philosophy and ethics

budd top

mel'With its blending of wisdom and compassion, Buddhism offers a view of the world that has transformed the lives of millions of individuals over the last two and a half thousand years.

Its ideas are not presented as having inflexible religious authority, nor simply as an intellectual challenge, but as an invitation to reflect on the nature of reality and on the universal human quest for happiness in a world where everything is changing and nothing is secure.'

from the introduction to Buddhism: Key Ideas

Matthieu Ricard

Every week, the Buddhist monk, philosopher and photographer Matthieu Ricard shares inspiring quotes from Buddhist writers along with his photographs. He has also written some remarkable books, inclusing especially Altruism. Take a look at his website here. If you are interested in Buddhism, whether from a religious or a purely secular point of view (although that distinction doesn't really apply when thinking about Buddhism), you'll find his blog and publications a constant source of inspiration.

Here's an example...

If one were to summarize the Buddha's teaching in one word, we would have to say that it is universal interdependence, of which nonviolence is a natural consequence. Since we are all dependent on each other and all other beings want to be happy and not suffer, just as I do, my personal happiness and suffering are inextricably linked with those of others. This nonviolence does not mean weakness or passivity. It is the deliberate choice of altruism in all our thoughts and actions, so that it becomes inconceivable to knowingly harm others.

Dalai Lama: teachings in Amaravati, India, 2005  

(To me, this is the essential starting point for Buddhist philosophy and ethics.)

young monks

Young men in northern Thailand, towards the end of their time spent as monks during the Rains Retreat.

buddhism cover

From Abhidhamma to Zen, this book offers a simple introduction to key Buddhist ideas - each explained in straightforward language.

Each idea is linked to others, so you can start with any one entry - the Buddha, perhaps, or Meditation or Zen - and follow the links to related topics, building up a complete picture of the key ideas of Buddhism.

It is ideal for anyone wanting to get a systematic grasp of Buddhist thought and for students looking either for a quick introduction to its ideas, or revising for examinations. The language is accessible and suitable for students at GCSE and above.

I have self-published this book as cheaply as possible. It replaces my earlier title 101 Key Ideas: Buddhism, which was published by Hodder Education in 2000, as part of their 101 Key Ideas series

Available in Kindle format for only £1.99 / $2.99!

Buy from Amazon in the USA

Buy from Amazon in the UK 

There is a review extract in the left-had column (if viewing on a phone, turn it sideways).

Buddhism and philosophical speculation

Buddhism is certainly not against philosophy. At it peak, before being destroyed in the Muslim invasions of northern India, the Buddhist University of Nalanda had some three thousand scholars drawn from all over India and also from China, Korea, Tibet, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Sumatra. Systematic study was at the heart of Buddhist training, and Nalanda offered courses in grammar and philology, medicine, logic, the fine arts and metaphysics.

On the other hand, the Buddha was concerned to distinguish between things that could be examined profitably and those metaphysical questions that would never be resolved and which might prove to be no more than a distraction. Questions the Buddha refused to answer include:

Now this might seem a major oversight, especially since we are looking at the Buddhist contribution to Eastern Philosophy. On closer inspection, the matter becomes clearer. What the Buddha was refusing to do was to take sides in contemporary philosophical debate. One reason for this may well have been that all such debate depends on the acceptance of key terms and concepts, and by refusing to enter into metaphysical debate he was emphasising the inadequacy of existing concepts. As in many areas, the Buddha sought to take a middle path. To have said that the world as eternal would have been inadequate to the point of being wrong. On the other hand to say that it was not eternal would have been equally misleading. He therefore affirms a 'neither this, neither that' approach and refuses to give an answer that could subsequently be misunderstood.

More importantly, however, by denying the validity of such questions, and by insisting that his sole aim was to resolve the problem of human suffering, he effectively makes speculation for its own sake a sideline, emphasising the place of the problem of suffering and the means of overcoming it at the heart of the philosophical quest.

In one of the collections of early sutras (The Majjhima Nikaya), the Buddha says that any idea of ‘I am this’ is a conceiving, or ‘I shall be formless’ is a conceiving. He wants none of this speculation and declared:
            ‘… conceiving is a disease, conceiving is a tumour, conceiving is a dart.’  (MN  140)
and that, by overcoming all such conceiving one may become ‘a sage at peace’.
Those who who concentrate on the cultural or religious artefacts of Buddhism - the temples, monks and images - may miss the very radical nature of the Buddhist view of reality. It is a view which cannot be encapsulated in conceptual terms alone. But above all else, it is a view of the world as dynamic, as a process of interconnecting relationships and conditions.

A Western comment...
For a Western thinker – schooled since Descartes with the idea that ‘I think, therefore I am’, and thus the self as an indubitable fixed point, or since Aquinas in the idea of God as an unmoved mover, uncaused cause, source of all values, the intelligent and purposeful designer – these twin certainties of much traditional western metaphysics are removed by Buddhism. In their place is an ever-changing reality which is only known in its immediacy and through participation, never captured conceptually.
For Western philosophy that takes this element of change and process seriously, one might look at Heraclitus among the ancients. Among modern philosophers, process has been a major theme of H. Bergson and A. N. Whitehead.

waterFor all these years, my certain Zen:
neither I nor the world exist.
The sutras neat within the box,
my cane hooked upon the wall,
I lie at peace in moonlight
or, hearing water splashing on the rock,
sit up: none can purchase pleasure such as this:
spangled across the step-moss, a million coins.
Shutaku (1308 - 1388)

Translation: Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, in The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry.

A pragmatic philosophy...

If Buddhism were simply a philosophy, the term used for it would be darsana (meaning ‘view’ or ‘direct vision’ and used of all the major Indian philosophies). In fact, another term is used – yana, ‘vehicle’.  Buddhism is therefore seen as a spiritual vehicle, a means of making progress. Those things that do not contribute to the liberation of human beings from suffering and ignorance may be ignored as irrelevant.

The Mahaparinibbana Sutta contains a list of essential teachings, believed to have been given by the Buddha, shortly before his death, to his cousin and companion Ananda. The list contains seven key features, broken down into what are known as the ‘37 Aids to Enlightenment’. It is interesting that this summary contains no speculative propositions of any kind. It includes the cultivation of awareness of body, feeling, mental states and objects of thought, moving on to describe the right efforts required, spiritual faculties and powers to be explored, even enlightenment factors including mindfulness, awareness of Dharma, enthusiastic effort, rapture, serenity, concentration and equanimity. It also includes the Eightfold Path, described above.

Such a summary should come as no surprise, since pratitya samutpada (interconnectedness) - which is the key concept at the very heart of the whole of Buddhist philosophy - points out that all things arise in dependence upon conditions. What the Buddha set out in his summary of teachings was the set of spiritual parameters which aimed to help individuals to create the conditions which would allow them to become enlightened.

A Western comment...
In scientific research, the observer and method of observation may influence the conclusions reached. So, for example, in psychoanalysis the analyst is trained to recognise and eliminate the influence of his or her own prejudices. In other words, there is a recognition of the connection between conditions, method and conclusions. Only if the former is acknowledged and taken into account can the  latter is to be assessed correctly.
In Postmodernism, the material, the medium and the method of artistic creation are the object of attention. One cannot pretend that there is some abstract ‘reality’ to be communicated which is external to and independent of the vehicle of its communication.

By emphasising the conditions required for insight, rather than simply stating its conceptual content, Buddhism acknowledges the interconnection between methods and results.

In a traditional Buddhist formulation, the Ti Ratana Vandana (Salutation to the Three Jewels), the Buddha’s teaching is described as:

Sanditthiko akaliko ehipassiko opanayiko paccatam veditabbo vinnuiti.

A broad translation of which would be:

Immediately obvious; always available; something to be examined by trying it out; progressive; to be understood individually by those who are wise.

In other words, Buddhist philosophy claims to be an undogmatic, rational and pragmatic approach to understanding reality.

(an extract from Eastern Philosophy)

big budd

Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor's book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist is part autobiography, part biography of the Buddha and part survey of what has happened to Buddhism over the last 40 years in terms of the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to the West and its engagement (or lack of it) with western thinking.

It will be of interest to those asking radical questions about the relationship between a pragmatic approach to the potential benefits of religion and the dilemma about beliefs that are intellectually indefensible (in Western terms, at least).  He touches on existentialism, and the theology of Paul Tillich and Don Cupitt - with references to many Western thinkers, from Buber to Dawkins. Click here to buy from Amazon in the USA. or the UK

It is an interesting follow-up to Buddhism Without Beliefs, which is a valuable work for anyone struggling with the issue of beliefs and intellectual integrity - very readable, clear and liberating!  Click here to buy from Amazon in the USA.  or the UK

Here's what Christopher Hitchens says on the back cover of the Confessions:

'The human thirst for the transcendent, the numinous - even the ecstatic - is too universal and too important to be entrusted to the cultish and the archaic and the superstitious. In this honest and serious book of self-examination and critical scrutiny, Stephen Batchelor adds the universe of Buddhism to the many fields in which received truth and blind faith are now giving way to ethical and scientific humanism, in which lies our only real hope.'

mugExcept... I'd want to add that Stephen Batchelor and others are helping scientific humanism to appreciate that there is a richness to be discovered in some religious traditions, for those who have the courage not to be blinded my scientific and literary fundamentalism. Just as it takes courage for those who come from a religious background to shed literal supernaturalism!


incenseOffering incense; Hong Kong.


Looking for another subject?

'All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come from wanting pleasure for oneself.'

'The Way of the Bodhisattva', Shantideva (685-763)

young monk

My own books on Buddhism...


...originally published as... 

budd 101

The new ebook contains the same 101 explanation of Buddhist ideas, but the text has been revised, photographs have been added and it now has a full set of links to move around from one idea to another.

Here's a review on Amazon of the original book:

'I was having trouble getting my head round many aspects of my Buddhism A-Level but as soon as I read this book it all became clear. It is a match between a dictionary and a text book, it only tells you the things you really need to know. I could not reccommend it enough to anyone who is either studying the subject or thinking of becoming a Buddhist.'

Here are three books for school use...

Seeking Religion: The Buddhist Experience

For key stage 3  (12-14 years)

This book offers a factual, balanced and culturally sensitive approach to Buddhism, along with opportunities for students to explore and reflect on their own beliefs and values, in the light of Buddhist teaching.

Available from Amazon...

in the UK

in the USA

Buddhism: a new approach

For GCSE (14-16 years)

This book combines a factual outline of the lifestyle, beliefs and practices of the Buddhist community, with questions and activities to stimulate imaginative empathy and to encourage personal reflection.

This original edition - now out of print - was written jointly with Steve Clarke, who has now written a new edition. Used copies are available on Amazon, or try Steve Clarke's new edition.

Available from Amazon...

in the UK

Buddhism (World Faiths series)

Published by Chrysalis Children's Books, with a simple but factually accurate text and delightful illustrations, this book offers an introduction to Buddhist beliefs and practices, aiming to give children a sensitive view of Buddhism both as a religion and as a view of life.

Available from Amazon...

in the UK

in the USA


Click the cover to see my review of Julian Baggini's very useful book for those exploring beyond Western Philosophy.

Where to start?

My personal view is that the best starting point for anyone who wants to appreciate the Buddhist view of life is to read the Dhammapada, an early collection of Buddha's teachings. It contains the core ideas without the later religious and cultural overlays.


buy now in the UK

buy now in the USA 

These links take you to the Oxford World Classics edition, but there are many other good translations available.

budd side

This huge image of the Buddha, filling the building within which it is housed, looks down in serene calm on visitors to Wat Po, Bangkok, Thailand.


Monks chanting before receiving a meal, prepared for them by a family. Wat Po, Bangkok, Thailand.


Understand Eastern Philosophy

has chapters on Early Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Tantra and Zen

world phil





There are sections in World Philosophy introducing Buddhists and other Eastern philosophies. Here's a sample page. Click here for more information about this book.


Stupas in Wat Po, Bangkok, Thailand

Interested in Buddhist ethics?

Then try the the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, for a wide range of articles. 

 Secular Buddhism

secular buddhismThe Secular Buddhism Association follows 'a natural, pragmatic approach to early Buddhist teachings and pratice'. Take a look at their website Secular Buddhism. org.

There's a really useful dialogue, posted on this website, between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt, who represents a radical secular approach to Christianity. It includes a personal introduction by Stephen Batchelor. See the dialogue here. 


For information on Buddhist Philosophy, the BuddhaNet gives a useful range of study materials from basic introductions to illustrations of Buddhist art. It covers all the main branches of Buddhism, and presents Buddhist teachings in a particularly accessible and straightforward way. Just click on .