ŚĪLABHADRA (c. 529–645; Tib., Ngang tshul bzan po; Chin., Jiexian; Jpn., Kaiken) was an Indian Buddhist dialectician belonging to the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda school, a master of the Nālandā monastic university, a disciple of Dharmapāla, and the teacher of Xuanzang. Several accounts of Śīlabhadra's life are extant. The Tibetan sources are fragmentary, but, owing to the fact that Xuanzang gives an account of him in his writings, those in Chinese are more informative. From the Tibetan biographers, such as Taranatha and Sum pa mkhan po, one learns only that Śīlabhadra was contemporary with Śākyamati, Yaśomitra, and Saʾi rtsa lag. But Chinese biographies such as those found in Xuanzang's Xiyu ji (viz. T.D. 51.914c–915a) and Yiqing's Nanhai jikgui neifa juan (T.D. 54.229b) enable one to construct an outline of his religious career.
Śīlabhadra belonged to the royal family of Samatata in East India and was a member of the brahman caste. Fond of study even as a child, he traveled through several countries of India in search of religious teachers and arrived finally at the monastic university at Nālandā. There he studied under, and was ordained by, the Yogācāra master Dharmapāla, attaining the highest level of scholarship under his guidance.
During this period, a non-Buddhist teacher from South India, jealous of Dharmapāla's scholarly and religious attainments, wished to challenge him to a doctrinal debate. At the request of the local king, Dharmapāla accepted this challenge. When Śīlabhadra heard of this he volunteered to debate in his master's place. Although only thirty years old, Śīlabhadra was victorious in the debate and was rewarded with a town, where he then built a monastery. He succeeded Dharmapāla as head of the Nālandā monastic university and became known by the respectful epithet Zhengfa Zang ("treasury of the good law").
The Vijñānavāda theory of Dharmapāla insisted on distinguishing among five categories of people: (1) those destined to be bodhisattva s, (2) those destined to be pratyekabuddha s, (3) those destined to be śrāvakas, (4) those of undetermined spiritual destination, and (5) those who can never be emancipated (icchantika ). His theory that there exist people who will never attain Buddhahood is in clear contrast to the One Vehicle teachings (ekayāna ), according to which everyone has a Buddha nature and will eventually become emancipated. It was Śīlabhadra who transmitted the Vijñānavāda theory of Dharmapāla to Xuanzang. Although Śīlabhadra was 106 years old when Xuanzang met him, he taught the Vijñānavāda theories to Xuanzang for about five years. Xuanzang in turn transmitted Dharmapāla's theory to Kuiji (632–682), who founded the Faxiang sect in China.
A notable doctrinal disputation between Śīlabhadra and Jñānaprabha (unattested; Chin., Zhiguang; Jpn., Chiko) was held at Nālandā. Fazang (643–712) gives an account of this conflict in his works Huayan jing tanxuan ji (T. D. 35.111c–112a), Shiermen lun zongzhi yiji (T.D. 42.213a, b), and Dasheng qixin lun yiji (T.D. 44.242a–c). This account was related to him by Divakara, an Indian Dharma master and translator, at the Dayuan Si in Chang'an.
The topic of the debate was the "three times," or "three steps," of the Buddha's teaching. Śīlabhadra, who was of the Vijñanavadin line based on the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra and the Yogācārabhūmi, expounded the Three Steps as follows: (1) the teaching of the Hīnayāna principles regarding the Four Noble Truths and the emptiness of the self (pudgalanairātmya ), (2) the teaching of the imaginary nature of things (parikalpitasvabhāva ) and the emptiness of things (dharmanairātmya ), and (3) the teaching of "consciousness only" (cittamātra ). On the other hand, Jñānaprabha, who was of the Mādhaymika (Madhyamaka) line based on the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and the Mādhyamika śāstras, interpreted the Three Steps as (1) the teaching of the Lesser Vehicle (Hīnayāna), (2) the teaching that the external world does not exist but that the mind does, and (3) the teaching that neither the external world nor the mind exists. Each thinker regarded the third step as the highest. It is interesting that this ideological difference was stated so clearly by the seventh century, because the same kind of hermeneutical discussion is found later in Tibetan Buddhism, in the Drang nges legs bshad snying po of Tsong kha pa, for example. Unfortunately, as there are no sources other than Fazang's report regarding this conflict between Śīlabhadra and Jñānaprabha, its historical credibility remains uncertain. In Xuanzang's biography, for example (T. D. 50.261a, b), Jñānaprabha appears as a disciple of Śīlabhadra, and there is no mention of this doctrinal dispute.
The only extant work by Śīlabhadra is the Buddhabhūmivyākhyāna (a commentary on the Buddha-bhūmi Sūtra ). This work is preserved in the Tibetan canon (Derge edition no. 3997; Beijing edition no. 5498).
Beal, Samuel, trans. Si-yu-ki, Buddhist Records of the Western World (1884). 2 vols. Reprint, Delhi, 1981.
Beal, Samuel, trans. The Life of Xuanzang (1888). Rev. ed., London, 1911.
Joshi, Lal Mani. Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India (1967). 2d rev. ed. Delhi, 1977.
Nishio Kyoo, Butsuji kyoron no kenkyu (1940), 2 vols. Reprint, Tokyo, 1982. Contains an edited Tibetan text of the Buddhabhumivyakhyana with Japanese translation.
Takakusu Junjiro, trans. A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (a.d. 671–695) (1896). Reprint, Delhi, 1966.
Mimaki Katsumi (1987)