The Three Modes of the Buddha’s Dharma

Journal of Indian Philosophy 49 (1):23-44 (2021)
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With regards the crucial issue of the existence of the self, within canonical texts of the Buddhist Abhidharma schools we find passages that are frequently at odds with one another. Sometimes the Buddha defends or respects the belief in the self and in personal continuity; at other times he seems to deny that beyond the psycho-physical factors to which our existential experience can be reduced there is an ātman that contains, owns or controls these same factors; in further cases still, he states that the use of the metaphysical categories of “being” and “non-being” must be avoided – thus, about the self (or everything else), it is inappropriate to say that it exists or that it does not exist. Faced with these divergences (or contradictions) within contemporary Buddhist studies, we can detect two main tendencies. Some scholars start from the assumption that the Buddha’s teaching is or should be coherent and univocal, and, therefore, propose readings of his original message that are supposed to iron out or conciliate any inconsistencies. Others believe that the inconsistencies are actually irreconcilable and, therefore, maintain that the Abhidharma canons are a composite and stratified redaction in which the opposite views of different writers overlap and intersect. Against these historiographical approaches, the purpose of the present paper is to show that the three aforementioned modes of the Buddha’s teaching are, in fact, both alternative and irreconcilable. This, however, far from presenting a puzzle to be solved or explained (by resorting to suppositions of which, in the canons, we have no explicit confirmation), is nothing more than a feature of the Buddha’s Dharma, which appears to be a teaching that develops different pedagogical/soteriological modes for different purposes, and which is conceived for the spiritual growth of followers with different intellectual and psychological profiles.



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Giuseppe Ferraro
Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais

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