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Twenty Verses & Enlightenment II: An In-Depth Look at the Core of Vasubandhu’s Seminal Yogacara Text

Posted by on 12/02/2018

Thauma editor Sascha Luinenberg elaborates further on Vasubandhu’s metaphysical claims and his soteriological strategy. 


Vasubandhu’s perhaps most famous short text, the Twenty Verses, is often considered a seminal work for the influential Yogacara school of Buddhism (Kellner and Taber, 1). It is a dense, poetic text, enriched by auto-commentary, in which Vasubandhu argues his position against an imaginary opponent who defends realist metaphysics. Its opening lines, which state that the world is manifestation-only, have led to an intense scholarly debate on the exact nature of Vasubandhu’s metaphysics. In fact, Western scholarly readings of Vasubandhu go to great lengths in questioning Vasubandhu’s metaphysics, but spend little time on the purpose these metaphysics might have (Kellner&Taber, 5; Mills, 6). As I have argued in my previous essay on this topic, and as Vasubandhu’s own work shows, his metaphysics and his epistemology are in fact secondary to a different, primary aim which is related to his soteriology.



A soteriological focus in reading the Twenty Verses

In the Abidharmakhosabhasya (Treasure of Metaphysics), another influential text by Vasubandhu, Vasubandhu uses the same argument from ignorance as in The Twenty Verses. Vasubandhu uses this argument to disprove the existence of the soul, and has a soteriological purpose in mind. In the Abidharmakhosabhasya , he concludes that the soul does not exist. In the Twenty Verses, he uses the same strategy against the idea of an external reality. His argument, summarized, is that, as it is impossible to distinguish experiences caused by external reality from unreal experiences, as in dreams or hallucinations which leads to the conclusion that there is no reason to assume that experiences we feel are grounded on reality are actually caused by anything external to us. What is at stake here is mostly a metaphysical issue, Vasubandhu draws a less radical conclusion than in the Abidharmakhosabhasya; he doesn’t go so far as to say that there is no external reality, rather resorting to the weaker conclusion, that it is indeed proven that unreal experiences are indistinguishable from experiences caused by external reality (Vasubandhu, 3-5; Kellner and Taber, 13).

We can take this refusal to draw strong metaphysical conclusions, except when it is directly in the service of soteriology, as evidence for a different reading of Vasubandhu. Namely, we can read the soteriological dimension in his work as its fundamental aspect, that in service of which Vasubandhu does metaphysics at all.


An In-Depth Reading of the Mission Statement of the Twenty Verses

The main textual argument for a soteriologically centered reading of the Twenty Verses is to be found in the text itself, namely in verse ten, and the commentary thereon. Vasubandhu begins by responding to an objection, which asks why, if the world is manifestation-only, the Buddha spoke about it in terms of sense fields, which include the external world as real components. Vasubandhu responds to this by arguing that the Buddha did so out of a special intention (Vasubandhu, 8):

X [Objection] And what is the advantage of having explained things in this way by recourse to special intention?

[Vasubandhu] For in this way there is understanding of the selflessness of persons. [10ab]

For when it is being taught in this way [those individuals to be guided] understand the idea of the selflessness of persons. C) The six cognitions come about from the two sets of six [= the twelve sense- fields], but when they understand that there is no distinct seer at all— [and all members of the stock list] up to—no distinct thinker, those who are to be guided by the teaching of the selflessness of persons understand the idea of the selflessness of persons.


Here already we can see a distinctly soteriological orientation in Vasubandhu’s argument: he argues that the Buddha taught his original doctrine in terms of sense fields, because he aimed to allow his audience (who were not yet schooled in the more sophisticated aspects of Buddhism) to see the selflessness of persons. This, we may therefore infer, is a more important aim of Buddhist doctrine, in Vasubandhu’s view, than metaphysical precision.

While it is important to note how Vasubandhu understands the intentions behind the Buddha’s teachings (that is, as soteriological), it is more interesting for Vasubandhu’s own case, regarding the purpose of his own (more metaphysically sophisticated) manifestation-only doctrine, to look at what follows (Vasubandhu, 9):


Moreover, teaching in another way leads to the understanding of the selflessness of elemental factors of existence. [10bcd]

  1. D) “In another way” refers to the teaching of Manifestation-Only.


In this verse, and the auto-commentary accompanying it, Vasubandhu states as clearly as he possibly could the purpose of his own doctrine. Namely, the establishment of Manifestation-Only is to disprove “elemental factors such as form, matter and the rest.” He is explicitly arguing against a realist metaphysics, which posits a real world founded in elemental factors. Note that this doesn’t have to be read as disproving an external world altogether; however, it is disproving the idea of any world made up of elemental factors. That there is a soteriological aim behind this attempt to disprove elemental factors becomes clear by what follows in the next objection and the rebuttal thereof. It states that an implication of Vasubandhu’s doctrine is that (Vasubandhu, 9):

[Objection] H) If, then, no elemental factor of existence exists in any fashion, Manifestation-Only does not exist either.


That is: according to the opponent, if there are no elemental factors of existence, nothing can exist, also no manifestation. Vasubandhu’s soteriological purpose becomes abundantly clear in his rebuttal to this objection (Vasubandhu, 9):

[Vasubandhu] I) It is not the case that one comes to understand the selflessness of elemental factors of existence by thinking that the elemental factors of existence do not exist in any fashion at all. J) But rather [such understanding comes in thinking that elemental factors of existence exist only]: In terms of an imagined self.


Insofar as there is a mission statement in this text, I would argue it is this last line. It shows that the value of manifestation-only is that, showing the selflessness of elemental factors, it allows us also to understand in a deeper way the selflessness of persons. That is, it shows the self to be itself a manifestation like any other, fantasized by another manifestation, rather than an elemental factor, existing in itself. Here is the soteriological underpinning to Vasubandhu’s whole philosophy; its primary aim seems to be to undo us of the illusion that there is anything fundamentally real about the self.

After this, the text discusses a few more points; the existence of atoms, and several objections to Manifestation-Only, regarding the causal efficacy of phenomena that are uncaused by external reality, all of which Vasubandhu ends up defusing to support his doctrine. These objections are outside the scope of this essay’s reading. Only one more time in the text does Vasubandhu’s soteriological aim come to the fore, namely in its final verses. Here we see Vasubandhu explaining why his metaphysical speculation must remain limited (Vasubandhu, 21):

I have composed this proof of [the World as] Manifestation-

Only according to my ability, but that [fact that

the World is nothing but Manifestation-Only] is not

conceivable in its entirety. [22abcd]

However, that [idea of Manifestation-Only] cannot be conceived

in all its aspects by those like me, because it is beyond the

domain of logical reasoning.

This, too, is evidence that Vasubandhu is not necessarily interested in drawing strong metaphysical conclusions. He admits that metaphysics and logical reasoning can only get one so far. Nonetheless he advocates this doctrine which he admits he cannot, himself, fully grasp. This seems contradictory, unless one grants that he has a different aim in doing so, one which is not purely philosophical. Apparently, something other than metaphysical specificity takes priority. While it is not explicitly stated, I think it is likely that what takes priority is again the soteriological value of his doctrine, which may persist, even if it cannot be fully grasped. This is likely in light of the fact that Vasubandhu encourages his readers (albeit subtly) to pursue enlightenment if they do indeed want to fully grasp his doctrine: he closes the Twenty Verses by stating that only fully enlightened Buddhas can have such perfect knowledge (Vasubandhu, 21-22).


A possible objections to this reading

However, there are objections to a soteriological reading of this text which need to be discussed. After Vasubandhu reaches this conclusion, he continues with several verses of what can only be considered metaphysics. These are the verses regarding the existence of atoms (Vasubandhu, 11):

Because [either] in the simultaneous conjunction with a

group of six [other atoms], the atom [would have to] have

six parts, [12ab]

[Or] because, the six being in a common location, the

cluster would be the extent of a [single] atom. [12cd]

Vasubandhu’s argument is that atoms, the smallest, indivisible units of matter, cannot be conjoined, because a thing is conjoined by joining one of its parts to a part of another thing, and atoms necessarily are not partite. Thus, conjoined atoms could only take up as much space as a single atom, as else, they would only be partially conjoined, which would be impossible. This does seem like a lot of metaphysical length to go to, and a far way off from his actual goal, if his point in this text is ultimately to make a soteriological argument.

The scholarly opinion of Kellner and Taber is that these verses, rather than the verses cited above, form the core of Vasubandhu’s argument (which they read as an argument against an external reality; Kellner and Taber, 5). This leads us to an important question, and a possible objection to the reading given above: if Vasubandhu’s aim in this text is indeed primarily soteriological, why is he bothering with abstruse metaphysical problems like the exact composition of atoms?

However, there is a simple response to this objection. We can say that Vasubandhu is trying to disprove atoms because else his soteriological mission, to disprove the selflessness of elemental factors, would fall apart. Simply put, if atoms indeed existed, they would be an elemental factor in the material world. Vasubandhu’s aim is to disprove exactly such factors, and a world built up of them, to help us realize (as I’ve argued) that what’s left is manifestation; and that, by extension, the self also lacks such elemental factors. As Vasubandhu’s auto-commentary puts it (Vasubandhu, 15):

Since [the singular atom] is not proven, the fact that visible

form—and the rest—are sense-fields of the visual—and the rest—is

unproven; L) therefore Manifestation-Only comes to be proved.


The conclusions of this essay seem relevant to future research into the Twenty Verses. Western scholarship shows a tendency to focus perhaps too heavily on the metaphysical or epistemological sides of the text. This runs a risk of one-sided interpretation, and of missing the text’s deeper use. It was composed by a monk, who was clearly concerned with spiritual attainment. To treat it as a primarily metaphysical statement may misrepresent its core project.






Kellner, B. and Taber, J. (2014). Studies in Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda idealism I: The interpretation of Vasubandhu’s Viṃśikā. Asiatische Studien – Études Asiatiques, 68(3).

Mills, E. (2017). External-World Skepticism in Classical India: The Case of Vasubandhu. International Journal for the Study of Skepticism, 7(3), pp.147-172.

Vasubandhu, Silk, J., Vasubandhu., Vasubandhu., Vasubandhu. and Vasubandhu. (n.d.). Materials towards t


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