Some of the most important characteristics of Buddha’s philosophy are as follows:
If it is asked as to which school of Indian philosophy has been most popular among the masses outside India, the answer will be, the philosophy of Buddha.
Buddha’s philosophy popularised essentially the upanisadic thought, though in a different form. To understand this change of form, one must understand the social conditions prevailing in that period.
Every philosophical system reflects the socio- cultural tendencies of the age.
Hence to understand a system of philosophy, it is necessary to keep an eye on the contemporary conditions, and their interaction. It is known from the Tripitaka books that in Buddha’s time and before him, discussions on self, world, other world, sins and liberation, etc., were very common.
Politically, the country was divided into a number of small states whose inhabitants used different languages. The philosophical systems had not till then assumed systematic forms.
The Vedas were considered as sacred in the spiritual field. In the moral field, reasoning was given more importance than practice. In the philosophical field, there were contradictory views on almost every problem. Thus philosophy had become a mental exercise or a word jugglery. In the religious field, there was more emphasis on miracles than on communion with God. Ethics was based on religion and religion depended on God. Hence the importance of human efforts and the sense of responsibility was gradually disappearing. Everywhere there was superstition, useless discussion and irresponsible behaviour.
Gautama, the Buddha, revolted against these tendencies and presented a rational religion, practical ethics and simple principles of life.
The important characteristics of his philosophy are as follow:
1. Aversion to discussion:
Though Buddha always tried to explain his principles intellectually, he usually avoided long discussions. In this sense he was an anti-intellectualist. But towards superstition he had the approach of a modern scientist. Seeing the degeneration of faith, he emphasized the value of experience and effort. Buddha’s religion and ethics are based on self-reliance.
The teachings of Buddha are grounded more in deep analysis and wide experience than in intellectual discussions. The aim of Gautama was not intellectual discussion on the philosophical concepts, but liberation from miseries. Whether the body is different or non-different from the self, whether the self is immortal or mortal, whether the world is finite or infinite, eternal or ephemeral, these are philosophical questions about which he kept silent.
This silence, however, does not exhibit ignorance, but wisdom. It is well known that even after lengthy discussions, the philosophers of the East and the West have failed to arrive at any final solution of these problems. Intellectual discussions on these philosophical topics have their own merit, but they hardly help in the achievement of liberation from misery. To a man who is enduled in misery, the discussion of the fundamental nature of the self and the world seems to be a mere folly or at best a waste of time.
According to the Potha Pad Sutta, Buddha considered it useless to search for an answer to the ten philosophical questions and hence did not try for it. In the Pali literature of the Buddhist religion, these questions have been called, “Avyaktani”. Sometimes their number was given as even more than ten.
These questions were as follows:—
(i) Is the world eternal?)
(ii) Is it non-eternal?
(iii) Is it finite?
(iv) Is it infinite?
(v) Are the body and the self the same?
(vi) Is the self different from body?
(vii) Does the Tathagat take birth again after death?
(viii) Does he not take birth again after death?
(ix) Are there re-birth and also no re-birth?
(x) Are the concepts of re-birth and no-birth both false?
From the practical standpoint the answers to these questions are useless and from the philosophical standpoint no final solution can be secured. Hence, Buddha has not discussed them.
Another important characteristic of Buddha’s philosophy is pessimism. Buddha considers the world as full of misery. Man’s duty is to obtain liberation from this painful world. It is folly to hope for pleasure in this world. In this sense the teachings of Buddha can be said to be pessimistic. But then he suggested remedies for these miseries and indicated the path of liberation. Thus Buddha’s philosophy, though it begias in pessimism, culminates in robust optimism.
Buddha has vehemently criticized blind faith in the traditional scriptures like the Vedas, etc. Due to his faith in the doctrine of karma, he has not admitted the existence of God. In his teachings he has emphasized the real experiences of life. He does not admit anything beyond the limits of efforts and understanding.
Thus Buddha’s teachings are most pragmatic. It is due to their pragmatic Importance that Buddha has discussed the four great truths and said, “It is by such a discussion that one can get again some gain; it is these which are closely related to the basic principles of religion. It is through these that detachment, destruction of passions, the end of miseries, mental peace, knowledge, wisdom and nirvan may be possible.” Buddha was not an agnostic, otherwise he should not have called himself the Buddha.
As a matter of fact his standpoint can be clarified by the following example. Once when he was sitting under a sinsupa tree, Buddha took some of the leaves in his hand and asked his disciples whether they were all the leaves of sinsupa tree or whether there were more leaves of the tree. When the disciples answered that there were more leaves, Buddha said, “Similarly, it is definite that there is more than whatever I have told you.” Further, Buddha has said that he has not told these things because they are not required for the attainment of peace, knowledge and nirvan.