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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Abhidharma
  • Pre-Mahayana Indian Buddhist Philosophical Traditions
  • Mahayana
  • The Middle Way School
  • The Yogic Practice School
  • The Epistemology School
  • Logic

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Buddhism Classical Indian Buddhist Philosophy
John Powers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0051


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 Takakusu 1998 and Kalupahana 1976 have been superseded by more recent scholarship but can be used as introductions to the topic.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.

    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.

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

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

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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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