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Buddhist Philosophy

Encyclopedia of Religion
1. Buddhist Philosophy - Malcolm David Eckel,
2. Four Noble Truths - John Ross Carter,
3. Eightfold Path - Bhikkhu Thanissaro
4. Prattya-Samutpda - David J. Kalupahana
5. Nirva - Thomas P. Kasulis
6. Buddhist Concept of Karma - Dennis Hirota

Buddhist Philosophy
Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Malcolm David Eckel. "Buddhist Philosophy." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol.
2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1295-1303. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Aug.
When Buddhism first became known in the West, many historians of philosophy were reluctant to call it
"philosophy." Philosophy in the strict sense was viewed as a legacy of the Greeks, who learned to
cultivate a critical and theoretical attitude that was free from the limitations of tradition, mythology, and
dogma. By the end of the twentieth century, this restrictive approach has begun to change. We now know
much more about the critical precision of Buddhist philosophy, and Western philosophers are more
favorably inclined toward the practical concerns that inspired Greek philosophy. As theoretical as Greek
speculation may have been, it was never far from the practical challenge of living a good or happy life.
The same is true of Buddhist philosophy. Even the most rarefied and theoretical analysis is related to a
process of moral discipline and liberation from suffering.
In India the word most often translated as "philosophy" is darana, whose root meaning is simply "to
see." As a metaphor, darana is close to the Greek word theoria, which is the source of our word
theoretical and also means "to see." Darana can be used to name a system or school of Indian
philosophy, as in the title of Mdhava's famous Sarva-daranasamuccaya (Compendium of all systems),
or it can be used to name philosophy itself. Some Indian philosophers play on the metaphorical
associations of the word to picture philosophy as way of ascending a mountain to get a clear vision of the
world. Bhvaviveka (also known as Bhavya or Bhviveka) described the practitioner of philosophy as
someone "who climbs the mountain peak of wisdom and is free from grief, but looks with compassion on
people who are burned by grief." This verse echoes an earlier Buddhist verse about a wise person who
ascends the "palace of wisdom" and, (Page 1296) without grief or sorrow, sees the suffering of life spread
out below. Hans Jonas has pointed out that the metaphor of vision plays a crucial role in Western
philosophy, because it suggests distance, detachment, and the ability to perceive all of reality in a single,
inclusive act of understanding. Jonas's point applies equally well to Buddhist philosophy. Whether it
involves an Indian scholar climbing a mountain, a Chinese master polishing the mirror of the mind, or a
Japanese philosopher gazing at the moon reflected in a dewdrop, Buddhist philosophy functions
metaphorically as a form of vision.
The idea of vision suggests another important metaphor for the practice of Buddhist philosophy. To get to
the top of the mountain, a philosopher has to follow a path. At a crucial moment in his life, Siddhrtha
Gautama, the man who became the Buddha, realized that fasting and self-denial were not leading him
where he wanted to go. He accepted a gift of food and took up a mode of discipline that is known in
Buddhist tradition as a Middle Way, avoiding the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. Once he

had found the Middle Way, he began to make progress toward the awakening (bodhi) that made him a
buddha. For Buddhist philosophers, the Middle Way is more an intellectual discipline than a discipline of
desire, but it is equally fundamental to their practice: their philosophical practice charts a Middle Way
between the extremes of affirmation (in which things are treated as permanent entities) and negation (in
which they are treated as utterly nonexistent).
The most fundamental way of understanding Buddhist philosophy, however, is simply as a pursuit of
knowledge. From the earliest stages of Buddhist tradition, wisdom (praj) played a central role in
Buddhist practice. Wisdom involved an ability to see through appearances of things and understand them
correctly. By a grammatical accident that had enormous influence on the development of Buddhist
thought, it also involved a certain way of "going." The word way (pratipad), in one of its forms, functions
as a verbal noun that means "to go." For the philosophers of classical India, "to go" can always mean "to
know." This means that the philosophy of the Middle Way is a way of knowing the world without illusion,
grief, or suffering. While the metaphors of vision and the path have become attenuated in the long history
of Western philosophy, the Buddhist view of the philosopher's path is not far from Plato's parable of the
cave, where the challenge is to ascend from the dark world of mere appearances to the bright light of truth.
It is difficult to separate the teachings of the historical Buddha from the complex layers of oral tradition
about his life, but several fundamental themes seem to have been established early in Buddhist history
and have given decisive shape to the rest of Buddhist thought.
Early canonical literature tells a story about an encounter between the Buddha and a man named
Mlunkyaputta. According to the story, Mlunkyaputta asked the Buddha a series of questions: Is the
universe eternal or not? Is it finite or infinite? Is the soul identical to the body or not? Does the Buddha
exist after death or not? Does he both exist and not exist after death? Does he neither exist nor not exist?
Mlunkyaputta said that, if he did not get answers to these questions, he would leave the order. The
Buddha responded with a story about a man who was wounded by a poisoned arrow. When someone tried
to take out the arrow, the man said: "Wait! Until you tell me who shot the arrow, what kind of person he
was, what the bow and arrow were made of, and so forth, I will not let you remove the arrow." The
Buddha said that Mlunkyaputta was like the man shot by the arrow. His speculative questions did not
have anything to do with the practical challenge of removing suffering. Buddhists interpret this story as
meaning that the Buddha's teaching has a practical goal. Buddhist philosophy is not averse to questions
about the nature of reality, even questions that are quite abstruse, but in the end their purpose is to remove
Another story compares the Buddha's teaching to a raft. The Buddha explains that his teaching should
help people cross the river of suffering and should not be treated as a source of attachment. Someone who
becomes attached to the words of the teaching is like a man who builds a raft to cross a river, gets to the
other side, and is so fond of the raft that he puts it on his back and carries it wherever he goes. The right
attitude toward the raft is to use it to cross a river then let it go. Once again, the teaching has a practical
function, but out if its practicality grows a critical principle. This story challenges anyone who reveres
tradition for its own sake, even when that tradition is the teaching of the Buddha. When the Buddha's
teaching is no longer useful, or when it is not effective in removing suffering, it should be left behind. If
"philosophy," in the strict sense of term, requires a critical spirit toward dogma, myth, and other forms of
tradition, as it often does in the Western tradition, then a distinguishable Buddhist "philosophy" is
beginning to stir in these early stories.

One of the most important systematic accounts of early Buddhist thought is found in the
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Discourse on the turning of the wheel of the teaching). According to
Buddhist tradition, this discourse contains the Buddha's first sermon and summarizes the content of his
awakening. It begins with the Middle Path, then presents a teaching about four noble truths: the truths of
suffering (Skt., dukha; Pali, dukkha), the arising of suffering (samudaya), the cessation of suffering
(nirodha), and the path to the cessation of suffering (Skt. mrga; Pali, magga). Although these truths
need to be elaborated before their significance can become clear, they contain an outline of the major
topics of Buddhist thought.
The truth of suffering is related to two other important aspects of Buddhist thought: the doctrines of
impermanence (Skt., anitya; Pali, anicca) and no-self (Skt., nairtmyam; Pali, anatt). Buddhists argue
that, while some things are painful in an obvious sense, other things become painful (Page 1297) when
they change and pass away, and eventually everything changes and passes away. Someone who holds
onto changeable things will eventually experience them as suffering. Buddhists carry this point further
and argue that, because things change, they lack the permanent identity or "self" that we normally
attribute to them. They are nothing but a series of "aggregates" (Skt., skandha; Pali, khandha) or
momentary phenomena that give the illusion of continuity, like momentary flickers in a flame or
moments in the flow of a river. The doctrine of impermanence became a major point of controversy
between Buddhist and Hindu philosophers, and the doctrine of no-self produced some of the most
important debates within the Buddhist tradition itself.
According to the second noble truth, suffering comes from desire, and desire comes from ignorance
through a causal sequence known as "dependent co-arising" (Skt., prattya-samutpda; Pali, paiccasamuppda). The most fundamental form of ignorance is the misconception that there is a self. When
someone realizes that nothing has any permanent identity, the chain of dependent co-arising unravels, and
suffering begins to cease. The third noble truth, the cessation of suffering, is also known as nirva (Pali,
nibbna), a word that means simply to "blow out" the fire of ignorance and craving. In its traditional form,
the concept of nirva has a negative flavor that sometimes puzzles Western interpreters, but it is not
difficult to understand if it is read against the background of Indian views of reincarnation. Like their
Hindu and Jain counterparts, Buddhists assume that a person's life follows a cycle of death and rebirth,
known in Indian tradition as sasra (literally, "wandering"). The goal of the Buddhist path is to bring
this cycle to an end. Nirva is not merely the cessation of desire and ignorance; it is liberation from the
cycle of reincarnation.
Traditional outlines of the path to nirva, the fourth noble truth, divide it into eight parts, beginning with
"right understanding" and ending with "right concentration." In a formula attributed to the nun
Dhammadinn, the eight parts of the eightfold path can be grouped into three: moral conduct (Skt., la;
Pali, sla), concentration (samdhi), and wisdom (Skt., praj; Pali, pa). Moral precepts for laypeople
include no killing, no stealing, no lying, no abusing sex, and no taking of intoxicants. The practice of
concentration involves a variety of disciplines that often are referred to in the general category of
"meditation." Of these the most basic is to sit in a stable posture and concentrate on the movement of the
breath. This practice is meant to let the negative tendencies of the mind pass away so that the mind can be
clearly aware of the flow of experience. Finally this clear mind should be infused with the wisdom, or the
understanding of no-self, that unravels the chain of suffering. It is here, in the cultivation and practice of
wisdom, that philosophy finds its place in the path to nirva.

According to Buddhist literature, the leaders of the early community convened a council about a hundred
years after the Buddha's death. While the sources do not agree about the exact nature of the disputes that
led to this council, they do show that the community began to divide into different sects or schools
(nikya) at a relatively early date. A close study of the sources shows that these divisions initially
involved questions of discipline in the Vinaya Piaka or "Basket of Discipline" in the Buddhist canon.
Later disputes focused on doctrinal questions found in the Sutta Piaka and the Abhidhamma Piaka.
Eventually these disputes produced eighteen separate schools.
The disputes that separated the eighteen schools are too complex and often too obscure to summarize, but
one particular dispute had wide influence in later Buddhist thought. This is the "Personalist Controversy."
Some of the early schools, such as the Vtsputryas and Sammityas, affirmed the existence of a "person"
(pudgala) that continued from one moment to the next and gave continuity to the personality. These
schools said that the "person" was neither identical to nor different from the "aggregates" (skandha) that
constitute the personality as it was understood by other Buddhist schools. The doctrine of the person
(pudgala-vda) was eventually rejected by the majority of Buddhist schools, but not without considerable
Judging from an account of the personalist doctrine in Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakoa (Treasury of the
abhidharma), there were two reasons for the personalists' position. One was a scriptural text (the Burden
Stra) that spoke of a "person" who took up and laid down the burden of karma. The other was that the
personalists felt that a "person" was necessary to guarantee moral accountability. They seem to have
understood the "person" as the shape or configuration (sasthna) of the aggregates. While the shape of
the aggregates is not different from the aggregates themselves, it continues while the aggregates
themselves come and go. Vasubandhu's criticism of this position takes the form of a dilemma. If the
"person" is just a conventional way of speaking about the aggregates, then it is not ultimately real. If it is
ultimately real, then it cannot change and cannot be related to the aggregates. This dilemma is common in
Buddhist philosophy and plays a crucial role in the Madhyamaka view of the two truths to be discussed
The systematic elaboration of Buddhist thought took a major step forward with the development of the
abhidharma (Pali, abidhamma). The abhidharma tradition began as lists, known as mtks ("matrices"),
of the fundamental constituents (dharmas) of reality. As Vasubandhu explained in his Abhidharmakoa,
abhidharma has to do with cultivating pure wisdom through the discrimination of these fundamental
constituents. Eventually these lists of fundamental constituents were developed into a third "basket" of
scripture. The abhidharma schools attributed these lists to the Buddha himself, although their attribution
was not universally shared. An important early school known as the Sautrntikas ("those who follow the
discourses") challenged the claim that the abhidharma could be traced to the Buddha. This school based
its doctrine solely on the Buddha's discourses (strnta). (Page 1298)
A good way to become acquainted with the questions that occupied the abhidharma, without having to
deal with the complexity of the matrices, is to read the Milindapaha (The questions of King Milinda).
This text presents a discussion between the monk Ngasena and King Milinda, who is identified as
Menander, an Indo-Greek king who ruled in northern India around 150130 BCE. In one of its best known
chapters, Milinda asks Ngasena about the idea of "no-self." Does it mean that Ngasena himself does not
exist? Ngasena responds by asking the king about his chariot. Does the word chariot refer to the wheel,

the axle, the pole, or some other part of the chariot? The king says: No, the word chariot is just a
conventional designation that depends for its meaning on these separate parts. Ngasena then says that the
word Ngasena functions in the same way. It is just a conventional designation that depends on the
momentary constituents of the personality. This comparison shows what Vasubandhu meant when he said
that abhidharma is "the discrimination of fundamental constituents." The process of discrimination
implies not only a theory of language but an epistemology: the knowledge of reality has to penetrate
beneath the level of conventional designations to the momentary constituents in the flow of experience.
The most influential of the abhidharma schools belonged to the Sarvstivdins ("who hold the doctrine
that everything exists"), also known as the Vaibhikas after the title of their greatest work, the
Mahvibh (Great commentary). The school began in the central region of the Ganges basin and
eventually migrated to Kashmir where it flourished for several centuries and had wide impact on the
transmission of Buddhism to Central and East Asia. Its influence was so great in China that the
Mahvibh has been preserved in several different recensions in the Chinese canon, including a
translation made in 659 by the renowned Chinese scholar Xuanzang.
The most distinctive Sarvstivdin theory, and the one from which the school gets its name, is the idea
that "everything exists" not merely in the present, but in the past and future. This position was first
developed in the first century CE in a text known as the Vijnakya (The body of consciousness) and
seems to have responded to two problems associated with the concept of impermanence: How can an act
of cognition "know" something in the past or future if that object does not exist, and how can past actions
have any effect in the present, if the actions have ceased to exist? In the Mahvibh there is an
elaborate discussion of the mental factors that lead to awakening, along with the factors that hold a person
back. As is often the case throughout Buddhist philosophy, epistemology plays a key part in the process
of liberation.
The appearance of the Mahyna (Great Vehicle), near the beginning of the Common Era, led to a
reinterpretation of many of the basic values of Buddhist thought. Mahyna texts refer to the teachings of
earlier schools as Hnayna (Lesser Vehicle) and claim that the Mahyna represents a transmission of
the Buddha's most profound teaching. For modern scholars, the origins of the Mahyna are quite obscure.
What is certain is that by the second century of the Common Era, when the first Buddhist translations
appeared in China, Mahyna texts were actively circulating through the Indian Buddhist community. As
the Mahyna movement gathered momentum, it transformed the Buddhism of India and became the
dominant tradition in China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Vietnam.
Early Mahyna literature, particularly the Prajp-ramit (Perfection of Wisdom) Stras, introduced
two key new ideas into the tradition of Buddhist thought. The first of these, the doctrine of emptiness,
presented a bold and radical application of the traditional doctrine of no-self. The second, the ideal of the
bodhisattva, placed this view of reality in a distinctive system of ethical practice and reflection. Neither of
these two ideas was unprecedented in Buddhist tradition, but they were presented in such new ways that
they precipitated a major reconsideration of the fundamental concepts of Buddhist thought.
According to the bodhisattva ideal, the goal of Buddhist life is not to achieve nirva in this life, as it had
been in earlier tradition; it is to return in the cycle of reincarnation to help others on the path. While the
bodhisattva ideal does not exclude monks and nuns, Mahyna texts like the Vimalakrtinirdea (The
teaching of Vimalakrti) Stra speak positively about the lay life and draw lay people into the center of
the teaching. Bodhisattvas are encouraged to practice the active virtue of compassion (karu), along

with the traditional virtue of wisdom (praj). This practice involves the cultivation of six "perfections"
(pramit)generosity, moral conduct, patience, fortitude, concentration, and wisdom (a list that was
later expanded to ten)and proceeds through a process of ten stages (bhmi). In the last stages of this
process, bodhisattvas acquire such extraordinary powers from their practice of merit and wisdom that
they function almost like the Hindu gods.
While the abhidharma focused on the discrimination of dharmas as the momentary but real constituents
of reality, the early Mahyna stras called the reality of these dharmas into question. In the first chapter
of The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, for example, riputra poses a question: "What
dharma does the word bodhisattva refer to?" The answer is that he cannot "find, apprehend, or see" any
dharma corresponding to the word bodhisattva. The stra extends the same analysis to all of the
categories of Buddhist thought: no matter what the word, no dharma can be "apprehended" that
corresponds to it. This view of reality can be distilled into the claim that all dharmas are "empty" of
identity. In other words, the nature of all things is their emptiness.
While the Mahyna doctrine of emptiness is easy to state, its implications are complex. One obvious
consequence is the concept of nonduality: no matter how different two things may seem, in the end there
is no distinction between them. There is no difference between one moment and the (Page 1299) next,
between one person and another, and between nirva and sasra. To the critics of the Mahyna, this
view often seems to be a form of nihilism, but it has important positive implications. The bodhisattva
ideal, for example, is not based merely on a sense of altruism or compassion. While the bodhisattva may
wish to help others, and this desire may be an important motivation for starting out on the bodhisattva
path, the bodhisattva also realizes that there is no way to separate his or her fate from the fate of others,
and there is no way to escape into nirva apart from sasra itself. The doctrine of emptiness leads
inevitably to the bodhisattva practice. Emptiness may seem negative, but it leads to an expansive and
affirmative philosophy of Buddhist practice.
The first systematic attempt to organize Mahyna thought is associated with the philosopher Ngrjuna.
Reliable historical information about Indian philosophers is rare, and the figure of Ngrjuna is even
more elusive than most. Scholars generally agree that he lived in south-central India sometime in the
second or third century of the Common Era. Otherwise what we know of him comes only through his
works. Of these, the most important is the Mlamadhyamaka-krik (Root verses on the Middle Way),
the text that served as the source of the Madhyamaka ("Middle Way") school. Ngrjuna also was the
author of a number of independent treatises on problems in logic and the philosophy of language,
including the Vigrahavyvartan (Avoidance of disputes), a work on the bodhisattva path (the Ratnval
[Jewel garland]), and several well-known hymns.
Ngrjuna makes the direction of his argument clear in the first verse of the Mlamadhyamaka-krik:
"Nothing ever arises anywhere from itself, from something else, from both, or from nothing at all." To
say that nothing arises by any possible causal mechanism depends on a particular assumption about the
nature of identity: if something has an "own-being" or "identity of its own" (svabhva), then it cannot be
produced by anything else and cannot give rise to itself. The only way something can "arise" is to be
empty of any identity. In other words, for Ngrjuna, the Buddhist view of impermanence expressed in
the doctrine of dependent co-arising required that everything be empty of identity. Ngrjuna expressed
this point in two key verses in the Mlamadhyamaka-krik: "We call dependent co-arising emptiness; it
is a metaphorical designation, and it is the Middle Path"; and "Everything is possible for someone for
whom emptiness is possible, and nothing is possible for someone for whom emptiness is not possible."

How can something be possible, if it has no identity? Is the doctrine of emptiness any different from
saying that nothing exists at all? The answer to these questions requires another key Madhyamaka
concept: the distinction between the two truths. Ngrjuna said: "When buddhas teach the dharma, they
depend on two truths: ordinary relative truth and ultimate truth. It is impossible to teach the ultimate
without depending on the conventional, and it is impossible to understand nirva without understanding
the ultimate." The distinction between the two truths begins with a particular truth about language: a
person has to depend on the distinctions of ordinary language in order to show that ordinary language
does not apply. But the distinction has important metaphysical and epistemological implications: a person
has to depend on an ordinary understanding of things in order to seek nirva. From the ultimate point of
view distinctions fall away, but any action or thought that is directed toward ultimate truth gains its
meaning by its dependence on relative (samvti) or conventional (vyavahra) truth. The combination of
the two truthsa conventional affirmation and an ultimate negationconstitutes the "middle way" that
gives the school its name. It also allows Ngrjuna to appropriate the basic categories of Buddhist life in a
positive way without treating them as ultimately real.
The distinction between the two truths was fundamental to Madhyamaka thought, but it posed troubling
philosophical problems for Ngrjuna's followers. These problems emerged in a series of commentaries
on the Mlamad-hyamaka-krik, written two or three centuries after the time of Ngrjuna and focused
on a disagreement about the logical form of Ngrjuna's arguments. The commentator Buddhaplita (c.
470540) interpreted Ngrjuna's arguments as a prasaga or reductio ad absurdum in which the
opponent's position is shown to lead to absurd conclusions. Buddhaplita formulated the argument against
arising from self and other as two separate claims: If someone says that things cannot arise from
themselves, this is impossible, because their arising would be useless, and if someone says that things
cannot arise from something else, this too is impossible, because then anything could be produced by
anything else. This interpretation of Ngrjuna is known as Prsagika from its style of reasoning.
Bhvaviveka (c. 500570) argued that the rules of Indian logic require Mdhyamikas not merely to defeat
their opponent's position but to establish a position of their own. He restated the first part of Ngrjuna's
argument as an "independent syllogism" (svatantra anumna) with his own independent assertion and
reason: "Things do not arise from themselves, because they already exist." Because of his fondness for
independent (svatantra) arguments, Bhvaviveka's position is known as Svtantrika. Candrakrti (c. 600
650) came to Buddhaplita's defense and provided the classic statement of the Prsagika approach. For
Tibetan tradition and for modern scholars, Bhvaviveka's Svtantrika and Candrakrti's Prsagika
represent the two major, competing options in the interpretation of Madhyamaka thought.
This dispute about logical procedure gives a glimpse of the problems that occupied Buddhist philosophers
in what might be called the classical period of Buddhist philosophy in India. By the fourth and fifth
centuries Buddhist monasteries had become sophisticated centers of learning and were drawn into debate
not only with other Buddhists but with competing schools of Hindus and Jains. Bhvaviveka himself
(Page 1300) played a crucial role in this inter-traditional dialogue by producing the Tarkajvl (Flame of
reason), the first systematic chapter-by-chapter account of the doctrines of competing Indian schools. It
was natural for him to insist that Buddhists play by the accepted rules of debate and defend their own
positions. It fell to Candrakrti to reassert the austerity and simplicity of Ngrjuna's vision of ultimate
truth. Behind the argument about the procedure for debate, however, lay an argument about the nature of
conventional truth. Bhvaviveka felt that it was necessary to "accept" (siddha) conventional things before
analyzing them from the ultimate perspective; Candrakrti refused to attribute such independent reality to
the subject of his arguments.
In addition to commentaries on Ngrjuna, Bhvaviveka and Candrakrti wrote major works on the
bodhisattva path. Both works, Candrakrti's Madhya-makvatra (Introduction to the Middle Way) and

the first three chapters of Bhvaviveka's Tarkajvl, present their analysis of Madhyamaka philosophy as
part of the path to buddhahood. The same is true of the Bodhicaryvatra (Introduction to the practice of
awakening) by ntideva (eighth century). In a widely-quoted scriptural text, wisdom (praj) is pictured
as a way of giving sight to the other perfections and leading them to the city of nirva. While the
practice of Buddhist philosophy became more and more concerned with issues of logic and epistemology,
it did not lose its intimate relationship to the discipline of Buddhist life.
Madhyamaka continued to develop after the dispute between Candrakrti and Bhvaviveka.
Bhvaviveka's Svtantrika approach was taken up and extended by the eighth-century scholars
Jnagarbha, ntarakita, and Kamalala, who shared the definition of conventional truth as "arising
dependently, capable of effective action, and satisfying only when it is not analyzed." The concept of
"effective action" (artha-kriy) in this definition shows the influence of the Buddhist logician
Dharmakrti (seventh century). Both ntarakita and Kamalala played important roles in the
introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. On the Prsagika side, the philosopher Ata (eleventh century)
helped reestablish the Buddhist intellectual tradition in Tibet after a period of persecution. His Prsagika
convictions, along with his well-known work on the bodhisattva path, Bodhipathapradpa (Lamp for the
path to awakening), had immense influence on the shape of philosophy in Tibet. One of the least known
areas of Madhyamaka thought in the last period of Indian Buddhist history has to do with the relationship
between Madhyamaka and Tantra. Two works by the Tantric saint Vimalamitra are included in the
Madhyamaka section of the Tibetan canon, and it is clear from later Tibetan history, as well as from the
lives of Tantric saints, that Madhyamaka played an important role in developing the radical concept of
nonduality on which Tantra was based.
A century or two after the time of Ngrjuna, a second school emerged to challenge its interpretation of
the Mahyna. This school is known by the name Yogcra or "Practice of Discipline." The origin of the
Yogcra is obscured by an old tradition that attributes several of the school's fundamental texts to the
celestial bodhisattva Maitreya. The school's most important early exponents, if not its actual founders,
were Asaga and Vasubandhu (fourth or fifth century), two philosophers who were possibly brothers.
Like the Madhyamaka, the Yogcra grew from the interpretation of a distinctive body of Mahyna
stras. These included not merely the Perfection of Wisdom Stras, but stras that spoke of a "third
turning of the wheel of the teaching" intended to interpret and move beyond the teaching of the Perfection
of Wisdom. The Sandhinirmocana (Releasing the hidden meaning) Stra describes the Perfection of
Wisdom Stras as neyrtha (requiring further interpretation) as opposed to the Sandhinirmocana itself,
which is ntrtha (its meaning is definitive and does not need further interpretation).
Instead of two truths, the Yogcra tradition developed a doctrine of three natures (svabhva): imagined
(parikalpita) nature, dependent (paratantra) nature, and perfected (parinipanna) nature. The first of
these natures has to do with distinctions between subject and object and between one object and another.
When the mind distinguishes things and gives them names, the nature it attributes to them is "imagined":
it is as unreal as a magic trick or a dream. The mind itself, in its imaginative capacity, constitutes
"dependent nature." When it creates imaginative fantasies about the nature of the world, it is like the mind
that creates a dream: its concepts are not real, but the mind itself is real. Perfected nature is defined as the
absence of imagined nature in dependent nature. In this sense it is identical to emptiness itself, but it also
can be equated with the mind when all its illusory concepts have been removed.
This Yogcra picture of reality appears in different forms in different texts, including the
Madhyntavibhga (Distinction between the middle and the extremes), the Viatik (Twenty verses)

and the Triik (Thirty verses), but the basic picture remains the same. In all these texts, the three
natures function not only as an ontology, to distinguish real from unreal, but as an epistemology and a
roadmap for meditation. The first step in the meditative process is to grasp the concept of "mind-only"
(citta-mtra) in order to eliminate attachment to external objects. Once a person has understood that there
is nothing but mind, it is possible to free the mind from the idea that it is a separate subject, different from
its objects. The goal of this process is to develop the nondual awareness that constitutes the Buddha's
awakening. The concept of "mind-only" is widely understood to mean that the Yogcra is a form of
Indian idealism. There is much in Yogcra literature to support this view, particularly the sophisticated
Yogcra analysis of the transformations (parima) of consciousness. But it is important to note that the
concept of "mind-only" is used to remove attachment not only to objects but also to the mind as a
separate subject. (Page 1301)
After the time of Asaga and Vasubandhu, the Yogcra school developed a complex commentarial
tradition like the tradition of the Madhyamaka. Philosophers like Sthiramati (510570) and Dharmapla
(c. 530561) developed distinctive and influential interpretations of the school in the monasteries of
North India. This was the intellectual milieu that Xuanzang (c. 600664) encountered when he traveled
from China in the early decades of the seventh century. After studying in Yogcra circles for several
years, he returned to China and introduced the Yogcra tradition to Chinese Buddhism. While the school
did not maintain a separate identity in China long after the death of Xuanzang, its influence was felt
throughout the history of Chinese Buddhist thought.
One of the most important legacies of the Yogcra in India was the epistemological tradition known as
Buddhist logic. Beginning in the sixth century in the works of Dignga (c. 480540), the tradition
produced some of the greatest philosophers in the Indian tradition. There is a legend that the Hindu
logician Udayana went to a temple one day and found the door locked. In frustration, he addressed God in
the following words: "Drunk with the wine of your own divinity, you ignore me; but when the Buddhists
are here, your existence depends on me." The Buddhists he was referring to were not the Mdhyamikas or
the early Yogcras, but the philosophical heirs of Dignga who kept up their controversies with their
Hindu opponents until the Buddhist monasteries were destroyed at the end of the twelfth century.
In his major work, the Pramasamuccaya (A compendium of the means of knowledge), Dignga argued
that there are only two acceptable ways to know: perception (pratyaka) and inference (anumna).
Perception gives access to momentary particulars (svalakaa), which are ultimately real, while inference
gives access to universals (smnya-lakaa), which are only conventionally real. Absent from this list is
knowledge based on scripture or verbal testimony. Verbal testimony played a crucial epistemic role in
Hindu exegesis of the Vedas, but Dignga cast verbal testimony aside in favor of perception and the
logical analysis of experience based on perception. In this respect, he represented a more sophisticated
version of the critical approach that animated the teaching of the Buddha himself.
With Dignga's austere two-part epistemology came not only a complex analysis of the types of
perception but also a thorough study of the forms of inference and, with the theory of inference, a view of
language as anypoha ("exclusion of the other"). Dignga recognized that it was impossible for a word
like cow to refer directly to the universal "cowness," since such an entity was nothing more than an
intellectual construct. Instead, he argued that the word gained its meaning by excluding particulars that
did not belong to a cow, such as the distinguishing characteristics of a horse.

Dignga's successors included Dharmakrti, who wrote the Pramavrttika, the authoritative
commentary on Dignga's major work, and two philosophers, Ratnakrti and Jnarmitra, who carried
the Buddhist-Hindu controversy into the tenth and eleventh centuries on such topics as the existence of
God and the self and the doctrine of momentariness.
The history of Buddhist philosophy outside India is a complex topic in its own right and cannot be treated
simply as an extension of controversies and schools borrowed from India. In the earliest stages of
Buddhist philosophical activity in Tibet and East Asia, the challenge was to interpret and absorb the
Indian traditions, but it was not long before scholars in both areas generated distinctive traditions of
philosophical reasoning.
In Tibet, the Indian Buddhist philosophical tradition became part of the standard monastic curriculum in
all the Tibetan schools. Students received the texts from their teachers, memorized them, and then
debated their meaning with their peers. In the Dge lugs (Geluk) pa tradition that is represented by the
lineage of the Dalai Lamas, the curriculum included Candrakrti's Madhyamakvatra, Dharmakrti's
Pramavrttika, a summary of the Perfection of Wisdom Stras, and a text on the monastic discipline.
While Tibetan philosophers had a traditional focus, they were capable of impressive originality and
creative insight, as anyone who has encountered the work of a scholar like Tsong kha pa (13571419) can
attest. The study of Indian Buddhist philosophy today would not be the same without the insights
generated by the Tibetan exegetical tradition.
The earliest attempts to formulate Buddhist thought in China began in the second and third centuries CE
and were strongly influenced by indigenous Chinese traditions, particularly Daoism. The neo-Daoist
concept of "original nonbeing" came tantalizingly close to the Mahyna concept of emptiness and helped
give Chinese Buddhist philosophy a Daoist flavor that never entirely disappeared. One of the finest
examples of the Daoist turn in early Chinese Buddhism was the brilliant fifth-century commentator
Sengzhao. As a pupil of the influential translator Kumrajva (c. 350409/413), Sengzhao had access to
the text of Ngrjuna's Mlamadhyamaka-krik and understood its Indian characteristics, but he
transformed its argument in a distinctively Chinese way, depicting the Buddhist sage in a way that would
have been very much at home in Daoist circles in the same period.
In the sixth and seventh centuries, as Chinese thinkers became more adept at interpreting Indian texts in
their original languages, Madhyamaka and Yogcra went through a brief period of efflorescence. Jizang
(549623) made a bold attempt to articulate the Madhyamaka, while Xuandang (600664) did the same
for the Yogcra. With the arrival of the Tang dynasty (618907), however, Chinese Buddhism
developed its own distinctive, indigenous philosophical schools. One of the most influential was the
Tiantai, (Page 1302) founded by Zhiyi (538597) on Mount Tiantai ("Heavenly Terrace"). Zhiyi's thought
can be summarized in three key doctrines: the nature of all dharmas, the harmony of three levels of truth,
and the three thousand worlds immanent in an instant of thought. Tiantai had an inclusive, eirenic
character that gave it great influence, not only in China but also in Japan where, as the Tendai school, it
gave rise to the three major Buddhist movements of the Kamakura period (11851333): Pure Land
Buddhism, the tradition of Nichiren, and Zen. Another key school associated with the Tang dynasty was
the Huayan, founded by Fazang (643712). The Huayan was based on the Avatasaka Stra, an Indian
Mahyna text that compared the world to a network of jewels, with every individual jewel reflecting the
light of every other jewel. This vision of the interconnectedness of the cosmos had important influence in
Chinese philosophy, including neo-Confucianism, and in the philosophical literature of Japan.


Whether the Chan ("Meditation") school (referred to in Japan as Zen) should be called "philosophical" in
the strict sense of the word might be debated. It could just as well be called "anti-philosophical," in the
sense that it challenges discursive logic and favors direct experience over "words and letters," but it had
so much influence on the development of Buddhist thought that it cannot be excluded. One of the key
documents in the history of Chan is The Platform Stra of the Sixth Patriarch by Huineng (638713). In
this text the master Hongren (601674) asks his disciples to write verses expressing the basic point of the
Buddha's teaching. The master then uses the verses to decide who should carry on the mantle of his
authority. One student writes a verse saying that the body is the tree of wisdom and the mind is the stand
of a mirror: the purpose of meditation is to wipe the mirror and not allow it to become dusty. Huineng
responds with a strict application of the concept of emptiness: "The mirror of the mind is always clear and
pure. How can it be defiled by dust?" Out of Huineng's teaching grew the Southern school of Chan, with
an emphasis on sudden awakening. The Northern school, which traced its origin to Huineng's rival,
Shenxiu (c. 606706), stressed a view of gradual awakening.
The intellectual strength of the Chan tradition shows itself vividly in the work of the Japanese Zen master
and philosopher Dgen (12001253). Dgen was born in the family of an influential courtier but lost his
family at an early age and entered the Tendai monastery on Mount Hiei in Kyoto to become a monk. Not
satisfied with his studies, he traveled to China and received what he later called "the dharma-gate of faceto-face transmission." Returning to Japan, he founded the St school of Japanese Zen, a school that is
known for its practice of "just sitting." Dgen's major work, the Shbgenz (Treasury of the true dharma
eye), crosses the line between poetry and philosophy with its eloquent and paradoxical explorations of the
concept of emptiness. It is relentlessly analytical, while it constantly subverts the linear process of logical
analysis; it also is intensely intellectual, while it dissolves the intellect in a quest for pure experience.
The history of Buddhist philosophy since the mid-nineteenth century has been dominated in one form or
another by the encounter with the West. The Theravda tradition felt Western influence as early as the
end of the nineteenth century, when the Theosophists Henry Steel Olcott (18321907) and H. P.
Blavatsky (18311891) arrived in Sri Lanka, converted to Buddhism, and attempted to create a modern,
rational Buddhism. They criticized practices that they considered corrupt or superstitious, like the
worship of local deities, and they argued that Buddhists should return to the tradition's pragmatic, downto-earth, experiential roots. This interpretation of the Buddhist tradition continues to have enormous
influence in contemporary accounts of the Buddha's teaching.
One of the most influential attempts to bring Buddhism into dialogue with Western philosophy took place
in the Kyoto school in Japan. The Kyoto school began in the departments of philosophy and religion at
Kyoto State University under the influence of Nishida Kitar (18701945). Nishida attempted to be loyal
to Japanese traditions, especially Buddhism, and to synthesize Japanese traditions with the philosophical
tradition of the West. Nishida's project was taken up by his successor in Kyoto, Tanabe Hajime (1885
1962), and by his student Nishitani Keiji (19001990). Nishida felt a deep affinity between Japanese
thought and certain currents of German idealism, especially its use of dialectical logic and its openness
toward mysticism. His concept of absolute nothingness involved a dialectical relationship of being and
nonbeing and yielded a view of the self in which the self is "made nothing" so that it can open up to its
true identity. In Religion and Nothingness (English translation 1982), Nishitani related this process to the
history of Western philosophy and argued that Western thought had to pass through a stage of nihility to
achieve a state of absolute nothingness, where it could embrace both being and nothingness. After the
death of Nishitani, the Kyoto school has been less of a force in Japanese philosophy, but it remains one of


the boldest attempts to cross the boundaries between philosophy and religion and between Buddhism and
the tradition of Western philosophy.
Dharma, article on Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas ; Eightfold Path ; Four Noble Truths ; Mdhyamika ; Nirva ;
Praja ; Prattya-samutpda ; Soteriology ; Soul, article on Buddhist Concepts ; Tathgata-garbha ; Yogcra .

Wilhelm Halbfass gives a thorough and illuminating account of nineteenth- and twentieth-century
European responses to Indian philosophy in India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding (Albany, N.Y.,
1988). Bimal Krishna Matilal makes the analytical and critical dimension of Indian thought clear in
Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis (The Hague, 1971) and Perception:
An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge (Oxford, 1986). On the relationship between theory
and practice in Indian literature, see Sheldon Pollock, "The Theory of Practice and the Practice
(Page 1303) of Theory in Indian Intellectual History," Journal of the American Oriental Society 105
(1985): 499519. Studies of the same issue in Classical Greek and Roman philosophy include Pierre
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life (Oxford, 1995), and Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness:
Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K., 1986). On the role of vision as a
metaphor for philosophy in the Western tradition, see Han Jonas, "The Nobility of Sight: A Study in the
Phenomenology of the Senses," in The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (1966;
reprint, Evanston, Ill., 2001).
There are many helpful introductions to Buddhist thought. Three of the best are Walpola Rahula, What
the Buddha Taught (New York, 1974); Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the
Indian Tradition (London, 2000); and Donald W. Mitchell, Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist
Experience (New York, 2002). Karl H. Potter's Presuppositions of India's Philosophies (Englewood
Cliffs, N.J., 1963) still provides one of the most useful ways of understanding the relationship of the
doctrine of reincarnation to Indian theories of causation and epistemology. Steven Collins wrote an
important study of the no-self doctrine in Selfless Person (Cambridge, U.K., 1982).
For a summary of scholarship on the Buddhist councils, see Andr Bareau, Les premiers conciles
bouddhiques (Paris, 1955); Charles S. Prebish, "A Review of Scholarship on the Buddhist Councils,"
Journal of Asian Studies 33 (1974): 239254; and Janice J. Nattier and Charles S. Prebish,
"Mahsaghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism," History of Religions 16 (1977). On
the doctrines of the eighteen nikyas, see Andr Bareau, "Trois traits sur les sectes bouddhiques attribus
Vasumitra, Bhavya, et Vintadeva," Journal Asiatique 242 (1954): 229265; 244 (1956): 167199.
Vasubandhu's discussion of the personalist doctrine (pudgala-vda) is available in Edward Conze's
Buddhist Scriptures (London, 1959), pp. 19297.
The most inclusive account of the abhidharma is Karl H. Potter's Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A.D.,
Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 7 (Delhi, 1996). Vasubandhu's Abidharmakoa has been
translated into French by Louis de La Valle Poussin in L'Abhidharmakoa de Vasubandhu (Brussels,
For an account of the Perfection of Wisdom literature and its role in the development of the Mahyna,
see Edward Conze's The Perfection of Wisdom Literature, 2d ed. (Tokyo, 1978). Conze's translation of
The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and Its Verse Summary (Bolinas, Calif., 1973) gives a

clear picture of the scriptural sources of the Mahyna. Another important Mahyna stra in translation
is Etienne Lamotte's The Teaching of Vimalakrti (Vimalakrtinirdea) (London, 1976).
The best source for a history of Madhyamaka thought is David Seyfort Ruegg's The Literature of the
Madhyamaka School in India (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1981). No single translation of Ngrjuna's
Mlamadhyamaka-krik is considered definitive, but Jay L. Garfield, trans., The Fundamental Wisdom
of the Middle Way (New York, 1995) provides a useful orientation to this fundamental text. A translation
of the Vigrahavyvartan, one of Ngrjuna's most important works on logic and epistemology, can be
found in Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, "The Dialectical Method of Ngrjuna," Journal of Indian
Philosophy 1 (1971): 217261. To study the disputes that divided the Madhyamaka tradition in India and
Tibet, there is no better source than The Svatantrika-Prasangika Distinction: What Difference Does a
Difference Make? edited by Georges B. J. Dreyfus and Sara L. McClintock (Boston, 2003). The most
accessible translation of a Madhyamaka work on the bodhisattva path is ntideva's Bodhicaryvatra,
translated by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford, 1996).
The basic sources of the Yogcra tradition are available in Thomas A. Kochmuttom's A Buddhist
Doctrine of Experience: A New Translation and Interpretation of the Works of Vasubandhu the
Yogcrin (Delhi, 1989) and Stefan Anacker's Seven Works of Vasubandhu (Delhi, 1998). For scholarly
accounts of Dignga's thought, see Masaaki Hattori's Dignga, On Perception (Cambridge, Mass., 1968),
and Richard P. Hayes, Dignga on the Interpretation of Signs (Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1988). Tom J. F.
Tillemans gives a good example of the excellent scholarship being done today on Dharmakrti's
epistemology in Scripture, Logic, and Language: Essays on Dharmakrti and His Tibetan Successors
(Somerville, Mass., 1999). One of the most helpful surveys of the issues that dominated the later tradition
of Buddhist logic is Yuichi Kajiyama's translation of Mokkaragupta's Tarkabh, in An Introduction
to Buddhist Philosophy (Vienna, 1998).
Georges Dreyfus has written an engaging account of the scholar's life in a Tibetan monastery in The
Sound of One Hand Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Monk (Berkeley, Calif., 2003). There is no
single source to turn to for an introduction to Chinese Buddhist philosophy. Wing-tsit Chan provides
excerpts from major texts with helpful commentary in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton,
N.J., 1963). Brook Ziporyn has written two important studies of Tiantai philosophy: Evil and/or/as the
Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity, and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought (Cambridge,
Mass., 2000), and Being and Ambiguity: Philosophical Experiments with Tiantai Buddhism (Chicago,
2004). For a philosophical reflection on Zen, see Dale S. Wright, Philosophical Meditations on Zen
Buddhism (Cambridge, U.K., 1998). Important selections from Dgen's writings are available in Kazuaki
Tanahashi, ed., Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dgen (New York, 1985).
James W. Heissig has written a useful history of the Kyoto school in Philosophers of Nothingness: An
Essay on the Kyoto School (Honolulu, 2001). Keiji Nishitani's most important work in English translation
is Religion and Nothingness, translated by Jan van Bragt (Berkeley, Calif., 1982).



Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Carter, John Ross. "Four Noble Truths." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 5.
Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 3178-3180. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Aug.
All strands of the Buddhist tradition recognize in the four noble truths (Skt., catvry ryasatyn; Pali,
cattri ariyasaccni) one of the earliest formulations of the salvific insight gained by the Buddha on the
occasion of his enlightenment. For the Theravda tradition, the discourse on the four truths constitutes
part of the first sermon of the Buddha, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, delivered in the Deer Park
near Banaras to his five original disciples. The standard formulaic enumeration of the four truths as found
in this discourse is as follows:
This, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha ["suffering"]: birth is dukkha, old age is dukkha, disease is
dukkha, dying is dukkha, association with what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is
dukkha, not getting that which is wished for is dukkha; in brief, the five groups of grasping [i. e., the five
khandhas; Skt., skandhas] are dukkha. And this, monks, is the noble truth of the uprising [samudaya] of
dukkha: this craving, which is characterized by repeated existence, accompanied by passion for joys,
delighting in this and that; that is to say, craving for sensual desires, craving for existence, craving for
cessation of existence. And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation [nirodha] of dukkha: complete
dispassion and cessation of craving, abandonment, rejection, release of it, without attachment to it. And
this, monks, is the noble truth of the path [magga] leading to the cessation of dukkha; just this Noble
Eightfold Way; that is to say, proper view, proper intention, proper speech, proper action, proper
livelihood, proper effort, proper mindfulness, proper concentration. (Sayutta Nikya 5.420ff.)
These four noble truths (formulaically, dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga) constitute a "middle way"
between rigorous asceticism and sensual indulgence. The twin foci of truths are craving (Skt., t; Pali,
tah) and ignorance (avidy), craving to hold that which is impermanent, grasping for substantiality
where there is no abiding substance, and not knowing that this orientation inevitably yields
unsatisfactoriness (Pali, dukkha; Skt., dukha). Hence the twin foci draw attention to the fundamental
cause (samudaya) of dukkha, and meditation on dukkha leads to a discernment that craving and ignorance
are its matrix.
The eightfold path, the fourth of the four noble truths, provides a means especially adapted to lead one
into salvific insight, a way conforming completely to the Buddha's own salvific realization. In this sense,
the eightfold path is the proper mode of religious living, one that subsumes ethics into soteriology.
Although some uncertainty remains among scholars as to whether the passage quoted above indeed
represents the earliest formulation of the Buddha's teaching, in the early phase of the Buddhist tradition in
India (the so-called Hnayna phase) the four noble truths played a major role in shaping the fundamental
orientation to religious living on the part of Buddhists. Early Buddhist schools in India differed in their
interpretations of the four noble truths, but uniformly regarded its underlying thematic structure as one
informed by metaphors of healing: symptom-disease, diagnosis-cause, elimination of cause, treatment or
remedy. With (Page 3179) the rise of the Mahyna tradition the four noble truths became less central as
a fundamental statement of the life situation and one's mode of engagement in a soteriological process,
but continued to be revered as a fundamental part of the Buddha's early teachings.

The Theravda Buddhist tradition is prevalent in contemporary Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. For at
least two millennia it has regarded the four truths as constitutive of its central soteriological doctrine. As a
result, considerable effort has been expended in the tradition on its exegesis. In an extended discussion on
the four noble truths, Buddhaghosa, in his fifth century CE classic, Visuddhimagga (The path of purity),
comments at one point on the meaning of the term sacca ("truth"):
For those who examine [truth] closely with the eye of salvific wisdom [pa], it is not distorted, like an
illusion, equivocated, like a mirage, and of an undiscoverable inherent nature, like the self among
sectarians, but, rather, it is the pasture of noble gnosis [a] by means of its actual, undistorted,
authentic condition. Just like [the characteristics of] fire, like the nature of the world, the actual
undistorted, authentic condition is to be understood as the meaning of truth. (Visuddhimagga 16.24)
Among the many interpretations offered by Buddhaghosa for the existence of four, and only four, truths
is the Buddha's realization that the evolution of suffering, its cause, the devolution of suffering, and its
cause are fully comprehensive of an analysis of the human condition and the way to liberation through it.
(See Visuddhimagga 16.27.) Other analyses of the four truths suggest that the first Truth relates to the
basis of craving; the second, to craving itself; the third, to the cessation of craving; and the fourth, to the
means to the cessation of craving. Similarly, the truths may be viewed as pertaining, respectively, to the
sense of attachment, delight in attachment, removal of attachment, and the means to the removal of
attachment. (See Visuddhimagga 16.2728.) According to the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the
practitioner is to cultivate a fourfold awareness of the four truths in which dukkha is to be fully
understood; the origin of dukkha, abandoned; nirodha, realized; and magga, cultivated. The Theravda
commentarial tradition has maintained that the soteriological moment arises in the simultaneity of this
fourfold awareness. (See Visuddhimagga 22.92.)
Although the tradition continued to elaborate analyses of the four truths arranged according to various
numerical configurations (most frequently with the number sixteen), it has held to the conviction that
when the truths are fully penetrated and soteriologically known it is by one knowledge, through a single
penetration, and at one instant. This knowledge of the four truths, they aver, is in and of itself salvific.
The Theravda has continued to interpret the Eightfold Path as comprising three basic elements deemed
integral to religious living at its fullest: sla (Skt., la), or moral virtue; samdhi, or meditative
concentration; and pa (Skt., praj), or salvific wisdom. Proper view and intention are classed as
salvific wisdom; proper speech, action, and livelihood are classed as expressions of moral virtue; and
proper effort, mindfulness, and concentration are classed as forms of meditative concentration.
Finally, the tradition has utilized the notion of "emptiness" (Pali, suat; Skt., nyat) in the analysis of
the four noble truths. Buddhaghosa wrote:
In the highest sense, all the truths are to be understood as empty because of the absence of an experiencer,
a doer, someone extinguished, and a goer. Hence this is said:
For there is only suffering, no one who suffers,
No doer, only the doing is found,
Extinction there is, no extinguished man,
There is the path, no goer is found.
Or alternatively,


The first pair are empty

Of stableness, beauty, pleasure, self;
Empty of self is the deathless state.
Without stableness, pleasure, self is the path.
Such, regarding them, is emptiness.(Visuddhimagga 16.90)
Although the Theravda tradition applied the notion of "emptiness" in negating permanence, abiding
happiness, and substantiality as legitimate descriptions of sentient life, it is within the Mahyna that one
finds emptiness as a designation of reality in the highest sense. As part of the general critique of
"substantiality" carried out by the Prajpramit literature, even the four truths are declared void of real
existence. In this analysis, suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the
cessation of suffering are themselves "empty."
In the Saddharmapuarika Stra (Lotus Stra), the old standard formulas of the epithets of the Buddha
and characteristics of dharma are repeated for the Tathgata Candrasryapradpa and his preaching, but
the four noble truths are only mentioned by titlethere is no elaboration. The Saddharmapuarika
proclaims that such teaching is taken up and absorbed into the one comprehensive and central
soteriological message (i.e., the "single vehicle"; ekayna) of the stra.
Although the four noble truths are not featured in their earlier formulation in many Mahyna texts, the
basic theme nonetheless persists: Life is awry, craving and ignorance are the cause, one's life can be
changed, and a way or means that brings this about is available. For example, the verse text of ntideva's
Bodhicaryvatra does not contain the complete formula of the four noble truths. Prajkaramati, a
commentator on this great text, even points to the one verse (chap. 9, verse 41) where he finds a contrast
clearly presented between the four noble truths and the "teaching of emptiness." Yet even though a
fundamental shift in the understanding of the path to liberation has taken place in this and other
Mahyna texts, the underlying assessment as to the cause of suffering, that is, the basic thematic
structure of the four truths, remains unchanged. (Page 3180)
In the Madhyamakakrik, Ngrjuna provides an incisive, penetrating analysis of the four noble truths.
He maintains that dukha, which evolves from the interplay of the constituents of individuality and the
objects of perception, can no longer be seen as having any fundamental ontological status, even in
sasra, the fleeting "whirl" of repeated existence. The same is true, for that matter, of sasra itself, or
even of nirva: All is emptiness (nyat).
Thus, the older-formulated Eightfold Path, which provided the remedy for the disease (dukha) of
undisciplined and uninformed human existence, yielded with this shift in worldview to another
formulation of the soteriological process, to another religious orientation that is also to be cultivatedthe
bodhisattva path. Although the ontological interpretation of the four noble truths underwent change in the
cumulative development of the Buddhist tradition, as in the case of the great Chinese Buddhist thinker
Zhiyi (538597), the fundamental theme that the inadequacy of human life results from craving and
ignorance, which can be eradicated by following the path to enlightenment taught by the Buddha, has


Eightfold Path ; Soteriology .

The text of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is available in English translation in Sayutta Nikya:
The Book of Kindred Sayings (19171930), translated by C. A. F. Rhys Davids and F. L. Woodward
(London, 19501956). For the Visuddhimagga, see the reliable translation by Bhikku yamoli, The
Path of Purification, 2d ed. (Colombo, 1964). A related text, Upatissa's Vimuttimagga, has been
translated from the Chinese as The Path of Freedom by N. R. M. Ehara, Soma Thera, and Kheminda
Thera (Kandy, 1977). For an overview and analysis of the four truths from a Theravda perspective, see
Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught, rev. ed. (New York, 1974).
New Sources
Anderson, Carol S. Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravda Buddhist Canon.
Richmond, Va., 1999.
Eckel, Malcolm David, and John Thatamanil. "Beginningless Ignorance: A Buddhist View of the Human
Condition." In Human Condition, edited by Robert Cummings Neville, pp. 5071. Albany, 2001.
Norman, K. R. "Why are the Four Noble Truths called 'Noble'?" In Ananda: Papers on Buddhism and
Indology: A Felicitation Volume Presented to Ananda Weihena Palliya Guruge on his Sixtieth Birthday,
edited by Y. Karunadasa, pp. 1113. Columbo, 1990.
Pereira, Jose. "The Four Noble Truths in Vasubandhu." Buddhist Heritage in India and Abroad, edited by
G. Kuppuram and K. Kumudamani, pp. 129142. Delhi, 1992.
Skilling, Peter. "A Buddhist Verse Inscription from Andhra Pradesh." Indo-Iranian Journal 34 (1991):
Revised Bibliography


Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. "Eightfold Path." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 4.
Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 2737-2739. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Aug.
The noble eightfold path (Pali, ariyo ahagiko maggo) is among the earliest formulations of the
Buddhist path of practice. The Dhammacakkhappavattana Sutta (Setting the wheel of dhamma in motion),
traditionally regarded as the Buddha's first discourse, introduces the eightfold path as a middle way
between two extremes: indulgence in sensual pleasure and self-mortification. Sensual indulgence is
condemned as "gross, domestic, common, ignoble, and not conducive to the goal." Self-mortification is
condemned as "painful, ignoble, and not conducive to the goal." The eightfold path, however, is praised
as productive of vision, productive of knowledge, and conducive to calm, direct knowing, self-awakening,
and nirva. These statements are best evaluated in light of the story of the Buddha's quest for awakening,
which provides the path with both narrative and theoretical context.
Having enjoyed lavish sensual pleasures in his youth, the young bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) realized that
these pleasuressubject to aging, illness, and deathcould provide no lasting happiness. So he left home
and took up the life of a wilderness mendicant to see if a deathless happiness could be attained through
human effort. After six years of exploring various dead-end paths, including extreme self-mortification,
he happened upon a path whose central factor consisted of a focused mental absorption called jhna (Skt.,
dhyna). Developing this absorption to a level of pure mindfulness and equanimity, he applied his mind
to developing three knowledges: knowledge of previous lifetimes, knowledge of the passing away and rearising of living beings, and knowledge of the ending of savas ("effluents" or "fermentations" that defile
the mind). Through this third knowledge, the bodhisattva gained release from the savas of sensuality,
ignorance, and "becoming"the process whereby craving and clinging lead to rebirth. With this release,
he realized the deathless and was now a Buddha: an awakened one.
The Pali discourses state that the first two of the three knowledges contained elements in common with
other religious teachings of the time, but that the second knowledge also contained an element distinctive
to the Buddha: his insight that the level of an individual's rebirth was due to the quality of his or her
intentional actions, or kamma (Skt., karman). Actions performed under the influence of right views led to
a happy rebirth on the higher levels of becoming; those performed under the influence of wrong views,
led to a painful rebirth on the lower levels. Thus, action leading to rebirth was of three types: skillful,
unskillful, and mixed. However, the impermanence characterizing all levels of becoming meant that they
caused suffering for anyone searching for lasting happiness. Seeing this, the bodhisattva then applied his
insight to the role of views in shaping action to see what kind of views would condition a fourth type of
action, leading to the end of action and thus to the end of becoming. (Page 2738)
This question was answered in the third knowledge: A path of action based on viewing experience in
terms of four categoriessuffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path of action leading to its
cessationled to a realization of the deathless. Because this path could be perfected, he realized that it
was a matter of skill, rather than of grace, fate, or coincidence. Thus, to teach that skill to others, he
formulated the four view-categories underlying it as the four noble truths; and the fourth truththe path
of action leading to the deathlesshe formulated as the eightfold path.
The Pali discourses repeatedly cite the Buddha's insights into the nature and scope of action as the
primary teachings distinguishing Buddhism from other contemporary religions. The eightfold path, as the

expression of these insights, is thus the quintessential Buddhist teaching. According to the
Mahparinibbna Sutta, the Buddha on the night of his passing away taught the eightfold path to his last
convert in response to the question of whether teachers of other religions were also awakened. Only in a
teaching that promoted the eightfold path, he maintained, could awakened people be found.
The first discourse lists the path factors without explanation: right view, right resolve, right speech, right
action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Other Pali discourses
classify these eight factors under three headings: the first two under discernment, the next three under
virtue, and the last three under concentration. Still others define the factors in detail. Because the path to
the deathless overlaps somewhat with the actions leading to happy results in present and future lifetimes,
the path can be taken as a guide, not only to transcendent happiness, but also to mundane happiness. Thus
each factor of the path has a mundane and a transcendent level.
Right view on the mundane level encapsulates the bodhisattva's second knowledge: that there is value in
the act of giving; that skillful and unskillful actions bear, respectively, pleasant and unpleasant fruit; that
there are other levels of being; and that there are people who, practicing rightly, have directly known
these principles for themselves. Transcendent right view encapsulates the third knowledge: knowing in
terms of the four noble truths.
Mundane right resolve aims at renouncing sensual passion, at freedom from ill will, and at freedom from
harmfulness. Transcendent right resolve entails directed thought and evaluation as factors of right
Right speech abstains from lies, harsh speech, divisive speech, and idle chatter. This and the remaining
factors are mundane or transcendent depending on whether they are informed by mundane or
transcendent right view and right resolve.
Right action abstains from killing, from stealing, and from sexual misconduct (or from sexual intercourse,
according to one of the discourses).
Right livelihood, for lay people, means not selling meat, poison, weapons, slaves, or intoxicants. For
monastics it means not trying to attract material support by means of scheming, persuading, hinting,
belittling, or offering material incentives.
Right effort tries to prevent unskillful mental states from arising, to abandon unskillful mental states that
have already arisen, to give rise to skillful mental states, and to bring already-existing skillful mental
states to the culmination of their development.
Right mindfulness entails four activities. The first is keeping track of the body in and of itselfardent,
alert, and mindfulputting aside grief and distress with regard to the world. The remaining three
activities follow the same formula, replacing "body" with feelings, mind states, and mental qualities.
Right concentration consists of four levels of jhna. The first is composed of directed thought and
evaluation focused on a single objecta classic object being the breathaccompanied by pleasure and
rapture born of seclusion. The second jhna consists of mental unification, devoid of directed thought and
evaluation, accompanied by pleasure and rapture born of concentration. The third jhna is a pleasant
equanimous state, devoid of rapture. The fourth jhna consists of purity of mindfulness and equanimity,
free from pleasure or pain. One discourse, in defining noble right concentration, adds a fifth factor to
these four jhnas: the ability to step back from any level of jhna to observe it. Another discourse states

that one may use jhna as a basis for awakening by observing its factors in terms of the four noble truths,
so as to develop dispassion for those factors, and then inclining the mind to the deathless.
According to the Bhmija Sutta, the rightness of these factors is an objective quality, determined by their
ability to issue in the deathless when put into practice, regardless of whether one expresses a wish for that
aim. This principle is illustrated with similes: trying to attain the deathless by means of wrong view,
wrong resolve, and so on, is like trying to squeeze sesame oil from gravel. Following the path of right
view, and so on, is like obtaining sesame oil by squeezing sesame seeds.
The Pali discourses depict the relationships among these eight factors in a variety of ways, in keeping
with the complexity of early Buddhist teachings on causality. Individuals at different points in the causal
patterns leading to suffering will need differing explanations of how to dismantle those patterns to meet
their specific needs. Some discourses depict a linear relationship among the factors, but in two different
patterns: one, following the order in which the eight factors are listed; and another beginning with the
virtue factors, followed by the concentration and then the discernment factors. Other discourses suggest
that specific factorssuch as right effort or right mindfulnesswhen pursued in all their ramifications,
incorporate all the other path factors as well.
The most complex treatment of the relationships among the factors is found in the Mahcattrsaka Sutta
(The great (Page 2739) forty), which places right concentration at the heart of the path, with the other
seven factors its "requisites." This discourse adds, however, that right view, right effort, and right
mindfulness underlie the development of all eight factors. This same discourse also maintains that the
eightfold path leads only to a preliminary level of awakening. Full awakening requires two further
factorsright knowledge and right releasealthough these factors are nowhere defined in the Pali
The eightfold path was central to the teachings of all the early schools of Buddhism, but succeeding
generations developed it in new directions. Before the early canons were closed, the question arose as to
how a Buddha's path of practice might differ from that of his arahant (Skt., arhat) disciples. The various
schools mined their jtaka stories (accounts of the Buddha's previous lives) to produce lists of perfections
(Pali, pram; Skt., pramit) that constituted the Buddha's path. The Sarvstivdins, whose list later
formed the framework for the Mahyna bodhisattva path, found six perfections embodied in their
jtakas: giving, virtue, energy, endurance, dhyna, and discernment. Five of these perfections correspond
directly to factors of the eightfold path: virtue to right speech, action, and livelihood; energy and
endurance to right effort; dhyna to right concentration; and discernment to right view and resolve. As for
giving, it derives from mundane right view.
Over time, however, Mahyna discourses redefined the individual perfections. The bodhisattva's
perfection of discernment, for instance, consisted of insight into the lack of essential nature in all
phenomena. His perfection of virtue allowed him to kill, for example, if his larger motivation was
compassionate. In this way, the bodhisattva path, while retaining some of the structure of the eightfold
path, filled that structure with new elements. The Theravdin school, in its commentaries, made its own
de facto changes in the eightfold path, redefining the practice of jhna and treating it as an optional factor.
In modern times, two developmentsthe rise of Pali studies in Japan and the rise of lay meditation
movements, based on Theravda techniques, in Asia and the Westhave prompted interest in using the
structure of the eightfold path to provide a guide for lay daily life.


In these ways, succeeding generations of Buddhists, lay and monastic, have continued to mine the
eightfold path for guidance in their quest for happiness.
Four Noble Truths .
A modern Western introduction to the eightfold path is Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path (Seattle,
1994). A modern Asian treatment is Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, The Path to Peace and Freedom for the
Mind, available at: . The Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta is translated in
Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Sayutta
Nikya (Boston, 2000), pp. 18431847. A translation of the Maggavibhaga Sutta, which analyzes the
individual factors of the path, is included in the same work, pp. 15281529. A translation of the
Mahparinibbna Sutta is included in Maurice Walsh, trans., The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A
Translation of the Dgha Nikya (Boston, 1995), pp. 231277. Bhikkhu amoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi,
trans., The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikya (Boston,
1995), contains translations of the Mahcattrsaka Sutta (pp. 934940) and the Bhmija Sutta (pp. 997
1001). Alternative translations for all of these discourses are available from Access to Insight at: .


Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Kalupahana, David J. "Prattya-Samutpda." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol.
11. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 7363-7366. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Aug.
The term prattya-samutpda (Pali, paicca-samuppda), "dependent origination" or "dependent arising,"
was first used by the Buddha to characterize the understanding of the nature of human existence that he
had attained at his enlightenment. Essentially a doctrine of causality, this notion is so central to Buddhist
thought that a proper understanding of prattya-samutpda is often declared tantamount to enlightenment
itself. In it, an entire complex of notions about moral responsibility, human freedom, the process of
rebirth, and the path to liberation coalesce.
Prattya-samutpda was promulgated against a background of four contemporary theories of causality.
These were (1) self-causation (svaya kta), advocated by the traditional Brahmanic philosophers; (2)
external causation (parakta), upheld by the materialist thinkers; (3) a combination of self-causation and
external causation, advocated by the Jains; and (4) a denial of both self and external causation, probably
championed by certain skeptical thinkers who refused to recognize any form of causation. While all four
of these theories were explicitly rejected by the Buddha, the brunt of his analysis was directed against the
former two.
According to the Buddha, a theory of self-causation leads to the belief in permanence (vata), that is,
the recognition of a permanent and eternal "self" (tman), which the Buddha found to be an unverifiable
entity. External causation, on the other hand, implies the existence of an inexorable physical law of nature
(svabhva) that would render the human being a mere automaton with no power to determine the nature
of his own existence. Ultimately, such a position divests beings of all bases for personal continuity and
hence, moral responsibility. This he referred to as the theory of annihilation (uccheda). Prattyasamutpda, on the other hand, is presented as the "middle (madhyama) position" between these two
extremes. This middle position is explained in great detail in the Discourse to Ktyyana, which serves as
the locus classicus of all subsequent interpretations of the Buddha's "middle path." Following is the text
of the discourse in the Pali version:
Thus have I heard. The Blessed One was once living in Savatthi. At that time the venerable Kaccyana
of that clan came to visit him, and saluting him, sat down at one side. So seated, he questioned the
Exalted One: "Sir, [people] speak of 'right view, right view.' To what extent is there right view?" This
world, Kaccyana, is generally inclined toward two [views]: existence and nonexistence. For him who
perceives, with right knowledge, the uprising of the world as it has come to be, whatever view there is in
the world about nonexistence will not be acceptable. Kaccyana, for him who perceives, with right
knowledge, the ceasing of the world as it has come to be, whatever view there is in the world about
existence will not be acceptable. "The world, for the most part, Kaccyana, is bound by approach,
grasping and inclination. Yet, a person who does not follow that approach and grasping, that
determination of mind, the inclination and disposition, who does not cling to or adhere to a view: 'This is
my self,' who thinks [instead]: 'suffering that is subject to arising arises; suffering that is subject to
ceasing ceases,' such a person does not doubt, is not perplexed. Herein, his knowledge is not otherdependent. Thus far, Kaccyana, there is 'right view.' (Page 7364)
'Everything exists'this, Kaccyana, is one extreme.


'Everything does not exist'this, Kaccyana, is the second extreme. Kaccyana, without approaching
either extreme, the Tathgata teaches you a doctrine in the middle.
Dependent upon ignorance [avidy] arise dispositions [saskra]; dependent upon dispositions arises
consciousness [vijna]; dependent upon consciousness arises the psychophysical personality [nmarpa]; dependent upon the psychophysical personality arise the six senses [ayatana]; dependent upon
the six senses arises contact [spara]; dependent upon contact arises feeling [vedan]; dependent upon
feeling arises craving [t]; dependent upon craving arises grasping [updna]; dependent upon
grasping arises becoming [bhava]; dependent upon becoming arises birth [jti]; dependent upon birth
arises old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection and despair. Thus arises this entire mass
of suffering. However, from the utter fading away and ceasing of ignorance, there is cessation of
dispositions from the ceasing of birth, there is ceasing of old age and death, grief, lamentation,
suffering, dejection and despair." (Sayutta Nikya 2.1617)
Existence (atthit; Skt., astitva) and nonexistence (natthit; Skt., nstitva) referred to here are not simple
notions of empirical existence or nonexistence. In the Indian context, existence implies permanence;
hence the Buddha's appeal to the empirical fact of cessation of phenomena to reject the notion of
existence. Nonexistence refers to complete annihilation without any form of continuity, hence the
Buddha's appeal to the empirical fact of arising of phenomena. Thus, the fundamental philosophical
problem involved here is how to account for continuity in human experience without either having to
posit permanence of some sort or accept absolute discontinuity.
Linguistic conventions of his day did not provide the Buddha with a term to express his ideas, hence it
was necessary to coin an entirely different compound term: prattya-samutpda. Samutpda literally
means "arising in combination," or "co-arising." But when compounded with the term prattya (a gerund
from the root i, "to move," with prefix prati meaning "toward"), implying "moving" or "leaning toward,"
the term means "dependence." Prattya-samutpda may, therefore, be translated as "dependent arising."
Formulating his experience in this way, the Buddha was able to avoid several metaphysical issues that
have plagued most discussions of the principle of causation in the East as well as in the West.
Attempts to understand how a cause produces an effect have led philosophers to adopt a reductionist
perspective and look for an "essence," or "substance" in the cause that gives rise to the effect. Such a
perspective is also motivated by a desire to predict with absolute certainty the manner of the emergence
of the effect from the cause. By speaking of the dependence of the effect on the cause, which is what the
term prattya-samutpda is intended to express, both the reductionist or essentialist perspective and the
impossible task of predicting an event with absolute certainty are avoided.
Thus, the Buddha spoke not of self-sufficient things or substances but of "dependently arisen phenomena"
(prattyasamutpanna-dharma). These refer to phenomena that have already occurred. There is no
implication here that individual and discrete phenomena (dharma) are experienced and that their
"dependence" upon one another is imagined (as was understood by the Humeans) or is the result of
transcendental categories of understanding (as the Kantians believed). On the contrary, both phenomena
and the manner of their dependence are part of human experience. However, this "dependence" is then
stretched out, by means of an inductive inference, to explain the events of the dim past as well as of the
future. This is the manner in which the Buddha arrived at the uniformity of the principle of dependence.
When he claimed that this "dependent arising" has remained as such despite either the arising of the
Tathgatas or the nonarising of the Tathgatas he was hinting at the universality of that experience. The
uniform and universal principle of dependence is expressed in a most abstract way in the oft-recurring


statement: "When that exists, this comes to be; on the arising of that, this arises. When that does not exist,
this does not come to be; on the cessation of that, this ceases" (Majjhima Nikya 1.262264).
In the Discourse to Ktyyana this principle of dependence is utilized to explain the processes of human
bondage as well as of freedom. The positive statement of the twelvefold formula, beginning with the
statement "Depending upon ignorance arise dispositions," explains the human personality in bondage,
avoiding both eternalistic and nihilistic views. The human person is here referred to as nma-rpa (the
psychophysical personality). The nature of that person is conditioned mostly by his or her consciousness
(vijna), which, in its turn, is determined by the person's understanding (and in the case of the person in
bondage, by his or her lack of understandingavidy) and the dispositions (saskra) formed on the
basis of that understanding. Conditioned by such understanding and dispositions, a person comes to
experience (spara, vedan) the world through the six sense faculties (ayatana) and to respond by
being attracted to it (t). Thus, the person's behavior (karman) comes to be dominated not only by the
world he or she experiences but also by the way in which the person experiences it. If one is attracted by
that world one tends to cling to it (updna). One's whole personality, what he or she wants to be or
achieve, will be determined by that craving and grasping. Such would be this person's becoming (bhava),
not only in this life, but also in a future life (jti). Involved in such a process of becoming (bhava), the
person will be pleased and satisfied when obtaining what is craved and unhappy and frustrated when he
or she does not. Yet even these satisfactions, which are temporary at best, turn out to be dissatisfactions
as the craving and grasping continue to increase. Such (Page 7365) is the mass of suffering the person
will experience through successive stages of life and in subsequent births.
A proper understanding of phenomena as impermanent (anitya) and nonsubstantial (antman) would
enable a person to pacify his or her dispositional tendencies (saskropasama). Pacification of
dispositions leads to a better understanding of one's own personality as well as the world of experience.
Perceiving phenomena as being nonsubstantial, one will neither assume the existence of an inexorable
law nor believe in complete lawlessness. When one responds to that world of experience with an
understanding of conditionality one's responses will not be rigidly predetermined (asamskta).
Abandoning passion or craving (t), one's actions will be dominated by dispassion (vairgya), and
more positively, by compassion (karu) for one's self as well as others. Thirsting for nothing, with few
wants, the person will be freed from most of the "constraints" and lead a happy and contented life until
death. With no grasping, there will be no more becoming (bhava) and hence the cessation of any possible
future births (jtikaya). The recognition of the possibility of replacing ignorance (avidy) with wisdom
(jna, vidy) and craving and grasping with dispassion and compassion leaves the individual with the
capacity to attain freedom. Thus, the principle of dependent arising avoids both strict determinism and
absolute indeterminism; it is neither an absolutely inviolable law nor a chaotic lawlessness.
The explanation of the human personality, both in bondage and in freedom, was of paramount importance
for the Buddha. Hence the discussion of the principle of dependence is confined to these two aspects in
the Discourse to Ktyyana. Elsewhere, however, he applies this principle to explain most other aspects
of human existence. For example, without positing a first cause or any primordial substance he applied
the principle of dependence to explain the evolution and dissolution of the world process. This principle
is also utilized in the explanation of the process by which one comes to have knowledge of the world
through sensory as well as extrasensory means. Moral behavior, social life, and religious and spiritual
phenomena are given causal explanations as well. For this reason, the Buddha did not hesitate to declare,
"He who sees dependent arising sees the doctrine (dharma)" (Majjhima Nikya 1.190191).
The Abhidharma period was the most active and highly vibrant epoch of scholastic activity in Buddhist
history. During this period the contents of the discourses were carefully analyzed and presented in

nondiscursive form. In the process, the "dependently arisen phenomena" referred to by the Buddha came
to be listed and classified, together with an analysis of the various types of causal relations (pratyaya) that
obtain among them. However, a few centuries later, metaphysical speculations began to emerge in the
Buddhist tradition. Two schools of Buddhism, the Sarvstivda and Sautrntika, speculating on the
concepts of time and space, produced theories of momentariness and atomism, thereby engendering
insoluble problems such as the metaphysical notions of absolute identity and absolute difference.
Contradicting the Buddha's notion of nonsubstantiality, the Sarvstivdins accepted an underlying
"substance" (svabhva) in phenomena, while the Sautrntikas surreptitiously introduced a metaphysical
notion of a transmigrating personality (pudgala).
The Pali Abhidharma work Kathvatthu criticized and rejected these views. In spite of this criticism,
these views continued to survive. The early Mahyna stras represent another attempt to get rid of the
substantialist metaphysics of these two schools by emphasizing a negative approach to the problem of
reality, one based upon the notion of "emptiness" (nyat). For example, one of the early Mahyna
strasthe Kyapaparivartacontinued to describe the "middle path" in negative terms, while at the
same time retaining the positive version discussed in the Discourse to Ktyyana.
Ngrjuna's famous treatise, the Mlamadhyama-kakrik, considered by many as the most sophisticated
philosophical justification of Mahyna, is a determined attempt to return to the original message of the
Buddha by criticizing the substantialist views of the Sarvstivdins and the Sautrntikas. Restatement of
the principle of "dependent arising" without having to posit a substantial connection (svabhva) between
a cause and an effect (as the Sarvstivdins did), or to emphasize their difference (as the Sautrntikas did),
seems to be the foremost concern of Ngrjuna. "Emptiness" here becomes a synonym for
"nonsubstantiality" (antman).
The Buddha's conception of karmic continuity and moral responsibility also had to be rescued from the
substantialist interpretations of the Buddhist metaphysicians. Ngrjuna seems to have been aware of a
statement popular among the Buddhists relating to the doctrine of karman that read: "Karmas do not
perish (na praayanti) even after a hundred myriads of aeons. Having attained the harmony of
conditions (smagr) and the proper time (kla), they bear fruit for the human beings" (La Valle Poussin,
1903, p. 324). Inspired probably by this verse, Ngrjuna (Mlamadhyamakakrik 17.14) upheld the
notion of a nonperishable (avipraaa) karman, comparing it with the unacceptable interpretations
offered by the substantialists. After denying a "self" (tman), he proceeded to compile chapters on the
"harmony of conditions" (smagr) and on time (kla), giving a nonsubstantialist interpretation of these.
Having devoted twenty-five chapters to recasting the full range of Buddhist ideas in terms of the doctrine
of "emptiness," Ngrjuna returns to the conclusion of the Discourse to Ktyyana in chapter 26, where
he analyzes the twelvefold factors describing the human personality in bondage as well as freedom. Thus,
Ngrjuna's treatise should more appropriately be considered a grand commentary on the Discourse to
Ktyyana, this being the only discourse referred to by name in the text. (Page 7366)
Ngrjuna's exposition of the twelvefold formula in chapter 26 (which incidentally consists of twelve
verses) focuses on the positive statement of the Buddha regarding the human life process, that is, how a
human being conditioned by ignorance suffers in bondage. The negative statement of the Buddha
explaining freedom is briefly outlined in the last two verses of this chapter.
Ngrjuna begins the chapter explaining how the destiny (gati) of a human being, as he continues with his
life-process, is determined by ignorance and dispositions. Taking a cue from the Mahnidna Suttanta,
where the Buddha speaks about consciousness (via; Skt., vijna) entering the mother's womb in

order to influence the psychophysical personality formed therein, Ngrjuna explains the psychophysical
personality (nma-rpa) as being infused (niicyate) by consciousness that is dispositionally conditioned.
The most interesting addition to the formula appears in the explanation of the three links: the
psychophysical personality (nma-rpa), the six spheres of sense (ayatana) and contact (spara). At
this point Ngrjuna introduces the contents of a passage explaining the process of sense experience
occurring in the Mahhatthipadopama Sutta that, though implied, is not specifically stated in the
twelvefold formula. This passage refers to the various conditions needed for sense experience, namely,
the existence of the unimpaired sense organ, the object that has come into focus, and the availability of
attention arising in such a context. The rest of the formula is then briefly presented without explanations.
Verse 10 introduces the idea of the perception of truth (tattva-darana) in place of the cessation of
ignorance (avidy-nirodha). Ngrjuna did not have to specify what this conception of truth is, for he has
already compiled twenty-five chapters in its explanation. It is the perception that all (experienced)
phenomena are empty (sarvam idam sunyam) of substance (svabhavato).
For a detailed study of prattya-samutpda, see my Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism
(Honolulu, 1975). My translation and annotation of the Mlamadhyamakakrik of Ngrjuna,
Ngrjuna, the Philosophy of the Middle Way (Albany, N.Y., 1986) gives further elaboration to the view
that Ngrjuna's Mlamadhyamakakrik is in essence a commentary on the Discourse to Ktyyana.
See also Alex Wayman's detailed treatment, "Buddhist Dependent Origination," History of Religions 10
(1971): 185203. The passage on the imperishability of karmas quoted above can be found in Louis de La
Valle Poussin's Mlamadhyamakakriks de Ngrjuna avec la Prasannapad commentaire de
Candrakirti (Saint Petersburg, 1903), p. 324.
New Sources
Basso, Pierre. "Language for a Causal Conditional Logic Foundations and Objectives: Is It Possible to
Formalize Dependent Origination?" Journal of Indian Philosophy 16, no. 2 (1988): 123166.
Bielefeldt, Carl. "The Four Levels of Pratitya-samutpada According to the Fa-hua hsuan i." Journal of the
International Association of Buddhist Studies 11, no. 1 (1988): 729.
Boucher, Daniel. "The Pratyasamutpdagtha and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics."Journal of
the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14 (1991): 127.
Cox, Collett. "Dependent Origination: Its Elaboration in Early Sarvastivadin Abhidharma Texts." In
Researches in Indian and Buddhist Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Professor Alex Wayman, edited by
Ram Karan Sharma, pp. 119143. Delhi, 1993.
Lamotte, tienne. Karmasiddhiprakarana: The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. Translated by Leo M.
Pruden. Berkeley, 1988.
Potter, Karl, Robert Buswell, Padmanabh Jaini, and Noble Reat, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian
Philosophies: Volume VII: Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A.D. Delhi, 1996.
Wayman, Alex. "The Secret of Nagarjuna's Position on Dependent Origination and Sunyata." In IndoTibetan Mdhyamika Studies, pp. 82109. New Delhi, 1996.
Revised Bibliography


Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Kasulis, Thomas P. "Nirva." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 10. Detroit:
Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6628-6635. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Aug. 2012.
About twenty-five centuries ago in northern India, Siddhrtha Gautama achieved nirva. That event
ultimately changed the spiritual character of much of Asia and, more recently, some of the West. That
something indeed happened is an indisputable fact. Exactly what happened has been an object of
speculation, analysis, and debate up to the present day.
Nirva is both a term and an ideal. As a Sanskrit word (nibbna in Pali), it has been used by various
religious groups in India, but it primarily refers to the spiritual goal in the Buddhist way of life. In the
broadest sense, the word nirva is used in much the same way as the now standard English word
enlightenment, a generic word literally translating no particular Asian technical term but used to designate
any Buddhist notion of the highest spiritual experience. Of course, Buddhism comprehends a diverse set
of religious phenomena, a tradition with sacred texts in four principal canonical languages (Pali, Sanskrit,
Tibetan, and Chinese), and a spiritual following throughout the world. Not surprisingly, then, when
referring to the ultimate spiritual ideal many Buddhist groups prefer to emphasize their own distinctive
terms instead of nirva.
In the Pali nikyas and Chinese gamas, works first written down or composed two or three centuries
after the death of the Buddha, there is little philosophical discussion about the nature of nirva. Indeed,
on technical points such as the enlightened person's status after death, the stras admonish that such
metaphysical speculation is only an obstacle to achieving the ultimate goal. In a famous story found in the
Majjhima Nikya, for example, Mlukyputta asked the Buddha several metaphysical questions,
including whether the Buddha continues to exist after death. The Buddha responded that such questioning
is beside the point; it would be comparable to a man struck by a poison arrow who worried about the
origin and nature of the arrow rather than pulling it out.
Whether there is the view that the Tathgata both is and is not after dying, or whether, Mlukyputta,
there is the view that the Tathgata neither is nor is not after dying, there is birth, there is ageing, there is
dying, there are grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair, the suppression of which I lay down
here and now. (Horner, 19541959, vol. 2, pp. 100101)
In short, the early Buddhist texts primarily approached nirva as a practical solution to the existential
problem of human anguish. Specifically, they maintained that by undertaking a disciplined praxis the
Buddhist practitioner can achieve a nondiscursive awakening (bodhi) to the interdependent
nonsubstantiality of reality, especially of the self. With that insight, it was believed, one could be released
from the grips of insatiable craving and its resultant suffering.
In most cases nirva is described in negative terms such as "cessation" (nirodha), "the absence of
craving" (tkaya), "detachment," "the absence of delusion," and "the unconditioned" (asaskta).
Although in the nikyas and subsequent Abhidharma school commentaries there are scattered positive
references to, for instance, "happiness" (sukha), "peace," and "bliss," and to such metaphors of
transcendence as "the farther shore," the negative images predominate. Indeed, the word nirva itself
means "extinction," and other words used synonymously with it, such as moka and mukti, refer to

emancipation. One difficulty with the early texts, however, is that they were not always clear or
unequivocal about what was extinguished and from what one was emancipated. One prominent tendency
was to understand nirva as a release from sasra, the painful world of birth and death powered by
passion, hatred, and ignorance. According to the early texts, the Eightfold Path leading to nirva is the
only way to break free of this cycle and to eliminate the insatiable craving at its root. The Path is not
merely a set of moral exhortations, but rather, a program of spiritual reconditioning that liberates one
from the pain of sasra.
The Buddhist view of sasra developed as the notion of rebirth was taking root in ancient India. So
enlightenment came to be understood as the extinction (nirva) of what can be reborn, that is, as the
dissolution of any continuing personal identity after death. This led to the need to distinguish between (1)
the enlightenment of the person who has transcended in this world the suffering caused by craving, and (2)
the perfect nirva achieved only when that person dies and is fully released from sasra, the cycle of
birth, death, and rebirth. The Pali texts, therefore, distinguished (Page 6629) "nirva with remainder"
(saupdisesa nibbna) from "nirva without remainder" (anupdisesa nibbna), or even more simply,
enlightenment (nibbna) from complete enlightenment (parinibbna; Skt., parinirva).
The Abhidharma traditions interpreted the distinction in the following way. After many lifetimes of effort
and an overall improvement in the circumstances of rebirth, the person undertaking the Path finally
reaches the stage at which craving and its attendant negative effects are no longer generated. This is the
state of "nirva with remainder" because the residue of negative karmic effects from previous actions
continues. The enlightened person still experiences physical pain, for example, as a consequence of the
mere fact of corporeality, itself a karmic "fruit." Once these residues are burned off, as it were, the person
will die and achieve the perfect "nirva without remainder."
An ambiguity in the distinction between sasra and nirva is whether the contrasted terms refer to
psychological or ontological states. That is, are sasra and nirva states of mind or kinds of existence?
If sasra refers to the psychological worldview conducive to suffering, then the transition from sasra
to nirva is simply a profound change in attitude, perspective, and motivation. If, on the other hand,
sasra refers to this pain-stricken world itself, then nirva must be somewhere else. Here the ancient
metaphor of nirva as "the farther shore" could assume a metaphysical status. In effect, nirva could be
understood as a permanent state of bliss beyond the world of birth, death, and rebirth. The reaction
against such an interpretation influenced the Mahyna Buddhist views of enlightenment.
Indian Mahyna Buddhists minimized the opposition between nirva and sasra, renouncing the
suggestion that nirva was an escape from the world of suffering. Instead, they thought of enlightenment
as a wise and compassionate way of living in that world. The adherents of the two major Indian branches
of Mahyna philosophy, Mdhyamika and Yogcra, each developed their own way of rejecting the
escapism to which, it was thought, the Abhidharma interpretation led.
The Perfection of Wisdom and Mdhyamika traditions
One Mahyna strategy was to undercut the epistemological and logical bases for the sharp distinction
between the concepts of nirva and sasra. Without nirva there is no sasra, and vice versa. How
then could one be absolute and the other relative? This question was most clearly raised by the Perfection
of Wisdom (Prajpramit) literature and philosophically analyzed in the Mdhyamika school founded
by Ngrjuna (c. 150250 CE).

In effect, Mdhyamika thought radicalized the Buddha's original silence on this critical issue by trying to
demonstrate that any philosophical attempt to characterize reality is limited by the logical
interdependence of words or concepts. Assuming an isomorphic relationship between words and
nonlinguistic referents, Ngrjuna reasoned that the interdependent character of words precludes their
referring to any absolute, nondependent realities. To the very extent one can talk or reason about nirva
and sasra, therefore, they must depend on each other. Neither can be absolute in itself.
For the Mdhyamikas, the real cause of human turmoil is that through naming and analyzing one tries to
grasp and hold onto what exists only through the distinctions imposed by the conventions of language.
From this perspective, Buddhist practice frees one from this attachment to concepts by cultivating praj,
a nondiscursive, direct insight into the way things are. Once one recognizes that the substantialized sense
of ego is based on a linguistic distinction having no ultimate basis, an enlightened attitude develops in
which one actively shares in the suffering of all other sentient beings. In this way, the wisdom of praj
can also be considered a universal form of compassion, karuna. This praj-karuna ideal eventually
became a major paradigm of enlightenment within the entire Mahyna tradition in India, Tibet, and East
Nirva in the idealistic and yogcra traditions
The typical approach of such idealistic texts as the Lakvatra Stra and of its related philosophical
school, Yogcra, was to assert that nirva and sasra had a common ground, namely, the activity of
the mind. The terminology varied from text to text and thinker to thinker, but the thrust of this branch of
Mahyna Buddhism was that the mind was the basis of both delusion (understood as sasra) and
enlightenment (understood as nirva). For many in this tradition, this implied that there is in each person
an inherent core of Buddhahood covered over with a shell of delusional fixations. Sometimes this core
was called the tathgata-garbha ("Buddha womb, Buddha embryo," or "Buddha matrix"); in other cases
it was considered to be part of a store-consciousness (laya-vijna) containing seeds (bja) that could
sprout either delusional or enlightened experience. In either case, Buddhist practice was seen as a
technique for clarifying or making manifest the Buddha mind or Buddha nature within the individual.
This notion of mind and its relation to Buddhist practice influenced the later development of Mahyna
Buddhism, even the schools that first flourished in East Asia, such as Tiantai, Huayan, and Chan (Zen).
A problem raised by this more psychological approach to enlightenment was the issue of universality. Is
the inherent core of enlightenment in one person the same as in another? Is it equally present in everyone?
With such questions, the difficulty of the ontological status of enlightenment once again emerged. That is,
if both nirva and sasra are dependent on the mind in some sense, the problem for the Yogcra
philosophers was to explain the objective ground for nirva. Otherwise, truth would be merely
subjective. Yogcra thinkers such as Asaga (fourth century CE) and his brother, Vasubandhu,
approached this problem by asserting a transindividual, mental ground for all experience called
(Page 6630) laya-vijna. Other Yogcra thinkers such as Dignga, however, rejected the existence of
such a store-consciousness and tried to establish the necessary ground for objectivity within mental
cognition itself, while denying the substantial reality of any object outside cognition. In general, the
former approach persevered in the transmission of Yogcra's philosophy into East Asia, where the idea
of the ground of enlightenment or of the Buddha nature would become a major theme.
Buddhahood in devotional Mahyna Buddhism
Nirva's ontological or metaphysical nature was also a theme in Mahyna religious practices quite
outside the formal considerations of the philosophers. This development was associated with the rise of

the notion that the historical Buddha who had died in the fifth century BCE was actually only an earthly
manifestation of an eternal Buddha or of Buddhahood itself. This line of thought developed into the
construction of a rich pantheon of Buddhas and bodhisattvas living in various heavenly realms and
interacting with human beings in supportive ways. These heavenly figures became the objects of
meditation, emulation, reverence, and sup-plication.
The evolution of the Buddhist pantheon was consistent with the general Mahyna principle that a
necessary component of enlightenment is compassion. The Buddha, it was believed, would not desert
those who had not yet achieved nirva and were still in a state of anguish. Whereas the physical person
of the Buddha was extinguished, the compassion of his Buddhahood would seem to endure. Following
this line of reasoning, the historical Buddha was taken to be only a physical manifestation of enlightened
being itself. This interpretation made moot the question of nirva as the release from the cycle of birth,
death, and rebirth. If Buddhahood continues even after the physical disappearance of the enlightened
person, enlightenment must be more manifested than achieved. This way of thinking was conducive to
Mahyna Buddhism's transmission into East Asia.
The Mahynists were generally more interested in the truth to which enlightenment was an awakening
than the pain from which it was a release. This emphasis on the positive aspect of enlightenment also
caused to be diminished the importance of nirva as the release from rebirth. This perspective was well
suited to Chinese thought. Because the Chinese had no indigenous idea of the cycle of rebirth, release
from that cycle was not the existential issue in China it had been in India.
A second Mahynist idea readily accepted by the Chinese was that enlightenment is available to anyone
in this very lifetime. The Abhidharma traditions generally assumed the path to enlightenment would take
eons, and that the last rebirth in this progression of lifetimes would be that of a monk blessed with the
circumstances most conducive to concentrating on the final stages of the Path. This view led to a
distinction between the spiritual development of monastics and laypersons: Laypersons were to support
monastics in their religious quest; such support would, in return, give the laypersons meritorious karman
leading to successively better rebirths until they too were born into circumstances allowing them to reach
the final stages of the Path.
The Mahyna ideal, on the other hand, was that of the bodhisattva, the enlightened (or, more technically,
almost enlightened) being who chooses to be actively involved in alleviating the suffering of others by
leading them to enlightenment. In other words, the bodhisattva subordinates personal enlightenment to
that of others. Both Abhidharma and Mahyna Buddhism aim for the enlightenment of everyone, but
whereas in the Abhidharma view enlightenment is achieved by one person at a time and the group as a
whole pushes upward in a pyramid effect, supporting most the spiritual progress of those at the top, in
Mahyna Buddhism the bodhisattvas at the top turn back to pull up those behind them until everyone is
ready to achieve enlightenment simultaneously. Ultimately, the Mahyna model dominated in East Asia,
partly because the collectivist viewpoint was more consistent with indigenous Chinese ideas predating the
introduction of Buddhism.
When Buddhism entered China around the beginning of the common era, Confucianism and Daoism were
already well established. Confucianism placed its primary emphasis on the cultivation of virtuous human
relationships for the harmonious functioning of society. This emphasis on social responsibility and
collective virtue blended well with the Mahyna vision of enlightenment.


Compared to Confucianism, Daoism was relatively ascetic, mystical, and otherworldly. Yet its mysticism
was strongly naturalistic in that the Daoist sage sought unity with the Dao by being in harmony with
nature. In Daoism, as in Mahyna Buddhism, the absolute principle was completely immanent in this
world, accessible to all who attune themselves to it by undertaking the proper form of meditation and selfdiscipline. Because one of the root meanings of the term dao is "path," the Chinese found parallels
between the Buddhist sense of the Path and the Daoist understanding of achieving oneness with the Dao.
Nirva in the Tiantai and Huayan schools
Eventually there arose new forms of Mahyna Buddhism distinctive to East Asia, schools either
unknown or only incipient in India. The term nirva, possibly because it carried connotations of a
foreign worldview replete with such ideas as rebirth and the inherent unsatisfactoriness (dukha) of
existence, tended to lose its privileged status in favor of such terms as "awakening" (cheh) and
"realization" (wu).
The Chinese Tiantai and Huayan traditions formulated their own sophisticated philosophical worldviews
out of ideas suggested by Indian stras. Both schools emphasized the interpenetration of all things. In
Tiantai terminology as developed by such philosophers as Zhiyi (538597), all the "three thousand
worlds" are reflected in a single instant of (Page 6631) thought. Reality's underlying, unifying factor was
understood to be mind. For Tiantai followers the fundamental mind is itself always pure and does not
contain, as most Indian Yogcrins held, both delusional and enlightened seeds.
The Tiantai assumption of an underlying, inherently pure, mind had two important consequences. First,
the goal of its primary contemplative practice, known as "cessation and discernment" (zhiguan), was
explained as immersion into, rather than the purification of, mind. By ceasing to focus on the surface flow
of ordinary phenomena, one can discern the underlying single mind at the source of all things. Second,
because the underlying mind is pure or enlightened, it follows that all things, even inanimate ones, are
endowed with Buddha nature. This corollary was first proposed by the ninth patriarch of the tradition,
Zhanran (711782), who clearly articulated the view that the entire world, as it is, is already somehow
enlightened. The goal, then, is to realize, awaken to, or manifest that enlightenment in one's own life. The
relationship between inherent and acquired enlightenment became a central problematic in the Tiantai
tradition and a major theme behind the development of the various schools of Japanese Buddhism in the
Kamakura period (11851333) as well.
Chinese Huayan Buddhism also affirmed the interdependence among, and harmony within, all things.
Unlike the adherents of Tiantai, however, the Huayan philosophers did not think of mind as the
underlying, unifying entity. Fazang (643712), for example, preferred to deny any single unifying factor
and used the phrase "the nonobstruction between thing and thing" (shishi wuai). In other words, each
phenomenon itself was thought to reflect every other phenomenon. Zongmi (780841), on the other hand,
favored the phrase "the nonobstruction between absolute principle and thing" (lishi wuai). Thus, he
regarded principle (li) as the fundamental unifying substrate, even the creative source, of reality.
In all these Tiantai and Huayan theories is found a recurrent, distinctively East Asian, interpretation of
nirva. Just as the Confucians sought harmony within the social order and the Daoists harmony within
the natural order, the Tiantai and Huayan Buddhists understood enlightenment in terms of harmony.
Rather than emphasizing the painful aspect of the world and the means to emancipation from it, the
Tiantai and Huayan Buddhists focused on recognizing the intrinsic harmony of the universe and feeling
intimately a part of it.


Nirva in the Chan (Zen) school

Chan (Kor., Son; Jpn., Zen) is another school with roots in India, but it developed into a full-fledged
tradition only in East Asia. It is distinctive in its de-emphasis of the role of formal doctrine and religious
texts in favor of a direct "transmission of mind" from master to disciple. Chan focused most on the
interpersonal aspect of the enlightenment experience. Enlightenment was considered a stamp embodied in
a particular lineage of enlightened people going back to the historical Buddha, and the personal
encounters of great masters and disciples were recorded in order to serve as the object of meditation for
future generations.
One topic of debate about enlightenment in the Chan school concerned the issue of whether
enlightenment was "sudden" or "gradual." The Northern school emphasized the inherent purity of the
mind and, therefore, advocated a practice intended to remove delusional thoughts covering over that
intrinsically undefiled core. Then, it was assumed, the inherent enlightenment of the mind could shine
forth ever more brilliantly. According to the Platform Stra, a text of the Southern school, this position
was expressed in a poem by Shenxiu (606706) as follows:
The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect. (Yampolsky, 1967, p. 130)
The members of the Southern school, on the other hand, accused their Northern school counterparts of
reifying enlightenment into an independently existing thing. In the expression of Huineng (638713) also
recorded in the Platform Stra:
Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
Buddha nature is always clear and pure;
Where is there room for dust? (ibid., p. 132)
In other words, enlightenment should be manifest at all times in all one's activities. It is not a separate
state or seed to be nurtured or cared for. The goal for the Southern school, therefore, was to make
enlightenment manifest while going about one's daily affairs. This viewpoint eventually led some
Southern masters, especially those in the lineage of Mazu (709788), to de-emphasize simple meditation
in favor of the shock tactics of shouting, striking, and using the gongan (Jpn., kan). These special
techniques were all ways of making the disciple realize and manifest Buddha nature in a sudden manner.
Another approach to the sudden/gradual issue was originally taken by the previously mentioned Huayan
(and Chan) master Zongmi, and later developed extensively by the great Korean Sn master, Chinul
(11581210). Their view was that the Southern school (which eventually dominated for political as much
as religious or philosophical reasons) was correct in maintaining that enlightenment, the awakening to
one's own Buddha nature, had to be a sudden realization. Yet Zongmi and Chinul also maintained that
realization had to be gradually integrated into one's life through a continuously deepening practice of
spiritual cultivation. Thus, their position is known as "sudden awakening/gradual cultivation," rather than
"sudden awakening/sudden cultivation." This distinction exemplifies the importance Chan philosophers
accorded the need to define as precisely as possible the relationship between practice and enlightenment.
Dgen (Page 6632) (12001253), the founder of the Japanese St Zen tradition, addressed the problem
of how enlightenment could be inherent and yet practice still necessary. That is, if people are already

primordially enlightened why should anyone bother to sit in meditation? Dgen understood practice to be
enlightened activity itself: one does not sit in meditation in order to achieve enlightenment, but rather,
one's enlightenment is expressed as one's sitting in meditation.
For virtually all the Chan (and Sn and Zen) traditions, enlightenment is more than an insight or even a
sense of harmony. It is also a mode of behavior to be continuously enacted and tested in everyday life.
Much of the interpersonal dynamics between master and disciple is designed to challenge the person to
make nirva manifest in such ordinary activities as talking, working, eating, and washing, as well as
Nirva in the Pure Land traditions
All forms of Buddhism discussed up to now have assumed that one can only achieve nirva through
years (or even lifetimes) of concentrated practice. The Pure Land tradition, especially as developed by
Shinran (11731262) in Japan, radically reinterpreted the notion of Buddhist practice, however.
Pure Land Buddhism is another Mahyna tradition that had its basis in Indian stras but that only fully
blossomed in East Asia. It began with a rather otherworldly orientation: The present period of history was
considered so degenerate that it was thought to be no longer possible for human beings to practice
genuine Buddhism and to achieve nirva. A bodhisattva named Dharmkara (Hz in Japanese),
however, vowed not to allow himself to achieve full Buddhahood if people who called on his name with
faith were not reborn in a Pure Land, a place ideally suited for Buddhist practice. In that Pure Land,
people could attain enlightenment and even come back into the world as bodhisattvas to aid in the
spiritual progress of others. The Pure Land stras go on to explain that Dharmkara became the Buddha
Amitbha/Amityus (Jpn., Amida). Therefore, he must have fulfilled his vow, and thus if people can call
on that Buddha's name with complete faith in his compassion and power to help they will be guaranteed
rebirth in the Pure Land.
The major lesson in this account for Pure Land Buddhists like Shinran was that human beings today
cannot achieve nirva by their "own power" (jiriki). Rather than help themselves through the practice of
calculated, self-conscious actions (hakarai), people should simply resign themselves completely to the
"power of another" (tariki), that is, the power of Amida's compassionate vow. Even this act of the
"entrusting heart and mind" (shinjin) must itself be an expression of Amida's vow and not an effort on
one's own part. In this way, Shinran maintained that enlightenment could ultimately only be achieved by
first releasing oneself to the spontaneousness "naturalness" (jinen hni), the active grace of Amida's
compassion as this world itself. "Amida Buddha is the medium through which we are made to realize
jinen" (Ueda, 1978, pp. 2930). By subordinating even Amida and his vow to the principle of
spontaneous naturalness in this way, Shinran removed the otherworldly traces in Pure Land teaching,
making it more suitable to its East Asian, particularly Japanese, context.
Nirva in the Esoteric traditions
The Esoteric, Vajrayna, or Tantric forms of Buddhism can be generally viewed as extensions of
Mahyna. In general, however, Esoteric Buddhism was most permanently influential in Tibet (including
the Mongolian extensions of Tibetan Buddhism) and in Japan. In both cases, Esotericism merged its
practices and doctrines with the indigenous shamanistic, archaic religions of, respectively, Bon and


In terms of their understanding of nirva the Esoteric traditions added an important dimension to their
otherwise generally Mahynistic outlook, namely, that enlightenment should be understood as
participation in the enlightenment of the Buddha-as-reality (the dharmakya). From this viewpoint,
sacred speech (mantras), sacred gestures (mudrs), and sacred envisioning (maalas) constitute a
Buddhist ritualistic practice having an almost sacramental character. That is, in performing the rituals
outlined in the Tantras, the Esoteric Buddhist believes that one's own speech, action, and thought become
the concrete expression of the cosmic Buddha's own enlightenment.
This notion found a particularly clear formulation in the Japanese Shingon Buddhism established by
Kkai (774835). According to Kkai, the fundamental principle of Shingon practice and philosophy is
that of hosshin sepp, "the Buddha-as-reality [dharmakya] preaches the true teaching [dharma]." In
making this claim, Kkai rejected the exoteric Buddhist notion that only a historical Buddha
(nirmakya) or a heavenly Buddha (sabhogakya) can preach. All of reality in itself, according to
Kkai, is the symbolic expression of the dharmakya Buddha's enlightened activity and, as such, is the
direct manifestation of truth. The way to grasp this symbolic expression is not to be an audience to it, but
rather to take part in it directly through Esoteric rituals. The individual's own enlightenment was
considered an aspect of the cosmic Buddha's enlightened activity. Kkai identified the Buddha-as-reality
or the cosmic Buddha as the Great Sun Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai (Skt., Mahvairocana).
Kkai's view of enlightenment was, therefore, summarized in the phrase "attaining Buddha in and
through this very body" (sokushin jbutsu). Through the ritualized, physical participation in the world, the
person could become a concrete expression of Dainichi Buddha's enlightened action. Kkai expressed
this intimacy between the individual and Dainichi Buddha as "the Buddha enters the self and the self
enters the Buddha" (nyga gany). In effect, the Mahyna Buddhist's identification of nirva with the
world was taken to its most radical conclusion. That is, from the Shingon perspective, this very world is
the Buddha Dainichi. This means that enlightenment is not inherent in the world, but rather, the world
itself is the experience of enlightenment. (Page 6633)
As this article has shown, there is no single Buddhist view of nirva. The Buddhist ideal varies with the
culture, the historical period, the language, the school, and even the individual. Still, one does find in the
Buddhist notions of nirva what Ludwig Wittgenstein would have called a "family resemblance," that is,
a group of characteristics that no single family member entirely possesses but that all members share to
such an extent that the members of one family are distinguishable from the members of another. In this
case, the Buddhist conceptions of nirva share a set of qualities that can be summarized as follows.

Nirva is the release from ignorance about the way the world is. Because one does not understand
the nature of human existence and the laws affecting human life, one lives in either a state of
outright suffering or in a state of disharmony. Nirva is ultimately acknowledging and living by the
truths of the world. In that respect, its orientation is this-worldly.


The knowledge achieved by nirva is not merely intellectual or spiritual. Nirva is achieved
through a process of psychological and physical conditioning aimed at reorienting and reversing
ego-centered forms of thinking and behaving. Nirva is achieved through and with the body, not
despite the body.


One is not alone on the Path. There is support from texts, philosophical teachings, religious practices,
the Buddhist community, the examples of masters, and even the rocks and trees. Most of all, there is


the power of compassion that one receives from others and that grows stronger the more it is offered
to others.

Nirva is achieved by penetrating and dissolving the slashes or virgules separating humanity/nature,
self/other, subject/object, and even nirva/sasra. The particular pairs of opposition vary from
place to place and time to time as Buddhism attacks the special dichotomies most destructive in a
given culture during a specific period. Nirva entails a recognition of the inherent harmony and
equality of all things.


Nirva has an intrinsically moral aspect. By eliminating all egocentric ideas, emotions, and actions,
the enlightened person approaches others with either complete equanimity (wherein self and others
are treated exactly the same) or with a compassionate involvement in alleviating the suffering of
others (wherein self is subordinated to the needs of those less fortunate). Morality can be considered
the alpha and omega of nirva. That is, the Path begins with accepting various rules and precepts of
behavior, whereas nirva culminates in the open, moral treatment of other people and things.


Although in any given context, one viewpoint is emphasized over the other, generally speaking,
nirva can be understood from either a psychological or ontological perspective. Psychologically
viewed, nirva is a radical change in attitude such that one no longer experiences the negative
influence of egocentric thinking. If this perspective is misunderstood and overemphasized, however,
it leads to a psychologism that holds that truth is simply in the mind without any connection to an
external reality. The remedy for this distortion is to assert the ontological aspect of nirva.

Ontologically speaking, nirva is the affirmation of the inherent goodness of the world and even of
human nature. In this sense, nirva is not merely a kind of experience (as depicted by the psychological
view) but is also the content or even ground of an experience. If this ontological viewpoint is
overemphasized, on the other hand, it can lead to the distorted idea that diligence and practice are
arbitrary or even unnecessary. The remedy is, conversely, to neutralize that distortion with more emphasis
on the psychological side of nirva.
In short, both the psychological and ontological views contain truths about the nature of nirva, but if
either position is developed in such a way as to exclude the other, the result is a distortion of the Buddhist
Path. For this reason, the two views coexist throughout Buddhist history, one view always
complementing the other and checking any distortions that might arise out of a one-sided perspective.
laya-vijna ; Amitbha ; Asaga ; Bodhisattva Path ; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Esoteric Buddhism;
Buddhist Ethics ; Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Exegesis and Hermeneutics ; Buddhist Philosophy ;
Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas ; Chan ; Chinul ; Confucianism ; Daoism, overview article ; Dignga ; Dgen ;
Eightfold Path ; Fazang ; Huayan ; Huineng ; Karu ; Language, article on Buddhist Views of Language ;
Mdhyamika ; Mahvairocana ; Ngrjuna ; Praj ; Shingonsh ; Shinran ; Soteriology ; Tathgatha-garbha ;
Tiantai ; Vasubandhu ; Yogcra ; Zen ; Zhenyan ; Zhiyi ; Zongmi .

As the fundamental ideal of Buddhism, nirva is discussed in a wide variety of works: stras,
commentaries, and secondary critical works by scholars of various traditions. Any bibliography must be,
therefore, incomplete and, at best, highly selective. The following works have been chosen for their
particular relevance to the issues discussed in the foregoing article.


Nirva in the Indian Buddhist Traditions

Of the many references to nirva in the early Indian texts, certain passages have traditionally received
the most attention. For example, in the Pali scriptures, the status of the Buddha after death (parinibbna)
is handled in various ways. Most prominent, undoubtedly, is the traditional account of the Buddha's
passing away described in chapter 6 of the Mahparinibbna Suttanta. A translation of this text by T. W.
Rhys Davids is readily available as Buddhist Suttas, volume 11 of "The Sacred Books of the East," edited
by F. Max Mller (1881; reprint, New York, 1969). An interesting feature of this account is its clear
distinction between the Buddha's nirva and his meditative capacity to cause the complete cessation
(nirodha) of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. This passage is often quoted, therefore, against any
claim that the early Buddhist view was simply nihilistic and world-renouncing. (Page 6634) Notably
absent in this text, however, is any detailed treatment of the classic distinction between nirva with
remainder and nirva without remainder. That distinction is more clearly presented in Itivuttaka, edited
by Ernst Windisch (London, 1889), esp. pp. 3839. An English translation by F. L. Woodward is in the
second volume of Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, edited by C. A. F. Rhys Davids (London, 1935).
Another commonly analyzed theme is the Buddha's own reticence to describe the status of the
enlightened person after death. On this point, there are two particularly provocative textual references.
One is the above-mentioned story about Mlukyputta in Majjhima-Nikya, 4 vols., edited by Vilhelm
Trenckner, Robert Chalmers, and C. A. F. Rhys Davids (London, 18871925), suttas 6364; the other is
in The Sayutta-Nikya of the Sutta Pitaka, 6 vols., edited by Lon Freer (London, 18841904), vol. 3, p.
118. English translations of these two complete collections are, respectively, The Collection of the Middle
Length Sayings, 3 vols., translated by I. B. Horner (London, 19541959), and The Book of Kindred
Sayings, 5 vols., translated by C. A. F. Rhys Davids and F. L. Woodward (London, 19171930).
As already mentioned, descriptions of nirva are for the most part posed in negative terms; the
interested reader can find a multitude of examples by consulting, for example, the excellent indexes in the
collections of early Pali texts cited above. One particularly striking exception to this rule, however, is
found in The Sayutta-Nikya, vol. 4, p. 373. This passage gives a rather lengthy string of mostly
positive equivalents to nirva, including terms that mean "truth," "the farther shore," "the stable,"
"peace," "security," "purity," and so forth. Such positive characterizations of nirva are found elsewhere,
but never in quite so concentrated a list.
On the issue of the transcendent, mystical, or metaphysical aspect of nirva in the early Buddhist
tradition, a pivotal textual reference is in Udna, edited by Paul Steinthal (London, 1948). An English
translation also occurs in volume 2 of Woodward's Minor Anthologies, cited above. On pages 8081 of
Udna, there is found an indubitable reference to a state of mind or a place beyond birth and death,
beyond all discrimination and ordinary perceptions. Controversy still continues over the proper
interpretation of the passage. In Rune E. A. Johansson's Psychology of Nirva (London, 1969), for
example, there is a sustained discussion of the enlightened state of mind as being a mystical,
transempirical, nondifferentiated state of consciousness. The passage from Udna naturally figures
prominently in Johansson's argument. On the other hand, this viewpoint is severely criticized in David J.
Kalupahana's Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis (Honolulu, 1976), chap. 7. By interpreting this
passage as referring to the state of cessation (nirodha) just prior to the Buddha's death but not to ordinary
nirva in this world, Kalupahana argues that early Buddhism consistently maintained that the
achievement of nirva does not require, or entail, any transempirical form of perception. In this regard,
Kalupahana is expanding on the theory that early Buddhism was primarily empirical in outlook, an
interpretation first fully developed in Kulitassa Nanda Jayatilleke's Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge
(London, 1963).

Another controversial issue among modern scholars is the relationship between early Buddhism and the
contemporary form of Hinduism. Whereas Kalupahana's approach sharply distinguishes the early
Buddhist view of nirva from the contemporary Hindu ideal of the unity of tman with brahman,
Johansson tends to see a common mystical element in the two. A generally more balanced and convincing
position on this point can be found in the thorough discussion of Kashi Nath Upadhyaya's Early
Buddhism and the Bhagavadgt (Delhi, 1971).
A good introduction to the modern view of nirva from the standpoint of the only living tradition of
Abhidharma, the Theravda, is Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught, rev. ed. (Bedford, U.K.,
1967), chap. 4. This small work is highly regarded for its ability to explain the gist of centuries of
Abhidharmic analysis in a straightforward, accurate, and yet nontechnical manner. On the way nirva
actually functions today as an ethical ideal in Theravda daily life, see Winston L. King's In the Hope of
Nibbana: An Essay of Theravada Buddhist Ethics (La Salle, Ill., 1964). For a more historical and
specialized approach to the development of the early Abhidharma views of nirva, see Edward Conze's
Buddhist Thought in India (1962; reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1970), esp. sections 1.5 and 2.3. Although
this book is poorly written and organized, it still contains some information not readily available in
English elsewhere.
For Ngrjuna and the Mdhyamika school, the locus classicus is Ngrjuna's discussion in chapter 25 of
his Mlamadhya-makakrik. The complete Sanskrit original and English translation of this work with
extensive commentary is found in David J. Kalupahana's Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way
(Albany, N.Y., 1985). A good discussion of Ngrjuna's basic position with respect to nirva also
appears in Frederick J. Streng's Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (New York, 1967), pp. 6981.
For studying the Yogcra and idealist position, the reader may wish to consult The Lakvatra Stra,
translated by D. T. Suzuki (1932; reprint, Boulder, Colo., 1978). The identifications of nirva with the
pure laya-vijna or the tathgata-garbha, as well as with the mind released from delusional
discriminations are particularly discussed in sections 18, 38, 63, 74, 77, and 82. For the more
systematically philosophical developments of the Yogcra tradition, the reader may refer to the
following works. Asaga's Mahynasagraha has been translated and edited by tienne Lamotte in La
somme du Grand Vhicule d'Asaga, vol. 2 (Louvain, 1939). Translations of Vasubandhu's Viatik and
Triik by Clarence H. Hamilton and Wing-tsit Chan, respectively, can be found in A Source Book in
Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton, N. J., 1957).
Sylvain Lvi's Matriaux pour l'tude du systme Vijaptimtra (Paris, 1932) remains the definitive
discussion on Vasubandhu's writings. For an analysis of Dignga's thought, see Hattori Masaaki's
Dignga, on Perception (Cambridge, Mass., 1968).
For a straightforward and detailed discussion of Indian Buddhist theories of nirva, see Nalinaksha
Dutt's Mahyna Buddhism (rev. ed., Delhi, 1978), chap. 7. Although sometimes biased against the
Abhidharma traditions, his account of the differences among the Indian Buddhist schools is very good.
For a thorough and fascinating discussion of the attempts of Western scholars to interpret the idea of
nirva as found (Page 6635) primarily in the Pali texts, see Guy R. Welbon's The Buddhist Nirva and
Its Western Interpreters (Chicago, 1968). Welbon includes a good bibliography of works in Western
languages. His book culminates in the famous debate between Louis de La Valle Poussin (18691938)
and Theodore Stcherbatsky (Fedor Shcherbatskii, 18661942). Both were noted as first-rate
commentators on Mahyna Buddhism, but their own personalities and temperaments led them to take
distinctively different views of Buddhism and its intent. Thus, in examining the same early Buddhist texts,
the former emphasized the yogic and religious aspects whereas the latter favored the philosophical.


Despite their limitations, however, La Valle Poussin's Nirva (Paris, 1925) and Stcherbatsky's The
Conception of Buddhist Nirva (Leningrad, 1927) remain classic works on this subject.
East Asian Traditions
For the reasons given in the essay, the idea of nirva is not discussed as explicitly in the East Asian as
the South Asian traditions. When nirva is analyzed by East Asian Buddhists, the sharply etched
distinctions among the various Indian Mahyna schools are softened. A clear example of this is D. T.
Suzuki's Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (New York, 1963), chap. 13. In this chapter, and indeed
throughout the book, Suzuki approaches the ideas of Mahyna Buddhists as coming from discrete
traditions but involving an underlying common spirit.
For the view of the Tiantai school as developed by Zhiyi, the most thorough discussion in English is Leon
N. Hurvitz's Zhiyi (538597); An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk (Brussels,
1962). For the impact of the Tiantai idea of inherent enlightenment on Japanese Buddhism in the
Kamakura period, see the comprehensive study in Tamura Yoshir's Kamakura shinbukky shis no
kenky (Tokyo, 1965).
Like Tiantai, the Huayan tradition has not yet been comprehensively studied in Western works. One of
the better philosophical overviews of Huayan theory in relation to enlightenment is the discussion about
Fazang in Fung Youlan's A History of Chinese Philosophy, translated by Derk Bodde (Princeton, N. J.,
1953), vol. 2, chap. 8. Fazang is also central to the analysis in Francis D. Cook's Huayan Buddhism: The
Jewel Net of Indra (University Park, Pa., 1977). Essays on the history of Huayan practice are included in
Studies in Chan and Huayan, edited by Robert M. Gimello and Peter N. Gregory (Honolulu, 1984).
On the theory of the four realms of reality (fajie), the culmination of which is the "nonobstruction
between thing and things," a key text is Chengguan's Huayan fajie xanjing, a translation of which is
found in Thomas Cleary's Entry into the Inconceivable (Honolulu, 1983). One noteworthy point about the
translation, however, is that it translates li as "noumenon" and shi as "phenomenon," a rendering popular
in earlier English translations, but now usually replaced by terms less speculative and philosophically
misleading, such as, respectively, "principle" and "event" (or "principle" and "thing").
On the Chan distinction between sudden and gradual enlightenment, the exchange of poems by Shenxiu
and Huineng is recorded in the first ten sections of the Liuzu tanjing, a good translation of which is Philip
B. Yampolsky's The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (New York, 1967). For Zongmi's view of
sudden enlightenment and gradual cultivation, as well as Chinul's elaboration on this point, see the
discussion in The Korean Approach to Zen, translated by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. (Honolulu, 1983). For
Dgen's view of the oneness of cultivation and enlightenment, see Hee-Jin Kim's Dgen Kigen: Mystical
Realist (Tucson, 1975), chap. 3, and my Zen Action/Zen Person (Honolulu, 1981), chaps. 67.
For an overview of the Pure Land tradition and, in particular, Shinran's view that enlightenment is
unattainable through any efforts of one's own, see Alfred Bloom's Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace
(Tucson, 1965), still the only major objective study of Shinran in English. There are two good translation
series of Shinran's works: the "Rykoku Translation Series" and the "Shin Buddhism Translation Series,"
both of Kyoto, Japan. Neither series is complete but, between the two, most of Shinran's works have been
adequately translated. The quotation in the foregoing essay is from the first volume of the latter series,
namely, The Letters of Shinran: A Translation of Mattsh, edited and translated by Ueda Yoshifumi
(Kyoto, 1978).


For Kkai's view on the distinctiveness of Esoteric Buddhism, a key text is Benkenmitsu nikyo ron (On
distinguishing the two teachingsExoteric and Esoteric). On the role of ritual in enlightenment, see his
Sokushin jbutsu gi (On achieving buddhahood with this very body) and Shji jiss gi (On sound-wordreality). English translations of these works and others can be conveniently found in Yoshito S. Hakeda's
Kkai: Major Works (New York, 1972).
New Sources
Collins, S. Nirva and Other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pali Imaginaire. New York, 1998.
Gombrich, R. F. Kindness and Compassion as Means to Nirva. Amsterdam, 1998.
Kasulis, Thomas P. "Nirva." In Buddhism and Asian History, edited by Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa and
Mark D. Cummings, pp. 395408. New York, 1989.
Obermiller, E., and H. S. Sobati. Nirva in Tibetan Buddhism. Delhi, 1988.
Sukla, K. Nagarjuna Bauddha Pratisthanam, Nature of Bondage and Liberation in Buddhist Systems:
Proceedings of Seminar Held in 1984. Gorakhpur, India, 1988.
Swaris, N. The Buddha's Way to Human Liberation: A Socio-Historical Approach. Dehiwala, Sri Lanka,
Thomas, E. J. The Road to Nirva: A Selection of the Buddhist Scriptures Translated from the Pali.
Rutland, Vt., 1992.
Tilakaratne, A., and the University of Kelaniya. Nirva and Ineffability: A Study of the Buddhist Theory
of Reality and Language. Sri Lanka, 1993.
Revised Bibliography


6. Buddhist Concept of Karma

Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Hirota, Dennis. "Karman: Buddhist Concepts." Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol.
8. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 5097-5101. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Aug.
The Indian religious worldview emerging about the time of the Buddha centered on three interrelated
notions: rebirth, karman, and liberation. These concepts informed the cosmology, eschatology, and
soteriology of the developing traditions, which taught that sentient beings have been reborn repeatedly in
diverse forms of life, in places ranging from various hells to the highest heavens, over vast tracks of time.
This process of rebirth is guided and even generated by the force of a person's actions (karman), which
possess the power of inevitably working their consequences. Thus, deeds in the present will unfailingly
bear their fruit in this or a future life, and present conditions, pleasurable or disagreeable, including one's
form of existence, length of life, social station, and personal appearance, are the effects of deeds
performed in the past. The span of one's existence through cycles of birth and death (sasra) stretches
back endlessly into the past and will continue without limit into the future, unless liberation is attained.
The understanding of the mechanism of karmic bondage and the nature of emancipation evolved
variously within the different traditions, andalthough notions of karman are also found in pre-Buddhist
Upaniads and in Jain thoughtthe precise relationships among the traditions remains uncertain.
The concept of karman as causal action and its consequence is often said to be the cornerstone of
Buddhist philosophy and its basis for explaining human existence and the physical world. It is, however,
less a clearly articulated doctrine than an elemental insight, in terms of which Buddhists have
apprehended the temporal, existential dimension of human life rooted in the realization of non-self.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Buddhist thought within the Indian context, non-self is expressed in
the early tradition as the rejection of the bifurcation of experience into subject and object (five
aggregates), (Page 5098) and further as release from painful, repetitive existence through the eradication
of delusional egocentric craving (dependent arising).
Although karman in Indian thought originally presupposed an enduring entity as both agent of action and
recipient of rebirth, it also appears in legendary accounts of the Buddha's enlightenment. The early
tradition teaches that he attained three insights during the three watches of the night following his
awakening: he saw his own previous lives and how each conditioned subsequent ones; he saw that beings
everywhere also underwent repeated rebirths, receiving the results of acts performed in past lives; and he
perceived the desires and attachments that bound one to further painful rebirth and the method by which
to eradicate them. The critical role of karman in constituting samsaric existence was expressed by the
notion of dependent arising, the core motif of which was formulated as: "When this arises, that arises;
when this is not, that is not" (Majjhima-nikya I, 262263).
The concept of dependent arising was developed into a twelve-link chain: conditioned by ignorance,
mental formations arise; conditioned by formations, consciousness arises; and so forth, leading finally to
old age and death. These links are seen as elements within phases of past karmic acts (ignorance,
formations) leading to present conditions (consciousness, mind-objects, six senses, sensory contact,

feeling) and present actions (craving, grasping, becoming) leading to future consequences (birth, old age
and death). The reverse chain leads from eradication of ignorance to the cessation of the successive links
and liberation from karman-formed existence. Thus, the earliest strata of Buddhist texts state: "One who
sees dependent arising rightly sees karman and its matured fruit" (Suttanipta), and further, "One who
sees dependent arising sees dhamma [dharma]" (Majjhima-nikya I, 190191).
In early Buddhist tradition, karman is understood not only as an aspect of the Buddha's awakening, but
also as broadly ethical in implication, in contrast to the Brahmanic tradition, in which the notion of
karman concerned the efficacy of sacrificial rites. In Vedic tradition, it is the enactment of sacrifice itself
and its ritual correctness, rather than moral quality, that are determinative of the result. Karman in early
Buddhist thought also differs from the contemporaneous Jain tradition, in which it is conceived as
material accretion or residue, so that, for example, any act destructive of sentient life will bear fruit, even
though it may have been unintended. Buddhist tradition asserts intention (cetan) or the originating
impulse as the critical element of any karmic act. The Buddha states: "Monks, I say that intention is
acting; by intention, one performs an action of body, speech, or mind" (Aguttara-nikya III, 415). It is the
intention functioning as the motive force giving rise to deeds that determines their quality and thus their
karmic effect. Hence, harm inflicted inadvertently does not necessarily bespeak an evil act entailing
unwholesome retribution, and even meritorious acts may in fact be injurious. The monk Ngasena
explains that since the offering of a meal to kyamuni by Cunda was done with good intentions, even
though the Buddha fell ill and died upon eating it, Cunda was not at fault (Milindapaha).
This emphasis on intention as determinate of the quality of acts was developed by early Buddhists
through various classifications. All human activity is classified in terms of three modes of action: bodily,
vocal, and mental. Thoughts of theft or murder bear karmic effects, even though not physically enacted.
In addition, a twofold classification of acts centering on intention was expounded: the act of intending
and acts performed having been intended. The former category consists of mental acts, while the latter
consists of bodily and verbal acts that arise as manifestations of volition (Abhidharmakoa).
Karman is classified by moral quality as good or wholesome (kuala), unwholesome (akuala), and
indeterminate (avykta). Unwholesome or "unskillful" acts result in unhappy rebirth (in the realms of
hell, animals, or spirits), and a list of "ten evil acts" is organized in terms of bodily, vocal, and mental
deeds: taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct; false speech, slander, harsh speech,
frivolous talk; greed, malice, and false views. Good or "skillful" acts, given in a corresponding list of ten
admonitions, result in propitious rebirth (as a human or deva). Indeterminate acts do not produce a karmic
result. Here again one sees the centrality of intention in early Buddhist thought, for present conditions,
which are the results of past actions, are themselves indeterminate. In this way, Buddhists sought to avoid
any determinism of the moral quality of present acts by direct causation from the past.
Further, the early tradition asserts the strictness of the causal working of karman. One's karman is one's
own; whether good or bad, it is like "a treasure not shared with others, which no thief can steal"
(Khuddakaptha, p.7). Thus, the consequences of one's actions will return upon oneself alone. Karmic
effect is open to various forms of conditioning, and the results of a particular act may vary depending on
when it is performed (the time of death is particularly potent), the combination with other acts, the quality
of habitual conduct that forms its context, or the attitude taken toward the act before or even after it has
been performed. For example, the degree of deliberation preceding an act, and the presence of regret or of

repentance and expiation after, may influence the karmic effect of both good and evil acts, either
intensifying or meliorating the result. Nevertheless, however conditioned, karman unfailingly brings
about consequences. It may ripen quickly in the present life or bear its fruit only in some future life, but
its effect will not be lost and its potency not exhausted or nullified until it works itself out.
Karman in early Buddhist tradition thus suggests a moral eschatology in which one's future depends on
the moral qualities of the thoughts underlying one's acts in the (Page 5099) present. The ethical import is
to shun evil acts and strive to do good: "Watchful of speech, well restrained in mind, / One would not do
what is unwholesome by body too; / These three modes of action one would purify; / Let one fulfill the
path made known by the sages" (Dhammapada, verse 281). This vision, however, is complicated by two
intertwined issues: the soteriological aim of liberation from karmic functioning itself, rather than skillful
application of it, and the rejection of enduring, substantial existents, including a "self" that can inherit the
consequences of its own past acts.
While karman expresses the moral logic at work within the cosmos of living beings, liberation in the
Buddhist path ultimately involves transcendence of existence as continual rebirth, which is karmically
generated and characterized as delusionally driven and painful. Because the notion of karman continued
to underpin ideas of merit (puya) accumulation originating in the Vedic context of sacrificial rite, two
general goals were upheld by early Buddhist practitioners, reflecting distinct attitudes toward karman.
On the one hand, acts may be distinguished as sources of merit or demerit, the former leading toward
happy future conditions and the latter toward painful states. In the early tradition, meritorious action is
enumerated as giving (dna), moral conduct (la), and meditative practice (bhvan), but dna as
almsgiving is given particular attention as a source of merit for laity. Further, the degree of merit accrued
in an act of giving is said to turn on the worthiness of the recipient, who is a "field of merit" in which the
gift as seed is brought to fruition. Any act of charity may bear fruit, but the greatest rewards lie in the
supreme field of merit, the community of monks (sagha) led by the Buddha. The practical significance
of this metaphor for the symbiotic relationship between monks and laity is evident, but it has also been
suggested that the importance placed on the recipient stems from the original sacrificial context of the act
of almsgiving as a form of worship.
On the other hand, the goal of the Buddhist path is not higher states of existence or ascension through the
five "courses," including human and deva, of the realm of desire into the loftier realms of form and
formlessness. Rather, one seeks to sever the bonds to samsaric existence altogether. This is nirva,
which, in terms of karman, is "extinction" of afflicting passions giving rise to acts of karmic retribution
and cessation of the resultant pain of continual rebirth. Since any thoughts of attachment within the
realms of rebirth, even to meritorious acts or blissful states of life, are themselves karman that will bind
one to further samsaric existence, liberation is attained only when one produces no karman and one's
karman from the past has been exhausted. Acts performed with detachment and equanimity (upek) bear
no further results, whether good or bad. Hence, it is by purification of the mind through right conduct,
meditation, and religious insight, so that one's acts are free of greed, malice, and delusional thinking, that
nirva is attained.
Some studies of the present Theravda tradition have distinguished these two patterns of religious acts as
kammatic and nibbanic, the former emphasizing giving and right conduct and directed toward achieving
higher states within samsaric existence, while the latter focuses on meditative practice leading to


liberation from sasra. The former turns on the karmic effects of merit-making, while the latter seeks
the eradication of karman through perfect disinterestedness.
The working of karman, however, also serves to conjoin these two patterns. Since the path to liberation
traverses many lifetimes, present merit may be understood to lead to conditions favorable to purifying
practice and eventual attainment of nirva. In addition, through transference of merit, one may
generously turn the effects of a meritorious act to benefit another. That persons must each bear the results
of their own deeds is a fundamental postulate of the notion of karman emphasized in the early tradition.
At the same time, however, examples are recorded of a person ascribing a good deed, such as a gift of
food to monks, to other beings, including famished spirits and devas, so that they might receive the merit.
Such a notion of compassionate transference later developed into a hallmark of Mahyna tradition.
Scholastic traditions developed in the monastic communities in the centuries following the Buddha's
death, resulting in a literature of doctrinal systematization and categorization known as abhidharma
(further teaching). Adopting an objectifying stance of exhaustive analytical reflection, the abhidharma
broke down all existents and phenomena into constituent, elemental factors (dharmas) categorized as
consciousness, mental attitudes, material elements, elements neither mental nor material such as causal
relation, and the uncreated. These psychological and physical dharmas (numbering seventy-five in the
Sarvstivda school and eighty-two in the Theravda abhidharma) were said to arise in composites in the
present instant, then immediately pass away. Thus, although normally experienced as continuous and
integral, mental functioning is merely a rapid series of discrete instants of consciousness, each arising as a
psychophysical combination of numerous dharmas, and objects grasped as enduring and real are no more
than momentary aggregates of dharmas informed by conceptual construction. What is actually and
irreducibly existent are only the elemental factors coming together and passing away.
In the abhidharma schools, the notion of karman functioned as a fundamental causal principle underlying
the linear, temporal flow of all things, but a number of contentious issues relating to it were debated. For
example, although the Theravda tradition emphasized intention as determinant of the moral quality of
even physical acts, Sarvstivdins asserted that bodily and vocal acts, being material, manifest but are
distinct from intention as a mental act. Further, major issues arose regarding karmic causation. How can
actions occurring in the present moment and then passing away bring about consequences in the future?
The Sarvstivdins argued (Page 5100) that dharmas themselves, as elemental factors, exist in the future
and past as well as in the present, although the modes of existence differ. Dharmas existing in the future
move, through causes, into the present and arise in fusion with countless other dharmas as actions or
composite things before slipping into the past. Since the dharmas continue to exist even though they have
vanished from the present, they hold the energy to cause their results to appear upon maturation. How can
there be continuity between the agent of an act and the receiver of its fruit? If there is only flux, there can
be no reception of karmic results, but if there is continuity, an enduring entity seems implied. The early
tradition teaches that the person who commits the act and the person who receives the fruit are neither
wholly identical nor wholly different. In order to explain the continuity of the series of psychophysical
moments that is the subject of karmic working, Sarvstivdins argued that there exists a dharma of
"possession" (prpti), which functions with all karmic acts, so that each act or thought, though
immediately passing away, creates the "possession" of that act in the continuum of instants we experience
as a person. This possession itself is momentary, but continually reproduces a similar possession in the
succeeding instant, even though the original act lies in the past. Through such continual regeneration, the
act is "possessed" until the actualization of the result.


Such views were rejected as contrary to the Buddha's teaching of impermanence by other schools, notably
the Sautrntikas, who insisted that each act exists only in the present instant and perishes immediately. To
explain causation, they taught that with each karmic act a "perfuming" occurs which, though not a
dharma or existent factor itself, leaves a residual impression in the succeeding series of mental instants,
causing it to undergo a process of subtle evolution eventually leading to the act's result. Good and bad
deeds performed are thus said to leave "seeds" or traces of disposition that will come to fruition.
The Prajpramit stras (c. first century CE) and early Mahyna thinkers rejected the realism of
scholastic traditions that presupposed the enduring own-being (svabhva) of all dharmas and fixed the
transcendent, uncreated dharma of nirva as the ultimate religious goal. Instead, they sought to
articulate the soteriological realization of non-self in terms of a thoroughgoing nondiscriminative wisdom
in which the dissolution of the subject-object dichotomy and the nature of all things as dependently
arising were expressed as emptiness or voidness (nyat).
Ngrjuna (c. 150250 CE), in Mlama-dhyamaka-krik, sought to demonstrate the logical incoherence
of the substantialist assumptions governing ordinary human experience ofand speech aboutthe world,
including causation. He argued, for example, that notions of agent and act are mutually dependent, so that
any conceptual reification will render the wholeaction itselfuntenable. Further, if karman persists
until its result arises, it is permanent and unchanging; if it expires, it cannot function as cause. In either
case, it cannot produce a result. Karman must be neither continuous nor discontinuous; this eradication of
objectifying conceptual bifurcation pervades the world of non-self or emptiness. To go beyond emptinesscontemplation as the elimination of discriminative discourse only and to explore the active functioning of
wisdom, the Yogcra thought of Asaga (c. 320390 CE) and Vasubandhu (c. fourth century CE) adapted,
from a Mahyna perspective, such abhidharma conceptions as the subconscious mind (bhavaga), from
which conscious processes arise and into which they subside and the karmic seeds (bja) of mental
activity. Time is a succession of discontinuous instants, with mind and all things mutually giving rise to
each other and perishing moment by moment. This instantaneous "other-dependent" co-arising of mind
and world is not different from emptiness, wisdom, or true reality.
By asserting "form is itself emptiness, emptiness is form," Mahyna thought departed from earlier
tendencies toward mutually exclusive, substantialist-leaning conceptions of samsaric and nirvanic realms,
or the karma-created and uncreated, and thus from the ethical focus developed in Theravda tradition and
the atomistic analyses of karmic causation in the scholastic tradition.
The implications regarding karman of the notion of nonduality in Mahyna thought may be considered
from the perspectives of both the being of wisdom (a bodhisattva) and the person of karmic existence (a
foolish, unenlightened being). For the bodhisattva, the strictness of karmic working emphasized in the
early tradition is broken in several ways by the wisdom in which such dichotomies as form and emptiness,
sasra and nirva, and blind passions and enlightenment are simultaneously established and dissolved.
Although the early tradition asserts that karman is personal, the bodhisattva's transcendence of the
dichotomy of self and other leads to the practice of merit transference, by which one vows to ferry all
beings to the other shore of nirva before crossing over oneself, giving the merit of one's practice to
others. Self does not exist merely as self, but upon the foundation of both self and other arising in mutual
dependence, that is, in emptiness. This thinking is developed in Yogcra writings in the concept of
"shared karman," in which karman is at once individual and conjoint.

Further, although the notion of karman asserts a correlation between the moral quality of past deeds and
the circumstances of rebirth, the bodhisattva may choose to be reborn in realms of suffering to save
beings there. Above all, the bodhisattva relinquishes the earlier view that liberation lies in departing from
sasra and entering nirva, abandoning all attachments, even to nirva.
While attainment of nondiscriminative wisdom is a prominent feature in most East Asian Buddhist
traditions, including Huayan, Tiantai, and Chan, realization of nonduality from a stance within karmic
bondage has also been developed, (Page 5101) most clearly by Shinran (11731263), founder of the
Japanese Shin Buddhist tradition (Jdo Shinsh) of the Pure Land school. In Shinran's thought, persons
come to know the depths of their karmic bondage, reaching back into the unknowable past, through
receiving the wisdom of Amida Buddha as the genuine entrusting of themselves (shinjin) to the Buddha's
vow to bring them to enlightenment though his own fulfillment of practices. They awaken to their
inability to free themselves from blind passions through religious practices or meritorious acts, which are
inevitably tainted by self-attachment, and at the same time they realize that their birth in the Pure Land
and attainment of enlightenment are fully settled, for they have attained the Buddha's mind as shinjin.
Thus in Tannish, Shinran states, "Hell is decidedly my home," and also speaks of "the attainment of
buddhahood by the person who is evil" (akunin jbutsu), expressing the nonduality of karmic existence
and Buddha's wisdom found throughout Mahyna tradition.
The notion of karman has been considered an integral element of Buddhist awakening to human existence.
At the same time, however, the significance of moral actionin relation to religious practice in the
Theravda tradition and to nondichotomous wisdom in Mahyna traditionshas been a recurring issue
throughout Buddhist history, and recent concerns to formulate a Buddhist social ethics have drawn
renewed attention to issues of karman.
Buddhist Philosophy ; Dharma, article on Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas ; Sarvstivda ; Sautrntika .
Carter, John Ross, and Mahinda Palihawadana, trans. The Dhammapada. Oxford, 1987.
Egge, James R. Religious Giving and the Invention of Karma in Theravda Buddhism. Richmond, UK,
2002. Considers the harmonization of the ethicized and soteriological strains of karman in Theravda
Heine, Steven. Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kan. Honolulu, 1999.
Highlights the tensions between the ethical and the nondiscriminative treatments of karman in Chan/Zen
Hirota, Dennis, trans. Tannish: A Primer. Kyoto, 1982. A parallel translation with original text. Also in
Dennis Hirota et al., trans., The Collected Works of Shinran, Kyoto, 1997.
Keyes, Charles F., and E. Valentine Daniel, eds. Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry. Berkeley, 1983.
Includes articles on modern Tibet and Southeast Asia.
Kumoi Shzen, ed. G shis kenky. Kyoto, 1979. Includes articles on a wide range of Buddhist
traditions and a bibliography of research in Japanese and European languages.

Lamotte, tienne. Karmasiddhi Prakaraa: The Treatise on Action by Vasubandhu. Translated by Leo M.
Pruden. Fremont, Calif., 1987. Introduction includes a summary of views on karman in various
abhidharmic schools.
Lusthaus, Dan. Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogcra Buddhism and the
Ch'eng Wei-shih lun. London, 2002. Considers Buddhist conceptions of karman on the way to arguing a
phenomenological understanding of Yogcra.
McDermott, James Paul. Development in the Early Buddhist Concept of Kamma/Karma. New Delhi,
1984. Lucid survey of the issues in the literature of the early tradition through Vasubandhu's
Neufeldt, Ronald W., ed. Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments. Albany, N.Y., 1986.
Includes articles on Buddhist traditions in China, Tibet, and Japan.
Obeyeskere, Gananath. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek
Rebirth. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002. Surveys the notion of rebirth in diverse cultures and delineates
a theory of its evolution in Indian traditions through ethicization based on karman to a notion of salvation
as transcendent nirva.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley, 1980.
Includes several articles on Buddhist tradition and an extensive bibliography.
Ueda Yoshifumi. "Freedom and Necessity in Shinran's Concept of Karma." Translated by Dennis Hirota.
Eastern Buddhist 19, no. 1 (1986): 76100. An adaptation and translation of Bukky ni okeru g no shis.
Kyoto, 1957. See also Ueda Yoshifumi and Dennis Hirota, Shinran: An Introduction to His Thought.
Kyoto, 1989.
Warren, Henry Clarke. Buddhism in Translations (1896). Cambridge, Mass., 1953. Convenient collection
of important passages in Theravda tradition in a section on "Karma and Rebirth."