Vasubandhu Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Indian philosopher{$I[g]India and Sri Lanka;Vasubandhu} Vasubandhu articulated and critiqued the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism and then developed the “consciousness-only” school, thus laying the metaphysical foundations of Yogācāra Buddhism.

Early Life

Access to the life and work of Vasubandhu (VAH-sew-BAHN-dew) begins with consideration of the activities of the Indian scholar and philosopher Paramārtha (c. 499-569 c.e.). Paramārtha was a Buddhist monk who traveled to China about 548 c.e., intending to spread the teachings of the Abhidharmakośa (fourth or fifth century c.e.; The Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu, 1983) and the Mahāyānasamgraha (fourth century c.e.; The Summary of the Great Vehicle, 1992). The former is a basic text of the Sarvāstivāda (or Vaibhāśika) school of Buddhism, written by Vasubandhu; the latter, a fundamental text of the Yogācāra school, written by Vasubandhu’s brother Asanga and annotated by Vasubandhu. In addition to spreading these doctrines and composing many other works, Paramārtha wrote a biography of Vasubandhu.

This biography is the foundation of the opinion, held both traditionally and by most contemporary scholars, that Vasubandhu was a single individual, rather than two distinct persons separated in time by a century or so. Paramārtha’s work of textual and doctrinal propagation supplies the grounds for the controversy. The Sarvāstivāda (“all-things-exist”) persuasion is a quite early (c. third century b.c.e.) deviation from the Theravāda school “Of the Elders,” also (critically) termed Hīnayāna, the “Lesser Vehicle.” The Yogācāra or Vijñānavāda (“consciousness-only”) position is a branch of Mahāyāna or “Greater Vehicle” Buddhism. The large designations Hīnayāna-Mahāyāna are usually understood as oppositional, as are the more detailed Sarvāstivāda-Vijñānavāda doctrines. This creates the “problem of Vasubandhu,” that is, the need to consider whether he is a single person, which views he held when, and why. The core of the problem is the legitimate doubt that a single individual would have held what seem to be divergent, even opposed positions.

Singularity is generally accepted. Vasubandhu is thought to have been born in the late fourth or early fifth century c.e. in the city of Puruśapura (modern Peshawar), located in the territory of Gandhara. The elder Asanga was probably his half brother, born of the same mother but not the son of Vasubandhu’s Brahman father. Vasubandhu was broadly educated in traditional Hindu texts but, like Asanga, chose to become a Buddhist monk. He was enrolled in the Sarvāstivāda school, then traveled to Kashmir for advanced instruction in abhidharma, that is, academic investigation into the nature of ultimate reality. Evidently, the young Vasubandhu’s intelligence was curious and searching, interested in the critical examination of arguments rather than adherence to any particular school or dogma.

Life’s Work

Vasubandhu and his brother were both Buddhist monks of, broadly, the Mahāyāna persuasion. The purpose of Buddhism is to transcend samsāra—the distressing cycle of repeated births and deaths—through enlightenment. Mahāyāna Buddhism teaches that the bodhisattvas, “enlightenment-beings,” seek transcendence or salvation not only for themselves but also for others. They help to provide the “greater vehicle” into which all may enter.

The philosophical Buddhist, then, seeks to gain enlightenment and to end suffering through investigation into both what is ultimately real, and therefore worth seeking, and, on the other hand, what is merely apparent or passing, and therefore of little or no concern. The Vaibhāśika branch of the Sarvāstivāda school, of which Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa is the most important text, understands reality in terms of dharmas.

In this usage, a dharma is that which exists noncontingently or—what constitutes practically the same quality—is able to cause an event. It is, however, misleading to attribute “thingness” of any sort (material or ideal, physical or mental) to dharmas. The comprehensive doctrine is that dharmas, while they have existence, are impermanent events or occurrences. Of course, “dharma-discourse” contains numerous details, most significantly the allocation of the seventy-five dharmas to five general categories. This categorization is in tension with the comprehensive doctrine, since it amounts to a mind-matter dualism; and it thus generates the question of how a physical occurrence is able to cause a mental event, and vice versa.

This categorical disjunction is secondary. Within the Buddhist frame, the “all-things-exist” position is deeply disturbing. It presents a world that is an endless sequence of momentary events, “the self” or “consciousness” included. Beyond this, it is unable to explain adequately either how, in the transmigratory...

(The entire section is 2072 words.)