Indian Buddhist Philosophy

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Term 1
Module code
FHEQ Level
Department of Religions and Philosophies

Module overview

The UG course Indian Buddhist Philosophy explores the origin, development and diversity of Buddhist philosophical thought in India (5th century BCE to 6th century CE).

It examines the Buddhist interpretations of reality, the position of the individual within the wider ontological framework, idealist trends, epistemology and logic. Each of these themes is carefully framed through the study of Buddhist doctrinal tenets and the Brahmanical intellectual environment within which Indian Buddhist masters sought to establish themselves. In doing so, it contextualises Buddhist philosophical thinking within the wider Indian tradition.

Furthermore, it sets out the factors that connect the different phases within the Indian Buddhist tradition itself. The discussion of the discrete topics is predominantly informed through primary sources, in translation. Some of these are read in dedicated reading seminars, other will feed into the broader exposition of the individual themes that the course examines.

Broadly speaking, the course content falls into three segments: To begin with, the course investigates the doctrinal tenets and intellectual principles that shaped early Buddhist thinking and their systematisation in the scholastic literature of the Abhidharma. Once the students have achieved a good understanding of the religious concerns and methodological trajectories that shaped these traditions, the course examines the nature and content of Mādhyamika philosophy in India.

This second segment predominantly draws on the philosophical treatises of Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Bhāviveka and Candrakīrti. The third segment proceeds to investigate the philosophical thought of the Yogācāra/Vijñānavāda school of Indian Buddhism, focussing on the works of Asaṅga, Vasubandhu and Sthiramati. In particular, it explores the concept of the 'storehouse' consciousness and the interpretation of experience through the 'three natures' theory. While much of the course focuses on philosophical issues, it also explores the institutions within which these ideas were developed.

Objectives and learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of the principal traditions of Indian Buddhist philosophy and the presuppositions on which they draw;
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the breadth of primary sources available for the study of Indian Buddhist philosophy and of the different ways in which such sources categories can be assessed;
  • Demonstrate the ability to identify the tenets that link the phases in the evolution of Indian Buddhist philosophical ideas from the 5th century BCE to 6th century;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the position of Buddhist philosophical ideas within the broader Indian tradition and the intellectual environment within which they emerged.
  • Demonstrate the ability to evaluate scholarly interpretations of Indian Buddhist philosophical ideas, and to assume an informed position within academic debate.


  • 2-hours lecture per week

Scope and syllabus

  • Lecture 1: Introduction to the course
  • Lecture 2: Indian Philosophical Thought at the time of the Buddha
  • Lecture 3: Early Buddhist Doctrines
  • Lecture 4: Abhidharma Scholasticism
  • Lecture 5: Early Prajñāpāramitā Literature and the Doctrine of Emptiness
  • Lecture 6: The (new) Middle Way: Nāgārjuna and the Inception of Mādhyamika thought
  • Lecture 7: The systematisation of Mādhyamika Philosophy
  • Lecture 8: A Buddha Within: The Doctrine of the Tathāgatagarbha
  • Lecture 9: The Yogācāra School and its Principal Masters: Asaṅga, Vasubandhu and Sthiramati.
  • Lecture 10: Yogācāra Doctrines: New Models of Consciousness and Experience

Method of assessment

  • One 1000 word essay (30%); one 2,000 word essay (70%)

Suggested reading

  • Dunne, John (2004) Foundations of Dharmakīrti's Philosophy, Boston: Wisdom Publications (JA181.043 /948401).
  • Eltschinger, Vincent (2014) Buddhist Epistemology as Apologetics: Studies on the History, Self-understanding and Dogmatic Foundations of Late Indian Buddhist Philosophy, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna (A181.043 /505644 ).
  • Gold, Jonathan (2014) Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu's Unifying Buddhist Philosophy, Columbia University Press, New York (on order).
  • Huntington, C. W. (1989) The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Mādhyamika, University of Hawaii Press, Honululu (JA294.392 /689724).
  • Seyfort Ruegg, David (1989) Buddha-nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective, School of Oriental and African Studies, London (J294.3 /578962).
  • Seyfort Ruegg, David (1981) The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden (KC891.2 /455009).
  • Willemen, Ch., Dessein, B. & Cox, C. (1997) Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism, Leiden: Brill (JA294.391 /749412)
  • Williams, Paul (2000) Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, Routledge, London (JA294.3 /840690).
  • Williams, Paul (2008) Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, London (J294.392 /688801).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules