SOAS University of London

Centre of Buddhist Studies

Philosophy and Soteriology in late Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism: Kamalaśīla on reasoning and meditation

Prof Birgit Kellner (The Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia, IKGA)

Date: 23 May 2019Time: 5:30 PM

Finishes: 23 May 2019Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: BG01

Type of Event: Lecture


The place of philosophy in the larger context of Buddhism as a religion has been repeatedly addressed and controversially discussed – especially in recent years, as Buddhist philosophy in general has come to attract more interest. In-depth analyses of how individual South Asian Buddhist logicians and epistemologists such as Kamalaśīla (ca. 740-795) conceptualized their own enterprise of reasoning and argument have led some to draw a picture of Buddhist philosophy in which philosophical analysis with the help of reasoning is of soterial significance (contributing to salvation as the highest good). Advocates of this position have drawn on Pierre Hadot's reconstruction of ancient Greek philosophy as a way of life rather than a purely theoretical discourse, supported by specific exercises of reason. Conversely, others have argued – on a broader textual basis – that logic and reasoning were chiefly regarded as methods in polemical confrontation and apologetic discourse, serving the justification and defense of Buddhist claims
against challenges issued from within a hostile brahminical socioreligious environment. This might further be taken to suggest that this particular branch of Buddhist philosophy lacks any soterial significance whatsoever. This lecture aims to move the debate forward and takes this broader array of viewpoints as a point of departure for discussing how Kamalaśīla articulates and supports the claim that philosophical reflection and meditative practice are both necessary for attaining liberation, and how philosophy and meditation come to be related in this context.


Birgit Kellner conducts research on the history of Buddhist philosophy and its literature in South Asia and Tibet at the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia of the Austrian Academy of Sciences; she also serves as director of the institute. She previously held positions at the Universities of Vienna and Heidelberg, where she held the Chair of Buddhist Studies 2020-2015, and visiting appointments at Universities of California (Berkeley), Hamburg, Kyōto and Naples (L’Orientale). Kellner also conceived and directed projects in digital humanities, and was involved in several larger-scale interdisciplinary projects in comparative and transcultural studies in Germany and Austria. In her research she combines philological and text-critical studies, making new manuscript material accessible through editions and close readings, with historical contextualization and philosophical analysis. Most of her work concentrates on the South Asian Buddhist tradition of logic and epistemology that centers on the works of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, and its larger intellectual environment. In this field, she contributed studies on the ontology and epistemology of nonexistence, and more recently turned to topics from the philosophy of mind and consciousness. Her most recent publications in this area explore the refutation of the external world and arguments for idealism in Buddhist epistemological literature (“Proofs of Idealism in Buddhist Epistemology : Dharmakīrti’s Refutation of External Objects”, in: Joerg Tuske (ed.): Indian Epistemology and Metaphysics, London 2017: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 103-218; “Proving Idealism in Indian Buddhist Philosophy: Vasubandhu and Dharmakīrti”, in: Jonardon Ganeri (ed.): Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy, New York, etc.: Oxford University Press, 307-326)

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Sponsor: The Khyentse Foundation