6 Nov 2014

Priest (P9) One, ‘Buddhist Philosophy I: India’, summary


by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. All boldface, underlying and bracketed commentary are my own.]


Summary of

Graham Priest

Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness


P.9 Buddhist Philosophy I: India

Brief Summary:

Buddhist philosophy saw most of its development between 500 BC and 1200 AD primarily in India but spreading to other parts of Asia. One of its principle concepts is emptiness, understood either (or both) as emptiness of self-existence or of mind-independence.




The final part of the book deal with Buddhist philosophy, so here in the preface Priest will provide some background to prepare us for that section.

Priest first tells us a bit of the history and the basic principles of Buddhist philosophy. Indian thinker Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha (circa 563 to 483 BC) created the Four Noble Truths for contending with the difficulties of the human condition. Later a cannon of Buddhist writings emerged, called the Tripitaka. It contains the sūtras, the discourses of the historical Buddha. Among its principle ideas in the Tripitaka is that we are collections of changing parts.

The foundations of Buddhist philosophy were laid by the historical Buddha, the Indian thinker Siddhārtha Gautama. (The word ‘Buddha’ itself is an honorific, like ‘Christ’, and simply means ‘the awakened one’.) His exact dates are uncertain, but a traditional chronology gives them as 563 to 483 BC. He enunciated principles often called the Four Noble Truths. These diagnose what one might call the human condition: an unhappiness-causing attachment to things in a world of impermanence (anitya) and interdependence (pratītyasamutpāda); they then give a recipe for what to do about it. Buddhist thought developed for the next several hundred years, until a canon of writings emerged: the Tripitaka (Three Baskets). One of these comprised the sūtra: discourses featuring the historical Buddha. Another was the vinaya, the rules for monastic living. The third was the abhidharma (higher teachings). A principal concern of this was to provide a taxonomy of things in the world and their parts. Thus, a person is just a collection of changing and interacting, mental and physical, parts (skandhas). Most objects of experience are of a similar kind, though this is not the way in which things appear. That is conventional reality (saṃvṛti-satya), as opposed to the ultimate reality (aramārtha satya) of the way that things actually are. Naturally, a number of different schools of Buddhist thought developed in this period. Only one of these now survives: Theravāda (Doctrine of the Elders).

Then around the turn from BC to AD, a new sort of sūtra emerged called the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, which were concerned with being ethical to all sentient creatures.

Around the turn of the Common Era, a new class of sūtras started to appear: the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) Sūtras. (These include the most famous, short and cryptic, Heart Sūtra.) They initiated a new kind of Buddhism: Mahāyāna (the Greater Vehicle). The new Buddhism differed from the old in ways both ethical and metaphysical. The older Buddhism was concerned with individuals liberating themselves from the human condition. Someone on this path was an arhat (worthy one). By contrast, according to Mahāyāna, the ethical path was to help all sentient creatures liberate themselves. People who had dedicated themselves to do this were said to be on the Bodhisattva (enlightened being) Path. In Mahāyāna, compassion (karunā) therefore became the central virtue.

The central metaphysical concept of Buddhism is emptiness. there are two schools of thought on this concept. One sees the emptiness as lacking self-existence, the other sees it as being empty of mind-independence. (xxv)

In India Buddhist philosophy continued to develop primarily at the university of Nālandā up through the first millennium. (xxv)

Theravāda Buddhism spread southeast to Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, and Mahāyāna to Afghanistan, China, and Tibet. Moslem invasions wiped Buddhism out of India and Afghanistan, and consequently many Indian Buddhist texts were lost and exist only in translation. (xxv)


Priest, Graham. One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness. Oxford: Oxford University, 2014.

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