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A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities

by David J. Kalupahana

Buy the book: David J. Kalupahana. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities

Release Date: March, 1992

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: David J. Kalupahana. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities

An enlightening work,

David Kalupahana's History of Buddhist Phiosophy has taken on new and deepening perspectives for me over the past six years since I first purchased the book. Kalupahana covers the development of Buddhist Philosophy from it's early days of oral tradition, Councils and Schisms through to the Vajrayana's Tantra and, lastly, on silent meditation and Ch'an. Included is a fascinating appendix on the role that the Lankavatara Sutta may have played in early efforts to establish a Mahayana school in Sri Lanka. I have had experience in the Vajrayana (Tantric Empowerments), Zen and Insight Meditation (Vipassana), and maybe that's why Kalupahana's book rings true to me. It is a shame that his more recent writings are not readily available in the U.S..

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A Difficult, Ultimately Unsatisfying Read

My purpose in reading this book was to harmonize my somewhat limited knowledge of Western philosophy with my somewhat limited knowledge of Buddhist philosophy. I must say that I gained tremendously in my knowledge of both areas. However, the path was arduous, and Kalupahana was a difficult companion.

Kalupahana's goal was somewhat different than my own, and I'll judge him on that goal first. Kalupahana seeks to analyze the "original" teachings of Gotama, sort through later thinkers, and pronounce them as being in the true spirit of Gotama's teachings or not. This task, I fear, is impossible - the records are too unreliable. Kaluhahana does come up with some fascinating and scholarly work. I don't have the expertise to judge; however, I am not convinced that Gotama was not a complete nihilist, or very close to one. Later thinkers introducing "absolutism" into his system would not be perverters of his philosophy, but rather saviors. It seems to me that Nagarjuna was the first true clear advocate of the middle path, and Kalupahana (and some other authors I have read) wants to imbue Gotama with Nagarjuna's insights.

The book contains fascinating insights into concepts of logic, perception, and language. Sometimes that discussion does not reach a satisfactory conclusion: for example, Kalupahana provides some tantilizing ideas about adopting non-binary logic systems, but doesn't really explain how such a system works in practice. He also spends some time condemning the sectarian rift between the Mahayana and Theraveda schools, but doesn't (to my mind) harmonize them or fully acknowledge that they are, in fact, different.

The writing is dense, and hard to follow. Part of this is the subject matter; however, some is Kalupahana's unclarity. I have had an easier time reading detailed descriptions of Kant, which is much more dense material than tackled here. Although Western concepts are sprinkled about, they are not integrated. For example, if I were to answer the question of whether the Buddha was, in Kalupahana's opinion, a nominalist or a realist, I would have to give a koan-like response.

A thought-provoking, rich book, but a lot of work.

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