Vasubandhu life & works

Vasubandhu | life & works
(c 4th or 5th c. C.E.)

Vasubandhu was a prominent Buddhist teacher and one of the most important figures in the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India.

Though he is particularly admired by later Buddhists as co-founder of the Yogācāra school along with his half-brother Asaṅga, his pre-Yogācāra works, such as the Abhidharmakośa and his auto-commentary (Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya) on it, are considered masterpieces.

He wrote commentaries on many Śāstras, works on logic, devotional poetry, works on Abhidharma classifications, as well as original and innovative philosophical treatises.

Some of his writings have survived in their original Sanskrit form, but many others, particularly his commentaries, are extant only in their Chinese or Tibetan translations.

Vasubandhu was a many-sided thinker, and his personality as it emerges from his works and his biographies shows him as a man who was not only a great genius and a philosopher, but also a human being who was filled with great compassion.  

1. Sources on the Biography of Vasubandhu

The most important and the only complete account of the life of Vasubandhu entitled Biography of Master Vasubandhu was compiled into Chinese by Paramārtha (499-569 C.E.), one of the chief exponents of Yogācāra doctrine in China: It is preserved in the Chinese Tripiṭaka

Apart from this account, the Xiyouji (Great Tang Records on the Western Regions) of Hsüan-tsang (600- 664 C.E.) also provides important information about the life of Vasubandhu.

Though Paramārtha and Hsüan-tsang are the 2 most credible authorities for Vasubandhu's life, yet serious discrepancies exist between their accounts:

Paramārtha's account not only contains legendary or even mythical elements, but the time sequence of events is also ambiguous and differs greatly in places from the account of Hsüan-tsang's the Xiyouji.

The Tibetan historians, Tāranātha and Bu-ston, also give some important information on Vasubandhu's life, but their account further disagrees with Paramārtha and Hsüan-tsang in terms of certain names and events associated with the life of Vasubandhu.

Scholars once suspected that more than one person bore the name Vasubandhu in the history of Indian Buddhism, although recent studies have eliminated this hypothesis.

2. Early Life of Vasubandhu

He was born at Puruṣapura (identified with modern Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan) in the state of Gandhāra:

Gandhāra is best known today as one of the earliest regions to develop a distinctive form of Buddhist art noted for its Hellenistic influence.

According to Tāranātha, Vasubandhu was born 1 year after his older brother Asaṅga became a Buddhist monk. His father was a Brāhmaṇa of the Kauśika gotra.

According to Biography of Master Vasubandhu his mother's name was Viriñci.

But Bu-ston and Tāranātha mention the name of the mother of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu as Prasannashila. According to these two Tibetan historians, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu were half-brothers; Asaṅga’s father being a Kṣatriya and Vasubandhu's a Brāhmaṇa.

Vasubandhu also had a younger brother called Viriñcivatsa.

Vasubandhu's father was a court priest, and according to Tāranātha was an authority on the Vedas. In all probability, he officiated at the court of the Shaka princes of the Shilada clan, who at that time ruled from Puruṣapura.

During the formative years of his life, Vasubandhu may have been introduced by his father not only to the Brāhmaṇa tradition but also to the postulates of classical Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika, both of which had influence on his logical thought.

As a young student, he amazed his teachers with his brilliance and ready wit.

According to Paramārtha, Vasubandhu's teacher was called Buddhamitrā. The Xiyouji, however, never mentions Buddhamitrā and names Manoratha as the teacher of Vasubandhu.

At Vasubandhu's time the dominant Buddhist school in Gandhāra was the Vaibhāṣika (also called Sarvāstivāda). Vasubandhu entered the Sarvāstivāda order, and studied primarily the scholastic system of the Vaibhāṣikas.

Initially, he was quite impressed with the Mahā Vibhāṣā. In time, however, Vasubandhu began to have grave doubts about the validity and relevance of Vaibhāṣika metaphysics:

At this time, perhaps through the brilliant teacher Manoratha, he came into contact with the theories of the Sautrāntikas,

the group of Buddhists who wished to reject everything that was not the express word of the Buddha, and who held the elaborate constructions of the Vibhāṣā up to ridicule.

That there was a strong Sautrāntika tradition in Puruṣapura is likely in view of the fact that it was the birthplace of that great philosopher of the 2nd century, Dharmatrāta.

In fact, the most orthodox Vaibhāṣika seat of learning was not in Gandhāra, but in Kashmir, whose masters looked down upon the Gandhārans as quasi-heretics:

Therefore, according to Hsüan-tsang's pupil Pu Kuang, Vasubandhu decided to go to Kashmir disguised as a lunatic to investigate the Vaibhāṣika teachings more deeply.

Vasubandhu studied in Kashmir with different teachers for 4 years and then came back to Puruṣapura.

After having returned to his native place, Vasubandhu began to prepare for an enormous project that had been in his mind for some time:

At this time he was unattached to any particular order, and lived in a small private house in the centre of Puruṣapura. Vasubandhu supported himself by lecturing on Buddhism before the general public, which presumably remunerated him with gifts.

According to tradition, during the day he would lecture on Vaibhāṣika doctrine and in the evening distil the day's lectures into a verse.

When collected together the 600 verses (kārikās) gave a thorough summary of the entire system. He entitled this work the Abhidharmakośa (Treasury of Abhidharma).

According to Paramārtha, Vasubandhu composed the Abhidharmakośa at Ayodhya, but according to Hsüan-tsang, it was composed in the suburbs of Puruṣapura.

In the Abhidharmakośa Vasubandhu analysed and catalogued 75 dharmas, the basic factors of experience, for the purposes of attaining Bodhi:

He divided them into various categories consisting of:

- 11 types of rūpāṇi i.e., ‘material forms' (the 5 sense organs, their corresponding objects, and avijñapti-rūpa i.e., ‘gesture unrevealing of intent');

- citta (mind);

- 10 types of mahā-bhūmika i.e., ‘major groundings' (volition, desire, mindfulness, attention, and so forth);

- 10 types of kuśala-mahā-bhūmika i.e., ‘advantageous major groundings' (faith, vigour, equanimity, ahimsa, serenity, and so forth);

- 6 types of kleśa-mahā-bhūmika i.e., ‘mental disturbance major groundings' (confusion, carelessness, restlessness, and so forth);

- 2 types of akuśala mahā-bhūmika i.e., ‘non-advantageous major groundings (shamelessness and non-embarrassment);

- 10 types of paritta-kleśa-mahā-bhūmika i.e., ‘secondary mental disturbance major groundings' (anger, enmity, envy, conceit, and so forth);

- 8 types of aniyata-mahā-bhūmika i.e., ‘indeterminate major groundings' (remorse, arrogance, aversion, doubt, torpor, and so forth);

- 14 types of citta-viprayukta-saṁskāra-dharma i.e. ‘embodied- conditioning disassociated from mind' (life-force, birth, decay, impermanence, and so forth); and

- 3 types of asaskṛta-dharmaḥ i.e., ‘unconditioned dharmas’ (spatiality, cessation through understanding, and cessation without understanding).

Not only were the definitions and interrelations of these 75 dharmas analysed in the Abhidharmakośa, but their karmic qualities also examined.

Besides, Vasubandhu also elaborated upon causal theories, cosmology, practices of meditation, theories of perception, karma, rebirth, and the characteristics of an Enlightened Being in this text.

As the Abhidharmakośa was an eloquent summary of the purport of the Mahā Vibhāṣā, the Kashmiri Sarvāstivādins are reported to have rejoiced to see in it all their doctrines so well propounded:

Accordingly, they requested Vasubandhu to write a prose commentary (bhāya) on it.

However, it seems that after having written the Abhidharmakośa, Vasubandhu began to have second thoughts about the Vaibhāṣika teachings:

As a consequence, it is said, Vasubandhu prepared the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya:

But as it contained a thoroughgoing critique of Vaibhāṣika dogmatics from a Sautrāntika viewpoint, the Kashmiri Sarvāstivādins soon realized, to their great disappointment, that the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya in fact refuted many Sarvāstivāda theories and upheld the doctrines of the Sautrāntika School.

One major point that created bad blood between the Vaibhāṣikas and the Sautrāntikas was concerning the status and nature of the dharmas:

The Vaibhāṣikas held that the dharmas exist in the past and future as well as the present.

On the other hand, the Sautrāntikas held the view that they are discrete, particular moments only existing at the present moment in which they discharge causal efficacy.

The Vaibhāṣikas wrote several treatises attempting to refute Vasubandhu's critiques.

3. Conversion to Mahāyāna

In the years directly following the composition of the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, Vasubandhu seems to have spent much time in travelling from place to place.

Finally, after having spent some time at Shakala (modern Sialkot in Pakistan), he shifted along with his teachers Buddhamitrā and Manoratha to Ayodhya (now located in Uttar Pradesh, northern India), a city far removed from Kashmir.

According to Biography of Master Vasubandhu, Vasubandhu, now proud of the fame he had acquired, clung faithfully to the Theravāda doctrine in which he was well-versed and, having no faith in the Mahāyāna, denied that it was the teaching of the Buddha.

Vasubandhu had up to this time but little regard for the Yogācāra treatises of his elder brother.

He had perhaps seen the voluminous Yogācāra-bhūmi compiled by Asaṅga, which may have simply repelled him by its bulk.

According to Bu-ston, he is reported to have said,

"Alas, Asaṅga, residing in the forest, has practiced meditation for 12 years:

Without having attained anything by this meditation, he has founded a system, so difficult and burdensome, that it can be carried only by an elephant."

Asaṅga heard about this attitude of his brother and 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 Puruṣapura, where he lived.

However, Hsüan-tsang differs with some of these details and the place provided by Paramārtha regarding Vasubandhu's conversion:

According to the Xiyouji the conversion of Vasubandhu took place at Ayodhya:

At the rendezvous, Vasubandhu asked Asaṅga to explain the Mahāyāna teaching to him, whereupon he immediately realized the supremacy of Mahāyāna thought:

After further study, we are told, the depth of his realization came to equal that of his brother.

Deeply ashamed of his former abuse of the Mahāyāna, Vasubandhu wanted to cut out his tongue, but refrained from doing so when Asaṅga told him to use it for the cause of Mahāyāna.

Vasubandhu regarded the study of the enormous Aṣṭasāhasrikā-Prajñā-pāramitā sūtra as of utmost importance.

In view of the fact that they were the texts that converted him to Mahāyāna, Vasubandhu's commentaries on the Akṣayamati-nirdeśa-sūtra and the Daśa-bhūmika may have been his earliest Mahāyāna works.

These were followed by a series of commentaries on other Mahāyāna sūtras and treatises, including the Avatamsaka-sūtra, Nirvāṇa-sūtra, Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa sūtra, and Śrīmālādevī Sihanāda sūtra.

He himself composed a treatise on vijñapti-mātra (cognition only) theory and commented on the Mahāyāna-saṁgraha, Tri-rātna-gotra, Amrita-mukha, and other Mahāyāna treatises.

According to the Tibetan biographers, his favourite sūtra was the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñā-pāramitā sūtra.

Considering that these texts reveal the most profound insights into Mahāyāna thinking, it is not surprising that Vasubandhu liked them.

Since the output of Vasubandhu's Mahāyāna works is huge, he was in all probability writing new treatises every year.

According to Biography of Master Vasubandhu, Vasubandhu engaged in his literary activity on behalf of the Mahāyāna after Asaṅga’s death.

Hsüan-tsang, however, tells a strange story that suggests that Vasubandhu died before Asaṅga.

4. Intellectual Debates

With the composition of the Abhidharmakośa, Vasubandhu came to enjoy the patronage and favour of 2 Gupta rulers, Vikramāditya and his heir Balāditya, who can be identified respectively, as Skandagupta (ruled circa 455- 467 C.E.) and Narasihagupta (ruled circa 467-473 C.E.).

The first important intellectual debate which Vasubandhu had was with Vasurata:

Vasurata was a grammarian and the husband of the younger sister of Balāditya. It was Balāditya who had challenged Vasubandhu to a debate. Vasubandhu was able to defeat him successfully.

Another well-known intellectual encounter which Vasubandhu had was with Sānkhyas:

While Vasubandhu was away, his old master Buddhamitrā was defeated in a debate at Ayodhya by Vindhyavāsin.

When Vasubandhu came to know of it, he was enraged and subsequently trounced the Sānkhyas both in debate and in a treatise the Paramārtha-sapta-tīka.

Chandragupta II rewarded him with 300,000 gold coins for his victory over the Sānkhyas:

Vasubandhu made use of this money to build 3 monasteries, one for the Mahāyāna, another one for his old colleagues the Sarvāstivādins, and a third for nuns.

Refutation of Vaiśeṣika and Sānkhya theories had been presented by Vasubandhu already in the Abhidharmakośa, but it was perhaps from this point onward that Vasubandhu was regarded as a philosopher whose views could not be lightly challenged.

Saghabhadra, a Sarvāstivāda scholar from Kashmir, also once challenged Vasubandhu regarding the Abhidharmakośa:

He composed 2 treatises, one consisting of 10,000 verses and another of 120,000 verses. According to Hsüan-tsang, it took 12 years for Saṁghabhadra to finish the 2 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 Vaibhāṣika (that is, the Sarvāstivāda) doctrines. There is no need now of confronting you...

Wise men will know which of us is right and which one is wrong."

5. Date of Vasubandhu

The date of Vasubandhu has posed a problem for historians:

According to Paramārtha, Vasubandhu lived 900 years after the Mahā-Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha. At another place, Paramārtha also mentions the figure of 1100.

Hsüan-tsang and his disciples respectively mention that Vasubandhu lived 1000 and 900 years after the Mahā Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha.

Now though it is generally believed that the Mahā Parinirvāṇa of the Buddha took place within few years of 400 B.C.E., some scholars are still hesitant to accept this date.

This has led to different scholars proposing different dates for Vasubandhu:

Some scholars give as Vasubandhu's dates the years between 270-480 C.E.

It is though commonly believed now Vasubandhu has lived 4th - 5th century C.E.

6. Writings of Vasubandhu

Vasubandhu is said to have been the author of 1 000 works,
500 in the Theravāda tradition and 500 Mahāyāna treatises.

But only 47 works of Vasubandhu are extant:

9 of which survive in the Sanskrit original,
27 in Chinese translation, and
33 in Tibetan translation.

The Abhidharmakośa is the most voluminous among Vasubandhu's independent expositions:

It attained the status of a primary textbook to be studied by all students of the tradition in the Northern Buddhist countries, including Tibet.

As pointed out above, the Abhidharmakośa pictures the Buddhist Path to Enlightenment through the categorization and analysis of the 75 dharmas.

Vasubandhu's Karma-siddhi (Establishing Karma) is a short, quasi-Hīnayāna treatise, coloured, as is the Abhidharmakośa, by Sautrāntika leanings.

His Pañca-skandha-prakaraṇa (Exposition on the 5 Aggregates) discusses most of the subjects taken up in the Abhidharmakośa:

In cataloguing and categorization of dharmas in the Pañca-skandha-prakaraṇa the dharmas is a bit different than the Abhidharmakośa.

Moreover, whereas the Abhidharmakośa talks about 75 dharmas, not only have several dharmas been added, but many of the original 75 have been dropped in the Pañca-skandha-prakaraṇa.

In his Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa (Exposition on Establishing Karma), Vasubandhu challenged the views of those who held that dharmas are anything other than being momentary:

The doctrine of momentariness (kṣaṇikavāda) perceived Consciousness as a causal sequence of moments in which each moment is caused by its immediate predecessor.

However, he felt that this theory could not explain certain categories of continuity:

For instance, kṣaṇikavāda did not offer any satisfactory explanation for the re-emergence of a Consciousness stream after having been interrupted in deep sleep. Similarly, continuity from one life to the next could not be explained satisfactorily by this theory.

To solve such inconsistencies, Vasubandhu introduced the Yogācāra notion of the ālaya vijñāna (storehouse Consciousness):

Through this concept he explained that the seed (bījā) of a previous experience is stored subliminally and released into a new experience.

In this way, Vasubandhu not only explained continuity between 2 separate moments of Consciousness, but he also provided a quasi-causal explanation for the functioning of karmic retribution.

In other words, Vasubandhu's ālaya vijñāna provided an explanation as to how an action performed at one time could produce its result at another time.

This concept also did away with the necessity of a permanent ātman as the doer and recipient of karma since, like a stream, it is continuously changing with new conditions from moment to moment.

From the Yogācāra point of view the most important of Vasubandhu's works are:

a) Viṁśatika (20 Verses),
b) Triṁśikā (30 Verses), and
c) Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa (Exposition on the 3 Natures).

According to tradition, the Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa was reputedly his last treatise, and his Viṁśatika and Triṁśikā were written near the end of his life, though we have no actual evidence to support this order.

Despite the fact that all these 3 texts are very concise and the Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa was not even known in China (and is never read in Tibet despite being part of Tibetan canon), they form a kind of troika and represent Vasubandhu's final accomplishment as a Yogācāra-Vijñāna-vāda teacher.

The Viṁśatika is perhaps the most original and philosophically interesting treatise of Vasubandhu:

Vasubandhu devotes a major portion of this text in dealing with the Realist objections against Yogācāra:

To the Realist position that external things must exist because they are consistently located in space as well as time,

Vasubandhu responds by saying that objects also appear to have spatial and temporal qualities in dreams, whereas nothing ‘external' is present in the dreams. This means that the appearance of cognitive objects does not require an actual object external to the Consciousness cognizing it.

Vasubandhu, however, points out that without the Consciousness nothing whatsoever can be apprehended. Therefore, it is Consciousness that is the necessary condition and not an external object.

Vasubandhu does not deny that cognitive objects exist.
However, what he denies is that such cognitive objects have external reference points.

From the Yogācāra point of view,
what we believe to be external objects are actually nothing more than mental projections.

Thus, whatever we think about, know, experience, or conceptualize, occurs to us only in our Consciousness and nowhere else.

In other words, according to Vasubandhu, cognition takes place only in Consciousness and nowhere else. Thus, everything that we know is acquired through sensory experience.

We are fooled by Consciousness into believing that those things which we perceive and appropriate within Consciousness are actually outside our cognitive sphere.

To the Realist objection that subjective wishes do not determine objective realities,
Vasubandhu replies that due to collective-karma groups give rise to common misperceptions:

He pointed out that it is the result of a person's own karma that determines the type of situation in which that person would be born.

Thus, Vasubandhu points out that how we see things is shaped by previous experience, and since experience is inter-subjective, we gather in groups that see things the way we do.

To another Realist objection that the objective world functions by determinate causal principles,

Vasubandhu points out that the appearance of causal efficacy also occurs in dreams. Thus our conscious ‘dreams' can have causal efficacy.

The Triṁśikā, which became the basic text of the Faxiang School, is one of Vasubandhu's most mature works:

Through concise verses he sums up his doctrine of vijñapti mātra (cognition only) by explaining Yogācāra theories of 8-Consciousnesses, 3-natures and the 5-step path to Enlightenment:

The 8 types of Consciousness are:

1. the 5 Sense Consciousnesses,
2. the Empirical Consciousness (mano- vijñāna),
3. a self-aggrandizing mentality (manas), and
4. the ālaya-vijñāna.

Vasubandhu describes and explains how each of these can be extinguished through āśraya-paravṛtti i.e., through the overturning of the very basis of these 8 types of Consciousness:

This over-turning i.e., achievement of the Bodhi gradually takes place through the 5-step Path in a way that Consciousness (vijñāna) is transformed into unmediated cognition (jñāna).

According to the theory of 3 Natures, there are 3 cognitive realms at play:

1. the delusional cognitively constructed realm, which is intrinsically unreal;
2. the realm of causal dependency; and
3. the perfectional realm which is intrinsically ‘empty.'

To Vasubandhu, Buddhism is a method of cleansing the stream of Consciousness from ‘contaminations' and ‘defilements.’

The Foxing lun (Treatise on Buddha Nature) exerted great influence on Sino-Japanese Buddhism by propounding the concept of Tathāgata-garbha (Buddha Nature).

The Vādavidhi (A Method for Argumentation) is another important text attributed to Vasubandhu:

Though this text is not strictly speaking a ‘logic' text and does not make any distinction between techniques of debate and logic as such, still its importance in the field of logic cannot be overlooked:

It not only provides information on the state of Buddhist logic prior to Dignāga, but also paved the way for the revolutionary contribution of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti in the field of logic.

Though not many details on the meditative career of Vasubandhu are available, his Madhyānta-vibhāga-bhāṣya (Commentary on the Separation of the Middle from Extremes) points to his keen interest in the techniques of meditation.

Vasubandhu's commentaries on Sūtras and Śāstras are by no means less important than the above-mentioned independent treatises:

He wrote commentaries on 3 treatises:

1. the Madhyānta-vibhāga (Discrimination between the Middle and the Extremes),
2. Mahāyāna-sūtra-alamkara (Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sūtras), and
3. Dharma-dharmatā-vibhāga (Discrimination between Existence and Essence).

All these 3 treatises are important texts of the Yogācāra School and are ascribed to Asaṅga's teacher Maitreya.

Vasubandhu also composed a commentary on Asaṅga's Mahāyāna-saṁgraha (Compendium of Mahāyāna). It is the first methodical presentation of the doctrines of Yogācāra-Vijñāna-vāda.

Vasubandhu's Sukhāvatī-vyūha-sūtra-nirdeśa (Commentary on the Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra) is another important text. This text became a fundamental treatise of the Pure Land faith in China and Japan.

The Indian Yogācāra-Vijñāna-vāda is represented in China by 3 schools, and the development of all these schools is credited to the works of Vasubandhu:

a) The first of these schools, called the Dilun school (which was established in the first half of the 6th century C.E.), took his Daśabhūmika-sūtra-nirdeśa (Commentary on the Daśabhūmika Sūtra) as its basic text.

b) The second, the Shelun School which originated in the second half of the 6th century C.E., developed around a translation of the Mahāyāna-saṁgraha done by Paramārtha.

c) The third school, known as the Faxiang school (founded by Hsüan-tsang and his disciple Kuījī in the 7th century), adopted the Triṁśikā as its basic text.

Later in life, Vasubandhu went so far ahead with his contemplative exercises that he even refused to engage in a debate with his worthy opponent Saṁghabhadra.

He died at the age of 80:

Paramārtha says that he died at Ayodhya, whereas Bu-ston says that his death took place in the northern frontier countries, which he calls ‘Nepal.'

In recognition of his contribution and achievements as a Mahāyāna teacher, he came to be reverently called a Bodhisattva in various traditions from India to China.

In fact, some go to the extent of even calling him the ‘second Buddha.'

As rightly pointed out by Bu-ston:

he "was possessed of the wealth (Vāsu) of the Highest wisdom and, having propagated the Doctrine out of mercy, had become the friend (bandhu) of the living beings."