He obtained his B.A and M.A from the University of Ceylon. He pursued his Ph.D at the University of London. His Ph.D dissertation was on the concept of causality in Buddhism and was later published as an influential book. In 1972, he was offered a position in the Department of philosophy at the University of Hawai‘i and he remained there until his retirement.
He wrote mainly about epistemology, theory of language, and compared later Buddhist philosophical texts against the earliest texts and tried to present interpretations that were both historically contextualised and also compatible with the earliest texts, and in doing so, he encouraged Theravadin Buddhists and scholars to reevaluate the legitimacy of later, Mahayana texts and consider them more sympathetically.
A colleague wrote:
- To my mind, one of the greatest achievements of Prof. Kalupahana as a Buddhist scholar was his ability to redefine the field of early Buddhist philosophy by extending its discursive boundaries and directing investigative thought-lines in important new directions. He sought to push early Buddhist thought beyond itself by daring acts of re-imagining and re-interpretation. Kalupahana reacted against the normal tendency to see Theravada Buddhism as restricted, narrow and hide-bound; he pointed out that it was indeed complex, many-sided, multi-focal and possessed great accommodative powers.
His published works include a translation of the Mulamadhyamaka-karika.
- Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way, ISBN 81-208-0774-X, published Motilal Barnasidass, 1991.
- A History Of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities And Discontinuities
- A Path Of Righteousness: Dhammapada
- Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1976.
- Buddhist Thought And Ritual
- Causality: The Central Philosophy Of Buddhism
- Ethics In Early Buddhism
- The Buddha And The Concept Of Peace
- The Buddha’s Philosophy Of Language
- The Principles Of Buddhist Psychology
- The Way Of Siddhartha
- Nagarjuna's Moral Philosophy and Sinhala Buddhism
- A Sourcebook Of Early Buddhist Philosophy
- A Sourcebook Of Later Buddhist Philosophy
- The Wheel Of Morals Dhamma - Cakka
- In Memoriam: David J. Kalupahana, Ph.D. (1933-2014), by Wimal Dissanayake, University of Hawaii
- Richard K. Payne: Early Buddhism: A conversation with David J. Kalupahana
- Tilakaratne, Asanga (2014). "Professor David Jinadasa Kalupahana (1936–2014)". Philosophy East and West. 64 (3): 520–522 – via Project MUSE.
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