Some scholars are more sanguine than others about the possibility ofovercoming this difficulty, and thereby getting at what the Buddhahimself had thought, as opposed to what later Buddhist philosophersthought he had thought. No position will be taken on this disputehere. We will be treating the Buddha's thought as it was understoodwithin the later philosophical tradition that he had inspired. Theresulting interpretation may or may not be faithful to hisintentions. It is at least logically possible that he believed thereto be a transcendent self that can only be known by mysticalintuition, or that the exercise of philosophical rationality leadsonly to sterile theorizing and away from real emancipation. What wecan say with some assurance is that this is not how the Buddhistphilosophical tradition understood him. It is their understanding thatwill be the subject of this essay.
These two arguments appear, then, to give good reason to deny a selfthat might ground diachronic personal identity and serve as locus ofcontrol, given the assumption that there is no more to the person thanthe empirically given psychophysical elements. But it now becomessomething of a puzzle how one is to explain diachronic personalidentity and agency. To start with the latter, does the argument fromcontrol not suggest that control must be exercised by something otherthan the psychophysical elements? This was precisely the conclusion ofthe Sāṃkhya school of orthodox Indian philosophy. One oftheir arguments for the existence of a self was that it is possible toexercise control over all the empirically given constituents of theperson; while they agree with the Buddha that a self is never observed,they take the phenomena of agency to be grounds for positing a selfthat transcends all possible experience.
The Buddha will here be treated as a philosopher. To so treat him iscontroversial, but before coming to why that should be so, let us firstrehearse those basic aspects of the Buddha's life and teachingsthat are relatively non-controversial. Tradition has it that Gautamalived to age 80. Up until recently his dates were thought to beapproximately 560–480 BCE, but many scholars now hold that he must havedied around 405 BCE. He was born into a family of some wealth andpower, members of the Śākya clan, in the area of the presentborder between India and Nepal. The story is that in early adulthood heabandoned his comfortable life as a householder (as well as his wifeand young son) in order to seek a solution to the problem ofexistential suffering. He first took up with a number of differentwandering ascetics (śramanas) who claimed to know thepath to liberation from suffering. Finding their teachingsunsatisfactory, he struck out on his own, and through a combination ofinsight and meditational practice attained the state of enlightenment(bodhi) which is said to represent the cessation of allfurther suffering. He then devoted the remaining 45 years of his lifeto teaching others the insights and techniques that had led him to thisachievement.
This entry concerns the historical individual, traditionally calledGautama, who is identified by modern scholars as the founder ofBuddhism. According to Buddhist teachings, there have been otherBuddhas in the past, and there will be yet more in the future. Thetitle ‘Buddha’, which literally means‘awakened’, is conferred on an individual who discovers thepath to nirvana, the cessation of suffering, and propagates thatdiscovery so that others may also achieve nirvana. If the teaching thatthere have been other Buddhas is true, then Gautama is not the founderof Buddhism. This entry will follow modern scholarship in taking anagnostic stance on the question of whether there have been otherBuddhas, and likewise for questions concerning the superhuman statusand powers that some Buddhists attribute to Buddhas. The concern ofthis entry is just those aspects of the thought of the historicalindividual Gautama that bear on the development of the Buddhistphilosophical tradition.
The Buddha agreed with those of his contemporaries embarked on thesame soteriological project that it is ignorance about our identitythat is responsible for suffering. What sets his teachings apart (atthis level of analysis) lies in what he says that ignorance consistsin: the conceit that there is an ‘I’ and a‘mine’. This is the famous Buddhist teaching of non-self(anātman). And it is with this teaching that thecontroversy begins concerning whether Gautama may legitimately berepresented as a philosopher. First there are those who (correctly)point out that the Buddha never categorically denies the existence of aself that transcends what is empirically given, namely the fiveskandhas or psychophysical elements. While the Buddha doesdeny that any of the psychophysical elements is a self, theseinterpreters claim that he at least leaves open the possibility thatthere is a self that is transcendent in the sense of beingnon-empirical. To this it may be objected that all of classical Indianphilosophy—Buddhist and orthodox alike—understood theBuddha to have denied the self tout court. To this it issometimes replied that the later philosophical tradition simply got theBuddha wrong, at least in part because the Buddha sought to indicatesomething that cannot be grasped through the exercise of philosophicalrationality. On this interpretation, the Buddha should be seen not as aproponent of the philosophical methods of analysis and argumentation,but rather as one who sees those methods as obstacles to finalrelease.
Join Sr. Ananda Amritmahal, RSCJ, Visiting Scholar at the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership, for a discussion focusing on the ways in which Buddhism has challenged oppression by religious hierarchies and offered a different approach and space to the marginalized.
Buddhism currently has about 376 million followers and is generally listed as the world's fourth largest religion after , and . It was founded in Northern India by Siddhartha Gautama (circa 563 to 460 ) and has spread into much of the far East. It is making major inroads into North America.
Now it could be that while this is true of the tradition thatdeveloped out of the Buddha's teachings, the Buddha himself heldthe unfettered use of rationality in quite high esteem. This would seemto conflict with what he is represented as saying in response to thereport that he arrived at his conclusions through reasoning andanalysis alone: that such a report is libelous, since he possesses anumber of superhuman cognitive powers (M I.68). But at least somescholars take this passage to be not the Buddha's own words butan expression of later devotionalist concerns (Gombrich 2009: 164).Indeed one does find a spirited discussion within the traditionconcerning the question whether the Buddha is omniscient, a discussionthat may well reflect competition between Buddhism and thoseBrahmanical schools that posit an omniscient creator. And atleast for the most part the Buddhist tradition is careful not toattribute to the Buddha the sort of omniscience usually ascribed to anall-perfect being: the actual cognition, at any one time, of alltruths. Instead a Buddha is said to be omniscient only in the muchweaker sense of always having the ability to cognize any individualfact relevant to the soteriological project, viz. the details of theirown past lives, the workings of the karmic causal laws, and whether agiven individual's defilements have been extirpated. Moreover,these abilities are said to be ones that a Buddha acquires through aspecific course of training, and thus ones that others may reasonablyaspire to as well. The attitude of the later tradition seems to be thatwhile one could discover the relevant facts on one's own, itwould be more reasonable to take advantage of the fact that the Buddhahas already done all the epistemic labor involved. When we arrive in anew town we could always find our final destination through trial anderror, but it would make more sense to ask someone who already knowstheir way about.