A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of mahayanism: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the eleventh part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 11 - Mahāyānism

It is difficult to say precisely at what time Mahayanism took its rise. But there is reason to think that as the Mahāsaṅghikas separated themselves from the Theravādins probably some time in 400 B.C. and split themselves up into eight different schools, those elements of thoughts and ideas which in later days came to be labelled as Mahāyāna were gradually on the way to taking their first inception. We hear in about 100 A.D. of a number of works which are regarded as various Mahāyāna sūtras, some of which are probably as old as at least 100 B.C. (if not earlier) and others as late as 300 or 400 A.D.[1]. These Mahāyānasūtras, also called the Vaipulyasūtras, are generally all in the form of instructions given by the Buddha. Nothing is known about their authors or compilers, but they are all written in some form of Sanskrit and were probably written by those who seceded from the Theravāda school.

The word Hīnayāna refers to the schools of Theravāda, and as such it is contrasted with Mahāyāna. The words are generally translated as small vehicle (hīna= small, yāna = vehicle) and great vehicle (mahā = great, yāna — vehicle). But this translation by no means expresses what is meant by Mahāyāna and Hinayāna[2]. Asaṅga (480 A.D.) in his Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra gives us the reason why one school was called Hīnayāna whereas the other, which he professed, was called Mahāyāna. He says that, considered from the point of view of the ultimate goal of religion, the instructions, attempts, realization, and time, the Hīnayāna occupies a lower and smaller place than the other called Mahā (great) Yāna, and hence it is branded as Hīna (small, or low). This brings us to one of the fundamental points of distinction between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna.

The ultimate good of an adherent of the Hīnayāna is to attain his own nirvāṇa or salvation, whereas the ultimate goal of those who professed the Mahāyāna creed was not to seek their own salvation but to seek the salvation of all beings. So the Hīnayāna goal was lower, and in consequence of that the instructions that its followers received, the attempts they undertook, and the results they achieved were narrower than that of the Mahāyāna adherents. A Hīnayāna man had only a short business in attaining his own salvation, and this could be done in three lives, whereas a Mahāyāna adherent was prepared to work for infinite time in helping all beings to attain salvation. So the Hīnayāna adherents required only a short period of work and may from that point of view also be called hīna , or lower.

This point, though important from the point of view of the difference in the creed of the two schools, is not so from the point of view of philosophy. But there is another trait of the Mahāyānists which distinguishes them from the Hīnayānists from the philosophical point of view. The Mahāyānists believed that all things were of a non-essential and indefinable character and void at bottom, whereas the Hīnayānists only believed in the impermanence of all things, but did not proceed further than that.

It is sometimes erroneously thought that Nāgārjuna first preached the doctrine of Śūnyavāda (essencelessness or voidness of all appearance), but in reality almost all the Mahāyāna sūtras either definitely preach this doctrine or allude to it. Thus if we take some of those sūtras which were in all probability earlier than Nāgārjuna, we find that the doctrine which Nāgārjuna expounded with all the rigour of his powerful dialectic was quietly accepted as an indisputable truth. Thus we find Subhūti saying to the Buddha that vedanā (feeling), saṃjñā (concepts) and the saṃskāras (conformations) are all māyā (illusion)[3]. All the skandhas, dhātus (elements) and āyatanas are void and absolute cessation. The highest knowledge of everything as pure void is not different from the skandhas, dhātus and āyatanas, and this absolute cessation of dharmas is regarded as the highest knowledge (prajñāpāramitā)[4]. Everything being void there is in reality no process and no cessation. The truth is neither eternal (śāśvata) nor non-eternal (aśāśvata) but pure void. It should be the object of a saint’s endeavour to put himself in the “thatness” (tathata) and consider all things as void.

The saint (bodhisattva) has to establish himself in all the virtues (pāramitā),

  1. benevolence (dāna-pāramitā),
  2. the virtue of character (śīlapāramitā),
  3. the virtue of forbearance (kṣāntipāramitā),
  4. the virtue of tenacity and strength (vīryyapāramitā)
  5. and the virtue of meditation (dhyānapāramita).

The saint (bodhisattva) is firmly determined that he will help an infinite number of souls to attain nirvāṇa. In reality, however, there are no beings, there is no bondage, no salvation ; and the saint knows it but too well, yet he is not afraid of this high truth, but proceeds on his career of attaining for all illusory beings illusory emancipation from illusory bondage. The saint is actuated with that feeling and proceeds in his work on the strength of his pāramitās, though in reality there is no one who is to attain salvation in reality and no one who is to help him to attain it[5]. The true prajñāpāramitā is the absolute cessation of all appearance (yaḥ anupalambhaḥ sarva-dharmāṇām sa prajñāpāramitā ityucyate)[6].

The Mahāyāna doctrine has developed on two lines, viz. that of Śūnyavāda or the Mādhyamika doctrine and Vijñānavāda. The difference between Śūnyavāda and Vijñānavāda (the theory that there is only the appearance of phenomena of consciousness) is not fundamental, but is rather one of method. Both of them agree in holding that there is no truth in anything, everything is only passing appearance akin to dream or magic. But while the Śūnyavādins were more busy in showing this indefinableness of all phenomena, the Vijñānavādins, tacitly accepting the truth preached by the Śūnyavādins, interested themselves in explaining the phenomena of consciousness by their theory of beginningless illusory root-ideas or instincts of the mind (vāsana).

Aśvaghoṣa (100 A.D.) seems to have been the greatest teacher of a new type of idealism (vijñānavāda) known as the Tathatā philosophy. Trusting in Suzuki’s identification of a quotation in Aśvaghoṣa’s Sraddhotpādaśāstra as being made from Lañkāva-tārasūtra, we should think of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra as being one of the early works of the Vijñānavādins[7]. The greatest later writer of the Vijñānavāda school was Asaṅga (400 A.D.), to whom are attributed the Saptadaśabhūmi sūtra, Mahāyāna sūtra, Upadeśa, Mahāyānasamparigraha śāstra, Yogācārabhūmi śāstra and Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra. None of these works excepting the last one is available to readers who have no access to the Chinese and Tibetan manuscripts, as the Sanskrit originals are in all probability lost.

The Vijñānavāda school is known to Hindu writers by another name also, viz. Yogācāra, and it does not seem an improbable supposition that Asaṅga’s Yogācārabhūmi śāstra was responsible for the new name. Vasubandhu, a younger brother of Asaṅga, was, as Paramārtha (499-569) tells us, at first a liberal Sarvāstivādin, but was converted to Vijñānavāda, late in his life, by Asaṅga. Thus Vasubandhu, who wrote in his early life the great standard work of the Sarvāstivādins, Abhidharmakośa, devoted himself in his later life to Vijñānavāda[8]. He is said to have commented upon a number of Mahāyāna sūtras, such asAvatainsaka, Nirvāna, Saddharmapun-darīka, Prajñāpāramitā , Vimalakīrtti and Srīmālāsim/ianāda, and compiled some Mahāyāna sūtras, such as Vijñānamātrasiddhi, Ratnatraya, etc. The school of Vijñānavāda continued for at least a century or two after Vasubandhu, but we are not in possession of any work of great fame of this school after him.

We have already noticed that the Śūnyavāda formed the fundamental principle of all schools of Mahāyāna. The most powerful exponent of this doctrine was Nāgārjuna (100 A.D.), a brief account of whose system will be given in its proper place. Nāgārjuna’s kārikās (verses) were commented upon by Aryyadeva, a disciple of his, Kumārajlva (383 A.D.), Buddhapālita and Candrakīrtti (550 A.D.). Aryyadeva in addition to this commentary wrote at least three other books, viz. Catuhśataka, Hastabālaprakaraṇavṛtti and Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa[9]. In the small work called Hastabālaprakaraṇavṛtti Aryyadeva says that whatever depends for its existence on anything else may be proved to be illusory; all our notions of external objects depend on space perceptions and notions of part and whole and should therefore be regarded as mere appearance. Knowing therefore that all that is dependent on others for establishing itself is illusory, no wise man should feel attachment or antipathy towards these mere phenomenal appearances. In his Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa he says that just as a crystal appears to be coloured, catching the reflection of a coloured object, even so the mind though in itself colourless appears to show diverse colours by coloration of imagination (vikalpa). In reality the mind (citta) without a touch of imagination {kalpana) in it is the pure reality.

It does not seem however that the Śūnyavādins could produce any great writers after Candrakīrtti. References to Śūnyavāda show that it was a living philosophy amongst the Hindu writers until the time of the great Mīmamsā authority Kumārila who flourished in the eighth century; but in later times the Śūnyavādins were no longer occupying the position of strong and active disputants.

The Tathatā Philosophy of Aśvaghosa (80 A.D.)[10].

Aśvaghoṣa was the son of a Brahmin named Saimhaguhya who spent his early days in travelling over the different parts of India and defeating the Buddhists in open debates. He was probably converted to Buddhism by Pārśva who was an important person in the third Buddhist Council promoted, according to some authorities, by the King of Kashmere and according to other authorities by Puṇyayaśas[11].

He held that in the soul two aspects may be distinguished — the aspect as thatness (bhūtatathatā) and the aspect as the cycle of birth and death (saṃsāra). The soul as bhūtatathatā means the oneness of the totality of all things (dharmadhātu). Its essential nature is uncreate and external. All things simply on account of the beginningless traces of the incipient and unconscious memory of our past experiences of many previous lives (smṛti) appear under the forms of individuation[12].

If we could overcome this smṛti

“the signs of individuation would disappear and there would be no trace of a world of objects.”

“All things in their fundamental nature are not nameable or explicable. They cannot be adequately expressed in any form of language. They possess absolute sameness (samatā). They are subject neither to transformation nor to destruction. They are nothing but one soul”

—thatness (bhūtatathatā). This “thatness” has no attribute and it can only be somehow pointed out in speech as “thatness.” As soon as you understand that when the totality of existence is spoken of or thought of, there is neither that which speaks nor that which is spoken of, there is neither that which thinks nor that which is thought of, “this is the stage of thatness.” This bhūtatathatā is neither that which is existence, nor that which is non-existence, nor that which is at once existence and nonexistence, nor that which is not at once existence and non-existence; it is neither that which is plurality, nor that which is at once unity and plurality, nor that which is not at once unity and plurality. It is a negative concept in the sense that it is beyond all that is conditional and yet it is a positive concept in the sense that it holds all within it.

It cannot be comprehended by any kind of particularization or distinction. It is only by transcending the range of our intellectual categories of the comprehension of the limited range of finite phenomena that we can get a glimpse of it. It cannot be comprehended by the particularizing consciousness of all beings, and we thus may call it negation, “śūnyatā,” in this sense. The truth is that which subjectively does not exist by itself, that the negation (śūnyatā) is also void (śūnya) in its nature, that neither that which is negated nor that which negates is an independent entity. It is the pure soul that manifests itself as eternal, permanent, immutable, and completely holds all things within it. On that account it may be called affirmation.

But yet there is no trace of affirmation in it, because it is not the product of the creative instinctive memory (smṛti) of conceptual thought and the only way of grasping the truth—the thatness, is by transcending all conceptual creations.

“The soul as birth and death (saṃsāra) comes forth from the Tathāgata womb (tathāgatagarbha), the ultimate reality. But the immortal and the mortal coincide with each other. Though they are not identical they are not duality either. Thus when the absolute soul assumes a relative aspect by its selfaffirmation it is called the all-conserving mind (ālayavijñāna).

It embraces two principles,

  1. enlightenment,
  2. non-enlightenment.

Enlightenment is the perfection of the mind when it is free from the corruptions of the creative instinctive incipient memory (smṛti). It penetrates all and is the unity of all (dharma-dhātu). That is to say, it is the universal dharmakāya of all Tathāgatas constituting the ultimate foundation of existence.

“When it is said that all consciousness starts from this fundamental truth, it should not be thought that consciousness had any real origin, for it was merely phenomenal existence—a mere imaginary creation of the perceivers under the influence of the delusive smṛti. The multitude of people (bahujana) are said to be lacking in enlightenment, because ignorance (avidyā) prevails there from all eternity, because there is a constant succession of smṛti (past confused memory working as instinct) from which they have never been emancipated.

But when they are divested of this smṛti they can then recognize that no states of mentation, viz. their appearance, presence, change and disappearance, have any reality. They are neither in a temporal nor in a spatial relation with the one soul, for they are not self-existent.

“This high enlightenment shows itself imperfectly in our corrupted phenomenal experience as prajñā (wisdom) and karma (incomprehensible activity of life). By pure wisdom we understand that when one, by virtue of the perfuming power of dharma, disciplines himself truthfully (i.e. according to the dharma) and accomplishes meritorious deeds, the mind (i.e. the ālayavijñāna) which implicates itself with birth and death will be broken down and the modes of the evolving consciousness will be annulled, and the pure and the genuine wisdom of the Dharmakāya will manifest itself.

Though all modes of consciousness and mentation are mere products of ignorance, ignorance in its ultimate nature is identical and non-identical with enlightenment; and therefore ignorance is in one sense destructible, though in another sense it is indestructible.

This may be illustrated by the simile of the water and the waves which are stirred up in the ocean. Here the water can be said to be both identical and non-identical with the waves. The waves are stirred up by the wind, but the water remains the same. When the wind ceases the motion of the waves subsides, but the water remains the same. Likewise when the mind of all creatures, which in its own nature is pure and clean, is stirred up by the wind of ignorance (avidyā), the waves of mentality (vijñāna) make their appearance.

These three (i.e. the mind, ignorance, and mentality) however have no existence, and they are neither unity nor plurality. When the ignorance is annihilated, the awakened mentality is tranquillized, whilst the essence of the wisdom remains unmolested.”

The truth or the enlightenment

“is absolutely unobtainable by any modes of relativity or by any outward signs of enlightenment. All events in the phenomenal world are reflected in enlightenment, so that they neither pass out of it, nor enter into it, and they neither disappear nor are destroyed.”

It is for ever cut off from the hindrances both affectional (kleśāvarana) and intellectual (jñeyāvarana), as well as from the mind (i.e. ālayavijñāna) which implicates itself with birth and death, since it is in its true nature clean, pure, eternal, calm, and immutable. The truth again is such that it transforms and unfolds itself wherever conditions are favourable in the form of a tathāgata or in some other forms, in order that all beings may be induced thereby to bring their virtue to maturity.

“Non-elightenment has no existence of its own aside from its relation with enlightenment a priori .”

But enlightenment a priori is spoken of only in contrast to non-enlightenment, and as nonenlightenment is a non-entity, true enlightenment in turn loses its significance too. They are distinguished only in mutual relation as enlightenment or non-enlightenment.

The manifestations of non-enlightenment are made in three ways:

  1. as a disturbance of the mind (ālayavijñāna), by the avidyākarma (ignorant action), producing misery (duhkha);
  2. by the appearance of an ego or of a perceiver;
  3. and by the creation of an external world which does not exist in itself, independent of the perceiver.

Conditioned by the unreal external world six kinds of phenomena arise in succession.

  1. The first phenomenon is intelligence (sensation); being affected by the external world the mind becomes conscious of the difference between the agreeable and the disagreeable.
  2. The second phenomenon is succession. Following upon intelligence, memory retains the sensations, agreeable as well as disagreeable, in a continuous succession of subjective states.
  3. The third phenomenon is clinging. Through the retention and succession of sensations, agreeable as well as disagreeable, there arises the desire of clinging.
  4. The fourth phenomenon is an attachment to names or ideas (saṃjñā), etc. By clinging the mind hypostatizes all names whereby to give definitions to all things.
  5. The fifth phenomenon is the performance of deeds (karma). On account of attachment to names, etc., there arise all the variations of deeds, productive of individuality.
  6. “The sixth phenomenon is the suffering due to the fetter of deeds. Through deeds suffering arises in which the mind finds itself entangled and curtailed of its freedom.”

All these phenomena have thus sprung forth through avidyā.

The relation between this truth and avidyā is in one sense a mere identity and may be illustrated by the simile of all kinds of pottery which though different are all made of the same clay[13]. Likewise the undefiled (anāsravd) and ignorance (avidyā) and their various transient forms all come from one and the same entity. Therefore Buddha teaches that all beings are from all eternity abiding in nirvāṇa.

It is by the touch of ignorance (avidyā) that this truth assumes all the phenomenal forms of existence.

In the all-conserving mind (ālayavijñāna) ignorance manifests itself; and from non-enlightenment starts that which sees, that which represents, that which apprehends an objective world, and that which constantly particularizes. This is called ego (manas).

Five different names are given to the ego (according to its different modes of operation).

  1. The first name is activity-conscious-ness (karmavijñāna) in the sense that through the agency of ignorance an unenlightened mind begins to be disturbed (or awakened).
  2. The second name is evolving-consciousness (pravrtti-vijñāna) in the sense that when the mind is disturbed, there evolves that which sees an external world.
  3. The third name is representation-consciousness in the sense that the ego (manas) represents (or reflects) an external world. As a clean mirror reflects the images of all description, it is even so with the representation-consciousness. When it is confronted, for instance, with the objects of the five senses, it represents them instantaneously and without effort.
  4. The fourth is particularization-consciousness, in the sense that it discriminates between different things defiled as well as pure.
  5. The fifth name is succession-consciousness, in the sense that continuously directed by the awakening consciousness of attention (manaskāra) it (manas) retains all experiences and never loses or suffers the destruction of any karma, good as well as evil, which had been sown in the past, and whose retribution, painful or agreeable, it never fails to mature, be it in the present or in the future, and also in the sense that it unconsciously recollects things gone by and in imagination anticipates things to come.

Therefore the three domains (kāmaloka, domain of feeling— rūpaloka , domain of bodily existence— arūpaloka , domain of incorporeality) are nothing but the self manifestation of the mind (i.e. ālayavijñāna which is practically identical with bhūtatathatā). Since all things, owing the principle of their existence to the mind (ālayavijñāna), are produced by smṛti, all the modes of particularization are the self-particularizations of the mind. The mind in itself (or the soul) being however free from all attributes is not differentiated. Therefore we come to the conclusion that all things and conditions in the phenomenal world, hypostatized and established only through ignorance (avidyā) and memory (smṛti), have no more reality than the images in a mirror. They arise simply from the ideality of a particularizing mind.

When the mind is disturbed, the multiplicity of things is produced; but when the mind is quieted, the multiplicity of things disappears. By ego-consciousness (manovijñāna) we mean the ignorant mind which by its succession-consciousness clings to the conception of I and Not-I and misapprehends the nature of the six objects of sense. The ego-consciousness is also called separation-conscious-ness, because it is nourished by the perfuming influence of the prejudices (āsrava), intellectual as well as affectional. Thus believing in the external world produced by memory, the mind becomes oblivious of the principle of sameness (. saviatā) that underlies all things which are one and perfectly calm and tranquil and show no sign of becoming.

Non-enlightenment is the raison d'etre of saṃsāra. When this is annihilated the conditions—the external world—are also annihilated and with them the state of an interrelated mind is also annihilated. But this annihilation does not mean the annihilation of the mind but of its modes only. It becomes calm like an unruffled sea when all winds which were disturbing it and producing the waves have been annihilated.

In describing the relation of the interaction of avidyā (ignorance), karmavijñāna (activity-consciousness—thesubjective mind), viṣaya (external world—represented by the senses) and the tathatā (suchness), Aśvaghoṣa says that there is an interperfuming of these elements. Thus Aśvaghoṣa says,

“By perfuming we mean that while our worldly clothes (viz. those which we wear) have no odour of their own, neither offensive nor agreeable, they can yet acquire one or the other odour according to the nature of the substance with which they are perfumed. Suchness (tathatā) is likewise a pure dharma free from all defilements caused by the perfuming power of ignorance.

On the other hand ignorance has nothing to do with purity. Nevertheless we speak of its being able to do the work of purity because it in its turn is perfumed by suchness. Determined by suchness ignorance becomes the raison d'etre of all forms of defilement. And this ignorance perfumes suchness and produces smṛti. This smṛti in its turn perfumes ignorance.

On account of this (reciprocal) perfuming, the truth is misunderstood. On account of its being misunderstood an external world of subjectivity appears. Further, on account of the perfuming power of memory, various modes of individuation are produced. And by clinging to them various deeds are done, and we suffer as the result miseries mentally as well as bodily.”


“suchness perfumes ignorance, and in consequence of this perfuming the individual in subjectivity is caused to loathe the misery of birth and death and to seek after the blessing of nirvāṇa. This longing and loathing on the part of the subjective mind in turn perfumes suchness. On account of this perfuming influence we are enabled to believe that we are in possession within ourselves of suchness whose essential nature is pure and immaculate; and we also recognize that all phenomena in the world are nothing but the illusory manifestations of the mind (ālayavijñāna) and have no reality of their own.

Since we thus rightly understand the truth, we can practise the means of liberation, can perform those actions which are in accordance with the dharma. We should neither particularize, nor cling to objects of desire. By virtue of this discipline and habituation during the lapse of innumerable āsaṅkhyeyakalpas[14] we get ignorance annihilated.

As ignorance is thus annihilated, the mind (ālayavijñāna) is no longer disturbed, so as to be subject to individuation. As the mind is no longer disturbed, the particularization of the surrounding world is annihilated. When in this wise the principle and the condition of defilement, their products, and the mental disturbances are all annihilated, it is said that we attain nirvāṇa and that various spontaneous displays of activity are accomplished.”

The nirvāṇa of the tathatā philosophy is not nothingness, but tathatā (suchness or thatness) in its purity unassociated with any kind of disturbance which produces all the diversity of experience.

To the question that if all beings are uniformly in possession of suchness and are therefore equally perfumed by it, how is it that there are some who do not believe in it, while others do, Aśvaghoṣa’s reply is that though all beings are uniformly in possession of suchness, the intensity of ignorance and the principle of individuation, that work from all eternity, vary in such manifold grades as to outnumber the sands of the Ganges, and hence the difference. There is an inherent perfuming principle in one’s own being which, embiaced and protected by the love (maitri) and compassion (karunā) of all Buddhas and Bodhisatt-vas, is caused to loathe the misery of birth and death, to believe in nirvāṇa, to cultivate the root of merit (kuśalamūla), to habituate oneself to it and to bring it to maturity. In consequence of this, one is enabled to see all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and, receiving instructions from them, is benefited, gladdened and induced to practise good deeds, etc., till one can attain to Buddhahood and enter into nirvāṇa.

This implies that all beings have such perfuming power in them that they may be affected by the good wishes of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for leading them to the path of virtue, and thus it is that sometimes hearing the Bodhisattvas and sometimes seeing them,

“all beings thereby acquire (spiritual) benefits (hitatā)”

and “entering into the samādhi of purity, they destroy hindrances wherever they are met with and obtain all-penetrating insight that enables them to become conscious of the absolute oneness (samatā) of the universe (sarvaloka) and to see innumerable Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.”

There is a difference between the perfuming which is not in unison with suchness, as in the case of śrāvakas (theravādin monks), pratyekabuddhas and the novice bodhisattvas, who only continue their religious discipline but do not attain to the state of non-particularization in unison with the essence of suchness. But those bodhisattvas whose perfuming is already in unison with suchness attain to the state of non-particularization and allow themselves to be influenced only by the power of the dharma. The incessant perfuming of the defiled dharma (ignorance from all eternity) works on, but when one attains to Buddhahood one at once puts an end to it. The perfuming of the pure dharma (i.e. suchness) however works on to eternity without any interruption. For this suchness or thatness is the effulgence of great wisdom, the universal illumination of the dharmadhātu (universe), the true and adequate knowledge, the mind pure and clean in its own nature, the eternal, the blessed, the self-regulating and the pure, the tranquil, the inimitable and the free, and this is called the tathāgatagarbha or the dharmakāya.

It may be objected that since thatness or suchness has been described as being without characteristics, it is now a contradiction to speak of it as embracing all merits, but it is held, that in spite of its embracing all merits, it is free in its nature from all forms of distinction, because all objects in the world are of one and the same taste; and being of one reality they have nothing to do with the modes of particularization or of dualistic character.

“Though all things in their (metaphysical) origin come from the soul alone and in truth are free from particularization, yet on account of non-enlightenment there originates a subjective mind (ālayavijñāna) that becomes conscious of an external world.”

This is called ignorance or avidyā. Nevertheless the pure essence of the mind is perfectly pure and there is no awakening of ignorance in it. Hence we assign to suchness this quality, the effulgence of great wisdom. It is called universal illumination, because there is nothing for it to illumine. This perfuming of suchness therefore continues for ever, though the stage of the perfuming of avidyā comes to an end with the Buddhas when they attain to nirvāṇa.

All Buddhas while at the stage of discipline feel a deep compassion (mahākarunā) for all beings, practise all virtues (pāramitās) and many other meritorious deeds, treat others as their own selves, and wish to work out a universal salvation of mankind in ages to come, through limitless numbers of kalpas , recognize truthfully and adequately the principle of equality (samatā) among people; and do not cling to the individual existence of a sentient being. This is what is meant by the activity of tathatā. The main idea of this tathatā philosophy seems to be this, that this transcendent “thatness” is at once the quintessence of all thought and activity; as avidyā veils it or perfumes it, the world-appearance springs forth, but as the pure thatness also perfumes the avidyā there is a striving for the good as well. As the stage of avidyā is passed its luminous character shines forth, for it is the ultimate truth which only illusorily appeared as the many of the world.

This doctrine seems to be more in agreement with the view of an absolute unchangeable reality as the ultimate truth than that of the nihilistic idealism of Laṅkāvatāra. Considering the fact that Aśvaghoṣa was a learned Brahmin scholar in his early life, it is easy to guess that there was much Upaniṣad influence in this interpretation of Buddhism, which compares so favourably with the Vedānta as interpreted by Saṅkara. The Laṅkāvatāra admitted a reality only as a make-believe to attract the Tairthikas (heretics) who had a prejudice in favour of an unchangeable self (ātman). But Aśvaghoṣa plainly admitted an unspeakable reality as the ultimate truth. Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamika doctrines which eclipsed the profound philosophy of Aśvaghoṣa seem to be more faithful to the traditional Buddhist creed and to the Vijñānavāda creed of Buddhism as explained in the Laṅkāvatāra[15].

Footnotes and references:


Quotations and references to many of these sūtras are found in Candrakīrtti’s commentary on the Mādhyamīka kārikās of Nāgārjuna; some of these are the following:

  • Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā (translated into Chinese 164 A.D.-167 A.D.),
  • Satasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā ,
  • Gaganagañja,
  • Samādhisūtra,
  • Tatkāgatagukyasūtra,
  • Dṛdhādhyā-śayasañcodanāsūtra,
  • Dhyāyitamuṣṭisūtra,
  • Pitāputrasamāgamasūtra,
  • Makāyānasūtra, Māradamanasūtra,
  • Ratnakūtasūtra,
  • Ratnacūḍāparipṛcchāsūtra,
  • Ratnameghasūtra,
  • Ratnarāśisūtra,
  • Ratnākarasūtra,
  • Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchāsūtra,
  • Laṅkāvatūrasūtra,
  • Lalitavistarasūtra,
  • Vajracchedikāsūtra,
  • Vimalakīrttinirdeśasūtra,
  • Sālistambhasūtra,
  • Samādhirajasūtra,
  • Sukkāvatīvyūha,
  • Suvarṇaprabhāsasūtra,
  • Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (translated into Chinese A.D. 255),
  • Amitāyurdhyānasūtra,
  • Hastikākhyasūtra , etc.


The word Yāna is generally translated as vehicle, but a consideration of numerous contexts in which the word occurs seems to suggest that it means career or course or way, rather than vehicle (Lalitavistara , pp. 25, 38; Prajñāpāramitā , pp. 24, 319; Satnādhirājasūtra , p. 1; Karuṇāpuṇḍarīka, p. 67; Laṅkūvatārasūtra , pp. 68,108,132). The word Yāna is as old as the Upaniṣads where we read of Devayāna and Pitryāna. There is no reason why this word should be taken in a different sense. We hear in Laṅkāvatāra of Srāvakayāna (career of the Srāvakas or the Theravādin Buddhists), Pratyekabuddhayāna (the career of saints before the coming of the Buddha), Buddha yāna (career of the Buddhas), Ekayāna (one career), Devayāna (career of the gods), Brahmayāna (career of becoming a Bralimā), Tathāgatayāna (career of a Tathāgata). In one place Laṅkāvatāra says that ordinarily distinction is made between the three careers and one career and 110 career, but these distinctions are only for the ignorant (Laṅkāvatāra , p. 68).


Aṣṭasūhasrikāprajñāpāramitā , p. 16.


Ibid. p. 177.


Ibid. p. 21.


Ibid. p. 177.


Dr S. C. Vidyābhūṣana thinks that Laṅkāvatāra belongs to about 300 A.D.


Takakusu’s “A study of the Paramārtha’s life of Vasubandhu, R. A. S. 1905.


Aryyadeva’s Hastabālaprakaranavrtti has been reclaimed by Dr F. W. Thomas. Fragmentary portions of his Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa were published by Mahāmahopād-hyāya Haraprasāda śāstrī in the Bengal Asiatic Society’s journal, 1898.


The above section is based on| the Awakening of Faith , an English translation by Suzuki of the Chinese version of Sraddhotpādaśāstra by Aśvaghosa, the Sanskrit original of which appears to have been lost. Suzuki has brought forward a mass of evidence to show that Aśvaghosa was a contemporary of Kaniska.


Tāranātha says that he was converted by Āryadeva, a disciple of Nāgārjuna, Geschichte des Buddhismus, German translation by Schiefner, pp. 84-85. See Suzuki’s Awakening of Faith, pp. 24-32. Aśvaghosa wrote the Buddhacaritakāvya , of great poetical excellence, and the Makālamkāraśāstra. He was also a musician and had invented a musical instrument called Rāstavara that he might by that means convert the people of the city. “Its melody was classical, mournful, and melodious, inducing the audience to ponder on the misery, emptiness, and non-ātmanness of life.” Suzuki, p. 35.


I have ventured to translate “smṛti” in the sense of vāsanā in preference to Suzuki’s “confused subjectivity” because smṛti in the sense of vāsanā is not unfamiliar to the readers of such Buddhist works as Laṅkāvatāra. The word “subjectivity” seems to be too European a term to be used as a word to represent the Buddhist sense.


Compare Chāndogya, vi. 1.4.


Technical name for a very vast period of time.


As I have no access to the Chinese translation of Aśvaghosa’s Sraddhotpāda Siīslra, I had to depend entirely on Suzuki’s expressions as they appear in his translation.

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