The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (Treasury of Metaphysics with Self-Commentary) is a pivotal treatise on early Buddhist thought composed around the 4th or 5th century by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu. This work elucidates the buddha’s teachings as synthesized and interpreted by the early Buddhist Sarvāstivāda school (“the theory that all [factors] exist”), while recording the major doctrinal polemics that developed around them, primarily those points of contention with the Sautrāntika system of thought (“followers of the scriptures”). Employing the methodology and terminology of the Buddhist Abhidharma system, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya offers a detailed analysis of fundamental doctrines, such as early Buddhist theories of mind, cosmology, the workings of karman, meditative states and practices, and the metaphysics of the self. One of its unique features is the way it presents the opinions of a variety of Buddhist and Brahminical schools that were active in classical India in Vasubandhu’s time. The work contains nine chapters (the last of which is considered to have been appended to the first eight), which proceed from a description of the unawakened world via the path and practices that are conducive to awakening and ultimately to the final spiritual attainments which constitute the state of awakening. In its analysis of the unawakened situation, it thus covers the elements which make up the material and mental world of sentient beings, the wholesome and unwholesome mental states that arise in their minds, the structure of the cosmos, the metaphysics of action (karman) and the way it comes into being, and the nature of dispositional attitudes and dormant mental afflictions. In its treatment of the path and practices that lead to awakening, the treatise outlines the Sarvāstivāda understanding of the methods of removing defilements through the realization of the four noble truths and the stages of spiritual cultivation. With respect to the awakened state, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya gives a detailed description of the different types of knowledge and meditational states attained by practitioners who reach the highest stages of the path.
Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (Treasury of Metaphysics with Self-Commentary)
Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament for Clear Realization)
James B. Apple
The Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament for clear realization) is an instructional treatise on the Prajñāpāramitā, or Perfect Wisdom, whose authorship is traditionally attributed to Maitreyanātha (c. 350 ce). As a technical treatise, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra outlines within its 273 verses the instructions, practices, paths, and stages of realization to omniscient buddhahood mentioned in Prajñāpāramitā scriptures. In its abridged description, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra furnishes a detailed summary of the path that is regarded as bringing out the “concealed meaning” (sbas don, garbhyārtha) of Prajñāpāramitā. The Abhisamayālaṃkāra contains eight chapters of subject matter, with a summary of them as the ninth chapter. The eight subjects (padārtha) of the eight chapters (adhikāra) correspond to eight clear realizations (abhisamaya) that represent the knowledges, practices, and result of Prajñāpāramitā. The Abhisamayālaṃkāra’s eight clear realizations are types of knowledge and practices for bodhisattvas (“buddhas-in-training”) to achieve buddhahood set forth within the system of the five paths (lam lnga, *pañcamārga) common to Indian abhidharma and Yogācāra literature. The first three clear realizations are types of knowledge that comprise Perfect Wisdom. Total Omniscience, or the wisdom of all aspects (sarvākārajñatā, rnam pa thams cad mkhyen pa nyid), is regarded as the fundamental wisdom and the central concept of Prajñāpāramitā. Total Omniscience is direct, unmediated knowledge that exactly understands the manner of reality to its fullest possible extent in all its aspects. Path-omniscience (mārgajñatā, lam shes nyid) comprises the Buddhist path systems of śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas mastered by bodhisattvas. Empirical Omniscience (vastujñāna, gzhi shes) cognizes empirical objects in conditioned existence that are to be abandoned. It correlates to knowledge that is comprehended by śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas. The path to buddhahood itself and the detailed means of its application are covered in the Abhisamayālaṃkāra by the fourth through seventh clear realizations. The fourth chapter is devoted to the realization of wisdom of all aspects (sarvākārābhisaṃbodha, rnam rdzogs sbyor ba), a yogic practice that enables a bodhisattva to gain a cognition of all the aspects of the three types of omniscience. The fifth realization is the summit of full understanding (mūrdhābhisamaya, rtse sbyor), whereby yogic practices reach the culmination of cognizing emptiness. The sixth chapter defines the gradual full understanding (anupūrvābhisamaya, mthar gyis sbyor ba) of the three forms of omniscience. The seventh abhisamaya clarifies the “instantaneous realization” (ekakṣaṇābhisamaya) that occurs at the final moment right before buddhahood. Abhisamayas four through seven are known as “the four methods of realization” of the three types of knowledge. The eighth realization, and last subject in the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, is the realization of the dharma body (dharmakāyābhisamaya). In this way, the first three realizations describe the cognitive attainments of buddhas, the middle four realizations discuss the methods that take the cognitive attainments as their object, and the eighth realization describes the qualities and attainments of the dharma body, the resultant body of buddhas. The treatise was extensively commented upon in Indian Buddhism and has been widely studied in Tibetan forms of Buddhism up to the present day.
Paul B. Donnelly
Along with Yogācāra, Madhyamaka (Middle Way) is one of the two foundational doctrinal systems of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, which flourished from the 3rd century ce to the final disappearance of Buddhism from the subcontinent in the 12th–13th centuries. Beginning in the 4th century, it spread to East Asia, where it became the foundation of an independent school of thought and influenced the other major Chinese Buddhist schools. It took root in Tibet beginning in the 7th century, where it served as the cornerstone of all the scholastically inclined Buddhist sects. Throughout the Mahāyāna Buddhist world, Madhyamaka has occupied a foundational position in doctrinal formulations and practices. Madhyamaka has tended to be regarded as either the supreme formulation of Mahāyāna thought, as was often the case in Tibet, or as complementary to Yogācāra, which was more commonly held in China and Japan. The name “Middle Way” references a fundamental assumption in Buddhism that stakes a middle position between the idea that the self is an irreducible, enduring entity and one in which it is wholly reducible to the physical body and perishes after death. Though central Madhyamaka ideas, such as the doctrine of the Two Truths, Dependent Origination, and Emptiness, can be found in Nikāya Buddhism and in Mahāyāna sutras, it is in the treatises of Nāgārjuna (2nd–3rd centuries ce) that we have a fully formed and distinct system of thought that can be called Madhyamaka. In earlier canonical works, and more explicitly in the Abhidharma, this notion of middle way applied exclusively to the self (Skt ātman/Pali atta) and conceptually constructed phenomena. In Mahāyāna sutras and in Nāgārjuna works, the assertion is extended to the fundamental component parts of all existents, which are declared to be empty of intrinsic nature. In Abhidharma works, the self and other composite phenomena are said to be reducible to their fundamental parts, the dharmas (Pali dhamma), which, being irreducible, must have their own identifiable intrinsic mode of existence even if they exist dependently. According to Madhyamaka, a dharma cannot possess an intrinsic nature precisely because it exists dependently. Denying any intrinsic nature, Madhyamaka asserts that things exist only dependently, and this only in terms of conventional truth, and that ultimately, emptiness of intrinsic nature is the truth and reality of all things. Not surprisingly, such a position was contentious, and numerous interpreters attempted to elucidate this rather radical position. The question of which commentator or commentators are definitive has occupied many generations of Indian, East Asian, and Tibetan Buddhists, and the issue remains very much alive in modern scholarship on Madhyamaka. Though much of this scholarship has come from a philosophical perspective, the intent of Madhyamaka, like all Buddhist thought, is primarily soteriological in nature.
Abhidharma had its origin in certain systematizing, analytical, and exegetical features found in the Sūtra, particularly, mātṛikā (summary list), abhidharma-kathā (discussion about the doctrine), vibhaṅga (“analytical exposition”), and upadeśa (exegetical elaboration). Buddhist philosophies may have been primarily initiated and vigorously elevated in the Abhidharma tradition. However, while the Abhidharma treatises undoubtedly exhibit highly developed scholastic and hermeneutical components, Abhidharma is essentially a soteriology. The Sarvāstivāda Ābhidhārmikas consistently claim that Abhidharma is truly “Buddha-word,” being the sine quo non for ascertaining the true intents of the sutras—it constitutes the ultimate authority for discerning the definite and explicit discourses (nītārtha-sūtra) of the Buddha. Sarvāstivāda, the “All-exist School,” was undoubtedly one of the most important Buddhist schools in the period of Abhidharma Buddhism. Since its establishment around the 2nd century bce, it exerted tremendous impact, directly or indirectly, on the subsequent development of Indian Buddhism. This school possesses a complete set of seven canonical Abhidharma texts, nearly all of which are now preserved in Chinese translation, and one, the Prajñapti-śāstra, is preserved in a complete Tibetan translation. A huge compendia, The Great Abhidharma Commentary (Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā), whose gradual compilation must have spanned over more than half a century and was fully completed around 150 ce, is now extant only in Chinese. This compendia, encyclopedic in scope, defines the doctrinal positions of the orthodox Sarvāstivādins based in Kaśmīra, who subsequently came to be known as the Vaibhāṣikas. The central thesis of the school is sarvāstivāda or sarvāstitā (/sarvāstitva), which claims that all “dharmas”—fundamental realities or real entities of existence—sustain their unique intrinsic natures throughout the three periods of time. That is, whether future, past, or present, a dharma’s intrinsic nature remains the same, even though its mode of existence (bhāva) varies. This thesis was vehemently challenged by the Vibhajyavādins (Distinctionists) who denied the reality of the past and future dharmas. The reverberation of this “Sarvāstivāda-versus-Vibhajyavāda” controversy can be observed to have generated decisively significant doctrinal implications throughout the history of Buddhist thoughts. The Savāstivāda school was also known as Hetuvāda, a “school which expounds on causality.” Kātyāyanīputra (c. 150 bce), often regarded as the effective “founder” of the Sarvāstivāda school, was credited with the innovation of a theory of sixfold causes, of which the coexistent or simultaneous causality was the most important legacy. For the first time in human history, he systematically articulated a form of causality in which the cause and its effect coexist simultaneously. This theory contributed importantly to Buddhist doctrinal development, particularly its epistemology. Mahāyāna Yogācāra had embraced it from their very inception, finding it indispensable for the establishment of many of their fundamental doctrines, including “store consciousness” (ālaya-vijñāna) and “cognition-only” (vijñaptimātratā).
Buddhist cosmology addresses the contents, structures, and processes of the world, especially with a view toward how these relate to the experiences of living beings. Some ideas occur broadly across various traditions, including that the world is disk-shaped, centers on the enormous mountain Sumeru, contains a human-inhabited continent called Jambudvīpa, and carries numerous layers of heavens above and hells below. At the same time, differing cosmological interpretations have been key to the development of many of the diverse philosophies and practices seen across Buddhist history. Over time, scholars, artists, and practitioners have reinterpreted cosmological features and frameworks to express new ideas about the personhood of the buddha, the nature of enlightenment, the techniques by which followers progress along the Buddhist path, and more. Some major innovations of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism were cast in explicitly cosmological terms. Such important cosmological statements appear not only in scriptures and treatises but also in other aspects of Buddhist culture, such as ritual performances, visual artworks, and material objects. The cosmology of Buddhism is deeply intertwined with everything from its most profound intellectual developments to the lives and activities of everyday individuals.