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Moral Agency and the Paradox of Self-Interested Concern for the Future in Vasubandhus Abhidharmakośabhāṣya

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It is a common view in modern scholarship on Buddhist ethics that attachment to the self constitutes a hindrance to ethics, whereas rejecting this type of attachment is a necessary condition for acting morally. The present article argues that in Vasubandhu’s theory of agency, as formulated in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (Treasury of Metaphysics with SelfCommentary), a cognitive and psychological identification with a conventional, persisting self is a requisite for exercising moral agency. As such, this identification is essential for embracing the ethics of Buddhism and its way of life. The article delineates the method that Vasubandhu employs to account for the notion of a selfless moral agent, with particular emphasis on his strategies for dealing with one central aspect of agency, self-interested concern for the future.

The Buddhist critique of the self has provoked a long-lasting metaphysical debate between Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophers concerning the nature of personal identity. Alongside its metaphysical implications, for many classical Buddhist thinkers, this principle primarily had a deep ethical and soteriological significance. In his Treasury of Metaphysics with Self-Commentary (Sanskrit Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, henceforth AKBh),1 for example, Vasubandhu (fourth to fifth centuries CE) maintains that it is only

References to the AKBh in Sanskrit are to the critical edition by Pradhan (1975). References to the AKBh in Tibetan (henceforth AKBhT) are to Zhu-chen Tshul-khrims-rin-chen (1985). In translating from Sanskrit, I was aided by Yasunori Ejima’s notes in Lee (2005) and by Lambert Schmithausen (personal communication). References to Yaśomitra’s Sphuṭārthavyākhyā on the AKBh (henceforth AKVy) are to

through realizing that there is no permanent self (anātman) that freedom from the cycle of births and deaths (saṃsāra) is possible.2 For the most part, modern scholarship on Buddhist ethics has indeed leaned towards this particular interpretation of the relation between the principle of no-self and ethics. The common conception has been that the cognitive reification of the self, and the accompanying emotional clinging, constitutes an obstacle to acting morally (Goodman 2009a, pp. 111, 213; Gross 1997, pp. 338–339; Harvey 2000, p. 36; Ives 1992, pp. 117–120; King 2005, pp. 91–92; Siderits 2017, pp. 289–292). In this essay, I will defend a different interpretation, according to which an identification with an enduring self is, in fact, a requirement for engaging in the ethics and life plan of Buddhism.3 In this stance, those who adhere to ethics are conventional moral agents, and agency, in turn, requires a sense of personhood.

My observations concerning the implications of the principle of no-self for ethics and agency will rely on the AKBh, and a large portion of my discussion will refer to the ninth chapter of the work, the Refutation of the Doctrine of Self (Ātmavādapratiṣedha, henceforth ĀVP). The ĀVP is arranged as a set of debates between Vasubandhu and his philosophical opponents. Specifically, in the final part of the chapter, Vasubandhu considers questions related to agency and addresses various objections raised by a non Buddhist opponent, who defends the thesis that an enduring self exists.4

Shastri (1970-1973). All translations are mine unless otherwise mentioned. Verses (karikā) from the Abhidharmakośa appear in the translations and transliterations from Sanskrit in bold letters. 2 AKBh IX, p. 461; AKBhT Khu 82a1–2. 3 As has also been recently proposed by Meyers (2014), who suggests that in the Pāli suttas and the Abhidharma traditions, certain elements that are involved in practicing the path—goal-oriented actions, effort, and initiative—require that one regard oneself as an autonomous agent through self-grasping, and McGarrity (2015), who argues that the works of Mādhyamika philosophers, such as Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, and Candrakīrti, advocate the reconstruction of the person as an agent and with it a sense of personhood, which serve as the basis for a teleological orientation towards future goals. 4 The exact philosophical affiliation of Vasubandhu’s opponent, who in the ĀVP is simply called a tīrthika (a non-Buddhist thinker), is not fully clear. Duerlinger (2003, pp. 117–118, n. 60) suggests that the opponent in the later part of the chapter—the part I will consider below—is a Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika philosopher. La Vallée


Primary Sources

AKBh Pradhan, P. (Ed.), (1975). Abhidharma-kośabhāṣya of Vasubandhu, revised by A. Haldar. Patna: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute. AKVy Shastri, Swami Dwarikadas (Ed.), (1970-1973). Abhidharmakoṣa & Bhāṣya of Acharya Vasubandhu with Sphuṭārthā Commentary of Ācārya Yaśomitra. Varanasi: Bauddha Bharati. AKBhT Zhu-chen Tshul-khrims-rin-chen (Ed.), (1985). sDe-dge Bstan-'gyur. Vols. 140 & 141. #4090. Delhi: Delhi Karmapae Choedhey, Gyalwae Sungrab Partun Khang. Accessed through and

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Bryant, E. F. (2014). Agency in Sāṃkhya and Yoga: The Unchangeability of the Eternal. In M. R. Dasti, & E. F. Bryant (Eds.) Free Will, Agency and Selfhood in Indian Philosophy (pp. 16-40). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Poussin (La Vallée Poussin and Sangpo 2012, pp. 2632–2633, n. 166), on the other hand, holds that certain passages of the same part of the debate are directed towards a Buddhist Pudgalavādin philosopher. Charles Goodman (2009b, pp. 297–299) comments that some of the passages concern the ideas of the NyāyaVaiśeṣika school, while others seem to be directed towards a proponent of the Sāṃkhya school; as a whole, they concern only non-Buddhist schools. On the topic of agency in Nyāya thought, see Dasti (2014a). On the notion of agency in Sāṃkhya philosophy, see Bryant (2014).

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