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Buddhism doctrine and schools – Critics of Buddhism


The term “Buddhism”, of Western invention, is commonly used to designate, in the form of a somewhat rough translation, the “Dharma (teaching, doctrine) of the Buddha”, 佛教 (fójiào) in Chinese, bukkyō in Japanese , nang pa sangs rgyas pa’i chos in Tibetan, buddhadharma in Sanskrit, buddhaśāsana in Pali.


The Dharma or the Law is the set of teachings given by the Buddha which form the Pali Canon. But the definition of the term can change depending on the context and can mean “that which is established”, “natural law”, “juridical law”, “duty”, “teaching” or even “the essence of all thing” or “the set of norms and laws, social, political, familial, personal, natural or cosmic. “.

“Setting the Wheel of Law in Motion”, the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra, is the Buddha’s first sermon, given after he attained enlightenment.

Enlightenment of Buddha, Kushan dynasty (Enlightenment of Buddha, Kushan dynasty, late 2nd to early 3rd century CE, Gandhara. Credit: Daderot, Exhibit in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA)

Three jewels

In Buddhism, “taking refuge in the three jewels”, the Buddha, the Dharma (the set of teachings) and the Sangha (the set of practitioners), is a ceremony by which one becomes a Buddhist.

Four Noble Truths

The four noble truths indicate what is essential for a Buddhist to know. They state the problem of existence, its diagnosis, and the treatment deemed adequate:

  1. The truth of suffering (duhkha): all life involves suffering, dissatisfaction;
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering: it lies in craving (tṛṣṇā): desire, attachments;
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering: the end of suffering is possible;
  4. The Truth of the Path: the path leading to the end of suffering is the middle path, which follows the Noble Eightfold Path.

Three characteristics of existence

The three characteristics or marks of existence, trilakshana (from Sanskrit: lakṣaṇa; Pali: lakkhaṇa; “mark”) are:

  • Anātman (absence of self, impersonality): there is nothing in the world which has an independent and real existence in itself, therefore no soul (ātman), no self, but a mere aggregation of conditioned phenomena.
  • Anitya (impermanence): everything is constantly changing in phenomena, absolutely nothing permanent can be found in them.
  • Duḥkha (suffering): No phenomenon can ultimately satisfy us.

These three characteristics of conditioned existence are found in the four seals of Buddhist philosophy. They are valid at all times and in all places, and can be apprehended by a direct vision of reality. Nirvāṇa, being unconditioned, escapes the characteristics of suffering and impermanence (it is however impersonal, so there is no “person” in nirvāṇa).

Three poisons

Buddhism considers that there are three poisons for the mind:

  • tṛṣṇā: thirst or greed;
  • dveṣa: anger or aversion;
  • moha: ignorance.

Some schools add two: jealousy and pride.

According to the Buddha, the causes of human suffering can be found in the inability to see reality correctly. This ignorance, and the illusions it entails, lead to greed, to the desire to possess more than others, to attachment and hatred for people or things.

His philosophy states that suffering arises from desire or craving. It is by freeing himself from it that he would have reached nirvāṇa.


Because of the three poisons and the interdependence, men are subject to Saṃsāra (the cycle of rebirths). The “world” (loka) into which they will be reborn after death will depend on their karma, i.e. their past actions. This rebirth therefore only prolongs the suffering indefinitely (“the fatigue of filling the cemeteries” says the Assu Sutta). In accordance with Buddhist philosophy, it is neither the same nor another who is reborn. It is therefore not, as in the principle of reincarnation, an immortal soul that “reincarnates”. Indeed, the notion of reincarnation implies the existence of an immortal soul that goes in and out of one body and re-enters another, but, according to Buddhist belief, there is no such thing.

The Buddha proposes to wake up from this nightmare, to chase away confusion and illusion to be enlightened by reality. Thus, the suffering and the karmic cycle would be broken. He defines the “ultimate goal” of his teaching as “deliverance”, “denouement”, “liberation from suffering” or nirvāṇa.

Twelve interdependent links

The twelve interdependent links break down the cycle of rebirth into conditioned links depending on each other.

  1. Ignorance (avidyā): Ignorance of the law of cause and effect and emptiness. Ignorance produces karma.
  2. Karma (the saṃskāras): Sum of the (conditioned) actions of body, speech, and mind, which produce consciousness.
  3. Consciousness (vijñāna): Consciousness produces name and form.
  4. Name and form (nāmarūpa): Name and form produce the six senses.
  5. The Six Senses (ṣaḍāyatana): The six senses (touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste, mind) allow contact to arise.
  6. Contact: From the six kinds of contact (tactile, odorous, visual, auditory, gustatory, mental) flow the 6 sensations.
  7. Sensation (vedanā): Pleasant sensations produce attachment (desire or craving).
  8. Thirst (tṛṣna): Desire for pleasurable sensations produces grasping, attachment.
  9. Grasping (upādāna): Appropriation of desirable objects which produces becoming.
  10. Becoming (bhava): Appropriation by grasping produces the force of becoming, which leads to (re-)birth.
  11. Birth (jāti): Birth is the condition which produces old age and death.
  12. Old age and death (jarāmaraṇa): Old age and death without the practice of liberation do not eliminate ignorance.

Noble Eightfold Path

The eight components of the Noble Eightfold Path (ariyāṭṭaṅgika magga) are:

  1. right understanding (Sammā diṭṭhi),
  2. right thought (Samnā saṅkappa),
  3. right word (Sammā vācā),
  4. right action (Sammā kammanta),
  5. right way of life (Sammā ājiva),
  6. right effort (Sammā vāyāma),
  7. right mindfulness (Sammā sati),
  8. right concentration (Sammā samādhi).

Instead of “right” it sometimes reads “complete” or “total”.

Four immeasurable

The four pious behaviors or feelings (brahmavihāra in Sanskrit and Pali) are also called the Four Immeasurables because they could be developed indefinitely. Cultivated without the intention of leading all beings to ultimate liberation, these four intentions lead to rebirth in the celestial world of Brahmā; developed with the desire to lead all beings to ultimate liberation, the four conducts then become “immeasurable” and lead to “perfect enlightenment”.

There are several meditations (bhāvanā) that can develop these four “moral qualities”:

  • Benevolence or brotherhood (mettā in Pali, maitrī in Sanskrit), developed through the meditation practice called mettā bhāvanā;
  • Compassion (karunā), born from the meeting of benevolence and the suffering of others, developed by the meditation called karunā bhāvanā;
  • Sympathetic or altruistic joy (muditā), which consists in rejoicing in the happiness of others (muditā bhāvanā);
  • Equanimity (uppekkhā in Pali, upekṣā in Sanskrit) or tranquility, which goes beyond compassion and sympathetic joy, is a state of peace in the face of all circumstances, happy, sad or indifferent (uppekkhā bhāvanā).


In Theravāda, emptiness (Śūnyatā) means that nothing has its own existence (they only exist by interdependence). During meditation, the practice of vipassanā is the contemplation of this emptiness.

But the concept of emptiness, expounded by the so-called prajnaparamita literature, and Nāgārjuna, takes on another meaning with the Madhyamaka. The Madhyamaka recognizes the teaching of Dependent Origination but regards this wheel of life itself as emptiness.

Three bodies (kāyas) of Buddha

The Pali Canon designates three bodies of Gautama Buddha:

  • his formal body made of the four elements (pāli caturmahābhūtikāya), that is, the historical body of Gautama.
  • the mental body (pāli manomayakāya) through which Gautama traveled to the different worlds or realms to draw wisdom from them.
  • the body of doctrine (pāli dhammakāya), the body of teachings which may remain for some time after Gautama’s death.

The concept gains prominence in the Sarvāstivādin school. But it subsequently acquires a very different meaning.

Indeed, in the Mahāyāna, the three bodies, manifestations of a Buddha, are not separate entities but expressions of suchness (tathatā) which is one. They are there respectively:

  • Nirmāṇakāya, body of manifestation, of emanation. The physical body source of benevolent actions to save sentient beings.
  • Sambhogakāya, body of bliss, or enjoyment. Words of wisdom to teach and guide anyone.
  • Dharmakāya, body of the Real, or ultimate. The Law that awakens the heart and the mind.

Buddhist ethics and precepts

In Buddhism, ethics is based on the fact that the actions of body, speech and mind have consequences for ourselves and for what surrounds us, others like our environment. There are two kinds of actions: kusala actions (Pali word meaning wholesome, skillful, favorable, positive) and akusala actions (unhealthy, unskillful, unfavorable, negative).

Buddhist ethics therefore proposes to the human being to become aware of the states of mind in which he finds himself and from which he acts, speaks, thinks and to thus become responsible both for his states of mind and for the consequences of his actions. The practice of ethics is therefore a purification of body, speech and mind.

It comes in the form of precepts (Pali: sīla) — the five precepts and the ten precepts are the most frequently encountered — which are not absolute rules but principles, guides to ethical behavior. The application of some of them varies according to people but also according to traditions.

These precepts are most often presented in a negative form as a training not to do something, but the canonical texts also refer to their positive formulation as a training to do the opposite.

Five precepts

The Five Precepts, common to all Buddhists (lay and monk) of all traditions, are:

  • Strive not to harm living beings or take life (the principle of ahiṃsā, “non-violence”);
  • Strive not to take what is not given;
  • Strive not to engage in sexual misconduct — more generally to maintain control of the senses;
  • Strive not to use false or misleading words;
  • Strive to abstain from alcohol and all intoxicants.

Ten precepts

The ten precepts are found in several canonical texts (for example the Kûtadana Sutta, in the Dīgha Nikāya). In Japan, they may be referred to as jujukai.

The formulation of these ten precepts can take different forms.

Sangha: community of followers

The Saṅgha is the community of those who follow the teachings of the Buddha. It is one of the three places of refuge. A distinction is made between the “Noble Saṅgha” (Sanskrit Arya Saṅgha) consisting of beings who have reached a high level of liberation and the ordinary Saṅgha, comprising all beings following the path of the Buddha. The term is commonly used to refer to Buddhist meetings.

Different schools

Schools of ancient Buddhism

Ancient Buddhism, sometimes called Hīnayāna Buddhism (Sanskrit for “little vehicle”) by proponents of the great vehicle, includes several schools, only one of which has survived to the present day, Theravada Buddhism. If several classifications are debated, Buddhists and researchers roughly agree to recognize in Buddhism eighteen ancient schools.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism (in Pāli “doctrine of the Elders”, Sanskrit sthaviravāda) is the dominant form of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Laos, parts of Vietnam), among the Chinese from Indonesia and Malaysia as well as some ethnic groups in southwestern China. Its establishment in the West is more recent than that of the Zen or Vajrayāna currents.

As its name suggests, it wants to be the heir to the original doctrine of the Buddha. In this respect, it is related to the currents defined as hīnayāna (“small vehicle”) by Mahāyāna Buddhism which emerged at the beginning of the Christian era. Hinayāna and Theravada are terms often used interchangeably, despite the objections of many Theravada practitioners. The “doctrine of the Elders” is based on a canon written in Pali called Triple basket or Tipitaka, including many texts based on the words of the Buddha, collected by his contemporaries but transcribed much later.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahāyāna is a Sanskrit term meaning “great vehicle”. Mahāyāna Buddhism appeared around the beginning of the Christian era in the Kushan Empire and in northern India, from where it spread rapidly to Tarim and China, before spreading to the rest of the Far East.

Madhyamaka, Chittamatra, Chán (Son in Korea, Zen in Japan), Pure Land, and Nichiren Buddhism are schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayāna is a form of Buddhism, also called Tantric Buddhism, which can be understood intuitively or requires mastery of Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna. It contains elements that relate it to Hinduism and particularly to Kashmiri Shaivism. In Tibet, Vajrayāna and Bön, the local religion, have influenced each other.

Its Sanskrit name means “vehicle”, yāna, from vajra, meaning “diamond” (indestructible and shining like the ultimate reality), and “lightning” (destroyer of ignorance and lightning speed) . This vehicle is also called mantrayāna and tantrayāna, since it calls upon mantras and tantras; we also find the name guhyayāna “secret vehicle”, therefore esoteric (in Chinese mìzōng 密宗 and in Japanese mikkyō).

It is mainly practiced nowadays in the Himalayan region (Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, on the western borders and in the north of China, in the north of India) and also in Japan since the 7th century through the schools of Shugendo, Shingon and Tendai. It is the form of Buddhism that most characterizes Tibetan Buddhism. It is also found in Mongolia and in some regions of the Russian Federation (Amur and Chita Oblasts, Republics of Tuva, Buryatia and Kalmoukia, Krai of Khabarovsk), as well as in Japan (Shingon and Tendai). Although different in origin, Tibetan Bön is almost in every respect a non-Buddhist vajrayāna.

Tibetan Buddhism

The term Tibetan Buddhism refers to Vajrayāna Buddhism which developed in Tibet. There are currently four main schools: Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, Sakyapa, Gelugpa. The latter is the best known in the West, because the Dalai Lama is a prominent member.

Buddhism and Western Philosophy

Several European thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche were inspired by Buddhist thought (and Hindu, by the Upanishads), as well as the Scottish philosopher David Hume and also Emmanuel Kant among the most famous.

Critics of Buddhism

Criticism by Jainism

Jains, whose religion is based on the existence of the soul or atman, consider that Buddhism does not respect non-violence (ahimsa): indeed, a faithful Buddhist should not commit violence himself but can, for example, eat the flesh of an animal killed by another; this attitude is condemned by Jainism, which promotes obligatory non-violence for its followers, requiring to abstain from violence in nine ways: by thought, by word and by body and, each time, either personally (krita), either by ordering it from others (kârita), or by consenting to its execution by others (anumodita).â

Criticism by Hinduism

If the different branches of Buddhism and Hinduism consider that compassion (karuna) is a cardinal virtue (common both to people living in society and to those who have renounced the world), the fact remains that that there are metaphysical differences between “Buddhism” and “Hinduism” (differences which were not originally so pronounced); thus, Buddhism has been criticized by the Hindu philosophies Vaisheshika and Nyâya: “The Vaisheshika-sutra seems to be radically opposed to Buddhism by its realistic and substantialist conception of the cosmos and of man”, and the Nyâya philosophy considers the Buddhist notion of anatman (non-Self) as being illogical (e.g. remembering of an object is impossible if there is not a permanent atman (knowing Self)) and that Totality is a reality then that Buddhism asserts the opposite:

“Whereas Buddhism thinks that the whole does not exist, that only the parts exist — but not as parts! — while the Vedic doctrine is that the whole is more or less different from the sum of the parts.”
— Michel Angot, The Nyâya-sûtra of Gautama Akshpâda, and The Nyâya-Bhâshya of Akshapâda Pakshilasvâmin.

Akshapâda Pakshilasvâmin, in his Nyâya-Bhâshya, refuted the theses of emptiness (Śūnyatā), impermanence (Anitya) and non-Self (Anātman).

Scientific criticism

In his book The Infinite in the Palm of the Hand, the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan evokes two points of contention between the Buddhist vision and the scientific vision of the world.

He explains that the universe described by Buddhism is a cyclical universe which has neither beginning nor end and would therefore be crossed by an endless series of big bangs and big crunches. But the advent of a big crunch is not confirmed by current scientific data which establishes that the universe does not contain enough matter to generate it. The current model is on the contrary that of an infinite expansion of the universe which is in contradiction with the conception of a cyclic universe.

In this same work he evokes the Buddhist concept of streams of consciousness coexisting with the material universe at all times. He explains that for many neurobiologists consciousness is an emergent property of living matter that has passed a certain threshold of complexity. Whether consciousness could exist before matter or outside of it is not proven.

Includes texts from Wikipedia with license CC BY-SA 3.0, translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu

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