Vasubandhu (Sanskrit; traditional Chinese: 世親; ; pinyin: Shìqīn;
Wylie: dbyig gnyen) (fl. 4th to 5th century CE) was a very influential
Buddhist monk and scholar from Gandhara.
Vasubandhu was a philosopher
who wrote on the
Abhidharma from the perspectives of the Sarvastivada
Sautrāntika schools. Along with his half-brother Asanga, he was
also one of the main founders of the
Yogacara school after his
Abhidharmakośakārikā ("Commentary on the Treasury of
the Abhidharma") is widely used in Tibetan and
East Asian Buddhism
East Asian Buddhism as
the major source for non-
Abhidharma philosophy. His
philosophical verse works set forth the standard for the Indian
Yogacara metaphysics of "appearance only" (vijñapti-mātra), which
has been described as a form of "epistemological idealism",
phenomenology and close to Immanuel Kant's transcendental
idealism. Apart from this, he wrote several commentaries, works on
logic, argumentation and devotional poetry.
Vasubandhu is one of the most influential thinkers in the Indian
Buddhist philosophical tradition. In Jōdo Shinshū, he is considered
the Second Patriarch and in Chan Buddhism, he is the 21st Patriarch.
1 Life and works
1.1 Two Vasubandhus theory
2.2 Critique of the Self
2.5 Appearance only
2.6 Three Natures and non-duality
6 External links
Life and works
Born a Brahmin in
Peshawar (present-day Pakistan),
the half brother of Asanga, another key personage in the founding of
Yogacara philosophy. Vasubandhu's name means "the Kinsman of
Abundance." He and
Asanga are members of the "Six Ornaments" or
six great commentators on the Buddha’s teachings. He was
contemporaneous with Chandragupta I, father of Samudragupta. This
information temporally places this
Vasubandhu in the 4th century
CE. The earliest biography of
Vasubandhu was translated into
Chinese by Paramärtha (499-569).
Vasubandhu initially studied with
Sarvastivada (also called Vaibhāṣika, who upheld the
Mahavibhasa) school which was dominant in Gandhara, and then later
Kashmir to study with the heads of the orthodox Sarvastivada
branch there. After returning home he lectured on
Abhidharmakośakārikā (Verses on the Treasury of the
Abhidharma), a verse distillation of
teachings, which was an analysis of all factors of experience into its
constituent dharmas (phenomenal events). However
Vasubandhu had also
begun to question
Sarvastivada orthodoxy for some time, and had
studied with the Sautantrika teacher Manoratha. Due to this, he then
went on to publish an auto-commentary to his own verses, criticizing
Sarvastivada system from a
Sautrāntika viewpoint (also called
He is later said to have converted to
Mahayana beliefs under the
influence of his brother Asanga, whereupon he composed a number of
voluminous treatises, especially on
Yogacara doctrines and Mahayana
sutras. Most influential in the East Asian Buddhist tradition have
been the Vimśatikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi, the "Twenty Verses on
Representation Only", with its commentary (Viṃśatikāvṛtti), the
Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā, the "Thirty Verses on
Representation-only" and the "Three Natures Exposition"
Vasubandhu also wrote a texts on Buddhist
Hermeneutics, the Proper Mode of Exposition (Vyākhyāyukti).
Vasubandhu thus became a major
Mahayana master, scholar and debater,
famously defeating the
Samkhya philosophers in debate in front of the
Chandragupta II at Ayodhya, who is said to have rewarded
him with 300,000 pieces of gold.
Vasubandhu used the money he made
from royal patronage and debating victories to build Buddhist
monasteries and hospitals.
He was prolific, writing a large number of other works, including:
Pañcaskandhaprakaraṇa (Explanation of the Five Aggregates)
Karmasiddhiprakarana ("A Treatise on Karma")
Vyākhyāyukti ("Proper Mode of Exposition")
Vādavidhi("Rules for Debate")
Mahāyāna śatadharmā-prakāśamukha śāstra
Amitayus sutropadeśa ("Instruction on the Amitabha Sutra")
Discourse on the Pure Land
Vijnaptimatrata Sastra ("Treatise on representation only")
Mahāyānasaṃgrahabhāṣya (Commentary to the Summary of the Great
Vehicle of Asanga)
Dharmadharmatāvibhāgavṛtti (Commentary on Distinguishing Elements
Madhyāntavibhāgabhāṣya (Commentary on Distinguishing the Middle
from the Extremes)
Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkārabhāṣya (Commentary on the Ornament to
the Great Vehicle Discourses)
Dasabhūmikabhāsya (Commentary on the Ten Stages Sutra)
Commentary on the Aksayamatinirdesa-sutra
Commentary on the Diamond Sutra
Commentary on the Lotus Sutra
Paramärthasaptati, a critique of Samkhya
Two Vasubandhus theory
Erich Frauwallner, a mid-20th-century Buddhologist, sought to
distinguish two Vasubandhus, one the Yogācārin and the other a
Sautrāntika, but this view has largely fallen from favour in part on
the basis of the anonymous Abhidharma-dīpa, a critique of the
Abhidharmakośakārikā which clearly identifies
Vasubandhu as the
sole author of both groups of writings. According to Dan Lusthaus,
"Since the progression and development of his thought ... is so
strikingly evident in these works, and the similarity of vocabulary
and style of argument so apparent across the texts, the theory of Two
Vasubandhus has little merit." Scholarly consensus on this
question has generally moved away from Frauwallner's "two-authors"
Vasubandhu: Wood, 186 cm height, about 1208, Kofukuji Temple, Nara,
Part of a series on
Aryadeva and Nagarjuna
Laozi and Confucius
East Asian Mādhyamaka
Hundred Schools of Thought
Four Tenets system
Vasubandhu's Verses on the Treasury of the
Abhidharma contains a
description of all 75 dharmas (phenomenal events), and then outlines
Sarvastivada doctrine including "meditation practices,
cosmology, theories of perception, causal theories, the causes and
elimination of moral problems, the theory of rebirth, and the
qualities of a Buddha." The Treasury and its commentary also
expound all kinds of arguments relating to the
and critique those arguments from a Sautantrika perspective in the
commentary. Major arguments include an extensive critique of the Self
(Atman and Pudgala) and a critique of the
Sarvastivada theory of "the
existence of the dharmas of the three time periods [past, present and
future]". In the Treasury, Vasubadhu also argued against a Creator God
(Ishvara) and against the
Sarvastivada theory of avijñaptirūpa
("unperceived physicality" or "invisible physicality").
Critique of the Self
Vasubandhu's critique of the Self is a defence of Buddhist Anatman
doctrine, and also a critique of the Buddhist Personalist School and
Hindu view of the soul. It is intended to show the unreality of the
self or person as over and above the five skandhas (heaps, aggregates
which make up an individual).
Vasubandhu begins by outlining the
soteriological motive for his argument, writing that any view which
sees the self as having independent reality (e.g. the Hindu view) is
not conductive to Nirvana.
Vasubandhu then evaluates the idea of the Self from epistemic grounds
Vasubandhu states that what is real can only be known from
perception (Pratyakṣa) or inference (Anumāṇa).
one to observe directly the objects of the six sense spheres.
Inference allows one to infer the existence of sense organs. However,
there is no such inference for a solid real Self apart from the stream
of constantly changing sense perceptions and mental activity of the
Vasubandhu also argues that because the Self is not causally
efficient, it is mere convention (prajñapti) and a “conceptual
construction” (parikalpita). This argument is mainly against the
Pudgalavada school who held a view of a 'person' that was
dependent on the five aggregates, yet was also distinct, in order to
account for the continuity of personality.
Vasubandhu sees this as
illogical, for him, the Self is made up of constantly changing sensory
organs, sense impressions, ideas and mental processes and any imagined
unity of self-hood is a false projection.
Vasubandhu also uses this analysis of the stream of consciousness to
attack non-Buddhist Hindu views of the Atman.
Vasubandhu shows that
the Hindu view of the Self as 'controller' is refuted by an analysis
of the flux and disorder of mental events and the inability of the
supposed Self to control our minds and thoughts in any way we would
like. If the Self is truly an eternal un-caused agent, it should be
unaffected by mere physical and mental causes, and it also seems
difficult to explain how such a force existing independently outside
of the mind could causally interact with it.
answers several common objections to the Buddhist not-self view such
as how karma works without a Self and what exactly undergoes rebirth.
Vasubandhu points to the causal continuum of aggregates/processes
which undergoes various changes leading to future karmic events and
During Vasubandhu's era, the philosophy of space and time was an
important issue in Buddhist philosophy. The Sarvāstivādin tradition
Vasubandhu studied held the view of the existence of dharmas
(phenomenal events) in all three times (past, present, future). This
was said to be their defining theoretical position, hence their name
Sanskrit for "theory of all exists". In contrast to
this eternalist view, the Sautrāntika, a rival offshoot, held the
doctrine of "extreme momentariness", a form of presentism (only the
present moment exists).
In the Abhidharmakośakārikā,
Vasubandhu puts forth the
Sarvāstivādin theory, and then in his commentary (bhasya) he
critiques this theory and argues for the 'momentariness' of the
Sautrāntika. He also later wrote the Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa
("Exposition Establishing Karma") which also expounded the
momentariness view (kṣanikavāda). Vasubandhu's view here is that
each dharma comes into existence only for a moment in which it
discharges its causal efficacy and then self-destructs, the stream of
experience is then a causal series of momentary dharmas. The issue of
continuity and transference of karma is explained in the latter text
by an exposition of the "storehouse consciousness" (ālayavijñāna),
which stores karmic seeds (bīja) and survives rebirth.
According to Dan Lusthaus, Vasubandhu's major ideas are:
"Whatever we are aware of, think about, experience, or conceptualize,
occurs to us nowhere else than within consciousness."
"External objects do not exist."
Karma is collective and consciousness is intersubjective."
"All factors of experience (dharmas) can be catalogued and analyzed."
Buddhism is a method for purifying the stream of consciousness from
'contaminations' and 'defilements.'"
"Each individual has eight types of consciousness, but Enlightenment
(or Awakening) requires overturning their basis, such that
consciousness (vijñaana) is 'turned' into unmediated cognition
Yogacara works (Viṃśatikā and Triṃśikā) put
forth the theory of "vijñaptimātra" which has been rendered
variously as 'representation-only', 'consciousness-only' and
'appearance-only'. While some scholars such as Lusthaus see Vasubandhu
as expounding a phenomenology of experience, others (Sean Butler) see
him as expounding some form of
Idealism similar to
Kant or George
The Twenty verses begins by stating:
Mahayana philosophy...[reality is] viewed as being
Mind (citta), thought (manas), consciousness
(chit), and perception (pratyaksa) are synonyms. The word "mind"
(citta) includes mental states and mental activities in its meaning.
The word "only" is intended to deny the existence of any external
objects of consciousness. We recognize, of course, that "mental
representations seem to be correlated with external (non-mental)
objects; but this may be no different from situations in which people
with vision disorders 'see' hairs, moons, and other things that are
One of Vasubandhu's main arguments in the Twenty verses is the Dream
argument, which he uses to show that it is possible for mental
representations to appear to be restricted by space and time. He uses
the example of mass hallucinations (in Buddhist hell) to defend
against those who would doubt that mental appearances can be shared.
To counter the argument that mere mental events have no causal
efficacy, he uses the example of a wet dream.
Vasubandhu then turns to
a mereological critique of physical theories, such as Buddhist atomism
and Hindu Monism, showing that his appearance only view is much more
parsimonious and rational.
The Thirty verses also outlines the
Yogacara theory of the Eight
Consciousnesses and how each one can be overcome on the stages of
enlightenment, turning consciousness (vijnana) into unmediated
cognition (jnana) by cleansing the stream of consciousness from
‘contaminations' and ‘defilements.’ The Treatise on Buddha
Nature was extremely influential in
East Asian Buddhism
East Asian Buddhism by propounding
the concept of tathagatagarbha (
Three Natures and non-duality
The Thirty verses and the "Three Natures Exposition"
(Trisvabhavanirdesha) does not, like the Twenty verses, argue for
appearance only, but assumes it and uses it to explain the nature of
experience which is of "three natures" or "three modes". These are the
fabricated nature (parikalpitasvabhāva), the dependent
(paratantrasvabhāva) and the absolute (pariniṣpannasvabhāva). The
fabricated nature is the world of everyday experience and mental
appearances. Dependent nature is the causal process of the arising of
the fabricated nature while the absolute nature is things as they are
in themselves, with no subject object distinction.
According to Vasubandhu, the absolute, reality itself (dharmatā) is
non-dual, and the dichotomy of perception into perceiver and perceived
is actually a conceptual fabrication. For Vasubandhu, to say that
something is non-dual is that it is both conceptually non-dual and
perceptually non-dual. To say that "I" exist is to conceptually
divide the causal flux of the world into self and other, a false
construct. Just the same, to say that an observed object is separate
from the observer is also to impute a false conception into the world
as it really is - perception only.
Vasubandhu uses the analogy of a
magician who uses a magic spell (dependent nature, conceptual
construction) to make a piece of wood (the absolute, non-duality) look
like an elephant (fabricated nature, duality). The basic problem for
living beings who suffer is that they are fooled by the illusion into
thinking that it is real, that self and duality exists, true wisdom is
seeing through this illusion.
Vasubandhu contributed to
Buddhist logic and is held to have been the
origin of formal logic in the Indian logico-epistemological tradition.
Vasubandhu was particularly interested in formal logic to fortify his
contributions to the traditions of dialectical contestability and
debate. Anacker (2005: p. 31) holds that:
A Method for Argumentation (Vāda-vidhi) is the only work on logic by
Vasabandhu which has to any extent survived. It is the earliest of the
treatises known to have been written by him on the subject. This is
all the more interesting because Vāda-vidhi marks the dawn of Indian
formal logic. The title, "Method for Argumentation", indicates that
Vasabandhu's concern with logic was primarily motivated by the wish to
mould formally flawless arguments, and is thus a result of his
interest in philosophical debate.
This text also paved the way for the later developments of
Dharmakirti in the field of logic.
^ Lusthaus, Dan, 2002. Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical
Investigation of Yogācāra Philosophy and the Ch’eng Wei-shih lun,
New York, NY: RoutledgeCurzon.
^ a b c d e f g h Gold, Jonathan C., "Vasubandhu", The Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta
(ed.), URL =
^ P. 34 Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and
Ireland, Volume 2001 By Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and
Ireland[full citation needed]
^ Anacker, Stefan; Seven Works of Vasubandhu, the Buddhist
Psychological Doctor, page 13.
Dharma Fellowship (2005).
Yogacara Theory - Part One: Background
History. Source:  (Accessed: November 15, 2007)
^ Takakusu, J., trans. (1904). The Life of
Vasubandhu by Paramartha,
T'oung-pao 5, 269 - 296
^ a b Lusthaus, Dan; Vasubandhu
^ Anacker, Stefan; Seven Works of Vasubandhu, the Buddhist
Psychological Doctor, page 21.
^ Matsumoto, David (2015). Jōdoron 浄土論: Discourse on the Pure
Land, Pacific World: Third Series 17, 23-42
^ Abbot, Terry Rae (1985). Vasubandhu´s Commentary to the
Saddharmapundarika-sutra. PhD dissertation, Berkeley: University of
^ Abbot, Terry (2013). The Commentary on the Lotus Sutra, in:
Tsugunari Kubo; Terry Abbott; Masao Ichishima; David Wellington
Tiantai Lotus Texts (PDF). Berkeley, California: Bukkyō
Dendō Kyōkai America. pp. 83–149.
^ Jaini, Padmanabh (1958). "On the Theory of Two Vasubandhus".
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (1): 48–53.
doi:10.1017/s0041977x00063217. JSTOR 610489.
^ Dan Lusthaus, "What is and isn't Yogacara.".
^ Anacker, Stefan (2005). Seven Works of Vasubandhu. Delhi: MLBD.
^ Gold, Jonathan C. "Vasubandhu". The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition). Stanford University.
^ Lusthaus, Vasubandhu
^ Butler, Sean (2011) "
Idealism in Yogācāra Buddhism," The Hilltop
Review: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 6. Available at:
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Abhidharma Kosha Bhashyam 4 vols, Vasubandhu, translated into English
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Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Gold, Jonathan C. "Vasubandhu". In Zalta, Edward N. Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Vasubandhu: Entry at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Multilingual edition of Triṃśikāvijñapti in the Bibliotheca
Vasubandhu’s Treatise on the Three Natures (Trisvabhāvanirdeśa)
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