- Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy by Jonathan C. Gold
Vasubandhu is perhaps the most influential figure in the history of Buddhist philosophy, yet the very breadth of his contribution across many schools and traditions has led to a fragmentation of his works, as interpreters have tended to read them through the lens of narrow scholastic perspectives, finding little continuity or coherence. Some modern scholars, doubtful that anyone could have held such varied views, have gone so far as to divide Vasubandhu himself into two distinct philosophers, with two different and irreconcilable views. In his recent book, Paving the Great Way: Vasubandhu’s Unifying Buddhist Philosophy, Jonathan Gold offers for the first time a unified picture of Vasubandhu, extracting the driving philosophical motives, themes, and arguments that run through and tie together his diverse body of work. Carefully examining key discussions in Vasubandhu’s many and varied writings, Gold traces the continuities within Vasubandhu’s work, while illuminating the evolution of his thought. The discussions are often dense and difficult, but Gold provides lucid exposition and useful charts to help the reader follow his painstaking and intricate analysis. Identifying causality as the key unifying idea, Gold shows how it animates [End Page 1359] Vasubandhu’s discussions in both the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (AKBh) and his later Yogācāra works. What emerges is a portrait of a philosopher guided by a distinctive philosophical vision, which he develops through an engagement with various Buddhist traditions, putting the stamp of this unifying vision on all of them, drawing them together and paving them into a great way.
Any attempt to give a unified account of Vasubandhu’s work must face up to the question of whether there were two Vasubandhus. In his first chapter, Gold undertakes the most extensive examination of this question to date, marshaling all the available textual and historical evidence to make a persuasive case that the apparent duality of the two Vasubandhus is merely a false construction produced by a flawed hermeneutic methodology. I hope this will eliminate once and for all any further compulsion to multiply Vasubandhus beyond necessity. Gold’s placement of Vasubandhu within the scholastic landscape of his time shows nuance and historical sensitivity. He warns us against reifying scholastic designations into definite schools of thought that were self-consciously exclusive, arguing that the application of such later doxographic distinctions can be misleading. Gold instead brings out Vasubandhu’s distinctive contributions to the various traditions with which he engages, revealing a philosopher not easily categorized according to later scholastic divisions.
Gold’s analysis of the AKBh emphasizes two central features of Vasubandhu’s reasoning: his reliance on causal arguments and his distinctive approach to scriptural interpretation, both of which are prominent in his refutation of the Sarvāstivāda view that the past and the future exist. Gold distinguishes four different versions of the argument for this view, bringing out the central role of causal reasoning in Vasubandhu’s criticism of each: if things in the past and future existed now, they would have to produce effects now, contrary to observation and reason. Gold also teases out the crucial role of scriptural interpretation in these arguments, where Vasubandhu frequently adopts a non-literal interpretation of scripture. In the discussions that follow, Gold proceeds to show how this approach to scriptural interpretation runs through the AKBh.
Scriptural interpretation also plays a central role in Vasubandhu’s account of perception. Gold shows how Vasubandhu reverses the standard account, which regards the eye as having a view literally, and interprets mental views as merely metaphorical. Arguing that the eye does not really have any view in the literal sense, Vasubandhu makes a case for a figurative interpretation of scripture. He explains that figurative interpretation involves a reference to a nonexistent entity that is a mere construction, making a crucial distinction between appearance (what something is viewed as) and substratum (what is actually viewed), which runs through the AKBh. Vasubandhu argues that the...