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Seeing the Different Philosophical Schools as a Gradual Process 

-Eveline Zwahlen, BA student form Switzerland

In the context of Abhidharma, the various philosophical schools are discussed in considerable detail. It is emphasized that an increasingly more subtle view of reality characterizes these schools. Hearing this, one might be inclined to the idea that it is sufficient to study the expositions of the school with the most profound view. However, such an approach has not proven successful for me. Instead, it was helpful to understand the different philosophical schools as progressive stages, with the Madhyamika school representing the most profound view, as discussed in Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche’s Gateway to Knowledge

The Buddhist path aims to recognize reality as it is, as this insight enables practitioners to attain freedom from samsara. In the fifth chapter of the Gateway to Knowledge, Mipham illustrates the different levels of subtlety of both non-Buddhist and Buddhist philosophical schools when analyzing the ultimate nature of things. The author roughly divides the non-Buddhist schools into two categories—the proponents of nihilism and the proponents of eternalism. The proponents of nihilism hold that beings and their environment arise from the four primary elements and dissolve back into these when their life cycle ends. They do not accept karma and rebirth, as they are not observable. The proponents of eternalism accept karma and rebirth and strive to attain permanent bliss. They assume an eternal force that is permanent, singular, and independent, from which all things originate. From a Buddhist perspective, none of these systems can lead to liberation from samsara, as their proponents cling in one way or another to a self and thus fail to recognize reality as it is. 

In contrast, all four Buddhist schools presented by Mipham refute the existence of an inherent self and show a path that leads out of samsara. However, the first three schools, the Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, and Mind Only, ascribe true existence to certain phenomena in one form or another. The Madhyamaka school is the only one to reveal that all phenomena appear by the power of dependent origination but are empty of inherent existence when analyzed closely. This insight into the inseparable unity of dependent origination and emptiness reveals precisely how things are. Therefore, Mipham presents the Madhyamaka school as the unsurpassed of all philosophical schools. 

I consider the presentation of the different philosophical schools as a process of gradual development very helpful. Being raised in a nihilistic environment, I found the teachings on emptiness frightening and incomprehensible when I learned about them for the first time. Starting with the views of non-Buddhist schools, as presented in the Gateway to Knowledge, was very valuable to me as I recognized many of my views and appreciated the debate on the erroneous aspects of such a perspective. The presentation of the different Buddhist schools has deepened this investigation even further and helped me recognize their progressively more subtle approach to ultimate reality. Furthermore, my appreciation for the immense profundity of each Buddhist school has increased significantly thanks to this clear and well-structured presentation. 

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