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Buddhism Classical Indian Buddhist Philosophy
by
John Powers

Introduction

Classical Indian Buddhist philosophy encompasses a vast range of thinkers, schools, and issues. One important tradition is abhidharma (higher doctrine), a scholastic philosophy that examined key elements of Buddhist teaching and developed often elaborate and highly detailed analyses of the psycho-physical elements of existence. Early Buddhism is commonly divided into eighteen philosophical schools—including such influential traditions as Sarvāstivāda, Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Sthaviravāda, Mahāsāṃghika, and so forth—though more are actually mentioned in Indic sources. Each of these developed its own distinctive philosophical system and engaged in debate with both Buddhist and non-Buddhist rivals. With the rise of Mahayana, new philosophical systems—including the Middle Way school (Mādhyamika), the Yogic Practice school (Yogācāra), and the Epistemological school (Pramāṇa)—developed. Tantric Buddhism added a new stream of philosophical thought that developed the conceptual implications of tantric scriptural texts.

General Overviews

Considering the scope of interests and the number of schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy, it is not surprising that there is no one work that comprehensively covers the whole spectrum of traditions. Siderits 2007 is an excellent discussion of some key concepts framed in contemporary philosophical language. Laumakis 2008 provides a well-written introduction to Buddhist philosophy that targets an undergraduate audience. Prebish and Keown 2006 is a solid overview of Buddhism from its origins up to the present. Edelglass and Garfield 2009 contains a range of translations of influential Buddhist texts from India, Tibet, China, Japan, and other countries. Takakusu 1998 and Kalupahana 1976 have been superseded by more recent scholarship but can be used as introductions to the topic. Gowans 2003 is a discussion of the philosophical ramifications of some doctrines commonly attributed to the Buddha. Williams 2000 remains an excellent introduction to the major philosophical traditions of Indian Buddhism.

  • Edelglass, William, and Jay Garfield. Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Contains translations and short introductions to a range of Buddhist philosophical texts from India, China, Tibet, Japan, and other countries, ranging from the earliest times up to the present. Only about a quarter of these are from the classical period of Indian Buddhist philosophy, but the book is well worth reading by anyone interested in Buddhist philosophy in general.

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  • Gowans, Christopher. Philosophy of the Buddha. London: Routledge, 2003.

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    An introduction to doctrines generally attributed to the Buddha, including the four noble truths, dependent arising, nirvana, and instructions on meditation.

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  • Kalupahana, David J. Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1976.

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    Somewhat dated but still useful overview of Buddhist philosophy. Kalupahana adopts a thematic approach in the beginning and discusses core aspects such as epistemology, causality, ethics, nirvana, karma, and rebirth. There are also chapters on scholastic philosophical traditions, the Middle Way school, and the Yogic Practice school.

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  • Kalupahana, David J. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1992.

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    This book is an update of Kalupahana 1976. The author first discusses core doctrines attributed to the Buddha, which he views as the “middle way” standard of Buddhist thought. The Buddha’s stance is described as anti-substantialism and radical empiricism. In Part Two, Kalupahana attempts to explore continuities and discontinuities in this core message with regard to the work of leading Buddhist thinkers like Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu.

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  • Laumakis, Stephen J. An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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    Good overview of Buddhist philosophy in India and how it was interpreted by commentators in China, Japan, and Tibet. Looks at a range of topics related to early Buddhist thought, metaphysics, and epistemology. Contains chapters on the thought of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.

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  • Prebish, Charles S., and Damien Keown. Introducing Buddhism. New York: Routledge, 2006.

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    Contains useful historical background on the formation of Indian Buddhism, along with overviews of the central doctrines of Buddhist philosophy, major figures and texts of the philosophical schools, and discussions of the spread of Buddhism in Asia.

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  • Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2007.

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    Philosophically astute discussions of important aspects of Indian Buddhist philosophy, including the basic doctrines, ethics, abhidharma, the Middle Way school, the Yogic Practice school, and epistemology. An excellent overview.

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  • Takakusu, Junjiro. Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998.

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    Based on lectures given by Takakusu at the University of Hawai‘i in 1939, this book covers some of the major aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Now rather dated, but still a useful overview by an eminent scholar. He divides Indian Buddhism into four main traditions: realistic Hinayanistic, nihilistic Hinayanistic, semi-Mahayanistic, and nihilistic Mahayanistic. Although interesting, this model is overly simplistic and rarely even mentioned in contemporary scholarship. First published by the University of Hawai‘i in 1949.

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  • Williams, Paul. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London: Routledge, 2000.

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    Comprehensive overview of the philosophy of the Buddha and major philosophical systems. Examines the Indian philosophical milieu and how this impacted on the Buddha’s teachings; explores the philosophical ramifications of key Buddhist doctrines such as the four noble truths, karma, no-self, and dependent arising; and then discusses the mainstream Buddhist philosophical schools. Includes concise overviews of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, Mādhyamika, and Yogācāra, as well as a chapter on Vajrayāna.

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Abhidharma

Abhidharma is a general term used to refer to Indian Buddhist scholastic traditions that attempted to systematize the often unconnected statements found in discourses attributed to the Buddha. A central concern was the classification and description of dharmas, subtle qualia that in combination constitute the building blocks of complex phenomena. Frauwallner 1995 remains a standard text, although some aspects have been called into question by recent scholarship. Harvey 1995 focuses on the ramifications of the doctrine of no-self for Buddhist philosophy and soteriology.

  • Frauwallner, Erich. Studies in Abhidharma Literature and the Origins of Buddhist Philosophical Systems. Translated by Sophie F. Kidd. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

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    Classic study of the thought of Indian abhidharma and the key doctrines of early philosophical schools.

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  • Harvey, Peter. The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1995.

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    A detailed examination of the notion of no-self (anātman) in relation to the personalist theories it rejects. Harvey examines key epistemological presuppositions of early Buddhist philosophy and relates them to the path to nirvana.

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Pre-Mahayana Indian Buddhist Philosophical Traditions

Traditional sources mention a group of eighteen philosophical schools that arose in the centuries following the death of the Buddha, but there were probably a greater number. Some were apparently subsects of larger schools. Lamotte 1988 provides a good overview of these schools, their main doctrines and texts, and philosophers associated with them. Cox 1995 contains the most comprehensive discussion of this topic to date. von Rospatt 1995 examines the doctrine of momentariness and its philosophical ramifications. Asaṅga 2001 and Vasubandhu 1988 are examples of influential Indian Buddhist abhidharma treatises.

  • Asaṅga. Abhidharmasamuccaya: The Compendium of the Higher Teaching. Translated by Sara Boin-Webb. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 2001.

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    Boin-Webb translates Walpola Rahula’s French version of this influential text, which represents Asaṅga’s attempt to create a Mahayana abhidharma. It is difficult reading, with long lists of categories and terse explanations, but essential material for understanding Indian Buddhist scholastic philosophy.

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  • Cox, Collette. Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist Theories of Existence; An Annotated Translation of the Section on Factors Dissociated from Thought from Saṅghabhadra’s Nyāyānusāra. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1995.

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    Detailed and far-ranging study of abhidharma theories of existence that discusses a range of debates between early Indian Buddhist thinkers and their non-Buddhist rivals. Focuses mainly on the dharmas classified as “dissociated from thought” (viprayukta-samskāra).

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  • Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era. Translated by Sara Boin-Webb. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1988.

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    Classic study of Indian Buddhism that is still one of the best sources on the doctrines of various schools. Chapter 6 (pp. 517–637) provides a comprehensive overview of their histories and doctrines.

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  • von Rospatt, Alexander. The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness: A Survey of the Origins and the Early Phase of this Doctrine up to Vasubandhu. Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995.

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    Text-based and philological examination of the doctrine of momentariness in Hinayana schools and Yogācāra abhidharma.

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  • Vasubandhu. Abhidharmakośa Bhāṣyam. 4 vols. Translated by Leo M. Pruden. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1988.

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    A translation of one of the most influential Indian abhidharma texts. According to legend, Vasubandhu wrote the Abhidharmakośa as a statement of the doctrines of the Kashmiri Vaibhāṣikas, but he subsequently became disenchanted with some aspects of their system. When asked to provide a commentary, he did so from the perspective of the rival Sautrāntikas. Pruden translates Louis de la Vallée Poussin’s French version (1921–1931) of the text.

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Mahayana

Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) arose in India sometime around the 1st century CE. The earliest extant texts of the new tradition were the Perfection of Wisdom discourses (Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra). Three major philosophical schools later developed: the Middle Way school, whose main proponent was Nāgārjuna (c. 2nd century CE); the Yogic Practice school, whose two most important early figures were the brothers Asaṅga (b. c. 310–d. c.390) and Vasubandhu (b. c. 320–d. c.400); and the Epistemological school, whose principal early figures were Dignāga (b. c. 480–d. c.540) and Dharmakīrti (c. 7th century). Williams 1989 is clearly written and remains the standard work in this area.

The Middle Way School

The main scriptural sources for the Middle Way school are the Perfection of Wisdom discourses. Their thought was adapted by Nāgārjuna, who developed a reductio ad absurdum (prasaṅga) approach to philosophy. He refused to endorse any philosophical position and instead based his analyses on his rivals’ tenets. Walser 2005 provides a good overview of Nāgārjuna’s life and times and develops convincing arguments regarding how his life circumstances may have shaped his writings. Lindtner 1986 contains a representative collection of works widely regarded by scholars as authentic texts of Nāgārjuna. Burton 1999 examines the charge that Nāgārjuna was a nihilist. Dreyfus and McClintock 2003 contains a collection of essays on the thought of his main disciples. Hayes 1994 provides a trenchant criticism of the notion that Nāgārjuna refuted all philosophical views. Nāgārjuna 1995 is an English translation of his most influential work, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, and Nāgārjuna 2007 is an English translation of an important work on philosophical method. Tsong khapa 2006 is an influential Tibetan commentary on the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. Tillemans 1990 contains the texts and studies of some of Nāgārjuna’s most important followers.

  • Burton, David F. Emptiness Appraised: A Critical Study of Nāgārjuna’s Philosophy. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1999.

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    Examines some of the major debates relating to Nāgārjuna’s thought, including the question of whether he should be regarded as a skeptic or a nihilist, how he regarded means of valid cognition (pramāṇa), and his philosophy of language.

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  • Dreyfus, Georges B., and Sara L. McClintock, eds. The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003.

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    A collection of articles examining a range of issues related to the two main streams of Mādhyamika thought: Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika. Examines perspectives from both India and Tibet.

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  • Hayes, Richard. “Nāgārjuna’s Appeal.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 22.4 (December 1994): 299–378.

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    Classic article that examines the question of whether or not Nāgārjuna refuted all views. Hayes shows how Nāgārjuna accepted the standard rules of Indian logic and grammar and argues that he was not as radical (or as successful in his refutations) as many contemporary scholars assume.

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  • Lindtner, Christian. Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Buddhist Master Nāgārjuna. Berkeley, CA: Dharma, 1986.

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    Study and translation of core works generally attributed to Nāgārjuna: Lokātītastava, Acintyastava, Bodhicittavivaraṇa, Yuktiṣaṣṭikā, Śūnyatāsaptati, Vyavahārasiddhi, and Bodhisaṃbhāra.

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  • Nāgārjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Translated by Jay L. Garfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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    Philosophically sophisticated translation of Nāgārjuna’s most influential philosophical treatise, which is generally regarded as the foundational text for Mādhyamika thought. Translated from Tibetan.

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  • Nāgārjuna. Nāgārjuna’s Reason Sixty (Yuktiṣaṣṭikā) with Chandrakīrti’s Commentary (Yuktiṣaṣṭikāvṛtti). Translated by Joseph Loizzo. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2007.

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    Translation of an important text on reasoning that provides insights into Nāgārjuna’s method and what he shares in common with other Indian philosophical traditions.

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  • Tillemans, Tom J. F. Materials for the Study of Āryadeva, Dharmapāla and Candrakīrti. 2 vols. Vienna: University of Vienna, 1990.

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    Contains texts by the influential Mādhyamika thinkers Āryadeva (c. 3rd century) and Candrakīrti (fl. c. 600–650), along with Dharmapāla’s commentary on Āryadeva’s Catuḥśataka. Intended solely for specialists.

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  • Tsong Khapa. Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Translated by Geshe Ngawang Samten and Jay L. Garfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Extensive commentary on Nāgārjuna’s influential treatise Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), translated in a way that makes it accessible to contemporary Western philosophers.

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  • Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

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    Examines Nāgārjuna’s thought in relation to abhidharma and other rival philosophical schools. Walser provides an interesting analysis of what is known of Nāgārjuna’s life and speculates on how his living circumstances may have influenced his writings.

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The Yogic Practice School

Philosophers of the Middle Way school placed primary emphasis on dialectics and debate, using logical analysis to undermine opponents’ positions. Philosophers of the Yogic Practice school characterized their Middle Way school opponents as being overly caught up in conceptual thought and contended that introspective meditation is the core practice of Buddhism. Their works demonstrate a concern with matters of epistemology. Anacker 1984 provides discussions and translations of major works of Vasubandhu. Boquist 1993 contains a detailed discussion of the key concept of the three natures (trisvabhāva). There is as yet no comprehensive monograph that covers the spectrum of Yogācāra thinkers, texts, and history. Anacker 1984 and Powers 1994 provide translations of key Yogācāra works. Schmithausen 1987 and Waldron 2003 discuss the concept of basis consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). Powers 1991 is a comprehensive bibliography of Yogācāra that includes Indic texts, Tibetan and Chinese works, and contemporary academic studies. Lusthaus 2002 is a detailed study that aims to overturn the notion that Yogācāra is a form of idealism.

  • Anacker, Stefan. Seven Works of Vasubandhu, the Buddhist Psychological Doctor. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984.

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    Translations and introductions for Vasubandhu’s most influential Yogācāra philosophical treatises: Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa, Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa, Viṃśatikā, Triṃśikā, Madhyānta-vibhāga-bhāṣya, and Trisvabhāva-nirdeśa. The translation is problematic in parts, but overall this is a good introduction to Vasubandhu’s thought.

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  • Boquist, Åke. Trisvabhāva: A Study of the Development of the Three-Nature-Theory in Yogācāra Buddhism. Lund, Sweden: University of Lund, 1993.

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    Detailed study of the origins and philosophical ramifications of the theory of three natures (trisvabhāva) in Yogācāra Buddhism.

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  • Lusthaus, Dan. Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

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    Influential and controversial work that attempts to fundamentally reexamine Yogācāra thought using Merleau-Ponty for comparison. Lusthaus argues that academic studies that characterize Yogācāra as idealism are misguided and that Indian Yogācāra thinkers adopted an attitude with regard to the existence of external objects similar to that of Merleau-Pont’s “bracketing.” This is a challenging book that critically examines many of the standard assumptions of the field and provides thought-provoking new ideas.

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  • Lusthaus, Dan, and Charles Muller. Yogācāra Buddhism Research Association.

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    This site contains a range of useful materials for the study of Yogācāra, including biographies of major thinkers, bibliographies of texts, discussions of how other schools debated with Yogācāras, several articles on aspects of Yogācāra thought, translations of some key texts, and links to other sites. A useful source for both specialists and nonspecialists.

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    • Powers, John. The Yogācāra School of Buddhism: A Bibliography. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1991.

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      Comprehensive bibliography of Asian language sources (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, etc.) including commentaries from India, Tibet, and China, as well as contemporary studies.

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    • Powers, John. Hermeneutics and Tradition in the Saṃdhinirmocana-Sūtra. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1993.

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      Focuses on the ramifications of the Saṃdhinirmocana-Sūtra’s discussions of textual interpretation and related doctrines.

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    • Powers, John. Wisdom of Buddha: The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra. Berkeley, CA: Dharma, 1994.

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      English translation of the main scriptural source for Yogācāra from a Tibetan text.

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    • Schmithausen, Lambert. Ālaya-vijñāna: On the Origin and the Early Development of a Central Concept of Yogācāra Philosophy. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1987.

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      Detailed philological study of the concept of basis consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) that mainly focuses on identifying its earliest instance. Massively footnoted and intended solely for specialists.

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    • Waldron, William S. The Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

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      Detailed and perceptive study of the concept of basis consciousness, posited in some Yogācāra sources as the fundamental level of mind, a subtle consciousness that comprises the karmic imprints of past volitional actions.

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    The Epistemology School

    The Buddhist epistemologists had a profound influence on Indian thought, both within Buddhism and among rival schools. Dreyfus 1997 is a good introduction to the thought of Dharmakīrti and how it has been interpreted in Tibet. Tillemans 1999 is a philosophically astute and philologically based study of his thought. Dunne 2004 provides an interesting counterpoint to Lusthaus 2002 (cited under The Yogic Practice School) because it contains an argument in favor of an idealist reading of Dharmakīrti.

    • Dreyfus, Georges B. J. Recognizing Reality: Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpreters. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

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      Landmark study of Dharmakīrti’s philosophy and debates on key points by Tibetan thinkers. Focuses on Dharmakīrti’s ontology and philosophy of language, the problem of universals, his epistemology, and his system of explaining perception.

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    • Dunne, John D. Foundations of Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004.

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      Examines the role of perception and inference in Dharmakīrti’s philosophy. Contains useful discussions of his ontology and his primary commitment to idealism.

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    • Tillemans, Tom J. Scripture, Logic, Language: Essays on Dharmakīrti and His Tibetan Successors. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1999.

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      An excellent collection of essays that examine Dharmakīrti’s thought in relation to the role of scripture in philosophy, logic, and language.

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    Logic

    The study and use of logic were primary concerns of many classical Indian Buddhist thinkers, but they have not received the sort of attention they deserve among contemporary scholars. Many of the available studies, such as, Chi 1984, attempt to interpret them through the lens of Aristotelian logic or formal logic, with mixed results. The rules of logic and debate were important issues for Indian Buddhists because they were part of a culture in which public debate between philosophical rivals was common. The winners enjoyed royal patronage and attracted followers, whereas defeated parties might face exile or forced conversion to their rival’s system, so the stakes were high. Matilal 1986 and Matilal 2005 are essential reading and provide philosophically astute discussions of key issues. Herzberger 1974 focuses on the notion of exclusion (apoha), which was central to the Buddhist epistemological tradition, while Hoffman 1982 situates Buddhist logic in a wider Indian context. Stcherbatsky 1962 is an influential but now dated early study of the topic. Wayman 1999 provides translations and introductions to some of the more important Indian Buddhist logic texts.

    • Chi, R. S. Y. Buddhist Formal Logic: A Study of Dignāga’s Hetucakra and K’uei-chi’s Great Commentary on the Nyāyapraveśa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984.

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      Contains a translation and study of Dignāga’s text that attempts to compare his method with the Aristotelian syllogism and also uses categories of Western symbolic logic to show the formal aspects of Dignāga’s approach. Highly technical and only accessible for those with a background in logic. Originally published by the Royal Asiatic Society of Britain in 1969.

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    • Herzberger, Hans G. “Double Negation in Buddhist Logic.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 3.12 (1974): 3–16.

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      Discusses the notion of exclusion (apoha) in relation to the thought of Dignāga.

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    • Hoffman, F. J. “Rationality in Early Buddhist Four Fold Logic.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 10.4 (1982): 309–337.

      DOI: 10.1007/BF00161258Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

      Examines Indian Buddhist fourfold logic in relation to the principle of noncontradiction.

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    • Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Buddhist Logic and Epistemology: Studies in the Buddhist Analysis of Inference and Language. Boston: Reidel, 1986.

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      Important study of some key Buddhist doctrines, such as karma and nirvana, and how Buddhists defended themselves against their philosophical rivals.

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    • Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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      Superb overview of the relation between epistemology, grammar, and philosophical reasoning in Indian Buddhism. The best work to date on the subject.

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    • Stcherbatsky, Fedor Ippolitovich. Buddhist Logic. 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1962.

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      Classic study of Buddhist logic that attempts to compare it with Kant. Still useful in parts, but widely criticized by contemporary scholars.

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    • Wayman, Alex. A Millennium of Buddhist Logic. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999.

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      Contains discussions and translations of some of the seminal works of Indian logic, including Asaṅga’s Discipline of Logic (Hetu-vidyā, a section of the Śrūtamayī-bhūmi of the Yogācāra-bhūmi), Dharmakīrti’s Drop of Reasoning (Nyāyabindu) with Kamalaśīla’s Commentary, and Ratnākaraśānti’s Treatise on Inner Logical Entailment (Anantarya-vyāpti-samarthana).

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    LAST MODIFIED: 09/13/2010

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0051

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