Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Buddhist Teaching in India - Preface


The aim of this book is to give an overview of Buddhist teaching in India. There is a basic distinction between Buddhist teaching and Buddhist philosophy. These two are not to be taken as identical, even though they are closely related. Philosophy is a Western term that might be applied to some, but by no means all, Buddhist teachings. The Buddha himself was clearly averse to any kind of speculation, and he positively avoided “philosophically” important questions. One might conclude from this that the Buddha, and some later Buddhists as well, did not teach philosophy as such. But teach he did, and therefore there is definitely a Buddhist teaching.

This is not to deny that important “philosophical” developments took place in Buddhism. Indeed, it appears that the rise of philosophy in India was largely due to Buddhism, and as we will see below, certain Buddhist teachings were definitely of great philosophical importance. Nonetheless, anyone undertaking a description of Buddhist philosophy will primarily be interested in “philosophically interesting” teachings and in this way will apply an outside criterion.

This is further complicated by the fact that from a certain point onward, various Buddhist schools tried to systematize their teachings. For the philosopher a systematized teaching is more interesting than a jumble of non-systematic teachings. The philosophically inclined scholar might therefore turn his attention to these Buddhist attempts at systematization and ignore many of the other teachings.

A description of the teachings of Buddhism, on the other hand, aims at using inner criteria: a particular teaching is not described because it is of philosophical interest to us or because it is thought out systematically, but because Buddhists themselves considered it important. The importance of a teaching in Buddhism is primarily related to how essential a role it plays in the process of liberation. This book therefore is not an overview of Buddhist philosophy but a presentation of what Buddhists have historically considered to be central to the path.

Insight or wisdom (often called prajñā), for instance, is one teaching that has played a central role in Buddhism. The Buddhist gains this wisdom while progressing on the path to liberation, most often at its end. Attainment of this wisdom is crucial for the attainment of liberation. It is hardly surprising that the highest wisdom, the key to the highest goal of the Buddhist religion, is frequently described in the texts. For those Buddhists who believe that the highest insight cannot be expressed in words, this description of the highest wisdom is only approximate and not precise. This does not alter the fact that a part of Buddhist teaching is, or claims to be, a description of the wisdom that leads to the ultimate liberation.

However, that is not all there is to Buddhist teaching. Highest wisdom may produce liberation for those Buddhists who are far advanced on the path, but one first has to know how to get to this advanced stage. Buddhist teaching has much to say about that, too. The ideal behavior of devout Buddhists, primarily monks and nuns, is prescribed in the so-called Vinaya-piṭaka. Then there are the concepts and notions of buddhas and bodhisattvas, who personify the ideal and serve as models for devout Buddhists. Buddhist teaching in a narrower sense contains numerous instructions in spiritual practice. These are mainly found in the discourses (sūtra) collected in the Sūtra-piṭaka, or “basket of discourses.” In other words, Buddhist teaching is not solely concerned with the insight that leads to liberation; there are many additional things one needs to know in order to follow the path to liberation.

Moreover, Buddhist teaching includes those beliefs whose relevance

to liberation is not immediately clear. For example, the cosmological ideas of the Indian Buddhists, which found widespread acceptance, do not at first seem to have much to do with liberation and the Buddhist religion in a narrow sense, and indeed, many were not exclusive to Buddhists in India. In this arena, it is not always obvious which ideas are religious and which are not. at first glance, ideas about astronomy, cosmology, geography, and the like can appear to have little if anything to do with religion generally, or with Buddhism in particular. as we will see later, however, certain cosmological concepts are closely related to specific Buddhist meditative states. Consequently they, too, deserve at least some attention in a presentation of Buddhist teaching.

In chapter 1, after a discussion of methodology, this book begins with an attempt to discern the teachings of the historical Buddha by subjecting the earliest texts to critical analysis. It shows how his goal of liberation grew out of the śramana ascetic movements of his day while yet modifying it in some important respects. In chapter 2, we see how developments after the Buddha’s death led to greater systematization of his teachings in the catalogs of the various abhidharma texts and a projection back on to the Buddha’s teachings of the so-called dharma theory division of reality into atomic units of mind, matter, and time. In chapter 3, we see how the doctrine of emptiness of all dharmas came to be associated with the ethic of the bodhisattva ideal, how seemingly non-empty conceptions of buddha nature emerged simultaneously, and how the introduction of logico-epistemological approaches allowed Buddhists to prove their positions and engage in debate among Buddhist schools and with non-Buddhists. Finally, in chapter 4, we review the hermeneutical landmarks of Buddhism’s early development and show how it was not only a product of its environment but helped shaped the other religious cultures of its time and place.

Given the scope of the present book, it would be impossible to exhaustively describe all the Buddhist teachings that ever existed in India. The selection here has been guided by the intention to illuminate the links between certain key teachings, with the aim of helping the reader understand these selected teachings in their historical, cultural, and intellectual context.


How to cite this document:
© Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhist Teaching in India (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

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