Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy

I hope you now feel intrigued and curious about the concept of emptiness. I suspect that you maybe are a little bit intimidated after that long discussion of the concept that I published. It’s not common in the religious traditions of the world to hear that everything is possible precisely because everything is unreal. This way of speaking is meant to make you think in new ways. I think that this is what the Buddha actually intended when he began to speak about the concept of no-self.

The Language of Philosophers

Here, I’m going to push the study of emptiness a step further, by looking in the way Indian philosophers have tried to pin down its meaning. The study of Buddhist philosophy unfortunately is not particularly easy. The concept of emptiness already presents formidable difficulties to us. The technical style of argument that is favored by philosophers doesn’t make matters any easier.

Buddhist philosophical texts were produced in a sophisticated monastic environment. They often rely in a lot of technical discourse that now seems impenetrable to us even in some of the best translations. However, I think that it’s worth spending our time grappling with the works of these philosophers.

The reason for this difficulty I think should be pretty clear. A careful intellectual account of any religious tradition is going to help clarify for us what the basic ideas and problems are. More importantly, specially in Buddhism, it helps us identify where the intellectual problems actually lie for Buddhists, not for outside observers, but for the practitioners of the tradition.

What is Buddhist Philosophy?

Where do we start? Maybe the best place is with a pretty basic question. What do we mean when we say Buddhist philosophy? Philosophy is a western word that comes from the Greek. What do we mean when we say that word in a Buddhist setting?

The most common word that we are translating when we use this English word “philosophy”, is a word that simply means vision. It’s the word Darsana. The word Darsana is used to name the emotionally charged vision of an image in Buddhist worship.

I’ve said in another articles that when you go to worship in an Indian temple there is a moment when the curtain is closed hiding the image. Then there is a bang and the curtain is pulled aside, having a direct vision of the image. This vision of the image is called Darsana. This is a powerful and emotional moment in Buddhist worship. This is actually what the word philosophy means. It’s Darsana. It’s to see ultimate reality face to face.

Philosophy as a Practical Endeavor

In my article about the Path of Nirvana, I mentioned that the path could be divided into three categories: Sila (moral conduct), Samadhi (mental concentration) and Panna. Another word for philosophy is Vipassanā, a word that we sometimes translate as “discriminating vision” or “insight”. It is a form of Buddhist meditation and it has to do with cultivating wisdom. It is too a kind of philosophy.

So, philosophy is one of the ways to cultivate wisdom. It is intricately related to the practice of Buddhism itself. It is something you’ve got to do to try to free yourself from the illusions of the world of Samsara.

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