Continental Philosophy and Buddhist Texts

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Jeff Wilson


        Some of the concepts contained in the Sanskrit and Pali Buddhist texts do not have clear equivalents in the English language. Behind each language lies a great background of cultural symbolism and linguistic usage. Terms such as ‘insight’, ‘consciousness’ and even ‘spirituality’ are understood in the West according to a cultural heritage that has its roots firmly embedded in Judeo-Christian narratives and cosmologies.
        However, ‘continental philosophy’, with its notions of the ‘deconstruction’ of culturally constructed ideas and the transcendence of the symbolic self, are related directly to Buddhist epistemology. The Pali term anatta or ‘non-self’ resonates strongly with the postmodern issue of the symbolic self, an illusory sense of self that emerges from a radically objective interpretation of the world. Both Buddhism and continental philosophy share the idea that all perspectives are conditioned viewpoints. The Pali term saṅkhārā expresses this notion of conditioning and the five aggregates of existence (pañcupādānakkhandā) demonstrate the way this conditioning takes place by means of the human tendency to cling to sensory objects and to identify with personal feelings and thoughts.
        Many Buddhist texts employ narrative strategies such as metaphor, analogy and semiotic flow to express contemplative experiences and levels of consciousness that cannot be adequately described in the third-person oriented, propositional language of Western academia. Academic terminology is dominated by a thirst for objective facts because its roots still lie in a Cartesian logico-empiricism. It is therefore necessary to consider the great distance between the linguistic and narrative foundations of Buddhism and present-day Western culture: it becomes necessary to find an appropriate terminology or ‘language’ to fruitfully interpret the wisdom of these ancient documents. This paper will argue that the form of expression employed by continental philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida is just such a language.


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Wilson, J. . (2018). Continental Philosophy and Buddhist Texts. Journal of Buddhist Education and Research, 4(1), 8–22. Retrieved from
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