An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy
“Explain suffering to me”
~ SN 12.17
“I wanna know
Where we’re going”
~ Robert DeLong
Modified: March 21, 2023
Table of Contents
- What is Buddhist Philosophy?
- The Course
- Week 1: The Buddha and the Cosmos
- Week 2: The Four Noble Truths
- Week 3: The Nature of Reality (The First Noble Truth)
- Week 4: Dependent Origination (The Second Noble Truth)
- Week 5: Rebirth and Kamma (The Second Noble Truth Continued…)
- Week 6: Nibbāna (The Third Noble Truth)
- Week 7: The Eightfold Path (The Fourth Noble Truth)
- Week 8: Meditation
- Week 9: Social Teachings
- Week 10: The Sangha
- Further Reading
- Advanced Courses
What is Buddhist Philosophy?
Buddhist Philosophy (right view, thought, understanding, and wisdom) is both the beginning and the end of the Buddhist Path. Without confidence in the power of action and the dangers of greed, hatred and delusion, one can only practice the path half-heartedly at best. And yet the overcoming of ignorance is itself the goal of the path. Buddhist Philosophy thus has a bootstrapping problem: how can deluded beings ever climb out of darkness?
The Buddha starts with what we can know directly: suffering. People can mislead you about many things, but when you’re suffering nobody can tell you that you’re not. You can directly know this first truth yourself. This gives us the self-confidence that there are truths we can directly know and it builds our confidence in the Buddha who pointed this out. Faith leads to effort, effort leads to results, and so the whole path unfolds from the basic observation of pain.
From this process we can make out a few points regarding Buddhist Philosophy. Most distinct is that it is phenomenological. Buddhist Philosophy is primarily concerned with our subjective experiences. Second, within this “event driven” rather than “object oriented” framework, we notice a distinct emphasis on cause and effect. The Buddhist universe is neither chaotic nor predetermined, but is rather conditioned by our choices. Lastly, Buddhist Philosophy is teleological. It has a goal, a purpose beyond merely describing reality. It points the way out of views, attachments, and prejudices and towards the direct understanding of reality itself.
Buddhist Philosophy is thus the way of thinking which leads beyond thought.
This course assumes some familiarity with the purpose of Buddhism. Prior comfort with the Early Buddhist Texts is not required, though may be helpful.
This course rests on Bhikkhu Bodhi’s classic cassette tapes from 1981:
These lectures are a walkthrough of the orthodox Theravada doctrine. I recommend not listening to the lectures while doing something else, but instead giving them your full attention, pausing the recording as needed to digest and reflect. It may be helpful to set aside a 1.5–2 hour time slot for the lectures once per week, to give yourself a deadline to complete your “homework” and to ensure that you can listen to the lectures undistracted. But this is just a suggestion. You’re of course welcome to make your way through the material however you like.
In addition to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s formal lectures, each week contains some additional, more casual, talks by other monks and nuns.
In lieu of a textbook, this course will weave in the Selections from the Majjhima Nikaya on the Doctrine which Bhikkhu Bodhi recommended be required reading for studying Buddhist Philosophy. These suttas are linked to web translations, but feel free to read (or listen to) the suttas in whichever translation (and medium) you prefer.
Please read the suttas and other readings on your own “before class” and spend some time reflecting on them, preferably for a day or two, before listening to the lecture. Don’t feel discouraged if you find the suttas difficult at first. I’m sure you’ll be a pro sutta-reader by the end of the class!
You may want to keep a copy of the assigned suttas in front of you while listening to the lectures, so that you can refer back to them and take notes as inspiration strikes, keeping in mind that the recordings (unlike live lectures!) can easily be paused.
In addition to the suttas, this course assigns four short books in weeks 4, 7, 8 and 9: The Heart of Understanding, Inspiring Dhamma, Wisdom Develops Samadhi, and BuddhaDhamma for University Students respectively, so be advised to budget a little extra time for the homework these weeks. Note also that one of these books (The Heart of Understanding) is a commercial work which you’ll have to acquire on your own.
This course gives a traditional, 10-week introduction to Theravada Buddhist Philosophy.
It does not cover comparative philosophy or the history of philosophy and it does not attempt to present the theory from a Western frame, nor even from a practical angle. Instead, this course opts for an approach modeled on the traditional Theravada commentaries.
My own bias, however, is towards early Buddhism. So, while the Abhidhamma Tradition (at least as presented here) doesn’t stray too far from the Pāli Canon, there are a couple points throughout the course where differences will be noted.
The class is structured into 10 “weeks.” Each week assigns some suttas and other readings for “homework” before the main lecture for that week. Each week ends with a breakout session I call the “sutta spotlight” in which we do a closer reading of a related sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya with a guest monastic, before advancing on to the homework for the following “week.”
But before we get started, here is a brief introduction to Wisdom in Early Buddhism.
- Bhante Sujato and Brahmali give us a guest lecture on wisdom to start our course.
- They introduce the main points we’ll analyze in depth, and also briefly explain why this course doesn’t follow the “conventional versus ultimate realities” dichotomy that many have used to explain Buddhist philosophy.
- Start here!
Week 1: The Buddha and the Cosmos
We start the course proper by talking about the founder and central figure of Buddhism and his important role in Buddhist Cosmology.
- The Buddha’s autobiography: He gives the bhikkhus a long account of his own quest for enlightenment from the time of his life in the palace up to the transmission of the Dhamma to his first five disciples.
- Don’t worry if this sutta is a bit difficult to read. We’ll cover the suttas enough throughout this course that you’ll get the hang of reading them soon enough.
- Rupert Gethin gives us a way of reading Buddhist mythology as a guide to the terrain of meditation.
- Zachary Stein gives us an impassioned defense of asking big questions, and refers obliquely to our own postmodern “noble search” for philosophical grounding.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi introduces us to the cosmology of Buddhism and the wondrous appearance of a Buddha in the world.
- The Buddha expounds the ten powers of a Tathāgata, his four kinds of intrepidity, and other superior qualities, which entitle him to “roar his lions roar in the assemblies.”
- Ajahn Brahm teaches this sutta and gives a few stories from his time as a monk in Thailand in this wonderful and highly recommended talk. Don’t miss it!
Write a page or two on which qualities of the Buddha inspire you. How would you like to be more “Buddha-like?” How does Buddhist mythology support your aspiration?
Week 2: The Four Noble Truths
The very core of Buddhist Philosophy, this week we introduce the Buddha’s diagnosis of the spiritual disease. Because this is such an important doctrine, I have assigned slightly more homework this week than normal: an indulgence I hope you will forgive.
- Venerable Analayo shows how the Four Noble Truths are akin to a medical treatment plan: from diagnosis to cure.
It may be appropriate here to take a step back and ask what the Buddha meant by “Truth” in the first place. Can we discern something about the Buddha’s epistemology from his teachings?
- The Venerable Sariputta gives a detailed analysis of the Four Noble Truths.
- A Bhikkhu threatens to leave the Order unless the Buddha answers his metaphysical questions. With the simile of a man struck by a poisoned arrow, the Buddha makes plain exactly what he does and does not teach in this sutta mentioned in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s talk below.
- Last week we learned about Buddhist cosmology, while this sutta eschews metaphysics! What gives?! How do you explain this contradiction?
- Bhikkhu Bodhi gives a thorough treatment of suffering and introduces us to the five aggregates.
This week we’ve covered a lot of ground and hopefully have a firm framework off which to hang the rest of Buddhist Philosophy. We explored the Four Noble Truths and we thought about why the Buddha taught what he did and what he chose not to discuss.
This “Sutta Spotlight” shows how that “hanging together” works with a vivid example from the Canon.
But before reading this sutta, please take a moment to consider how you would explain the relationship between the Four Noble Truths, the Four Material Elements, the Five Aggregates and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. How would you “fit” these teachings together?
- The venerable Sāriputta begins with a statement of the Four Noble Truths, which he then expounds by way of the four elements and the dependent origination of the five aggregates, showing how he fits all of the Buddha’s Teachings inside the framework of the Four Noble Truths.
- Bhante Yuttadhammo gives a brief talk on this profound sutta, revealing yet another (!) layer of its profundity.
Week 3: The Nature of Reality (The First Noble Truth)
The five aggregates of body and mind that we cling to as constituting a “self” and their nature to be impermanent, dissatisfying and uncontrollable, this week covers what the Buddha meant by “suffering.”
- Ven Analayo defines what the Buddha meant by dukkha and how it fits into the Four Noble Truths.
- The defining characteristic of the Buddhist conception of the world is “emptiness.”
- The question immediately arises: “The world is empty of what?” In this sutta, the Buddha gives us the answer: “It is empty of a self.”
- Notice in particular in this sutta the subtle redefinition of “the world” from our usual idea of it (objective material stuff) to something altogether more subjective and (ironically) personal.
- Here we get the Buddha’s most straightforward explanation of what not-self means and its relevance to our project of overcoming suffering.
- Through the simile of the chariot (similar to the “Ship of Theseus” from Western philosophy), Bhikkhu Cintita explains how the five aggregates are not-self.
- Mind-Body duality has long been a problem for Western philosophy. What does Buddhism have to say about the paradox of consciousness existing in a material world?
- The Bhikkhuni Vajira sums up the above in this beautiful poem.
- A bhikkhu questions the Buddha on the five aggregates, clinging, personality view, and the realization of non-self.
- This sutta will be implicitly analyzed in detail in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s third lecture below. I recommend reading it once before class and then having a copy in front of you while listening to the lecture.
- This essay gives an introduction to the three characteristics and, by analysis, their function.
- Finally, we sum up the truth of the compounded and impermanent nature of all things, with this beautiful music video on impermanence.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi gives a detailed analysis of the five aggregates and three characteristics.
- This is all great theory, but how do we actually see it? Bhante Yuttadhammo gives a very brief introduction to the four foundations of mindfulness: the way to experience the five aggregates directly.
- Stopping at a potter’s workshop for a night, the Buddha meets a contemplative named Pukkusāti and gives him a profound and difficult discourse on the elements culminating in the four foundations of arahantship.
- Bhante Sujato walks us through this deep sutta, one of his (and, I must say, my) favorites, giving us a bit more info on the commentarial background story as well as the sutta’s parallel versions in the Mahayana Tradition.
In your own words, how does seeing the Three Characteristics prepare the mind for Liberation? What does this say about the nature of Enlightenment?
Week 4: Dependent Origination (The Second Noble Truth)
The series of causes which lead to us constitute the disease for which our suffering is only the most obvious symptom.
(Special Bonus!) Sutta Spotlight
Dependent Origination is a notoriously difficult concept in Buddhism, so before this week gets started in earnest, I wanted to invite Bhikkhu Brahmali here to help us understand one discourse which explains the second noble truth in this, a very special, bonus edition of “sutta spotlight”
- We begin with the Buddha’s own, pithy explanation of Dependent Arising in this Sutra preserved by the Tibetan Tradition.
- When a bhikkhu named Sāti promulgates the pernicious view that consciousness transmigrates from life to life, the Buddha reprimands him with a lengthy discourse on dependent origination, showing how all phenomena arise and cease through conditions.
- Ajahn Brahmali covers this sutta in his ever-cheery style, explaining how rebirth is different from transmigration.
With that as an introduction, we’re perhaps ready to read this week’s homework and see how it fits together.
- A short article on karma in the the Pāli Canon.
- Bhante Yuttadhammo introduces Dependent Origination in his own way, trying to point towards its utility in practice.
- This short sutra from the Chinese Canon explains another way of understanding “The Middle Way”
- Conditionality is explained as the middle way between the extremes of seeing things as existing and non-existing. When one understands that all things are impermanent and fading away, they cannot be seen as “existing” and when the relentless arising of phenomena is seen, it cannot be held that nothing exists either.
- An incredibly popular and influential, modern (commercial) commentary on the (Mahayana) Heart Sutra presents a much beloved take on Huayan philosophy.
- Note especially the similarities or differences to the Theravada. How might these two perspectives on dependent origination illuminate each other?
- Ajahn Geoff gives a brief rebuttal to Thich Nhat Hanh and tells a short, inspiring story about his own teacher.
Before the lecture, think a bit about how studying conditionality and the three characteristics made you feel. Is Buddhist Philosophy pessimistic or optimistic or both or what?
- Bhikkhu Bodhi teaches the traditional analysis of Dependent Arising.
for a EBT rebuttal of the influential Abhidhammic doctrine that life begins exactly at the moment of conception.
- This profound and penetrating discourse explains all the factors of sense experience (the middle factors of dependent origination) as being not-self.
- Ajahn Nissarano gives a relaxed talk on this sutta and on our stubborn ignorance.
How does the Theravada concept of dependent arising differ from the concept of interdependence in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing? What function does each idea serve?
Week 5: Rebirth and Kamma (The Second Noble Truth Continued…)
Central to this wheel of origination which causes our suffering is our stubborn tendency to not die, but be reborn again and again into suffering.
- The Buddha explains how kamma accounts for the fortune and misfortune of beings.
- Ven. Courtin describes how she introduces Karma to skeptical Westerners.
- Belief that our problems are caused by our own deficiencies often contributes to depression, yet Buddhists seem immune to this effect. Why do you think that is? Is the Buddhist philosophy of Karma really “Depressive” as defined in this paper? Why or why not?
- On belief in rebirth and the Buddhist path in historical perspective.
- A Chan Master answers a few, basic questions on reincarnation.
- While dependent origination can be understood as describing both our moment-to-moment “rebirth” as well as our rebirth from lifetime to lifetime, many modern scholars skeptical of rebirth have tended to downplay the latter interpretation. Ajahn Brahm defends that interpretation by citing the Buddha’s own analysis of the twelve factors.
- The five subjects for frequent recollection
- Dr Jim Tucker is currently the world’s foremost scientist studying spontaneous past life recall.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi gives a detailed explanation of rebirth and kamma according to the Theravada Abhidhamma.
- Ajahn Sujato corrects the rigid (read: erroneous) Theravada rejection of the bardo — the time between lives — giving justifications for it and some of his own thoughts on rebirth.
- In this sutta the Buddha explains to a group of Brahmin householders the courses of conduct leading to rebirth in lower realms and the courses leading to higher rebirth and deliverance.
Write a couple pages thinking honestly about the following questions:
What about karma and rebirth feels right to you? Which parts do you currently have a harder time accepting? Setting aside Buddhist philosophy for a moment, how do you imagine this whole thing works? What do you really think you’ll experience after you die?
In lieu of our usual sutta lecture (or an exam!), here’s some comedy instead to celebrate our course’s midterm:
Ajahn Brahm tells us all the secrets of life: from how to find a partner to getting what you really want.
Week 6: Nibbāna (The Third Noble Truth)
A completely pure mind is the end. In later philosophical traditions, this unique state of “spiritual health” came to be described in ontological terms, which we hope to clarify this week.
We open with some suttas from other collections than the MN, which Bhikkhu Bodhi will reference later in his lecture.
- The basic definition of nibbāna.
- The Buddha explains the indescribability of the Arahants.
- A thorough description of what makes someone fully enlightened.
- A short, enigmatic description of conditioned phenomena (saṃsāra) and unconditioned phenomena (nibbāna).
- A short exclamation on the existence of Nibbāna.
- Bhikkhu Cintita explains what is meant by “the eye” in the Suttas, the radical phenomenology of it, and how this can help us understand (and realize) Nibbāna.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses the philosophical implications of the doctrine of Nibbāna drawn out in the Theravada Abhidhamma
- The Buddha declares that only in his Dispensation can the four grades of noble individuals be found, explaining how his teaching can be distinguished from other creeds through its unique rejection of all doctrines of self.
- Bhante Suddhaso explains this sutta and mentions how it relates to other philosophies.
What are the two Nibbana elements (dhatu)?
Week 7: The Eightfold Path (The Fourth Noble Truth)
This week we introduce the path of practice which leads to the state of mental purity. There’s a number of beautiful and practical teachings this week, so I encourage you to keep track of what inspires you if you haven’t been keeping a notebook already.
- What are the prerequisites for entering the path?
- Ajahn Suchart describes the path in his simple and direct way from the unique perspective of the four iddhipadas.
- One somewhat confusing point of Buddhist philosophy is that all three feelings (painful, neutral and pleasant) are included under “dukkha.” Thankfully for us, a monk at the time of the Buddha decided to ask him about that.
- The Buddha outlines five methods for removing unwholesome thoughts, an important sutta Bhikkhu Bodhi will briefly talk about in his lecture.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the middle way, from its mundane form to the supramundane version which delivers the yogi to nibbāna.
- The Buddha meets the hedonist philosopher Māgandiya and points out to him the dangers in sensual pleasures, the benefits of renunciation, and the meaning of Nibbāna.
- Bhante Yuttadhammo outlines the five preparatory factors we need to be open to the truth and to see the world from the right perspective, hopefully illuminating why Right View can be thought of as both the first and last step of the Noble Eightfold Path.
This course (Buddhist Philosophy) is focused on the first steps of the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View and Right Thought. What are some of the nuggets of wisdom this week that inspired you? Do those ideas relate at all to the Enlightened qualities which you wrote about in Week 1? What is the relationship between thinking and being?
Week 8: Meditation
Formal mind training is of course the hallmark of Buddhism. This course though is focused primarily on philosophy, so we’ll just look this week at how to think about meditation.
- The two suttas in this week take the form of discussions on various subtle points of Dhamma. This first sutta takes place between the venerable Mahā Koññhita and the venerable Sāriputta
- The Venerable Hsing Bao discusses the difficulties of practice, and how we slowly become more Buddha-like by seeing the world through the eyes of a Buddha.
- The modern, Thai meditation master Luang Ta Maha Boowa explains the path and purpose of meditation.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the theory surrounding meditation practice.
- The Buddha defines the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path and explains that meditative absorption is the culmination of all the previous factors of the path.
- Ajahn Brahmali talks us through this Sutta, explaining in particular how mental purification follows on from ethical purification along with some thoughts on how this Sutta was influenced by the Theravada Abhidhamma, further highlighting the difference between “Early” and “Theravada” Buddhist Philosophy
The Buddha’s description of meditation progress is somewhat fractal. Describe a couple patterns that recur at different levels or stages of meditation and name one or two possible (hint: pedagogical) reasons for this parallelism.
Week 9: Social Teachings
Zooming out from the individual training, Buddhist philosophy (contrary to popular belief) does have a lot of implications for larger social questions. This week we’ll focus on just a couple of those implications: the pedagogical environment implied by the training and the social harmony that results from it.
- The Buddha instructs a young brahmin on the preservation of truth, the discovery of truth, and the final arrival at truth.
- 48 probing questions about Buddhist philosophy and life answered by a renowned Thai modernist.
- Persons of integrity provide the world with real progress.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi stresses that the Buddha’s teachings were not pessimistic or world-denying but rather teach us how to improve conditions in our present life.
- The Buddha explains the full understanding of dukkha — sensual pleasures, material form, and feelings — including a long section on the dangers in sensual pleasures.
- A sick Ajahn Brahm teaches us the meaning of suffering in this unstable, uncomfortable and out of control talk on the “Great Aggregates of Suffering” and their Three Characteristics.
Many people are already applying Buddhist ideas to improve e.g. addiction recovery and stress reduction programs. What is another social problem where you think Buddhist ideas might inform a better approach?
Week 10: The Sangha
The course began with the first refuge (the Buddha) and now, after explaining the Dhamma at length, can end with the third and final gem: the Sangha.
- Just because the robes and rules, the rights and rituals, of the Bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunis are indeed mere social conventions doesn’t mean that they are useless or unimportant. Through practice, these “mere” signs become invaluable for those who care about awakening.
- The Bhikkhu versus the Ariya Sangha and why it matters.
- Since this talk was recorded, a method for reestablishing the Theravada Bhikkhuni order was successfully executed. These women’s ordinations have yet to be fully recognized by the governments of Sri Lanka, Burma or Thailand but Bhikkhu Bodhi himself has changed his mind on the issue, as he discusses in this short letter.
- The Buddha expounds the six internal and external sense bases and some related topics.
- Ayya Vayama Bhikkhuni explains how we progress on the path through renunciation and what progress means for our experience of painful feelings.
One Final Writing Assignment
Think of a friend who accidentally encouraged or inspired your own spiritual growth in some way.
In lieu of a quiz or essay, this week I’d like you to write a letter thanking that person. You are, of course, not obliged to actually send it, though you may if you like. The gratitude itself is the assignment and its own reward.
- A bhikkhu Ariṭṭha gives rise to a pernicious view that conduct prohibited by the Buddha is not really an obstruction due to a series of logical inferences. The Buddha reprimands him and, with a series of memorable similes, stresses the dangers in misapplying the Dhamma, reminding us all to philosophize responsibly.
“That’s how a mendicant directly knows what should be directly known and completely understands what should be completely understood. Knowing and understanding thus they make an end of suffering in this very life.”
~ AN 6.61
Congratulations on finishing the course!
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Featured in the course, " Buddhism 101"
Yeah, we’re locked up in ideas
We like to label everything
Well, I’m just gonna do here
What I gotta do here
‘Cause I gotta keep myself free
An incredible music video, perfectly capturing the world-weary feeling of saṃvega.
To be female is to have the dukkha of a female. To be male is to have the dukkha of a male. […] If we deludedly think ‘I am happy’ then we must suffer accordingly.
The world is led by craving,
By craving it is defiled,
And craving is that one thing
Controlled by which all follow.
Tucked away in the Samyutta Nikaya among the “connected sayings on causality” is a short formalized text entitled the Upanisa Sutta, the “Discourse on Supporting Conditions.” Though at first glance hardly conspicuous among the many interesting suttas in this collection, this little discourse turns out upon repeated examination to be of tremendous doctrinal importance.
Remember me, brahmin, as a Buddha.
Mendicants, these seven perceptions, when developed and cultivated, are very fruitful and beneficial. They culminate in the deathless and end with the deathless. What seven? The perceptions of ugliness, death, repulsiveness of food, dissatisfaction with the whole world, impermanence, suffering in impermanence, and not-self in suffering.
Diverse problems demand a diverse range of responses. Rather than selling a “one size fits all” solution, in this sutta the Buddha outlines seven methods for dealing with the afflictions of life and in so doing gives us a comprehensive overview of Buddhist practices.
‘By this virtue or observance or asceticism or holy life I shall become a great god or some lesser god,’ that is wrong view in his case. Now there are two destinations for one with wrong view, I say: hell or the animal realm. So, Puṇṇa, if his dog-duty succeeds, it will lead him to the company of dogs; if it fails, it will lead him to hell.
Insofar as it disintegrates, it is called the ‘world.’
I say it’s not possible to know, see or reach the end of the world by traveling. But I also say there’s no making an end of suffering without reaching the end of the world.
mendicants, live as your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the teaching be your island and your refuge
We, moderns but especially Americans, have a fundamental misunderstanding of cognitive development: we assume that higher-level functioning is always desired and so disparage and neglect fundamental cognitive skills.
A good sutta is one that inspires you to stop reading it.
A beautiful collection of commentaries on sutras from both the early and later canons by one of Buddhism’s most revered contemporary teachers.
A classic translation of the primary book of poetry from the Pāli Canon.
We may begin with one simple list, but the structure of early Buddhist thought and literature dictates that we end up with an intricate pattern of lists within lists