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Saṅghabhadra’s and Śubhagupta’s Defence of Atomism, Their Similarities and Differences


As Buddhist externalists, both Saṅghabhadra and Śubhagupta claim the existence of an external object on the basis of atomism. In this paper, I will show the interrelationship between Saṅghabhadra’s and Śubhagupta’s atomic theories. Regarding the ontological status of the aggregation of atoms, both of them agree on a Vaibhāṣika principle that the aggregation of atoms, as a real substance, can serve as an object-support (ālambana) of cognition. Based on this principle, their similarities can be further explicated from three aspects. Regarding epistemology, Śubhagupta differs from Saṅghabhadra on the cognitive process of the awareness of something blue. For Saṅghabhadra, a gross object is grasped by non-conceptual sensory consciousness because it is a real entity aggregated by atoms. Through the function of vitarka of sensory consciousness, an object with its essential nature, i.e., the colour blue, is distinguished from other entities. Then, it is known as the notion ‘blue’, which is a mere provisional existence, through the conceptual thought of mental consciousness. However, for Śubhagupta, a coarse object such as something blue is only a mental error of conceptual construction.

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  1. In this paper I use ‘externalist/externalism’ instead of ‘realist/realism’, as suggested by scholars such as Ratié (2011, p. 481), because it offers a translation that is most approximate to the meaning of the Sanskrit term bāhyārthavādin/bāhyārthavāda and avoids misreading by using the term ‘realist/realism’ in Indian philosophy. ‘Externalists’ refer to those who assert that objects or any factors exist outside consciousness independently. Its sense is much broader than how it is used in the context of modern analytical philosophy.

  2. For the date of Vasubandhu, see Deleanu (2006, pp. 186–194).

  3. Although ‘Viṃśatikā’ is the title commonly accepted by modern scholars, ‘Viṃśikā’ appears to be the original title. See Kazuo (2008, pp. 345, 350).

  4. For the Sanskrit name, date and life of Śubhagupta see Saccone (2019, p. 458; 2014, p. 378), also Frauwallner (1961, p. 147).

  5. As pointed out by Cox (1995, p. 58), the NAS is not simply a refutation of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya but rather a broad-based attempt to defend Kāśmīra Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika doctrine against the objections of all opponents. Saṅghabhadra is also influenced by Vasubandhu's criticisms and attempts to reformulate some Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika positions in response to them. His works mark a turning point in the development of Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika thought; as a result, Saṅghabhadra is acknowledged as the inaugurator of the so-called ‘neo-Vaibhāṣika’ period.

  6. ĀP 2ab: gang ltar snang de de las min || rdzas su med phyir zla gnyis bzhin || The appearance does not [arise] from that [aggregation of atoms], because [the appearance] does not possess the [property of] substance, just like a second moon [in a visible cognition]. An English translation can also be found in Duckworth et al. (2016, pp. 41–42). Dignāga argues that the aggregation of atoms as a unity is not the object of cognition and cannot serve as a cause of cognition because it is devoid of the substantial power to arouse cognition, just like an appearance of a second moon in an illusion.

  7. BASK 38: gang ltar snang de de las min || rdzas med phyir zla gnyis bzhin zhes || smras pa’i sgrub pa gang yin pa || de la’ang gtan tshigs ma nges nyid|| Also cf. Matsuoka (2013, p. 183).

  8. BASK 39: rdul phran gang dag phrad gyur cing || rigs mthun bya ba gcig byed pa || de dag ’dus pa zhes brjod na || de dag rdzas med ga la zhig || English translation cf. Saccone (2015, p. 117; 2018, pp. 346, 352).

  9. Cf. NAS, p. 383c: 有對色中。最後細分。更不可析。名曰極微。謂此極微。更不可以餘色覺慧分析為多。此即說為色之極少。更無分故。立極少名。如一剎那名時極少。更不可析為半剎那. Also cf. Dhammajoti (2009, p. 200).

  10. NAS, p. 522a: 然許極微略有二種。一實二假。其相云何。實謂極成色等自相。於和集位。現量所得。假由分析。比量所知。謂聚色中。以慧漸析。至最極位。然後於中辯色聲等極微差別。此析所至。名假極微。

  11. NAS, p. 531b: 謂無極微不和集故。既常和集非不可見。Also Cf. NAS, p.530c.

  12. NAS, p.536b-c: 一一極微。無獨起理。設有獨起。以極細故。非眼所得。於積集時。眼可得故。證知定有顯色極微。

  13. BASK 44: rdul phran rnams ni re re nas || rang dbang ’byung ba mi srid do || de phyir phra rab rdul rnams ni || re re snang bar mi ’gyur ro ||44|| English translation cf. Saccone (2014, p. 386; 2018, p. 352).

  14. BAP, pp. 158, 18–159, 1: yathoktaṃ bhadanta śubhaguptena—pratyekaṃ na cāṇūnāṃ svātantryeṇāsti sambhavaḥ | ato ’pi paramāṇūnām ekaikāpratibhāsanam | Also TSP, B, p .672, 14–16. Hattori (1960, p. 399). For an English translation, cf. Saccone (2018, p. 232).

  15. Take Śāntarakṣita for example, he distinguishes three types of atomic theory: (1) atoms conjoin each other; (2) atoms do not conjoin, but are surrounding by intervals among them and held as an aggregation by the power of mutual assistance; and (3) although atoms do not touch one another, they are considered to touch because there are no intervals among them. (MAV, pp. 50–52; Ichigō, 1985b, p. 12.) Almost the same three atomic theories can be found in TSP ad TS 1989–1991. Cf. BAP, p. 170. Also TSP, B, pp. 680–681. Ichigō (1985b, pp. 12–14) argues that these three types of atomism are first summarized and refuted by Vasubandhu in his VŚ. For the second of the three theories of atomism, Vinītadeva explains its key points as holding that many atoms are accumulated with intervals among them, which corresponds to the description in the MAV. In Kuiji’s commentary of VŚ, he considers the second theory of atomism to be Vaibhāṣika’s doctrine. Chu (2006, pp. 222–223) notes that Kuiji’s definition of the aggregation (he-ji) of atoms implies that many atoms are gathered but with space between them. In his annotated translation of TSP ad TS 1989–1991, Mikogami (1997, p. 103) treats the second doctrine of atomism as that of Saṅghabhadra since Saṅghabhadra admits that aggregated atoms are always endowed with interstices and never touch one another.

  16. If it is admitted that atoms have no part but touch one another either at one point or in their totality, this would result in two or more atoms coalescing into a single unit. Cf. MVŚ, pp. 383c–384a; Dhammajoti (2009, p. 205).

  17. For example, MVŚ introduces Vasumira’s argument that if atoms touched each other, they would remain to the next moment [in contact, which conflicts their momentary nature]. Bhadanta Dharmatrāta explains that atoms indeed do not touch, they are metaphorically said to touch one another when they are juxtaposed without an interval. MVŚ 684a: 尊者世友作如是說。若諸極微互相觸者。彼應得住至後剎那。大德說言。實不相觸。但於合集無間生中。隨世俗諦假名相觸. Also cf. MVŚ 380a. For an English translation cf. Dhammajoti (2009, p. 206).

  18. AKbh, p. 32, 11–12: kiṃ punaḥ paramāṇavaḥ spṛśanty anyonyam āho svin na | na spṛśantīti Kāśmīrakāḥ | The atomism of Vaibhāṣikas from Kāśmīr is also reported in the VŚ, indicating that atoms do not conjoin (i.e., touch) because they are partless; but an aggregate of atoms conjoins with other aggregates [because they have parts]. Cf. VŚ, p. 7, 9–10: naiva hi paramāṇavaḥ saṃyujyante niravayavatvāt | mā bhūd eṣa doṣaprasaṅgaḥ | saṃhatās tu parasparaṃ saṃyujyanta iti Kāśmīravaibhāṣikās | English translation cf. Saccone (2015, pp. 20–121; Silk 2016, p. 89).

  19. AKBh, p. 33, 4–5: na ca paramāṇubhyo ’nye saṃghātā iti | ta eva te saṃghātāḥ paramāṇavaḥ spṛśyante yathā rūpyante | In the stanza 13 of VŚ, Vasubandhu also refutes the atomism of Kāśmīravaibhāṣikas in a similar way. Cf. VŚ, p. 7, 11–17. Also cf. NAS, p. 372c: 有餘師說。雖諸極微互不相觸。而和合色相觸無過。由此拊擊得發音聲。如諸極微雖無變礙。而和合色變礙非無。此不應理。非離極微有和合色。若觸和合應觸極微。彼即應許極微相觸.

  20. AKBh, p. 33, 2–4: na spṛśanti | nirantare tu spṛṣṭasaṃjñeti Bhadantaḥ | Bhadantamataṃ caiṣṭavyam | anyathā hi sāntarāṇāṃ paramāṇūnāṃ śūnyeṣv antareṣu gatiḥ kena pratibadhyeta | yataḥ sapratighā iṣyante | English translation cf. Pruden (1988–1990, pp. 121–122). Dhammajoti (2009, p. 206). The Bhadanta’s perspective can be identified with that of MVŚ. Cf. note 17 above.

  21. Cf. NAS, p. 373b: 若說諸微全無間隙。然不相雜。應成有分。不許處同。復無間隙。既許無間。何不相觸? 故彼但間言定顯隣近義。此中但言。或顯定義。定有間隙。故名定間。如定有熱故名定熱。是定有隙。理得成義。或顯無義。謂此中無如極微量觸色所間。故名無間。如是無間大種極微隣近生時。假說為觸。For an English translation, cf. Pruden (1988–1990, p. 149; Dhammajoti 2009, p. 206).

  22. NAS, p. 371c: 隣近生時即名為合。豈待相觸方得合名。

  23. BASK 56: phan tshun bdag nyid ma reg pa || cha shas med par rnam gnas te || de phyir sa yi dkyil ’khor sogs || bsags pa las ni byung ba yin ||56 || English translation cf. Saccone (2018, p. 354).

  24. BASK 45: rdul phran phyogs la (cha, Saccone 2018, p. 347) tha dad phyir || med ces smras gang de ma ’brel || ’ga’ yis khyad par dang bcas pa’i || rdul la phyogs kyi sgrar bstan bya ||45||.

    BASK 46: de phyir phyogs cha’i khyad pa gyi (par gyis, Saccone 2018, p. 347) || de ni mang pos yongs bskor bar || brjod par zad kyi rdul rnams ni || cha shas bcas pa’i bdag nyid min ||46||.

    BASK 47: rdul phran tshu rol ngos na gcig || pha rol gzhan rnams (rnam, Saccone 2018, p. 347) gnas pa ni || tshu rol pha rol cha gnyis kyis || rdul de gnyis su thal ba med ||47||.

    BASK 48: du ma’i dbus na ’dug pa’i phyir || du ma nyid du rnam rtog la ||’di ltar ldog pa’i sgo dag nas || mang po nyid du phyir (spyir, Saccone 2018, p. 347) rtog cing || 48|| English translation cf. Saccone (2018, p. 353).

  25. VŚ, p. 7, 17–19: yadi ca paramāṇoḥ saṃyoga iṣyate yadi vā neṣyate | digbhāgabhedī yasyāsti tasya e katvaṃ na yujyate||14ab|| English translation cf. Silk (2016), p. 93. Also cf. AKBh, p. 33, 5–6: yadi ca paramāṇor digbhāgabhedaḥ kalpyate spṛṣṭasyāspṛṣṭasya vā sāvayavatvaprasaṅgaḥ |.

  26. BAP, p. 168, 4–6: Bhandata Śubhagupta tu prāha ... kevalam aṇava eva paurvāparyeṇāvasthitā dikśabdavācyāḥ tataś ca digbhāgabhedavattvād iti kevalaṃ bahubhiḥ parivāraṇam evoktaṃ syāt na sāvayavatvam iti | Also cf. TSP, B, p. 678, 12–13. Hattori (1960, p. 99) only identifies the quoted passage with BASK 46 in his list. In her recent research, Saccone (2018, pp. 94–96) suggests that the paragraph (BAP, pp. 167, 22–168, 6; TSP, B, p. 678, 8–13) is a prose reformulation of kārikās from the BASK placed in the following order: 48, 45cd, 46.

  27. Cf. MAV, p. 52, 2–5: tha dad phyogs nas mang po dag || ’ga’ la kun nas bskor tsam du || brjod par zad kyi rdul de ni || cha shas bcas pa’i bdag nyid min || For these three theories of atomism, see note.15 above.

  28. MAV, p. 51, 14–17: gzhan dag na re rigs mthun pa mang pos bskor ba rnams ni bar dang bcas pa kho na yin la | As suggested by Ichigō (1985b, pp, 12–14), this second atomic doctrine in the MAV is held by Śubhagupta and Vaibhāṣika.

  29. BASK 50: gal te mang por ’dab chags phyir || cha shas bcas par ’dod na ni || skad cig snga phyi ’dab chags la || ci phyir de dang (’dra, Saccone 2018, p. 347) mi ’gyur ||50||.

    BASK 51: shes pa’i skad cig gnyis dag gis || ’dab chags yin yang de la ni || cha shas bcas gzugs mi ’dod ltar || rdul phran rnams la’ang de bzhin no || 51|| A passage in the TSP ad TS 1989–1991 (BAP, pp. 168, 16–169, 3) is a patent reference to these two verses. Saccone (2018, pp. 98–99) points out that in this passage, Kamalaśīla mispresents Śubhagupta’s proof for argumentative purposes.

  30. AKBh, p. 193, 2–4: ko ’yaṃ kṣaṇo nāma | ātmalābho ’nantaravināśī | ... sarva hi saṃskṛtamātmalābhā dūrdhvaṃ na bhavatīti yatraiva jātaṃ tatraiva dhvasyate | tasyāyuktā deśāntarasaṃkrāntiḥ | English translation cf. Pruden (1988–1990, p. 553).

  31. NAS, p. 372a: 毘婆沙師咸作是說但由風界力所攝持。令諸極微和合不散。Also cf. MVŚ, p. 684a: 問聚色相擊寧不散耶。答風界攝持故令不散。AKBh, p. 32, 14–15: kathaṃ citaṃ pratyāhataṃ na viśīryate | vāyudhātusaṃdhāritatvāt|.

  32. NAS, p. 373a: 如汝所言。極微相觸次第安布能相攝持。我亦說言。由風界力隣近安布能相攝持。故不應言若異此者極微展轉無相攝持應不和合。異汝所言極微展轉有相攝持和合成故。又不相觸亦能攝持。譬如身根不觸身識。能攝持識令起現前。

  33. Cf. NAS, p. 373b: 是諸極微應有間隙。中間既空。誰障其行。許為有對?.

  34. NAS, p. 373b-c: 即由障礙有對勢力。能相障行。許為有對。非許住處展轉相容而可說為障礙有對……諸有對者。處必不同。勿彼處同或成有分。故無間住理必不然。雖於中間少有空隙。而有對力拒遏其行。

  35. BASK 52: gang zhig dang ni nye ba las || ’gros ldan gang gis (gi, Saccone 2018, p. 347) ’gros ’gag pa || des de’i sgrib pa rab bshad pa || cha shas gzhan gyis ma yin no ||52||.

    BASK 53: nyi ma’i sgrib pa yod na ni || grib ma kun tu ’byung ’gyur gyi || grib ma nyi ma rdul gnyis kyis (kyi, Saccone 2018, p. 347) || bar na gnas par mi rigs so ||53||.

    BASK 54: grib ma dang ni sgrib pa la || mang po’i mthu ni skye ba ltar || de bzhin rdul phran rnams la ni || re re nas ni gtan du min ||54|| For an English translation, cf. Saccone (2018, p. 354).

  36. I understand BASK 53cd to indicate that sunlight cannot pass through the intermediate space between (bar na) two atoms; otherwise, a shadow of an entire obstacle would be impossible in our everyday experience. In this statement Śubhagupta implies that there is a gap between two atoms.

  37. BASK 57: phan tshun du ni phan ’dogs pa’i || bye brag gis ni brgyus pa bzhin || rdo rje la sogs rdul phran rnams || de dag chad par mi ’gyur te ||57||.

    BASK 58: ji ltar sngags kyi mthu yis ni || ’dre sbrul la sogs ’dzin pa bzhin || rdzas kyi mthu yis phan tshun du || rdul phran kha cig srid ’gyur gyi || gzhan dag nus pa stobs chung ngo ||58|| For an English translation, cf. Saccone (2018, p. 354).

  38. Saccone (2015, pp. 127–128) suggests that Śubhagupta’s views on the aggregation of atoms and the śakti were likely influenced by Dharmakīkti and his followers. As we discuss here, they may also have Sarvāstivāda sources.

  39. This strategy is also used in the epistemology of Saṅghabhadra to indicate that each atom cannot serve as an object (i.e., the cause) of visual consciousness (i.e., the effect) because each atom is too subtle to be perceived by the eyes. When atoms are in the state of aggregation, a coarse thing made up of subtle atoms serves as an object of consciousness, in which each atom contributes its power to this causal efficacy of causing consciousness. Cf. Dhammajoti (2007, pp. 142–143). In BASK 43–44, Śubhagupta holds a similar viewpoint on the perception of aggregated atoms, but he thinks that a coarse thing is merely a mental error. See below.

  40. In his commentary of Catuḥśataka, Dharmapāla reports a type of atomism that belongs to Vaibhāṣika. It is claimed that atoms come into existence in different locations. Although there is nothing in-between (無間,*nirantara), they do not touch one another. Each atom occupies a [separate] location and consistently avoids other atoms. [Atoms] appear as if they had direction-parts according to the differentiations [when they are] in the state of aggregation. [Atoms] appear to arise continuously (流轉,*√vṛt) in the location of nirantara, [just as] the proceeding and subsequent instants follows one another in a continuum. Cf. T30, no.1571, p. 191a: 極微生處各異。雖復無間而不相觸。各據一方相避而住。積集差別似有方分。無間處生似有流轉。剎那前後展轉相續。English translation cf. Keng (2019b, pp. 588–589). I read the last sentence differently from Keng. I think that it may be an analogy between atoms and instants just like that in the BASK, although it is not explicitly expressed in the Chinese translation. The key ideas of this type of atomism are almost the same as those of Saṅghabhadra’s and Śubhagupta’s. It is probable that the origin of Śubhagupta’s atomism lies in the Vaibhāṣika school. Moreover, one of Dharmapāla’s refutations follows Vasubandhu by arguing that if an atom has an easterly direction [in relation to another], the atom must have an eastern direction-part; how could it still be an atom [as a simple one] ? Cf. Keng (2019b, p. 591).

  41. BASK 45–48 is regarded as Śubhagupta’s response to the MAV and BAP (Saccone 2018: 93–103). In MA kk. 11–13, Śāntarakṣita argues that an atom is not a truly single entity, and it must have parts since it is faced with multiple atoms around it and there are intervals among them. A similar refutation is also found in the TSP ad TS 1989–1991 (BAP, p. 167, 1–5), in which Kamalaśīla establishes a guiding inference that an atom does not exist at all because its essential nature is neither single nor multiple (i.e., not one). Cf. Ichigō (1985b, pp. 18–22). Saccone (2018, pp. 86–88) points out that the passage in the BAP echoes Vasubandhu’s criticism of aggregated atoms in the VŚ.

  42. BASK 35cd: rgyun chags rigs mthun ’dzin pa la || sngon po nyid du ’khrul pa skye ||35cd|| English translation cf. Saccone (2018, pp. 346, 352).

  43. NAS, p. 350c: 五識不緣非實有境。和集極微為所緣故。又五識身無分別故。不緣眾微和合為境……以彼和合無別法故。唯是計度分別所取。五識無有計度功能。是故不緣和合為境。即諸極微。和集安布。恒為五識生起依緣。無有極微不和集故。For an English translation, see Dhammajoti 2012: 205. Also cf. Chu (2006, p. 221).

  44. Cf. Dhammajoti (2007, p. 42). Also T29, p. 788c: 於多法中起一增語。言說轉故名為和合。五識不緣增語為境。是故和合非五所緣。

  45. Cf. NAS, pp. 350c–351a: 又眼識不緣和合為境。以青等顯色應非實故。若眼識緣和合為境。青黃等覺應決定無。青等不應是和合故。若是和合應非實有。是則顯色。亦假非真。For an English translation, see Dhammajoti 2012: 206.

  46. Cf. NAS, p. 351a:有意識能分別青等。若言青等如和合者。其理不然。以就勝義。非許和合是色性故……緣一合境名和合覺。如於已滅青色境界。謂是青性覺相分明。復為他說。我見如是如是青性……若執意識亦不能緣和合為境。是則應許諸和合覺無有所緣。For an English translation, see Dhammajoti 2012: 206-207.

  47. BASK 66ab: shes pa las gzhan ’dzin pa med || yul med par ni dbang blo med ||66ab|| English translation and interpretation cf. Saccone (2018, pp. 110–111). The verse is cited by Kamalaśīla in TSP ad TS 2031.

  48. The reasoning that ‘because different appearances are apprehended (了相異故)’ used by Saṅghabhadra in the NAS is also reported by Sthiramati in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣyaṭīkā Tattvārthā nāma. The Tibetan translation of this phrase is zhen pa’i khyad par las. Liu (2020, p. 157) suggests that its reconstruction of Sanskrit is adhyavasāyabhedāt, and she translates this phrase as ‘because the judgement of perception is different’.

  49. According to Saṅghabhadra, matters of shape (形色, * saṃsthānarūpa) are grasped by non-conceptual visual consciousness not by touch. Cf. NAS, p. 536a: 形色是無分別眼識所取。非身能取。

  50. Cf. NAS, p. 536a: 既有長白二了相異。故於顯外。別有形色。現見有觸同根所取。了相異故。體有差別。如堅與冷。或煖與堅。如是白長。雖同根取。而了相異。故體應別。故知聚色。分析漸微。乃至於中。可生形覺。必有少分形覺生因。形色極微。於中猶起。理必應爾。

  51. NAS, p. 536b: 豈不已說即形極微。如是安布。眼識所得。積集差別。假立長等。

  52. NAS, p. 536a: 長等但為意識境故。以諸假有唯是意識所緣境界。

  53. In his reconstruction of Śubhagupta’s view, Matilal (1986, p. 368) supposes that the gross form must be the apprehensible object of constructive or conceptual perception, i.e., savikalpa pratyakṣa. Mikogami (1989a, p. 84) also argues that the cognition of a blue form is both a sense perception and a constructive cognition belonging to mental consciousness. Their statements are refuted by Saccone (2014, pp. 393–4). However, their understanding of Śubhagupta’s notion of ‘the error of blueness’, which may be due to the succinct expression of the BASK, shows a similar model of the process of sensory perception that is slightly associated with conceptual construction.

  54. In fact, he also accepts the theory of vāsanā of the Yogācāra school. See Mikogami (1982a, 1989b).


Primary Sources and Abbreviations

  • AKBh Abhidharmakośabhāṣya: Edited by Pradhan, P. (1967). Abhidharmakośabhāṣya of Vasubandhu. Patna: K.P. Jayaswal Research Institute.

  • ĀP(V) Ālambanaparīkṣāvṛtti: Frauwallner, E. (1930). Dignāgas Ālambanaparīkṣā, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Morgenlandes, 37, 174–194.

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Funding was provided by Shanghai Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science, 2019EZX007.

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Mao, Y. Saṅghabhadra’s and Śubhagupta’s Defence of Atomism, Their Similarities and Differences. J Indian Philos 50, 469–489 (2022).

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  • Atomism
  • Śubhagupta
  • Saṅghabhadra
  • Vaibhāṣika
  • Abhidharma