes dependent arising and the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness. Dependent
arising is intended to avoid views about a permanent and independent self in the past and the
future (M.I.265; M.III.196ff), and the four foundations of mindfulness are said to be taught
precisely to destroy such views (D.III.141). That is, the Buddhas fundamental concern is to
address the problem of suffering in the present without being distracted by views about the past or
the future: Let not a person revive the past, or on the future build his hopes; for the past has been
left behind and the future has not been reached. Instead with insight let him see each presently
arising state (paccuppannaca yo dhamma tattha tattha vipassati); let him know that and be sure
of it, invincibly, unshakeably. Today the effort must be made, tomorrow death may come, who
knows? (Bhikkhu Bodhis translation. M.III.193).

5. Buddhist Ethics
Early Buddhist ethics includes more than lists of precepts and more than the section on ethical
training of the eightfold noble path; that is, Buddhist ethics cannot be reduced to right action
(abstaining from killing, stealing, lying), right speech (abstaining from false, divisive, harsh, and
useless speech), and right livelihood (abstaining from professions that harm living beings).
Besides bodily and verbal actions, the Pli Nikyas discuss a variety of mental actions including
thoughts, motivations, emotions, and perspectives. In fact, it is the ethics of mental actions that
constitutes the main concern of the Buddhas teaching.

Early Buddhist ethics encompasses the entire spiritual path, that is, bodily, verbal, and mental
actions. The factors of the eightfold noble path dealing with wisdom and concentration (right
view, right intentions, rights effort, right concentration, right mindfulness) relate to different types
of mental actions. The term right (samm) in this context does not mean the opposite of
wrong, but rather perfect or complete; that is, it denotes the best or the most effective
actions to attain liberation. This, however, does not imply that the Buddha advocates the most
perfect form of ethical conduct for all his disciples.

Early Buddhist ethics is gradualist in the sense that there are diverse ways of practicing the path
with several degrees of commitment; not all disciples are expected to practice Buddhist ethics
with the same intensity. Monks and nuns take more precepts and are supposed to devote more
time to spiritual practices than householders. However, a complete monastic code (prtimoka) like
those found in later Vinaya literature does not appear in the Pli Nikyas. The most
comprehensive formulation of early Buddhist ethics, probably common to monastic disciples and
lay people, is the list of ten dark or unwholesome actions and their opposite, the ten bright or
wholesome actions: three bodily actions (abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct),
four verbal actions (abstaining from false, divisive, harsh, and useless speech), and tree mental
actions (abstaining from covetousness, ill-will, and dogmatic views).

The Buddha of the Pli Nikyas defines action in terms of intention or choice (cetan): It is
intention, monks, what I call action. Having intended, someone acts through body, speech, and
mind (A.III.415). The Pli Nikyas define the roots of unwholesome (akusala) actions as greed
(lobha), aversion (dosa), and delusion (moha). Conversely, the roots of wholesome actions are
defined as the opposite mental states (M.I.47). Some scholars infer from these two definitions that
Buddhist ethics is an ethics of intention or an agent-based form of virtue ethics. That is, according
to these scholars, for the Buddha of the the Pli Nikyas, only the agents intention or motivation
determine the goodness of actions. This interpretation, however, is disproved by many texts of the
Pli Nikyas where good and evil actions are discussed without any reference to the underlying
intention or motivation of the agent. Consequently, the more comprehensive account understands
intention not as the only factor that determines the goodness of actions, but rather as the condition
of possibility, the necessary condition for speaking about action in the moral sense. Without
intention or choice, there is no ethical action. Similarly, motivation, while a central moral factor in
Buddhist ethics, is neither the only factor nor always the most important factor to determine the
goodness of actions. Understanding Buddhist ethics as concerned exclusively with the three roots
of the wholesome does not fully capture the breath of moral concern of the Pli Nikyas (Vlez de
Cea 2004b).

The fundamental moral law of the universe according to early Buddhism is what is popularly
called the law of karma: good actions produce good consequences, and bad actions lead to bad
consequences. The consequences of volitional actions can be experienced in this life or in
subsequent lives. Although not everything we experience is due to past actions, physical
appearance, character, lifespan, prosperity, and rebirth destination are believed to be influenced by
past actions. This influence however, is not to be confused with fatalism, a position rejected in the
Pli Nikyas. There is always room for mitigating and even eradicating the negative consequences
of past actions with new volitions in the present. That is, past karma does not dictate our situation:
the existence of freewill and the possibility of changing our predicament is always assumed.
There is conditioning of the will and other mental factors, but no hard determinism.

A common objection to early Buddhist ethics is how there can be freewill and responsibility
without a permanent self that transmigrates through lives. If there is no self, who is the agent of
actions? Who experiences the consequences of actions? Is the person who performs an action in
this life the same person that experiences the consequences of that action in a future life? Is it a
different person? The Buddha considers these questions improper of his disciples, who are trained
to explain things in terms of causes and condition (S.II.61ff; S.II.13ff)). In other words, since the
Buddhas disciples explain processes with the doctrine of dependent arising, they should avoid
explanations that use personal terms and presuppose the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. The
moral agent is not a substance-self but rather the five aggregates, a dynamic and dependently-
arisen process-self who, like a flame or the water of a river, changes all the time and yet has some
degree of continuity.

The most common interpretations of early Buddhist ethics view its nature as either a form of
agent-based virtue ethics or as a sophisticated kind of consequentialism. The concern for virtue
cultivation is certainly prevalent in early Buddhism, and evidently the internal mental state or
motivation underlying actions is extremely important to determine the overall goodness of
actions, which is the most important factor for advanced practitioners. Similarly, the concern for
the consequences of actions, whether or not they lead to the happiness or the suffering of oneself
and others, also pervades the Pli Nikyas. However, the goodness of actions in the Pli Nikyas
does not depend exclusively on either the goodness of motivations or the goodness of
consequences. Respect to status and duty, observance of rules and precepts, as well as the intrinsic
goodness of certain external bodily and verbal actions are equally necessary to assess the
goodness of at least certain actions. Since the foundations of right action in the Pli Nikyas are
irreducible to one overarching principle, value or criterion of goodness, early Buddhist ethics is
pluralistic in a metaethical sense. Given the unique combination of deontological,
consequentialist, and virtue ethical trends found in the Pli Nikyas, early Buddhist ethics should
be understood in its own terms as a sui generis normative theory inassimilable to Western ethical
traditions.

6. References and Further Reading


a. Primary Sources

All references to the Pli Nikyas are to the edition of The Pli Text Society, Oxford. References
to the Aguttara, Dgha, Majjhima, and Sayutta Nikyas are to the volume and page number.
References to Udna and Itivuttaka are to the page number and to Dhammapada and Sutta Nipta
to the verse number.

A. Aguttara Nikya
D. Dgha Nikya
M. Majjhima Nikya
S. Sayutta Nikya
Ud. Udna
It. Itivuttaka
Dhp. Dhammapada
Sn. Sutta Nipta

b. Secondary Sources

Bechert, H. (Ed) 1995. When Did the Buddha Live? The Controversy on the Dating of the
Historical Buddha. Selected Papers Based on a Symposium Held under the Auspices of
the Academy of Sciences in Gttingen. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications. 1995.
Bhattacharya, K. 1973. Ltman-Brahman dans le Bouddhisme Ancien. Pars: EFEO.
Bhikkhu namoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of the
Buddha. A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikya. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Bhikkhu ananda. 1971. Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought. Kandy:
Buddhist Publication Society.
Cousins, L.S. 1996. Good or Skillful? Kusala in Canon and Commentary. Journal of
Buddhist Ethics.Vol. 3: 133-164.
Collins, S. 1982. Selfless Persons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Collins, S. 1994. What are Buddhists Doing When They Deny the Self? In Religion and
Practical Reason, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and David Tracy. Albany: SUNY.
Collins, S. 1998. Nirvana and other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press
Dalai Lama. 1994. The Way to Freedom. San Francisco: Harper.
Dharmasiri, G. 1996. Fundamentals of Buddhist Ethics. Singapore: Buddhist Research
Society.
Fuller, P. 2005. The Notion of Dihi in Theravda Buddhism. London: RoutledgeCurzon.
Gombrich, R. 1988. Theravda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to
Modern Colombo. London: Routledge.
Gombrich, R. 1996. How Buddhism Began. London: Athlone.
Gethin, R. 2001. The Buddhist Path to Awakening. Richmon Surrey: Curzon Press.
Gowans, C. W. 2003. Philosophy of the Buddha. London: Routledge.
Hallisey, C. 1996. Ethical Particularism in Theravda Buddhism. Journal of Buddhist
Ethics. Vol. 3: 32-34.
Hamilton, S. 2000. Early Buddhism: A New Approach. Richmon Surrey: Curzon Press.
Harvey, P. 1995. The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness, and Nirvana in Early
Buddhism. Richmon Surrey: Curzon Press.
Harvey, P. 1995. Criteria for Judging the Unwholesomeness of Actions in the Texts of
Theravda Buddhism. Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol. 2: 140-151.
Harvey, P. 2000. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
Hoffman, F. J. 1987. Rationality and Mind in Early Buddhism. New Delhi: Motilal
Banarsidass.
Hwang, S. 2006. Metaphor and Literalism in Buddhism: The Doctrinal History of
Nirvana. London: RoutledgeCurzon.
Jayatilleke, K. N. 1963. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. London: Allen & Unwin.
Johansson, R. 1969. The Psychology of Nirvana. London: Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Kalupahana, D. 1976. Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. Honolulu: University
Press of Hawaii.
Kalupahana, D. 1992. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities.
Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.
Keown, D. 1992. The Nature of Buddhist Ethics. New York: Palgrave.
Norman, K. R. 1983. Pli Literature: Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and
Sanskrit of all the Hnayna schools of Buddhism. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Norman, K. R. 1990-6. Collected Papers. Oxford: The Pli Text Society.
Pande, G.C. 1995. Studies in the Origins of Buddhism. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Prez-Remn, J. 1980. Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism. New York: Mouton.
Perret, R. 1986. Egoism, Altruism, and Intentionalism in Buddhist Ethics. Journal of
IndianPhilosophy. Vol. 15: 71-85.
Premasiri, P. D. 1987. Early Buddhist Concept of Ethical Knowledge: A Philosophical
Analysis. Kalupahana, D.J. and Weeraratne, W.G. eds. Buddhist Philosophy and Culture:
Essays in Honor of N.A. Jayawickrema. Colombo: N.A. Jayawickrema Felicitation
Volume Committee. Pp. 37-70.
Ronkin, N. 2005. Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition.
London: RoutledgeCurzon.
Tilakaratne, A. 1993. Nirvana and Ineffability: A Study of the Buddhist Theory of Reality
and Languague. Colombo: Karunaratne and Sons.
Vlez de Cea , A. 2004 a. The Silence of the Buddha and the Questions about the
Tathgata after Death. The Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies, no 5.
Vlez de Cea , A. 2004 b. The Early Buddhist Criteria of Goodness and the Nature of
Buddhist Ethics.Journal of Buddhist Ethics 11, pp.123-142.
Vlez de Cea , A. 2005. Emptiness in the Pli Suttas and the Question of Ngrjunas
Orthodoxy.Philosophy East and West. Vol. 55: 4.
Webster, D. 2005. The Philosophy of Desire in the Pali Canon. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Author Information

Abraham Velez Email: abraham.velez@eku.edu Eastern Kentucky University U. S. A.


Madhyamaka Buddhist Philosophy
Madhyamaka and Yogcra are the two main philosophical trajectories associated with the
Mahyna stream of Buddhist thought. According to Tibetan doxographical literature,
Madhyamaka represents the philosophically definitive expression of Buddhist doctrine. Stemming
from the second-century writings of Ngrjuna, Madhyamaka developed in the form of
commentaries on his works. This style of development is characteristic of the basically scholastic
character of the Indian philosophical tradition. The commentaries elaborated not only varying
interpretations of Ngrjunas philosophy but also different understandings of the philosophical
tools that are appropriate to its advancement. Tibetan interpreters generally claim to take the
seventh-century commentaries of Candrakrti as authoritative, but Indian commentators
subsequent to him were in fact more influential in the course of Indian philosophy. Madhyamaka
also had considerable influence (though by way of a rather different set of texts) in East Asian
Buddhism, where a characteristic interpretive concern has been to harmonize Madhyamaka and
Yogcra. Although perhaps most frequently characterized by modern interpreters as a Buddhist
version of skepticism, Madhyamaka arguably develops metaphysical concerns. The logically
elusive character of Madhyamaka arguments has fascinated and perplexed generations of scholars.
This is surely appropriate with regard to a school whose principal term of art, emptiness
(nyat), reflects developments in Buddhist thought from the high scholasticism of Tibet to the
enigmatic discourse of East Asian Zen.

Table of Contents

1. Ngrjuna and the Paradoxical Perfection of Wisdom Literature


2. The Basic Philosophical Impulse
1. The Two Truths in Buddhist Abhidharma
2. The Interminability of Dependent Origination
3. Ethics and the Charge of Nihilism
3. The Question of Self-contradiction and the Possible Truth of Mdhyamika Claims
4. Historical Development of Indian Schools of Interpretation
5. More on the Svtantrika-Prsagika Difference: Madhyamaka and Buddhist Epistemology
6. Madhyamaka in Tibet
7. Madhyamaka in East Asia
8. References and Further Reading

1. Ngrjuna and the Paradoxical Perfection of Wisdom


Literature
Madhyamaka is a Sanskrit word that simply means middle way. (The derivative form
Mdhyamika literally means of or relating to the middle, and conventionally designates an
adherent of the school, or qualifies some aspect of its thought.) Madhyamaka refers to the Indian
Buddhist school of thought that develops in the form of commentaries on the works of Ngrjuna,
who flourished around 150 C.E. Ngrjuna figures in the traditional accounts developed to
authenticate the literature of the self-styled Mahyna stream of Buddhist thought. Arguing that
stras known to have begun circulating only at the beginning of the first millennium could
nevertheless represent the authentic teaching of the Buddha (buddhavacana), proponents of
Mahyna invoked the characteristically Buddhist idea of skill in means (upyakaualya); they
thus claimed that the Mahyna stras promulgate an advanced stage of the Buddhas teaching
such as would not have been appropriately taught to the earliest auditors of the Buddha, who,
unprepared by the necessarily preparatory earlier teachings, might draw nihilistic conclusions
from the stras. It is Ngrjuna who is said first to have recovered and promulgated these stras,
having retrieved the Prajpramit (Perfection of Wisdom) literature from the underwater
kingdom of the Ngas, or serpent kings.

Two texts generally represent the criteria for attributing authorship of a text to Ngrjuna. So, this
name conventionally refers to the person who wrote the Mlamadhyamakakriks (MMK,
Verses on the Firmly Fixed Middle Way) and the Vigrahavyvartan (VV, Turning Back
Objections). Both of these texts, but particularly the former, have occasioned a great deal of
interest among Indologists and philosophers. This is not surprising, since the MMK is indeed a
rich text. Stylistically lucid yet logically enigmatic, Ngrjunas major work shares with the
Prajpramit literature a characteristic air of paradox, which Madhyamakas critics see as
evidence of nihilism if not of incoherence. We read in this text, for example, that there is, on the
part of sasra, no difference at all from nirva (MMK 25.19). The texts first verse says
There do not exist, anywhere at all, any existents whatsoever, arisen either from themselves or
from something else, either from both or altogether without cause. (MMK 1.1)

2. The Basic Philosophical Impulse


a. The Two Truths in Buddhist Abhidharma

In styling the school that develops from Ngrjunas works the middle way (an expression used
by Ngrjuna himself), proponents of Madhyamaka exploited a long-invoked Buddhist trope.
Traditional accounts of the life of the Buddha typically characterize him as striking a middle
way between the extravagance of the courtly life that had been available to him as a prince and
the extreme asceticism he is said initially to have tried in his pursuit of transformative insight.
Philosophically, the relevant extremes between which any Buddhist account of the person must
steer are eternalism and nihilism. Eternalism (vatavda) is the view that there are enduring
existents of which the self is an example. Nihilism (ucchedavda) might be termed
eliminativism, and denotes, for Buddhists, the view that actions (karma) have no ethical
consequences, insofar as the agents of actions cannot be said to endure as the subjects who will
experience their effects.

Given their characteristically Buddhist concern to refuse the existence of an ultimately existent
self, it is the nihilism pole that Mdhyamikas must work hardest to avoid. Indeed, the concern
to avoid charges of nihilism represents one of the most significant preoccupations of Mdhyamika
philosophers. This concern has to be understood in terms of the traditionally Buddhist idea of
two truths, or two levels of explanation or description: the familiar level of discourse that
includes reference to the conventionally existent (savtisat), and the level which makes
reference only to what is ultimately existent (parmrthasat). Most schools of Buddhist
philosophy can be understood in terms of the sense in which they deny the ultimate existence of
the self, while affirming its conventional existence.

In its basically bhidharmika iterations (that is, in the ways elaborated in the earliest scholastic
literature of Indian Buddhism, the so-called Abhidharma) this denial of the ultimate existence
of the self is an idea that can be understood as comparable to a great deal of contemporary
philosophical discussion. Philosophical projects in cognitive science can be said, for example, to
turn on questions of how (or perhaps whether) to relate two levels of description: (1) the broadly
intentional level of description that generally reflects the first-person, phenomenological
perspective (and that is also reflected in ordinary language and interactions), and (2) the scientific
level of description at which the real explanatory work is done. Similarly, the broadly
bhidharmika trajectory of Buddhist philosophy has it that the two truths basically consist in two
sets of existing things: the set of conventionally existent (savtisat) things and the set of
ultimately existent (parmrthasat) things. The conventionally existent comprises all reducible or
supervenient phenomena (basically, all temporally enduring macro-objects); the ultimately
existent represents the set of ontological primitives, which the Abhidharma literature calls
dharmas. It is ultimately the case, then, that causal interactions among the dharmas exhaustively
explain all conventional events.

The works of Ngrjuna and his philosophical heirs are best understood as constitutively opposed
to this understanding of the two truths. The foundational idea of Madhyamaka is that the set of
ultimately existent things is an empty set a point that Mdhyamikas characteristically promote
by insisting on the emptiness (nyat) not only of wholes such as persons, but also of the analytic
categories (dharmas) to which these are reduced in Abhidharma literature. The works of
Ngrjuna and his commentators, then, typically comprise arguments to the effect that none of the
analytic categories (dharmas) and concepts used to explain anything can be coherently
formulated. More precisely, the argument is that no such categories can intrinsically provide any
explanatory purchase on the phenomena they purportedly explain.

b. The Interminability of Dependent Origination

In proceeding this way, Mdhyamikas can be understood to think that the ontologizing impulse of
Abhidharma compromises the most important insight of the Buddhist tradition which is, on the
Mdhyamika reading, that all existents are dependently originated (prattyasamutpanna). (The
cardinal doctrine of the dependent origination of all existents represents the flip-side of the
Buddhist denial of a self; that is, the reason we do not have unitary and enduring selves just is
that any moment of experience can be explained as having originated from innumerable causes,
none of which can be specified as what we really are.) More precisely, Mdhyamikas can be
said to have recognized that the ontological primitives posited by Abhidharma could have
explanatory purchase only if they are posited as an exception to the rule that everything is
dependently originated; that is, dependently originated existents could only be ultimately
explained by something that does not itself require the same kind of explanation. But it is
precisely the Mdhyamika point to emphasize that there is no exception to this rule; phenomena
are dependently originated all the way down, and it is therefore impossible to specify precisely
what it is upon which anything finally depends. Hence, there can be no set of ultimately existent
things.

Mdhyamika arguments to this effect typically work by showing that all explanatory categories
turn out to be constitutively dependent upon the phenomena they purportedly explain as, for
example, notions such as fire and fuel, action and agent, or cause and effect are
intelligible only relative to one another. To show the constitutively relative (that is, dependent)
character of all such explanatory categories and phenomena is effectively to make the one point
that Mdhyamikas are most concerned to make: that insofar as there is nothing that is not
dependently originated, there is therefore nothing that is not empty (nya). (This paraphrases
MMK 24.19, which says: Since there is no dharma whatsoever that is not dependently
originated, therefore there is no dharma whatsoever that is not empty.)

In thus characterizing all categories and all existents as finally empty, what Mdhyamikas mean
is that they are empty of what we may translate as essence (svabhva). This is true just insofar
as they exist not essentially (svabhvena), but only relatively that is, only in relation to other
existents and categories. In arguing thus, Mdhyamikas typifying characteristically Sanskritic
styles of argumentation, in which the terms and analyses of the Sanskrit grammarians figure
prominently exploit the etymology of the word svabhva. Although the semantic range of this
Sanskrit word typically comprises ideas like defining characteristic or identity, the word can
etymologically be read as referring to something existent (bhva) by itself (sva-). Among the
recently debated exegetical questions concerning Madhyamaka has been whether important
Mdhyamika arguments centrally involve an equivocation on this term, unwarrantedly equating
identity with causally independent existence.

c. Ethics and the Charge of Nihilism

It is not only in their characteristically Buddhist denial of a really existent self, but also in their
more radical (and rhetorically charged) emphasis on the universally obtaining character of
emptiness that Mdhyamikas recurrently elicited charges of nihilism a charge as often issuing
from proponents of other Buddhist schools as from the various Brahmanical schools of Indian
philosophy. One of the most prominently recurrent sorts of exchange in Ngrjunas MMK
involves an interlocutors presupposing that by emptiness Mdhyamikas must mean non-
existence. For example, the twenty-fourth chapter of the MMK begins with the challenge of an
imagined interlocutor (this one clearly another Buddhist): If all this is empty, then theres neither
production nor destruction; it follows, for you, that the Four Noble Truths dont exist. (MMK
24.1) The rejoinder (at MMK 24.20): it is in fact only because everything is empty which just is
to say, dependently originated that the Four Noble Truths can obtain. That is, the fact that
existents only come into being in mutual dependence upon one another (and are therefore
empty of an essence) is all that makes it possible for (what is the first Noble Truth) suffering to
arise and thus having arisen as a contingent and dependent phenomenon, to be caused to cease
(the third Noble Truth). If, in contrast, suffering were the natural or essential state of affairs
(svabhva), this would (as Ngrjuna sees it) mean that it could not be interrupted, and the
cultivation of the entire Buddhist path would be impossible.

It is particularly important for the proponent of Madhyamaka to foreclose the possibility of a


nihilist reading of claims regarding emptiness insofar as it is finally the ethical and soteriological
project of Buddhist practice that is thought to be at stake. In this regard, the characteristically
Mdhyamika conviction is that it is in fact the bhidharmika iteration of the Buddhist project
(and not Mdhyamika claims regarding emptiness) that is nihilist. This is because on the
characteristically bhidharmika understanding of the two truths, the world as conventionally
described as consisting, for example, in suffering persons whose plight should elicit
compassionate dedication to the Buddhist path is finally altogether superseded by the privileged
level of description constitutively developed in the Abhidharma literature. The characteristically
bhidharmika enumeration of the dharmas that putatively constitute the set of ultimately
existent things amounts to the specification of what really exists instead of the self. If, in
contrast, it is recognized that no such privileged level of description can coherently be elaborated
that, in other words, there is no set of ontological primitives in terms of which the only real
explanatory work can be done, and that in that sense there is nothing more real than the world
as conventionally described then the world is finally to be accepted as irreducibly
conventional, and the persons therein can hence be regarded as ethical agents who are not
finally eliminable in terms of the analytic categories of Abhidharma.

3. The Question of Self-contradiction and the Possible Truth


of Mdhyamika Claims
But this understanding also raises what are surely the most philosophically complex and
interesting problems in understanding Madhyamaka: if the constitutive claim of Madhyamaka is
to be taken as one to the effect that the ultimate truth is that there is (in the sense described) no
ultimate truth, it is easy to ask: What is the status of this claim itself? It would seem open to the
Mdhyamika only to allow that it is itself conventionally true but is that not just to say that one
may as well choose not to adopt this particular convention? The problem, then, is whether
characteristically Mdhyamika claims are, to the extent they are true, performatively self-
contradictory or self-referentially incoherent. This problem was well understood (if not always
clearly addressed) by proponents of Madhyamaka, and is very much in play in characteristically
Mdhyamika claims to the effect that emptiness itself is empty that, in other words, the
Mdhyamika analysis is to be applied not only to all existents, but also to this analysis thereof.

To say as much is the only way consistently to affirm the universal scope of claims regarding
emptiness; for there would clearly be a performative self-contradiction in claiming that all
existents are empty-cum-dependently-originated, while yet allowing that claim itself to stand as
an exception as itself having, that is, the kind of ultimately privileged explanatory purchase
that is denied with respect to all other analyses. But it is a complex matter whether the
Mdhyamika can, in avoiding this route to self-contradiction, affirm the emptiness of emptiness
without thereby depriving his own claim of any purchase. It is particularly at this point, then, that
there is an air of paradox going to the heart of Mdhyamika discourse, finding expression in, for
example, apparent claims to the effect that no claim is being made; hence, such quintessentially
Mdhyamika tropes as the claim that Madhyamaka advances no philosophical thesis (pratij),
and that emptiness does not reflect any specific view (di).

Such rhetoric characteristically expresses what is surely the central interpretive and philosophical
issue at stake in understanding Madhyamaka, and it is not surprising, in this regard, that
Madhyamaka should often have been interpreted by modern scholars as having affinities with
Hellenistic skepticism. Another line of interpretation (often inflected in recent years by appeal to
Wittgenstein, or to various poststructuralist thinkers) has it that Mdhyamika claims not to be
making any claim should be taken seriously as expressing a basically therapeutic sort of stance
one meant performatively to undermine (in something like the same way, perhaps, as in the Zen
discourse of koans) soteriologically counter-productive profusions of discursive thought. This line
of interpretation can be warranted by characteristically Mdhyamika talk about the elimination of
prapaca (often translated as conceptual proliferation), and by paeans to the ultimate truth as
something finally ineffable.

Such readings are, however, difficult to reconcile with what many Tibetan interpreters (perhaps
notwithstanding such rhetoric) took to be the constitutively Mdhyamika claim: namely, that
emptiness just means (and is the only way consistently to describe) dependent origination. If
it is said, for example, that there is nothing non-empty just insofar as there is nothing that is not
dependently originated (here again, paraphrasing MMK 24.19), that would seem to preclude, at
least, the truth of statements (made, e.g., by certain theists) to the effect that there is something
(e.g., God) that is necessarily (or otherwise not dependently) existent. If the Mdhyamika
statement does not rule out the truth of such statements, then it would be difficult to understand it
as meaning anything (although perhaps the radically therapeutic interpreter of Madhyamaka
will here bite the bullet and, well, argue that it is the very idea of meaning anything that is to be
jettisoned); but to say that the Mdhyamika claim contradicts a truth-claim proffered by some
theists just is to say that the former claim, too, is proposed as true. Recognizing that, one might
urge that the universal scope of the Mdhyamika claim entails that there is an important sense in
which Madhyamaka is constitutively anti-skeptical that, indeed, Mdhyamika arguments
advance a finally metaphysical point. For example, one could argue that what is at stake here is
the properly transcendental fact that emptiness (understood as the fact that things exist only
interdependently) is a condition of the possibility of any existents and of any analysis thereof.

The question for the proponent of such a line of interpretation then becomes: If the ultimate truth
is that there is no ultimate truth, is it possible to think of this claim as itself ultimately true? It is
important to note, in this regard, that while Mdhyamikas characteristically (indeed,
constitutively) eschew the bhidharmika idea that ultimate truth involves a domain of
enumerable existents regarding which claims are to be judged for their adequacy, Madhyamaka
nevertheless makes abundant reference to the ultimate truth. One way to make sense of this is to
attribute to Madhyamaka a basically deflationist account of truth that is, one according to which
calling a claim true is to be explained not as predicating a metaphysical property (such as
correspondence with ultimately existent things) of it, but simply as committing oneself to it.
On such a view, to the extent that the (bhidharmika) idea of ultimate truth has been shown
incoherent, all that remains is the level of truth that is characterized by common-sense realism.

This interpretation has the advantage of fitting quite well with the kind of traditional
doxographical accounts (influentially developed, early on, by the Indian Mdhyamika
Bhvaviveka) that figure prominently in the Tibetan monastic curriculum. These represent the
schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy in an ascending hierarchy of progressively more refined
views, the understanding of each of which requires having rightly understood its predecessors. On
such an account, Madhyamaka, though framed as an uncompromising critique of bhidharmika
Buddhism, nevertheless depends on the latter: if the naive realism of non-Buddhas consists in
thinking there is something more real (paradigmatically, selves) underlying our experience of the
world, the realization of the deflated realism of Madhyamaka differs from that (and is therefore
transformative) only insofar as one has first pursued to its limits the kind of reductionist exercise
that shows how unstable is our naive self-grasping. If one has not first entertained the
bhidharmikas reductionist approach, then there would be no difference between the common-
sense realism of the Mdhyamika, and that of ordinary ignorant persons. But if one realizes the
necessary failure of the reductionists privileged level of description only after having entertained
it, the resultant realism will be inflected by the transformative understanding that our selves are
real in the only sense in which anything (even the purportedly ultimate existents that are
dharmas) can be real that is, relatively, dependently.

Another strategy (perhaps not mutually exclusive of the foregoing) is to emphasize that what
Mdhyamikas refute, under the heading of ultimate truth, is simply the idea of a privileged level
of description (in the form of a set of enumerable ontological primitives) but that the abstract
fact of there being no such set is itself really (indeed metaphysically) true. In that case, the salient
point is just that the truth of the Mdhyamika claim does not consist in its reference to its
correspondence with a specifiable domain of objects. This reconstruction can be coupled with
an understanding of Mdhyamika arguments as basically transcendental arguments. Such an
interpretation makes good sense, at least, of what is surely one of the most prominently recurrent
rhetorical strategies of Ngrjuna; so, Ngrjuna can be understood to argue that his various
interlocutors objections are incoherent just insofar as these very objections presuppose the truth
of Ngrjunas claims. Emptiness is not only not mutually exclusive of the Four Noble Truths it
is a condition of the possibility thereof. Emptiness is, moreover, a condition of the possibility even
of an opponents denying this; for any analysis or denial at all (indeed, any cognitive act) consists,
in the first instance, in some relation.

Perhaps more suggestively, such an interpretation can also help map the finally ethical concerns of
Madhyamaka onto some contemporary arguments concerning reductionist accounts of the person.
In this regard, it was noted that the bhidharmika trajectory of Buddhist philosophy can be
understood as analogous to various projects in cognitive science. In the idiom of the latter, then, it
could be said that the bhidharmika idea is that there is, conventionally, an intentional level of
description (variously characterized as the common-sense view, folk psychology, etc.); and,
ultimately, a scientific level of description, comprising the ontological primitives that alone are
said really to exist, and exhaustively to explain the former level. One line of critique developed
against such approaches is to argue that anyone offering an exhaustively impersonal, non-
intentional description of (what we think of as) persons can be shown necessarily to presuppose
precisely the personal, intentional level of description that is purportedly explained. Similarly, the
upshot of the Mdhyamika argument that the world is (as expressed above) irreducibly
conventional is that the level of description at which persons are in play cannot coherently be
thought to be eliminable. Many of the commentator Candrakrtis arguments can be said, without
too great a stretch, to make something like this point, recurrently urging against various
interlocutors that any purported attempt to explain the conventional world (in terms that, if the
proposed account is to have any explanatory purchase, must not themselves be conventional)
inevitably founders on the unavoidability of presupposing the conventional senses of words.
Suffice it to say that the philosophical and exegetical issues in play here are highly complex, and
that almost any attempt at understanding the texts of Ngrjuna and his commentators is likely to
require a considerable effort of rational reconstruction which perhaps explains the enduring
appeal of this trajectory of thought.

4. Historical Development of Indian Schools of Interpretation


The Indian Buddhist tradition attests two broad streams in the interpretation of Ngrjunas
thought, corresponding roughly to what later Tibetan interpreters would refer to as the
Prsagika and Svtantrika accounts of Madhyamaka. Interpreters of the former sort are so-
called because of their view that Madhyamaka should be advanced only by reducing an
opponents arguments to absurdity. Ngrjuna is, on this view, to be interpreted as showing only
the unwanted consequences (prasaga) entailed by his opponents claims, and not as defending
any philosophical thesis (pratij) of his own. Svtantrikas, in contrast, are so-called because of
their characteristic view that Ngrjunas verses require restatement as formally valid inferences
(svatantra-anumna) whose conclusions are to be affirmed. Much contemporary debate has
concerned whether these divergent lines of interpretation reflect only differing dialectical
strategies, or whether (as influential Tibetan proponents of the distinction claim) they involve
significantly different ontological presuppositions. Although the characterizations of these two
trajectories of interpretation are not without basis in the antecedent Indian texts, this doxographic
lens is of interest partly for what it can tell us about some characteristically Tibetan
preoccupations (and about the influence of certain schools of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy on the
contemporary interpretation of Indian Buddhist thought).

Names traditionally associated with the Prsagika stream of interpretation include ryadeva,
who is traditionally regarded as Ngrjunas direct disciple (making his date close to
Ngrjunas), and who wrote the Catuataka (400 Verses) a text that is particularly important
insofar as the divergent interpretations of it by the commentators Dharmapla (530-561) and
Candrakrti are sometimes taken to herald a decisive split between Madhyamaka and Yogcra
(see Tillemans 1990); Buddhaplita (fl. c. 500), the author of a complete commentary (now extant
only in Tibetan translation) on the MMK; and Candrakrti (c. 600-650), whose Prasannapad
(Clear Words) the only commentary on the MMK known to be extant in Sanskrit preserves
the Sanskrit text of Ngrjunas verse text.

Candrakrti is also the author of, among other works, the Madhyamakvatra (Introduction to
Madhyamaka), an independent work (with auto-commentary) that represents the principal text
for the Madhyamaka component of many Tibetan monastic curricula. This work is structured on
the model of texts like the Daabhmika Stra, with chapters corresponding to that texts
progression in a bodhisattvas mastery of ten perfections (pramit). The sixth chapter (fittingly
corresponding to prajpramit, the perfection of wisdom) is by far the longest and the most
philosophically rich, comprising, inter alia, important Mdhyamika critiques of Yogcra.

Significant later Prsagikas include ntideva (fl. early eighth century), the author of the
Bodhicaryvatra (Introduction to the Conduct of Awakening), an eloquent and popular text
whose difficult ninth chapter (helpfully elaborated by the commentary of Prajkaramati, who
likely flourished in the tenth century) comprises important Mdhyamika arguments; and
Dpakararjna (982-1054; more popularly known as Atia), who figured prominently in the
transmission of Indian Buddhism to Tibet, where he lived when he wrote the Bodhipathapradpa
(A Lamp for the Path to Awakening).

The Svtantrika line of interpretation originates with Bhvaviveka (c. 500-570; his name is also
reported as Bhviveka, and he is often referred to as Bhavya), the author not only of a
commentary on the MMK the Prajpradpa, now extant only in Tibetan and Chinese
translations but also of an independent work, the Madhyamakahdayakriks, Verses on the
Heart of Madhyamaka, with an auto-commentary entitled Tarkajvla (Blaze of Logic). Other
significant exponents of this line of thought include Jnagarbha (fl. early eighth century), who is
traditionally regarded as the teacher of ntarakita (725-788). The latter is the author of the
Madhyamaklakra (Ornament of Madhyamaka), a relatively concise text elaborating
ntarakitas characteristic synthesis of Madhyamaka and Yogcra. ntarakita is perhaps
more widely known for the Tattvasagraha (Summa of Quiddities), a massive treatise that
takes on a huge range of Indian philosophical doctrines and that quotes extensively from
Brahmanical and other Buddhist philosophers, making it an important source of fragments from
Indian works that do not, like the Tattvasagraha, survive in Sanskrit.

The latter text is (like the Madhyamaklakra) helpfully illuminated by a commentary (the
Tattvasagrahapajik) by ntarakitas student and disciple Kamalala (c.740-795). The latter
traveled with his teacher to Tibet, where both thinkers figure prominently in the founding events
of Tibetan Buddhist thought. Kamalala is, for example, traditionally regarded by Tibetans as
having advocated the gradualist position in a famous debate at the bSam-yas monastery with a
Chinese exponent of the Chan (Zen) understanding of sudden enlightenment. It was
Kamalalas victory in this debate that established the gradualist understanding as at least
officially normative for most schools of Tibetan Buddhism; while the occurrence of the debate
itself may be apocryphal, such a position is surely reflected in Kamalalas three Bhvankrama
(stages of cultivation) texts, written in Tibet.

5. More on the Svtantrika-Prsagika Difference:


Madhyamaka and Buddhist Epistemology
As indicated, the so-called Svtantrika trajectory of Madhyamaka constitutively involves recourse
to the tools of formal logic and inference, evincing a characteristic concern to restate Ngrjunas
arguments as formally valid inferences. More generally, it can be said that this approach is
informed by Bhvavivekas use of the logic and epistemology of Dignga (c. 480-540), who
influentially appealed to the idiom of pramavidy (the discipline of logic and epistemology)
in advancing the Buddhist position and who was, indeed, among the most important figures in
developing the broadly Sanskritic conceptual vocabulary that would predominate in the
subsequent course of Indian philosophy. Similarly, such later Svtantrikas as ntarakita were
informed by the project of Digngas influential expositor Dharmakrti (c. 600-660), and figures
such as Dharmakrti and ntarakita would be of decisive importance for the remaining course of
the Indian Buddhist philosophical traditions life. (Candrakrti, in contrast, would exercise little
influence in India, though he re-emerges with the Tibetan traditions interest in him.)

The dispute between these lines of interpretation crystallizes around the figures of Buddhaplita,
Bhvaviveka, and Candrakrti and can be seen, in particular, in their respective elaborations of
Ngrjunas MMK 1.1 (There do not exist, anywhere at all, any existents whatsoever, arisen
either from themselves or from something else, either from both or altogether without cause).
This verse basically deploys a standard tool in the Mdhyamika arsenal: the tetralemma
(catukoi), a four-fold statement that is meant to identify all possible relations between any
category and its putative explananda (e.g., the same, different, both the same and different,
neither the same nor different) with the standard Mdhyamika denial of all four horns of the
tetralemma meant as an exhaustive refutation of the efficacy and coherence of the category in
question. (One modern interpretive discussion concerns whether or not this apparent violation of
bivalent logic shows Mdhyamikas to have presupposed a non-standard sort of logic.)

Buddhaplitas prsagika commentary on this verse does nothing more than make clear (what
he takes to be) the absurd consequences that would be entailed by affirming any one of the
positions here rejected. For example, the view that existents originate intrinsically a position
traditionally understood to express the Indian Skhya schools characteristic view that effects
are always latent within their causes is to be denied since there would be no point in the arising
of already existent things. That is, an affirmation of the causation of something from itself entails
that the thing in question already exists, in which case, its coming-into-being could not be thought
to require causal explanation.

In his commentary on the MMK, Bhvaviveka then specifically took Buddhaplita to task, urging
that Buddhaplitas elaboration of the argument was unreasonable because no reason and no
example are given and because faults stated by the opponent are not answered which is to say,
because the recognized terms of a formally stated inference (as that had been thematized by
Sanskritic philosophers such as Dignga) were not present. In contrast, then, to Buddhaplita,
Bhvaviveka offers a formally valid statement of the reasoning behind Ngrjunas denial of the
first horn of the verses tetralemma: [Thesis:] It is certain that the inner sense fields (yatanas) do
not ultimately originate from themselves; [Reason:] because they exist [already], [Example:] like
consciousness. Among the characteristic features of Bhvavivekas restatement here is his
making explicit the qualifier ultimately (or essentially, svabhvata); that is, Ngrjuna is
here said to deny only that something is the case essentially or ultimately. While the first horn of
this tetralemma (existents are arisen from themselves) perhaps requires no such qualification in
order for its denial to be intelligible, many interpreters would agree that such a qualification must
be added particularly in order for the denial of the second (which concerns that origination of
things from other existents) to make any sense; for it is surely counter-intuitive to think that we
cannot even conventionally speak of the origination of existents from one another. A great many
of Ngrjunas prima facie counter-intuitive refutations can be understood to make more sense if
they are qualified as concerning what is ultimately or essentially the case (and not taken
simpliciter).

A considerable portion of the first chapter of Candrakrtis Prasannapad is then given over to
defending Buddhaplitas as the right way to proceed, and to criticizing Bhvavivekas
interpretive procedure as misguided. How, then, are we to make sense, without Bhvavivekas
characteristic qualification, of Ngrjunas denial of the second horn of the tetralemma of his
denial, that is, that things originate from other existents? On Candrakrtis reading (which follows
Buddhaplitas), the absurdity that would be entailed by thinking otherwise would be that a sprout
could just as well be produced from the coals of a fire as from a seed; and, conversely, if a sprout
cannot be produced from the coals of a fire, it cannot be said to be produced from a seed, either.
Candrakrtis argument here is usefully understood as involving a priori (as contra a posteriori)
analysis; that is, the argument short-circuits any appeal to what we experience to be the case,
instead analyzing only the concepts presupposed in how we explain experience and the point is
to reduce to absurdity any argument that presupposes the independence of such concepts (that
presupposes, in other words, that any such concepts might afford a privileged perspective on what
there is). Read this way, the argument turns simply on the definition of other, and the point is
that the general concept of otherness leaves us with no principled way to know which other
things are relevantly connected to the thing whose arising we seek to explain, and we are left to
suppose that anything that is other than the latter (even the coals of a fire) could give rise to it.

Although many Tibetan exegetes were (as noted) inclined to see the dispute here as turning on
subtle ontological presuppositions, this can be hard to glean from the Indian texts upon which the
dispute is based. The characteristically Svtantrika appeal to the idiom of logic and epistemology
can, however, be understood as meant to address what are real philosophical problems in the
Mdhyamika project as that is understood by Candrakrti just as Candrakrti, for his part, can be
understood as having philosophically principled reasons for refusing the epistemological tools
characteristically deployed by Bhvaviveka and his heirs. What is at issue here is, once again, the
question of how we are to regard the conventionally described world once the idea that there
can be an ultimately true description thereof has been jettisoned. Ngrjuna himself had
emphasized the importance of some kind of relation in this regard, saying, for example, that
without relying on convention, the ultimate is not taught; without having understood the
ultimate, nirva is not apprehended (MMK 24.10). In other words, the (relative) reality of the
conventionally described world is a condition of the possibility of our coming to understand what
is ultimately the case; but if what is understood thereby is in fact that there is nothing more real
than the conventionally described world that, e.g., there are no ontological primitives that are
not themselves subject to the conditions that obtain in the world then it might be thought that, as
it were, anything goes.

The philosophical worry, then, is that if Mdhyamika arguments are not understood in something
like the way that Svtantrikas propose, Madhyamaka could degenerate into a thoroughgoing and
pernicious conventionalism. The broadly Svtantrika line of interpretation attempts to address this
worry by arguing that even if all discourse (including that of the Mdhyamika) perforce takes
place at the conventional level, it is nevertheless the case that some conventions are more
nearly true than others and that the epistemological tools developed by Dignga and
Dharmakrti give us the resources to sort these out. The Svtantrika Jnagarbha (followed, in this
regard, by his student ntarakita) emphasized that we can distinguish between true
convention (tathya-savti) and false convention (mithy-savti).

In his refusal of the characteristically Svtantrika use of the conceptual tools of Buddhist
epistemology, Candrakrti need not be understood as conceding simply that anything goes.
Candrakrtis point, rather, would seem to be to emphasize that there can be no explanatory
categories that do not themselves exhibit the same characteristics (chiefly, the fact of being
dependently originated) already on display in the conventionally described world; and any
constitutively analytic sort of reasoning (such as that exemplified by the discourse of
epistemology) just is a search for something beyond what is already given in conventional
discourse. What is conventionally true, then, is (by definition) just our conventions and any
demand for some account or explanation of these could be thought to provide some purchase only
to the extent that what is demanded is something that is not itself conventional. But there cannot
be any such discourse, any more than there can be an existent that is not dependently originated;
the two claims are related insofar as all that could count as a discursively exhaustive explanation
would be one that adduces something that is not itself subject to the constraints that it explains
which is to say, something not dependently originated. Although this may represent an adequate
reconstruction of his position, Candrakrtis emphasis on the definitively non-analytic character
of conventional discourse can, nevertheless, reasonably be thought to leave his project vulnerable
to charges of incoherence, and it can be seen that the issues in dispute between Svtantrikas and
Prsagika are the same paradoxes that bedevil Madhyamaka more generally.

6. Madhyamaka in Tibet
Indian Madhyamaka figures decisively in most of the Tibetan schools of Buddhist philosophy,
which tend to agree in judging Madhyamaka to represent the pinnacle of Buddhist thought. There
are, however, interesting historical and philosophical developments that greatly complicate this
picture. For example, while the scholastic traditions of Indian Buddhist philosophy were first
introduced to Tibet by the Svtantrika Mdhyamikas ntarakita and Kamalala, many
schools of Tibetan Buddhism nevertheless claim Candrakrtis (Prsagika) interpretation as
authoritative a fact partly owing, perhaps, to the influence of Atia in the so-called second
dissemination of Indian Buddhism to Tibet (that is, the period during which Indian Buddhism
was decisively established in Tibet, and during which the systematic translation of Indian
Buddhist texts into Tibetan was brought to fruition). However, the characteristically Tibetan
emphasis on Vajrayna (that is, tantric) forms of practice arguably promotes greater recourse to
the idiom of Yogcra than would be encouraged by Candrakrti. In addition, there are, as noted,
philosophical reasons for qualifying some of Candrakrtis positions. Hence, even those Tibetan
schools (such as the dGe-lugs) that most forcefully assert the authoritative character of
Prsagika Madhyamaka tend, for example, to support their interpretation with significant
studies in the Buddhist epistemological tradition a move, as noted, definitively characteristic of
the Svtantrika approach.
The attempt thus to wed Madhyamaka to the philosophical project of Dignga and Dharmakrti is
worth appreciating not only because it is intrinsically interesting, but because, particularly in the
United States in the latter part of the 20th century, a great many modern interpreters of Indian
Madhyamaka have been influenced by characteristically Tibetan appropriations of this tradition.
While this has arguably led to some distortions in the exegesis particularly of Candrakrtis texts,
there is much to recommend the Tibetans systematic (as opposed to historical) presentation of
Madhyamaka in relation to the other schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy. As indicated, a
distinctive feature of characteristically Tibetan presentations of Buddhist philosophy is the use of
doxographical digests elaborating what are called established conclusions (grub mtha; this
translates the Sanskrit siddhnta).

On this model, the various schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy (principally consisting,
according to such presentations, in the two bhidharmika schools of the Vaibhikas and
Sautrntikas, and the two Mahyna schools of Yogcra and Madhyamaka) are represented in
an ascending hierarchy of progressively more refined positions, the proper understanding of each
of which requires understanding its predecessors. Ascent through the hierarchy is characterized,
most basically, by the progressive elimination of ontological commitments: the two bhidharmika
schools divide over the question of what are to be admitted as dharmas qualifying for inclusion
in a final ontology; Yogcra further pares down this list to nothing but mental events; the
Svtantrika Mdhyamikas are represented as retaining only the vestigial ontological
commitments that are thought to be entailed by their characteristic deference to the dialectical
tools of epistemology; until, with the Prsagika iteration of Madhyamaka, we arrive at the
school of thought for which the set of ultimately existent (paramrthasat) phenomena is an
empty set.

The effect of this is to throw our attention back to the only set of existents with any remaining
content: the conventionally described world, now understood as ineliminable. Hence, on this
view, there is the avoidance of (what Mdhyamikas are always trying to eschew) the extreme of
nihilism or eliminativism (ucchedavda); but there is also the (constitutively Buddhist)
avoidance of the extreme of eternalism, insofar as the effect of cultivating the Mdhyamika
insight only as the culminating stage in a progression is (it is claimed) to have driven home the
realization that the self exists (like everything conventional) only relatively or dependently.
Once the project of a privileged level of description has been abandoned, the common-sense
realism that remains can be seen to differ from that of the unenlightened by virtue of its being
adopted in full cognizance of the progression through the intervening stages (Siderits 2003, 185).

The same insight is reflected in the basic monastic curriculum of dGe-lugs-pa monasteries, which
is structured around five topics defined by representative Indian texts: The Vinaya, or Buddhist
monastic code, as represented by the Vinaya Stra of Guaprabha; Abhidharma, as represented by
the Abhidharmakoa of Vasubandhu; logic and epistemology, as represented by the
Pramavrttika of Dharmakrti; Madhyamaka, as represented by Candrakrtis
Madhyamakvatra; and the stages on the path to enlightenment, as represented by the
Abhisamaylakra attributed to Maitreya. In this way, the study of the Madhyamaka tradition of
Buddhist philosophy comes only in the context of an overarching education in a complete
Buddhist world-view, such that characteristically Mdhyamika teachings concerning emptiness
are like the Prajpramit Stras whose retrieval by Ngrjuna was thought to introduce
Mahyna as representing the Buddhas definitive teaching made intelligible by the necessarily
propaedeutic earlier teachings. Above all, it is the finally ethical character of Mdhyamika thought
that is encouraged by this pedagogical system; for the characteristically Mdhyamika claim that
all dharmas are empty that, in other words, Abhidharmas reductionist account of the person
cannot finally be made coherent cannot be understood as nihilistic if it has been made clear that
the upshot of it is to return our attention to the irreducibly conventional world in which persons
live and suffer.
Tibetan tradition preserves, however, not only a model for the integration of Madhyamaka
philosophy into a structured set of transformative religious practices, but also a great deal of
innovative and sophisticated philosophical elaboration of Mdhyamika thought. For example, the
prolific scholar Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419) originator of the influential reformist school that
would style itself the dGe-lugs (virtuous way) did much to integrate the Prsagika
Madhyamaka of Candrakrti with the understanding and teaching of Buddhist epistemology
stemming from Dharmakrti. Tsong-kha-pas works (such as the massive Lam rim chen mo,
Great [treatise on] the Stages of the Path) also bring considerable sophistication to bear on the
question of how Madhyamaka ought to be understood in relation to Yogcra. Critics of Tsong-
kha-pa such as, notably, the Sa-skya-pa scholar Go-ram-pa bSod-nams seng-ge (1429-1489)
stridently condemned his confidence that the discourse of epistemology could bring Mdhyamika
analysis into contact with ultimate reality. On Go-ram-pas reading, such confidence amounts to
the claim that the discursive thought that understands ultimate truth is itself ultimately true
which is to confuse the (necessarily conventional) activity of thinking about ultimate truth with
what it is that such thought is about. Go-ram-pa claims that Tsong-kha-pas account of
Madhyamaka entails the nihilistic conclusion that what is ultimately true is simply what is
conventionally true. This Tibetan debate, then, recognizably addresses the perennially vexed
issues that go to the heart of Madhyamaka: those concerning how we are to understand the
relation between ultimate and conventional truth, in the context of a claim to the effect that the
ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.

7. Madhyamaka in East Asia


It is frequently observed that while Indo-Tibetan schools of Buddhist philosophy characteristically
developed around the systematic treatises (stras) of historical thinkers like Ngrjuna and
Dignga, Chinese Buddhist philosophy instead centers on (and its schools are largely defined by)
the interpretation of particular Buddhist stras. Whatever truth there may be in this, it is certainly
the case that a great deal of systematic Indian Buddhist philosophy from the mature scholastic
phase of the tradition (roughly, from the sixth century on) was never translated into Chinese.
Although the texts of (say) Ngrjuna, Vasubandhu, and Dignga are available in Chinese
translation, the Chinese canon does not include the works of such thinkers as Candrakrti,
Dharmakrti, or ntarakita the later Mdhyamikas and epistemologists whose works
decisively shaped Indo-Tibetan traditions of interpretation. Accordingly, the development of
Madhyamaka in China centers on a somewhat different group of texts all of them translated by
the great translator Kumrajva (350-409), whose efforts figure prominently in the Chinese
reception of Madhyamaka. So, the Chinese analogue of the Indian Madhyamaka school was
originally styled San-lun, the Three stra school, so called for its reliance upon three of
Kumrajvas translations. Only one of these (the MMK, here called Chung lun,
Madhyamakastra; Taish 1564) has an extant Sanskrit antecedent. The other two the
Dvdaanikyastra (Shih erh men lun, Taish 1568), attributed to Ngrjuna, and the
ata[ka]stra (Pai lun, Taish 1569), attributed to ryadeva are extant neither in Sanskrit nor in
Tibetan translation.

It was, however, arguably another treatise attributed to Ngrjuna (and also translated by
Kumrajva) that was ultimately to have greater influence on East Asian interpretations of
Madhyamaka: the Ta-chih-tu lun, or *Mahprajpramitopadea stra (Treatise which is a
Teaching on the Great Perfection of Wisdom [Stra]). This text a massive summa of Buddhist
doctrine, comparable in scope to the *Vijaptimtratsiddhi (which is ostensibly a digest and
compilation of several Indian commentaries on one of the works by Vasubandhu that is
foundational for Yogcra) is extant in no other translation than Kumrajvas, and comprises a
great deal of material that is not easily reconciled with what is taught in Ngrjunas MMK.
However, despite the scholarly consensus to the effect that this text is not authentically attributed
to Ngrjuna, East Asian authors citing Ngrjuna tend most frequently to cite Kumrajvas text
(and not the MMK). The reasons for this are, along with one of the salient features of
characteristically East Asian interpretations of Ngrjuna, reflected in a comment by the Japanese
scholar Junjir Takakusu, who observed that while such Mdhyamika texts as the MMK are
much inclined to be negativistic idealism, in the Ta-chih-tu lun we see that [Ngrjuna]
establishes his monistic view much more affirmatively than in any other text (Takakusu 1949:
100).

Takakusus assessment of the MMK as negativistic arguably relates to the ways in which
characteristically East Asian interpretations of Madhyamaka have been (not surprisingly)
influenced by the vicissitudes of Chinese translations from Sanskrit. For example, it has been
noted (by, e.g., Swanson 1989: 14) that Chinese terms centrally associated with the two truths
yu (existence or being) and wu (non-existence or non-being), identified, respectively, with
savtisatya (conventional truth) and paramrthasatya (ultimate truth) had strongly ontological
implications that can alter the sense of characteristically Mdhyamika claims (originally stated in
Sanskrit) when those were translated into Chinese. In particular, the ontologically negative
sense of the term wu has arguably had the effect of recommending that Mdhyamika claims
regarding emptiness be taken (notwithstanding Ngrjunas repeated cautions in this regard) as
rather more nihilistic than was intended.

We can consider, in this regard, chapter 24, verse 18 of Ngrjunas MMK a pivotal verse that
may be rendered: We call that which is dependent origination [prattyasamutpda] emptiness
[nyat]. That [emptiness,] a relative indication [updya prajapti], is itself the middle path
[madhyam pratipad]. This often cited (and variously translated) verse is significant chiefly for
its asserting that the authentic middle path and hence (given the centrality of the middle way
trope in Buddhist thought) the authentically Buddhist doctrine lies in realizing the identity of
three terms: dependent origination, emptiness, and dependent designation or relative
indication (updya prajapti). The semantic range of the latter term is such as to suggest that
emptiness-cum-dependent origination is itself conventional, and one upshot of the verse is
therefore to express, in effect, the idea of the emptiness of emptiness. More straightforwardly,
though, this verse clearly represents one of the countless occasions on which Ngrjuna is
concerned to emphasize that by emptiness he means simply dependent origination.

On one characteristically East Asian interpretation of this verse (that of the modern Japanese
scholar Gadjin Nagao), however, we are to understand here that the verses initial predication
(we call that which is dependent origination emptiness) amounts to a negation of (the
ontologically positive phenomenon which is) dependent origination. As Nagao states this idea,
This prattya-samutpda dies in the second [quarter verse]. The second predication which
characterizes this emptiness as a relative indication then amounts to a return to the
ontologically positive. On this reading, then, the verse is dialectical, moving from affirmation
to negation and again to affirmation. (Nagao 1991: 193-94) This dialectical reading of a
quintessentially Mdhyamika claim is frequently encountered in modern Japanese scholarship a
fact that arguably reflects the extent to which many Japanese scholars (even those who have
developed deep acquaintance with the Sanskrit texts of Indian Buddhism) have their initial
grounding in the characteristically East Asian traditions of interpretation in which the Ta-chih-tu
lun of Kumrajva is paramount.

Another characteristic preoccupation of East Asian interpreters of Madhyamaka is one also


evident in some of the Indo-Tibetan traditions of interpretation: that of attempting to harmonize
Madhyamaka and Yogcra. In the East Asian case, the fact that so many Buddhist interpreters of
Madhyamaka should attempt notwithstanding the extent to which many Indian Mdhyamika
and Yogcra texts are framed as mutually polemical to develop a synthesis of these two great
schools of Mahyna philosophy partly reflects the predominance of Yogcra in East Asian
Buddhist thought. If, however, Madhyamaka philosophy was largely eclipsed by Yogcra (and
more importantly, by other indigenous developments) in the East Asian context, it nevertheless
arguably lives on in the enigmatic discourse of Chan/Zen Buddhism that many take to be
quintessentially East Asian. While any Mdhyamika influence on Zen is surely indirect, the latter
traditions particular debt to the Prajpramit literature (the Vajracchedik, or Diamond, Stra
figures most importantly here) perhaps explains why many modern observers are inclined to see
affinities with Madhyamaka.

8. References and Further Reading


Ames, William L. 1986. Buddhaplitas Exposition of the Madhyamaka. Journal of
Indian Philosophy 14: 313-348.
Ames, William L. 1993-94. Bhvavivekas Prajpradpa: A Translation of Chapter One:
Examination of Causal Conditions (Pratyaya), [in two parts], Journal of Indian
Philosophy 21: 209-259; 22: 93-135.
o These articles provide a good point of access to the interpretations of Ngrjuna
ventured by two of his earliest commentators (the two discussed at length in the
commentary of Candrakrti).
Arnold, Dan. 2005. Buddhists, Brahmins, and Belief: Epistemology in South Asian
Philosophy of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press.
o Part 3 of this work makes a case (based on an engagement with Candrakrtis
critique of the Buddhist epistemologist Dignga) for the interpretation of
Madhyamaka as involving transcendental arguments.
Bhattacharya, Kamaleswar. 1990. The Dialectical Method of Ngrjuna:
Vigrahavyvartan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
o Contains (along with an edition of the Sanskrit text) a reliable translation of one of
Ngrjunas major works.
Blumenthal, James. 2004. The Ornament of the Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka
Thought of ntarakita. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
o A translation and extensive study (together with a translated dGe-lugs-pa
commentary) of ntarakitas Madhyamaklakra.
Burton, David F. 1999. Emptiness Appraised: A Critical Study of Ngrjunas Philosophy.
London: Curzon.
o Argues that despite Ngrjunas expressed intentions, his arguments entail
nihilistic conclusions.
Cabezn, Jos Ignacio. 1992. A Dose of Emptiness: An Annotated Translation of the sTong
thun chen mo of mKhas grub dGe legs dpal bzang. Albany: SUNY Press.
o This extensively annotated and reliable translation makes available a representative
example of a Tibetan dGe-lugs-pa interpretation of Madhyamaka (this one by one
of Tsong-kha-pas two major disciples).
Chimpa, Lama, and Alaka Chattopadhyaya, trans. 1970. Tranthas History of Buddhism
in India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
o A useful translation of a traditional history of the Indian Buddhist tradition,
containing representative accounts of the careers and works of important Indian
thinkers.
Conze, Edward, trans. 1975. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, with the divisions of the
Abhisamaylakra. Berkeley: University of California Press.
o A useful point of access to the paradoxical style of discourse that is characteristic
of the Prajpramit literature that figures in Ngrjunas background.
Crosby, Kate, and Andrew Skilton, trans. 1995. The Bodhicaryvatra. New York: Oxford
University Press.
o A translation of the major work of ntideva, with an introduction and annotations.
Dreyfus, Georges. 2003. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan
Buddhist Monk. Berkeley: University of California Press.
o An insightful study of the pedagogical context for the Tibetan interpretation and
transmission of Madhyamaka.
Dreyfus, Georges, and Sara McClintock, eds. 2003. The Svtantrika-Prsagika
Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? Boston: Wisdom Publications.
o A collection of scholarly essays representative of the current state of debate on this
division of Madhyamaka, with attention both to this as a Tibetan doxographical
category, and to matters of interpretation regarding the antecedent Indian texts.
Garfield, Jay L., trans. 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Ngrjunas
Mlamadhyamakakrik. New York: Oxford University Press.
o Though translated from the Tibetan (and not from the extant Sanskrit), this is the
most accessible of the available translations of Ngrjunas foundational text and
far and away the most philosophically sophisticated and illuminating.
Hayes, Richard P. 1994. Ngrjunas Appeal. Journal of Indian Philosophy 22: 299-378.
o Argues that Ngrjunas works centrally involve an equivocation on the word
svabhva.
Huntington, C. W., with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen. 1989. The Emptiness of Emptiness:
An Introduction to Early Indian Mdhyamika. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
o An annotated translation of Candrakrtis Madhyamakvatra, with a lengthy
introduction that makes a case for the interpretation of Madhyamaka along lines
suggested by poststructuralist philosophy.
Iida Shotaro. 1980. Reason and Emptiness: A Study in Logic and Mysticism. Tokyo:
Hokuseido.
o A study, with texts and translations, of major works of Bhvaviveka.
Jha, Ganganath, trans. 1986. The Tattvasagraha of Shntarakita with the Commentary
of Kamalashla. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. (Reprint; first published in Gaekwads
Oriental Series, 1937-1939.)
o A relatively inaccessible (but nonetheless complete) translation of this major work
by ntarakita.
La Valle Poussin, Louis de, ed. 1970. Mlamadhyamakakriks (Mdhyamikastras) de
Ngrjuna, avec la Prasannapad Commentaire de Candrakrti. Bibliotheca Buddhica,
Vol. IV. Osnabrck: Biblio Verlag. (Reprint; originally published 1903-1913.)
o This work warrants mention as the standard edition of the foundational text of
Madhyamaka.
Lamotte, Etienne, trans. 1944-1980. Le Trait de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse. 5 volumes.
Louvain: Insitut orientaliste, Bibliothque de lUniversit de Louvain.
o The characteristically extensive annotations alone make this monumental work a
treasure trove. Despite its vastness, this represents only a partial translation of the
Ta-chih-tu Lun (*Mahprajprmitstra) of Ngrjuna/Kumrajva.
Lang, Karen. 1986. ryadevas Catuataka: On the Bodhisattvas Cultivation of Merit
and Knowledge. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag.
o A reliable translation of the major work of ryadeva.
Lindtner, Chr. 1987. Nagarjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Ngrjuna.
Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987. (Reprint; first published in Copenhagen, Institute for
indisk filologi, 1982.)
o A study of the works that are (and are not) appropriately attributed to Ngrjuna,
with editions and translations of several.
Murti, T. R. V. 1960. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Mdhyamika
System. Second edition. London: George Allen and Unwin.
o An important early study of Madhyamaka, representing one of a few influential
neo-Kantian interpretations thereof.
Nagao Gadjin. 1991. Mdhyamika and Yogcra: A Study of Mahyna Philosophies.
Trans. Leslie S. Kawamura. Albany: SUNY Press.
o A selection of translated essays representative of the approach and legacy of this
important Japanese scholar.
Ramanan, K. Venkata. 1975. Ngrjunas Philosophy as presented in the Mah-
Prajpramit-stra. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. (Reprint; first published Charles
Tuttle, 1966.)
o This work is useful for its making accessible the contents and style of the text
(extant only in Kumrajvas Chinese translation) that most influenced the East
Asian reception of Madhyamaka. (Ramanan is in the scholarly minority in
accepting the Chinese traditions attribution of the text to Ngrjuna.)
Ruegg, David Seyfort. 1981. The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in
India. A History of Indian Literature (ed. Jan Gonda), Vol. VII, Fasc. 1. Wiesbaden: Otto
Harrassowitz.
o This authoritative work on the history and texts of Indian Madhyamaka is the
standard reference work on the subject.
Siderits, Mark. 2003. Personal Identity and Buddhist Philosophy: Empty Persons.
Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
o Chapters 6-9 develop a sophisticated philosophical reconstruction of Madhyamaka
(here characterized as a philosophically anti-realist position), which is
represented as constitutively related to the reductionism of bhidharmika
Buddhism (treated in the first half of the book). A difficult work that can seem to
owe more to analytic philosophy than to Indian Buddhism, but an exceptionally
sensitive account of the issue of truth vis--vis Madhyamaka. In particular, Siderits
argues for a version of Madhyamaka as involving a deflationist account of truth
(here called semantic non-dualism).
Sopa, Geshe Lhundup, and Jeffrey Hopkins, trans., Cutting Through Appearances: The
Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism. 2nd ed. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications,
1989.
o Includes a somewhat inaccessible translation of a standard Tibetan doxographical
text, which is useful for a sense of how Madhyamaka is represented by Tibetans in
relation to other Buddhist schools of thought.
Sprung, Mervyn, trans. 1979. Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way: The Essential Chapters
from the Prasannapad of Candrakrti. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
o Currently the closest thing to a complete Western-language translation of
Candrakrtis text (hence, the translation also comprises most of Ngrjunas
MMK). While not an altogether reliable translation, this provides some access to
the discourse of Candrakrti.
Stcherbatsky, Th. 1927. The Conception of Buddhist Nirva. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass,
1989. (Reprint.)
o This early work includes a dated and eccentric (but nonetheless useful) translation
of the first chapter of Candrakrtis Prasannapad. Stcherbatsky influentially
advanced a broadly neo-Kantian interpretation of Madhyamaka.
Swanson, Paul L. 1989. Foundations of Tien-Tai Philosophy: The Flowering of the Two
Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.
o An accessible study of the East Asian reception and interpretation of Madhyamaka.
Takakusu Junjir. 1949. The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal
Banarsidass, 1975. (Reprint; first published by the University of Hawaii.)
o A concise presentation of the various schools of Buddhist philosophy as they are
reckoned in East Asian traditions. The presentation of Madhyamaka (Sanron, the
Three Treatise school) is at pp.99-111.
Thurman, Robert. 1991. The Central Philosophy of Tibet: A Study and Translation of Jey
Tsong Khapas Essence of True Eloquence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
o A translation of part of an important work by Tsong-kha-pa, representing a Tibetan
Mdhyamika engagement with Yogcra. The authors lengthy introduction
advances a broadly Wittgensteinian understanding of Madhyamaka.
Tillemans, Tom J. F. 1990. Materials for the Study of ryadeva, Dharmapla and
Candrakrti. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde, Heft 24, 1-2. Wien:
Arbeitskreis fr tibetische und buddhistische Studien.
o Annotated translations (with a philosophically sophisticated introduction and
annotations) of parts of the divergent commentaries on ryadeva by the
Mdhyamika Candrakrti and the Yogcrin Dharmapla.
Tuck, Andrew. 1990. Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the
Western Interpretation of Ngrjuna. New York: Oxford University Press.
o An illuminating study of the philosophical presuppositions informing important
modern interpretations of Ngrjuna.
Walser, Joseph. 2005. Ngrjuna in Context: Mahyna Buddhism and Early Indian
Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
o An attempt to locate the figure of Ngrjuna in socio-historical context (and
particularly in relation to the then nascent Mahyna movement).
Williams, Paul. 1989. Mahyna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London:
Routledge.
o An accessible and lucid survey of Mahyna Buddhist thought. Chapter 3 treats
Madhyamaka, with some attention to Tibetan and East Asian developments therein.

Author Information

Dan Arnold Email: d-arnold@uchicago.edu University of Chicago Divinity School U. S. A.

Pudgalavada Buddhist Philosophy


The Pudgalavda was a group of five of the Early Schools of Buddhism. The name arises from
their adherents distinctive doctrine (vda) concerning the self or person (pudgala). The doctrine
holds that the person, in a certain sense, is real. To other Buddhists, their view seemed to
contradict a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, the doctrine of non-self. However, the Pudgalavdins
were convinced that they had had preserved the true interpretation of the Buddhas teaching.

Although now all but forgotten, the Pudgalavda was one of the dominant traditions of Buddhism
in India during the time that Buddhism survived there. It was never strong in other parts of Asia,
however, and with the eventual disappearance of Buddhism in India, almost all of the literature of
the Pudgalavda was lost. It is difficult to reconstruct their understanding of the self from the few
Chinese translations that have come down to us, and from the summaries of their doctrines and
the critiques of their position that have been preserved by other Buddhist schools. But there is no
doubt that they affirmed the reality of the self or person, and that with scriptural authority they
held that the self of an enlightened one cannot be described as non-existent after death, in
complete Nirvana (Parinirvana), even though the five aggregates which are the basis of its
identity have then passed away without any possibility of recurrence in a further life. These five
are material form, feeling, ideation, mental forces, and consciousness.

It seems, then, that they thought of some aspect or dimension of the self as transcending the
aggregates and may have identified that aspect with Nirvana, which like most early Buddhists
they regarded as an eternal reality. In its involvement with the aggregates through successive
lives, the self could be seen as characterized by incessant change; but in its eternal aspect, it could
be seen as having an identity that remains constant through all its lives until it fulfils itself in the
impersonal happiness of Parinirvana. Although their account of the self seemed unorthodox and
irrational to their Buddhist opponents, the Pudgalavdins evidently believed that only such an
account could do justice to the Buddhas moral teaching, to the accepted facts of karma, rebirth
and liberation, and to our actual experience of selves and persons.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Problem of the Self in Buddhism
3. The Pudgalavdin Characterization of the Self
4. Reconstruction of the Pudgalavdin Conception of the Self
5. Pudgalavdin Arguments in Support of their Conception of the Self
6. Conclusion
7. References and Further Reading
1. Introduction
The Pudgalavda was a group of five of the Early Schools of Buddhism, distinguished from the
other schools by their doctrine of the reality of the self. The group consists of the Vtsputrya, the
original Pudgalavdin School, and four others that derived from it, the Dharmottarya, the
Bhadraynya, the Smmitya and the Shannagarika. Of these, only the Vtsputrya and the
Smmitya had a large following. The Vtsputrya evidently arose about two centuries after the
death of the Buddha (the Parinirvana). Since the date of the Buddhas death was probably in about
486 BCE or 368 BCE (according to which sources one follows), the rise of the Vtsputrya
school would have been in the early third century or toward the middle of the second century
BCE. According to the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsan-tsang), who traveled in India in the
seventh century CE, the Smmitya was at that time by far the largest of the Shrvakayna schools
(or Early Schools), equal in size to all of the other schools combined; and as the monastic
populations of the Shrvakayna and the Mahyna were roughly the same, the Smmitya
represented about a quarter of the entire Buddhist monastic population of India. The Vtsputrya
and a branch of the Smmitya survived in India at least until the tenth century, but since the
Pudgalavdin schools never spread to any great extent beyond the subcontinent, when Buddhism
died out in India, the tradition of the Pudgalavda came to an end.

The name Pudgalavda came to be applied to these schools because pudgala was one of the
words which they used for the self whose reality they affirmed. Pudgala is a term that appears
in the early canonical texts with the meaning of a person or individual. The Pudgalavda is thus a
Doctrine of the Person, or Personalism, and Pudgalavdins are accordingly Personalists. Their use
of the term pudgala has sometimes given the impression that they were trying to conceal their
unorthodoxy by talking about a person rather than a self. But in fact they often used other words
for the self, such as tman and jva, and were evidently quite unabashed in declaring that the
self is real.

It is hardly necessary to point out the importance, both philosophically and historically, of a form
of Buddhism which differs strikingly in its interpretation of the Buddhas teaching from what we
have come to regard as orthodox, and yet was for some time, at least, the dominant form of
Shrvakayna Buddhism in India. But the difficulties facing us in investigating the Pudgalavda
are considerable. There is no living tradition of Pudgalavda; there are no learned monks to whom
we can turn for interpretations handed down within that tradition. There are very few
Pudgalavdin texts that have survived, only two of them with anything to say about the self, and
those only in Chinese translations of poor quality. Apart from these, we have extensive quotations
from their texts (but none, unfortunately, dealing with the self) in an Indian Buddhist work which
has survived only in Tibetan, some brief summaries of their doctrines in Tibetan and Chinese
translations of Indian works on the formation of the Shrvakayna schools, and finally criticisms
of their doctrines in works from other schools, some of these fortunately available in Pali or
Sanskrit. The evidence we have is thus quite limited, much of it surviving only in translation, and
some of it from hostile sources. Any interpretation of the Pudgalavdin doctrine of the self will
necessarily be to a considerable extent a reconstruction, and should accordingly be regarded as a
more or less plausible hypothesis rather than anything like a definitive account.

2. The Problem of the Self in Buddhism


The Buddha taught that no self is to be found either in or outside of the five skandhas or in their
aggregates; the five are material form, feeling, ideation, mental forces, and consciousness. He
rejected the two extreme positions of a permanent, unchanging self persisting in Samsara (cycle of
death and rebirth) through successive lives, and of a self which is completely destroyed at death.
He taught instead a middle position of dependent origination (prattyasamutpda), according to
which our existence in this life has arisen as a result of our ethically significant volitional acts
(karma) in our last life, and such volitional acts in our present life will give rise to our existence
(but will not determine our acts) in our next life. What we are now is thus not the same as what
we were, since this is a new life with a different body, different feelings and so on, but neither is it
entirely separate from what we were, since what we are now is the result of decisions made in our
past life.

In the non-Pudgalavdin schools, which we now think of as orthodox in this regard, this teaching
was interpreted (not unreasonably) as a denial that there is any substantial self together with an
affirmation of the complex process of evanescent phenomena which at any particular time we
identify as a person. In the opinion of these schools, the teaching understood in this way offers
several advantages: first, it is true, in the sense that it can be accepted as an accurate account of
what can actually be observed of a person (including the events and decisions of past lives, which
were supposed to be accessible to the Buddhas memory); secondly, it removes the basis for
selfishness (the root of both wrong-doing and suffering) by exposing the ultimate unreality of the
self as a substantial entity; and thirdly, it supports the view that what we do makes a real
difference to what we become in both this life and future lives. It thus offers rational hope for an
eventual dismantling of the otherwise self-perpetuating mechanism of misunderstanding, craving
and suffering in which we are trapped.

But this interpretation of the Buddhas teaching also involves certain difficulties. In the first place,
even if we can understand the functional identity of the person as simply the continuity of a causal
process in which the evanescent phenomena of the five aggregates occur and recur in a gradually
changing pattern, it is hard to understand how this continuity is maintained through death to the
birth of the person in a new life. If rebirth is immediate, as the Theravdins held, how can the
final moments of one life bring about the beginning of a new life in a place necessarily at some
distance from the place of death? But if there is an intermediate state between death and rebirth,
as the Sarvstivdins held, how can the person journey from one life to the next when the
aggregates of the old life have passed away and the aggregates of the new life have not yet arisen?
Or if there are aggregates in the intermediate state, why does this state not constitute a life
interposed between the one that has ended and the one that is to begin?

In the second place, the denial of the ultimate reality of the self certainly seems to cut away the
basis for selfishness, but it seems in the same way to cut away the basis for compassion. If the
effort to gain anything for oneself is essentially deluded, how can it not be equally deluded to try
to gain anything for other persons, other selves? If to be liberated is to realize that there was never
anyone to be liberated, why would that liberation not include the realization that there was never
anyone else to be liberated either? Yet it was out of compassion that the Buddha, freshly
enlightened, undertook to teach in the first place, and without that compassion there would have
been no Buddhism.

Schools that accepted this interpretation, such as the Theravda and Sarvstivda, were of course
aware of these difficulties and dealt with them as well as they could. But it is not surprising that
the Pudgalavdin schools, sensitive to such problems, developed a fundamentally different
interpretation of the Buddhas teaching about the self.

3. The Pudgalavdin Characterization of the Self


The Pudgalavdins described the person or self as inexpressible, that is, as indeterminate in its
relation to the five aggregates, since it cannot be identified with the aggregates and cannot be
found apart from them: the self and the aggregates are neither the same nor different. But whereas
other schools took this indeterminacy as evidence that the self is unreal, the Pudgalavdins
understood it to characterize a real self, a self that is true and ultimate. It is this self, they
maintained, that dies and is reborn through successive lives in Samsara, continuing to exist until
enlightenment is attained. Even in Parinirvana, when the aggregates of the enlightened self have
passed away in death and no new aggregates can arise in rebirth, the self, though no longer
existent with the aggregates of an individual person, cannot actually be said to be non-existent.
Like most other Shrvakayna Buddhists, the Pudgalavdins regarded Nirvana as a real entity,
differing from the realm of dependent origination (though not absolutely distinct from it) in being
uncaused (asamskrita) and thus indestructible. Accordingly, Nirvana is not something brought
into being at the moment of enlightenment, but is rather an eternally existing reality which at that
moment is finally attained. The Pudgalavdins held that the self is indeterminate also in its
relation to this eternal reality of Nirvana: the self and Nirvana are neither the same nor different.

In its indeterminate relationship with the five aggregates and Nirvana, the self is understood to
constitute a fifth category of existence, the inexpressible. The phenomena of the five aggregates
and of temporal existence in general form three categories: past phenomena, present phenomena
and future phenomena. Nirvana, as an eternal, uncaused reality, is the fourth category. The self or
person, not to be described either as the same as the dependent phenomena of the temporal world
or as distinct from them, is the fifth.

The Pudgalavdins distinguished three ways in which the self can be designated or conceived:

1. according to the aggregates appropriated as its basis in a particular life: In the this case, we
have a conception of a particular person based on what we know of that persons physical
appearance, feelings, thoughts, inclinations and awareness.
2. according to its acquisition of new aggregates in its transition from a past life to its present
one, or from the present life to a future one: In this case, we would have a conception of a
particular person as one who was such-and-such a person, with that persons body, feelings
and so on, in a previous life, or as one who will be reborn as such-and-such a person, with
that persons body, feelings and so on, in a future life.
3. according to the final passing away of its aggregates at death after attaining enlightenment:
In the this case, we have a conception of a person who has attained Parinirvana based on
the body, feelings, thoughts, inclinations and awareness that have passed away at death
without any possibility of recurrence.

In this way, all the statements made by the Buddhaand by others on his authority or on the
strength of their own observation, concerning persons or selves and their past or future existences
can be shown to be based on the five aggregates from which those persons are inseparable.

Other schools understood the self to be a merely conceptual entity in the sense that it was simply
the diverse phenomena of the five aggregates comprehended for convenience under a single term
such as self or person. They supposed its existence to be thus purely nominal; there is no
single, substantial entity corresponding to the term we use for it. We might expect that the
Pudgalavdins, who held that the self is real, would on the contrary insist that the self is not
merely conceptual or nominal, but substantial. But in fact they seem to have regarded the self, at
lest initially, as conceptual, though true and ultimate. A later source represents them as
maintaining that it is neither conceptual nor substantial, and still later sources ascribe the view to
them that the self is indeed substantial. The difference in these accounts may be the result of
confusion in our sources, but it is certainly possible that the Pudgalavdins gradually modified
their position under the pressure of criticism from other schools.

The Theravdins and Sarvstivdins made a clear distinction between what are traditionally called
two truths, which in modern parlance is a distinction between two types of truth predicates:
ultimate truth (paramrthasatya) and conventional truth (samvritisatya). Ultimate truth
distinguishes accurate statements about primary phenomena (dharmas) and their relationships.
Conventional truth distinguishes accurate statements about persons and other composite entities;
they were thus statements expressed according to the conventions of ordinary usage, and are true
only in the sense that they could in principle be translated into accurate statements about the
constituent phenomena on which such conventional notions as person and so on were based.
The two types of truth predicates (commonly called the Two Truths) are to be distinguished
from four important principles taught by the Buddha, which are not truth predicates, but are called
the Four Noble Truths. These Truths are: (1) life is suffering (the Truth of Suffering), (2)
suffering arises from desire (the Truth of the Origination of Suffering), (3) suffering can be
stopped (the Truth of Nirvana and the Cessation of Suffering), (4) the cessation of suffering is
brought about by adherence to the Buddhist Path, which consists of prescriptions such as the
Eight Fold Path (the Truth of the Path).

The Pudgalavdins also distinguished between two kinds of doctrine, concerning phenomena and
concerning persons, but they did not regard these as related to higher and lower kinds of truth
predicates. They actually recognized three truth predicates: ultimate truth,, characteristical
truth, and practical truth. They identified ultimate truth with the Third Noble Truth, the Truth
of Nirvana, and the cessation of suffering. Characteristical truth distinguishes the First, Second
and Fourth of the Noble Truths, the Truths of Suffering, its Origin, and the Path leading to its
cessation. Because the characteristical truth predicate was understood as characterizing the world
oriented of the Four Noble Truths, it was understood as also distinguishing accurate claims about
dependent phenomena. The practical truth predicate distinguished forms of speech and behavior
inherited through local or family traditions or learned through monastic training. It would seem
that the self was subject to all three of these truths, as the one who eventually attains the cessation
of suffering, as the one who suffers as a result of craving and follows a path leading to the end of
suffering, and as the one who speaks and acts in accordance with the norms of secular or monastic
life.

4. Reconstruction of the Pudgalavdin Conception of the Self


What the Pudgalavdins said (or in some cases are said to have said) about the self is sufficient to
locate their conception of the self in relation to various Buddhist and non-Buddhist opinions that
they rejected. But the exact nature of their conception of it remains unclear. Just what was the self
supposed to be? Was it simply the five aggregates taken together as a totality but which was not
reducible to its parts? Or was it a persisting entity distinct from the aggregates but bound to them
so that it could be said to change as the aggregates connected with it changed? Or was it in fact
something else altogether?

If the self was supposed to be conceptual, as the Pudgalavdins seem initially to have asserted,
that would tend to support the view that they regarded the self as the totality of its constituent
aggregates. This view differed from the Theravdins and Sarvstivdins in not thinking that this
conceptual whole was reducible to its parts. On the other hand, if it was supposed to be
substantial, as the Pudgalavdins seem later to have asserted, that would tend to support the view
that they regarded it as an entity in its own right, non-different from the aggregates only in the
sense that it was inseparably bound to them. But there is a problem that affects both of these
interpretations. The person who has completely passed away in Parinirvana is supposed to be
neither existent nor non-existent. If the self were the aggregates taken as a whole, then with the
final destruction of body, feeling, and so on the self would simply be non-existent. But if the self
were an entity distinct from the aggregates though bound to them, then in Parinirvana the self
would either come to an end together with the aggregates and thus be non-existent, or else it
would continue to exist without the aggregates, in spite of allegedly being bound to them, and so
would be simply existent. The former interpretation in fact comes too close to identifying the self
with the aggregates, and the latter, to treating it as a separate entity.

An analogy that the Pudgalavdins frequently made use of may give some indication of what they
actually had in mind. They say that the person is to the aggregates as fire is to its fuel. This
analogy appears in a number of the canonical texts and so would have to be accepted by all
Buddhist who accepted these texts, though their understanding of it would of course be different
from the Pudgalavdins. As the Pudgalavdins explain it, fire is described in terms of its fuel, as
a wood fire or a straw fire, but the fire is not the same as the fuel, nor can it continue to burn
without the fuel. Similarly, the person is described in terms of the aggregates, as having such-and-
such a physical appearance and so on, but it is not the same as that particular body, those feelings
and so on, and cannot exist without a body, feelings and the other aggregates. This analogy makes
it clear that although the aggregates in some sense support the self, they are not actually its
constituents, since a fire, though supported by its fuel, is certainly not a whole constituted by
some particular arrangement of logs.

What the analogy seems not to make clear is why the person in Parinirvana, no longer supported
by the aggregates, is not simply non-existent like a fire that has gone out when its fuel is
exhausted. But there is reason to think that the Pudgalavdins did not understand the extinction of
the fire as we would. Several of the canonical texts that use this analogy specifically compare the
Buddha after death to a fire that has gone out and has not gone north, south, east or west, but is
simply extinct; but instead of going on to say that the Buddha is non-existent, they say that he is
unfathomable, that he cannot be described in terms of arising or non-arising, existence or non-
existence. Another text, preserved and accepted as authoritative by the Theravdins, explains that
Nirvana exists eternally and can be attained even though there is no place where it is stored up,
just as fire exists and can be produced by rubbing two sticks together even though there is no
place where it is stored up. The extinction of the fire can be understood as a transition from its
local existence supported by its fuel to a non-local state which cannot be described as either
existence or non-existence. The Parinirvana of the Buddha will then be his transition from a local
existence supported by the aggregates to a non-local state which is unfathomable. A canonical text
of the Mahyna explicitly describes the non-local form of the Buddha after his death as his
eternal body, which is said to be like the fire that has not gone north, south, east or west, but is
simply extinct.

There is no evidence that the Pudgalavdins anticipated this Mahyna doctrine of an eternal body
of the Buddha. However, the analogy understood in this way certainly indicates that the person or
self (in this case, the Buddha) is a local manifestation of something. Could that something have
been a supreme self such as we find in the Upanishads and the Vednta, and, suitably qualified, in
some Mahyna texts? There is no evidence to suggest that it was, and in fact the Pudgalavdins
may have felt that it would be inappropriate to use the term designating a local, dependent
manifestation of that something to refer to the something itself, which unlike any self was eternal
and independent of the aggregates.

But there is some evidence which points in another direction. One of our Pudgalavdin sources
speaks of the person in Parinirvana as having attained the unshakeable happiness, and another
source says that the Pudgalavdins held that although Nirvana has the nature of non-existence,
because there is no body, faculty or thought there, it also has the nature of existence, because the
supreme, ever-lasting happiness is there. So Nirvana is characterized by eternal happiness, but it is
a happiness unaccompanied by any body, faculty or thought. Moreover, another source ascribes to
the Pudgalavdins the view that Nirvana is the quiescence of the persons previous coming and
going in Samsara; it seems to say, then, that Nirvana is a state that the person achieves. This
state cannot be something that comes into being when Nirvana is attained; otherwise Nirvana
would be dependent and so in principle impermanent. And in Parinirvana there are no aggregates,
and thus no person, in any normal sense, of which this quiescence could be a state. But if this
quiescence is Nirvana, it cannot be simply the non-existence of the person, since we are told
explicitly that the person is not nonexistent in Parinirvana (though of course not existent, either).
Nirvana must be quiescence in the sense in which it is the cessation of suffering, not as a state
that arises at the moment of enlightenment and is completed at death, but as an already existing
reality whose attainment puts an end to suffering and the coming and going of Samsara.

But in what sense is this eternal happiness attained by the person who at death ceases to exist as
a self supported by body, faculties and thought? And in what sense is a person who has attained
this eternal happiness not non-existent after death, even though the five aggregates have passed
away once and for all? If even without the aggregates the person somehow survives to enjoy the
eternal happiness, why do the Pudgalavdins deny that the person is existent in Parinirvana? But
if the person does not survive and there is supposed to be only eternal happiness without anyone
who enjoys it, in what sense does the person attain it?

The difficulty arises from the assumption that the self or person and Nirvana are two different
things, the one impermanent and the other eternal. But the Pudgalavdins say that the self and
Nirvana are neither the same nor different. Even while suffering in Samsara the self is not distinct
from the eternal happiness of Nirvana, and when the persons body, feelings and so on have
passed away in Parinirvana, the self is still not entirely non-existent. That is because Nirvana,
which is not distinct from the self, continues to exist. The relationship between the self and
Nirvana, then, seems to be similar to that between the local manifestation of fire and the fire in its
non-local state. The something that is locally manifested as a self on the basis of the aggregates
would thus be Nirvana.

5. Pudgalavdin Arguments in Support of their Conception


of the Self
The Pudgalavdins, like other Buddhist philosophers, saw it as their task to present what they
believed to be the best interpretation of the teaching of the Buddha and to support that
interpretation through rational argument. The correctness of the Buddhas teaching was beyond
question; what could be debated was the adequacy of this or that interpretation as an explanation
of his meaning. Accordingly, their arguments were broadly of two kinds: appeals to the canonical
texts (sutras) in which the Buddhas teaching had been preserved, and arguments on the basis of
consistency with acknowledged fact. These were not entirely distinct, since the Buddhas teaching
was supposed to be based not on divine revelation but on the exercise of human faculties
developed to an extraordinary degree, and acknowledged fact was understood to include
generally accepted Buddhist doctrines concerning, for example, karma and rebirth.

Appeals to the canonical texts were not entirely straightforward. These texts had been transmitted
orally for several centuries before being committed to writing. Each school preserved its own
versions of these texts, and although the versions agreed to a considerable extent, there were also
differences, in some cases involving whole sutras. It was not enough, then, for the Pudgalavdins
and their opponents to quote sutras from their own versions of the canon; they had to make sure
that the sutra they quoted was also included in their opponents version. Otherwise, their
opponents would feel free to dismiss it as quite possibly a forgery.

The Pudgalavdins often quoted passages in which the Buddha spoke of persons or the self as
existing. In most cases, these could be readily explained by their opponents on the basis of the two
truths: the Buddha spoke conventionally of persons and the self, but elsewhere made it clear that
ultimately there are only the phenomena of the five aggregates. In the view of such non-
Pudgalavdin schools as the Theravdins and Sarvstivdins, these passages merely serve to
explain how the Pudgalavdins have come to misunderstand the Buddhas teaching; they give no
support at all to the misinterpretation.

But there is one case at least in which the Buddhas way of expressing himself is more difficult to
account for, and the Theravdin and Sarvastivdin explanations of it show signs of strain. Here the
Buddha speaks of the five aggregates as the burden, and identifies the bearer of the burden as the
person. Certainly it is possible to explain this in terms, for example, of decisions made by the
aggregates of a past life whose consequences are then a burden to the aggregates of this life. But
the more natural and obvious reading is to take it as distinguishing between the person who
transmigrates from life to life, and the aggregates which the person takes up with each life and
carries as a burden.

In another passage to which the Pudgalavdins referred, the Buddha indicates that the idea that
one has no self is a mistake. Their opponents were quick to point out that in the same passage he
also indicates that the idea that one has a self is a mistake; the meaning, they would suggest, is
that it is a mistake to affirm the ultimate existence of the self, but a mistake also to deny its
conventional existence. This is certainly not unreasonable; but neither is the Pudgalavdins
explanation: that it is a mistake to affirm the existence of a self that is either the same as the
aggregates or separate from them (these being the two ways in which the self is usually
imagined). but a mistake also to deny that there is any self at all.

The fact that the Buddha seems to have been generally unwilling to say outright that the self does
not exist is something of an embarrassment for the Pudgalavdins opponents. The Buddha
characteristically said that the self is not to be found in the aggregates or apart from them. The
Theravdins, Sarvstivdins and others take this to mean that there is no self at all (except
nominally or conventionally); but the Pudgalavdins take it as characterizing an existing self
which is neither the aggregates themselves nor something apart from them. Whenever the Buddha
says that the aggregates in particular or phenomena (dharmas) in general are non-self, the
Pudgalavdins understand this only as a denial that the self can be simply identified with them.
The view of the Theravdins and Sarvstivdins, that what we call the self is simply the ever-
changing aggregates spoken and thought of for convenience as a persisting entity, seems to the
Pudgalavdins to be equivalent to identifying the self with its aggregates, a view which the
Buddha explicitly rejected.

Apart from appeals to the canonical texts, the Pudgalavdins also offered arguments pointing out
what they saw as the inadequacy of their opponents view to account for some of the facts of
personal existence and self-cultivation which were generally accepted by Buddhists. They argued,
for example, that if there were no person distinguishable from the aggregates, there would be no
real basis for identifying oneself, as the Buddha did, with the person that one was in a previous
life, since the aggregates in the two lives would be completely different. They evidently felt that
the causal relationship that was supposed to obtain between the aggregates of a past life and those
of the present life was insufficient to establish a personal identity persisting through the
successive lives.

They also argued that one of the meditations recommended by the Buddha, in which the meditator
cultivates the wish that all sentient beings may be happy, presupposes the existence of real
sentient beings, of persons, to be the objects of the meditators benevolence. They rejected their
opponents opinion that the aggregates are the real object of benevolence, and insisted that if that
were the case, the Buddhas recommendation to wish that all sentient beings may be happy would
not have been well said. In their opponents view, this was simply another case in which the
Pudgalavdins failed to recognize that the Buddha spoke conventionally of sentient beings and
persons when it would have been inconvenient to speak in terms of the aggregates, which were all
that was ultimately there. But to the Pudgalavdins it seemed clear that benevolence toward a
sentient being or person is not the same thing as benevolence (if it is possible at all) toward a
series of constantly changing aggregates.

They argued also that the operation of karma is incomprehensible if the person is nothing more
than an assemblage of phenomena. Destroying a particular arrangement of particles of clay in the
form of an ox is not killing anything and has in itself no karmic consequences; but destroying a
particular arrangement of aggregates in the form of a living ox is killing something and has
unfortunate consequences for the person who killed it. If the ox is really nothing but an
arrangement of aggregates, destroying that arrangement, rearranging the aggregates, should have
no more moral and karmic significance than smashing the clay image of an ox. Their thought
seems to have been something like this: the phenomena (dharmas) which are supposed to be the
oxs constituents cannot, strictly speaking, be destroyed, since their existence is in any case
momentary; all that can be destroyed is the arrangement in which these phenomena have been
occurring, and that, in the view of their opponents, is nothing real. As Buddhists, their opponents
agree with the Pudgalavdins in accepting the effectiveness of karma, but their denial of the
reality of the self makes nonsense of what they accept.
The analogy with fire was important in explaining the indeterminacy of the self or person in
relation to the aggregates, but they did not offer it as an argument in its own right for the reality of
the self. Its function was rather to clarify the nature of the relationship between the self and the
aggregates, and to serve as evidence that at least one instance of such a relationship could be
recognized in the world around us, so that there could be no justification for rejecting their
position out of hand as manifestly impossible.

6. Conclusion
The view of the Pudgalavdins, that the self is a real entity which is neither the same as the
aggregates nor different from them, is certainly paradoxical and seems to have been regarded by
their opponents as fundamentally irrational. But they evidently felt that only such a view did
justice to our actual experience of personal existence and to what in the Buddhist tradition were
the accepted facts of karma, rebirth and final liberation. To some extent they were able to explain
the paradox by pointing to the ways in which the self seems limited to a particular body, particular
feelings and so on and the ways in which it also seems to transcend these, but the self in their
view remains something mysterious and only partially amenable to the principles of rational
thought.

The Theravdins, Sarvstivdins and others naturally saw the Pudgalavdins account of the self
as not so much paradoxical as incoherent. They were sure that the reason that the Pudgalavdins
could not really make sense of the self they affirmed was that no such self is possible. But there
was after all some justification for the Pudgalavdins view, that their opponents, if they achieved
consistency, did so to some extent at the expense of the facts. And the insistence of the
Theravdins and Sarvstivdins on the precise determinacy of anything that they were prepared to
regard as real brought its own problems, as the dialectic of the Mdhyamikas would show.

The very considerable success of the Pudgalavdins in India surely indicates that there were many
who regarded their doctrine as a viable interpretation of the Buddhas teaching. At the very least,
it was an interpretation which, though different from what we now regard as orthodox, had
significant strengths as well as weaknesses. Perhaps belief in a real though indeterminate self
would tend, as their opponents argued, to reinforce our inveterate selfishness; but the
Pudgalavdins held that the self once realized to be indeterminate could not be a basis for the self-
love and craving that are the source of suffering. Their conception of a persisting self, moreover,
could be felt to give a stronger sense of our investment in the person that we are to become, and
thus a greater appreciation of the significance of our actions in this life. Finally, belief in the
reality of other selves would seem to make it more difficult to ignore the suffering of others than
if all persons were thought to be essentially an illusion. That there was in fact a danger that belief
in the unreality of the self might lead to an attitude of indifference to other sentient beings is
evident from the endless admonishments to cultivate compassion that we find in the works of the
Mahyna.

As a theory of the self, the Pudgalavda was naturally shaped and so in some measure limited by
the concerns of Buddhism; the Pudgalavdins were interested in the nature of selfhood only to the
extent that it had a bearing on the problem of suffering. But their interpretation of the Buddhas
teaching offers a perspective which is also of more general interest. Even in the fragmentary
evidence that has come down to us, we can see at least the rough outline of a view which gives
full weight to the instinctive conviction that as persons we are neither reducible to our apparent
constituents, whether these are conceived to be dharmas or molecules, nor separable from our
particular, concrete presence in the physical world. It is a view that reminds us of the experiential
immediacy of our awareness of other selves, and that confirms our natural resistance to regarding
a person as nothing more than a construct of the understanding. Finally, it renews in us the sense
of something mysterious and perhaps ultimately unfathomable in the mere fact of our selfhood
and of our existence in the world as conscious beings.
7. References and Further Reading
Aung, Shwe Zan and C.A.F. Rhys Davids. Points of Controversy. (English translation of
the Kathvatthu. ) London: Pali Text Society, 1915. Reprinted 1960.
Bareau, Andr. Trois traits sur les sectes bouddhiques attribus Vasumitra, Bhavya et
Vintadeva. Journal Asiatique, 242 (1954), 22966; 244 (1956), 167200.
Bareau, Andr. Les sectes bouddhiques du petit vhicule. Paris: cole Franaise d
Extrme-Orient, 1955.
Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962.
Reprinted 1967, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Demiville, Paul. Lorigine des sectes bouddhiques daprs Paramartha. Mlanges
chinois et bouddhiques, 1 (1932),1564. Reprinted 1973 in Choix dtudes bouddhiques
(19281970), Leiden: E.J. Brill, 80130.
Dube, S.N. Cross Currents in Early Buddhism. New Delhi: Manohar, 1980.
Duerlinger, James. Indian Buddhist Theories of Persons: Vasubandhus Refutation of the
Theory of a Self. London, New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003.
Dutt, Nalinaksha. Buddhist Sects in India. Calcutta: K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1970.
Hurvitz, Leon. The Road to Buddhist Salvation as Described by Vasubhadra. (Includes a
translation of part of the Siehanmu chaojie, Kumarabuddhis Chinese translation of the
Tridharmakhandaka.) Journal of the American Oriental Society, 87.4 (1967), 43486.
Jha, Ganganatha. The Tattvasamgraha of Sntaraksita with the Commentary of
Kamalasla. (English translation of ShntarakshitasTattvasamgraha..) Baroda: Oriental
Institute, 1937.
La Valle Poussin, Louis de. LAbhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu. (French translation from
Xuanzangs Chinese version of Vasubandhus Abhidharmakoshabhshya.) Mlanges
chinoises et bouddhiques, 16 (192331). Reprinted 1971.
La Valle Poussin, Louis de. La controverse du temps et du pudgala dans le
Vijnnakya. (French translation of the first chapter of Xuanzangs Chinese version of
Devasharmans Vijnnakya.) tudes Asiatiques, 20 (1923), 34376.
Law, B.C. The Debates Commentary. (English translation of the Kathvatthuppakarana-
atthakath.) London: Pali Text Society, 1940. Reprinted 1969.
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Author Information

Leonard Priestley Email: leonard.priestley@utoronto.ca University of Toronto Canada