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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 52, New Delhi, December 11, 2021

Buddhism: In Search Of The Original Teachings ─ A brief résumé of the Early Buddhist Philosophy | Mandeep Lama

Saturday 11 December 2021


by Mandeep Lama *

(A) The Setting

Although Buddhism spread among the Asian countries in a peaceful manner, which is remarkable when we remember the devastating Crusades and Jihads of The European Middle Ages, it cannot lay claim to ideological harmony among its various schools. In fact doctrinal differences, two of which had surfaced even during the life of the Buddha, were responsible for the rise of various schools of Buddhism. [1] During his time the Buddha was able to put a lid on such disputations with his cogent convincing faculties. However, this was not to be so after his demise.

The reason for ideological differences in the Buddhist church, to an extent, can be traced to the Buddha’s tough minded stand on the central Buddhist tenet of the Middle Path (Majjhimamāgga), which led him to announce that there would not be anyone succeeding him as the Head of the Sangha after he was gone. He made it amply clear that, after him, the dhamma (discourses) was to be taken as their teacher and the guide. Obviously the Buddha was aware of the danger that his discourses could be wrongly interpreted in the days and years to come. He, therefore, sanctioned the use of certain hermeneutical principles in correctly ascertaining his teachings whenever doubts and controversies arose about them. In doing so, the Buddha was trying to achieve two objectives: 1) avoid strict adherence to etymological and grammatical criterion or adopt laissez-faire attitude in understanding and interpreting his teachings, and 2) prevent the Sangha from falling into a hierarchical structure which would damage the relativistic dispensation of the dhamma. While establishing the Middle Path theory, the Buddha did accept some form of relativism in his philosophy. He accepted relativism as long as it was not made unpalatable by some human error. In the Buddha’s opinion what makes relativism unpalatable is the generally held view that one theory, one belief, or one perspective has to be superior to another, independent of the condition under which these are formulated, held, or adopted. [2]

The Buddha never claimed divine authority and absolute sacredness for his discourses (dhamma). However, he wanted to perpetuate his teachings without too much of distortion. For this purpose he recommended application of the principles of hermeneutics in the form of “primary indicators” (mahāpadesas) to ascertain authenticity of his teachings. The mahāpadesas (Lit. Great Instructions) are intended not to determine whether or not the teachings enshrined in the Buddhist canon are correct but to ensure that they are the statements of the Buddha. Dīgha and Anguttara Nikāyas mention the first of the four mahāpadesas in the following words:

Herein, monks, if a monk were to say: “I have heard such in the presence of the Fortunate One; I have received such in his presence: ‘This is the doctrine (dhamma), this is the discipline (vinaya), this is the message of the teacher.’ ” Monks, the statement of that monk should neither be enthusiastically approved nor completely condemned. Without either enthusiastically approving or completely condemning, and having carefully studied those words and signs, they should be integrated with the discourses (sūtras) and instantiated by the discipline (vinaya). However, when they are being integrated with the discourses and instantiated by the discipline, if they do not integrate with the discourses and (are) not instantiated by the discipline, on that occasion one should come to the conclusion: “This, indeed, is not the word of the Fortunate One, the Worthy One, the Perfectly Enlightened One, instead, it is wrongly obtained by this monk.’ And so should you, monks, reject it. . . However, when they are being integrated with the discourses and instantiated by the discipline, if they integrate with the discourses and are instantiated by the discipline, on that occasion one should come to conclusion: ‘This, indeed, is the words of the Fortunate One, the Worthy One, the Perfectly Enlightened One; it is well obtained by this monk.’ This, monks, is the first primary indicator.” [3]

The three remaining indicators are explained in the similar manner. However, they deal with the Buddha-word received (2) from a senior monk residing alone in some place; (3) from a group of monks who are educated, knows the tradition, and who are custodians of the doctrine and discipline as well as the formulae; and (4) from a single monk who is not only a senior monk as described in (2) but also like those in (3), educated, knower of the tradition, and a custodian of the doctrine and discipline as well as formulae.

The Buddha’s advocacy of taking the dhamma (discourses) as a guide, and the adoption of hermeneutical principles as a medium to ascertain the authenticity of his teachings were sensible directives designed for correctly upholding the empirical truth that he had been able to gain after six years of rigorous tapa (exertion) and dhyāna (meditation). These directives, however, were not meant to be the kind of strictly laid down sacrosanct commandments whose slightest non-compliance would mean committing blaspheme or sin against the religion or the founder of that religion. Being a pragmatic teacher, the Buddha, in his old age, told his disciples that after he is gone, the monks may make changes in the minor rules and regulations of the Sangha. Such a liberal attitude on the part of the Buddha went onto shaping the general characteristics of the Sangha, and became the hallmark of what is known as the Early Buddhism.

The liberal characteristics of the Early Buddhism made possible a variety of interpretations of the Buddha’s doctrine. It was such interpretations that led to the development of different schools of thought and, along with those schools, came into being a surfeit of disputations as well. As decades and centuries rolled by, such disputations grew in number gathering momentum as well as sophistication in argument. In the melee, the original teachings and the personality of the historical Sakya Gautama Buddha were gradually buried under the debris of uncritical adorations, unfounded myths, and unqualified analyses.

Ideological disputations are nothing new in the world of thoughts and theses. However, in Buddhism, such disputations were often heightened by the method of evaluation adopted to show one’s own view as “superior” (srestha) and another’s view as “inferior” (hīna). It was this kind of evaluation that led the Mahāyānists to recognize the Theravādins (Skt. Sthaviravādins) as belonging to an “inferior vehicle” (Hīnayāna) from about 2nd century AD onward.

(B) Bifurcation of the Sangha

First Schism

Subsequent to the Buddha’s passing away, a slew of diverse views on the discourses (dhamma) and the discipline (vinaya) gave birth to a number of contrasting ideological beliefs, which led to a series of divisions in the Sangha. The first schism appeared about one century after the Buddha’s demise when the Sangha bifurcated into two ideological camps — Sthavira (Pali Theravāda) and Mahāsanghika.

The first schism, however, occurred not due to any disputation on the doctrinal points or the discourses (dhamma) of the Buddha. It happened due to a severe dispute on the Sangha’s discipline (vinaya). It so happened that the monks residing in and around Vaisāli had adopted “ten practices” that included accepting gold and silver in alms. Such practices were considered as violations of the monastic discipline by the monks of Avanti, Pava, and the Southern Route that progressed into the Andhra country. Pali sources enumerate the “ten practices” as:

1) Carrying salt in an animal horn − violated a rule against storing of food,
2) Taking food when the shadow on the sun-dial is two fingers past noon −  violated a rule against eating after noon,
3) After eating, travelling to another village to eat another meal the same day − violated the rule against over eating,
4) Holding several fortnightly assemblies within the same boundaries (sīmā) − violated procedures requiring all monks within the sīmā to attend the same fortnightly assemblies,
5) Confirming an ecclesiastical act in an incomplete assembly and obtaining approval from monks afterwards − violated the rules of quorum at monastic meetings,
6) Citing habitual practice as the authority for violations of monastic procedures − violated the rules of procedure,
7) Drinking milk whey after meals − violated the rule against eating special food when one was not sick,
8) Drinking unfermented wine − violated the rule against drinking intoxicating beverages,
9) Using a mat with fringes − violated the rule concerning the measurements of rugs,
10) Accepting gold and silver − violated the rule prohibiting monks from accepting gold and silver in alms. [4]

The Elders who were appointed to examine the “ten practices” in the Vaisāli Council recommended rejection of all the ten points as utter violations of the established rules (vinaya) of the Sangha. Majority of the monks disagreed with this ruling of the Elders and, as a consequence, the original Sangha bifurcated into two groups, viz., 1) Mahāsanghika or the Liberals, who preferred the ten points, and 2) Sthavira or the Conservatives, who rejected the same. With this great divide of the Sangha, Buddhism marched onto the path of a series of divisions in the later centuries.

The Later Schisms

About one century after the original schism, the Mahāsanghikas, ostensibly due to pressure and popularity of the Sthavira branch, migrated from Magadha in two streams. The first stream is called the North-Western Sect or the Earlier Group. Soon enough, on account of doctrinal points, the North-Western Sect divided into five sub-groups, viz., 1) Ekavyavahārikas, 2) Kaukulikas, 3) Bahusrutiyas, 4) Prajñaptivādins, and 5) Lokottaravādins. [5] The second stream, the Southern Sect, went into Andhra country and settled down around Amarāvatī and Dhanakantaka. Due to their settling down in Andhra country they were also called the Andhakas. Due to similar reasons as that of the North-Western Sect, Andhakas also divided into five sub-groups, viz., 1) Pubbaseliyas or Uttaraseliyas, 2) Aparaseliyas, 3) Siddhāntikas, 4) Rājagirikas, and 5) Caityikas (Pali Hemvatikas). [6] Members of these sub-branches settled down on the mountains around Nāgārjunakonda which became a great centre of Buddhist learning in the later centuries.

      Sthavira or the Theravāda lineage also underwent a series of divisions within its fold. However, there are considerable differences of opinion on the chronological order of the schisms between the Sri Lankan chronicles (Dīpavamsa and Mahāvamsa) and the Northern Samaya [7] tradition. According to the Lankan chronicles, Sthavira first divided into Vajjiputtaka and Mahīmasāsaka schools. The Vajjiputtaka further divided into four sub groups, viz., 1) Dhammutariya, 2) Bhadrayanika, 3) Chandagirika, and 4) Sammitīya. The Mahīmasāsaka School also divided into two sub groups, viz., 1) Sarvāstivāda, and 2) Dharmaguptaka. Over a period of time Sarvāstivāda gave rise to Kāśyapīya School, which in turn gave rise to Samkrāntika School. It is from Samkrāntivādins that Suttavādins (Skt. Sutravādins) evolved, which became popular under the name of Sautrāntika.

On the contrary, the Northern or Samaya tradition notes that both Mahīmasāsaka and Vajjiputtaka came out of the Sarvāstivāda fold, making the school of Sarvāstivāda the oldest group within the Sthavira fold. However, there are opinions which indicate that there might have been two schools, earlier and later, carrying the identical name of Mahīmasāsaka, and that the compilers of Samaya might have been lured into confusion to take the two as one. The final verdict on this issue has not been reached as yet.

To systematically follow the various schisms in Buddhism requires not only a great deal of pragmatic patience, but also a hard scholastic spy work. Even then the job of sketching out one agreeable portrait of all the schisms may still remain much to be desired. Hence, for the not-so-serious students of Buddhism, it is easier to follow the traditional schema which holds that Buddhism divided into eighteen schools consequent to the demise of the Buddha on account of differences of opinion on the discourses (dhamma) and discipline (vinaya). These eighteen schools were later grouped under four major heads, viz., 1) Sarvāstivāda, 2) Sammitīya, 3) Mahāsanghika, and 4) Sthavira. Of the eighteen schools ten of them fall within the fold of Sarvāstivāda and Sammitīya, and is collectively called the Vaibhāsika (School of) Philosophy. The remaining schools fall within the fold of Mahāsanghika and Sthavira, and is called the Sautrāntika (School of) Philosophy.

The eighteen schools were categorized according to their views on the nature and the scope of the Buddha’s discourses. Sarvāstivādins believed in the real existence of “everything” (Pali sabbam, Skt. sarvam) at all times (Pali sabbadā, Skt. sarvadā). Hence, they were called the Realist School. In contrast Sautrāntikas adopted the theory of “momentary existence” (sthitiksana) of elements (dhamma) due to their belief in the existence of time in a sequel of atomic (anu) moments (ksana). Sautrāntikas, thus, introduced the branch of philosophy called empirical atomism to the body of the Early Buddhism. Sammitīya School developed the Ātmaka theory by forwarding an idea of a changing soul. Sammitīya’s idea of soul (ātman) was neither sāsvata (“eternal”) like that of Sarvāstivādins, nor ksanika (“momentary”) like that of Sammitīyas. In fact the soul was thought of as being on par with the human body which neither exists for all times nor evaporates like the morning dew in moments. Hence, the Ātmaka thesis equated the soul with a human person or an individual (Pali puggala, Skt. pudgala)) which earned the Sammitīyas another name. They were also called puggalavādins (Skt. pudgalavādins, “personalists”).

Except for the Mahāsanghika sub group of Lokottara (Transcendental), all other sub groups in the Vaibhāsika and the Sautrāntika schools were essentially Theravādin in content and practice. Roughly about second century AD, these schools were collectively degraded as belonging to an “Inferior Vehicle” or Hīnayāna by Lokottaravādins who, around this time, had metamorphosed into the self-proclaimed “Superior Vehicle” or Mahāyāna. However, although Lokottaravāda belonged to the Mahāsanghika group, Sarvāstivāda School, bracketed with Theravāda, did actually contribute much to Mahāsanghika’s evolution to true Mahāyāna. The point of departure for the Lokottaravādins was their concept of transcendentalism in regards to the nature and scope of buddhahood.


Although treating only as a brief account, it would only be proper to deal with the rudiments of transcendental absolutism in Buddhism under a new sub head, because it is the idea of transcendentalism that went on to divide Buddhism into Mahāyāna and Sthavira, or Theravāda, schools.

Transcendentalist (Lokottaravādin) fold of the Mahāsanghika School believed in the thesis that the ultimate nature of buddhahood lies beyond the grasp of human knowledge and understanding. Consequently they promulgated the theory of the transcendence of the Buddha and canonized the idea in Saddharmapundarīka-sūtra or “Discourse on the Lotus of the Transcendental Dharma”, popularly known as the Lotus Sūtra. [8]Unlike the historical Buddha who was always clad in a simple monk’s robe, Lotus Sūtra portrays the Transcendental Buddha as a majestic Universal Monarch in full regal splendour, which is profoundly analogous to Sri Krishna’s dazzling cosmic Vishva-Rūpa in Bhagavad-Gīta. The grandiose portrayal of the Transcendental Buddha is designed to create a sense of wonder and marvel (aścharya and adbhūta) in the minds of those suffering ordinary human beings who are helplessly struggling through repeated cycles of births and deaths. The intense feeling of wonder and marvel is intended to generate an excitement (samuttejana) which would eventually culminate in appeasement of fears and doubts due to continued listening of the recitation of the Lotus Sūtra as dharani. [9] One of the chief aims of the Saddharmapundarīka-sūtra is to help human beings realize that they are on their way to ultimate buddhahood.

 Although Lotus Sūtra’s endeavor is to help human beings find peace and happiness in the knowledge that they are essentially buddhas, it does so in a, rather, parochial manner. While glorifying the Transcendental Buddha it completely denies any kind of role for the historical Sakyamuni Buddha, the dhamma, and the Sangha in the fabric of Buddhism. Proceedings of the Third Buddhist Council (c. 250 BC), convened on orders from Emperor Asoka, are recorded in Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy) by the scholar-monk Moggaliputta-tissa, which is one of the seven treatises constituting the Theravādin Abhidhamma Pitaka.

Theravādin: Should it not be said: “The doctrine was preached by the Buddha, the     Fortunate One?”
Transcendentalist: Yes [it should not be said].
Theravādin: By whom it was preached?
Transcendentalist: Preached by the created form (abhinimmitena).
Theravādin: The created form of the Victor is the Teacher, the Perfectly Enlightened One, the Master of the Doctrine, the All-Knowing, the All- Seeing, the Source of the Doctrine?
Transcendentalist: One should not say so.
Theravādin: Should it not be said: “The doctrine was preached by the Buddha, the Fortunate One”?
Transcendentalist: Yes [it should not be said].
Theravādin: By whom it was preached?
Transcendentalist: It was preached by the Venerable Ānanda.
Theravādin: Venerable Ānanda [then] is the Perfectly Enlightened One, the All-Knowing, All-Seeing, the Master of the Doctrine, the Source of the Doctrine.
Transcendentalist: One should not say so.

As typified by the position adopted by the Transcendentalists in the above debate, which took place in the 3rd Buddhist Council during Emperor Asoka’s reign, the Lotus Sūtra not only denies the veracity of the historical Buddha, it also rejects the early discourses and categorically condemns the community of monks. To the architects of the Lotus the early disciples of the Buddha, like Sāriputta and Moggalana, were ignorant monks “delighting in the lowly” (hīnābhiratā), as such “not wise” (aviddasu)! [10] Thus, by completely wiping out the empirical and historical contents of the Early Buddhism, including the person of the Buddha, the Mahāyānic Vaipulya literature ushered in an extreme theory of the “Great Emptiness” (mahā-sūnyatā), which is also found proposed in the Lankāvtāra-sūtra or the “Discourse on the Descent into Lankā Sūtra.” [11] Among other instances, Lankā does so by quoting a popular passage from the Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (The Diamond Sūtra) — “Even the dharmas are to be abandoned, and how much more adharmas.” [12]

The flash point is the concept of mahā-sūnyatā (“great emptiness”) championed by the campaigners of the transcendental theory which, unlike the more moderate theory of sūnyatā (“emptiness”) advocated by philosophers like Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu, does not conform to the doctrine of the Middle Path promulgated by the Buddha. The concept of mahā-sūnyatā is unable to explain the status of the phenomena (dhamma) as “dependently arisen” (Pali paticcasamuppanna, Skt. pratītyasamupanna), which is the central message in the Buddha’s teachings. It is due to this reason the Theravādins (Skt. Sthaviravādins) branded the Transcendentalists as Vaitulyavādins (“heretics”) and their doctrine as Vaitulyavāda (“heretical teachings”).

The Rise of Conceptual Absolutism

Philosophically the term “absolute” refers to the proposition that it is possible to have an “absolute knowledge” (parama jññāna) of everything in the past, the present, and the future. This kind of knowledge was claimed by Mahāvīra, [13] a senior contemporary of the Buddha, in the form of “omniscience” (Pali sabbaññuta, Skt. sarvajñatā). [14] However, the Buddha was of the opinion that there cannot be absolute knowledge, except for the determination with which an Enlightened One resists his own temptations. Nevertheless, acknowledging the fact that the way the Buddha was able to convince even the most hardened dogmatists and disbelievers, and bring them around to agreeing to his concept and theory of the dhamma, his contemporaries soon began to speculate about the range, nature, and the scope of the Buddha’s knowledge. While some of his disciples, like Ānanda, started looking for infinite intellectual capabilities, far beyond what the Buddha had ever claimed, others reverentially sought to elevate him to the realm of a supreme being. However, although a huge number of laity and the ordained disciples alike were given to glorifying the Buddha, it was principally the followers of the Brahmanic tradition who lent support to the transcendental (aloukika or pāraloukika) conception of buddhahood. Anguttara Nikāya records an interesting exchange between the Buddha and a Brahmin called Dona:

Dona   : Sir, are you a deva.
Buddha : No Brahmin, I am not a deva.
Dona   : Sir, are you a gandhabha (celestial being)?
Buddha : No Brahmin, I am not a gandhabha.
Dona   : Sir, are you a yakkha (powerful demon)?
Buddha : No Brahmin, I am not a yakkha.
Dona   : Sir, are you a manusa (human being)?
Buddha : No Brahmin, I am not a manusa.

Dona becomes justifiably perplexed. He wanted to know the Buddha in relation to every personality, human and non-human that he was aware of as a learned person. But the Buddha negates all forms of identification proposed by the Brahmin. At last Dona asks, “Who, then, are you, Sir?”

 The Buddha responds by saying that he has eliminated all such influxes (āsavas) that would make him a deva, a gandhabha, a yakkha, or a manusa. He explains that, in the manner a lotus flower (pundarīka) that germinates in the muddy water, grows in the muddy water, is nourished by the muddy water, but rises above the muddy water to remain unsmeared by the muddy water, the Buddha has been born in the world, has been nourished by the world, but has risen above the world to remain unsmeared by the world. This being so, the Buddha says to Dona: “Brahmin, take me to be an enlightened one (buddha).”

As is evident from the Buddha’s response to Dona, it is easy to discern that buddhahood, indeed, goes beyond all forms of existence known to the human beings. In fact, it is this argument that was employed by the Transcendentalists in support of their stand in the debate with Moggaliputta-tissa in the Third Buddhist Council held during the reign of Emperor Asoka.

Theravādins contest that the Transcendentalists (Lokottaravādins) drew wrong conclusions from the dialogue that took place between the Brahmin Dona and the Buddha. Kathāvatthu exposes the Transcendentalists’ interpretation of the dialogue as arising from a non-analytical treatment of the Buddha’s concept of buddhahood.

According to the Buddha, a human person is one who is born into this world, experiences the world, and continues to live in the world conditioned by a number of factors. One such factors is consciousness (viññāna) that operates in terms of interest (Pali sankhārā, Skt. samskārā) which can easily convert into craving (Pali tanhā, Skt. trishnā), greed (lobha) and so on. Craving, greed, and such other defilements (kleśas) are those influxes (āsavas) that the Buddha had spewed through appeasement of the dispositions. Hence, the difference between a god, a gandhabha, a yakkha, and a human on one hand and a buddha on the other is the presence or absence, respectively, of the influxes. [15] Theravādins contend that it was precisely this distinction which was conveniently ignored by the Lokottaravādins. As for the Buddha’s use of the lotus flower (pundarika) as a metaphor, it can be explained without any ambiguity. Before and during the time of Gautama Buddha there was no corresponding concept of an “enlightened being” or buddha in the literary and philosophical conventions of the day. Hence, the Buddha, most ingeniously, chose the simile of a lotus flower to define his concept of a buddha. The lotus flower germinates in the muddy water, grows in the muddy water, but rises above the muddy water to remain unsmeared by it. However, in the Buddha’s discourse there is absolutely no hint that after rising above the water, the lotus becomes eternal, permanent, and transcendental.

Transcendentalism: The Brahmanical Influence

Buddhism is a non-foundational and non-structural school of thought. The reason for being so is that, throughout his missionary career, Gautama Buddha forcefully negated the existence of an eternal and permanent structure in the form of a substance or an entity underlying the cause and continuation of the phenomena. However, various schools of Buddhism soon started looking for some sort of a foundational basis for the sake of providing reason to the human knowledge, nature of the individual and the world, morals, society, and the linguistic conventions. In India there was one school of philosophy from where Buddhist monks chiefly borrowed the idea of foundationalism − Brahmanism.

From its very inception Brahmanism adopted the absolutist notion that a body of knowledge has to be based on firm foundation. Accordingly, the Vedic seers (rsis) started using architectural metaphors like brahmana and ātman to understand, as well as to describe, all forms of knowledge. As such, Brahmanism staunchly believed, and continue to believe, that “there exists a spiritual self, permanent and eternal” [16] which is different from the psychophysical person.
What the Upanishadic thinkers meant by the “permanent and eternal spiritual self” was the agent or the owner who owns and controls the phenomena from within. In the post Rigvedic Brahmanic literatures, this entity is described as the “inner dweller” (antaryāmin). It was this inner dweller, codified as brāhmana in the Rig-Veda and as ātman in the subsequent Upanishads, especially in Brhadāranyaka Upanishad, which was permanent and eternal, that the Buddha struggled much to discover during his many meditational exertions.

The Buddha’s search for this so-called spiritual self, or the “mysterious something” (kinci), involved him in a detailed analysis of the human personality ever attempted by anyone before, not only in India but also in Greece, Mesopotamia region, and China, the other three great axial age centres of wisdom. However, whenever the Buddha tried to investigate the human psychic personality for discovering a permanent and eternal self, he always stumbled upon one or the other aspects of experience, viz., 1) Feeling (vedanā), 2) Perception (Pali saññā, Skt. samjñā), 3) Disposition (Pali sankhārā, Skt. samskārā), and 4) Consciousness (viññāna). To top it there was also the most visible non-psychic element called body (rūpa) which completed the psychophysical personality (nāmarūpa) of a human person. Since these five aspects or “aggregates” of the human personality (Pali skandha, Skt. khandha) were in a state of constant flux, they were subject to rise (udpāda), change (vigraha) and destruction (vyaya). As such, in his investigation of the psychophysical aspect of a person, the Buddha found nothing that could be deemed permanent and eternal in the human personality. This meant that, based on the dogma of a “permanent and eternal spiritual self”, the Brahmanic attempt at reaching the ultimate explanation (paramārth) in philosophy was supremely untenable.

To refute the Brahmanic assertion of a permanent and eternal self, or an eternal soul, Buddha chose to utilise the term “no-self” (Pali. anatta, Skt. anātman) in his discourses. However, the Buddha was not alone in rejecting the Brahmanic theory of a permanent and eternal entity in the explanation of jīva (self) and jagata (material phenomena; the universe). Materialist thinkers, who belonged to one of the two branches of the naturalistic school, the other being Ājīvikas, also contrasted the Brahmanic concept of a permanent and eternal self with their own “no-soul” theory. Materialist doctrine of Lokāyatika asserts that the matter can think, death is the end of all, and there is no loka (world, existential plane) other than this. Materialists were so vehement in their rejection of the Brahmanic theory of a “permanent and eternal spiritual self” that they were branded, as well as condemned, as the “no-soul theorists” (anātmavādins).

However, the Buddha’s “no-self” theory should not be confused with the “no-soul” theory of the Materialists, which is an exact antithesis of the Upanishadic “permanent and eternal spiritual self”. Both the Materialists’ conception of “no-soul” and the Brahmanical “spiritual self” are absolute and incorruptible epistemological entities. They are “absolutes” because both the schools raised their respective concepts to the inviolate (or unchanging) level of “ultimate” (parama) positions assigning them the status of “truth” (Pali sacca, Skt. satya). Putting the two terms together gives us the grand notion of an “ultimate truth” (parama satya) regarding the status of the universe (jagata) as well as the knowledge and experience of the universe. The Buddha wholly disagreed with such a concept of an “ultimate truth” (parama satya) as constituting the foundation for the existence and continuation of the phenomena. He had observed and found the experiential phenomena as engaged in constant flux through an act of perpetual arising and ceasing which rendered the proposition of an ultimate truth futile and meaningless. It is, therefore, the concept of a “permanent and eternal spiritual self” was denied by the Buddha as “no-self” (Pali anatta Skt. anātman).

As for dealing with the “no-soul” theory of the Materialists, the Buddha had a pragmatic stance on the conception of the soul. He had no problem with the conventional (sanātana; summutti) notion of the soul as was in public use (Pali loka vohāra, Skt. loka byavahāra) since ancient times (ādi-kāla), which was free from any kind of ontological commitment. This is the reason why the Buddha, after forcefully negating the Brahmanic concept of an eternal and permanent spiritual self, continued to use the conventional notion of the term “self” (ātman) in his discourses. This was the Buddha’s way of refuting the absolute “‘no-soul” theory of the Materialist thinkers.

Linguistic pragmatism

As a form of expression, the fundamentals of concept building are deeply entrenched in the linguistic convention of the humans and, as such, very much liable to fall into extreme categorization. Brahmanic assertion of a “permanent and eternal spiritual self” and the complete denial of the same by the Materialist thinkers are just two of the examples in extreme dogmatic positioning expressed in linguistic terms. In the process, after “greed” (lobha) and “hatred” (dosa), there arises in a human person the third defilement (kleśa), which is “confusion” (moha). [17] These three kleśas are called the “root defilements” (mūla kleśas) because all other defilements spring from these three primaries.

In the “Analysis of Peace” sūtra (Arana Patipada; Skt. rana: conflict, war; a-rana: absence of conflict or war, thereby “peace”) the Buddha refers to the two linguistic extremes, viz., 1) viewing the conceptual knowledge as self sufficing and a revelation by itself, and 2) viewing the true experience as beyond all conceptual thinking. [18] The first view contains the absolutist conception of language and the second view contains a transcendentalist standpoint. Both these views, being extreme linguistic propositions, were not acceptable to the Buddha. His advice on this issue was twofold: 1) avoid the two extreme linguistic positions, and 2) utilize the language without grasping, that is, without any sort of ontological commitment. It meant choosing and treading on the linguistic middle path.

Linguistic middle path is an extremely dicey intellectual terrain. This is the reason why a great number of the learned Brahmins, belonging to various schools of thought, and Buddhist monks alike ― not to talk of the lay followers of the dhamma ― greatly bungled whenever it came to grasping the Buddha-word (buddha-vacana) together with their intrinsic meanings and significance. As a result of this, a superfluity of interpretational corruption soon found its way into the dhamma (“discourses”) as preached by the Buddha. This situation warranted launching of an urgent remedial enterprise for the sake of insulating the dhamma from all corrosive factors. The time, thus, was ripe for the appearance of a “higher dharma” in Buddhism.

Rise of the Higher Dharma

(Purification of the Dhamma)

Gautama Buddha’s advice on the use of hermeneutical principle suitably inspired the more sensible and intellectually inclined monks and scholars for adopting a middle-path stance in regards to the use of language; more so while formulating their own philosophical concepts. To be able to do so, these monks and scholars wanted to adhere not only to the original teachings of the Buddha but also to their exact and uncorrupted connotations. However, a host of absolutist, transcendentalist, nihilist, and skeptic tendencies had crept into the Buddha’s doctrine even during his time. The situation started deteriorating further after the Buddha’s passing away threatening the entire mass of the Buddha’s discourses. This threat came not only from within the Buddhist fold but also from outside sources like Brahmanism, Materialism, Jainism, and Skepticism to name the significant ones. The danger was real and imminent. If nothing was done to contain the deterioration, buddha dhamma was in for harmful corruption. This state of affairs, more than anything else, necessitated the appearance of a “higher dharma” or what is canonically called the Abhidhamma (Skt. Abhidharma).

The term dhamma generally refers to the doctrine preached by the Buddha. By extension, it may also mean the truths revealed by the Buddha’s teachings. In the manner the Abhidharmikas [19] went about examining the discourses, the term abhidharma could significantly mean “the study of the dharma.” Accordingly, on a wider perspective, the term abhidharma is interpreted as meaning “studies of the Buddha’s teachings or research into the truths revealed by the Buddha.” [20]

Abhidharmikas started a gigantic literary project to weed out extremist interpretations of the Buddha’s discourses by unrefined and intellectually unskillful monks and scholars. They first started collecting the original discourses and subjected them to a systematic literary treatment through a skillfully designed method of enumeration, classification (analysis), and synthesis. Applying this three-fold method, the Abhidharmikas put each and every concept available in the then existing Buddhist literature under the scanner and carefully weighed them against the fundamentals of the Buddha’s doctrine for ascertaining their accuracy. It was a gigantic literary enterprise that roughly straddled two centuries of untiring labour. The outcome of this stupendous literary undertaking was the production of the Abhidharma literatures which has been preserved in the Abhidharma Pitaka ever since. There are actually two versions of Abhidharma literatures, Sanskrit and Pali, preserved respectively by the Sarvāstivādins and the Theravādins. Together they form thirteen volumes of high grade Buddhist literary work dedicated to the study of “elements” (dhamma) and their conceptualization in pragmatic (i.e., the middle-path) linguistic terms. [21]
Both Sanskrit and Pali Pitakas predominantly deal with examining the two principle teachings of the Buddha − “Non-substantiality” (annātta) and “Dependent Arising” (paticcasamuppāda). In the Abhidharma literatures the discourses are treated with heightened sense of linguistic caution and pragmatism. This approach, as is evident in the body of Buddhist philosophy today, was able to rescue the Buddha’s teachings from the mud of maltreatment and misinterpretations. The task of enumeration, classification, and synthesis elevated the Buddha’s doctrine to a new height of philosophical reckoning. At this height the doctrine (buddha-vacana) was virtually rendered impenetrable by the unwholesome (akusala) extremist viewpoints and ideologies. This may have been the reason for calling the purified teachings of the Buddha as the “higher dharma” or Abhidharma. [22]

The Vajracchedikā

Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra, also called “The Diamond Sūtra,” is one of the most popular sūtras in the Mahāyānic literature. The central aim of this sūtra is to develop the idea originally formulated in the “‘Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra” (Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra). Apart from this, Vajracchedikā is also a huge effort on how to avoid taking extreme linguistic positions and how to skillfully eliminate ontological commitment to concepts without wiping out their pragmatic meaning. In this respect Vajracchedikā, which covers a mere thirty-six pages, incredibly furthers the cause of the voluminous Abhidharma literature.

Vajracchedikā achieves this feat by most cogently utilizing a slightly different methodology of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. The three-fold procedure of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction in Vajracchedikā is extremely precise and sharp edged, and is applied only to a select number of conceptions. The most popular application of this formula is found appropriated onto the concept of the term heap of merit, which reads as:

What was taught by the Tathāgata as heap of merit, as no heap of merit, which has been taught by the Tathāgata. Therefore, the Tathāgata teaches, “heap of merit, heap of merit.” [23]

When the Buddha spoke of a heap of merit, which is the construction of a concept, it was immediately taken up by a Substantialist to mean either a self-existent substance or a unique entity (svabhāva), or an essential characteristic (svalaksana). In both the cases, the concept of the heap of merit suggests “something” (kincit) that is true and real in an absolutist sense. Hence, such a concept of heap of merit is instantly negated by the Buddha as no heap of merit. This negation is the deconstruction of the Substantialist viewpoint. However, this negation is not an absolute or universal negation. As such, when this negation is not an absolute or universal negation, then there can be other versions of the concept of heap of merit. According to the Buddha such a concept, which gives way to other versions of the concept, is “dependently arisen” (paticcasamuppanna). This, the dependently arisen concept, is the reconstruction of the concept of heap of merit. The reconstructed concept is recognized as depending upon a variety of conditions, hence freeing it from the absolute identification of a unique entity (svabhāva) or an essential characteristic (svalaksana). Statement showing the reconstructed concept of heap of merit is presented in quotes. Other concepts are also treated in a similar manner in the Vajracchedikā.

The Role of Concept 

A concept (Pali paññatti, Skt. prajñapti), like a theory, a notion, a thought, a perception, or an idea, is an integral part of the activity of the human mind and, like everything else in the universe, keeps evolving and changing all the time. Concepts are products of knowledge and understanding that represent the stuff of the mind and nature. However, we often take concept to be the reality, which is akin to taking a map to be the territory.
As an example we may take the physical India. The physical India, with all her natural and cultural attributes, cannot be grasped at one go. Hence, a concept of India comes into play in the form of a map; with different colours indicating her different attributes or characteristics. But, however much accurate; however big or comprehensive may be the map, it could only be an approximate representation of the real physical India. It would not only be ridiculous but also an act of rank stupidity to equate the real India with the map of India. But people, overwhelmingly more so in the realm of religion and philosophy, keep doing so either under the force of ignorance (Pali avijjā, Skt. avidyā) or cultural hypnotism, or both. Thus, people are led into taking concepts for reality, or the map for territory.

A concept remains dynamic, flexible, and creative till it is applied as a pragmatic working hypothesis especially in the realization of some spiritual and intellectual or even scientific revelation. However, if the concept is elevated to the position of an “absolute truth” (parama-satya), it immediately forfeits its power of flexibility and creativity. It was this kind of an elevation of the Brahmanical concepts like the Creator God (brahmāna), the imperishable soul (ātman), and the inviolate caste (varna) system that came under severe attack from both the Materialist thinkers of the time, and from the Buddha.

     Whenever a concept is rendered absolute it not only solidifies but, over a period of time, fossilizes into a dogma. However, in the case of pragmatic use of a concept all its creative faculties are retained, which will then offer opportunity for its possible modifications in the future. Following this creative convention in linguistic pragmatism, as pioneered and championed by the Buddha, the more enlightened Buddhist monks and scholars astutely employed it in their efforts to understand the natural phenomena as well as human conventions. It is this kind of linguistic pragmatism that makes the Dalai Lama state most unhesitatingly:

“Suppose that something is proven through scientific investigation that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that, that fact is incompatible with the Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research.” [24]

This statement by the Dalai Lama is one stellar example in Buddhist pragmatism spelled in linguistic terms in the modern times. And, this is what the Buddha taught and, this is what the Abhidharma literature and the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra meritoriously uphold.

The Role of Symbolism 

A concept, like a theory or a thesis, is an abstraction of the phenomenon of mind expressed in linguistic term. It is predominantly an intellectual exercise. Concepts are built to understand those truths (sacca) and realities (theta) that lie beyond the limits of our normal, day to day, knowledge and awareness. It takes enormous amount of intellectual ability to build a concept, as well as to be able to understand it in all its dimensions. Being the product of an intense intellectual endeavor, it is rather hard even for the literate people − leave alone the mass of people still unable to read and write − to grasp the complete trajectory of a concept. Thus, the role of symbolism comes into play in representing a philosophical concept with something that is familiar and is easy to grasp and comprehend.

     In Vajrayāna Buddhism, philosophical concepts are more than often substituted by demons, gods, buddhas, and bodhisattvas. This was an astute device employed to retain attention of the lay listeners when tantras were being recited as mantras. Names of demons, gods, buddhas, and bodhisattvas would be familiar to the lay listeners, and these would help maintain their interest in the sacred proceedings. In the narratives demons appear as personifications of evil powers whereas buddhas and bodhisattvas represent the ultimate goal of the human moral life. For example, we find the five skandhas (“aggregates”) of the human personality, namely, body, feeling, perception, disposition, and consciousness, skillfully substituted with the five buddhas (panca-buddha) on the basis of their functions:

Body (rūpa) — Vairocana — ethics
Feeling (vedanā) — Ratnasambhava — concentration
Perception (samjñā) — Amitābha — appreciation
Disposition (samskāra) — Amoghasiddhi — freedom
Consciousness (vijñāna) — Aksobhya — vision in freedom [25]

The most famous symbol in Vajrayāna Buddhism is that of a thunderbolt (vajira, vajra), which stands for the philosophical concept of “analytical knowledge” (ñaña-vajira) that destroys grasping of consciousness (viññānānam pariggaha).

 In Theragāthā (Sūtta Pitaka) the term vajira (Skt. vajra, “thunderbolt”) appears in the presentation of a dissertation on the noble eight-fold path by a disciple of the Buddha named Migajala. Here Migajala is found using the term vajira to symbolize the philosophical concept of “analytical knowledge” (ñaña-vajira) that disintegrates the grasping of consciousness (viññānānam pariggaha). When applied to conception, the grasping of consciousness relates to ontological commitment. It was this grasping of consciousness that prevented the adherents of the absolutist schools like Brahmanism and Jainism from understanding, as also refusing to understand, the Buddha’s analysis of theories like the soul (ātman) and caste (varna) even though such analyses were supported by empirical arguments. Such dogmatic posture could only be eliminated through the use of threats and coercion. But a buddha could never resort to violence even for the sake of protecting the dhamma. Thus, there appeared, as was the necessity, a powerful, fear-generating demon (yakkha) with a vajira, a symbol for “analytical knowledge,” in his hand. This yakkha is called Vajirapāni. [26]

The aim of the extensive use of symbolism in the Buddhist tantras was to make difficult philosophical concepts palatable to the masses as well as to the neophyte monks so that everyone was able to smoothly walk on the path of the dhamma.

Dhamma: The Pragmatic Path

 Emanating from the concept of brahmana, which is deemed nirākār (“formless”) and nirguna (“attributeless”), [27] the term dharma generally stands for moral law or principle in the Brahmanic convention. In Buddhism, however, the term dhamma has multiple connotations. Dhamma was the Buddha’s term for “discourse”. A discourse represents an attempt on the part of the Buddha, a human person, to formulate in linguistic term or symbol an event, series of events, or state of affairs available to him in a continuum of experience. [28] The way the Buddha utilized the term dhamma for explaining a wide range of ideas, his disciples perceived and distinguished five applications of the term: 1) guna (quality, nature), 2) hetu (cause, condition), 3) nissatta (= nijjīva, truth, non-substantiality), 4) desanā (discourse) and 5) pariyatti (text, canonical text). [29]

For the purpose of analyzing the Brahmanical concept of an “eternal self” in briefest possible dissertation, two of the applications of the term dhamma ‒ nissatta (ni-sattva, “no-self”, “non-substantiality”) and hetu (“cause”) ‒ should suffice for the purpose.
The term dhamma applied as “non-substantiality” (nissatta) highlights the non-foundational position of the Buddha’s doctrine. Non-foundationalism means “non-recognition of a permanent and eternal substance in the explanation of human knowledge, of the nature of the individual, of morals and society, and of linguistic convention.” [30] Thus, the dhamma as nissatta (“non-substantiality”) deconstructs the Brahmanic concept of an eternal self.
The Buddha did not leave the problem of knowledge and experience at the periphery of non-substantiality. After deconstructing the Brahmanical theory of an eternal self with non-substantiality (nissatta), the Buddha reconstructed it with his doctrine of “dependent arising” (paticcasamuppāda). The doctrine of dependent arising is explained by the discourse (dhamma) as hetu (cause, condition) and the Buddha upheld the centrality of dependent arising thus: “He who sees dependent arising perceives the doctrine” (Yo paticasamudppādam passati so dhammam passati). [31]TheBuddha used the concept of dependence for explaining almost every event, substance or phenomenon wherein he refused to perceive any underlying substance, structure, or foundation.

Gautama Buddha promulgated the theory of dependence while giving an answer to a question put forward by a Brahmin named Kaccāyana (Skt. Katyāyana). Since the principle of dependence forms the core of the Buddha’s teachings, it is reproduced hereunder in full as was reported by Ānanda:

    Thus have I heard: The Fortunate One was once living at Sāvatthi, in the monastery of Anāthapindika, in Jeta’s Grove. At that time the venerable Kaccāyana of that clan came to visit him, and saluting him, sat down at one side. So seated, he questioned the Fortunate One: Sir, [people] speak of “right view, right view.” To what extent is there a right view?

This world, Kaccāyana, is generally inclined toward two [views]: existence and non-existence.

To him who perceives with right wisdom the uprising of the world as it has come to be, the notion of non-existence in the world does not occur. Kaccāyana, to him who perceives with right wisdom the ceasing of the world as it has come to be, the notion of existence in the world does not occur.

         The world, for the most part, is bound by approach, grasping, and inclination. And he who does not follow that approach and grasping, that determination of mind, that inclination and disposition, who does not cling to or adhere to a view, “this is my self,” who thinks, “suffering that is subject to arising arises; suffering that is subject to ceasing, ceases” — such a person does not doubt, is not perplexed. Herein, his knowledge is not other dependent. Thus far, Kaccāyana, there is “right view.”
“Everything exists” — this, Kaccāyana, is one extreme.

“Everything does not exist” — this, Kaccāyana, is the second extreme.

“Kaccāyana, without approaching either extreme, the Tathāgata teaches you a doctrine by the middle. Dependent upon ignorance arise dispositions; dependent upon dispositions arises consciousness; dependent upon consciousness arises the psychophysical personality; dependent upon the psychophysical personality arise the six senses; dependent upon the six senses arises contact; dependent upon contact arises feeling; dependent upon feeling arises craving; dependent upon craving arises grasping; dependent upon grasping arises becoming; dependent upon becoming arises birth; dependent upon birth arise old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection and despair. Thus arise the entire mass of suffering.

However, from the utter fading away and ceasing of ignorance, there is ceasing of dispositions; from the ceasing of dispositions, there is ceasing of consciousness; from the ceasing of consciousness, there is ceasing of the psychophysical personality; from the ceasing of the psychophysical personality, there is ceasing of the six senses; from the ceasing of the six senses, there is ceasing of contact; from the ceasing of contact, there is ceasing of feeling; from the ceasing of feeling, there is ceasing of craving; from the ceasing of craving, there is ceasing of grasping; from the ceasing of grasping, there is ceasing of becoming; from the ceasing of becoming, there is ceasing of birth; from the ceasing of birth, there is ceasing of old age and death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection and despair. And thus there is the ceasing of the entire mass of suffering.” [32]

It is ironical that despite the Buddha providing abundant empirical evidences, as is clear from a large number of discourses he dedicated to explaining the theory of dependent arising (paticcasamuppāda); his disciples and the later-day monks and scholars were regularly swayed towards the transcendental absolutist views. This was so because most of the Buddha’s disciples came from the Brahmanic tradition, many of whom were unable to fully shed their Brahmanical absolutist bearings. As such it was their views, propositions, conceptions, theories, ideas, and arguments on the nature and scope of the doctrine (dhamma) that gradually started engulfing the original non-foundational and non-structural teachings of the Buddha. So much so, there have been times in the life of Buddhism when the figure of the Buddha and his teachings started fading away from public memory, existing only as a subaltern thesis of one sramana called Gautama.
It was in situations as these when a number of extremely talented monks and scholars appeared on the scene on a regular basis, all of whom diligently endeavoured to resurrect the personality of the historical Buddha and his doctrine. The names of Moggalīputta-tissa, Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, Buddhaghosa and Diganāga, among other equivalent luminaries, belong to the sacrosanct realm of Buddhist philosophy and history.

In the Footsteps of the Buddha


The first of these remarkable thinkers appeared about two and half centuries after the Buddha. His name is Moggalīputta-tissa and he is credited with the task of formally ushering Emperor Asoka into Buddhism. It was due to his faithful adherence to the original teachings of the Buddha, as also for his utter intellectual brilliance, Moggalīputta-tissa was entrusted by Emperor Asoka (died c. 232 B.C.) to purge the heretical views prevalent in the Sangha and restore the purity of the Buddha’s teachings. For this purpose the Third Buddhist Council (c. 250 B.C.) was convened at Pātaliputra in which 218 vexing doctrinal points were taken up for discussion and scrutiny, most of which pertained to the minor rules of the Sangha. There were, however, three primary controversial philosophical issues that were rampant during the time of the reign of Emperor Asoka. These issues pertained to 1) Vatsiputriya’s conception of a “person” (Pali puggala, Skt. pudgala) [33] 2) Sarvāstivādin’s conception of the real existence of “everything” (sabbam) at all times (sabbadā), and 3) Lokottaravādin’s conception of the Buddha’s transcendence.

Moggalīputta-tissa debated these vexing issues with the three sects of Personalists (Puggalavādins), Realists (Sarvāstivādins) and Transcendentalists (Lokottaravādins) and came on the top with telling consequence. It is said that Tissa’s victory in the debate was followed by an order from Emperor Asoka to disrobe the heretical monks of their holy apparels and dress them up in the white cloths of the laity. The heretical monks were immediately expelled from the Sangha for holding views contrary to the Buddha’s teachings. Moggalīputta-tissa recorded the debate in his Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy) which gained canonical status in no time, and was included into the Theravādin Abhidhamma literature. Kathāvatthu is the only canon that has the distinction of being included in the Abhidhamma Pitaka despite the fact that it is a work by someone other than the Buddha.


 Next was the appearance of Nāgārjuna (c. 150 AD — c. 250 AD), the most celebrated Buddhist monk, scholar and author rolled into one. In the manner Moggalīputta-tissa had rooted for the original teachings of the Buddha, Nāgārjuna also did the same. After reading Prajñāpāramitā-sutra (“Perfection of Wisdom — Sūtra”) which had not existed during Tissa’s time, and entirely satisfied with it, Nāgārjuna asserted himself to go for the “other teachings” of the Buddha. One question naturally arises: where did Nāgārjuna go for the “other teachings” of the Buddha? An allegorical story provides the answer. It says that Nāgārjuna obtained the teachings from the nāgas. This is not surprising, because the Buddha was also referred to as the “great serpent” (mahānāga), the foremost among the nāgas. The title “great serpent”, as well as that of the “great elephant”, symbolised Buddha’s great powers of memory and discrimination; faculties that are attributed to snakes and the elephants. Allegorical element in the story highlights the fact that Nāgārjuna was entirely faithful to the Buddha and his teachings.

This is evident even if we take only one of his many works for perusal — Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle Path). Kārikā is Nāgārjuna’s most significant work which, apart from being an astute analysis of many important discourses of the Buddha, is an exhaustive commentary on Kaccāyanagotta-sutta in which the Buddha’s principal philosophical theory of “dependent arising” (Pali paticcasamuppāda, Skt. pratītyasamutpāda) is enshrined. Furthermore, Nāgārjuna takes up the philosophical issues of the “non-substantiality of elements” (dhammanairātmya) as well as that of the “non-substantiality of person” (puggalanairātmya) for the purpose of examining and, in the process, gifts Buddhism her most elusive philosophical terminology — sūnyatā (“emptiness”). Thus, on the question of the nature of all the dhammas (elements) Kārikā unequivocally restates what the Buddha had originally propounded with the words “All phenomena are non-substantial” (sabbe dhammā anattā).

 Nāgārjuna also established a school of thought, later called Madhyamaka, [34] for the purpose of propagating the Middle Path doctrine of the Buddha in all its correctness. In about 6th century AD, Madhyamaka School bifurcated into two strands − Prasangika and Svātantrika − both of which, along with Vajrayāna Buddhism, found their respective ways into Tibet and other countries in Asia in the subsequent centuries.

Working tirelessly Nāgārjuna brought the original teachings of the Buddha to the center stage of Buddhist endeavour of the second and the third century AD India. Due to his non-sectarian attitude and non-polemical views Nāgārjuna is equally respected in both the Theravāda and the Mahāyāna traditions.


 It has been a habit with the general body of Buddhist scholars, ancient or modern, to confine themselves only to their own school of thought without even glancing at the literatures and philosophies of the other schools. This is not considered a sound scholarship. To a great extent, both Mahāyāna and Theravāda Schools have always been bogged down with narrow sectarian scholasticism. But, thankfully, this has not always been an absolute condition. In the ancient times there appeared truly outstanding scholars who crossed such sectarian divide in their quest for the original teachings of the Buddha. One such scholar was Vasubandhu (c. 450 — c. 530 AD) who, overriding acute sectarianism of his day, dedicated himself to the restoration of the Buddha’s teachings.

Vasubandhu began his philosophical career by studying Vibhāsā, a commentarial work on Abhidhamma literature belonging to the Sarvāstivādin fold, and wrote down his opinion about it in his famous Abhidharmakosa. Sarvāstivāda School propounded the theory of “everything exists” (sabbam atthi) as its essential philosophical summum bonum. When Vasubandhu compared the Sarvāstivādin doctrine of “everything exists” with that of Sautrāntika’s thesis of “momentary existence” (ksanavāda), he chose the latter. Obviously Vasubandhu might have felt Sautrāntika’s statement of “there is not even a moment when phenomena (dhamma) remains in order to be identified” was close enough to the Buddha’s teaching of “impermanence” (Pali aniccatā, Skt. anityatā). However, Sautrāntika’s recognition of “static moment” (sthitiksana) also violated the Buddha’s concept of impermanence, be these eternal or momentary. As such, after deeply pondering over and analyzing the proposition of ksanavāda, which is a form of empirical atomism, Vasubandhu found the theory of “moment” (ksana) greatly incapable of explaining the phenomena (dhamma) as having “dependently arisen” (Pali paticcasamuppanna, Skt. pratītyasamutpanna).

This was the reason for Vasubandhu’s great leap from Theravāda to Mahāyāna. On insistence from Asanga, his half brother and a redoubtable scholar, Vasubandhu joined the Mahāyāna School of Yogācāra, and brought out his most sophisticated philosophical work called “Establishment of Mere Conception” (Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi). Vasubandhu’s other significant works are Vimśatikā and Trimśikā. Within the confine of a meager “Twenty-two Verses” (Vimśatikā) Vasubandhu skillfully examines the two metaphysical views of eternalism and nihilism that had always been a bone of contention between the various schools of thought. In “Thirty Verses” (Trimśikā) he expounds the whole gamut of the Buddha’s teachings as embodied in innumerable discourses.

Vasubandhu’s chief philosophical statement reads as “‘All this is mere conception” (Vijñapti-mātram evaitad). [35] In many ways “Establishment of Mere Conception” is considered to be an outstanding work by an equally outstanding scholar. It requires not only a complete mastery over the entire body of Buddhist invigoration but also a thorough understanding of the Buddha’s method of language application to successfully abstract them into a mere fifty-two verses as Vasubandhu accomplishes in Vimśatikā and Trimśikā. In the annals of Buddhist history, Vasubandhu is one such master whose academic contribution to Buddhism has remained unsurpassed. His shift from Sarvāstivāda to Sautrāntika and, finally, to Mahāyāna’s Yogācāra School is a classic example of how some ancient thinkers were driven by an inner zeal to uncover the original teachings of the Buddha. In the process, the cause of Buddhism has stood to gain.


In the line of illustrious philosophers and scholars who attempted to remain faithful to the original teachings of the Buddha, the names of Buddhaghosa and Dignāga also figure quite prominently. It is unfortunate that full accounts of the lives of almost all the ancient scholars are cloaked in mystery. It requires patient perusal of different sources of information to draw a credible sketch of the earlier part of their lives. It is through such diligent academic exercise we are able to piece together the fact that Buddhaghosa (5th century AD) was probably a resident of Bodhgayā. [36] He studied Buddhism in Nāgārjunakonda, a great center of Buddhist learning in those centuries, and went to Sri Lanka where he sought to translate Sinhalese commentaries into Pali for the benefit of the Indian monks.

Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka by Mahindra (Pali Mahinda), Emperor Asoka’s son, and four monks from India. Devānampiya-tissa, the king of the island nation, constructed a temple in the capital city of Anurādhapura for Mahindra and the accompanying monks. This temple, named Mahāvihāra, became the centre of Theravāda or Sthavira learning in Sri Lanka.

Mahāyāna made its first appearance in Sri Lanka during the reign of king Vohārika-tissa (269 — 291) [37] by way of a crusade to convert the Theravādin island nation. It was not a successful campaign. King Vohārika-tissa, on insistence from the Mahāvihāra monks, suppressed the Mahāyāna doctrine, branding it to be a “heretical teaching” (vaitulyavāda), and expelled the whole lot of Mahāyāna crusaders from the country. However, Mahāyāna made its second appearance in Sri Lanka during the reign of king Gothābhaya (309 — 322) and associated itself with Abhayagiri group of monks who had broken away from the Mahāvihāra group. The Abhayagiri fold seems to have received Mahāyāna with some favour because of their close proximity to the doctrine of the Sautrāntikas [38] who were considered to have arrived “at the portals of Vaipulyaśāstra” or, in other words, at the periphery of Mahāyāna doctrine. Like Vohārika-tissa before him, Gothābhaya also suppressed the Mahāyāna movement, burnt their scriptures and drove out about sixty of their leaders from the island. Many of the exiled monks settled down in the Chola territory in South India where they met a dynamic young monk named Sanghamitra who was to play a significant role in Sri Lanka vis-à-vis Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Sanghamitra visited Sri Lanka during the reign of king Mahāsena (334 - 362) with whom the young monk developed a close kinship. Coming under the influence of a dynamic personality like Sanghamitra, Mahāsena was lured into campaigning in favour of Mahāyāna Buddhism in the island nation. He acted with brutal force against the Mahāvihāra establishment and destroyed many of their buildings, including the majestic seven-storey Lopapasada (the Brazen Palace). Materials from the destructed site were taken to Abhayagiri for constructing new buildings. Under such tyrannical pressure Mahāvihāra monks fled to the south of the country to escape persecution. Mahāvihāra remained deserted for about one decade. It was due to Meghavanna-Abhaya, a close friend of Mahāsena, who raised a considerable force to take Mahāvihāra back that the king came to his senses. He regretted his action and gave his word to rebuild the Theravādin Mahāvihāra complex to its former glory.

Such was the scenario of religious strife in Sri Lanka when Buddhaghosa set his foot on the island nation during the reign of king Mahānāma (409 — 431). The Theravādin monks of Mahāvihāra were extremely suspicious of the Indian monk’s intentions. Mahānāma himself was inclined towards Mahāyāna doctrine and had built several monasteries for the Abhayagiri monks. [39] However, hostility between the Mahāvihāra and the Abhayagiri groups kept simmering for a long time. Many modern Buddhist scholars believe that it was during this prolonged period of animosity the Mahāyānists first applied the deprecating term “inferior vehicle” (hīnayāna) to degrade the Theravādins. Theravādins were not to be silenced into submission by such polemical rhetoric of the so-called Mahāyānists. They retorted back by calling the Mahāyāna sect a “heretical school” (vaitulyavāda) for their absolutist and transcendental bearings. The chief weapon utilized by the Mahāyānist group while seeking to convert the island nation is said to be the Lankāvatāra-sūtra or “Discourse on the Descent into Lanka Sūtra”; literally “Entering into Lanka.”

When Buddhaghosa made his appearance in Sri Lanka, the Mahāvihāra monks were not kindly disposed towards him. The Mahāvihāra library was kept out of bound for Buddhaghosa till he was able to prove his worth as a serious, non-polemical and non-sectarian monk. Having to work in such an inhospitable environ, Buddhaghosa was astute enough to conduct his affairs in a non-partisan manner. He never raised controversial issues in his works. When he started writing his many commentaries he never touched those issues that would breach the uneasy truce between the two camps. Instead, his Visuddhimagga (“The Path of Purification”) and other commentarial works show how he harmoniously blended different views without arousing needless anxiety in the Mahāvihāra and the Abhayagiri community of monks. It is for this reason he is most aptly called “Buddhaghosa, the Harmonizer”.

Buddhaghosa is not considered to be an original thinker. His talent lay somewhere else. He possessed incredible depth of knowledge regarding the myriad streams of Buddhism: the early discourses, Theravādin commentaries, doctrines promulgated by schools like Sautrāntika, Sarvāstivāda, Mādhyamika, and Yogācāra. On top of it Buddhaghosa’s forte was in the field of analysis and synthesis. As such, Visuddhimagga (“Purification of the Path”), Buddhaghosa’s most noteworthy work, deals in detailed analysis and synthesis of the Buddha’s discourses, as well as ideas proposed by the diverse schools of Buddhism, about which, as per the history’s verdict, he possessed awesome knowledge.


It is said about Dignāga (c. 480 — 540) that he was probably a native of Kanci in South India. He was reared in the metaphysical ideology of Vastiputriya, a school of the Personalists (Puggalavādins) corollary to Sammitīyas. Vastiputriya’s doctrine propounded the Ātmaka theory which maintained that the soul passes from one existence to another. In this respect the Ātmaka theory was dangerously close to the Upanishadic conception of a transmigrating “spiritual self”. The only difference was that, while the Upanishadic self or soul was deemed to be eternal and permanent, therefore, not susceptible to change, the Vastiputriya’s conception of soul (Ātmaka), treated on an equal footing with the aggregates (skanda) — body, feeling, perception, disposition and consciousness — was susceptible to change. Vastiputriyas called this changing soul puggala (“person”), differentiating it from the “no-self” (anatta) doctrine of the Buddha. Not satisfied with the Ātmaka theory, Dignāga renounced the Vastiputriya School and hit the road in search of the original teachings of the Buddha.

Upon hitting the road, Dignāga travelled towards north India where he met Vasubandhu and, eventually, ended up becoming his pupil. Dignāga turned out to be the most illustrious student of Vasubandhu. He possessed the cool intellect of a logician’s mind and a great inclination for debating. Although bracketed as a logician, Dignāga was first and foremost an epistemologist. His extensive use of the theory of knowledge, particularly its aspects of methods and validation in analyzing philosophical literatures, stands as proof of his linguistic profundity. It is immensely creditable of Dignāga how he utilized the theory of knowledge in many of his debates with the Brahmins and the Buddhists alike to validate the original teachings of the Buddha.

A Kaleidoscopic View

The long march undertaken by Moggalīputta-tissa, Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu, Buddhaghosa and Dignāga for the purpose of resurrecting, preserving and propagating the original teachings of the Buddha lasted for about eight hundred years. There were others, equally talented and dedicated monks and scholars who also worked for the same noble cause. However, their identity is greatly eclipsed by the larger than life figures of Moggalīputta-tissa and others named in the foregoing paragraphs. One such person was Maitreya. He is traditionally believed to be the founder of Yogācāra School, but both Maitreya and his school were almost completely shadowed by the great figure of Nāgārjuna who, in many Buddhist traditions, including Tibetan Lamaism, is hailed as the Second Buddha. Yogācāra School was brought into prominence by Asanga, half brother of Vasubandhu from Takshasila, on whose insistence the latter joined Yogācāra School. It is due to the combined efforts of all such remarkable people that the teachings of the Buddha have reached us unblemished.

(F) Analysis of Peace 

Alongwith the Middle Path view in Buddhism, a wide range of absolutist views also exists in other philosophical traditions and ancient religions (sanātana dharmas). This is the convention of the world (Pali loka-sammuti, Skt. loka-samvrti). This is so, because we, and all the dhammas, exist on a relativistic plane where each and every phenomenon is accompanied by their complementing opposites. Hence, if there were no opposing absolute (parama) views in Brahmanism and Materialism, there would not have been a middle path view in Buddhism. Those who are unable to comprehend the complementary nature of the phenomena often find it hard to accommodate the “other view” and, thus, fall into anxiety and turmoil that leads to conflict with one’s own self and with the others. Thus, peace is breached in the world.

In the sūtra called “Analysis of Peace” (Arana-vibhanga sutta), the Buddha speaks of a “peaceful path” (arana-patipada) and a “warring path” (sarana-patipada). The Buddha explained the “warring path” as the presence of “lust” (Pali tanhā, Skt. trishnā), “hatred” (Pali dosa, Skt. dwesa) and “confusion” (moha) in a human person, which he called “constraints.” It is the absence of these constraints in a human person that the Buddha taught as the “peaceful path.” The Buddha further explained the “warring path” as arising due to dogmatic and extremist attitude towards concepts and languages, whereas the “peaceful path” is the product of a non-dogmatic and non-extremist attitude towards the same. The sūtra on “Analysis of Peace” treats the “warring path” as “bondage” (dukha; “sorrow’”) and the “‘peaceful path” as “freedom” (sukha; “happiness”) from such bondage.


Whenever a person finds oneself in a crisis situation that leads towards the “warring path,” one enlightened stroll on the Middle Path (majjhimamagga) is what the Buddha prescribes for achieving peace (arana) of mind and body for the sake of happiness of the self and that of the world.

This is one message that is most relevant in today’s crisis ridden world.

                         * * * * *

(Author: Mandeep Lama has been keen on studying comparative religions from an early age. Being a Buddhist, he was naturally inclined towards studying that pathway. His father, late Chandraman Lama, was an accomplished lama (Buddhist scholar), who regularly discoursed on the intricacies of Mahayana Buddhism. Presently, Mandeep Lama is Promoters Director for National Multi-State Electricity Users’ & Producers’ Cooperative Society Limited, Sikkim)

[1The first of the two dissensions that arose during the lifetime of the Buddha consists of an animosity between the two teachers, their students, and the lay followers of the Dhammadhara and the Vinayadhara sects active in Kosambi. It so happened that one day the Dhammadhara teacher inadvertently committed a very light offence and, when it was pointed out to him, he immediately expressed his regret. However, the Vinayadhara teacher talked about it with his students and the lay devotees. The Dhammadhara group was offended by the insensitivity of the Vinayadhara group, which they took as a provocative act. This incidence created a deep cleavage between the two groups. The Buddha intervened but, when both the groups refused to yield, he retired to the nearby forest in sheer disgust. This action by the Buddha brought the two dissenting groups to their senses and, eventually, settled their dispute. This episode cannot strictly be called a sanghabheda (fissure in the Sangha) but it showed possibility of discord in the Sangha.

 The second dissension was initiated by Devadatta who was in disagreement with the manner in which the Middle Path Doctrine of the Buddha was practiced. He insisted that Buddhist monks should revert to the tougher ideals of the more traditional ascetics. He proposed five new rules to be appropriated in the vinaya, viz., 1) monks should live in the forests rather than in the vihāras during the monsoon, 2) monks should rely solely on alms and must not accept invitations to eat at the houses of lay patrons, 3) monks should only wear cast-off rags picked from the streets, 4) monks should sleep in the open instead of the huts, and 5) monks should never eat flesh of any living being (Vinaya: Cullavagga, 7.3).

[2A History of Buddhist Philosophy, Kalupahana, p. 6.

[3Dīgha Nikāya 2.123 — 126; Anguttara Nikāya 2.126

[4Quoted in A History of Indian Buddhism, Hirakawa Akira, p. 80, tr. Paul Groner.

[5Lokottaravāda or the Transcendental School of Mahāsanghikas developed leaning towards Mahāyānism and, in fact, paved the way for the advent of the Mahāyāna School.

[6For extensive details on various schools, refer to Buddhist Sects In India by Nalinaksha Dutta, and, A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna by Hirakawa Akira.

[7The full form is samayabhedoparacanacakra.

[8Lotus Sūtra forms the central body of the Northern Buddhism’s Vaipulya (from vipula, meaning “great” or “comprehensive”) literature which also contains Sarvāstivādin’s Lalitavistara and Mahāvastu, and the Mahāyānic Lankāvtāra-sūtra.

[9Dharinis are tantras recited as mantras.

[10Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the True Dharma (the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese by Kumarajiva), tr. Leon Hurtvitz; v. 46.

[11Arguably Lankāvtāra-sūtra was composed around 4th century AD.

[12The Lankāvtāra Sūtra, tr. D. T. Suzuki, pp. 16 — 17.

[13Majjhima — Nikāya, 1.428

[14As opposed to the idea of “absolute knowledge” (parama-jññāna), the Skeptics (sansayavādins), whose traces can be found even in the older verses of Rig-Veda like Nāsadīya-sūkta, believed that human knowledge cannot be trusted upon to grasp the ultimate truth. Hence, Skeptics approached the subject of knowledge with doubt, caution and lots of questions.

[15A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities, Kalupahana, p. 122.

[16Brhadāranyaka Upanishad.

[17Majjhima Nikāya, 3.230, ref: Buddhist Psychology, Kalupahana, pp. 156 - 157.


[19Abhidharmikas are those monks and scholars who followed Abhidharma method of examining the Buddha’s discourses.

[20See chapter on “Abhidharma Literature” in Hirakawa Akira’s A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahāyāna; tr. Paul Groner, p. 127.

[21Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma: 1) Sangitiparyaya (Discourses on Gathering Together, 2) Dhatukāya (Body of Elements), 3) Prajñāptisāstra (Treatise on Designation), 4) Dharmaskandha (Agrregation of Dharmas), 5) Jijñānakāya (Body of Consciousness), and 5) Prakaranpada (Exposition). Some sources also add Jñānaprasthana (Foundation of Knowledge) to this list.

 Theravādin Abhidhamma: 1) Dhammasangini (Enumeration of Dhammas or Ethical Psychology), 2) Vibhanga (The Book of Analysis), 3) Dhātukathā (Discourse on Elements) 4) Puggalapannati (Description of Person/Individual), Kathāvattu (Points of Controversy), 6) Yamaka (Book of Pairs), and 7) Patthana (Conditional Relations).

[22There are two Abhidharma texts In the Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, viz., 1) Abhidharmsamuccaya (Compendium of Higher Knowledge) by Asanga, and 2), Abhidharmakosa (Treasury of Higher Knowledge) by Vasubandhu. 

[23Majjhima Nikāya 3.230 ff.

[24Quoted in A Policy of Kindness, Dalai Lama, P. 67.

[25The Tantric View of Life, H. V. Guenther, p. 105.

[26Majjhima Nikāya 1.231; Dīgha Nikāya 1.95.

[27Since brahmana is formless and attributeless, it is too Abstract a concept for explaining its role as the source of the creation. As such, the Brahmanical sages needed to invent a more recognizable icon for visible reference. Thus the concept of Brahma, a manifestation of brahmana, came into play in Brahmanism. In the Brahmanic pantheon Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva form the holy trinity.

[28Chapter on Language and Communication; A History of Buddhist Philosophy, Kalupahana, p. 60.

[29Dīgha Nikāya—Atthakathā 1.199; Dhammapadatthakathā 1.22.

[30A History of Buddhist Philosophy, Kalupahana, P. 64.

[31Majjhima Nikāya 1. 190 — 191.

[32The Kaccāyanagotta-sutta quoted in Samyutta Nikāya 2.16 - 17.

[33Pali language treats the term puggala as “individual”.

[34Having been germinated in the fertile field of Lokottaravāda, Mahayana Buddhism bifurcated into Madhyamaka and Yogācāra Schools. Yogācāra group upheld the “Mind Only” (ālaya-viññāna) thesis, whereas Madhyamaka School adopted the Middle Path (mādhyamika) doctrine.

[35Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi, Vasubandhu, p. 1.

[36Traditionally this conclusion has been based on the Sri Lankan chronicle Cūlavamsa (13th century) and Buddhaghosa’s biography, Buddhaghosuppatti, compiled by the Burmese monk Mahāmangala in the early 15th century.

[37Buddhism in Ceylon, Adikaram, p. 93.

[38Schools of Buddhism in Early Ceylon, Kalupahana in Ceylon Journal of the Humanities, Peradeniya: I (1970): 159 - 190.

[39Buddhism in Ceylon, Adikaram, p. 93.

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