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SAUTRĀNTIKA . Most available sources agree that the Sautrāntika school separated from the Sarvāstivāda perhaps some four centuries after the death of Śākyamuni Buddha. Its followers were called Sautrāntika, meaning those who take the sūtras as the last word, because although they accepted the two main parts of the Buddhist canon (the Tripitaka), namely, the Vinaya and the Sūtras, as the true word of the Buddha, they rejected the third part, the Abhidharma of the Sarvāstivāda tradition, considering it later philosophical disquisition, which for them had no binding authority. However, the Sautrāntikas must have remained effectively a branch of the Sarvāstivāda, as they continued to follow the same Vinaya, or monastic discipline, and their differences remained not so much practical as philosophical. They are sometimes referred to by such variant names as Sūtrāntavādins or Sūtrapramāikas (meaning the same as Sautrāntika ), or as Sakrāntivādins, referring to their theory of rebirth or transmigration (sakrānti ). Names such as Saurodayika ("like the sunrise," perhaps a reference to one of their famous teachers) and Dārāntika ("users of similes") are also applied to them. As a philosophical movement deriving from the Sarvāstivāda school, they distinguished themselves primarily from the Vaibhāikas, namely, those who adhered to the Vibhāa (Philosophical disquisition), a text based upon the (Sarvāstivāda) Abhidharma literature, and who maintained the reality of dharma s in all three times: past, present, and future.

According to the Chinese monk Xuanzang, who visited India between the years 627 and 645, the Sautrāntika recognized Ānanda, the closest disciple of Śākyamuni, as their chief master. According to another Chinese scholar their founder was called Uttara. Some Tibetan sources say that this school was called Uttarīya ("superior") in recognition of its superiority with regard to Dharma. Bhavya relates that the Sakrāntivāda was also called Uttarīya and that its founder, Uttara, seceded from the Sarvāstivāda. Tāranātha maintains that the names Sakrāntivāda, Uttarīya, and Tāmraśatīya all referred to the same school. A Chinese source asserts that one Pūra, who propagated the Vinaya and Abhidharma teachings, encountered opposition from some monks who thereupon took Ānanda, the master of the Sūtras, as their patron. Vasumitra believes that the Sautrāntika and the Sarvāstivāda held similar teachings, but Vasubandhu and Saghabhadra concentrate mainly on the polemics between these two schools. In the Abhidharma literature there are references to four people who are said to have been the "four suns" of the Sautrāntikas: Kumāralābha, reputed as the founder of this school, Dharmatrāta, Buddhadeva, and Śrīlābha. Some modern scholars assert that such well known Buddhist thinkers as Vasubandhu, Dignāga, or even Dharmakīrti were adherents or sympatizers of the Sautrāntikas.

Like the teachings of several other early Buddhist schools whose writings have been lost, Sautrāntika theories are known mainly from the surviving literature of other philosophical schools, Hindu as well as Buddhist, who most often refer to the Sautrāntikas in the process of refuting views at variance with their own. Although such references are bound to be partisan, it is nonetheless possible to gain a fair idea of Sautrāntika doctrines from them. In that these doctrines clearly serve as a link between the realistic atomizing theories of the earlier schools and the "mind only" (cittamātra ) theories of the Yogācāra tradition, such an endeavor is all the more rewarding.

While the Sautrāntika adhere to the fundamental Buddhist "dogma" of anātman ("no-self," i.e., no transmigrating element) they reinterpret the earlier theory of dharma s (elemental particles), of which the five components (skandha s) of individual personality are said to be composed. Individual personality is essentially a nonentity (a "no self"), definable as a constant flux of elemental psychophysical particles, momentarily composing themselves under the effect of karman as form or matter (rūpa ), feelings (vedanā), perceptions (sajñā), impulses (saskāra), and consciousness (vijñāna), namely as the five components. The main point at issue between the Vaibhāikas and the Sautrāntikas concerns the operation of karman upon the elemental particles resulting in a new interpretation of their nature. According to the Sarvāstivāda, all elements exist in past, present and future; hence their name, coined from sarvāsti ("everything exists"). An individual personality is therefore an ever-changing flow of real elements, the components of which vary from moment to moment in accordance with its karman. The Sarvāstivāda argue that every action projects its eventual effect upon the fluctuating stream of elements in the form of a fresh type of elemental particle known as prāpti, literally "acquisition" or "appropriation." Although itself of momentary existence like all other particles, prāpti continues to remanifest itself in the general stream of elements until an appropriate combination with other elements, themselves the effects of subsequent actions, produces the "fruit" or retribution of that particular action. Thus, prāpti may be regarded as the force that acts within a particular stream of elements (i.e., an individual personality) keeping it united as a seemingly coherent entity, not only within a single life-stream but also in the passage from one life to the next.

Since personality is also regarded under the threefold aspect of body, speech, and mind, action (karman ) is definable as physical, vocal, or mental. Probably all Buddhists agree that mind or thought predominates in some way, but the extent and manner of its predominance presented a major area of discussion and disagreement among the early schools. Applying the theory of real elemental particles to everything, the Sarvāstivāda identified mental action as "volition" (cetanā), while vocal and physical action, treated as an "expression" (vijñapti ) of volition, were classed as elements within form or matter (rūpaskandha ). Thus, mental action would cause the arising of vocal or physical action according to the normal process of karman throughout past, present, and future, and all elements in the process remain equally "real." The Vatsīputriyas, on the other hand, argued that vocal and physical acts are not real elements or "things in themselves" but a mere "process" or "motion" (gati) provoked by mental karman or volition, which receives expression (vijñapti) thereby.

The Sautrāntikas rejected the concept of action as operative in the past, present, and future; thus, strictly speaking, an action cannot result in an effect in the future, since neither past nor future can exist simultaneously with the present. The past has existed and the future will exist in relationship to the ever passing present, but only the present can actually exist and its existence is momentary (kaika ). Thus bodily and vocal action resulting from mental action (i.e. thought) cannot exist in the manner envisaged by the Sarvāstivāda or Vaibhāika, and their concept of prāpti as a holding force can have no meaning. Likewise, vijñapti as the "expression" of thought has no real existence in itself; indeed, it is only the mental action as volition that exists, possessing moral value as good, bad, or indifferent. The Sautrāntikas analyze volition under three aspects: "deliberation" (gaticetanā ), "decision" (niścayacetanā ), and "impulsion" (kiraacetanā ). It should be noted that all three terms include cetanā, "mentation," or the process of thinking. The first two constitute the "action of thinking" (cetanākarma ), which in effect is volition, manifest as mental reflection (manaskāra ) or thoughts (caitta ). They both represent the "action of thought" (manakarma ). The third aspect, "impulsion" (kiraacetanā ), is twofold: that which impels bodily movement and that which impels speech. This explanation reduces the actions of body and speech, conceived by the Vaibhāikas as realities (classed within the rūpaskandha ) that succeed mental action throughout a time process, to mere aspects of volition, which alone is a reality, manifesting itself momentarily in what is always effectively the present. It is thus thought alone that has moral value as good, bad, or indifferent.

The Sautrāntikas claim that the maturing of karman as the "fruit" or effect of morally qualifiable volition can be explained by the manner in which the mental series evolves. An action, being a thought associated with a particular volition, is momentary (kaika ). It disappears the very moment it is committed (and thus has no real duration as explained by the Sarvāstivāda) but it impregnates (vāsanā ) the mental series (cittasatāna ) of which it forms a starting point with a particular potentiality (śaktiviśea ). The impregnated series undergoes an evolution (pariāma ) of varied periods of time and culminates in the final transformation-moment (viśea ), which constitutes the state of retribution. The evolution of the series is compared to a seed and its gradual transformational growth until it matures as a fruit.

The Sautrāntikas had to answer certain objections as to what happens when the series is interrupted, as for instance in suspended meditation. A primitive interpretation, as represented by the Dārāntika view, assumed the theory of two simultaneous series, one mental, constituted by the six consciousnesses, and one material, constituted by the corresponding sense organs. When the mental series is interrupted it resumes in due course its evolution from its seeds or germs (bīja ) that are preserved in the material series. Similarly, the material series, when it is interrupted (in death or in the meditative trances of the ārūpyadhātu), becomes reborn from its seeds preserved by the mental series. But where, it may be asked, is the continuity of the series as such? How are the germs retained? The answer of the Sautrāntikas is to assert the existence of a subtle thought (sūkmacitta ) underlying the mental series and constituting its continuity.

Subtle thought was defined by the Sautrāntika thinkers in two different ways: some said it was mental consciousness (manovijñana ) free of concepts (sajñā ) and feeling (vedanā ); others envisaged it as mental consciousness (citta ) free of mentations (caitta ). Both groups agreed that its objective sphere (i.e., its real nature) is "imperceptible" (asavidita ). This subtle consciousness was known by such other names as ekarasaskandha ("aggregate[s] of one flavor or nature"), mūlāntikaskandha ("origin and cause of the five skandha s"), and paramārthapudgala ("true and real person"). Later, the nature of "subtle consciousness" was explained by distinguishing two kinds of thought: a multiple or complex mind (nānacitta ) as represented by the six kinds of active consciousnesses, and a store or subtle thought (ācayacitta ). The complex mind and the elements (dharma s), all of which evolve simultaneously, impregnate the subtle thought with their seeds or germs.

The complex mind functions through different objects (ālambana ), aspects (ākāra ), and modalities (viśea ). The Sautrāntikas argued that when these functions of complex mind are absent, as in, for instance, a state of suspended meditation, the state is deprived of thought in the sense that the series is interrupted, but that in fact this absence does not indicate total interruption because subtle thought continues to exist, serving as a repository of all the seeds (sarvabīja ) deposited by the complex mind. As the series evolves, the seeds mature and produce their "fruit" (retribution), which consists of a new (good or bad) complex mind and elements. As the subtle consciousness is the sustainer of these new or matured seeds, it is also called the "consciousness of retribution" (vipākaphalavijñāna ). From the time of birth until the moment of death the subtle mind constitutes the continuity of the series and it transmigrates (sakrāmate ) from one existence to the next, assuming different manifestations (reincarnations). Once it reaches the moment of passing into nirvāa (final retribution or deliverance) it is cut off and completely extinguished. This interpretation was criticized but also adopted with modifications by the Vijñānavāda and Mādhyamika schools.

The Sautrāntika rejected the existence of the unconditioned elements (asaskta ). For them, these elements were not real or distinct entities but represented mere denomination of absence. Thus, space (ākaśa ) represented an absence of tangible bodies (spavya ) and nirvāa denoted the nonmanifestation of passions and adverse psychophysical elements. They also denied the reality of the fourteen "unassociated" elements (cittaviprayuktasaskāra ), among which origination, duration, decay, and impermanence in particular were viewed not as entities but as mere denominations of the flux of the elements.

The Sautrāntika maintained that the objects of the external world are not really perceived because, being momentary, they disappear before they can be perceived. Thus, the object of cognition, being already passed as soon as it appears, is not perceived directly; it leaves behind an image that is reproduced in the "act of cognition." Such a process gives the impression that it exists, while in fact it only did so in the now nonexistent past.

In opposition to other schools, which maintained that only a person who was advanced on the path toward arhatship might possess the potentiality (anāsravaskandha ) of liberation, the Sautrāntika maintained that ordinary people (pthagjana ) had the same potentiality. Finally, they also asserted that apart from the Noble Eightfold Path (āryāāgamārga ) there was no other way to destroy the skandha s; meditation and other practices can suppress the passions (kleśa s) but cannot eradicate them completely.

See Also

Buddhism, Schools of; Buddhist Philosophy; Dharma, article on Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas; Indian Philosophies; Sarvāstivāda; Soul, article on Buddhist Concepts; Vasubandhu; Yogācāra.


No single work treats the Sautrāntika school as whole. Our chief source of information on the tradition is Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa (and bhāya) and works composed in reference to it, especially Yas̄omitra's Abhidharmakośa sphuārthavyākhyā. The references listed below are sources of further information.

Lamotte, Étienne, ed. and trans. "Le traité de l'acte de Vasubandhu: Karmasiddhiprakaraa." Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques, vol. 4, pp. 151288. Brussels, 19351936.

Masuda, Jiryo. "Origin and Doctrines of Early Indian Buddhist Schools." Asia Major 2 (1925): 178.

Mimaki Katsumi. "Le chapitre de Blo gsal grub mthaʾ sur les Sautrāntika, un essai de traduction." Memoirs of the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies (Kyoto) 16 (1979): 143172.

New Sources

Cox, Collett. "On the Possibility of a Nonexistent Object of Consciousness: Sarvāstivādin and Dārāntika Theories." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 11, no. 1 (1988): 3187.

Cox, Collett. Disputed Dharmas, Early Buddhist Theories on Existence: An Annotated Translation of the Section on Factors Dissociated from Thought from Sanghabhadra's Nyāyānusāra. Tokyo, 1995.

Klein, Anne, trans. Knowing, Naming, and Negation: A Sourcebook on Tibetan Sautrāntika. With oral commentary by Geshe Belden Drakba. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

La Vallée Poussin, Louis de. Abhidharmakośabhāyam. Translated by Leo M. Pruden. 5 vols. Berkeley, 19881990.

Williams, Paul, with Anthony Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London, 2000. See Chapter 4.

Tadeusz Skorupski (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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