Vasubandhu Buddhism


According to the Buddhist Mahayana tradition, Vasubandhu (Tib.: dbyig gnyen; 4th century) was one of the founders of the Yogachara school of Buddhist philosophy, together with his elder half-brother Asanga. Vasubandhu is considered one of the most influential figures of Mahayana ever.

He is considered the 2nd patriarch of the Jōdo-Shinshū and 21st patriarch of Zen. According to tradition, he is said to have authored 500 works in the Hinayana tradition and 500 works in the Mahayana tradition. 47 of Vasubandhu's works are known, including 9 in Sanskrit, 27 translations into Chinese, and 33 into Tibetan.

Historical Sources

From Paramartha (499-569), one of the most important representatives of the Yogachara in China (Southern and Northern Dynasties), comes the Posou pandoufa shijuan, the most comprehensive biography of Vasubandhu's life. Furthermore, the Xiyuji of Xuanzang provides important information.

However, the biographies of Paramarthas and Xuanzang contain different information regarding the times and places of historical events in Vasubandhu's life. Other details include writings by the Tibetan historians Butön and Taranatha (1575-1634), but their details again differ from those of Paramarthas and Xuanzang.


According to the Tibetan historians Taranatha and Butön, Asanga's younger half-brother Vasubandhu was born in Gandhara a year after the former's birth. According to Posou, his mother was pandou fashi zhuan Virinci, whereas Taranatha and Butön state Prasannashila as Vasubandhu's mother.

Vasubandhu's father, according to Taranatha and Butön, was a brahmin, unlike Asanga's father, who was a kshatriya. While still a youth, Vasubandhu was probably instructed in Nyaya as well as Vaisheshika philosophy, as the philosophical systems of these schools had an influence on his later work.

At the time of Vasubandhu, the predominant philosophical school in Gandhara was that of Sarvastivadin (also: Vaibhashika).

In his hometown Purusapura, today's Peshawar, in contrast to the main center of the Sarvastivadin in Kashmir at that time, the Sautrantikas were very probably also strongly represented, since Purusapura was also the birthplace of the Dharmatrata (2nd century). Vasubandhu, however, became a monk in the order of the Sarvastivadin.

According to Paramartha, Vasubandhu wrote the Abhidharmakosha in Ayodhya, while according to Xuanzang, the Abhidharmakosha was written in the suburbs of Purusapura.

The Abhidharmakosha (Treasure of the Abhidharma) consists of over six hundred verses (karikas), which are a summary of the entire philosophy of the Sarvastivadin, and is considered the most comprehensive work of the Vasubandhu.

In the period following the completion of the Abhidharmakosha, a few years of wandering followed for Vasubandhu. He also spent some time in Shakala, today's Sialkot.

With his teachers Buddhamitra and Manoratha Vasubandhu is said to have reached Ayodhya afterwards. By this time, his elder half-brother Asanga had already compiled the extensive Yogacharabhumi.

Vasubandhu, however, seemed unimpressed with it at first and, according to Butön, thought it was so difficult and burdensome that it could only be carried by an elephant. After meeting with his brother, however, he changed his mind, and after studying it, he thought it especially important to study the

Shatasahasrikaprajnaparamitasutra. His commentaries on the Akshayamatinirdeshasutra and the Dashabhumika are considered the first writings of Vasubandhu on Mahayana.

According to Posou pandou fashi zhuan, Vasubandhu became an author of Mahayana only after the death of Asanga, whereas according to Xuanzang Vasubandhu died before Asanga.

Historical Problems

A theory developed by Erich Frauwallner (1898-1974), among others, states that Vasubandhu could also have been two or three persons. According to this, the Abhidharmakosha would have been written by the 1st Vasubandhu, the 2nd Vasubandhu would have been considered as half of Asanga.

Vasubandhu would have been a half-brother of Asanga and a contemporary of Chandragupta I and Samudragupta, while the 3rd Vasubandhu would have written the Abhidharmakoshabhasya (a criticism of the Abhidharmakosha) in Ayodhya and was a contemporary of Darasena I of Valabhi.

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