A brief exposition of Buddhist Philosophical Schools

Buddhist philosophical views are classified, at least by Tibetan Buddhists in general, into four main categories: Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Yogachara, and Madhyamika.

1. Vaibhasika has been called “direct realism.” It is similar to the first few of the Indian views that see the World of Experience as composed of various physical elements that interact with the components of beings.

2. Sautrantika considers that awareness is merely representational. These first two schools consider that there are two kinds of interactors: Physical aspects, ie. skandhas of which one, rupa comprises the traditional elements, and the Mental aspects including consciousness (vijnana), sensation (vedana) which contributes to pain/pleasure, cognition (sanjna) and the impressions derived from experience (samskara.). The 12 Links of Causality go into this in more detail.

3. Chittamatra/Yogachara sometimes referred to as the Knowledge Way or Vijnanavada. It has also been called Subjective Realism, acknowledging that individual factors including karma contribute to an experience of reality that must be different for every being. It mentions the idea of “Buddha nature.” Vasubandha and Asanga finally adopted this position.

4. Madhyamika basically holds that there is no ultimate reality in the sense that something exists apart from the experiencer, but that this does not mean that there is nothing at all. It turns around the definition of Shunyata and therefore has been called Sunyatavada. Nagarjuna and Aryadeva are the main proponents. Chandrakirti expounds upon Nagarjuna.

The Madhyamika view has given rise to two particular schools of thought: Svatantrika and Prasangika, which is the school that i adhere to. According to the Prasangika school, the object of refutation (or negation, gag-cha)* is an extremely subtle object that is ever so slightly more than—a little over and above—what is merely labeled by the mind.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso Rinpoche in The World of Tibetan Buddhism: An Overview of Its Philosophy and Practice. Boston: Wisdom Pub., 1995. (49-54):

“According to the explanation of the highest Buddhist philosophical school, Madhyamaka-Prasangika, external phenomena are not mere projections or creations of the mind. External phenomena have a distinct nature, which is different from the mind.

The meaning of all phenomena being mere labels or designations is that they exist and acquire their identities by means of our denomination or designation of them. This does not mean that there is no phenomenon apart from the name, imputation, or label, but rather that if we analyze and search objectively for the essence of any phenomenon, it will be un-findable.

Phenomena are unable to withstand such analysis; therefore, they do not exist objectively. Yet, since they exist, there should be some level of existence; therefore, it is only through our own process of labeling or designation that things are said to exist.

Except for the Prasangika school, all the other Buddhist schools of thought identify the existence of phenomena within the basis of designation; therefore, they maintain that there is some kind of objective existence.

Since the lower schools of Buddhist thought all accept that things exist inherently, they assert some kind of objective existence, maintaining that things exist in their own right and from their own side. This is because they identify phenomena within the basis of designation.

For the Prasangikas, if anything exists objectively and is identified within the basis of designation, then that is, in fact, equivalent to saying that it exists autonomously, that it has an independent nature and exists in its own right.

This is a philosophical tenet of the Yogacara school in which external reality is negated, that is, the atomically structured external world is negated. Because the proponents of the Yogacara philosophical system assert that things cannot exist other than as projections of one’s own mind, they also maintain that there is no atomically structured external physical reality independent of mind. By analyzing along these lines, Yogacara proponents conclude that there is no atomicly structured external reality.

This conclusion is reached because of not having understood the most subtle level of emptiness as expounded by the Prasangikas. In fact, Yogacarins assert that things have no inherent existence, and that if you analyze something and do not find any essence, then it does not exist at all.

Prasangikas, on the other hand, when confronted with this un-findability of the essence of the object, conclude that this is an indication that objects do not exist inherently, not that they do not exist at all. This is where the difference lies between the two schools.”

* Object of Refutation: one possible technique for searching for truth is to employ the process of elimination, and see what is left. Therefore, the principle or topic under consideration may be called the object of refutation which helps keep in our mind the notion that the thing is not to be assumed to exist. It is merely a target, so to speak.

this link has some very good information for the interested reader:

According to the listing in the previous post, in the Tibetan tradition, the 4 schools each teach the Three Vehicles of Hearer, Solitary Realizer and Bodhisattva.

The 4 philosophical schools correspond to the Hinyana and Mahayana view Vaibhasika and Sautrantika are Hinyana schools whereas the Chittamatra and Madhyamika correspond with the Mahayana. In this post i shall explain our view of the two Hinayana schools.

According to Vaibhasika and Sautrantika, Hearer and Solitary Realizer Foe Destroyers (Arhan) are lower than a Budda. All three are equally liberated from cyclic existence and all will equally disappear upon death with the severance of their continuum of consciousness and form. However, while they are alive, a Bodhisattva at the effect stage is called a Buddha whereas the others are only called Foe Destroyers – those who have destroyed the foes of the afflictions, mainly desire, hatred, and ignorance – because a Buddha has special knowledge, more subtle clarivoyance, and a distinctive body. A Bodhisattva accumulates merit and wisdom for three countless aeons, thus attaining the greater fruit of Buddhahood. For Vaibhasika and Sautrantika, a person treading the path of Buddhahood is very rare.

Both Hinyana tenet systems present three vehicles which they say are capable of bearing practitioners to their desired fruit. Both present an emptiness that must be understood in order to reach the goal, and in both systems this emptiness is the non-substantialiy of persons. They prove that a person is not a self-sufficient entity and does not substantially exist as the controller of mind and body, like a lord over it’s subjects. Through realizing and becoming accustomed to this insubstantiality, the afflictions and thereby, all sufferings are said to be destroyed. According to the Hinyana tenet systems the path of wisdom is the same for Hinyanists–Hearers and Solitary Realizers–and for Bodhisattvas. The length of time that practitioners spend amassing meritorious power constitutes the essential difference between the vechiles.

Hearers and Solitary realizers all eventually proceed to the Bodhisattva path. After sometimes spending aeons in solitary trance, they are aroused by Buddhas who make them aware that they have not fulfilled even their own welfare, not to mention the welfare of others. Thus, though there are three vehicles, there is only one final vehicle.

As i said in a previous posting regarding the differences in Buddhist philosophy, the best way to get an understand of the different schools is by understanding their view of emptiness

each school asserts a certain view of selflessness and proceeds from Hinyanaist schools Vaibhasika and Sautrantika to Mahayanist schools Chittamatra, Svatantrika and finally, Pransangika.

Selflessness is divided into two types: of persons and of phenomena. The selfless of persons is also divided into two: coarse and subtle. Vaibhasika and Sautrantika do not assert a selflessness of phenomena because, for them, phenomena truly exist and are other entities from a perceiving consciousness.

With regard to the personal selflessness, all systems present a subtle and coarse view. According to the non-Pransangika systems the coarse is the emptiness of a permanent, partless, independent person. The misconception of such a self is only artificial, not innate — it is based on the assumption of a non-Buddhist system. In other words, we do not naturally misconceive the person to have the three qualities of permanence, partlessness and independence.

perhaps, this will help show the matter in another way:

Vaibhasika and Sautrantika:

selflessness asserted: selflessness of persons. coarse: lack of being a permanent, partless, independent self. subtle: lack of being a self-sufficient person.


selflessness asserted: selflessness of persons. coarse: lack of being a permanent, partless, independent self. subtle: lack of being a self-sufficient person.

selflessness of phenomena: subtle: lack of a difference in entity between subject and object and lack of naturally being a base of a name.

Madhyamika (Savtantrika and Prasangika):

selflessness asserted: selflessness of persons. coarse: lack of being a permanent, partless, independent self. subtle: lack of being a self-sufficient person.

selflessness of phenomena: coarse: lack of a difference in entity between subject and object (though this is properly Yogachara)
subtle: lack of being an entity not posited through appearing to a non-defective consciousness.

selflessness of persons. coarse: lack of being a permanent self-sufficient entity. subtle: lack of inherent existence of persons

selflessness of phenomena: subtle: lack of inherent existence of phenomena other than persons

(please note, the use of the term Hinyana is to denote the historical schools which used to exist in this Vehicle. in modern Buddhism, the only extant school of Hinyana Buddhism is Theraveda. thus, we simply call it Theravedan Buddhism today)


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