The purpose of this book is, as the title suggests, to examine Buddhism as philosophy. Before we actually start doing that though, it might be good to first get a bit clearer about what each of these two things – Buddhism and philosophy – is. That will help us see what might be distinctive about studying Buddhism as a form of philosophy. And it is important to be clear about this, since there are some preconceptions about these matters that might get in the way of fully grasping how the philosophical study of Buddhism works.
When people first encounter philosophy, they want to know what it is about. Other disciplines have their own subject matter: biology is the study of life processes, sociology is the study of human societies, astronomy looks at planets and stars, etc. So what is philosophy about? Those who are not new to the study of philosophy know that what makes philosophy a separate discipline is not its special subject matter. True, there are questions that we naturally think of as ‘philosophical’ in some sense. Questions such as, ‘How should I live my life?’, and ‘How do we know anything?’, and ‘How did all this come to be?’. But the first question is also addressed by literature, the second by cognitive science, and the third by astrophysics. What distinguishes philosophy from other disciplines?
The answer has more to do with method than with content. What sets philosophy apart as a discipline is more its concern with how to answer questions than with the answers themselves. To study philosophy is to learn to think carefully and critically about complex issues. It is not necessarily to learn ‘the answers’ that the discipline has arrived at. This can make the study of philosophy frustrating for some. When we first study a subject, we expect to learn the body of knowledge that has been developed by that discipline. When we study chemistry we learn the atomic weights of the elements, when we study history we learn the causes of the First World War, etc. Only later, if at all, does one start looking into the methods the discipline uses within its field of knowledge. The study of philosophy is not like that. True, one might find out in an introductory philosophy course that Plato thought the soul must be immortal, or that Descartes held the one thing that can’t be doubted is that the ‘I’ exists. But one also learns that not all philosophers agree with Plato or Descartes on these claims. Some students find this frustrating. Where, they want to know, are the facts that philosophy has established? In all the centuries that philosophy has existed, has it made any progress, come up with any answers?
One response to this question is that indeed philosophy has established something quite significant – that the truth turns out to be very complicated. None of the simple answers to the questions that philosophy examines is correct. This is an important (and unsettling) result. The questions that philosophers ask often seem like they should have simple and straightforward answers. Take, for instance, the question how the mind and the body interact. The state of my stomach causes me to have a desire, and then the resulting state of my mind brings about bodily motion in the direction of the refrigerator. How do these things happen? One thing that philosophical investigation of this question has shown is that we still don’t know the answer. Even more detailed scientific study of the brain won’t succeed (at least by itself) in explaining how this works. Yet we rely on the mind and the body working together in everything we do. So perhaps philosophy has established something after all – that under the surface of seemingly simple matters lurks surprising complexity. Getting to the bottom of things turns out to be devilishly hard work.
But there is another way to answer the complaint that philosophy hasn’t established any facts. Someone who says this might be wondering, What is the point of studying philosophy? And the way the challenge is posed suggests that they think the point of studying some subject is to acquire a body of knowledge, that is, to add new facts to the facts they already know. So one response to the challenge might be to question this assumption. Perhaps the point (or at least a point) of studying philosophy is to acquire a set of skills. Specifically the study of philosophy might turn out to be one of the best ways to learn some critical argumentation skills: defining one’s terms carefully, constructing good arguments in support of one’s views, critically evaluating arguments (one’s own and others’), responding to objections, and the like.1
And these skills turn out to play a crucial role in many different areas of life. They are, for instance, extremely important to the practice of law. This would explain why the study of philosophy is recognized as one of the best ways to prepare for legal practice (something that was known in ancient Greece and in medieval India). Of course the issues that philosophers grapple with can be intrinsically interesting to anyone who is at all thoughtful and reflective. But on this way of thinking about philosophy, the benefit of grappling with them is not so much that one gets the ‘right’ answer, as that one learns to think more carefully and critically about complex matters in general.
To say this is not to say that the questions that philosophers ask are unimportant. It’s because people find these to be pressing questions that they pursue the difficult task of trying to answer them – and thereby develop their logical and analytic skills. So something more should be said at this point about what sorts of questions these are. Philosophical inquiry can be sorted into several broad areas. One such domain is ethics. This has to do with the general question of how we should live our lives. So it includes not just questions about the nature of morality (which is concerned with what constitutes right and wrong in the treatment of others). It also deals with questions about what sort of life might be the best life for persons. Now it is sometimes thought that questions of ethics and morality are questions for religion. And it is true that most religions have a great deal to say on these matters. But when people think of questions of right and wrong, good and bad, as matters for religion, they often have in mind the idea that a religion simply tells us how we ought to behave. So they are thinking of ethics and morality as a set of rules or commandments. This is not what philosophers mean by ethics, though. As they use the term, ethics involves critical examination of competing views about how we ought to conduct ourselves. And this is something that one can do regardless of what (if any) religious beliefs one has. The medieval Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas was doing ethics in this sense when he tried to determine what conclusions we can draw about being virtuous from a certain view of human nature. But so was the nineteenth-century German atheist Friedrich Nietzsche when he asked how we should live our lives given that God is dead. What makes both their discussions of ethical matters philosophical is that both involve the critical examination of arguments.
Metaphysics is another major area of philosophy. The word ‘metaphysics’ gets used in several different ways. For instance, in bookstores the ‘metaphysics’ section is usually filled with books on astrology and the occult. But as it is used in philosophy, it simply refers to the disciplined investigation of the most basic features of reality. Where ethics concerns the question how things ought to be, metaphysics concerns the question how things fundamentally are, or what reality is basically like. Now we might think that questions about how things are, or what reality is like, should be left to the sciences. And it is true that if, for instance, we wanted to know what a certain chemical compound is like we should turn to chemistry. But metaphysical questions are much more basic or fundamental than those that science can answer. Chemistry can tell us what effects might be caused by mixing two chemicals. But it is a metaphysical question what the general nature of the relation between cause and effect is. Likewise the sciences tell us a great deal about the nature of the physical world. But it is a metaphysical question whether everything that exists is physical; this is not a question that scientists can or should try to answer using the methods of science. Some other examples of metaphysical questions include: What is the nature of time? Are there, in addition to particulars such as individual cows, universals such as a single cowness that exists in all of them simultaneously? Does there exist an all-perfect, eternal creator of the universe? Is there a self, and if so what might it be like? The pursuit of metaphysical questions like these has often led philosophers to related but separate questions in the philosophy of language, such as how it is that words and sentences have meaning, and what it means for a statement to be true.
Another important area of philosophy is epistemology or the theory of knowledge. Here the basic question is how we can know what things are like and what should be done. Inquiry in epistemology has often taken the form of asking just what it means to say that someone knows something or other. For instance, can someone be said to know something if they haven’t ruled out all the ways in which they could be mistaken (even when they’re not mistaken)? But epistemological inquiry may also take the form of asking what are the means or methods of knowledge. Sense-perception and inference (or reasoning) are popular candidates for reliable ways to acquire knowledge, but what about authority (taking the word of some trustworthy person), or reasoning by analogy? And if there are different means of knowledge, how are they related to one another? Does each have its own distinctive sphere, or do they all serve equally well to give us knowledge about the same objects? Does any one means of knowledge have precedence over others?
As you might have guessed given what was said earlier about the nature of philosophy, philosophers have developed a number of different theories in each different branch. And there is no general consensus as to which theories in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics are correct. There is general agreement that the simplest answers are wrong. Take, for instance, the ethical theory of subject-based ethical relativism. This is the view that whether an action is morally permissible or morally wrong depends on whether or not one sincerely believes that doing that action is wrong. All philosophers today would agree that this theory is false. But when it comes to more sophisticated theories in these areas, agreement breaks down. For every theory that has been proposed in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, there are serious criticisms that have been developed by philosophers. Much of the practice of philosophy involves looking at these objections to a given view and seeing if it’s possible to answer them. (It is through this process that philosophical theories have grown so sophisticated.) But in doing so one frequently discovers that there are important connections between the view one holds in one area of philosophy and the positions one takes in other areas. A particular theory in ethics might for instance turn out to be unworkable unless one holds a certain position on some metaphysical issue. Learning to see these sorts of connections is another important benefit of studying philosophy.
Not every culture developed its own philosophical tradition. But ancient Greece did, and this is the source of modern Western philosophy. And so did classical India. In each case the original impetus seems to have come from a concern to answer ethical questions. Out of dissatisfaction with the received view of how people should live their lives, there arose efforts at thinking systematically about these matters. But in both cases these inquiries soon led to major developments in metaphysics and epistemology. For philosophers became aware that if we are to determine how we ought to live, we need to be clearer about the nature of the world and our place in it. And this in turn requires greater clarity about what constitutes knowledge and what processes lead to it. People sometimes wonder if it could be just a coincidence that philosophy arose in two such different cultures at roughly the same time. Now we know that there were trade contacts between classical India and the Hellenic world. So it is at least conceivable that some ancient Greek philosophers and some classical Indian philosophers knew something of one another’s work. But the two philosophical traditions appear to be genuinely distinct. They tackle the same basic questions in ethics, metaphysics and epistemology. And they employ the same basic techniques of analysis and argumentation. (This is why it is appropriate to call them both ‘philosophy’.) Sometimes individual philosophers in the two traditions even reach strikingly similar conclusions. But this should not lead us to suppose that there was significant borrowing between one tradition and the other. We know after all that the same invention can occur independently in two distinct cultures. In mathematics, for instance, the zero was invented separately, in ancient India, and also by the Mayans of pre-contact meso-America.
Philosophy, then, is the systematic investigation of questions in ethics, metaphysics and epistemology (as well as several related fields). It involves using analysis and argumentation in systematic and reflective ways. This will do, at least for now, as an account of what we will mean by philosophy. What about the other term in our title, Buddhism? We might seem to be on safer ground here. While many people might lack detailed knowledge about what it is that Buddhists believe and what Buddhist practice involves, surely everyone knows that Buddhism is the religion that was founded in ancient India by the Buddha, subsequently spread throughout Asia, and is now attracting adherents in the West? Well, yes, but there’s a load of mischief lurking in that word ‘religion’. There is one sense in which Buddhism can accurately be called a religion, but there is another widely used sense of that word in which it would be a mistake. And clarity about this matter will prove just as crucial to our undertaking as will being clear about what philosophy is.
We often base our understanding of a word on familiar examples. In the case of ‘religion’, the familiar examples for most people in the West are Christianity, Judaism and Islam. These are all monotheistic religions: they each involve belief in a single personal being who is eternal, is creator of the universe, and is all-perfect. Not all religions share this sort of belief: Hinduism and Shinto are both polytheistic. It doesn’t seem to be stretching things too much to group all the theisms together under one label, though. But particularly if the religion one is most familiar with is Christianity, one might also think of a religion as a ‘faith’. To think of religion this way is to see it as a set of beliefs that one accepts out of a conviction that is not based on rational argumentation. Religion is then seen as falling on the ‘heart’ side of the head/heart, or reason/faith, divide.
In modern Western culture there is a tendency to suppose that certain questions are to be settled through the use of reason, while others can only be addressed through faith and feeling. This is the dichotomy between reason and faith, with reason seen as a matter of the head and faith a matter of the heart. Along with this dichotomy there is a related one between ‘facts’, seen as the sort of thing that the sciences discover, and ‘values’, seen as private, subjective commitments that are not open to rational investigation and scrutiny. Suppose we agree that using our reason involves thinking about things in a cool, careful, detached and deliberate way. Now it is probably true that some matters should not be decided entirely on the basis of calm, cool consideration of reasons. One’s choice of life-partner, for instance, should probably involve considerable input from the ‘heart’ side. But it is not at all clear that ‘head’ and ‘heart’ constitute a strict dichotomy. And in any event, it is not obvious that the matters we consider religious (or ‘spiritual’) necessarily belong on the ‘faith’ side of any such divide.
One thing that all the theisms (monotheisms and polytheisms) have in common is that they each try to articulate some vision of the ideal state for humans. This ideal state is usually depicted as being quite different from the way that people would live their lives if left to their own devices. The latter ‘mundane’ (or ‘worldly’) state is depicted as inherently unsatisfactory, as fallen away from how we ought to be. And the ideal state is represented as a sort of salvation from this fallen state. When we think of a religion as dealing with ‘spiritual’ matters, it is this concern with attaining salvation, of escaping from an unsatisfactory way of being, that we have in mind. The concerns of religion are, in a word, soteriological. (A soteriology is a doctrine of salvation.) Now to think of religion as a faith is to suppose that soteriological concerns can only be addressed through a form of emotional commitment. It is to hold that reason and logical investigation are of little or no use in seeking salvation. Many people in our culture believe this. But this was not the view of classical Indian culture. (Nor was it held by the ancient Greeks, or by the philosophers of medieval Islam.) To many people in ancient India, including the Buddha, it made perfectly good sense to use our rational faculties in the pursuit of salvation. Of course this was not the only path that Indians recognized. The Bhagavad Gītā
, a major Hindu text, teaches that there are four different paths; which path one should take depends on one’s talents and predilections. But all four paths culminate in salvation, for they all instill knowledge of our true identity. The Buddhist tradition generally teaches that there is just one path to liberation, not four. But that path consists in the combined practice of philosophical reasoning and meditation. Indian Buddhists, like others in ancient India, thought that salvation from our unsatisfactory state was to be had through coming to know the truth about who we are and where we fit in the universe. And they thought that attaining such insights required the use of philosophical rationality.2
Buddhism is, then, a religion, if by this we mean that it is a set of teachings that address soteriological concerns. But if we think of religion as a kind of faith, a commitment for which no reasons can be given, then Buddhism would not count. To become a Buddhist is not to accept a bundle of doctrines solely on the basis of faith. And salvation is not to be had just by devout belief in the Buddha’s teachings. (Indeed the Buddhists we will study would be likely to see belief of this sort as an obstacle...