Vasubandhu was an Indian Buddhist scholar from the 3rd to 4th Century CE. The final chapter of his Ābhidharmakośa is a treatise called “Refutation of the Theory of the Self” (Refutation). In Refutation, Vasubandhu seeks to prove that a person or self does not exist and that our identities can be reduced to the five aggregates (skandhas). These are: form (rūpa), feeling (vendanā), perception (saṁjñā), volition (samskāra) and consciousness (vijñāna). The aggregates are momentary phenomena that have causal powers (Coseru, 2017). To establish this claim, Vasubandhu targets two of his opponents; the Vātsīputrīyas (Pudgalavādins) and the Tīthikas, that is, non-Buddhist scholars such as the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas (Tsai, 2016). The Vātsīputrīyas claim that our identities consist of a person or pudgala. A person is inexplicable, being neither the same as, nor different from, the aggregates. Vasubandhu refutes this claim. He likewise refutes the Tīthikas who argue that we are a self or ātman. A self is a separate substance to the aggregates and is eternal, unconditioned and without parts (Duerlinger, 1989; Tuske, 2013). In this paper, I argue that Vasubandhu refutes the existence of a person and self by adapting a reductionist stance. Additionally, I claim that this reductionist stance is insufficient to account for problems related to continuity such as memory and karma because it is based upon an impoverished ontology that does not allow for unconscious mental states.
This paper proceeds as follows. In section 1, I outline Vasubandhu’s metaphysical view of reality as background to his position. In section 2 I establish Vasubandhu’s reductionist stance by discussing his argument in Refutation. Additionally, I highlight the problems that arise from this in terms of continuity. In section 3 I discuss memory by first explaining how memory is viewed by current psychology. I then explore how Vasubandhu’s later Yogacara position can account for memory. I then argue that his earlier work in Refutation cannot account for memory. In section 4 I discuss why Vasubandhu’s view of mind in Refutation cannot account for karma.
1.1 Personal identity in the West
The following is background to Vasubandhu’s ideas to help establish why he refutes the notion of a person and self in Refutation. To situate Vasubandhu’s position, it is helpful to mention the debate related to personal identity in the West. This debate is different to the Buddhist debate about the nature of persons, but it highlights two relevant difficulties. The first is the metaphysical question of what are we? What are we composed of? I argue that Vasubandhu holds a reductionist thesis in response to this. In the West the reductionist thesis of personal identity involves the idea that personal identity can be reduced to the primary elements of our ontology, such as our physical bodies/brains and mental or psychological events. This thesis is traditionally associated with Hume, though Derek Parfit (1984) is a well-known contemporary defender (Garrett, 1998). Another question associated with the Western debate about personal identity is the persistence question. That is, if there is an agent X at t1 and an agent Y at t2, what does it take for X and Y to be the same individual? Or, what does it take for an individual to persist over time? (Carroll & Markosian, 2010; Olson, 2017). This is relevant to Vasubandhu even though he argues that a person or self does not exist and, as such, nothing persists over time. Vasubandhu still needs to be able to account for continuity as this has implications for understanding memory, karma and re-birth. I discuss this problem in section 2.2. The problem of continuity was an important problem that Buddhist scholars were forced to address. Before discussing this, I outline Vasubandhu’s metaphysical understanding of reality as this explains how he answers the question ‘what are we?’
1.2 Vasubandhu’s metaphysical framework
Metaphysically, Vasubandhu believes that reality can be reduced to mental and physical dharmas. These are momentary events that arise and cease dependent upon causal conditions. This is an atomistic ontology where the dharmas are the basic building blocks of reality and the only entities that are substantially real. Vasubandhu divides phenomena into that which is substantially or ultimately real (paramārtha) and that which is conventionally real (saṃvṛti). The dharmas are substantially real because they have causal powers. However, phenomena that are conventionally real do not have causal powers. These objects, that make up our common-sense reality, can be reduced to the dharmas. This includes our concept of ourselves as a person. Persons are comprised of the aggregates and these are heaps of mental and physical dharmas. As these dharmas are the only things that are substantially real anything over and above these dharmas, such as persons, is a conventional construct. Thus, the ontological basis of the first-person singular pronoun ‘I’ is the aggregates (Bronkhorst, 2004; Gold, 2015; Williams, 1989).
Vasubandhu wrote the Ābhidharmakośa when he was a Sautrāntika scholar and it is a text in the Abhidharma tradition. The Abhidharma scholars tried to formalise the Buddha’s teachings and to understand the underlying nature of reality which they argued was comprised of the dharmas. Within the Abhidharma tradition practitioners hoped to gain insight into the true nature of reality, including the impermanence of the self, via an understanding that reality was composed of these momentary dharmas. It was Vasubandhu’s belief that the only substantially real entities were the dharmas that led him to refute the position of the Vātsīputrīyas and the Tīthikas in Refutation. However, if nothing is substantially real except momentary dharmas it is difficult to explain how continuity occurs. I discuss this after first establishing Vasbuandhu’s reductionism in Refutation.
2. Establishing Vasubandhu’s reductionism
In this section, I discuss Vasubandhu’s argument in Refutation and establish that he held a reductionist position. In section 2 and 3 of Refutation, Vasubandhu constructs a dialogue between himself and the Vātsīputrīyas where they debate the nature of the person or pudgula. According to Vasubandhu, a person is a conceptual construct that is the result of the aggregates. As such, a person can be reduced to these aggregates. In contrast to this, the Vātsīputrīyas argue that a person is an inexplicable phenomenon. This is because it is neither the same as, nor different from, the aggregates. It is difficult to assess this debate because Vasubandhu develops arguments based on premises that the Vātsīputrīyas would not accept and, consequently, he misrepresents their view (Duerlinger, 2000).
Nevertheless, Vasubandhu’s argument proceeds as follows. He claims that the Vātsīputrīyas have two options for their theory of persons. Either they accept his own position that persons are reducible to the aggregates, or they postulate a self (ātman) separate from the aggregates. He further claims that if a person were a distinct entity it would be substantially real. However, it cannot be shown that a person is a distinct entity, because this would amount to a self and we do not encounter a self via perception or inference. Instead, a person is a concept that has its basis in the aggregates. He compares this to our concept of milk. Milk is based upon its constitute parts, that is, the various sensory information (colour, taste, smell etc) that we receive which causes us to have the concept of milk. Thus, this sensory information is substantially real, and it is the causal basis for milk which is simply a construct. This applies to persons. The dharmas that make up the aggregates are substantially real, and we know them via perception and inference, and these cause our concept of persons.
However, while Vasubandhu is making a causal claim, the Vātsīputrīyas reject this. Vasubandhu assumes that there is a causal relationship between the aggregates and our concept of a person. He believes that, if the persons are conceived in reliance upon the aggregates, then they are reducible to these aggregates. For Vasubandhu, “the object of the conception of ourselves is the same as its cause” (Duerlinger, 1998, p. 57). That is, a person is a concept that consists in the aggregates that cause us to have this concept. In contrast, when the Vātsīputrīyas say that persons are conceived in reliance upon the aggregates they are not saying that the aggregates cause our concept of persons. Instead, they believe that the relationship between the aggregates and persons is more akin to the relationship between fire and fuel than it is to the example of milk.
2.1 Fire and Fuel analogy
The Vātsīputrīyas use the fire and fuel analogy to illustrate that Vasubandhu’s belief that the aggregates cause our concept of persons is incorrect by showing that we are not the same as, nor different from, the aggregates. They claim that fire is conceived in reliance upon fuel, and yet it is neither the same as, nor different from, fuel. If fire was the same as fuel, or reducible to fuel, then fuel would cause itself to burn. And this is absurd. But if fire was different to fuel then burning fuel would not be hot and this is also absurd. Therefore, this analogy illustrates something that is conceived in reliance upon something else without being the same as, nor different from, it. In the same way, persons are not the same as (or reducible to) the aggregates, nor are they different from the aggregates. If we are conceived in reliance upon the aggregates and the “aggregates are not the object of the conception of ourselves” (Duerlinger, 1998, p. 580) then the “object of the conception of ourselves is not the same as the cause of the conception of ourselves” (Duerlinger, 1998, p. 580). This shows that Vasubandhu’s argument that the aggregates cause our concept of ourselves as persons is false because it claims that the concept of persons is not the same as its cause.
Vasubandhu responds to the fire and fuel analogy by giving a metaphysical and reductionist analysis. He claims that the conventional definitions of fire and fuel do not reveal their true natures at an ultimate level. We conventionally think that fire is an agent that burns fuel and, thus, that fuel changes because of fire. But, if we analyse the relationship between them, we discover that fire arises in dependence on fuel in the way “one collection of momentary elemental substances arises in dependence upon another” (Duerlinger, 1998, p. 583). As a result, fire is “reducible in existence to a collection of momentary substances which arise in dependence upon fuel and fuel is material which can burn and is reducible in existence to a collection of momentary substances which is a prior causal condition of the arising of fire” (Duerlinger, 1998, p. 584). From this he asserts that “fire is not what causes fuel to burn” (Duerlinger, 1998, p. 584). Therefore, our conventional understanding of fire is false and the Vātsīputrīyas argument that fire is reliant upon fuel is false.
The above shows that Vasubandhu held a reductionist view about the nature of persons. According to Vasubandhu, it is dharmas (a collection of momentary substances) that give rise to the concept of fire. This is also the case with persons. The dharmas that make up the aggregates give rise to our concept of a person. As such, a person can be reduced to these aggregates. I now discuss why Vasubandhu’s reductionism is problematic.
2.2 Why reductionism is problematic
Vasubandhu’s reductionism has trouble accounting for continuity. His thesis was a way of defending the no-self doctrine in Buddhism. According to this, we do not have a self (ātman). Instead, our identities can be understood to be comprised of the aggregates. This doctrine proved difficult for Buddhist scholars to defend because it implies that there is nothing that exists which endures over time. In the framework of the Abhidharma, it is hard to account for continuity if all that exists are momentary dharmas. This is like the problem of persistence. If there are no substances or properties that endure, then how can we understand an individual persisting over time? This has important implications for understanding memory, karma and re-birth. For example, in the case of memory, if there is nothing that persists how do my memories belong to me and not you? Or, in the case of karma, if I commit an action now that results in karmic retribution in the future, how can I be the same person who experiences the consequences of my action? In terms of re-birth, if nothing persists, then how can an individual transmigrate from one life to the next? Another domain in which continuity is problematic is free-will. Buddhist scholars believed in free will as volition is one of the aggregates. However, if we are reduced to the aggregates and there is no subject that continues over time, it is difficult to know what functions as the subject of free will (Tuske, 2013).
The question of how continuity is possible if all that exists are momentary dharmas is arguably the greatest problem that the reductionism of Vasubandhu faced. In the next two sections, I discuss two major problems that arise from this. That is, the problems of accounting for memory and karma.
3. The problem of memory
In section 4 of the Refutation, the Tīthikas challenge Vasubandhu by claiming that if we experience a memory, for example of a perception we have experienced in the past, momentary dharmas cannot account for this. They seem to be referring to episodic memory, that is, memories of experiences we have had (Chadha, 2014). Episodic memories have a subjective dimension to them; they seem to belong to us.
In what follows, I discuss how I understand memory, given the current state of psychology. I then discuss why Vasubandhu’s later view of the mind in his Yogacara phase seems able to accommodate this psychological view of memory. I then discuss why his view of mind that results from reductionism is unable to account for memory.
3.1 The current state of memory in psychology
Memory involves taking something we have observed, such as a written phone number, and converting it into a form we can store, retrieve and use (Burton et al., 2009, p. 249).
Memory is a term that refers to a variety of information processing functions that the brain performs. Broadly, it is the process by which we can recall an image or thought when the original stimulus is not longer present. To do this, the original stimulus must be represented in the mind. This information is stored and later retrieved when it is presented in consciousness again. Research suggests that memory involves a set of modules. These are processing units that are responsible for different types of memory. What used to be known as short-term memory is now called working memory. This is a temporary system that processes information we use to respond to the environment, achieve goals and solve problems. This system retains information only so long as it is being used. Working memory can be thought of as a conscious workspace. In contrast, information can be stored in long-term memory (LTM) without being conscious. To access LTM this information is retrieved and then represented in working memory (Burton et al., 2009). Thus, to account for LTM a theory of mind must include unconscious as well as conscious mental states. I now explain why episodic memory, which is part of LTM and refers to our autobiographical memory, is necessary for our sense of continuity over time.
It is important to understand the role episodic memory plays in our understanding of ourselves as agents continuing over time. This can be shown by Antonio Damasio’s (1999, 2012) work with patients who have brain damage to episodic memory. These subjects are caught in a small window of time and lack the ability to recognise their lives in an autobiographical way. In other words, to recognise themselves as agents persisting over time. Damasio uses these cases to illustrate that we need an ‘autobiographical self’ to explain how self-consciousness emerges. To become self-conscious agents this autobiographical self is built upon more primitive proto and core selves. Damasio seeks an account of the emergence of consciousness within a physicalist framework and his use of self does not refer to an ātman. However, his work illustrates how episodic memory is essential to explaining the continuity of our identities.
I now argue that Vasubandhu’s later Yogacara view of mind can account for episodic memory because it allows for unconscious mental states.
3.2 Vasubandhu’s later Yogacara view and how it accounts for memory
After Vasubandhu wrote Refutation he changed his view of the mind by converting to the Yogacara school of Buddhism. I suggest that the Yogacara view of mind is more sophisticated than the view Vasubandhu defends in Refutation. When Vasubandhu wrote the Ābhidharmakośa the canonical Abhidharma posited six types of consciousness. Five of these were related to the sense organs, and the sixth was related to mental cognition. However, in addition to these the Yogacara adds the storehouse consciousness (ālayavijñāna) and the ego-consciousness (kliṣṭamanas). The storehouse consciousness is a more continuous form of consciousness that is like an unconscious. It holds the habits and character traits of an individual, as well as their emotions, memories, sense impressions and latent karma (Dreyfus, 2007; Griffiths, 1986).
Because the storehouse consciousness is like an unconscious it can store information from experiences we have. This information can be later retrieved and consciously remembered as memories of those experiences. There is a temporal gap between when we first experience an event and when we later remember it. During this time this information is not always conscious. This suggests it must be stored. This is in line with the understanding of LTM in current psychological research. Thus, the storehouse consciousness seems a robust enough version of mind to account for episodic memory. And, episodic memory is necessary for us to understand ourselves as agents continuing over time. Only a view of mind that can accommodate unconscious mental states, as well as conscious ones, is able to account for episodic memory and, thus, our continuity as agents.
3.3 Why Vasubandhu’s reductionism cannot account for memory
In Refutation, Vasubandhu gives a description of how memory occurs that adheres to the no-self doctrine and argues that a causal continuum of momentary dharmas can explain memory. Vasubandhu claims that, if we remember an experience (such as a perception), then the mental state that is the memory occurs later in the series and is distinct from the perception. However, a causal chain leads back from the memory to the mental state that is the prior perception. It is this causal connection between the two states that explains why I cannot have a memory that belongs to another person. This is because there is not a causal chain between my experiences and theirs (Chadha, 2014; Gold, 2015).
It is important to distinguish Vasubandhu’s causal claim from his reductionism. I do not reject Vasubandhu’s causal claim. My account of memory can still be understood as a causal account whereby an experience causes a representation to be created and stored by the brain and this stored representation is later retrieved and causes the subsequent memory. The difference in our accounts is due to my claim that an account of episodic memory requires a theory of the mind that posits unconscious mental states. This is because the information that results from an experience that is later remembered is not always conscious and is, thus, stored as unconscious information. Vasubandhu’s reductionist account of mind is based on an impoverished ontology that only posits momentary conscious states in a causal continuum. I claim this is insufficient to account for episodic memory because there is no space in this ontology to account for storage of information that is not conscious.
A response to this would be to challenge my claim that Vasubandhu’s ontology includes only conscious mental states. Or, to challenge what the term ‘consciousness’ means in Vasubandhu’s ontology. It is difficult to know what Vasubandhu meant by ‘consciousness’. But it is useful to look at some distinctions of this term in current analytical philosophy. The term consciousness has a variety of meanings. The first distinction is between creature consciousness, such as the fact that I am conscious when I am awake but not when I am in a coma. This contrasts to mental states that are conscious. I take Vasubandhu to be referring to conscious mental states. Another distinction is between transitive and intransitive consciousnesses (Rosenthal, 2009). Transitive is more overt, while intransitive is more implicit. I do not think this distinction is relevant to Vasubandhu. The next distinction is between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness (Block, 1995). Access consciousness refers to states that are ready to be used in reasoning and deliberation. By contrast, phenomenal consciousness is our qualitative first-person experience. This is commonly described as ‘what it is like’ (Nagel, 1974) for us to have conscious experiences. I assume that Vasubandhu uses consciousness in this phenomenal sense. However, arguably, access conscious states can be unconscious. If Vasubandhu’s notion of consciousness is access consciousness it could be claimed that the information stored that becomes a memory is ‘access conscious’ before it is retrieved and phenomenally experienced as a memory. This would be a way to include unconscious mental states in Vasubandhu’s ontology.
However, I think the most convincing way to understand Vasubandhu’s use of ‘consciousness’ is as phenomenal consciousness. It seems unlikely that he would have made a distinction between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness along the lines of analytical philosophy. Given a choice between these two meanings of ‘consciousness’, phenomenal consciousness is the most obvious in terms of our first-person experience and Buddhist theories of mind were greatly influenced by phenomenological investigations due to the importance of meditation. In contrast, access consciousness has been posited very recently and is the result of greater cognitive understanding of how the brain functions. If these assumptions are correct, and Vasubandhu is referring to phenomenal consciousness, such states are not unconscious states. As such, I claim there is no place in his ontology to account for unconscious mental states. And yet, these unconscious states are necessary to account for episodic memory – without which we cannot have a sense of ourselves as agents existing over time. Thus, I believe the reductionism of Vasubandhu is flawed.
4. The problem of karma
While I claim that Vasubandhu’s ontology in Refutation – the result of his reductionism – is insufficient to account for memory, I likewise claim that it has problems accounting for the results of karma. Karma means ‘action’ and karmic retribution occurs when I experience the results of that action. However, if all that exists are momentary dharmas it is difficult to understand how karma works. How can the agent who performed the action be the agent that experiences the consequences of that action when the results of karma are not always immediate? Again, conscious dharmas do not allow for the storage of unconscious information and it seems that this unconscious storage is necessary if the consequences of actions are to transpire.
Vasubandhu would claim that continuity in the case of karma can be accounted for by the dharmas because the collection of dharmas that constituted my identity when I committed an action is causally connected to the collection of dharmas that experiences the consequences of that action. However, there is a temporal separation between the initial action and the resulting retribution. In the time that elapses between these our conscious states do not contain the sort of information (and it is difficult to specify what this information is) that allows the process of karma to unfold.
As with memory, Vasubandhu’s later view of mind in his Yogacara phase seems better able to deal with this difficulty. In this view of mind, the storehouse consciousness holds the seeds (bīja) of actions (karma). It seems that the dharmas that make up the action are stored and then later emerge (or are transformed) when the fruits of the action are experienced. The storehouse consciousness allows the Yogacara scholars (including Vasubandhu) to account for continuity by providing a way for the karma generated by an individual to impact the aggregates that make up that individual at a later time. It also helps explain re-birth because it explains how consciousness continues into the next life.
Yogacara scholars claim that the storehouse consciousness is not permanent, so it allows them to hold onto the no-self doctrine. However, because it allows for continuity it allows them to respond to problems related to continuity, such as memory, karma and re-birth.
In Refutation, Vasubandhu argues that persons are a construct that can be reduced to the dharmas that make up the aggregates. These dharmas are the only entities with substantial reality. They are momentary and exist in a casual continuum. This is a reductionist ontology and I argue that it is unable to account for problems related to continuity such as memory and karma. In the case of memory, I claim that we require episodic memory to have a sense of ourselves as agents existing over time. I further claim that to account for episodic memory we need to posit unconscious mental states as information that is experienced is stored as unconscious information before it is later remembered. Because Vasubandhu’s ontology only accounts for conscious mental states it cannot account for the storage of this information. I likewise claim that his reductionist ontology cannot account for karma. Karma, like memory, requires the storage of information. This is because the results of karma are not always immediate. In Vasubandhu’s later Yogacara phase he adapts a version of mind that includes the storehouse consciousness, and this seems able to account for both memory and karma. As such, I conclude his earlier view of mind in Refutation is limited while his later Yogacara view enables him to account for continuity and the associated problems such as memory and karma.
Many thanks to Koji Tanaka (my supervisor) and Szymon Bogacz for invaluable feedback on drafts of this essay.
I used the following two translations for this paper: Duerlinger (2003) and De La Vallee Poussin and Pruden (1990).
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