On the Problem of the Relation of Spiritual Practice and Philosophical Theory in Buddhism

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On the Problem of the Relation of Spiritual Practice and Philosophical Theory in Buddhism
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Citation: Schmithausen, Lambert. "On the Problem of the Relation of Spiritual Practice and Philosophical Theory in Buddhism." In Vol. 2, German Scholars on India: Contributions to Indian Studies, edited by the Cultural Department of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, New Delhi, 235–50. Bombay: Nachiketa Publications, 1976. https://archive.org/details/germanscholarsonindiavolume2nachiketapublications_20200306_38/page/n307/mode/2up.

Abstract

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Everyone who has had at least some glimpses at Buddhism knows that it contains various philosophical theories as well as various spiritual practices. The term ' philosophical theory ' should be understood here in a general sense comprising any attempt to make rational statements about the true nature or the fundamental principles of the totality or some part of the existent, or about those aspects of it of which everyday experience is not aware. In this sense, philosophical theories in Buddhism are, e.g., the doctrine that there is no substantial Self, no ātman; or the doctrine that the whole universe consists of momentary factors, of factors each of which lasts only for the time of an extremely short moment. ' Spiritual practice ', in the case of Buddhism, consists essentially of moral or ethical exercises, and of practices of meditation, deep concentration, or trance. As an example, we may adduce the so-called four 'infinitudes', or 'unlimited ones' (apramāṇa), i.e. the meditative practice of the attitudes of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and impartiality or equanimity with regard to all living beings. Another example is the 'contemplation of the impure' (aśubhabhāvanā). Here the Yogin, in order to subdue excessive covetousness, contemplates dead bodies in their different stages of decomposition. In this exercise, it is not necessary that the Yogin actually stays at a cemetery for the whole time. He may well continue the exercise at any other place, making use of a special meditative practice in which he is able to visualize those dead bodies he saw previously.
      In this article I want to contribute to the solution of the problem of the historical relation of these two elements — philosophical theory and spiritual practice — in Buddhism. Did Buddhism usually start from philosophical theories and afterwards develop corresponding spiritual practices? Or is it more typical for Buddhism that first there are spiritual practices and that philosophical theories are only the result of a subsequent reflection which leads to a theoretical consolidation and generalization of those spiritual practices? (Schmithausen, "On the Problem of the Relation of Spiritual Practice and Philosophical Theory in Buddhism," 235)