Vasubandhu -1

Th. Stcherbatsky (1866 – 18 March 1942; see pronounciation of the name), says “Mountainman”, was a Russian scholar of Oriental Studies, and a world renowned specialist of Buddhist studies; he wrote a detailed analysis of Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakosha or Abhidharmakosa-bhāsya (bhāsya denotes “spoken word”, utterance”, or “poem/song”; abhidharma is a body of texts describing the interaction between body, mind, and ethics).

Vasubandhu lived during the 4th to 5th Cent., when the Gupta Empire ruled in (Ser-)India. He and his disciple Sthiramati (c.510-570) produced the Madhyānta-Vibhanga, a discourse, they pretended, uttered by Bodhisattva Maitreya (the next Buddha on earth).

Th. Stcherbatsky has been the first to translate this vibhanga (distribution, division, distinction, classification) on the Middle (Way: Madhyānta), first published in 1978, in Delhi.

Unfortunately later generations of scholars in Buddhism didn’t take the pains to review Stcherbatsky’s laudable but not yet fully acceptable attempts. Therefore, as far as faculties of Buddhology go this text with the, in its time, unavoidable mis-interpretations on several points is transmitted without a thourough review along the lines of what we now know of the Yogacara philosophy that bridged the very late Small Vehicle Teachings and those of the full-flung Mahāyāna.

It is remarkable that Vasubandhu and Sthiramati in their first Stanza on The Middle Path (stanza 1.2) refer to the thinking of Nāgārjuna where in one of the latter’s gatha (songs) in his Mūla-madhyāmaka-kārika he writes:

1. na sūnyam nāpi casū
2. tasmāt sarvam vidhīyate,
3. sattvād assattvāt satvāc ca
4. madhyamā pratipat ca sā.

The following are Vasubandhu’s seven-line stanza ending with Nāgārjuna’s four-line above-mentioned gatha. Stcherbatsky translates (p. 24):

Neither is it asserted
That all (the Elements) are unreal,
Nor are they all realities;
1. Because there is existence,
2. And also non-existence,
3. And (again) existence:
4. This is the Middle Path!

The neither-nor discussion with regard to existence as it arose in the monastic circles of in particular the Yogacara is totally foreign to Western thinking. Therefore it is natural that Stcherbatsky struggled with this concepts and desperately introduced the word “elements” in his translation (something must exist!) in a move to maintain the Greco-western philosophy about Being, Is, Existence Is.

Might we now retranslate Vasubandhu’s stanza in the Yogacara philosophical mood of those days, heavilly influenced by the utter neither-nor philosophy of Nāgārjuna, the translation of Vasubandhu’s Stanza 1.2 in Chapter 2 ought to run as follows:

Reality is not denied
Unreality is not denied.
Existence and non-existence
both exist
and do not exist.
This is the Middle Way.

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