Buddhist Philosophy Essay Introduction

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According to Buddhist traditions, ignorance is the root cause of the aversion and attachment that leads to suffering. These traditions argue that the Buddha’s awakening consisted in overcoming ignorance and then attaining a fundamental insight into the nature of reality. The Buddha’s teachings, then, were intended to help others achieve liberating insight. Elaborations and interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings have been developed and contested for more than two millennia, generating a rich philosophical tradition with a great diversity of views and methodologies. While it would be inappropriate to categorize Buddhist thought only in Western philosophical terms, the primary areas of Buddhist philosophical inquiry can be roughly distinguished along the following lines: insight into the fundamental nature of reality (metaphysics and ontology); understanding the nature of this insight and other knowledge (epistemology); the limits and possibilities for articulating knowledge linguistically (philosophy of language); understanding how to interpret written and oral teachings (hermeneutics); understanding intention, action, and the consequences of action and how we ought to live (ethics); and understanding the agent of knowing and action and the nature of consciousness (philosophy of mind and the person). Rational and creative inquiry into these questions—that is, philosophy—was often regarded as a central element of the Buddhist path. A few words about the following bibliographic essay will help readers benefit from the resources included here. Buddhist philosophical traditions are extensive and diverse, not unlike Western philosophical traditions. Given constraints of space, this bibliographic essay on Buddhist philosophy is only able to map the major peaks in a vast mountain range. The article is categorized in several ways: by school (e.g., Theravāda, Madhyamaka, Yogācāra); by national tradition (e.g., Tibet, Japan); by major figure (e.g., Nāgārjuna, Tsongkhapa); and by philosophical area (e.g., philosophy of mind, ethics). (This means there is occasional overlap, but it will enable students and scholars to look at any one section to find what they are seeking.) Some sections are distinguished by whether they include primary or secondary texts. This distinction frequently breaks down in scholarship on Buddhist philosophy, as translations are often accompanied by extended introductory essays and commentary such that they cannot be neatly characterized simply as primary texts. Another distinction that is sometimes blurred in Buddhist philosophy—as it is in Greek, medieval, and much early modern philosophy in the West—is that between philosophical and religious texts. The texts discussed in this bibliographic essay are primarily of a philosophical nature and do not require any knowledge of Asian languages, culture, history, or even Buddhist religious traditions. However, students interested in a serious study of Buddhist thought would benefit from reading texts in other areas of Buddhist studies. Finally, this entry emphasizes books, as opposed to articles, and scholarship in English, leaving out many landmark works in French, German, Japanese, and Italian. References to these important texts can be found in the resources suggested below.

General Overviews

Buddhist traditions are so varied and diverse that no one text could possibly provide an adequate historical or topical overview of Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, there are helpful texts that provide introductory accounts of basic Buddhist views in India. Williams and Tribe 2000 provides a systematic and detailed overview and a good starting place for understanding the development of Buddhist thought in India and East Asia. Siderits 2007, Gowans 2003, Laumakis 2008, and Kalupahana 1992 all present philosophical analyses of central tenets focusing primarily on Indian Buddhism with some discussion of East Asian traditions. Siderits and Gowans are particularly engaging for students and scholars trained in Western philosophy. Williams and Tribe 2000, Williams 1989, Siderits 2007, Gowans 2003, and Laumakis 2008 would all make good textbooks for introductory-level courses in Buddhist philosophy.

  • Gowans, Christopher W. Philosophy of the Buddha: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2003.

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    An introduction to the philosophy of early Buddhism with comparisons to Western philosophy.

  • Kalupahana, David. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

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    A revised edition of an earlier work that emphasizes early South Asian Buddhism but also includes material on East Asian Buddhist thought.

  • Laumakis, Stephen J. An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    An introduction to Buddhist thought beginning with the Buddha and early Indian Buddhism and covering later Buddhism in India, as well as Tibet, China, and Japan.

  • Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2007.

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    More than any other introductory text, this one presents Buddhist philosophy in a way that will be familiar to analytic philosophers. It is an excellent entry to Buddhist philosophy for students of Western thought.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.

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    An accessible introduction to the most important Mahāyāna philosophical views in India, Tibet, and East Asia.

  • Williams, Paul, and Anthony Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London: Routledge, 2000.

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    A sophisticated introduction to Indian Buddhist thought that draws on scholarship from numerous disciplines in Buddhist studies and provides analysis of many important texts.

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