What does the Buddha mean by 'the all' (sabba) as found in the suttas? How is this perspective categorized philosophically and how does this perspective compare with other modern philosophies?

I have a good understanding of the early Buddhist perspective but am clueless as to the academic philosophical context. Is it for example both a rational and empirical way of seeing the world, is it one among other similar perspectives, is it defensible?

2 Answers 2


If you are interested in the intersection between Buddhist and Western philosophy, a good place to begin is with Mark Siderits's book, Buddhism As Philosophy: An Introduction. Tom McEvilley's book The Shape of Ancient Thought offers a historical perspective of the inter-connections between the ancient Greek and Indian philosophical traditions.

Now, as to your more specific question: the canonical source on this matter is SN25.23, the Sabba Sutta, where "the all" is defined as: "Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas."

As you no doubt know, the Kantian distinction between the sensible and the intelligible is, in Buddhist thought, collapsed into one level, so that they speak of six senses: the five traditional senses plus the "mind" or "intellect"-- and each of the six has a "sense door" (the eye, the ear, etc.) plus a field or domain of sense (vision, sound, etc.)

So, "the all" is defined as the six senses plus the domains of each of the senses.

Put another way: "the all" anything that is capable of being experienced in any manner whatsoever.

As the Sabba Sutta explains, claiming knowledge of something outside of "the all" would be self-defeating: "if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, [her] would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range."

Is it for example both a rational and empirical way of seeing the world, is it one among other similar perspectives, is it defensible?

It superficially appears to be empirical, but is somewhat different than empiricism as traditional constituted, because of the inclusion of the intelligible. It is an eminently defensible position; I don't know off-hand of any philosophers who dispute it (although there may be some I am not remembering at the moment.)

  • Thanks @Michael Dorfman. I appreciate that you quoted the relevant sentences from the already short source as well as addressing my example sub-questions. Could you elaborate on the statement 'superficially appears to be empirical ... because of inclusion of the intelligible'? Is this because the intelligible is not an empirical source (I naively hear 'thoughts can not be observed') or simply because a classical definition of empirical simply does not include the intelligible, or..? As for category, I was looking for something of a pigeon hole like 'idealism' or the intersection of some Venn.
    – alex
    Jan 14, 2013 at 14:56
  • It is very difficult to place philosophical schools into pigeon-holes; interpretations vary. I'd suggest you look up some of the key categories (such as Idealism or Empiricism or Rationalism) in a good encyclopedia like the SEP (plato.stanford.edu). Very schematically-- the fact that Buddhism treats the intelligible as just another form of sense-perception complicates the efforts to categorize Buddhist doctrine according to Western categories. There is much literature on Buddhist Philosophy as seen by western-influenced scholars; the bibliography in the Siderits book is a good start. Jan 14, 2013 at 15:07

With sabba meaning all ayatanas (and nothing behind them) Buddha establish phenomenological perspective. Or more generally it may be called some sort of subjective idealism. I would recommend reading Dan Lusthaus book Buddhist Phenomenology. Or Husserl works as more general introduction into phenomenological method.

  • Thanks @catpnosi . Is 'phenomenological perspective' a philosophical category such as a sibling category of 'subjective idealism'? What is the difference between these two?
    – alex
    Jan 14, 2013 at 14:48
  • 1
    @alex Idealism is more general approach to prioritizing (or primarizing) mind experience over metaphysics, and phenomenological method is more precisely follows buddhist perspective. Basically, buddhistm (abhidharma and pramanavada) is type of phenomenology - buddhist phenomenology.
    – catpnosis
    Jan 14, 2013 at 15:10

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