Gautama Buddha lived during the 5th century BCE and was the founder of the Buddhist religion. He also developed a rich philosophical system of thought that challenged notions of permanence and personal identity.

Buddhism is typically considered a religion but it also has a strong philosophical foundation and has inspired a rich tradition of philosophical inquiry, especially in India and China, and, increasingly, Western countries.

Buddhism emerged from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince who turned his back on a life of leisure and opulence. Instead, he sought to understand the causes of suffering and how we might be able to be liberated from it.

Coincidentally, Gautama Buddha lived around the 5th Century BCE, which is at a similar time to two other great philosophers in different corners of the world – Socrates in Ancient Greece and Confucius in China – both of whom sparked their own major philosophical traditions.

Desire, happiness and suffering

Like many philosophers – from Aristotle to Peter Singer – one might say the Buddha was interested in how to live a good life. The starting point of his teachings is that life is suffering, which sounds like a pessimistic start, but he was just reminding us none of us can escape things like illness, death, loss, or these days, doing our tax returns.

Buddha went on to explain suffering is not random or uncaused. In fact, he argued if we can come to understand the causes of suffering, then we can do something about it. We can even become liberated from suffering and achieve nirvana, which is a state of pure enlightenment.

Many philosophers believe this teaching is just as relevant today as it was over 2,000 years ago. We’re told today that we ought to be happy, and that happiness comes from being able to satisfy our desires. Our entire economy is predicated on this idea. So we work hard, earn money, get stressed, buy more stuff, yet many of us can’t seem to find deeper satisfaction.

It turns out that no matter what desires we satisfy, there are more desires that crop up to take their place. And there are some desires that never go away, like the desire for status or wealth, and some desires that can never be satisfied, like when we experience unrequited love. And when we can’t satisfy our desires, we experience suffering.

The Buddha said this is because we have our theory of happiness backwards. Happiness doesn’t come from satisfying ever more desires – it comes from reducing our desires so there are fewer that need to be satisfied. It’s only when we desire nothing and we can just be that we are truly free from suffering.

Thus the Buddha argues our suffering is not caused by the whims of an indifferent world outside of our control. Rather, the cause of suffering is within our own minds. If we can change our minds, we can find liberation from suffering. This led him to develop a theory of our minds and how we perceive reality.


He said that one of the fundamental mistakes in the way we think about the world is to believe in the permanence of things. We assume (or desire) that things will last forever, whether that be our youth, our possessions or our relationships with loved ones, and we become attached to them.

So when they inevitably erode, decay or disappear – we grow old, our possessions wear out, our loved ones move on – we suffer. But this suffering is only because we failed to realise that nothing is permanent, that all things are in flux, and if we can come to enjoy things without being attached to them, then we would suffer less.

Tibetan Buddhist monks have a ritual where they spend weeks painstakingly creating incredibly detailed and beautiful mandalas made out of coloured sand. Then, once they’re finished, they ritualistically sweep the sand away, destroying the mandala, and drop the collected sand into a river to flow back into the world, representing their embrace of impermanence.

The self

Another core philosophical insight from Buddhism was to question our sense of self. It’s natural to believe there is something at the core of our being that is unchanging, whether that be our soul, mind or personality.

But the Buddha noted when you try to pin down what that permanent aspect of ourselves is, you find there’s nothing there, just a stream of impressions, thoughts and feelings. So our sense that there is a persistent self is ultimately an illusion. We are just as dynamic and impermanent as the rest of the world around us. And if we can realise this, we can release ourselves from the pretense of what we think we are and we can just be.

Interestingly, this is very similar to an observation made by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who said when he introspected, he could never settle on the solid core to his self. Rather, his self was like a swarm of bees with no boundary and no hard centre, with each being an individual thought or experience. The Buddha would likely have enjoyed this analogy.


One of the aspects of Buddhism that has had the most lasting impact is the practice of meditation, particularly mindful meditation. The recent mindfulness movement is based on a form of Buddhist meditation that encourages us to sit quietly and let our thoughts come and go without judgement. Essentially, we must ignore our thoughts in order to control and be free from them. Modern science has shown that this kind of meditation can reduce stress and improve our focus and mood.  

Buddhism is not only the fourth largest religion in the world with over 500 million adherents today, and third largest in Australia, but it continues to be a rich vein of philosophical inquiry.

Western philosophy was rather slow to take Buddhism seriously, but there are now many Western philosophers who are engaging with Buddhist ideas about reality, knowledge, the mind, the self and ethics.