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Buddhism and Western Philosophy

Some Western philosophers have, knowingly or unknowingly, displayed starling similarities with Buddhist philosophy.

Aristotle ‘s ethics is based on the concepts of virtue and eudaimonia. If we live consistently virtuous lives, by steering away from irrational temptations, we may acquire eudaimonia, a sense of contentment, a sense that we have completed our natural purpose. For the Buddhist, good actions (or the absence of bad actions) lead to happiness in the long run. The intention of our actions is equally important for the Buddhist as for Aristotle. Acting virtuously with unvirtuous intentions (known as “virtue signalling”) can never lead to eudaimonia. Performing good actions without the intention of doing good – intention by way of body, speech and intellect – can never generate good “karmic fruits.” Neither Aristotle nor the Buddha understood this process as a consequentialist process. The value of our actions is not determined by its consequences, but by the agent and the circumstances.

RenĂ© Descartes claimed that all he was certain of, was that he is a thinking being. I think, therefore I am. This then was the foundation on which Descartes built his entire dualist philosophy. But when David Hume looked inside his own mind, about 100 years later, he was unable to find this thinking being. Hume could not find the “I” in “I think, therefore I am”. All Hume could see, was a more or less coherent series of impressions and mental constructions of these impressions, but no “ego” in the Cartesian sense. Neither could the Buddha. For the Buddha, the self is an empty illusion.

Schopenhauer was well aware of his Buddhist connection. We are controlled by a Will we cannot see, we cannot change or understand, and most importantly, we can never satisfy. This causes a permanent sense of incompleteness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, misery and suffering. This is very reminiscent of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. Schopenhauer and Buddhism offer similar solutions to our painful human condition: to free ourselves desires and temptations.

Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology refocused philosophy’s attention to our personal experience of the world. It’s rather useless to try and think which raw phenomena exist outside of our experience, so philosophers should really study phenomena as they appear in human consciousness. Buddhism, in its Noble Eightfold Path, encourages us to focus on “Right Understanding” – to understand things as they are, to see things in their true nature (which ultimately comes down to seeing The Four Noble Truths as the ultimate reality) In fact, Buddhism tells us that there are two kinds of understanding. The first is an rather superficial intellectual grasp of data, which is stored in our minds as memories. The second is a full grasp of a thing in its true nature, without categorising, naming or labelling. It is perhaps more connecting than understanding. In my understanding of phenomenology, this is the kind of understanding Husserl wants philosophers to develop.


Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]