The teachings of the Buddha (5th-6th c. bc) and of later thinkers following his ideas, are usually seen as forming one of the families of Philosophy in India. But is Buddhism a Philosophy? This claim is not as obvious as we usually think. In the present essay, I shall try to address this problematic, through one particular entry: the classical 19th c. European misunderstanding of Buddhism as a nihilistic Philosophy.
Because of the Buddha’s famous notion of Anattā, Buddhism has been regarded in the West as a nihilistic system of Philosophy. Buddhism, it is believed, allegedly denies all substance to reality. This view must be avoided, as Buddhism does value life in all its varieties: it is not a negative system. Buddha’s position on Anattā must be understood as the questioning of the idea of a self in each human being, but not as a positive argument in favor of the hypothesis of a non-self. The Buddha made this clear by rejecting both the eternalist position (“there is a self”) and the annihilationist position (“there is no self”) (Rahula 1978:66). The fact that the Buddha criticized the view A does not mean that he was an advocate of the view non-A. In other words, Buddha was critical when individuals claimed that there is such a thing as a self, but he did not want them to take the view of the absence of a self as an absolute truth either. As an intellectual abstraction of the ever-changing world around us, claiming that there is no self is still a simplification of reality, therefore remaining in the realm of the conventional truth (Samvrti Satya). To those who came to ask him this kind of metaphysical question, Buddha remained silent and invited them, simply, to observe reality as it is: always changing. Using concepts or words to refer to objects or people around us is the main way in which we dupe ourselves in considering these objects as being permanent and distinct from one another. The Buddha did not deny existence, but rather, he disagreed with the view that all phenomena could have a substance and sustainability in time, and that they could therefore be conceptualized in absolute terms. Graham Priest (2009) describes the distinction further, arguing that it is not that “there is nothing left — just nothing determinate” (472): the elements of the world are all so intrinsically intertwined, but using different words to refer to them invites to believe that they hold independent and distinct existences. Buddha’s view on Anattā is not a demand to humans for their absolute withdrawal of reason; rather, it is the humble invitation to let go of one’s habitual desire to label, name and conceptualize the world one sees, and to find a peace in the fact that all is permanently changing around us. But does this constitute a philosophical approach?
Philosophizing the Buddha, or even talking of “Buddhist Philosophy”, it is somehow betraying the original mind of the Buddha, who probably considered abstract conceptualization as a possible source of clarification for a few, but also as a potentially very strong source of confusion, and therefore of more suffering, for many.
Throughout the Buddhist scriptures, it appears that the Buddha was concerned with the fact that humans often believe in the permanence of things. This belief concerns, first, themselves and people around them, therefore feeding their own suffering, as they will get attached to things that will ultimately disappear. To this extent, we can say that the Buddha was not very much interested in abstract postulations: Buddha was not exactly a philosopher. He is sometimes referred to as a “therapist” (Delaye 2007): he was primarily focused on the possible ways for humans to diminish and ultimately cease to provoke their own suffering. Therefore, philosophizing the Buddha, or even talking of “Buddhist Philosophy”, it is somehow betraying the original mind of the Buddha, who probably considered abstract conceptualization as a possible source of clarification for a few, but also as a potentially very strong source of confusion, and therefore of more suffering, for many. Through the centuries, intellectually oriented individuals have used the insights of the Buddha to create Philosophical systems, forming the ‘schools of Buddhist Philosophy’. As philosophizing consists in the attempt to find strict and permanent answers regarding domains such as existence, human experience, emotions or morality, this enterprise contains the risk of taking such simplified hypotheses as absolutes. But there is one way in which we can correctly use the discoveries of the Buddha in a philosophical enterprise: by keeping in mind that all the concepts or answers are true only in the realm of the conventional truth, which may be of use only if it leads us to strengthen, ultimately, our awareness in the impermanence and interrelation of all phenomena. Philosophy, and its rational argumentations, may therefore be understood as one of the Upāya-kauślaya or “skilful means” (Delaye 2007). Philosophy is one of the ways or “skills”, developed through the history of humanity, for humans to get a better life; but Philosophy, and “philosophical truth” should not be mistaken as ultimate truth, or as the final goal of human life.
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