Vasubandhu and the Absolute

Vasubandhu (born 316 AD) and his half-brother, Asanga, were the early formulators of the Yogācāra, a profound and intricate school of Mahāyāna philosophy. The most concise definition of Yogācāra is the practice (ācāra) of spiritual discipline (yoga). Vasubandhu’s range of scholarly acumen is quite prolific:

Aside from the enormous influence he has had on almost the entire range of subsequent Buddhist writing, Vasubandhu makes particularly interesting reading because of the great scope of his interests, the flexibility, originality, and openness of his thought, and his motivation to alleviate suffering, particularly that unnecessary suffering that comes from constricted and constructed mental activity.

His works are in intensely diverse literary formats including religious poetry, ethical animal fables, commentaries on sūtras and treatises, and independent treatises in both prose and verse. His range of interests is also correspondingly vast, and his mental consciousness is equally penetrating when dealing with logic, psychology, the history of the Buddhist Canon, medicine, the most practical instructions for meditation, and the signless melting of all mental borders. He demonstrates a fertility, flexibility, range, and profundity of  thought that quite overwhelms : by any standards, he is one of the greatest of philosophic and therapeutic writers. (Seven Works of Vasubandhu, Stefan Anacker, intro)

Of course, Vasubandhu owed everything to Asanga for his conversion to the Mahāyāna:

Vasubandhu was then living in Ayodhya surrounded by honors and revered by King Baladitya, whilst his older brother Asanga was living in his native land, in Purusapura (Peshawar). Asanga sent a messenger to his brother to tell him: “I am seriously ill at the moment. Come and tend me.” Vasubandhu came and, seeing his brother, enquired as to the cause of that illness. Asanga answered him: “I am suffering from a serious sickness of the heart because of you.” Vasubandhu said: “Why do you say it is because of me?” “You do not believe in the Mahayana,” responded Asanga, “and you are always attacking and discrediting it. For this misdeed you are sure to fall forever into a wretched life. I am worried, preoccupied by you, to such a extent that I shall not live for long.”

On hearing that, Vasubandhu was surprised and alarmed. He implored him to expound the Mahayana to him. Then Asanga explained the essential principles to his brother who, with his clear intelligence and profound vision, immediately understood that the Mahayana surpassed the Hinayana. Vasubandhu forged ahead with his study and research under the guidance of his brother, and soon became as profoundly versed in the whole system as him. (Abhidharmasamuccaya: The Compendium of the Higher Teaching (Philosophy) by Asaṅga, Sara-Boin Webb, intro)

Such is the traditional tale of his conversion. In point of fact, the conversion was more of a gradual one, with many interlocking episodes, one of those being the following:

Vasubandhu had, up to this time, but little regard for the Yogācāra treatises of his elder brother. He had perhaps seen the voluminous Yogācārabhūmi compiled by Asanga, which may have simply repelled him by its bulk. At any rate, he is reported to have said: “Alas, Asanga, residing in the forest, has practiced meditation for twelve 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.”

Asanga heard about this attitude of his brother, and decided to attempt to open him up to the Mahāyāna. He sent two of his students with Mahāyāna texts to Vasubandhu. The evening they arrived, they recited the Aksayamati-nirdesa-sūtra. In this sūtra, a figure from outer space teaches the terrestrial denizens about the absence of own-being, the absence of existing and ceasing, and the absence of any detriment or excellence, in all events and “personalities”. This sūtra seems to have greatly appealed to the critical mind of Vasubandhu. (Anacker, pgs. 18-19)

The Aksayamati-nirdesa-sūtra is a most fascinating document, quite intriguing considering the character of that extraterrestrial.  We will be exploring it during our next Blog season. Vasubandhu is well-known for his work on consciousness, the most famous one known as the Trimsatika, or the Thirty Verses. The following is an excellent translation from Wutai Mountain:

Everything that is taken as a self;
Everything that is taken as other:
These are simply changing forms of consciousness.
Pure consciousness transforms itself
Into three modes: Store consciousness,
Thought consciousness, and active consciousness.
The store consciousness holds the seeds of all past experience.
Within it are the forms of grasping
And the dwelling places of the unknown.
It always arises with touch, awareness, recognition, concept, and desire.
The store consciousness is clear and undefinable.
Like a great river, it is always changing.
Neither pleasant nor unpleasant, when one becomes fully realized, it ceases to exist.
The second transformation of consciousness is called thinking consciousness.
It evolves by taking the store consciousness as object and support.
Its essential nature is to generate thoughts.
The thinking consciousness
Is always obscured by four defilements:
Self‑regard, self‑delusion, self‑pride, and self‑love.
The thinking consciousness also arises with the mental factors
Of touch, awareness, recognition, concept, and desire.
This consciousness ceases when one becomes realized.
It also falls away when consciousness is impaired,
And when one is fully present.
The third transformation of consciousness
Is the active perception of sense objects.
These can be good, bad, or indifferent in character.
This active consciousness arises with three kinds of mental functions: Those that are universal, those that
are specific, and those that are beneficial.
It is also associated with primary and secondary defilements
And the three kinds of feeling.
The universal factors are touch, awareness, recognition, concept, and desire.
The specific factors are intention, resolve, memory, concentration, and knowledge.
The beneficial factors are faith, modesty, respect, distance, courage, composure, equanimity, alertness,
and compassion.
The primary defilements are:
Passion, aggression, ignorance,
Pride, intolerance, and doubt.
The secondary defilements are:
Anger, hatred, jealousy,
Envy, spite, hypocrisy, deceit…
Dishonesty, arrogance, harmfulness,
Immodesty, lack of integrity, sluggishness,
Restlessness, lack of faith, laziness, idleness,
Forgetfulness, carelessness, and distraction.
Remorse, sleepiness, reasoning, and analysis
Are factors which can be either defiled or undefiled.
Together or separately, depending on causes and conditions,
Just like waves arise in water.
Thought consciousness manifests at all times,
Except for those born in the realms of beings without thought,
Those in the formless trances, and those who are unconscious.
These three transformations of consciousness
Are just the distinction of subject and object, self and other–
They do not really exist.
All things are nothing but forms of consciousness.
Since the storehouse consciousness contains all seeds,
These transformations of consciousness arise
And proceed based upon mutual influence.
On account of this, discrimination of self and other arises.
All actions leave traces,
And because of grasping at self and other,
Once one seed has been exhausted, another arises.
That which is differentiated
In terms of self and other,
Or by whatever sort of discrimination,
That is just mental projection:
It does not exist at all.
Appearances themselves
Which arise dependently through causes and conditions
Exist, but only in a partial and dependent way.
Ultimately, perfect nature, the fully real, arises
When there is an absence of mental projection onto appearances.
For that reason, the fully real is neither the same nor different from appearances.
If the perfected nature is not seen, the dependent nature is not seen either.
Corresponding to the threefold nature,
There is a threefold absence of self‑nature.
This absence of self‑nature of all dharmas
Is the secret essence of the Buddha’s teachings.
Projections are without self‑nature by definition.
Appearances too are without self‑nature because they are not
Perfect nature is without any differentiation whatsoever.
The true nature of consciousness only
Is the true nature of all dharmas.
Remaining as it is at all times, it is Suchness.
As long as consciousness does not see
That subject‑object distinctions are simply forms of consciousness
Attachment to twofold grasping will never cease.
By merely thinking
The objects one perceives are forms of consciousness
One does not realize consciousness only.
One realizes consciousness only
When the mind no longer seizes on any object
When there is nothing to be grasped, there is no grasping
Then one knows – everything is consciousness only.
That is the supreme, world‑transcending knowledge
Where one has no mind that knows
And no object that is known
Abandoning twofold grasping
The storehouse consciousness is emptied.
That alone is the pure, primordial reality
Beyond thought, auspicious, unchanging
It is the blissful body of liberation
The dharmakaya nature of the enlightened ones.

It needs to be stated that the Yogācāra School is most often associated with Maitreya, the Maha-Bodhisattva and future Buddha of our own saha-world. We will be concerning ourselves in this series with the Madhyāntavibhāga, “Discourse on Discrimination between Middle and Extremes“, which is said to have been composed by Maitreya, promulgated by Asanga, and commented on by Vasubandhu. This work “consists of 112 verses (kārikā) which delineate the distinctions (vibhāga) and relationship between the middle (madhya) view and the extremes (anta); it contains five chapters: Attributes (laksana), Obscurations (āvarana), Reality (tattva), Cultivation of Antidotes (pratipakṣabhāvanā) and the Supreme Way (yānānuttarya).” (wiki) The edition and translation will be the one by the renowned Russian Buddhologist, Theodore Stcherbatsky, written in 1936, part of the Bibliotheca Buddhica XXX, Academy of Sciences USSR Press, Moscow/Leningrad. The Encyclopedia Britannica (2004 edition) acclaimed Stcherbatsky as “the foremost Western authority on Buddhist philosophy”.

Theodore Stcherbatsky and Monism:

The following on Stcherbatsky is from ORIENTALIA Articles: Buddhist Studies in Russia: Theodor Stcherbatsky:

The glorious traditions of Minayev’s school of Indology and Buddhist studies were brilliantly carried forward by his pupil, Academician Fyodor Ippolitovich Stcherbatsky (1866-1942), whose scholarly work constituted a whole era in world Buddhology. More than fifty years have passed since his death but his works still retain their scholarly significance, are constantly being republished in different countries, his name is spoken with deepest respect by Indologists and specialists in Buddhist studies. His works are also very popular in India. Jawaharlal Nehru in his Autobiography assessed his work very highly, calling him an “authority on the subject”. When Presidents Rajendra Prasad and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan of India visited the Soviet Union, they spoke with great respect of Shcherbatskoy’s services to scholarship. Stcherbatsky carried on a friendly correspondence with Rabindranath Tagore. The well-known Indian scholar Rahula Sankrityayana, who dedicated his edition of the Pramana-Varttika to the memory of Stcherbatsky, called him the “greatest Orientalist of his times”.

Buddhism, as before, was at the centre of his interests. He was paying the utmost attention at this period to the work of the outstanding Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu, who was considered to be, according to tradition, “the second Buddha”…

Unfortunately, Stcherbatsky’s school met a horrible fate at the hands of the Soviets:

The Double Essence of Ultimate Reality, published in 1936, became the last issue of the famous series Bibliotheca Buddhica which was banned in 1937 as «a tool of imperialist and Buddhist propaganda». All Stcherbatsky’s pupils were arrested as <enemies of the people>, most of them were executed, and the brilliant Leningrad Buddhological School, which was founded by this venerable scholar, ceased to exist. In May or June 1938, the subject of Stcherbatsky’s study, Philosophy of the Yogācāra School, was excluded from the research program of the Institute of Oriental Studies. (The Petersburg Journal of Cultural Studies. Vol. I, Number 2. 1993. Pages 86 )

What interests me most about Stcherbatsky’s translation of the first chapter of the Madhyanta-Vibhanga (which focuses primarily on Vasubandhu’s commentary, along with Vasubandhu’s disciple, Sthiramati, subcommentary) is his emphasis on the monistic-element that encompasses the work. We will be focusing on his section on The Absolute:

It is there most clearly and emphatically stated that, for the Yogacaras, it means 1. grāha*grāhaka-abhāva and 2. tsya ca svabhāva, i.e. the 1. (ultimate) non-reality of the relation of subject to object and 2) the (ultimate) reality of their (subjacent, monistic) Absolute, In other words the denial of Pluralism and the vindication of Monism, with the implication that this Monism has a superstructure of phenomenal Relativity or that the phenomenal Relativity has a subjacent foundation of Absolute, non-relative Reality . The Absolute is thus the “Reality of Unreality”; This Absolute represents the unique substance of the Universe (ekam dravyam). There is no other substance. It embraces the totality of everything relatively real, but is itself the non-relative Absolute. It has, so to speak, a reflex on the opposite end of the scale, in the so called Thing-in-itself (svalakṣaṇa) which is a point-instant of spiritual Reality… Applying Kantian terminology we could perhaps say that the one is transcendental (śuddhalaukika), the other transcendent (pariśuddha, lokottra). (Stcherbatsky)

We will be focusing on the Kantian Transcendental Element of the thing-in-itself in our subsequent blog, but for now Stcherbatsky offers more on Monism Vs. Pluralism. This is critical because most of present-day Buddhism focuses exclusively on the pluralistic element at the expense of the Monistic One, which is the source of much consternation, not only in the field of Buddhism but for the secular world at large that places such a high premium on pluralized “diversity” and its dire outcomes.

The empirical condition of existence, the essence of which is not to appear in one aspect, (but always in the double aspect of a thing and of its efficiency), this condition does not exist as absolute reality, because (Monism), not Plurality is that aspect of the Universe which is ultimately real. Plurality is nothing but illusion and (we, worldly beings to whom absolute) knowledge non refracted into the (double) form of subject and object is inaccessible, must be regarded as blinded by (the glamour) of Transcendental Illusion!

The spirit of a revolt against Monism, after having produced a most interesting system of extreme Pluralism, did not survive, it could not destroy Indian Monism which remained unshaken, so deeply rooted in its brahminical strongholds. On the contrary, Monism took the offensive and finally established itself triumphantly in the very heart of a new Buddhism. In the schools of Asanga and Vasubandhu it became established dogmatically, as a system of idealism…


Such is the result of the logical analysis of cognition. Reduced to its ultimate elements it consists of an external Thing-in-Itself, a corresponding pure sensation and a following image. Knowledge contains two sides, subject and object. Even reduced to its simplest elements they are nevertheless two. Logic cannot proceed any further. It cannot imagine a higher synthesis uniting both subject and object into a monistic undifferentiated Whole. This step is translogical, it means a plunge into metaphysics, a denial of the law of contradiction and a challenge to logic. For the Buddhist logicians, however, truth exists on two different planes, the logical and the translogical one. Dignāga and Dharmakirti call themselves idealists, but they are realists in logic and idealists and even monists in metaphysics. In logic reality and ideality are divorced, but the “Climax of Wisdom”, says Dignāga, “is Monism”. In the very final Absolute subject and object coalesce. “We identify”, says Dignāga, “this spiritual Non-duality, i. e., the monistic substance of the Universe, with the Buddha i. e., with his so called Cosmical Body”. [Dignāga. The Culmination of Wisdom is Monism. This Unity is the Buddha in his Spiritual Body]. (All from Stcherbatsky’s Buddhist Logic, Vol I and II)

This entry was posted in Spirituality, Vasubandhu and the Absolute and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Vasubandhu and the Absolute

  1. Metatron says:

    “Logic cannot proceed any further. It cannot imagine a higher synthesis uniting both subject and object into a monistic undifferentiated Whole.”

    Stcherbatsky apparently never read Hegel’s Logic…

    • Vajragoni says:

      In point of fact, regarding the Mādhyamaka, Stcherbatsky superimposed a “Hegelian pattern of radical monisim upon it; i.e., he held that the Mādhyamaka school accepted an Absolute Whole as the final reality (śūnyatā), based on their dialectical reduction of all compound phenomena to unreality.” (from his Conception of Buddhist Nirvana).

  2. n. yeti says:

    A Gāthā in Devotion to Mind

    Mind of abiding purity,
    Deflected only through habits of birth and death
    Which lead to obscuration,

    Let your light know itself!

    Let it shine so brightly that any notion
    Of self, other, being, nothingness
    Dissolves in its basic luminosity.

    Let it be known to itself
    As the stainless truth of original thusness
    Which shatters all delusion,

    O treasure immeasurable,
    O diamond mind!

    N. Yeti

  3. Vajragoni says:

    Most nice! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter Captcha Here : *

Reload Image