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Vaibhasika – Buddhist Philosophy Quiz

The Vaibhasika are the first of the four Buddhist schools recognized by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They are seen as a Hinayana school, i.e. they don’t aim at becoming a Buddha but ‘merely’ an arhat. The result is that one does attain liberation, but can’t help all sentient beings do the same.

In some ways the Vaibhasika philosophy is relatively easy to understand, but in others it’s alien to our modern perspective on things.

Aside from the quiz, which deals with the philosophy of the school, I’ve also added some historical perspective as this is usually missing from Tibetan Buddhist teachings. In that they follow their Indian teachers quite faithfully, unfortunately.

I’m creating this quiz as part of my study of the Buddhist Tenets through the FPMT Basic Program online. In that program Jetsün Chökyi Gyaltsen’s Presentation of Tenets is taught by Geshe Tsulga.

Mistakes are my own. Do let me know.

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Essential Vaibhasika Philosophy

The quiz above was made, for technical reasons, as a multiple choice quiz. That determines the sort of questions one can ask. The following are the main issues to be thought about when contemplating the Vaibhasika position on Buddhist philosophy.
  • Permanence vs Impermanence:
    Impermanent things are things that change in dependence on causes and conditions.
    Anything that doesn’t change in dependence on causes and conditions is called permanent.
  • Ultimate vs Relative Truth
    Anything that ceases to exist in the mind when divided into parts is a relative truth. Ultimate truths are those things which can’t be divided. This means most things are relative truths, but directionally partless atoms, temporally partless moments of consciousness and non-compounded objects are ultimate truths.
  • Selflessness
    The self is seen as consisting of the 5 aggregates or (in case of non-embodied beings) or mind alone. What should be meditated on is the fact that there this self changes, can be divided up into parts and is dependent on external factors.
    In Buddhist terminology: the self is not permanent, not indivisible and not independent.

Vaibhasika Philosophy on TIME

When I made the quiz, I based myself solely on the FPMT Basic Program module about the Tenets. The one question I was not certain about, was the one where I say that time is not permanent. Based on the Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, specifically the entry on the Vaibhasika by Chris Bartley, I am now pretty confident I was right. However, the Vaibhasika position on time is a bit strange and my question approached it from an angle that they would not have taken. In order to understand the following quote, you have to know that the word ‘dharma’ here is a singular and it stands for any particular thing. In fact, I suspect that when Geshe Tsulga defines a ‘thing’ he is really defining a ‘dharma’. Since things come in singular and plural, you also have dharmas. Dharmas = things.

(p. 548) “On this view, past, present and future are different designations of dharmas with persisting, immutable identities. Thus there is the basis of a real continuum. Temporal sequence is a phenomenon relative to human experience. Accordingly, the Vaibhashikas do not include time as an independent category in their taxonomies of reality, temporal stages being reductively identified with the occurence of conditional events (samskaras).”

What’s more:

“While in respect of essence the fundamental entities exist immutably and eternally, they are actualized in the present.”

These fundamental entities are what we would call atoms. In the words of Geshe Tsulga: Directionally partless atoms.

Defining Vaibhasika

It’s no wonder Etienne Lamotte doesn’t talk about the Vaibhasika much. When you look at the definition of Vaibhasika in ‘Tenets’ there is nothing there that you could not also say of the Sarvastivada school of which it was a subschool, as was the Sautrantika, btw.

The definition of a Vaibhasika: one who propounds Hinayana tenets, and asserts external objects to be truly existent but does not assert self-cognizers. (From the FPMT material)

Vaibhasika in the context of the larger Buddhist Tradition

I have struggled with this for ages, but the following seems to be the long and short of it:

  • When Tibetan Buddhists talk about ‘Hinayana’, what they really mean is ‘Sarvastivada’.
  • Both Vaibhasika and Sautrantika are subschools of the Sarvastivadin school, according to Wikipedia

Note that the current Theravada school, the one existing Hinayana school, was split off from the Mahasangika, so it does not derive from the Sarvastivada. source: wikipedia

What is Vaibhasika?

The Vaibhasika are a school of Buddhist philosophy, as taught in Tibetan Buddhism. Their main source for this is probably Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosa and the commentary on it (the Bhasya), combined with what schools of philosophy still existed when Buddhism came to Tibet. (4th century CE) As one of the two main subschools of Sarvastivada, Vaibhasika may have been as prominent in Indian Buddhism as Tibetan Budddhism suggests. From my perspective the Vaibhasika label is convenient from the point of view of trying to understand emptiness – emptiness of self (aka anatta in Theravada) in this case. The Vaibhasika don’t accept emptiness of external phenomena. Any explanation shorter than a 1000 words is going to lack nuance, but let me try anyhow:

What is the Vaibhasika philosophy on emptiness of self or anatta?

According to Jetsün Chökyi Gyaltsen (as explained by Geshe Tsulga) Vaibhasika philosophers believe that the five aggregates (skandhas) are the (only) self, the only person that can be found.

The five aggregates are: form (rupa), feeling (vedana), discrimination (samjna), compositional factors (samskara) and consciousness (Vijnana). In other words: According to the Vaibhasika the self consists of a body (rupa) and various aspects of what we would call consciousness (the other four skandhas). The crucial point is that this self is not permanent and changes continually. The sense of ‘I’ that we instinctively feel, is an illusion, it cannot be found outside the 5 aggregates, but it can also not be found in any of the skandhas individually. In the words of Guy Newland (translated from the Dutch Translation back into English) in his Appearance and Reality (Schijn en Werkelijkheid):

Proponents of the Vaibhasika school recommend meditating on the non-existence of a permanent, indivisible and independent self of persons. Of the 18 subsystems of Vaibhasika 13 state that this is only the most course form of anatta. The subtle absence of self that must be realized is the absence of a concretely existent or independent self of persons. (p. 29)

Note that this assumes the Vaibhasika are identical to a collection of 18 schools of Hinayana philosophy. However, there’s no reason to think those 18 schools thought they could be grouped together like that. The very fact that 13 of those schools disagreed on subtle absence of self with 5 others makes it even more clear that the unity of Vaibhasika is a scholarly invention. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not a USEFUL scholarly invention for our purposes. The Hinayana schools disagreed on things we don’t think of as important. And if we do, we’re likely to disagree with all of them in one swoop, because we look at the world through the eyes of 20th and 21st century science. See: Appearance & Reality: The Two Truths in the Four Buddhist Tenet Systems

About Vasubandhu and the Abhidharma Kosa

Given that the Abhidharma Kosa is such a central text – the source in fact for all the Indian and Tibetan philosophical debates on emptiness from the 9th century on, probably – a bit of information should be given. The Abhidharma Kosa is a philosophical text that is as concentrated as the works by Spinoza. Of course Vasubandhu didn’t write math in prose the way Spinoza did, but he does come quite close. This fits in the tradition of Indian sutra writing: composing texts short enough to memorize. The result typically needs a LOT of background knowledge to be understood. Fortunately Vasubandhu wrote a commentary on the Abhidharma Kosa: the Bhasya (literally ‘commentary’). The Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy has this to say about the importance of these works:

A great number of texts of the Theravada Abhidharma tradition are extant in Pali, and a great number of Sarvastivada Abhidharma texts exist in their Chinese translations. In Sanskrit and Tibetan, however, nearly all of the “Sravaka” Abhidharma texts that remain are the works of Vasubandhu and the commentarial traditions stemming from them. It is tempting to take this as evidence of Vasubandhu’s philosophical mastery, to have so comprehensively defeated his foes that his tradition dominated from the 9th century on. Yet we may equally take this as evidence not of the victory of Sautrantika, but of the influence of the rising popularity of Yogacara in India and Tibet. Vasubandhu, a great systematizer of mainstream Abhidharma, provided arguments and doctrines, and a life story, that paved the way to, and justified, the later dominance of Mahayana.

For a compilation of Abhidharma kosa translations and relevant extracts from the Bhasya see the Abhidharma Kosa Blog More about Vasubandhu

Did the Vaibhasika and Sautrantika schools of philosophy really exist?

This page was originally skeptical of the existence of the Vaibhasika.
It turns out History of Indian Buddhism. E. Lamotte, by a classic Buddhologist, is my source for my scepticism. Etienne Lamotte says:

Throughout all Buddhist literature, there is no systematic attempt to explain or prove, as a whole and in detail, the doctrines professed by a given sect. The great authors display absolute freedom in the choice of theories they describe, and reveal themselves in general to be eclectic. They are not sectarians working for a school, but scholars giving their personal opinions. Tradition makes Asvaghosa a Sarvastivadin and pupil of the Vaibhasika Parsa; but Asvagosha himself asserts, in the Saundarananda XVII, 18, that “Existence succeeds non-existence” a thesis that was formally condemned by the Sarvastivada.

And – about the greatest authority we have about the Vaibhasika in particular, Vasubandhu, he notes (and my teachers in Tibetan Buddhism concur)

The great Vasubandhu was, in principle, a Sarvastivadin-Vaibhasika, but in his Abhidharmakosa he frequently adopts the Sautrantika point of view. (all on page 522)

Still, if you look at the Abhidharma Kosa and the corresponding Bhasya, it really is quite clear that Vasubandhu himself wrote about existing Vaibhasika and Sautrantika positions. He was philosopher enough to include both points of view, but that doesn’t mean he made the traditions up.

All in all I think Lamotte is being overly skeptical here. It’s a scholar’s job, perhaps. Still, the Abhidharma Kosa gives voice to the existence of both schools as subschools of the Sarvastivada school of philosophy. Given it’s importance to later Tibetan Buddhist scholastics, it’s not surprising the two schools ended up so important in their debates.

It’s also, I think, historically significant that no non-sarvastivadin Hinayana philosophy survived in Tibet. We must suspect they weren’t taught in Nalanda either. These ideas came from somewhere. A historically existent school is the most logical explanation. 

A definition of Vaibhasika in historical perspective

Most people who write about the Vaibhasika follow tradition more closely. For instance the Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy says in it’s introductory paragraph about the Vaibhasika (p. 548)

“Vaibhasika is a Buddhist school belonging to the Sarvastivada (Everything Exists) tradition, which basis itself not only on the canonical sutras of the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidharma Pitakas but also on the comprehensive Sarvastivadin taxonomic work from Kashmir, the Mahavibhasha (second century CE), which is in turn the model for Vasubandhu’s (fourth century CE) Sautrantika works Abhidharmakosha and Abhidharmakoshabhashya.”

It continues to give a full explanation of the philosophy of this ‘school’.

Guy Newland notes, in his Appearance and Reality: The Two Truths in the Four Buddhist Tenet Systems, that although Tibetan authors talk about Vaibhasika and Sautrantika as encompassing all the Hinayana schools of philosophy, Vaibhasika as they teach it is basically the Sarvastivada school from Kashmir. The Sautrantika’s started out as a subschool of the Sarvastivada. (p. 134, 135 Dutch edition – the afterword)

Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy is a great – if expensive – reference work. I turned to it when I was doubting my own doubts and it’s reference to the Vaibhasika included the reference to Etienne Lamotte – quoted above.

More Buddhist philosophy

Sunyata, Void, Emptiness: Buddhist philosophy

Articles on Sunyata. The terms Sunyata (or Shunyata), void and emptiness are synonyms in Buddhist philosophy. They are ways of expressing the sense that all we see, feel and observe is relative, in fact non-essential and not self-sustaining.

Atman in Sunyata and the Sunyata of Atman [Buddha’s World]

A scholarly attempt to reconcile the difference between Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta on the nature of the Self Learn more about the four schools of Buddhist philosophy as taught in Tibetan Buddhism.

See also: Books about Buddhist philosophy I can personally recommend.

About the author: Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • David Tetzlaff July 21, 2017, 7:18 am

    I’m very interested in Sarvastivadin/Vaibhasika/Sautrantika also because I see a link there with western science and a view of objective teaity.I don’t think Yogacara negates this.Asanga wrote the Abhidharmasamuccaya which should clarify this.I will read that befor reading the Abhidharmakosabhasyam by Vasubandhu.

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