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Day 5: The Heirs of Vasubandhu

Day 5: The Heirs of Vasubandhu

A Teaching on Vasubandhu's The Thirty Verses

Day 5: The Heirs of Vasubandhu

29 January 2022

The Karmapa began by providing more details of Professor Padmanabh S. Jaini's refutation of the hypothesis that there were two Vasubandhus, one in the 4th century and one in the 5th century. Professor Jaini based his arguments on a comparison of two texts—the Treasury of Abhidharma and the Lamp of Abhidharma. The latter was an incomplete Sanskrit text discovered at Shalu monastery in Tibet. Those who supported the theory of two Vasubandhus had claimed that the author of the Treasury had no knowledge of the Mahayana view. Professor Jaini argued that the refutations of the Treasury of Abhidharma found in the Lamp of Abhidharma showed that the author of the Treasury knew the Mahayana presentation and the language used in sections of the Treasury was similar to that used in the Mahayana Vaitulika Śastra and the Vaitulika-śastra-pravea-dvaram. (These two Mahayana treatises are part of what is known as "The Extremely Vast Section" of the Dharma.)

The Mind Only Tradition in India after Vasubandhu

Two important sub-schools

After Vasubandhu, many commentaries were written on the Thirty Verses. However, differing interpretations of its meaning and disputes between scholars led to the division of the Mind Only tradition into sub-schools. Most significant were the Non-Imagist Mind Only School (called the False Image Mind Only in Tibetan) and the Imagist Mind Only School (known as the True Image Mind Only in Tibetan). The earliest extant text in which these terms–Imagist and Non-imagist–are used to differentiate the schools is an 8th-century commentary by Kamalaśīla on Śāntarakṣita's Compendium of Suchness (Tattva-Saṃgraha). Since that time, these are the terms that have been used to distinguish between the two schools.

The Non-Imagist Mind Only School was founded by Guṇamati and passed down through Sthiramati. Master Yijing brought many aspects of the Imagist tradition from India to China, where it spread widely and became known as the "Compendium of Mahayana School".

The Imagist Mind Only was founded by Dignāga and passed down through Asvabhāva and Dharmapāla. During his pilgrimage across India, the Chinese monk Xuanzang visited Nalanda. There he studied with Śīlabhadra, a direct disciple of Dharmapāla. When Xuanzang returned to China, he took Dignāga's Imagist tradition, and it flourished in China as the "Dharma Characteristic School".

Important figures in the Mind Only School

Many masters appeared after Vasubandhu, and the Karmapa briefly introduced the two most important, Dignāga and Asvabhāva, and the ones known as the 'ten commentators'.

Dignāga (ca. 400–480 CE)

Dignāga belongs to the Mind Only School but his presentation was slightly different. Usually, in the Mind Only tradition the focus is on the ground consciousness as the fundamental tenet. Dignāga, in contrast, did not emphasise the kun-shi –the all-ground consciousness. Instead, he primarily investigated the topic of classifications of mind [i.e. how we know objects]. He wrote treatises, including, in particular, the Examination of Objects (Ālambana-parīkṣa). Many exist in Chinese but not in Tibetan. His significant contribution was to lay the foundations for Buddhist logic and epistemology, and many credit him as the father of Indian Buddhist logic.

Previously, reasoning had been based on analogy, but, with his nine types of reasons and his presentation of the three modes of reasoning, Dignāga introduced a new methodology of logic based on proofs. His works on logic and epistemology include the Introduction to Logic (Nyāyamukha), the Compendium of Validity (Pramāṇa-samuccaya), and others. In the 7th century, Dharmakīrti developed Dignāga's system of logic further, and made it more detailed and precise.  

Asvabhāva (ca. 450–530 CE)

Asvabhāva's most important work was a commentary on Asanga's Compendium of the Mahayana. This commentary, along with the one by Vasubandhu, is indispensable for study and research into the Compendium of the Mahayana. For this reason, he is considered one of the most important Mind Only masters.

The ten commentators

This is a term that is well-known in the Chinese tradition. It refers to the Mind Only scholars who wrote commentaries and sub-commentaries on Vasubandhu's Thirty Verses. There were, of course, more than ten. The Karmapa gave the example of the commentary by Vinitadeva, extant in Tibetan translation, which is a sub-commentary on Sthiramati's commentary on the Thirty Verses. However, he explained, this term is well-known in the Chinese tradition through Xuanzang's account of his time in India.

After Asanga and Vasubandhu, Dignāga and Dharmakīrti spread Buddhist logic and epistemology and used logic to explain the Mind Only position, creating a new tradition. When Xuanzang went to India to study, Nalanda was the hub for the study of Mind Only, and by that time ten scholars had written commentaries on the Thirty Verses and developed their own traditions. The list is based on Xuanzang's description in notes taken down by one of his students.

1. Dharmapālaca. 530-561 CE: Dharmapāla was one of the most important Mind Only masters in India in the middle of the sixth century CE. He was the most well-known Mind Only master after Vasubandhu, and it was he who systematised the Imagist Mind Only tradition. In fact, you could say that he was the founder of that school. Dharmapāla was born in South India and was a student of Dignāga. He was highly intelligent, a distinguished scholar, and possessed many remarkable qualities. In the traditional accounts, he was appointed as the director of Nalanda whilst still young, and he also debated with the Buddhist logician Bhavaviveka, who held the opposing Autonomist Middle Way view [Svātantrika Madhyamaka], though this was not a face-to-face debate. He had many excellent students, including Xuanzang's teacher, Śīlabhadra. So, it was Dharmapāla's view that provided the basis for the Dharma Characteristics school in China. Xuanzang wrote an important commentary called the Treatise Proving Awareness Only, which supports the Mind Only position. In the commentary, Xuanzang takes Dharmapāla's explanations as his own and collects together all the explanations by the ten commentators on the Thirty Verses. Dharmapāla passed away at the young age of thirty-two at the Mahabodhi monastery.

2. Guṇamati (ca. 420–500 CE): He was the teacher of Sthiramati

3. Sthiramatica. 470-550 CE): Sthiramati was the most important of the teachers in the Non-Imagist school. He was a contemporary of Dharmapāla, and like Dharmapāla, he was also extremely intelligent. He was an expert not only in Mind Only and the texts on validity but also very well-versed in the Foundation vehicle.

He wrote a commentary on the Treasury of Abhidharma, but the Sanskrit original has been lost. There is a Tibetan translation made at Shalu monastery, but there is no translation from Sanskrit into Chinese with which to compare it. An additional factor to be considered is that commentaries by other Indian scholars, such as Purnavardhana and Yashomitra, predate the Tibetan translation. The positions in Sthiramati's commentary are very close to those in Purnavardhana's commentary. Sthiramati's commentaries on the Thirty Verses and Differentiating the Middle from Extremes are in the Tibetan Tengyur, and there are also translations from the Sanskrit into Chinese for compasrison. He wrote a commentary on the Ornament of the Sutras that only survives in Tibetan. A characteristic of his commentaries is the way that he glossed each word and gave a detailed explanation so that they are very easy to understand. His commentaries reflect the breadth of his knowledge and the clarity of his thinking.

4. Bandhuśrī: Bandhuśrī was an earlier master, a contemporary of Vasubandhu, who wrote a summary of the Thirty Verses. It is said the text is no longer extant.

5. Nanda: Nanda was probably the teacher of one of Xuanzang's teachers, Jinasena.

6. Śuddhacandra: Śuddhacandra was a contemporary of Sthiramati.

7. Citrabhāṇa: Citrabhāṇa was a contemporary of Vasubandhu and was known as a skilled commentator on the words.

8. Viśeṣamitra: Viśeṣamitra was a student of Dharmapāla.

9. Jinaputra:Jinaputra was a student of Dharmapāla

10. Jñānacandra: Jñānacandra was also a student of Dharmapāla

The Karmapa then explained how these ten commentators are often divided into two groups: the Early and the Late. This is not determined by their chronology but by the view they represent. The "Early Commentators" primarily repeated Asanga and Vasubandhu's explanations, for example, Sthiramati. They are called the Early Mind Only or the False Image Mind Only. Their thought is very close to the Buddha Nature school, which is close to the Shentong view.

The "Later Commentators" are those who used the new logics of Validity to investigate and explain, such as Dignāga's student Dharmapāla, who was the abbot of Nalanda and a contemporary of both Sthiramati and Bhavaviveka. Bhavaviveka and Dharmapāla exchanged letters in which Bhavaviveka contested his view of emptiness and existence. Bhavaviveka wanted to meet him to discuss these points, but Dharmapāla declined to do so. Chinese sources say that he dies at the age of 32. Tibetan accounts differ. One says that Dharmapāla went to live in the forest and later became known as Virupa, identifying him as a lineage guru in the tradition of the LamDre, the Path and Its Result [the central teaching of the Sakya lineage]. However, Taranatha's History of Dharma in India rejects this claim.

Dharmapāla's student Śīlabhadra became director of Nalanda, and he was the principal teacher of Xuanzang, who also studied with Jinasena. In order to resolve some doubts about the Yogacara Levels, Xuanzang planned to go to Sri Lanka, but a major conflict curtailed his travels at that time, and he was unable to continue beyond South India.

The Mind Only tradition began to decline in India from the time of Sthiramati's disciple Candragomi.

A summary of the Mind Only philosophy in India

In his summary, the Karmapa recapped points discussed previously.

Because many aspects of the history of the Yogacara school in India remain unclear and there is a lack of consensus amongst scholars, the Karmapa explained that he had restricted his talk mainly to what there is agreement on.

Asanga systematised the Yogacara and Mind Only philosophy in the Compendium of the Mahayana. He compiled the assertions of the three characteristics and the all-ground consciousness, and laid a systematic basis for the presentation of Mahayana practice. He identified the three distinguishing features of the Mind Only—the three characteristics, the all-ground consciousness, and yogic practice— as the highest thought of the Mahayana.

Vasubandhu upheld Asanga's position and made major improvements to the Mind Only presentations on mind. Due to this, the Mind Only school developed and spread. His emphasis on awareness only [or mind only] is clearly seen in his works, the Twenty Verses and Thirty Verses, and thus the school got its name.

After Vasubandhu, the teachings on validity and logic developed, and the presentation of the classifications and workings of mind became more detailed. The teachings on validity and logic spread through debate with other schools and led to the foundation of an autonomous school-–the Logicians—who worked solely in the sphere of validity and logic.

According to traditional accounts, Asanga received the Mind Only teachings from Maitreya in the Tushita heaven. However, some people maintain that there must have been a historical person called Maitreya. In his work, Compendium of the Mahayana, Asanga quotes from Distinguishing the Middle from Extremes and other texts attributed to Maitreya. Proponents of a historical Maitreya argue that these texts must predate Asanga and so must have been written by an earlier author who held the Mind Only view. At the moment, Maitreya is the only one who fits the bill, although it is impossible to know on current evidence whether he existed or not. Alternatively, one could say that all these works attributed to Maitreya were actually written by Asanga, though this too is a difficult position to hold.

The Karmapa pointed out that it would be rather audacious to presume that the Yogacara school suddenly appeared with Asanga. Even before Asanga, many Buddhist yogins existed, and we can infer that there must have been a Yogacara school for some time. These yogins had their roots in the Sarvastivada school in Northern India, which emphasised the abhidharma. As committed practitioners, they found that Nagarjuna's views on emptiness had a greater link with their practice, so they gradually became the Mahayana. They added the Mahayana practice to their yogic practice, and, from this union, the text of the Bodhisattva Levels, which are a section of the Yogacara Levels, later appeared. Similarly, the Foundation level practices and thought that were retained became the Shravaka Levels.

The presentations that appear in the Shravaka Levels became the essence of the "Chapter Explaining Yoga" of the Sutra Unraveling the Intent. This sutra is a text that arose from the insight of Mahayana practitioners who realised through their practice that everything is awareness only.

In one regard, the presentations taught in the Bodhisattva Levels are Mahayana dharma, so that text is a compilation of Mahayana practices. The Ornament of the Sutras upholds these presentations and finally they appear in full in the Compendium of the Mahayana.

In brief, the earlier body of the Yogacara developed in the Sarvastivada school, so they practised within the Foundation vehicle. They then accepted and added the Middle Way view of emptiness, whilst retaining Foundation vehicle thought. In this way, the Yogacara school includes the practice and meaning of all three vehicles of Buddhism.

The Mind Only tradition in China

The Karmapa gave a brief introduction. He began by explaining that the Mind Only tradition first spread to China, and from there it spread to Japan and other parts of East Asia such as Korea. There were three Mind Only traditions in China: the Ten Levels tradition, the Compendium tradition, and the Dharma Characteristics tradition (which is the tradition that spread to Japan).

Around the 5th century CE, texts from the Mind Only school were introduced into China. Unlike in India, Chinese records were very detailed, so we can know these dates precisely, the year, the day and the month, His Holiness commented.

Several monks were actively translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese. Dharmarakṣa (385–433 CE) first introduced either the Buddha Nature school or the Mind Only to China. He translated the Bodhisattva Levels into Chinese. The Kashmiri monk Guṇavarma (367–431 CE) translated the Discipline of the Bodhisattvas into Chinese. An Indian monk, Guṇabhadra (394–460 CE), translated the Shri Mala Sutra, the Lion's Roar, the Travels to Lanka and the Sutra of the Stream of Liberation  (This sutra is mainly the same as the last two chapters of the Sutra Unravelling the Intent.)

1. The Ten Levels tradition

During the Northern and Southern dynasties, in the first year of Emperor Wu's reign (508 CE), three Indian monks—Bodhiruci, Ratnamati, Buddhaśānti —arrived in China. At the request of Emperor Wu, they translated Vasubandhu's commentary on the Sutra of the Ten Levels. They also translated Differentiating the Family of the Jewels (known as the Sublime Continuum in the Tibetan tradition) and the Compendium of the Mahayana. In this way, the works of Asanga and Vasubandhu were introduced to China.

Bodhiruci provided a fresh translation of the Travels to Lanka and other sutras. Both Bodhiruci and Ratnamati translated Vasubandhu's commentary on the Sutra of the Ten Levels, but it was the former's translation which became very well-known and Ratnamati's translation was lost. The commentary on the Ten Levels is significant because not only is it a commentary on the sutra but, in particular, it discusses the all-ground consciousness. This created a great scramble in Northern Chinese Buddhist circles to investigate and study the text. And that's why they were called proponents of the Ten Levels or the Ten Level school. The Japanese scholar Enichi Ouchou suggested three main reasons why the Ten Levels so engaged the Chinese:

  • The Northern Chinese Buddhists emphasised practice, and this text teaches how to practice the path to enlightenment.
  • Practitioners could have confidence in its validity because it was a commentary on the Buddha's words and not the opinions of an individual Buddhist master.
  • The Mind Only school's views were newly spreading into China, and this commentary introduces the crucial points of the Mind Only view and practice systematically.

Later the Ten Level tradition split into two schools: the Northern Way (Běidào) tradition that followed the master Dao Chong and the Southern Way (Nándào) school that followed the master Huìguāng. The Northern Way tradition asserted that the all-ground consciousness (ālaya) was stained and faulty by nature. The Southern Way school asserted that the all-ground consciousness was stainless and pure wisdom by nature. Similarly, the Northern Way school said all phenomena arose from the all-ground, so they were supported by the all-ground. In contrast, the Southern Way school asserted that all phenomena arose from the dharma nature or suchness, and were supported by suchness. Due to their diverging positions and assertions, there was a fierce dispute between them.

A strong refutation can be good, the Karmapa observed, and is an aspect of modern scholarship. It also happened frequently between the different schools in old Tibet, but they often used derogatory terms in those disputes. Refutations could be beneficial, but they should be based on reasoning and logic, not on personal insults. 

Of the two, the Southern Way tradition became the more influential, exerting both political and religious influence during the Wei and Qi dynasties. Its founder, Huìguāng [Light of Prajna], was like the crown jewel of all the scholars in southern China at that time. The government had appointed him to a high position in the sangha, so he was very influential. He had studied the Vinaya with the Indian master Buddhaśānti and, subsequently, was known as Holder of the Vinaya (Guāng tǒng). He was the founder of the Chinese Sì fēn lǜzōng Vinaya lineage. He was a great scholar and had completed studies of the meaning of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Teaching of Vimalakīrti, the Ten Levels, and the Bodhisattva Levels. His students were also very capable and included the well-known ones – Fǎ shàng, Sēng fàn, and Dào píng, part of a group known as the Ten Great Scholars.

In comparison, the Northern Way tradition was more focused on practice. The founder of the tradition, Dao Chong, studied the Commentary on the Ten Levels Sutra for three years with Master Bodhichitta. It is said that of the people he taught, about a thousand achieved liberation. However, not long afterwards, the Northern Way tradition declined and was incorporated into the Compendium tradition. The Southern Way school continued to be the primary upholders of the Ten Levels tradition and flourished for six dynasties until the Sui dynasty. However, at the end of the Sui dynasty and the beginning of the Tang dynasty, it declined and was incorporated into either the Compendium school or the Avatamsaka school.

2. The Compendium of Mahayana school

There were four great translators of texts from Sanskrit into Chinese:  Kumarajiva, Paramartha, Xuanzang, and Amoghavajra. Some add the name of Master Yijing to this list.

Paramartha, an Indian monk from central India, came to China in 548 CE on the instructions of Lang Wu Ti in the second year of Emperor Tai Qing's reign. He arrived in the then-capital Jianye. However, because of war in China, he could not settle in one place and had to flee from place to place. He translated many sutras and treatises, including the Vajra Splitter Sutra and the Light of Gold Sutra. His translations of  Mind Only treatises include Differentiating the Middle from Extremes and Teachings on the Three Lacks of Characteristics.  

He especially went to great efforts to spread the Treasury of Abhidharma and the Compendium of the Mahayana. He said he had done what he could to teach them one hundred times. According to the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks:

"The one named Truth [Paramartha] went to the east and translated vast scriptures, but the main one was the Compendium of the Mahayana. "

After Paramartha had translated Asanga's Compendium of Mahayana, a complete framework of the Mind Only philosophy could spread in China. There had been the commentary on the Ten Levels Sutra up to that point, but there had been no complete presentation of the Mind Only tenets. Those who followed Padmartha and his teachings were known as the Compendium of Mahayana school.

Paramartha had many students, including Huì kǎi, Fǎ tài, Sēngzōng, Fǎ rěn, Dào ní, Cáo pí, and Zhì jiǎo.  Huì kǎi was his closest student and an expert in the Treasury of Abhidharma. Unfortunately, Huì kǎi died and Paramartha was grief-stricken. In the presence of Huì kǎi's remains,  he gathered his students and made them take an oath to propagate the teachings of the Compendium and the Treasury.

Among the oath-takers was Paramartha's attendant, Dào ní, and the latter worked hard to propagate the teachings of the Compendium of Mahayana. Later, on the order of the emperor, Dào ní stayed at the Daxingshan temple in Shaanxi, where he continued to spread the teachings widely.  

Meanwhile, the teachings of Buddhism were wiped out in Northern China: in Zhao jang in 574 CE and Qi jang in 577 CE. Buddhist scholars from the north fled to the south. Previously there had been little connection between Buddhist schools in the north and south of China but now, after the refugees arrived in the south, they made a connection with the Compendium of Mahayana school and studied it. When they returned to the north, they propagated its teachings and it spread widely there.

The distinguishing characteristics of the Compendium of Mahayana school were:

  • They maintained that the all-ground has both pure and impure parts, i.e. there is a common basis of the pure and impure in the all-ground.
  • In addition to the all-ground consciousness, they added a ninth consciousness the amala-vijñāna (the unstained consciousness).

This tradition spread very widely for a while, but it gradually declined after the spread of the Dharma Light school during the Tang dynasty and eventually disappeared.

The Karmapa concluded the session with some general observations and advice.

Both the Chinese and Tibetan traditions belong to the Northern Tradition of Buddhism and uphold the Mahayana. They both have the Mind Only and the Middle Way schools. However, in the Tibetan tradition, Mind Only never developed into an autonomous school. In China, the Mind Only is a living tradition, and this is an opportunity for us to learn. Otherwise, we might become like the frog in the well [who didn't realise there was a world beyond his well]. The Karmapa emphasised the importance of keeping an open mind and having a broader perspective. With this aim, we should strive to gain as much knowledge as possible and always be receptive rather than dismissive of new ideas.

It was good to learn other languages in order to be able to study philosophy.

Early on, Tibetan refugees had concentrated on maintaining their language and culture. Even the 16thKarmapa had objected to English at Rumtek. The motivation for learning another language is crucial. Life is short, and all our effort should go into purposeful activity. To study Buddhism, he suggested, you must know Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan, to be able to read the original manuscripts.

Finally, he contrasted the situation faced by the great translators of the past and ours. Facilities are so much better these days, compared with the translators of the past. Without regard for their lives or health, they went to India, and spent their own resources funding their journeys. They worked incredibly hard and translated mountains of scriptures. In contrast, we remain in self-deprecating laziness.