Life of Vasubandhu

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Khenpo Shenga


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Light on the Path of Liberation

The Life of the Second Buddha Vasubandhu

by Khenpo Shenpen Nangwa

The Root Tantra of Mañjuśrī says:

Dwelling thereafter
Will be a brahmin in the south,
Whose name begins with Ba [Va],[1]
The foremost exponent of the Buddha’s teachings.
He will reside at the Arama Stūpa.
As a delightful reflection of the buddha
He will adorn everywhere,
As far as the limits of earth and ocean.

As this suggests, the great master Vasubandhu appeared in order to spread the teachings of Abhidharma. At a certain time, when the gong was struck at the great temple of Nālandā in the noble land [of India], it was heard by a non-Buddhist expert in grammar, who realized that the Buddhist teachings had become predominant. He led an army that set fire to many temples, as a result of which the Abhidharma teachings were largely consumed by flames.

In addition, a king of Magadha formed an alliance with a king from the Persian borderlands, and they sent one another valuable treasures as gifts. On one occasion the Magadhan king discovered some precious seamless cloth and sent it as a present to his ally, but when the recipient looked at the gift, he regarded it as paltry and contemptible. In his anger he led an army that destroyed many of the temples of Magadha, thereby eliminating many Abhidharma teachings.

Furthermore, when two tīrthikas arrived in Nālandā to beg for alms, some deceitful monks treated them with disdain. The pair became angry. One of them entered a pit, saying, “I shall propitiate the sun.” The other provided him with provisions. When around nine years had passed and he still had not gained any accomplishment, he started to leave. The servant said, “I have presented my face to people and my ankles to dogs as I begged for what I have given you. If you haven’t accomplished the powers of the sun, I shall have to kill you.” With that he took up his sword and approached his companion, who committed himself once more to the practice. After another three years of practice, he gained accomplishment. Then, as he gazed at the temple fire shot from his eyes, setting the temple ablaze, so that most of it burned down and the Abhidharma collection was on the point of disappearing.

At that time, a brahmin woman called Prasannaśīlā had two sons. Asaṅga, the elder brother, accomplished the practice of Maitreya at Kukkuṭapāda Mountain. The younger brother, Vasubandhu, sought out many spiritual guides such as the Kashmiri Saṅghabhadra and mastered the scriptural collections of all the various schools. Still, he did not follow any Mahāyāna teachers and therefore when he saw the treatises on the levels (bhūmi) that Ārya Asaṅga had composed at Nālandā he was disappointed, and he derided him by saying:

Alas! Asaṅga spent twelve years in the wilderness,
Practising meditation.
Without achieving any success in meditation,
He has instead composed these treatises
As a burden for an elephant’s back.

When Ārya [Asaṅga] heard this he thought how wonderful if would be for his younger brother to enter the Mahāyāna. He instructed two of his students to memorise the Akṣayamati Sūtra and the Daśabhūmika. He told them to go and stay near Vasubandhu’s residence and to recite the first sūtra aloud at dusk and the second at dawn. When they did so and Vasubandhu heard them, he first thought that the Mahāyāna might have a positive cause but be devoid of fruition. Then, when he heard the chanting at dawn he realized that it is excellent in both cause and result. Knowing his elder brother to be the human world’s authority on Mahāyāna, he went to meet him. The two brothers then discussed the Dharma together. The younger brother proved more quick-witted but the elder provided excellent answers. Ārya [Asaṅga] said, “Your intelligence is keen because you have been born as a paṇḍita in 500 lifetimes, whereas I can put questions to the supreme deity and report his answers.” Vasubandhu replied, “Well, let me see him too.” The venerable lord said, “You are an ordinary being and have criticized the Mahāyāna, so you will not see him in this life. As a means of purifying your obscurations, you should write multiple Mahāyāna commentaries.” Vasubandhu was greatly inspired by this response. He said:

My elder brother is like a nāga;
I am like a bird who longs for rain.
Although the nāga king causes showers,
Still they have not passed into the bird’s throat.

Then he received all the Mahāyāna sūtras and treatises in their entirety from the master. Every day he read aloud texts such as the Noble Eight Thousand Verses for hours at a time. This master thus entered the Mahāyāna and caused around five hundred monks who held the scriptural collections to enter the Mahāyāna as well.

When Ārya Asaṅga had passed away, Vasubandhu became abbot of Śrī Nālandā and carried out the ten dharmic activities every day without fail.[2] He made it an inner rule to be diligent in the ten dharmic activities and said that there should be no interruption to each twenty-session teaching devoted to the Buddha’s Words or the treatises. In all his debates with non-Buddhist outsiders he defeated his opponents through the use of flawless reasoning. He thus converted five thousand tīrthikas to the Buddhist view. He established 108 dharma centres in Magadha and another 108 centres in Oḍiviśa. By sending emissaries to the south and elsewhere the master created several hundred dharma centres there too and was responsible for ordaining as many as sixty thousand monks who upheld the tenets of Mahāyāna. Four of his students gained renown for excelling him in their learning: Guṇaprabha as more learned in the Vinaya, Sthiramati as more learned in the Abhidharma, Dignāga as more learned in Pramāṇa, and Ārya Vimuktisena as more learned in Prajñāpāramitā. Thus, the holders of the master’s dharma lineage grew to be incalculable.

In short, because there was no one at all after the Buddha’s parinirvāṇa who matched this master either in learning or activity on behalf of the teachings, he became known throughout the noble land of India as Vasubandhu, the second buddha.

Nurturing the teachings like this, he also left treatises for posterity. In order to establish the texts of the Yogācāra Mahāyāna, he wrote commentaries for the five treatises of Maitreya, as well as the Twenty Verses, Thirty Verses, and Well-Explained Reasoning (Vyākhyā-yukti). In particular, the fruit of all this great master’s learning—upon the flowery vine of his birth and extensive education within this world—was the Treasury of Abhidharma together with its auto-commentary. This he bestowed for fortunate disciples so that they might extract its essence insatiably.

Finally, together with a thousand learned monk-followers who adhered to the training in ethical discipline he went to Nepal, where he established a great many dharma centres and expanded the saṅgha. When he encountered some Nepalese monks called Hadu, who had given up the activity of study and meditation and were like mere reflections of genuine renunciants, simply adhering to the outer signs of monasticism, and witnessed them ploughing a field, he was dismayed by the degeneration of the teachings. By reciting backwards the dhāraṇī of Uṣṇīṣavijayā he caused his vital energy to disperse. Still, for his devoted followers the text of the Treasury of Abhidharma is comparable in its effect to encountering the master in person.

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2020.


Tibetan Edition

gZhan phan chos kyi snang ba. "slob dpon dbyig gnyen gyi rnam thar/." In gZhung chen bcu gsum. 7 vols. Delhi: Konchhog Lhadrepa, 1983, 1993. (BDRC W23198). Vol. 4: 9–16.

Secondary Sources

Anacker, Stefan. Seven Works of Vasubandhu, the Buddhist Psychological Doctor. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984

Bayer, Achim. The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga’ (1871–1927): rDzogs-chen Master and Educational Reformer of Eastern Tibet. (Hamburg Buddhist Studies 11). Freiburg: Projekt Verlag, 2019.

Chim Jampaiyang. Ornament of Abhidharma: A Commentary on Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa. (trans. Ian James Coghlan). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2019

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé. The Treasury of Knowledge Books Two, Three and Four: Buddhism’s Journey to Tibet. (trans. Ngawang Zangpo). Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2010

Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhyaya (trans.) Tāranātha’s History of Buddhism in India. Ed. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990. First published 1970.

Pereira, José, and Francis Tiso. “The Life of Vasubandhu According to Recent Research.” East and West, vol. 37, no. 1/4, 1987, pp. 451–454. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Feb. 2020.

Stein, Lisa and Ngawang Zangpo (trans.). Butön’s History of Buddhism in India and Its Spread to Tibet. Boston & London: Snow Lion, 2013.

Version: 1.2-20220112

  1. yi ge dang po ba bstan pa. Ian James Coghlan translates this line as “declared foremost in grammar”. Most other translators interpret it (as here) as a reference to Vasubandhu's name, which in Tibetan transliteration begins with a ba representing the Sanskrit va. See, for example, Ngawang Zangpo’s translation in Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé, The Treasury of Knowledge Books Two, Three and Four: Buddhism’s Journey to Tibet, Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2010 p. 214  ↩

  2. The ten dharmic activities (chos spyod bcu) are listed in Maitreyanātha's Madhyāntavibhāga (ch. 5) as: copying texts, making offerings, giving charity, studying, reading, memorizing, explaining, reciting aloud, contemplating and meditating.  ↩