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Buddhism as Philosophy and as Religion

by Sangharakshita


Maha Sthavira Sangharakshita reprinted from Dhammamegha, no.9, July 1982. Scanned by Lokabandhu, checked by Subhuti September 1997 The chief distinction between philosophy and all other branches of knowledge is generally considered to be twofold, namely, a difference of method and a difference of scope. The method of philosophy is said to be different from the methods of the various sciences inasmuch as it begins its investigations without assumptions or preconceptions of any kind. The sciences, on the contrary, all assume the truth of the law of causation. In addition to this, each science makes certain assumptions within its own special field of enquiry. Classical Physics, for instance, assumes the existence of matter, Biology the existence of life, and Geometry the existence of space. But they do not consider what matter, life and space in themselves really are, or why they should exist at all. To consider that is the business of philosophy which, it is claimed, makes no assumptions whatsoever. But one assumption at least philosophy does in fact make: that knowledge is possible. Even the investigation into the possibility of knowledge implies that knowledge of whether knowledge is possible or not. Philosophy cannot avoid the assumption of the possibility of knowledge, since even the initial act of philosophizing presupposes it. Similarly, religion is based upon the assumption that it is possible to become good, which implies in the first place the freedom of the will and in the second the existence of a goal, whether proximate or ultimate, to be attained. Difference of method does not therefore, distinguish philosophy either from the sciences on the one hand or from religion on the other. But difference of scope, content or subject matter does in fact distinguish it from both of them The various sciences are so obviously restricted to their respective fields of investigation that it is unnecessary to give examples in order to prove it Religion restricts itself to the attainment of the Highest good and considers other things, only insofar as they help or hinder this supreme desideratum. But philosophy, on the contrary, is essentially synoptic, and endeavours to comprehend the whole of existence at a single glance, thereby justifying Plato's famous definition of the philosopher as the spectator of all time and all existence. Philosophy does not, however, simply view things as a mere aggregate of heterogeneous elements; but, just as the scientist and spiritualist do within their narrower spheres, it endeavours to trace the unity of law working in the midst of the diversity of events, and since its sphere is universal the law or laws which it seeks to trace are universal too.

The claim that the Buddha was a philosopher as well as a Saint, and that Original Buddhism was therefore a philosophy as well as a religion, must consequently rest upon the ability of the most ancient records to show statements attributed to Him about the nature of existence as a whole. The representatives of the Theravada tradition generally consider that the Buddha did in fact characterize the whole of existence as dukkha, anicca and Anatta, which means that it is either actually or potentially painful, transitory, and without any permanent, unchanging soul or self. The first and second signs or signata, namely, dukkha and anicca, obviously cannot be applied to Nibbana, which is characterized as paramam sukham and nicca or dhuva. This leaves us with Anatta only. But a purely negative characterization of existence as a whole is clearly not a very adequate foundation for a philosophical superstructure. The difficulty is, however, more apparent than real. An analysis of the implications of the doctrine of Anatta will eventually make it plain that it is merely a condensed and negative statement of what appears in an expanded and positive form in the doctrine of Paticca Samuppada. That this doctrine is nothing but the conceptualized formulation of the Buddha's supreme spiritual experience and that it may therefore be regarded as His view of existence as a whole becomes clear when we consider that it was just this doctrine that He debated within Himself whether to make known to the world or not immediately after His Enlightenment. The Mahavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka (Oldenburg's Buddha, page 120): "Into the mind of the Exa1ted One, while he tarried, retired in solitude, came this thought: 'I have penetrated this deep truth, which is difficult to perceive, and difficult to understand, peace-giving, sublime, which transcends all thought, deeply-significant, which only the wise can grasp. Man moves in an earthly sphere, in an earthly sphere he has his place and finds his enjoyment. For man, who moves in an earthly sphere, and has his place and finds his enjoyment in an earthly sphere, it will be very difficult to grasp this matter, the law of causality, the chain of causes and effects; and this also will be very difficult for him to grasp, the extinction of all conformations, the withdrawal from all that is earthly, the extinction of desire, the cessation of longing, the end, the Nirvana. Should I now preach the Doctrine and mankind not understand me, it would bring me nothing but fatigue, it would cause me nothing but trouble!' And there passed unceasingly in the mind of the Exalted One, this voice, which no one had ever before heard. `Why reveal to the world what I have won by a severe struggle? The truth remains hidden from him whom desire and hate absorb. It is difficult, mysterious, deep, hidden from the coarse mind; He cannot apprehend it, whose mind earthly vocations surround with might.' "When the Exalted One thought thus, his heart was inclined to abide in quietude and not to proclaim the Doctrine." (Mahavagga, 1. 5. 2 seq.) This important text, embedded in what is undoubtedly one of the oldest strata of the Pali Tipitaka, makes it quite clear that the doctrine of Paticca Samuppada is the conceptualized formulation of the content of the Buddha's experience of Sambodhi and that it may therefore be considered as the philosophical foundation not only of Original Buddhism but of the subsequently-arising schools of Developed Buddhism also. It was this doctrine which the venerable Assaji skilfully summarized in a single verse when questioned by Sariputta (then a wandering mendicant of another sect) concerning the teaching of the Buddha, a verse which has since then been recognized as containing the pith and kernel of Buddhism: "Existences which flow from a cause, their cause the Perfect One teaches and how they end: this is the doctrine of the great Samana." The passage in the Tipitaka which relates this episode is in turn, as Oldenburg (Buddha, page 134, note) says "...one of those which king Asoka, in the Bhairat inscription (circa. 260 B.C.), commanded the monks and nuns, the lay-brothers and lay-sisters, intently to hear and learn." It is pointed out in later scholastic literature that the Four Aryan Truths can be divided into two parts,, each of which will comprise one cause and one effect, that is to say, dukkha (the First Truth) and it's cause, tanha (the Second Truth), and Nibbana (the Third Truth) and its cause, the Ariyan Eightfold Path (the Fourth Truth). It is hardly necessary to multiply examples of the prime importance of the doctrine of Paticca Samuppada from the Pali Tipitaka. The Madhyamikavada's doctrine of Sunyata is simply a dialectical version of the doctrine of Anatta or Paticca Samuppada.

This will be clearly seen when we go a little more deeply into the meaning of the Buddha's fundamental philosophical doctrine. The importance of the tenet of Dependent Origination in the teaching of the Vijnanavada or Yogacara school of Buddhism is sufficiently attested by the fact that at the beginning of his encyclopedic philosophical treatise the Tattvasangraha Santarakshita (705 - 762 C. E.), the co- founder with Padmasambhava of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet and one of the most brilliant ornaments of the great University of Nalanda, not only salutes the Buddha as the Teacher of the Doctrine of Dependent Origination but makes it the vehicle both of his examination of all other schools of Indian philosophy and his exposition of the doctrines of the Vijnanavada school of Mahayana Buddhism to which he belonged. In thus announcing this doctrine as the basic principle of all Buddhist philosophy Santarakshita has simply adumbrated the view of all earlier Buddhist thinkers from the time of the Buddha Himself down to his own day.

The negative doctrine of Anatta teaches that all phenomena of existence whatsoever are without self- nature or substantiality and that they are, therefore, conditioned or contingent in character. Everything depends for its existence upon other things, and so on until all the threads of existence - physical, mental, moral and spiritual - are knit together into a single interrelated, interconnected, interdependent fabric. Nothing is aloof or single, - nothing isolated, nothing separate. A flower blooms in dependence on the whole universe, and the whole universe exists in dependence on the flower. In the words of Shelley: "Nothing in the world is single, All things by a law divine In one another's being mingle..." The transition from the doctrine of Anatta, which is the negative aspect of Paticca Samuppada, to the doctrine of universal Flux or Becoming, which is its positive expression, is perhaps ...

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