VASUBANDHU and the problem of the external world in Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy (c. 300-400 CE)

Author: Gordon. F. Davis (Carleton University)

In a few short texts, assigned to a mature period following a famous ‘conversion’ to Mahayana Buddhism, Vasubandhu argues that reality consists of ‘impressions-only’ (Siderits 2007), or ‘only appearance’ (Gold 2015). This prima faciemetaphysical idealism came to be known, famously and more simply, as the ‘Cittamatra’ view, which means ‘mind-only’.

Taking ‘external world’ to mean a world in space and time that is putatively independent of the mind, Vasubandhu argues that this conception is a delusion, one that imposes a crude conceptual grid on the field of experience. As a critic of ‘naïve realism’, Vasubandhu sees unchecked mental projections as imposing a spatiotemporal structure on experience which, once purged of this, can also be liberated from other forms of ignorance. In his Twenty-Verse Treatise, Vasubandhu considers various objections to this irrealist account of belief in an external world, responding by invoking e.g. analogies of dream-experience (and other intriguing anticipations of modern philosophy).

Another of Vasubandhu’s late works, the Three-Natures Treatise, intriguingly proposes limits to irrealism. This work closes with a famous simile for experiential illusion (the illusion of an elephant seeming to appear in a magic show). But it also argues that, whereas spatiotemporal experience does not correspond to ultimate reality, the third and highest ‘nature’ within experience does constitute ultimate reality, and this is essentially the state of knowing experience as it is (i.e. enlightenment). Insofar as nirvanais immaterial, this higher-order realism seems consistent with Vasubandhu’s apparent irrealism about independent material realms. Many of the secondary sources listed below consider whether Vasubandhu marks a contrast with other Buddhist philosophers who seem to treat insight into ‘emptiness’ as amounting to a more global irrealism (and/or a rejection of metaphysics in general).

These questions raise issues about the purposes of irrealism in Mahayana Buddhism that are similar to issues about the purposes of radical scepticism in, for example, ancient Pyrrhonist philosophy. Like other Buddhists, Vasubandhu ties philosophical insight to soteriology; but both the method and the content on display in his treatises support a way of seeing him as open to letting philosophical considerations pull their own weight, such that these writings can be approached in much the same philosophical spirit as other critiques of naïve realism.

The works of Vasubandhu feature a rich variety of philosophical themes; and this entry highlights only one. Even regarding idealism, however, there has been much debate – including debate as to whether he should be construed as an ‘idealist’ at all. All of the sources below address this interpretive question; but Siderits (2007) is notable as an attempt to prioritize the philosophical issues over debates surrounding intellectual biography.


Secondary Sources


The most accessible translation of Vasubandhu’s Twenty-Verse Treatiseis in Chapter 8 of Mark Siderits’ Buddhism as Philosophy(see below). A recent translation of the Three-Natures Treatisecan be found in the final appendix of J. Gold’s Paving the Great Way(also below). Jay Garfield’s translation and commentary can be accessed at:

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Secondary Sources:

Feldman, Joel. “Vasubandhu’s Illusion Argument and the parasitism of illusion upon veridical experience.” Philosophy East and West55 (2005), 529-541.

Interprets the mind-only philosophy of Vasubandhu in light of non-Buddhist criticisms dating to classical Indian times, criticisms that parallel modern critiques of phenomenalism and external-world skepticism. Feldman agrees that some of Vasubandhu’s arguments are vulnerable to these, but concludes that the mind-only view may be philosophically viable nonetheless.

Garfield, Jay. Empty Words:Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Contains several chapters on Vasubandhu, including one that draws comparisons with Berkeley, Kant and Schopenhauer, and another that offers an interpretation of the Three-Natures Treatise.

Garfield, Jay. Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters in Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Chapter 6, focusing on phenomenology, treats Vasubandhu as offering insights into phenomenology (in the second half of the chapter), independently of any metaphysical or epistemological ways of interpreting the mind-only approach.

Gold, Jonathan. Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy. Columbia University Press, 2015.

Offers a summary of the objections to Vasubandhu’s ‘mind-only’ view, which Vasubandhu himself considers, in the Twenty-Verse Treatise(on pp. 139-147), as well as some reflections on the Three-Natures Treatise, from a point of view that seeks to avoid reifying the ‘three natures’.

Gold, Jonathan. “Vasubandhu,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online open access).

General overview; begins with a discussion of biographical speculations.

Kochumuttom, Thomas. A Buddhist Doctrine of Experience: A New Translation and Interpretation of the Works of Vasubandhu the Yogacarin.Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.

As well as translations of the Twenty-Verse Treatiseand theThree-Natures Treatise, this commentary offers a translation of a third Yogacara work by Vasubandhu, the Thirty-Verse Treatise, which makes connections between the first two. Not as widely available; but includes the Sanskrit texts.

Mills, Ethan. “External-World Skepticism in Classical India: the Case of Vasubandhu.” International Journal for the Study of Skepticism(2017), 1-26.

Contrasts two approaches to interpreting Vasubandhu: the metaphysical and epistemological interpretations of the mind-only view. Includes close comparison of Vasubandhu’s premises and reasoning with some contemporary skeptical arguments in analytic philosophy.

Sarao, K.T.S. “Vasubandhu,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online open access).

A general overview.

Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Hackett, 2007.

Chapter 8 focuses on Vasubandhu’s defences of the mind-only view, with translations of each part of theTwenty-Verse Treatise interspersed between Siderits’ analyses, which offer philosophical reflections and analogies with modern philosophical debates, rather than traditional commentary.

Wood, Thomas E. Mind Only: A Philosophical and Doctrinal Analysis of Vijñānavāda. University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

Contains translations of the two works described above, by Vasubandhu, as well asthe Thirty-Verse Treatise, accompanied by commentaries, and an interesting assessment of the mind-only view in the closing chapters. (The original Sanskrit texts are included.)

NOTE:  Somewhat like the authorial identifier ‘Plato’, as used in Hellenistic times, ‘Vasubandhu’ was eventually associated with the authorship of more works than any one person (living around the fourth and/or fifth centuries CE) could plausibly have written. Some have argued that there must have been more than one Buddhist author named Vasubandhu (later to be merged, the argument goes, in a variety of legendary accounts). But even if there was only one Vasubandhu, there may be another broad parallel with Plato’s writing career, insofar as we consider Plato’s ‘early’ dialogues to be relatively clear and straightforward and his ‘late’ dialogues to be dense and complex. Treated as a single author (as he is in e.g. J. Gold 2015), Vasubandhu wrote a famously clear commentary on the canonical philosophical framework of Buddhism (called ‘Abhidharma’ in Sanskrit), before going on to write the dense and difficult treatises that came to be called ‘Yogacara’ works – including the Twenty-Verse TreatiseandThree-Natures Treatisementioned above.

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