views updated


VASUBANDHU (fifth or fourth century ce) was an eminent Indian Buddhist teacher. Said to be a younger brother of the great Māhāyana teacher Asaga, Vasubandhu was first ordained in the Hīnayāna Sarvāstivada school but later converted to the Mahāyāna. Like his brother Asaga, Vasubandhu became a great exponent of the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda teachings. He is believed to be the author of the Abhidharmakośa and many Māhāyana treatises.

Various problems continue to vex historians concerning the biography of Vasubandhu. The Bosoupandou fashi zhuan (Biography of Master Vasubandhu, T.D. no. 2049), translatedor rather, compiledby Paramārtha (499569), one of the main exponents of Yogācāra doctrine in China, is preserved in the Chinese Tripiaka and is the only complete biography. Apart from this, fragmentary information is found in various Chinese sources, the most important of which are the writings of the great Chinese translator Xuanzang (600664). Various histories of Buddhism written by Tibetan historians also give accounts of Vasubandhu's life. But Chinese and Tibetan sources alike disagree with the Biography of Master Vasubandhu (hereafter Biography ) in many places. Moreover, two or three persons in Buddhist history bear the name Vasubandhu: According to some texts, a Vasubandhu is the twenty-first patriarch in the transmission of the Buddha's Dharma; elsewhere, Puguang (one of the direct disciples of Xuanzang) refers to an "ancient Vasubandhu" who belonged to the Sarvastivada school; and both Puguang and Yaśomitra, a commentator on the Abhidharmakośa, refer to a third, known as Sthavira-Vasubandhu. The identification of and relationship between these three persons is still unclear.


Vasubandhu's Biography can be divided into three sections. The first section is introductory. It begins with a legend of Puruapura (modern Peshawar), the native city of Vasubandhu, and then introduces his family: his father, the brahman Kauśika, and the latter's three sons, Asaga, Vasubandhu, and Viriñcivatsa. After a brief reference to Viriñcivatsa's life, an account is given of Asaga's life, including the famous story of his meeting with the bodhisattva Maitreya in the Tusita Heaven.

Vasubandhu's life comprises the second section. It begins by sketching the history of the Sarvāstivāda school in Kashmir and tells of the composition of the Abhidharma treatises and the great commentary on them, the Mahāvibhāā, there. Knowledge of the Mahāvibhāā 's contents was jealously kept secret from outsiders, the account alleges, but somehow it became known in Ayodhyā (near modern Faizābād), a city far removed from Kashmir. At the time, Vasubandhu was residing in Ayodhyā, then the capital of the Gupta dynasty. Vindhyavāsin, a Sākhya teacher and a disciple of Vāraganya, came to Ayodhyā to challenge the Buddhists there to a debate while Vasubandhu and his colleague Manoratha were absent. Their fellow teacher Buddha-mitra thus had to meet the challenge alone, but because of his age he was defeated. This defeat deeply mortified Vasubandhu, who wrote a treatise, Paramārthasaptatikā, in order to confute Vindhyavāsin. It was after this that Vasubandhu composed his magnum opus, the Abhidharmakośa (hereafter Kośa ), in six hundred verses (kārikā s). The Kośa was an eloquent summary of the purport of the Mahāvibhāā, and it is reported that the Kashmiri Sarvāstivādins rejoiced to see in it all their doctrines so well propounded. Accordingly, they requested a prose commentary (bhāya ), which Vasubandhu wrote. But the Kashmiris soon realized, to their great disappointment, that the work in fact refuted many Sarvāstivāda theories and upheld the doctrines of the Sautrāntika school. With the composition of the Kośa, however, Vasubandhu came to enjoy the patronage and favor of two Gupta rulers, Vikramāditya and his heir Bālāditya, who can be identified, respectively, as Skandagupta (r. about 455467) and Narasihagupta (r. about 467473). Vasurāta, a grammarian and the husband of the younger sister of Bālāditya, challenged him to a debate but was defeated. Then Saghabhadra, a Sarvāstivada scholar from Kashmir, appeared to dispute the Kośa. He composed two treatises, one consisting of 10,000 verses and another of 120,000 verses. (According to Xuanzang's report, it took twelve years for Saghabhadra to finish the two works.) He challenged Vasubandhu to a debate, but Vasubandhu refused, saying, "I am already old, so I will let you say what you wish. Long ago, this work of mine destroyed the Vaibhāika (i.e., the Sarvāstivāda) doctrines. There is no need now of confronting you. Wise men will know which of us is right and which is wrong."

The third section of the biography describes Vasubandhu's conversion to Mahāyāna Buddhism. According to this account, Vasubandhu, now proud of the fame he had acquired, clung faithfully to the Hīnayāna doctrine in which he was well versed and, having no faith in the Mahāyāna, denied that it was the teaching of the Buddha. His elder brother, Asaga, a Mahāyānist, feared that Vasubandhu would use his great intellectual gifts to undermine the Mahāyāna. By feigning illness he was able to summon his younger brother to Puruapura, where he lived. There Vasubandhu asked Asaga to explain the Mahāyāna teaching to him, whereupon he immediately realized the supremacy of Mahāyāna thought. After further study the depth of his realization came to equal that of his brother. Deeply ashamed of his former abuse of the Mahāyāna, Vasubandhu wished to cut out his tongue, but refrained from doing so when Asaga told him to use it for the cause of Mahāyāna. After Asaga's death, Vasubandhu composed commentaries on various Mahāyāna sūtra s, including the Avatasaka, Nirvāa, Saddharma-puarīka, Prajñāparamitā, Vimalakīrti, and Śrīmālādevī. He himself composed a treatise (or treatises) on the "representation only" (vijñaptimātra) theory and commented on the Mahāyānasagraha, *Triratna-gotra, *Amta-mukha, and other Mahāyāna treatises. He died in Ayodhyā at the age of eighty.

The Biography contains legendary or even mythical elements; the time sequence of events is ambiguous and differs greatly in places from the accounts in Xuanzang's Xiyu ji. For example, the Biography has Vasubandhu composing the Kośa at Ayodhyā and states that his conversion takes place at Puruapura; the Xiyu ji places the composition of the Kośa in the suburbs of Puruapura, and the conversion at Ayodhyā. According to the Biography, Vasubandhu's teacher was called Buddhamitra, who, it relates, was defeated in a debate by Vindhyavāsin. The Xiyu ji, however, never mentions Buddhamitra and names Manoratha as the teacher of Vasubandhu. In the Biography, Vasubandhu engages in his literary activity on behalf of the Mahāyāna after Asaga's death. Xuanzang, however, tells a strange story that suggests that Vasubandhu died before Asaga. Paramārtha and Xuanzang are the two most credible authorities for Vasubandhu's life, but serious discrepancies still exist between their accounts.

The Date of Vasubandhu

Vasubandhu's life has been variously dated at 900, 1,000, and 1,100 years after the Buddha's nirvāa. The figure 900 appears in the Biography, but elsewhere Paramartha is also said to have given another figure, 1,100. The figure 1,000 is found in Xuanzang's report, but the figure 900 seems also to have been adopted by his disciples. Various theories concerning the date have been offered by scholars. Noël Péri and Shiio Benkyō give as Vasubandhu's dates the years 270 to 350 ce. Ui Hakuju places him in the fourth century (320400). Takakusu Junjirō and Kimura Taiken give 420 to 500, Wogihara Unrai gives 390 to 470, and Hikata Ryūshō gives 400 to 480, placing him in the fifth century.

In order to resolve these issues, Erich Frauwallner (1951) proposed a new theory whereby two Vasubandhus, Vasubandhu the elder and Vasubandhu the younger, are distinguished. The elder would be the younger brother of Asaga. It is his activity that, according to this theory, is described in the first and third sections of the Biography and may be dated at around 320 to 380. The younger would be the author of the Kośa. His activity constitutes the second section of the Biography. Since he was associated with the two Gupta rulers, he may be dated around 400 to 480. Frauwallner supposes that Paramārtha confused the two Vasubandhus and conflated them into a single person. This mistake, he maintains, was inherited by later historians, including Xuanzang.

Frauwallner's lucid and revolutionary theory has been endorsed by many scholars. But it does not seem to convince all. Especially doubtful is his treatment of early Chinese documents, many of which have been claimed by scholars to be spurious. Japanese scholars, who opposed the theory of dating in the fourth century by negating the evidence employed in its support, would reject Vasubandhu the elder for almost the same reasons. At any rate, Frauwallner's theory and the issues it raises remain a hypothesis.

Literary Activity

Vasubandhu is renowned as the author of one thousand works, five hundred in the Hīnayāna tradition and five hundred Mahāyāna treatises. However, only some forty-seven are extant, nine of which survive in the Sanskrit original, twenty-seven in Chinese translation, and thirty-three in Tibetan translation.

Among the independent expositions of Vasubandhu's own philosophy and doctrines, the Abhidharmakośa is the most voluminous. In the countries of "northern" Buddhism, including Tibet, it came to be regarded as a fundamental text to be studied by all students of the tradition. The Karmasiddhi (Demonstration of Karma) is a short, quasi-Hīnayāna treatise colored, as is the Abhidharmakośa, by Sautrāntika leanings. From the Yogācāra point of view the most important of Vasubandhu's works are the Viśatikā (Twenty verses), Triśikā (Thirty verses), and Trisvabhāvanirdeśa (Exposition on the three natures). Although these three texts are all very brief (and the last was totally unknown in China), they form a sort of trinity and represent Vasubandhu's final accomplishment as a Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda teacher. The Triśikā is especially important in that it became the basic text of the Faxiang (Jpn., Hossō) school. The Foxing lun (Treatise on Buddha nature), although thought to be apocryphal by not a few scholars, exerted great influence on Sino-Japanese Buddhism by advocating the concept of tathāgata-garbha, or Buddha nature. Vasubandhu's works also include books on logic, polemics, and other sciences.

Vasubandhu's commentaries on sūtras and śāstra s are by no means less important than the above-mentioned independent treatises. He wrote commentaries on three treatises: the Madhyāntavibhāga (Discrimination between the middle and the extremes), Mahāyānasūtrālakāra (Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sutras), and Dharmadharmatāvibhāga (also, -vibhaga ; Discrimination between existence and essence). These three treatises are all ascribed to Asaga's teacher Maitreya and are therefore fundamental texts for the Yogācāra school. Vasabandhu also composed a commentary on Asaga's Mahāyānasagraha (Compendium of Mahāyāna), the first systematic presentation of the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda doctrines. His commentary (upadeśa ) on the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra is important in that it became a basic treatise of the Pure Land faith in China and Japan. The Indian Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda is represented in China by three schools, all of which developed around Vasubandhu's works. The first to appear, the Dilun school (established in the first half of the sixth century), took his commentary on the Daśabhūmika Sūtra as its central text. The second, the Shelun school, emerged in the second half of the same century organized around a Paramārtha's translation of the Mahāyāna-sagraha. The last to appear, the Faxiang school, founded by Xuanzang and his disciple Kuiji in the seventh century, took the Triśikā as its basic text.

With these works, Vasubandhu proved to be a highly influential Mahāyāna teacher. He is reverently called a bodhisattva, or even "the second Buddha," in various traditions from India to China. Vasubandhu brought to fruition doctrinal developments in the Mahāyāna, especially in the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda tradition, that had been begun by Maitreya and Asaga and advanced by other unknown teachers. He thus marks a culmination in Buddhist history. Before him, his school concerned itself chiefly with Buddhist practice (hence the name Yogācāra ); after him, it emphasized theoretical problems such as the analysis of consciousness (hence the name Vijñānavāda ), so that various ontological, epistemological, and logical investigations became more and more conspicuous. Compared with Asaga, who was gifted as a religious leader, Vasubandhu seems more scholarly, abhidharmic, and theoretical.

See Also

Asaga; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in India; Buddhism, Schools of, articles on Chinese Buddhism, Mahāyāna Buddhism; Maitreya; Yogācāra.


A bibliography appended to Erich Frauwallner's On the Date of the Buddhist Master of the Law, Vasubandhu (Rome, 1951) is highly helpful in that it exhausts almost all discussions, hence almost all evidences, relevant to Vasubandhu's date. After Frauwallner, there is no independent biographical study on Vasubandhu, except a paper by Hikata Ryūshō, "A Reconsideration on the Date of Vasubandhu," Bulletin of the Faculty of the Kyushu University 4 (1956): 5374, which does not refer to Frauwallner and a criticism of Frauwallner's theory by Padmanabh S. Jaini, "On the Theory of Two Vasubandhus," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 21 (1958): 4853.

Vasubandhu's thought is the subject of numerous studies. Among the most useful are Louis de La Vallée Poussin's Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi, la siddhi de Hiuan-tsang, 2 vols. (Paris, 19281929); Sylvain Lévi's Un système de philosophie bouddhique: Materiaux pour l'étude du système Vijñaptimātra (Paris, 1932); and Yuki Reimon's Seshin Yuishiki no kenkyū (Tokyo, 19551956).

There have been several publications of English translations of the French translations of Vasubandhu's work. Among these are Abhidharmakośabhasyam, by Louis De La Vallée Poussin, English translation by Leo Pruden (Berkeley, Calif., 19881990), and Karmasiddhiprakarana: The Treatise on Action., by E. Lamotte, English translation by Leo Pruden (Berkeley, Calif., 1988). Stefan Anacker's Seven Works of Vasubandhu (Delhi, 1984) includes translations of Vasubandhu's Vādavidhī, Pañcaskandha-prakaraā, Karmasiddhi-praka-raa, Vi śatika, Tri śikā, Madhyāntavibhāgabhāya, and Trisvabhāvanirdeśa; another important translation is Hermann Jacobi's Tri śikāvijñapti des Vasubandhu, mit bhāya des ācārya Sthiramati (Stuttgart, 1932). Louis de La Vallée Poussin translated the most influential work of Abhidharma as L'Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu, 6 vols. (19231931; reprint, Brussels, 1971). My Chūkan to yuishiki (Tokyo, 1978) contains articles discussing some philosophical ideas of the Vijñānavāda; see also Seshin ronshū (Tokyo, 1976) by Kajiyama Yūichi, Aramaki Noritoshi, and me.

Nagao Gadjin (1987 and 2005)