Introduction to the History of Buddhist Thought
The Buddha (1)
• A. Who and what was the Buddha?
– A divinity?
– A philosopher?
– An ascetic?
• B. The word buddha is not a name but a title. (Gethin, p. 8)
– It means “one who has woken up,” hence, “the awakened one/the
– Other titles of the Buddha include a Blessed one (Bhagavan), an Arhat, one
who understands the world, the teacher of both gods and men, etc.
The Buddha (2)
• C. Siddhartha Gautama died at the age of eighty.
– Shakyamuni means “the sage of the Shakya people.”
• D. What is the nature of a buddha? (Gethin, pp. 27-34)
– A Buddha is a being who has in some way transcended and gone beyond
the round of rebirth.
– A Buddha is a being sui generis.
– A Buddha is one whose body is Dharma.
The Buddha (3)
• E. If the Buddha is not God or a god, can we count Buddhism as a
religion? (Siderits, pp. 5-8)
– If we expect all religions to be theistic, then Buddhism might not qualify as a
– Since the Buddha acknowledged the existence of a multiplicity of gods,
should we think of Buddhism as polytheistic?
– Buddhism is a religion if by this we mean that it is a set of teachings that
address soteriological concerns.
The Dharma (1)
• Buddhism cannot be reduced to a collection of theoretical writings
nor a philosophical system of thought. (Gethin, p. 35)
• It should be noted that the Buddha explicitly refuses to engage in
• The Buddha declined to answer such questions as “whether the
world is everlasting or not,” “whether the world is finite or infinite,”
“whether the living being is identical with the body or separate from
it,” “whether the Blessed One lives on after death or not,” etc.
• Buddhism is more a soteriology than a philosophy.
• It is concerned with bringing about for its practitioners liberation,
freedom, from states and experiences held to be negative,
unpleasant, not wanted. (Williams, p. 2, pp. 34-37)
The Dharma (2)
• What lies at the heart of Buddhism is dharma.
• According to Indian thought, Dharma is that which is the basis of
things, the underlying nature of things, the way things are; in short,
it is the truth about things, the truth about the world.
• Dharma is the way we should act.
• The various schools of Indian religious and philosophical thought
and practice all offer slightly different visions of Dharma—different
visions of the way things are and the way to act.
The Dharma (3)
• The aim of the Buddha’s teachings is to put into practice a particular
way of living the “holy life” or “spiritual life” that involves training in
ethical conduct (sila), meditative and contemplative techniques
(samadhi), and the direct realization of the very knowledge (prajna).
(Gethin, p. 36)
• A sense that knowledge is not properly communicated by the
written word colors the traditional Indian attitude to learning in
general: knowledge must be passed from teacher to pupil directly.
(Gethin, p. 37)
The Dharma (4)
• Where do the Buddhist canons come from?
– Immediately after the Buddha’s death, his teachings are said to have been
– They were then assembled into some sort of corpus appropriate for
memorization and oral transmission.
– They were not written down for some centuries. (Williams, p. 30)
– According to the Buddhist tradition, the first “communal recitation” took place
some three months after the Buddha’s death at the town of Rajagrha in
northern India where 500 arhats took part in this Buddhist council. (Gethin, p.
The Dharma (5)
– In this meeting, the Buddha’s teachings were divided into two classes: the
general discourses of the Buddha (the sutras) and his prescriptions for the
lifestyle of the Buddhist monk (the vinaya).
– Later canonical collections of Buddhist writings were often referred to as “the
three baskets” (tripitaka): the basket of discipline, the basket of discourses,
and the basket of “further dharma” (abhidharma).
– Over the years, different schools of Buddhist transmission and sometimes
understanding developed a number of different versions of the canonical
The Dharma (6)
– Thus, we have the Theravada (Pali) Canon, the Mahasamghika Canon, the
Sarvastivada Canon, and so on.
– The only complete canon of an early Buddhist school surviving in its original
Indian language is the Pali Canon.
– Three principle “canons” of Buddhist scriptures survive today corresponding
to the three main traditions of Buddhism:
• 1. the Pali or Theravada canon of the southern tradition of Sri Lanka and Southeast
• 2. the Chinese Tripitaka of the eastern tradition of China, Korea, and Japan, and
• 3. the Tibetan Kanjur and Tenjur of the northern tradition of Tibet and Mongolia.
The Dharma (7)
– The Sutra Pitaka is divided into four sections: Nikayas (collections) or
Agamas (books of textual tradition).
– There are differences among scholars on how far we can use these sources
to know exactly what the Buddha himself taught. (Williams, pp. 32-33)
• The first position stresses the Pali Nikayic materials to be the canonical texts containing
the authentic doctrine of the Buddha himself.
• Scholars of the second group express extreme scepticism about retrieving the doctrines
of earliest Buddhism, especially of the Buddha himself.
• The third group maintains that it is possible to tetect in the texts that now exist earlier
and later segments and thus sometimes earlier and later doctrines.
The Dharma (8)
– In the centuries following the Buddha’s death, various schools of Indian
Buddhism began to evolve, preserving their distinctive recensions of the
Sutra and Vinaya Pitakas, and developing their characteristic
understandings of Abhidharma.
– Against this background, the Mahayana sutras began to appear.
– The production of Mahayana sutras spans a period of some six or seven
– Nagarjuna, Asanga and Vasubandhu are the three most famous writers of
treatises and commentaries on the Mahayana sutras.
The Dharma (9)
• Siderits divides the development of Buddhist philosophy into the
following three phases:
– 1. Early Buddhism: the teachings of the Buddha and his immediate
– 2. Abhidharma: the development of rigorous metaphysical and
epistemological theories by various school, the most famous of which are
Sarvastivada (Vaibhasika), Sautrantika, and Theravada;
– 3. Mahayana: philosophical criticism of aspects of Abhidharma doctrines,
together with an alternative account of Buddhist metaphysics and
epistemology. The major schools are the Madhyamaka and the Yogacara
The Sangha (1)
• In the early phase of their transmission, the only access to Buddhist
“texts” was by hearing them directly from someone who had heard
and learnt them from someone else.
• This oral transmission of the texts was an activity that went on
primarily within the Sangha, the community of ordained monks
(bhiksu) and nuns (bhiksuni).
• Members of the Sangha taught not only other members of the
Sangha but also lay people as well.
• The study of Buddhist theory always took place in a context of
The Sangha (2)
• The Sangha did not remain united for long and soon fell apart into a
number of schools.
• About one hundred years after the death of the Buddha, a dispute
among the Sangha arose concerning ten points of Vinaya. (Gethin,
• A group of senior monks convened at Vaisali, decided against the
ten points, and initiated a second communal recitation of the
• After this meeting, the Sangha formally divided into two schools: the
reformist sthaviras (“elders”) and the majority mahasamghikas
(“those of the great community”).
• In the century or so following this fundamental division of the
Sangha, further schools emerged.
The Sangha (3)
• The primary sub-schools of the Sthaviras focus on certain technical
points of Abhidharma.
• The Vatsiputriyas and their sub-schools adopted a particular
position on the ontological status of “the person” (pudgala).
• Another group developed a particular understanding of the way
things exist in past, present, and future time; they were known as
“advocates of the doctrine that all thins exist” (sarvastivadin).
• Another group were known as “advocates of the doctrine of
• Indian Buddhist tradition generally speaks of “eighteen” such
schools, but more than thirty are known to us, at least by name.
The Sangha (4)
• After the emergence of the Mahayana, the practitioners of
Buddhism are often referred to as followers of the Bodhisattva path,
leading to the attainment of the samyak-sambuddha, and followers
of the sravaka (“disciple”) path, leading to the attainment of
Some Technical Terms
• Sramana: 1. one who strives (Gethin, p. 9); 2. the renouncer of society, the
“drop-out” (Williams, p. 9); 3. a wandering renunciant, one whose life is
dedicated to finding answers to certain spiritual questions (Siderits, p. 15); 4.
the ascetic (Kalupahana, p. 12).
• Yathabhutam: as it is.
• Bhiksu: one who begs his alms.
• Dhyana: meditation.
• Samadhi: concentration.
• Bodhi: awakening, enlightenment.
• Samsara: wandering, the round of rebirth.
• Varna: the caste system.
• Brahmanas: brahmins, priests.
• Ksatriyas: rulers, warriors.
• Vaisyas: generators of wealth.
• Sudras: servants.