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A brief Sketch on Six Major Texts of Buddhist Philosophy

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Aenpo Kyabgon Rinpoche

Most of the Tibetan Buddhist schools accept and mainly undergo the study of five major texts, which are:

A) Prajnaparamita
B) Pramana
C) Vinaya
D) Abhidharma and
E) Madhyamaka

However, the Sakya tradition append or tack on the great Sakya Pandita's "Distinction Between the three Vows" (Trisamvara) to the above mentioned five texts.

From these six texts, the eighteen principal texts are branched and are mainly introduced in the Sakya universities, both in and outside Tibet.

a) Prajnaparamita

Prajnaparamita was originally expounded by the historical Buddha Shakyamuni and the teaching was passed through Maitreyanath, Arya Asanga Vasubandhu, Arya Vimuktisena, Haribadra etc. India as well as scholars like Yakton, Rongton, omniscient Gorampa Sonam Senghe etc. In Tibet. The term Prajnaparamita has three different applications:

a) as the resultant perfected discriminative awareness of Buddha

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b) as the bodhisattava paths leading to such a perfection of discriminative awareness and

c) as the literature which outlines the essential aspects of such paths and their goals.

The resultant Prajnaparamita refers to a Buddha's discriminative awareness (prajna) which is totally non-dual, free of all obscuration and spontaneously perceives the dual aspects of all phenomena in a single mental act.

Prajnaparamita as path refers to the Bodhisattava's path, which blends at the most profound level of the discriminative awareness of emptiness and the skilful means of great compassion.

Prajnaparamita as series of texts refers to the category of Mahayana sutras known collectively as Prajnaramita sutras. The topics mainly discussed in text are summarily categorised into eight divisions, which are:

a) the omniscient mind

b) the knowledge of basis

c) the knowledge of path

d) the training of complete aspects

e) peak training

f) serial training


g) momentary training and

h) dharmakaya

The first one refers primary to a non-conceptual simultaneous direct perception of the two truths, without exception, within a single mental act.

The second one refers to the sight of the exalted Mahayanist, which directly perceives the three paths as inherently devoid of existence.

The third refers to the insight of the exalted being which perceives the selflessness directly. The Fourth refers to the Bodhisatvic wisdom, which meditates in a condensed way upon the three wisdom of the basis, path and omniscience mind.

The Fifth refers to the Bodhisattvic wisdom, which surpasses the meditation of the aspects of three wisdom or knowledge of basis, path omniscience. The Sixth refers to a Bodhisattvic wisdom/ yoga, in order to gain firm understanding of the three wisdom of basis, path and omniscience, through serial meditation upon the aspects of these three aspects respectively.

The Seventh refers to the yoga of last moment before enlightenment, which in a single-moment, meditates the three aspects of the knowledge/wisdom simultaneously.

Lastly, the eighth one refers to the ultimate nature of the fully enlightened mind, a final result of meditating upon the four Bodhisattva training.

From these eight realisations or topics of the text, the seventy sub-divisions were branched. They are:

a) the ten topics that characterises the Omniscience

b) the eleven topics that characterises the knowledge of the paths


c) the nine topics that characterises knowledge of basis

d) the eleven topics that characterises training of the complete aspects

e) the eight topics that characterises the peak training

f) the thirteenth topics that characterises the serial training

g) the four topics that characterises the momentary training and

h) the four topics that characterise the resultant truth body or Dharmakaya.

B Pramana

It is said by Arya Maitreyanath is his Mahayanasutralankara that even the highly realised beings would be not able to achieve enlightenment without mastering the "five major science". The science of logic is one of them. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier it's one of the six principal subjects, which consist of almost all the studies of Buddhism.

In fact, historical Buddha did not teach logic separately, but he taught logic along with other teachings.

(In the 5th century) almost after nine centuries of Buddha's mahaparinirvana, there lived the renowned scholar Acharya Vasubandhu, who had four extraordinary disciples who become more learned than the Guru himself in four different subjects. Among these disciples was Acharya Dignaga who became more articulate that the Guru himself in the subject of Pramana or Logic.

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Initially he composed one hundred and eight volumes of Logic text, followed by Pramanasamuccaya, which consisted of entire meanings of those earlier composed 108 volumes. Thus it be came known as the Pramana Sutra or Fundamental Logic Text.

(In 7th century) there came another Acharya called Dharmakirti who was an indirect disciple of Acharya Dignaga. Though he was non-Buddhist in his earlier life, later he embraced Buddhism and defeated the non- Buddhist schools with the skilful means of debate.

He pursed Buddhist studies and later met Acharya Ishvarasena, a direct disciple of Acharya Dignaga. It was under him that he studied the Pramanasamuccaya. Eventually he became the most learned scholar of logic the world has ever produced.

He composed seven important treaties on Logic, which is popularly known as Sapta Pramana Shastra. Among the seven, Pramanavartika plays the main role of commentary to the Pramanasamuccya. It was and is still popular writing of Buddhist logic.

The discussions mainly made in the Pramanavartika are it's "eight topics of Logic" (Asta Tarkapadartha) namely:

1-2 corrects and wrongs direct perception
3-4 corrects and wrongs inferential cognition
5-6 corrects and wrongs argument
7-8 corrects and wrongs refutation

The correct direct perception be divided into four:


1. the sensual direct perception
2. the mental direct perception
3. the self referential direct perception and
4. the meditative direct perception

Except the correct direct perception, all other perception/conception are wrong direct perception.

The inferential knowledge is also divided on the basis of the three categories of correct syllogism namely:

1. the natural syllogism

2. the effectual syllogism and

3. the negative syllogism

C Vinaya

Buddha Shakyamuni's discourses which elucidate and define the principals of monastic vows and discipline is know as Vinaya Pitaka, which is one of the three primary collection of discourses which comprises in the Buddhist Canon.

Based on the different interpretations relating to the subtler points of Buddha's discourses on Vinaya there emerge several distinct Vinaya schools in India. However, the Vinaya tradition, which became predominant in Tibet is that of the Sarvastivada School.

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Vinaya literally means "discipline", the term generally refers to monastic discipline and especially to observance of the ethical codes which regulate the life of an ordained monk or nun.

For the individual Buddhist monks or nuns, spiritual discipline means the nurturing of mental awareness that leads to control of one's response to the phenomenal world of conditioned existence. As such, discipline is an indispensable means for the bikshu intent upon making progress toward the goal of nirvana.

The Vinaya Pitaka defines a means by which an individual monastic adherent may achieve the soteriological goal of Buddhism and it determines the manner in which the collective community may sustain its special identity.

In order to develop proper practice of Vinaya within oneself, one should first have to become monk or nun. The prime necessity for carrying out a pure Dharma in general and particularly Vinaya practice is to generate a thought of liberating every sentient being from the ocean of samsara. For that one has to uproot every discordant factors and produce its antidote, uncontaminated wisdom, which is developed only from the practice of pure morality. So therefore, one receives the monk's Pratimoksha vow, by generating a thought of renunciation and that of keeping the vows excellently.

Despite generating such indubitably excellent thought, one should cherish the vows conscientiously.

The Pratimoksha vow is divided into eight classes of individual liberation vows, which are:

1. fully ordained monk's vows
2. fully ordained nun's vows
3. probationary nun's vows
4. novice monk's vows
5. novice nun's vows
6. layman vows
7. laywoman vows
8. the one day ordination vows

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The procedure of observing the vows are elaborately elucidated in the Vinaya sutras.

The key to understanding the ethos of Vinaya sources involves a serious reckoning with the teaching of Buddha and the importance attached to the notion of "discipline". It will be necessary for us to reconstruct in outline from the essential elements of the Four Noble truths before we begin our consideration of Vinaya in detail.

D Abhidharma

Abhidharma is a set of teachings and treatises concerning the training of (uncontaminated) higher wisdom and the study of metaphysics and cosmology.

The root textual source on Abhidharma is called "seven treatises on Abhidharma" which are the prime source of Vaibhashika and it is not considered the Buddha's direct teaching yet it is believed that these were set together by seven Arhats (foe-destroyer) from the discourses which Buddha taught separately to different people in different places. Later a group of five hundred Panditas complied the remarkably outstanding "Jhe Dag Shedh Tso Chen Mo", an essential point commentary to the root textual source on Abhidharma.

Following this (in 5th century) after nine centuries of Historical Buddha's Mahaparinirvana, the renowned scholar Acharya Vasubandhu composed Abhidharmakosha and its auto commentary, which followed by the composition of commentaries on it by masters such as Yashomitra and Purnavardhana.

Throughout the varying phases of Abhidharma's historical development, Buddhist philosophy has unmistakably preserved certain traits which at the outset formed the very life force of Buddhist thought and, which still vitally concern us as a truly spiritual force.

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Historically, two different traditions of representing the subject matter of Abhidharma was developed; one through the "five fundamentals" of phenomena and other through the divisions of aggregates, natures and sources. But Acharya Vasubandhu primary employ in his Abhidharmakosha the latter as his mode of presentation, but uses the former as a corollary mode of presentation too.

The most popular works on Abhidharma in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are Arya Asanga's Abhidharma Samuccaya and his Brother Acharya Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha. The systems, which evolved from the two books, differ in their metaphysical premises and they are known as the "Upper Abhidharama" and the "Lower Abhidharma"

It may sound strange to our modern (enlightened) ears that in this world, the world of sensuousness not only comprises the world of human, plants, animal's etc. but rather the world of gods etc. However, it should not be forgotten that an abstract idea, such as god- at least we nowadays try to conceive them as an abstract idea- is not arbitrarily hypothesized and transplanted into a world of beyond, but that which is called heaven or hell is essentially the term for the psychic reverberation of strongly emotionally toned experiences which, when they appear reproduced, are so sensuous that we actually sees or feel them.

Though the ultimate object of Buddha's teaching is to point out a way to nirvana, Abhidharma presents a very extensive analysis of cognitive process and mental states conducive to the realisation of nirvana. Furthermore, the text talks about space as being both permanent and functional entity.

According to Abhidharmakosha, the earth and the sentient beings living on it evolved as a result of the formation of the four elements one after another.

The theory and practice of interdependent origination is widely pursued in all the schools of Buddhism. So Vaibhashika consider that all actions of living beings play main role in creating the pleasant and unpleasant world. Since the actions or Karma are accumulated in mind, all the transformations of outer phenomena are ultimately linked to it. Moreover just as mind and body of a person are interdependent, life and nature or more specifically, humanity and environment, are equally dependent on each other.

So to scrutinize these elaborately and more others, based on the system of Kashmiri Vaibhashika school, one must undergo the study of Abhidharma, in which, as I mentioned earlier, the training of higher level of wisdom and study of metaphysics and cosmology are elucidated.


E Madhyamaka

The teaching of Middle Way was originally expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha. After four centuries of his Mahaparinirvana there came Arya Nagarjuna who brought up Prajnaparamita Sutras from Naga's realm, and later compiled the text Mulamadhyamakarika Yuktisastika and others in which the profundity of Madhyamaka path, interdependent origination, emptiness and substantiality are presented and disperse all the extremes of exaggerations and depreciation by which he found the Madhyamaka philosophical school of Buddhist thought.

The above mentioned texts are predominant expositions of the Madhyamaka philosophy. In them Nagarjuna systematically criticizes the interdependent reality of all entities and concepts through a variety of analytical and critical arguments. Thus he expounds the principal elements of the Madhyamaka philosophy like interdependent origination and so on.

The Tibetan tradition considers Nagarjuna one of the two most important personalities in Indian Mahayana Buddhism (the other being Maitreyanath), and among the multitude of classical Indian scholars his authority outshines all others.

The term Madhyamaka is derived from the Sanskrit expression. Madhyamapratipad, meaning the "Middle Way" between the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Madhyamaka is name of the most influential among the four major philosophical schools influential among the four major philosophical schools of Indian Buddhism.

Within the context of the Madhyamaka School, the middle way refers to the doctrine of emptiness, which is held to be true nature of all phenomena. According to this view, all phenomena, both mental and physical, cannot be found to posses any independent and self-validating natures and their existence and identity are regarded as valid only within a relative framework of worldly convention. Further, it is propounded that not only do phenomena exist solely in dependence on causes and conditions, but also even their identities depend on our conceptions.

The Madhyamaka school, as I mentioned earlier, was found by Nagarjuna in the second century and was later classified into two subdivision, Prasangika and Svatantrika, based on the different interpretations of Nagarjuna's view which were made by Buddhapalita and Bhavaviveka respectively. The Prasangika and Svatantrika schools differ in the arguments they employed on the occasion of refutation of four alternative theories of origination.


The arguments advanced by the Prasangika were constructed from the point of view of the opponent and were not admitted to be valid by Prasangika himself.

The Svatantrika for their part constructed syllogisms whose elements they admitted to be established by virtue of valid cognition. This, indeed, constitutes the principal differences between the doctrines of Prasangika and Svatantrika School.

In addition to what has been termed the primary differences between the Prasangika and Svatantrika Schools. They also differ in the arguments, which they advanced in support of the Madhyamaka's interpretation of nature of ultimate reality with regard to their interpretations of nature of conventional reality.

Conventionally, the Prasangika admit and employ the four valid cognition viz. direct perception, inferential cognition, testimony and comparison. By contrast, the Svatantrika, as it has been indicated, tended to recognize only two valid cognition viz. Perception and inference.

The Tibetan tradition, while recognizing Bhavaviveka's contribution to Buddhist logic and philosophy, generally considers the Prasangika technique of consequential reasoning and being the most refined logical method in Buddhism of establishing the view of emptiness.

Nagarjuna's direct disciple was Aryadeva. The life of Aryadeva as it is traditionally retold is embellished with great many attractive legends. His most important literary production is the Catusataka. This text is arranged in sixteen chapters of twenty-five stanzas each.

With the advent of masters, Buddhapalita and Bhavaviveka, the Madhyamaka system entered a new phrase. As I mentioned earlier, it was then the Madhyamaka system was divided into the Prasangika and Svantantrika schools.

Another outstanding exponent of Madhyamaka system was the master Candrakirti. He defended the statement of Buddhapalita against the objections put forward by Bhavaviveka and the consequent strong criticism of the latter's acceptance of autonomous syllogism. He was indeed, the foremost exponent of Prasangikamadhyamaka School and his rigorous formulation of the orthodox Prasangika standpoint is accepted even today by living Buddhist traditions of India and Tibet.


His works are Prasannapada and the Madhyamakavatra and auto-commentary. The latter is one of the most celebrated Indian works on the study of emptiness, which consists of ten chapters, corresponding to ten levels or the grounds Bodhisattva.

Another great exponent of the Prasangikamadhyamaka School was the master Shantideva. He composed works of the highest value concerning the spiritual discipline of the Madhyamaka. His most important work is Bodhisattvacaryavatra, a work of the highest merit, which take up, among other topics, the creation of the enlightenment thought (bodhicitta). The ninth chapter of this very text is particularly interesting for its exposition of the standpoint of the Madhyamaka philosophy. Like Chandrakirti, Shantideva rigorously criticizes the doctrine of the Vijnanavada. He is perhaps the last of the great Indian exponents of the Prasangika schools.

Distinction Between The Three Vows

The text titled "Distinction between the three Vows" is composed by one of the five great Sakya founders, the Sakya Pandita. In the text he not only delineates and interprets mainly on the distinctions between the vows of Pratimoksha, Bodhisattva and Tantras, but rather expresses his objection towards the misconceptions put forward on the practices of Buddha's teaching by the mistaken/erroneous Buddhist exponents who lived after the Mahaparinirvana of the Great Sakya Founder, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo.

The topics mainly discussed in the text are subsumed into eleven divisions. They are: Pratimoksha vow, Bodhisattva vow, tantric vow, way of receiving vows, their training, importance of mind generation, non-differentiation between the real compassion and emptiness, the two stages of generation and completion, Mahamudra primordial wisdom, outer and inner dependent arising and lastly the order of the levels and the paths towards enlightenment.

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All the practices in Buddhism are summarily condensed within the commonly associated practice with the Hinayana's Vinaya, the commonly associated practice with the Mahayana's Prajnaparamita and the uncommon practice of Vajrayana.

Firstly, the commonly associated practice with the Hinayana's Vinaya are condensed within the practice of Pratimoksha vows, because the vows received by the Hinayanist are meant to abandon harm for others, by generating a thought of renunciation from this ocean of Samsara. If one lacks the renunciation thought he or she'll not receive the pure Pratimoksha vow. Harm for others refer to the ten non-virtuous deeds.

Pratimoksha vow is classed into Hinayana Pratimoksha and Mahayana's. The Hinayana Pratimoksha refers to a sole thought of liberating one self from the samsara and it is classed into eight vows. The latter refers to a thought of liberating every sentient beings from samsara. And this is classed into Mahayana Pratimoksha practice commonly associated with the Hinayanic system, the practice associated with the uncommon Mahayana Pratimoksha and the practice commonly associated with the superior vehicle.

Secondly, the Bodhisattva vow refers to the skilful means for attaining the enlightenment by uniting the conventional bodhicitta and wisdom of realizing emptiness. This vow is classified into the practice of Bodhisattva vow commonly associated with the Pratimoksha system, the uncommon Bodhisattva vow and the practice commonly associated with the tantric empowerment.

Thirdly, Tantric vow refers to the protection of the mind from the overwhelming influence of ordinary perceptions and conceptions.

In the third chapters, that of tantric vow, the various acceptances on the classifications of tantra were made, such as the acceptance of two tantras, three tantras, five tantras, six tantras, six tantras etc. However, the four classes of tantra are widely accepted in Tibetan Buddhism, which are:

1. Kriyatantra (action)

2. Caryatantra (performance)

3. Yogatantra (meditation)

4. Anutarayogatantra (the highest level)