In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chinese Buddhist Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews of Chinese Philosophy
  • Scriptures and Other Canonical Texts
  • Mādhyamika, Yogācāra, and Tathāgata-Garbha Philosophies
  • The Huayan Tradition
  • The Tiantai Tradition
  • The Chan Tradition
  • General Doctrinal and Historical Aspects of Chinese Buddhism
  • Buddhism and Modern Chinese Philosophy

Buddhism Chinese Buddhist Philosophy
Mario Poceski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0049


One could argue that philosophy is a uniquely Western concept or discipline, closely tied up with distinctive ways of thinking and systems of thought that originated in ancient Greece and became essential elements of European knowledge and tradition. Some scholars still debate whether China ever developed philosophical traditions along the lines of those that flourished in the Western world, or whether we can talk of Chinese philosophy as a distinct intellectual discipline. Such views and discussions are played out in a variety of intellectual and institutional contexts, including hiring and curriculum decisions made by philosophy departments at various universities. Similar arguments have been made about Buddhism, whose teachings have been labeled in a number of ways, for instance as religion, philosophy, or theology. Notwithstanding the presence of complex systems of doctrine within Buddhism, there is no precise equivalent to the Western term “philosophy” in any of the languages that were used by the various Buddhist traditions. Similarly, in premodern China there was no native term exactly equivalent to the Western term “philosophy.” The present Chinese word for philosophy, zhexue (lit. “study of wisdom,” pronounced tetsugaku in Japanese), was coined by the Japanese philosopher and public intellectual Nishi Amane (b. 1829–d. 1897), in the context of his influential efforts directed toward the introduction and popularization of Western philosophy in Japan. The first Chinese intellectual to appropriate the new Japanese term was the late Qing writer and diplomat Huang Zunxian (b. 1848–d. 1905). Accordingly, only in the first decade of the 20th century did the term zhexue come into vogue within Chinese academic and intellectual circles. On the other hand, once we move beyond Eurocentric suppositions and narrow definitions of disciplinary parameters, in both the Buddhist and the Chinese traditions we can find intricate sets of doctrinal principles and highly sophisticated systems of thought that can be characterized as philosophical. Within the different Buddhist canons, as well as the voluminous bodies of exegetical literature that grew around them, we can locate diverse arrays of systematic analyses of the general features of the universe or the essential nature of reality. We can also identify methodical explorations of the basic categories by which we think or process reality, such as mind, freedom, truth, and causality—which have been major topics of intellectual inquiry throughout the history of Western philosophy—as well as multifaceted reflections on the meaning of human life, the ethical principles that should guide everyday conduct, or the processes of personal transformation. Accordingly, this entry adopts a broad definition of philosophy, with the understanding that within the Chinese Buddhist context one can also use other terms, such as teaching, doctrine, or dharma, which in their native variants are often used interchangeably. Moreover, in Chinese Buddhism the various forms of philosophizing were (and still are) typically situated within broader religious and institutional contexts, which inevitably incorporated other issues and concerns, such as contemplative cultivation, devotional practice, ritual performance, or ideological contestation. The philosophical insights or arguments of Buddhist traditions such as Yogācāra (practice of yoga) and Chan consequently cannot be properly understood without consideration of their comprehensive soteriological templates, especially their views about spiritual practice.

Introductory Works

The study of Chinese Buddhist philosophy must be approached against the broad background of Buddhist philosophy, especially the main philosophical systems that developed in ancient India. Within the Chinese context, especially important are the main systematizations of Buddhist doctrine that were produced within the general confines of the Mahayana or Great Vehicle movement (see Williams 2009 and Garfield 2002). Moreover, notwithstanding the dominance of Mahayana doctrines and ideals in China, students of Chinese Buddhist philosophy will also benefit from general knowledge of the early or mainstream traditions of Indian Buddhism (see Gethin 1998 and Williams and Tribe 2000). In traditional Chinese contexts, these are often lumped into a general category, which in common parlance is pejoratively designated as Hinayana, or Small Vehicle, Buddhism. Canonical texts of Indian provenance, which were translated into Chinese, provided the basic philosophical vocabulary, defined the parameters of orthodoxy, and demarcated the central issues that came to shape the evolution of mature forms of Buddhist philosophy in China. Some of the basic elements of this shared Buddhist tradition include the central notions or teachings about no-self, impermanence, suffering (or imperfection), causality, ethics, and ultimate truth. This section lists publications that provide broad coverage of Buddhist philosophy. It also includes a few introductory volumes on Buddhism, which present major philosophical concepts, tenets, and traditions within the context of general discussions of Buddhist history, practice, and the like (see Williams and Tribe 2000, Harvey 1990, and Laumakis 2008). A common characteristic of many general books of this kind is their tendency to emphasize the history and teachings of Indian or South Asian Buddhism—examples include Gethin 1998, Siderits 2007, and Harvey 1990—which typically translates into inadequate coverage of Chinese Buddhism. On the other hand, Edelglass and Garfield 2009 provides a few chapters specifically on Chinese Buddhist philosophy.

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

    Primarily intended as a textbook for courses on Buddhist philosophy. Its structure follows the main branches of Western philosophy, such as metaphysics, ontology, hermeneutics, and epistemology. Each translation of a primary text is accompanied by a short introduction. The coverage of Chinese texts is on the whole unsatisfactory, both random and burdened by obscure selections, but there are a few chapters that deal with Chinese Buddhist philosophy.

  • Garfield, Jay L. Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Concerned with the philosophical systems of the Mādhyamika and Yogācāra traditions of Mahayana Buddhism; examines select themes such as causality, subjectivity, and the limits of thought and language. Also delves into some contemporary issues, for instance the links between Buddhist ethics and liberal democracy, and the problems that arise in cross-cultural studies.

  • Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Introductory volume on Buddhism often used in college courses. Eminently readable with solid scholarship. The author’s stated aim is to focus on ideas and practices that constitute a common Buddhist heritage, although there is a tendency to put more emphasis on Theravada sources and perspectives.

  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    Fairly comprehensive survey of Buddhism, which can be used as a primary textbook for introductory courses on Buddhism. There is some coverage of Chinese Buddhism, but for the most part the author approaches the materials from the perspectives of South and Southeast Asian Buddhism.

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

    Primarily written as a textbook for undergraduate courses, the book introduces basic concepts and key arguments, with focus on select texts and thinkers, including Bodhidharma and Huineng.

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

    Deals with South Asian Buddhism only, so perhaps the title is a bit misleading. The author tries to present Buddhist concepts and doctrines in relation to theoretical and methodological issues dominant in Western philosophical discussions.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    Fairly comprehensive volume, a standard reading on Mahayana doctrines, often used in college courses. Attempts to map the historical development of Mahayana and to cover the whole spectrum of its doctrines, although coverage of Chinese developments is not as good as the more copious discussions of Indian and Tibetan texts and philosophies. Updated edition encompasses more recent scholarship.

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

    Wide-ranging introduction to the main traditions of Buddhist thought that developed in India, primarily for college students and general readers. Covers the doctrinal traditions of early Buddhism, the various schools of “mainstream” Buddhism, and the tantric or Vajrayāna tradition that developed during later stages of Indian Buddhist history.

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