It is generally accepted that Buddhist philosophy, as formalised in the texts of Dignana and Dharmakīrti, is resolutely nominalist in orientation. Briefly, this is because of the following characteristics:

Momentariness and Particularity: Buddhist epistemology and metaphysics, especially as articulated by Dharmakīrti and his followers, emphasize the concept of "ksana" or momentary existence. Every phenomenon is unique and exists only for a moment, after which it ceases to be. This emphasis on the particularity and fleeting nature of phenomena aligns with a nominalist perspective, as there's no lasting, eternal substance or universal essence behind these phenomena.

Denial of Svabhāva: Many Buddhist schools, particularly the Madhyamaka, deny the notion of "svabhāva" or inherent existence. Phenomena don't have an inherent, unchanging essence or nature. Instead, they exist interdependently. This challenges the idea that there are stable universals or abstract entities behind the individual particulars.

Use of Concepts and Designations: While Buddhists accept the practical use of concepts and general terms, they often regard them as mere designations or conventions ("prajñapti") that do not correspond to any real, independent entity in the world. Words and concepts group diverse and ever-changing phenomena under convenient labels for the sake of communication and understanding, but these labels do not capture the ultimate nature of things.

Rejection of a Permanent Self: At the core of Buddhist teachings is the doctrine of anātman or non-self. Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent, unchanging self or soul. This can be seen as a form of nominalism applied to personal identity, where the concept of a continuous, unified self is rejected in favor of a more fluid and contingent notion of identity.

Functionalism over Essentialism: In the Dharmakīrti tradition and other Buddhist systems, the function (or causal efficacy) of an entity is more important than any alleged essence. What makes something what it is, is not some inherent essence but its functional role.

Apoha Logic: The apoha theory avoids the commitment to universals. Instead of saying that all cows share a universal essence of "cow-ness," the apoha approach posits that our concept of "cow" merely excludes everything that isn't a cow. This approach sidesteps the metaphysical commitment to a universal essence shared among individual cows.

However, as a long-time student of both Buddhist and Western philosophy, the (heretical?) idea has occurred to me that there is a clear example of a universal right at the centre of the Buddhist tradition. And that is the Buddha! Why? Because, as is well known, Sakyamuni himself was not the only Buddha - there were Buddhas before him, and there will be future Buddhas, such as Maitreya. Something similar can be said of the bodhisattvas, who are exemplifications of a type or form. So in this case, Sakyamuni himself was one instantiation or particular instance of the Universal Buddha.

As I admit, it's an heretical suggestion, as Buddhist logic will never admit the reality of universals. But I find it hard to reconcile the 'idea of the Buddha' against their 'apoha logic'. Has this idea occured to anyone else?

5 Answers 5


The Buddha was elevated to a universal only in late Mahayana, where they extrapolated the notion of Dharma-as-universal-law => Dharmakaya => Universal Buddha.

In the original Buddhism it was the law of nature as the "root source" of the teaching e.g. SN12.20:

Whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles, specific conditionality.

A Realized One understands this and comprehends it, then he explains, teaches, asserts, establishes, clarifies, analyzes, and reveals it.

And from the existence of "regularity" it follows that from time to time someone will be able to understand it and construct a teaching e.g. the Eightfold Noble Path based on these principles.

  • 'this law of nature persists' i.e. is universal. I think the root of the issue is that Buddhism doesn't possess the epistemological framework within which the concept of universals is intelligible, so they treat them as being on par with phenomena.
    – Wayfarer
    Sep 29, 2023 at 0:36
  • 1
    correct, it is a universal
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 29, 2023 at 0:37

The post forming the question, here, is referring to a type of Mahayana Logic rather than to Buddhist Logic, per se. Theravada Buddhism acknowledges 'sabhava'; although the meaning of 'sabhava' in Theravada is not the same as held in Mahayana.

In Theravada, the word 'sabhava' does not mean 'inherent existence'. The word 'sabhava' means 'intrinsic nature' or 'own nature'. Here, refer to the Abhidhammattha Sangaha and search for the word 'sabh'. For example, page 137 says:

Nibbana is timeless because its intrinsic nature (sabhava) is without arising, change & passing away.

What this means is an element (dhatu) has its own nature, such as the element of consciousness has the nature of being consciousness rather than has the nature of being a 'self'. This meaning of 'sabhava', here, is not at all related to the interdependent arising of phenomena because 'sabhava' does not imply independence. Whether or not consciousness arises dependent upon the eye, the ears, a form, a sound, etc, does not change the reality that when consciousness arises it is simply consciousness. It is not self arising. Therefore, the doctrine of sabhava is the same as the doctrine of not-self & emptiness.

If the mind struggles to understand this naturalness of 'sabhava', the Pali Suttas, while not using the word 'sabhava', express the meaning of 'sabhava' as follows:

"And why do you call it 'form'? Because it is afflicted, thus it is called 'form.'

"And why do you call it 'feeling'? Because it feels, thus it is called 'feeling.'

"And why do you call it 'perception'? Because it perceives, thus it is called 'perception.'

"And why do you call them 'fabrications'? Because they fabricate fabricated things, thus they are called 'fabrications.'

"And why do you call it 'consciousness'? Because it cognizes, thus it is called consciousness.

SN 22.79

The conflict Mahayana has with Theravada is Mahayana appears to say there are two types of emptiness: (i) emptiness of self; & (ii) emptiness of 'thingness' or 'inherent nature of each element'. Its like saying the earth or water element do not really exist; that there is really no such thing as earth, water or consciousness. This later idea is obviously a nonsense. There is water, which is why water quenches the thirst of the body & then is urinated out of the body. If there was no water, there would be no trees, no crops, no food, no life.


I believe that the concepts of Dharmakaya (eternal truth form) and Nirmanakaya (physical form) originated from the following sutta quote.

The Buddha downplayed the importance of his physical form and advised Ven. Vakkali to focus on the teachings, stating that when one sees the Buddha, one sees the Dharma (teachings), and when one sees the Dharma, one sees the Buddha.

In other words, the Dharma is what the Buddha stands for, and the Dharma is what the Buddha represents. The Dharma (teachings) is his eternal "form".

Vakkali: “For a long time, venerable sir, I have wanted to come to see the Blessed One, but I haven’t been fit enough to do so.”

Buddha: “Enough, Vakkali! Why do you want to see this foul body? One who sees the Dhamma (teachings) sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma (teachings). For in seeing the Dhamma (teachings), Vakkali, one sees me; and in seeing me, one sees the Dhamma (teachings).
Vakkali Sutta (SN 22.87)

I believe that the concept where the Nirmanakayas of all the past Buddhas emanate from one Dharmakaya originates from the following sutta quote.

It simply means that all the past and future Buddhas rediscover, understand and teach the same Dharma (teachings), because it is the natural law.

Hence their physical appearance as teachers, emanate from the Dharma (teachings) as their one eternal "form". In other words, all the Buddhas stand for the same Dharma (teachings) and all the Buddhas represent the same Dharma (teachings).

Past Buddhas,
future Buddhas,
& he who is the Buddha now,
removing the sorrow of many —

all have dwelt,
will dwell, he dwells,
revering the true Dhamma.
This, for Buddhas, is a natural law.

Therefore one who desires his own good,
aspiring for greatness,
should respect the true Dhamma,
recollecting the Buddhas' Teaching.
Garava Sutta (SN 6.2)

Due to this, apoha logic is maintained and not contradicted.


This question is an interesting example of the creation of a problem to justify mind-activity. Yes, some Buddhist schools lean nominalist, but asserting that as a 'resolute orientation' begs the question and sets up the problematic that follows. If we don't make that assertion, the question (^poof^) disappears.

In general, Buddhism takes an agnostic view. It doesn't claim that things don't exist any more than it claims they do exist. Instead, it teaches that the thinking (egoic) mind — language and thoughts and such — is incapable of encapsulating what is. A word or concept might partially grasp how things are, might tangentially refer to them, or might be entirely arbitrary or illusory desires or fantasies. A cube, a cow, a self... These concepts might or might not refer to something in the real world. But if they do, that 'something' is not (cannot be) what we think the word means.

It's the 'finger pointing at the moon' metaphor. Getting so caught up in the finger that we miss the moon is an error, and getting so caught up in the moon that we forget about the finger is an error. The point is to see them both for what they are, beyond the labels.

Being Buddha merely means being awake: perceiving the world as to is, not how it is imagined to be. It's an attitude or a worldview, not an identity. Or if it is an identity (as some people take it) it's an identity like 'doctor' that indicates a role a person serves for others. Best not to read more into it than that.


Are you saying that there are no universals ? It depends on condition. If there is birth then there is ageing and death. And along with it whole mass of suffering arises. It is universal if there is birth.

If there is a sanskar or conditioning then it is impermanent. This is also universal if conditions are met.

All Dhammas (conditioned and unconditioned) are without any self (temporary or permanent). This is also universal.

It is not abstract. It is the reality which can only be discerned by mind. Things are not as they appear to be.

Dependent origination is also universal.

I am wondering where is nominalism which states that there are no universals. You can say instead of universals there are conditionals except Nibbana.

  • @Deeraj Verma - 'I am wondering where is nominalism which states that there are no universals' - this is a question from Western philosophy, where 'universal' has a specific meaning. Universals in Western philosophy are abstracts like 'roundness' or 'whiteness' or 'triangularity', which are said to be 'instantiated' by particulars. So, balls are instantiations of the form of roundness. Buddhist logic disputes the existence of universals in that sense. But it's a difficult argument, because Western and Buddhist philosophy have very different background assumptions.
    – Wayfarer
    Sep 30, 2023 at 7:50
  • See this entry for a brief summary en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominalism#Indian_philosophy
    – Wayfarer
    Sep 30, 2023 at 7:52
  • @Wayfarer balls are instantiation of roundness from western point of view but balls are instantiation of Anatta and Impermanence and are true for all objects living or not.(impermanence doesn’t apply to Nibbana) Sep 30, 2023 at 8:18
  • balls, however, are different to all the things which are not balls, according to apoha logic.
    – Wayfarer
    Sep 30, 2023 at 21:23
  • @Wayfarer Impermanence and Anatta applies to all things which have an origin or conditioned. Nibbana is unoriginated, unconditioned. The above two statements are Universals and applies to all things. You , me , Earth , Table , balls , countries , cities, Gods , Devils etc. This is how you should see everything. Sep 30, 2023 at 23:23

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .