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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 3.1 (2020): 170–227;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Manuscript Studies and Xuanzang Studies)

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Survivability: Vasubandhu and Saṅghabhadra on the Continuity of the Life of a Sentient Being as Translated by Xuanzang

Ernest Billings (Billy) BREWSTER
Iona College, New Rochelle, New York

Abstract: This paper presents the doctrinal argumentation on the continuity of the life of an individual sentient being found in the Abhidharma Buddhist texts translated by Xuanzang and his Tang Dynasty (618–907) collaborators. Vasubandhu, in the Treasury of the Abhidharma, and Saṅghabhadra, in his two commentaries on this text, the Abhidharma Treatise Conforming to the Correct Logic, and the Treatise Clarifying Abhidharma Tenets, enlist the doctrines of the continuum (Skt. saṃtāna; Ch. xiangxu 相續) and the aggregates (Skt. skandha; Ch. yun 蘊) to support the idea that the life of an individual sentient being does not end with the death of the body. The conceptualization of survivability, articulated by Vasubandhu and Saṅghabhadra in these three Abhidharma masterworks, is that an individual sentient being continues in life, and survives death, the afterlife, and reincarnation, in the form of aggregates bundled together in the continuum. This paper enlists a source criticism methodology to compare the translations of the Abhidharma texts by Xuanzang and his coterie, with earlier recensions of the texts in Chinese, and received versions in Tibetan and Sanskrit, to describe the definitions, examples, and logic employed by Vasubandhu and Saṅghabhadra in their argumentation in defense of the doctrine that the life of an individual sentient being persists throughout the four stages of the Buddhist life cycle: life, death, the afterlife, and reincarnation. Ultimately, for Vasubandhu and Saṅghabhadra, as well as for Xuanzang, the individual life constituted by the continuum of a sentient being persists in the face of constant change and radical impermanence.

Keywords: Xuanzang, Vasubandhu, Saṅghabhadra, Abhidharmanyānanusāra śāstra, Apidamo shun zhengli lun, 阿毘達磨順正理論, *Abhidharmasamayapradīpikā śāstra, Apidamo zang xianzong lun, 阿毘達磨藏顯宗論


About the Author: Ernest Billings (Billy) Brewster is currently a lecturer at Iona College, Department of Religious Studies. His research interests include combining philology with a doctrinal-historical approach to key ideological developments in early medieval Chinese Buddhism. He received his doctorate from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University in 2018, for a dissertation treating the history of medieval Chinese Buddhist doctrinal conceptualizations of death and dying. During the academic year of Fall 2018–Spring 2019, he was Sheng Yen Education Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Chinese Buddhism at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Department of Asian Studies.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.