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Abhidharmakosa Sastra: Introduction by Ven. Dr. Thich Huyen Vi

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Abhidharmakosa Sastra
by Ven. Dr. Thich Huyen Vi
Ling-shan Monastery
Joinville, Le Ponte, France

In the following articles we propose to take upon ourselves the task of translation into English the nine chapters of the Chinese Abhidharmakosa which is entirely based, with negligible interpolations in places, on the original Abhidharmakosa (77_3_1.jpg A pi ta mo chu she) written by Vasubandhu (77_3_2.gif Shih Ch'in) in Sanskrit. The translation work into Chinese was first undertaken and completed by Chen-ti (77 3 3.gif). But this translation was not verbatim. It gave only the idea, though in verse form as in the original Sanskrit. So it failed to gain popularity in China. Later on, the same task of translating into Chinese was undertaken by the famous Chinese Scholar Hsuan-tsang (77 3 4.gif) who was well versed in the Sanskrit language. He had attained wonderful proficiency in Sanskrit by studying it in the Ancient Nalanda University for approximately fourteen years. He successfully completed this difficult task and produced a verbatim Chinese translation of the original Abhidharmakosa composed by Vasubandhu. It soon became very popular and received wide recognition in China. We are concerned here with this version of the Chinese Abhidharmakosa. But it will not be out of place if we preface a few lines, with Vasubandhu, the original writer, and his Abhidharmakosa before discussing the actual work.

Scholars are of the opinion that they were two great Acaryas, Vasubandhu (77 3 2.gif Shih-ch'in) and Asanga (77 3 6.gif Wu-chao) by name, who flourished in the fourth century A.D. These two were brothers hailing from Purusapura (77 3 7.gif Fu lou sha fu lo), which is now known as Peshawara. The latter, that is, Asanga, is said to have acquired complete mastery over the Yogacara School (77 3 8.jpg Yu ch'ieh tsung) of Buddhism. But his brother, Vasubandhu, who was initially a Sarvastivadin (77 3 9.jpg I ch'ieh yu pu) later came under the influence of his brother Asanga and became a Yogacarin.

The Abhidharmakosa, the master work of Vasubandhu, saw the light of day when belonged to the Sarvastivadins. Like the Theravadins (77 3 10.jpg Yuan shih pu), the Sarvastivadins also possessed an Abhidharma Pitaka (77 3 11.jpg Lun tsang) comprising seven Prakaranas. A Sangiti or Buddhist Council was held at Purusapura during the reign of emperor Kaniska (77_3_12.jpg Chia ni se chia) who was a staunch supporter of the Sarvastivada School of Buddhism. It was in this Buddhist Council that the Sarvastivadins compiled commentaries on their Pitakas. The commentary on the Abhidharma Pitaka was known as the Vibhasasastra (77_3_13.jpg P'i p'o sha lun). This work was held in high esteem generally and great importance was attached to it. For this reason the authors of this work came to be known as Vaibhasikas (77_3_14.jpg P'i p'o sha lun shih) as distinct from Sautrantikas (77_3_15.jpg Ching liang chia) who laid the foundation for another Sarvastivadin School.

Vasubandhu scored a tremendous success in summarizing the whole of the Vibhasastra in his masterpiece, the Abhidharmakosa. In other words, the Abhidharmakosa may be said to be a summary of the entire Vibhasasastra. So it is regarded as an introduction to the Abhidharma of the Sarvastivada School. In this respect, it may be compared with the Abhidhammattha Sangaha (77_3_16.jpg Sheng fa chi yao lun) of Anuruddhacariya (77_3_17.jpg A nou lou to o she li) which is regarded as an introduction to the Theravada School of Buddhism. But there is no denying the fact that Abhidharmakosa is more informative than the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, for it is replete with references to other Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools. For this reason it came to be regarded as a standard work, full of Abhidharmic matters. With the passage of time, it became so popular that Banabhatta who flourished in the 8th century A.D. referred to the popularity of this work in his Harsacarita. According to him even parrots were well versed in Abhidharma and they were heard reciting it[1]. While referring to the Monastery of Divakaramitra, he further says that great devotees and profound scholars of Buddhism were found teaching their disciples the Abhidharmakosa[2]. The Abhidharmakosa maintains even today the same popularity in countries like Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The Abhidharmakosa includes nine chapters which are as follows:

1. Dhatu-nirdesa: 77_3_18.jpg Fen pieh chieh p'in ti i.

2. Indriya-nirdesa: 77_3_19.jpg Fen pieh ken p'in ti erh.

3. Lodadhatu-nirdesa: 77_3_20.jpg Fen pieh shih chien p'in ti san.

4. Karma-nirdesa: 77_3_21.jpg Fen pieh yeh p'in ti ssu.

5. Anusaya-nirdesa: 77_3_22.jpg Fen pieh sui mien p'in ti wu.

6. Aryapudgala-nirdesa: 77_3_23.jpg Fen pieh hsien sheng p'in ti liu.

7. Jnana-nirdesa: 77_3_24.jpg Fen pieh chi p'in ti ch'i.

8. Dhyana-nirdesa: 77_3_25.jpg Fen pieh ting p'in ti pa, and

9. Pudgala-nirdesa: 77_3_26.jpg P'o chih wo p'in ti chiu.

The first eight chapters are comprised of six hundred karikas. The last, that is, the 9th chapter is in prose. In this chapter the author deals with Pudgalavada and Atma-vada with special reference to the dharma theory.


  1. Trisaranaparaih parmapasakaih sukairapi sakya. sasanakusalaih kosam samupadisadbhih (Harsacarita, 8th Chapter, p. 237) N.S.P.
  2. Kosam Kusalasya...divakaramitram adraksit (Harsacarita, 8th Chapter, p. 338) N.S.P.

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