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Four schools of Buddhist philosophy

To understand better Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist views and differences between different traditions and first of all between 3 yanas – Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana – we have to speak about their philosophy. Generally there could be differentiated 4 schools of philosophy- Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogacara (Cittamatra in Tibetan sources) and Madhyamaka. All of them are based upon Buddha Shakyamuni teachings, Sutras and Abhidharma, and may share many common terminology and views, but they are quite different how far in their deductions, conclusions, definitions and practice they may go. Generally it is considered Vaibhāšika and Sautrāntika represent philosophical views of Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle, Cittamatra philosophy is the theoretical bases of Mahayana Buddhism and Madhyamaka – philosophical foundation of Vajrayana Buddhism. There can be some occasional shifts like Sautrāntika – Yogacara, which would probably correspond to some Zen schools if they would ever care about philosophy. Tibetan Buddhism mostly is based upon philosophical schools of Cittamatra and Madhyamaka, referencing to Cittamatra as that which describes best the relative truth understood through the eyes of ordinary Buddhists and philosophers, while Madhyamaka philosophy is attempting to describe the indescribable – the ultimate truth, the truth as seen by eyes of enlightened Buddhas.

While it would be worth to discuss each of 4 schools of philosophy at great length and detail, objective of my current article is to introduce you to some of the most important notions and tenets of each.

The views of Vaibhašika philosophy are based upon “non-substantiality of personality” (no real self or eternal soul). They meditate mostly on 16 aspects of four Noble Truths and impermanence of everything to liberate themselves from Samsaric existence. According to their views at ultimate level everything consists of indivisible atoms of matter and indivisible moments of consciousness. But all gross things consisting of atoms and the flow of consciousness consisting of separate moments of consciousness they consider the relative level of truth, because they don’t exist at the absolute level. According to Vaibhasiks philosophy everything cognizable, including the space and three times exist substantially, you can say about them – they are real things. Everything cognizable they divide into 5 skandha or groups of elements. They assert all cognizable things we can perceive or think in the world really existing. However they divide “real things on absolute level” and “real things on relative level”. Real things of absolute level could be divided to 3 categories: 1. Forms 2. Mind (Mind and mental events that accompany it.) 3. Formational factors.

Sautrantiks share most philosophical views and meditation methods on “non-substantiality of self” with Vaibhasiks. But there are a few other philosophical disagreements though. Vaibhasika considers the time really existing or substantially existing. For that reason they consider absolutely existing not only indivisible moments of consciousness and indivisible particles of matter existing at present, but also those of the past and future. Sautrāntika school of philosophy recognizes only substantial existence of indivisible particles of matter and indivisible moments of consciousness of the present. They deny the real existence of time and space and for this reason also reality of past and future. Sautrāntika also deny a substantial existence of Formational factors. But they still consider dharmas of Form and Mind really existing.

Cittamatra (Yogacara) philosophy denies real existence of indivisible atoms of matter and indivisible moments of consciousness. All that Sautrāntika considers really existing on absolute level, Cittamatra considers existing only on relative level. On absolute level only mind exists. The mind can be characterised by clarity (ability to manifest) and awareness. It is also impermanent and exists moment by moment, but this clear and self-aware mind is not divided to object of perception and the moment of mind perceiving it. This clear mind manifests all reality out of itself and is aware of it. According to Cittamatra all beings and Buddhas alike possess this all-pervading indivisible mind, called alaya-vijnana from what everything arises. Only due to our delusions and obscurations we often don’t recognize it is our mind and it’s wisdoms that are manifested and it causes sufferings of sentient beings.

The main difference between Hinayana and Mahayana is that Hinayana consider and build their practice according to theory that all external objects and moments of mind have a substance and really exist, except there is no real substantial self. While Mahayana philosophy considers none of them have a real existence, they are only manifestations of mind. According to Cittamatra philosophy if something would really exist, it would not change – it would only exist and exist and could not move. It is only mind which can bring together different impressions and perceptions and create an existing image.

Later Nagarjuna and others developed a fourth philosophical tradition inside Buddhism – Madhyamaka. They analysed the Cittamatra philosophy and concluded that the mind which is pervading everything – Alaya-vijnana – also cannot have a substantial existence. The mind was defined as “that what is aware of its object”, but if the object of mind is not real, the mind recognizing it cannot be really existing. If there is no object, there is no consciousness. Madhyamaka denied also real existence of the present time, with argument that if there is no really existing past and future, there can’t be also a really existing present, because it is just a dot between now non-existing past and non-existing future.

Madhyamaka philosophy considered all statements regardless if it’s done by Buddhists or non-Buddhists regarding existence or non-existence cannot describe the ultimate truth, which exist before any words, notions, descriptions or judgments. Madhyamaka is the central doctrine of Vajrayana Buddhism.