Vasubandhu (fl. Fourth or Fifth Century CE)

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(fl. fourth or fifth century CE)

Vasubandhu was an Indian Buddhist philosopher who made significant contributions to the clarification and development of the Indian Buddhist schools of philosophy traditionally classified as the Vaibhāika (or Sarvāstivāda), the Sautrāntika, and the Yogācāra (or Cittamātra). Erich Frauwallner argued (1951), on the basis of a study of Vasubandhu's biographers, Paramārtha (499569), Bus-ton (12901364) and Tāranātha (15751634), that there were two Vasubandhus, one who composed Yogācāra works and lived in the fourth century CE, and another who lived in the fifth century CE and composed treatises from the Vaibhāika and Sautrāntika points of view. But later studies (Jaini 1959, Anacker 1998) disputed Frauwallner's argument and advanced the hypothesis that there was only one author of these works and that he lived in the fourth century CE According to Buddhist tradition, Vasubandhu was at first an orthodox follower of the Vaibhāika school, and, after having allied himself with the Sautrāntika school, was convinced by his half-brother, Asaa, to accept the Mahāyāna scriptures (which were not accepted by the Vaibhāikas or Sautrāntikas) and to adopt the theses of the Yogācāra school.

Vasubandhu's Contributions to the VaibhĀika and SautrĀntika Philosophies

Vasubandhu's contribution to the Vaibhāika philosophy is his masterly treatise the Abhidharmakośa (Treasury of knowledge). In this work he sets out in verse theses held in most of the Vaibhāika schools. One of the most fundamental of these theses is that what truly exists (that is, what exists apart from being conceived) is a substantially real permanent or impermanent phenomenon (dharma ) or a collection of substantially real impermanent phenomena that is by convention conceived as a single entity of a certain kind. The treatise as a whole explains the world of conventional phenomena in terms of how its underlying substantially real phenomena are caused to combine and separate to perpetuate our rebirth and suffering and how, by eliminating their causes, our rebirth and suffering can be eliminated.

To this work Vasubandhu added a prose treatise, the Ātmavādapratiedha (Refutation of the theory of a self). In it he defends the theory of persons of the Vaibhāikas, who believe that we, as persons conceived from the first-person singular perspective, suffer and are reborn because we misapprehend ourselves as selves in the sense of being substantially real phenomena. We can become free from rebirth and suffering by realizing that we are not substantially real phenomena. Nonetheless, he believes, we ultimately exist insofar as we are the collections of substantially real impermanent aggregates (skandha s) of which our bodies and mental states are composed; only these aggregates are found, by direct perception and correct inference, to be the phenomena on the basis upon which we conceive ourselves as persons. Vasubandhu then presents objections to the theories of persons held in the unorthodox Vaibhāika school called the Vātsīputrīya and in the Hindu school called the Vaiśeika. According to the Vātsīputrīyas, we ultimately exist without being collections of such phenomena, and according to the Vaiśeikas, we ultimately exist as permanent and partless substantially real phenomena. Vasubandhu claims that the Vātsīputrīyas' arguments for their theory are inconsistent with other theses they should, as Vaibhāikas, accept, and argues that their theory, like that of the Vaiśeikas, has the absurd consequence that we are completely different from, and so causally unrelated to, our aggregates.

In reply to the objections of the Vātsīputrīyas and Vaiśeikasthat the Vaibhāika theory of persons implies that we are not the same over time, do not possess mental states, and so onVasubandhu explains how, in spite of our reducibility to collections of impermanent aggregates, we are said to be the same over time, to possess mental states, and so on. Vasubandhu also briefly rejects the thesis of Nāgārjuna, the founder of the Mādhyamika school of Indian Buddhist philosophy, that nothing is substantially real, which, he believes, implies that we do not ultimately exist at all, since we could not in that case be reducible in existence to collections of substantially real phenomena.

Vasubandhu's most important contribution to the development of the Sautrāntika school was the Abhid-harmakośabhāya (Commentary on the treasury of knowledge), a prose commentary on the verses in the Abhidharmakośa. In this work he adopts the Sautrāntika project of correcting the ontological excesses of the Vaibhāika school by showing that they are not supported by Buddhist scriptures. Although Vasubandhu accepts the Vaibhāika thesis that what exists is either a substantially real phenomenon or a collection of substantially real impermanent phenomena, he argues that the Vaibhāikas introduce more substantially real phenomena than are needed in order to explain how suffering and rebirth arise and are eliminated. For instance, he rejects the Vaibhāika explanation of how substantially real phenomena that have occurred in the past or will occur in the future can be apprehended if they do not ultimately exist at the time they are being apprehended. Their explanation is that substantially real phenomena ultimately exist in the past, present, and future insofar as they possess a real nature (svabhāva ) by virtue of which they can be identified by themselves; they are said to be past phenomena when they have already exercised their characteristic causal power, to be present phenomena when they are exercising it, and to be future phenomena when they have not yet exercised it. Vasubandhu's basic objection to this explanation is that it unnecessarily introduces into their basic ontology past and future substantially real phenomena, because it is possible to apprehend substantially real phenomena that have ceased to exist and have not yet come to exist.

Among the many other theses of the Vaibhāikas he rejects are the theses: (i) that there can be a cause that is simultaneous with or can follow its effect (he claims that a cause must always precede its effect), (ii) that a future result of an action must occur in the same person who performed the action because there is present in the continuum of the person's aggregates of body and mind a separate substantially real phenomenon that causes the retention of the seed the action produces in the same causal continuum (he claims that the retention of the seed is due to the causal relationship between the phenomena in the continuum), and (iii) that an impermanent phenomenon can exist for more than an instant (he believes that an impermanent phenomenon by nature ceases to exist as soon as it arises).

It may have been during his Sautrāntika period (though some scholars think it was when he had already become a follower of the Yogācāra movement) that Vasubandhu wrote a number of treatises on logic in which he presents revisions and clarifications of forms of argument used by Indian philosophers in debate. In the Vādavidhi (The way of argument), part of which has survived, Vasubandhu anticipates some of the views of the Buddhist logician Dignāga, a circumstance that perhaps explains why he is sometimes said to be one of Dignāga's teachers.

Vasubandhu's Contributions to YogĀcĀra Philosophy

One of Vasubandhu's earliest contributions to the clarification and development of Yogācāra thought may be the Pañcaskandhakaprakaraa (A treatise on the five aggregates), which is an attempt to improve upon Asaa's account of the five aggregates in the Abhidharmasammucaya (Compendium of knowledge). In the Karmasiddhaprakaraa (A treatise on the establishment of Karma), Vasubandhu argues that the workings of the law of actions and their results are not correctly explained by the orthodox Vaibhāikas or by the Vātsīputrīyas and that the law's explanation requires reference to the Yogācāra theory that there is, apart from the six types of consciousnesses that are associated with the six types of organs of cognition, a storehouse consciousness (ālayavijñāna ) that carries the seeds of all experiences and that this consciousness is not the substantially real self that we misapprehend it to be.

In the Trimśikākārikāvtti (Thirty verse treatise) and the Trisvabhāvanirdeśa (Teaching on the three natures), Vasubandhu explains how consciousness functions in terms of its three natures. He argues that persons and other phenomena are just ever-changing manifestations of consciousness, which is itself a beginningless sequence of momentary mental states that takes three different forms. Its most basic form is that of the storehouse consciousness, which is a beginningless sequence of mental states in which is stored the seeds that are produced by actions and give rise to their results. In dependence upon this sequence as an underlying support, it takes the forms of the afflicted mind (kliamanas ), which is a sequence of minds that misapprehend the first sequence as a substantially real self, and of a sequence of six organ-dependent cognitions of objects. All three of these ever-changing forms of consciousness, Vasubandhu adds, are mental constructions and are to be eliminated on the path to Buddhahood.

The conceptual framework Vasubandhu uses to explain how mental constructions can cease to exist is that consciousness possesses three natures (svabhāva s). They are its nature of being dependent upon causes and conditions (paratantra ), its nature of falsely appearing to be divided into a mind that grasps an object and an object that is grasped by it (parikalpita ), and its thoroughly established nature (parinipannasvabhāva ) of not in fact being divisible into a mind that grasps an object and an object that is grasped by it. To become free from mental constructions and the rebirth and suffering they occasion, we need to realize in what way consciousness, in relation to its possession of these three natures, is without a nature (nisvabhāvatā ). In relation to consciousness possessing the nature of appearing to be divided into a mind that grasps an object and an object that is grasped by it, consciousness is by its own nature without such a nature. In relation to consciousness possessing the nature of being dependent upon causes and conditions, consciousness is without a nature by virtue of which it could come to be by itself. In relation to consciousness possessing a thoroughly established nature, consciousness is without a nature by virtue of which it is divisible into a mind that grasps an object and an object that is grasped by it. To become free of rebirth and suffering and become a Buddha, Vasubandhu explains, we need to enter into a state of consciousness that is free from all mental constructions.

In Vasubandhu's Viśatikākārikāvtti (Twenty verse treatise) and his own commentary on it, he answers objections to the central theses of the Yogācāra philosophy. He says that the things we believe to exist apart from mind (that is, the things we believe to be external objects) are mere mental constructions (vijñaptimātra ), because what does not exist apart from mind appears, because of the constructive activity of mind, to exist apart from mind, just as what does not exist apart from sight appears, because of an eye disorder, to exist apart from sight. In reply to the objection that if there are no external objects, perceptions cannot be distinguished from one another and the same objects cannot be perceived by different persons, he argues that perceptions in dreams differ from one another in spite of lacking external objects as causes and that many different persons perceive the same objects as a result of similar actions performed in the past. He also argues that the suffering that is experienced by beings in the hell realms is not produced by external objects, because otherwise the hell-guardians, who are said in scripture not to suffer in these realms, would suffer along with those reborn in those realms. He adds that there can be no atoms of which external objects are composed, since they could not possess different sides as parts and so could not occupy space and be combined to compose external objects, which are said to occupy space.

Vasubandhu also composed many commentaries on Yogācāra treatises and Mahāyāna scriptures. Important among those that have survived (either in Sanskrit or in Tibetan or Chinese) are the Madhyāntavibhāgabhāya (Commentary on the separation of the middle from the extremes), the Mahāyānasūtrālakārabhāya (Commentary on the ornament of the Mahāyāna Sūtras), the Mahāyānasagrahabhāya (Commentary on the compendium of Mahāyāna), and the Dharmadharmatāvibhāgavtti (Commentary on the distinction between phenomena and their true nature).

See also Buddhism; BuddhismSchools; Causation in Indian Philosophy; Indian Philosophy; Logic, History of: Logic and Inference in Indian Philosophy; Nāgārjuna; Self in Indian Philosophy.


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James Duerlinger (2005)