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Buddhism: Mahayana: Major Thinkers

Last Updated: Sep 2, 2020 10:47 AM

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Mahāyāna Buddhism: Major Thinkers

Knot logo: Source: Wikimedia Commons | Author: Dontpanic | License: Public domain.
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly and popular perspectives on important teachers and teachings in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right.

Paro Taktsang Bhutan photo Wikimedia

Above: Paro Taktsang, also known as the Tiger's Nest, is a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex located on a cliffside of the upper Paro valley in Bhutan. A temple complex was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Padmasambhava, credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity of the country, is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. Today, Paro Taktsang is the best known of the thirteen caves in which he meditated. The temple devoted to Padmasambhava is an elegant structure built around the cave in 1692 by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye. It has become a central cultural icon of Bhutan.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Vikramjit Kakati. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Ashvaghosha Wikimedia pictureAśvaghosa (ca. 80 – ca. 150 CE)

An Indian Buddhist philosopher, dramatist, poet and orator. Born in Saketa in northern India, he is believed to have been the first Sanskrit dramatist, and is considered the greatest Indian poet prior to Kālidāsa. He was the most famous in a group of Buddhist court writers, whose epics rivalled the contemporary Ramayana. Whereas much of Buddhist literature prior to the time of Aśvaghoṣa had been composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, Aśvaghoṣa wrote in Classical Sanskrit. He composed an epic life of the Buddha called Buddhacharita (Acts of the Buddha). The Tang-era Chinese monk I-tsing (Yijing) writes that in his time, the Buddhacarita was "extensively read in all the five parts of India and in the countries of the South Sea (Sumātra, Jāva and the neighbouring islands). Ashvaghosha clothed manifold notions and ideas in few words, which so delighted the heart of his reader that he never wearied of perusing the poem. Moreover it was regarded as a virtue to read it, inasmuch as it contained the noble doctrine in a neat compact form." It described in 28 chapters the whole life of the Buddha from his birth until his entry into parinirvāna.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A Chinese-style portrait of Ashvaghosha. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain. All books in the gallery immediately below are by Ashvaghosha unless otherwise noted.

Aryadeva and Nagarjuna Wikimedia pictureNāgārjuna (ca. 150 – ca. 250 CE)

Widely regarded as one of the most important Buddhist philosophers and, along with his disciple Āryadeva, as the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Nāgārjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and, according to some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world after having recovered them from the world of the nāgas (water spirits often depicted in the form of serpent-like humans). Very little is reliably known of his life, since surviving accounts were written in Chinese and Tibetan centuries after his death. According to some accounts, he was originally from South India. Some scholars believe that Nāgārjuna was an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty. Archaeological evidence at Amarāvatī indicates that if this is true, the king may have been Yajña Śrī Śātakarṇi, who ruled between 167 and 196 CE. On the basis of this association, Nāgārjuna is conventionally placed at around 150–250 CE. According to a 4th/5th-century CE biography translated by Kumārajīva, Nāgārjuna was born into a Brahmin family in Vidarbha, a region of Maharashtra, and later became a Buddhist. The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is Nāgārjuna's best-known work. Nāgārjuna's major thematic focus in this text is the concept of śūnyatā, translated into English as "emptiness", which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anātman, or "not-self," and pratītyasamutpāda, "dependent origination", to refute the metaphysics of some of his contemporaries. For Nāgārjuna, as for the Buddha in the early texts, it is not merely sentient beings that are "selfless" or non-substantial; all phenomena (dhammas) are without any svabhāva, literally "own-being", "self-nature", or "inherent existence" and thus without any underlying essence. They are empty of being independently existent; thus the heterodox theories of svabhāva circulating at the time were refuted on the basis of the doctrines of early Buddhism. This is so because all things arise always dependently: not by their own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into existence, as opposed to being. Nāgārjuna means by real any entity which has a nature of its own (svabhāva), which is not produced by causes (akrtaka), which is not dependent on anything else (paratra nirapeksha). Chapter 24, verse 14 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā provides one of Nāgārjuna's most famous quotations on emptiness and co-arising:
 
sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate

All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A Tibetan distemper painting depicts Nāgārjuna (l) and Aryadeva (r) sitting on a floating platform; Nāgārjuna receives a book from a nāga (mythic serpent) emerging from the water. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain. All books in the gallery immediately below are by Nāgārjuna unless otherwise noted.

Nagarjuna

Japanese Taima Mandala 14th c. CE

Above: A detail of the Taima Mandala, a Japanese scroll painting from the 14th century that represents the Pure Land of the Buddha Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha) bordered on three sides by parables from the Sutra on the Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life (Kanmuryō jukyō). This text, portions of which are included in the mandala, recounts the promise at the core of Pure Land School teaching: that those who concentrate on the Buddha Amida during life, and recite his name, will be escorted to his Pure Land, known as the Western Paradise, at the final moment of death. Based on Chinese Tang-dynasty compositions, the Taima Mandala was introduced to Japan in the Nara period (710–84), along with teachings about Amida’s Pure Land. Text & image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (text has been edited). Image author: Unidentified artist. Image license: Public domain.


Asanga by Unkei Wikimedia pictureAsanga (4th c. CE)

One of the most important spiritual figures of Mahayana Buddhism and the founder of the Yogacara school, Asanga and his half-brother Vasubandhu are traditionally regarded as the major classical Indian Sanskrit exponents of Mahayana Abhidharma and Vijñanavada thought as well as Mahayana teachings on the bodhisattva path. According to later hagiographies, Asanga was born as the son of a high caste father in Puruṣapura (present day Peshawar in Pakistan), which at that time was part of the ancient kingdom of Gandhāra. Originally, he may have been a member of the Mahīśāsaka school or the Mūlasarvāstivāda school, but later converted to Mahāyāna. Vasubandhu, Asanga's half-brother, was a monk from the Sarvāstivāda school, and is said to have taken up Mahāyāna Buddhism after a meeting with Asanga and one of Asanga's disciples. Asanga spent many years in serious meditation and study under various teachers, but, according to the narrative of the 6th c. CE monk Paramārtha, was increasingly unsatisfied with his understanding. Paramārtha then recounts how he used his meditative powers (siddhis) to travel to the Tuṣita Heaven to receive teachings from the Bodhisattva Maitreya on emptiness, and how he continued to travel there to receive further teachings from Maitreya on the Mahayana sutras. Modern scholars disagree on whether the figure of Maitreya in this story is to be considered as Asanga's human teacher or as a visionary experience in meditation. Scholars such as Frauwallner held that this figure, sometimes termed Maitreya-nātha, was an actual historical person and teacher. Other scholars argue that this figure was the tutelary deity of Asanga (Iṣṭa-devatā) as well as numerous other Yogacara masters. Whatever the case, Asanga's experiences led him to travel around India and propagate the Mahayana teachings. According to Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India, he founded 25 Mahayana monasteries in India. Asanga went on to write some key treatises (shastras) of the Yogācāra school. Over time, many different works were attributed to him (or to Maitreya, with Asanga as transmitter), although there are discrepancies between the Chinese and Tibetan traditions of attribution. Modern scholars have also problematized and questioned these attributions after critical textual study of the sources.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A carved wooden portrait of Muchaku (Asanga) by Unkei, a Japanese sculptor of the Kei school, dating to 1212 and preserved at the Kōfuku-ji Temple in Nara, Japan. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain. All books in the gallery immediately below are by Asanga unless otherwise noted.

Asanga

 

Asanga by Unkei Wikimedia pictureVasubandhu (4th – 5th c. CE)

An influential Buddhist monk, philosopher, and scholar who wrote commentaries on the Abhidharma from the perspectives of the Sarvastivada and Sautrāntika schools. Born in Purusapura in present-day Pakistan, Vasubandhu was the half brother of Asanga, another key personage in the founding of the Yogacara philosophy. Historical evidence indicates that he was contemporaneous with Chandragupta I, father of Samudragupta, which places him in the 4th century CE. Vasubandhu initially studied with the Buddhist Sarvastivada (or Vaibhāṣika) school which was dominant in Gandhara, and later moved to Kashmir to study with the heads of the orthodox Sarvastivada branch there. After returning home, he lectured on Abhidharma and composed the Abhidharmakośakārikā (Verses on the Treasury of the Abhidharma), a verse distillation of Sarvastivada Abhidharma teachings, which analyzed all factors of experience into their constituent dharmas (phenomenal events). However, Vasubandhu had been questioning Sarvastivada orthodoxy for some time, and went on to study with the Sautrāntika (Dārṣtāntika) teacher, Manoratha. He then published an auto-commentary to his own verses, criticizing the Sarvastivada system from a Sautrāntika viewpoint. He is later said to have converted to Mahayana beliefs under the influence of his brother Asanga, whereupon he composed a number of voluminous treatises, especially on Yogacara doctrines and Mahayana sutras. Most influential in the East Asian Buddhist tradition have been the Vimśatikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi (Twenty Verses on Consciousness Only), with its commentary (Viṃśatikāvṛtti), the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā (Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only) and Trisvabhāvanirdeśa (Exposition of the Three Natures). Vasubandhu thus became a major Mahayana master, scholar and debater, famously defeating the Samkhya philosophers in debate in front of the Gupta King Vikramaditya at Ayodhya, who is said to have rewarded him with 300,000 pieces of gold. Vasubandhu used the money he made from his royal patronage and his debating victories to build Buddhist monasteries and hospitals. After his conversion to Mahayana Buddhism, along with his half-brother, Asanga, he was also one of the main founders of the Yogacara school. Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośakārikā (Commentary on the Treasury of the Abhidharma) is still widely used in Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism as the major source for non-Mahayana Abhidharma philosophy. His philosophical verse works set forth the standard for the Indian Yogacara metaphysics of "appearance only" (vijñapti-mātra), which has been variously described as a form of "epistemological idealism", a precursor of phenomenology, or close to Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Vasubandhu pictured as a Chan/Zen patriarch in a Chinese illustration. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain. All books in the gallery immediately below are by Vasubandhu unless otherwise noted.

Vasubandhu

Longmen Grottoes photo

Above: The Longmen Grottoes are some of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art. Housing tens of thousands of statues of Buddha and his disciples, they are located 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south of present-day Luoyang in Henan province, China. The images, many once painted, were carved as outside rock reliefs and inside artificial caves excavated from the limestone cliffs. There are as many as 100,000 statues within the 2,345 caves, ranging from 1 inch (25 mm) to 57 feet (17 m) in height. The area also contains nearly 2,500 stelae and inscriptions as well as over sixty Buddhist pagodas. Starting with the Northern Wei Dynasty in 493 AD, patrons and donors included emperors, Wu Zetian, members of the royal family, other rich families, generals, and religious groups. In 2000 the site was inscribed upon the UNESCO World Heritage List as “an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity,” for its perfection of an art form, and for its encapsulation of the cultural sophistication of Tang China.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image source: Flickr. Image author: larique. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

Candrakīrti (ca. 600 – ca. 650 CE)

A Buddhist scholar of the Madhyamaka school and a noted commentator on both the works of Nagarjuna and those of his main disciple, Aryadeva. Very little is known about Chandrakirti's life; Tibetan sources state that he was born in Samanta, in southern India, and was a student of Kamalabuddhi. He is traditionally associated with Nalanda Mahavihara, a large and significant monastery in the kingdom of Magadha, where he may have been a monk. Chandrakirti was the most famous member of what the Tibetans came to call the Uma Thelgyur school, an interpretive approach to Madhyamaka thought typically translated into Sanskrit as the Prāsaṅgika, or into English as the "Consequentialist" or "Dialecticist" school. In his writings, Chandrakirti defended Buddhapālita against Bhāviveka, criticizing the latter's acceptance of autonomous syllogism. He also offered refutations of a number of earlier Buddhist views such as the Vijñānavāda or Yogācāra school. He also attacked the views of the school of Dignāga for attempting to ground their epistemology on foundational propositions. Chandrakirti's works include the Prasannapadā, a commentary on Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and the Madhyamakāvatāra, his supplement to Nagarjuna's text and its auto-commentary. The Madhyamakāvatāra is still used as the main sourcebook by most Tibetan monastic colleges in their studies of śūnyatā ("emptiness") and the philosophy of the Madhyamaka school.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Tibetan Dharmakirti Wikimedia pictureDharmakīrti (6th or 7th c. CE)

An influential Indian Buddhist philosopher who worked at Nālandā. He was one of the key scholars of epistemology (pramana) in Buddhist philosophy, and is associated with the Yogācāra and Sautrāntika schools. He was also one of the primary theorists of Buddhist atomism. His works influenced the scholars of Mīmāṃsā, Nyaya and Shaivism schools of Hindu philosophy as well as scholars of Jainism. Dharmakīrti's Pramāṇavārttika, his largest and most important work, was very influential in India and Tibet as a central text on pramana ('valid knowledge instruments') and was widely commented on by various Indian and Tibetan scholars. His texts remain part of the regular curriculum in the monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism. Little is known for certain about the life of Dharmakirti; Tibetan hagiographies suggest he was a Brahmin born in South India and was the nephew of the Mīmāṃsā scholar Kumārila Bhaṭṭa. When he was young, Kumārila spoke abusively towards Dharmakirti as he was taking his brahminical garments. This led Dharmakirti to take the robes of the Buddhist order instead, resolving to "vanquish all the heretics." As a student of Buddhism, he first studied under Isvarasena, and later moved to Nālandā where he interacted with 6th century Dharmapala. However, the accuracy of the Tibetan hagiographies is uncertain, so most scholars place his lifetime between 600–660 CE. Dharmakirti worked at Nalanda as a lay Buddhist, not as an ordained monk, and his work often reflects his belief that no one would understand the value of his work and that his efforts would soon be forgotten; history proved his fears unfounded. Dharmakīrti's philosophy is based on the need to establish a theory of logical validity and epistemic certainty grounded in causality. Following Dignāga's Pramāṇasamuccaya, Dharmakīrti also holds that there are only two instruments of knowledge or 'valid cognition' (pramāṇa): "perception" (pratyaksa) and "inference" (anumāṇa). Perception is a non-conceptual knowing of particulars which is bound by causality, while inference is reasonable, linguistic and conceptual.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A portrait of Dharmakirti in a Tibetan illustration. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain.

Tibetan Śāntideva Wikimedia pictureŚāntideva (8th c. CE)

An 8th-century CE Indian Buddhist monk, philosopher, and scholar active at Nalanda. He was an adherent of the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna and is particularly renowned as the author of the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra. According to Pema Chödrön, "Śāntideva was not well liked at Nalanda... Apparently he was one of those people who didn't show up for anything, never studying or coming to practice sessions. His fellow monks said that his three 'realizations' were eating, sleeping, and shitting." After being goaded into giving a talk to the entire monastic body, Śāntideva delivered the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra (The Way of the Bodhisattva). A variety of English translations of this work exist, sometimes glossed as A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life or Entering the Path of Enlightenment. It is a long poem describing the entire process of enlightenment, from the first thought of liberation to the attainment of full buddhahood, and is still studied by Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists today.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A portrait of Śāntideva in a 19th c. Tibetan illustration. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain.

Shantideva

Vimalakirti Sutra scroll Met photo

Above: A Chinese handscroll dating from 1119 which transcribes and illustrates Chapters 5 through 9 of the Vimalakirti Sutra. This text, celebrating the supremely wise layman Vimalakirti, provided canonical proof that enlightenment and salvation were possible even for believers who remained outside monastic orders. In this scroll, which transcribes chapters 5 through 9 of the sacred text, the illuminated frontispiece portrays Vimalakirti seated on a dais preaching to a large audience. He is depicted with the attributes of a traditional Confucian scholar: long beard, fly whisk, and armrest. An inscription at the end of the scroll indicates that it was executed in remote southwest China, present-day Yunnan Province.
 
Text & image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (edited). Image author: Unidentified Chinese artist, early 12th c. Image license: Public domain.