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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Vasubandhu – 2

Vasubandhu’s and Sthiramati’s treatment of Chapter 3 is near-impossible to treat without long and meditative-philosophical introductions. However, on the subject of imagination we might show Stcherbatsky’s struggle with the neither-nor philosophy with regards to existence. He translates Vasubandhu’s stanza 19.27 (p.38) as follows:

Imagination (is the Mind),
T’ is not itself created by imagination.
But by another mental act.
T’ is split in two, (object and subject).
No ultimate reality obtains
In this dichotomized form.

With Nāgārjuna’s rigorous neither-nor philosophy in mind it would be possible to translate the stanza as follows:

Imagination is not imagined
There is no imaginer nor an imagined
This is the own-essence
which exists nor does not exist.
Not (a) by-another imagined, nor (a) other imaginator.

I.e. since the undivided pure mind, which is neither existent nor non-existent, does not dichotomize into imaginer and imagined, it is impossible to speak of imaginer in contrast to the imagined.

Lines as these are the product of objectless meditation; they cannot be considered from the point of view of philosophy. Objectless meditation was unknown in Stcherbatsky’s time, and still is to a large extent.

Being yoked and emptiness

Both David J. Kalupahana (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, Delhi 1991) and Joseph Walser (Nāgārjuna in Context, New York 2005 – don’t waste your money on it) consider Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā to be an implicit reaction on the Pali Scripture the Kaccāyanagottasutta.
The monk Kaccāyana is mentioned in the Mūla, hence the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā has him as addressee, they said. Could be. Let’s not go too far into it and not add to the wild speculations of especially Mr. Walser.

One of the verses in the Mūla, Ch. 24, 14, seems to render Nāgārjuna’s thinking on emptiness most clearly, and at the same time most intricate. David Kalupahana, the only one who bothered to give us the transliteration of the Sanscrit verses (a posthumus thank you to Mr. Kalupahana), made his own translation. Mr. Walser used M. Sprung’s 1967 version (Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way: The Essential Chapters from the Prasannapada of Candrakirti, p.235. London 1967).

Both translations differ in the rendering of the words “yujyate” and “sūnyatā/ sūnyam”.

Here are the two lines:

Sarvam ca yujyate tasya sūnyatā yasya yujyate,
sarvam na yujyate tasya sūnyam yasya na yujyate.

David J. Kalupahana translated them with:

“Everything is pertinent for whom emptiness is proper. Everything is not pertinent for whom the empty is not proper.”

M.Sprung offered the translation:

“All things make sense (yujyate) for him for whom the absence of being (sunyatā) makes sense. Nothing makes sense for him for whom the absence of being does not make sense.”

Yujyate – derived from the stem yuj. We see here how one translator used “(being) pertinent”, and the other choose “make (making) sense”.

In Sanskrit the stem “yuj” is applied in many ways, such as in -yujya: to yoke, to fix, to charge, to concentrate, to join, etc.
In Pali things seem to be a lot simpler. We come across “anuyoga” [Sk. Anu + yuj] which stands for application, devotion to, execution, and practice of.

To a Buddhist mind the word sūnyatā appears to be a lot less complicated. The Pali interpretation is indeed “absence of self” (atta), by Mr. Sprung understood as “absence of being”.
The Mahāyāna Sanscritic interpretation of sūnyatā goes beyond the discussion of the self and implies the ultimate ens-lessness of beings and things, the lack of enduring essence in whatever there might be in the universe.

So we might be tempted to amalgamate both translations of the two lines and conclude that, as “yuj” is intrically linked with the meditative mind that is totally absorbed in the subject, the text ought to be understood as

“As long as your (meditative) mind is totally yoked (yuj-) to (the concept of) utter lack of essence (sunya-) in everything, the ens-less makes sense.
But so long as your (non-meditative) mind is not totally yoked (yuj-) to (the concept of) of utter lack of essence (sunya-), the (abstract concept of) ens-less does not make sense, does not speak to you.”