chapter  12
21 Pages

The Buddhist Schools

After the death of the Buddha, the Buddhist monks began doubting and debating the Buddha’s teachings and practices, and as a result of their inability to reach consensus, the basic ethical-philosophical teachings of the Buddha went through a long process of development. One may consider this process as consisting of three turns of the wheel of dharma, each turn spanning a period of five hundred years, determined by how the Buddha’s teachings came to be interpreted. The Buddhist schools began proliferating, giving rise to as many as thirty schools in India, China, Tibet, and Japan. Whereas some took the Buddha’s refusal to answer any metaphysical questions to mean a denial of the existence of reality and the means of knowing it, others took it to be a sign of empiricism. Some of the basic questions that arose are as follows: what is real? Is reality mental or non-mental? How do we know that external reality exists? Sarva¯stiva¯dins argued for the reality of all things; they took both the mental and the non-mental to be real. Regarding the question how we come to know the existence of the external world, the Sarva¯stiva¯dins were divided: the Vaibha¯s.ikas held that we perceive the external world directly and the Sautra¯ntikas held that we infer the external world; but we do not perceive the external objects. The Ma¯dhyamikas argued that there is no reality, either mental or nonmental; all is void (s´u¯nya). The Yoga¯ca¯ras held that only the mental is real and that the non-mental or the physical has no reality. Thus we have four main schools of Buddhism and in chronological order they are: the Vaibha¯s.ikas, the Sautra¯ntikas, the Ma¯dhyamikas, and the Yoga¯ca¯ras. Correlating these four to a familiar but misleading distinction between two phases of the Buddhist religion, Hı¯naya¯na and Maha¯ya¯na, one could say that the Vaibha¯s.ikas and the Sautra¯ntikas belong to the Hı¯naya¯na school, while the Ma¯dhyamika, and the Yoga¯ca¯ra to the Maha¯ya¯na school. This chronology, though helpful, is misleading because the Maha¯ya¯na, i.e. both Ma¯dhyamika, and the Yoga¯ca¯ra, had their beginnings very early in the history of Buddhism, even in the presumed Thera¯va¯da writings, so that many scholars have come to doubt the validity of keeping the Hı¯naya¯na and Maha¯ya¯na completely separate. In any event, these four schools have much philosophical importance, and in such a short exposition as this, it is difficult to do justice to them. So without going into the details

of the Buddhist hermeneutic, in this chapter I will discuss the basic doctrines of these four schools.