Vasubandhu critiqued

Problems in Vasubandhu’s analysis

One rather difficult problem still remains to be dealt with in Vasubandhu’s account of karma. In his system of abhidharma it is the physical body that plays the leading role in determining the kinds of experiences that one has. The physical body is the seat of awareness, both in the sense that no awareness occurs without the five external physical sense faculties and in the sense that neither thought nor awareness nor mental properties can occur without their physical seat in the heart. This poses no great problem so long as one is considering karma and its fruition within a single lifetime, where the continuum of the physical body is more obvious. But it is somewhat difficult to see how Vasubandhu might account for the commonly accepted Buddhist notion of rebirth. Since awareness cannot occur without a physical seat according to Vasubandhu, it is impossible for him to accept the theory that consciousness leaves one physical body at death and travels in a disembodied state until it enters the womb of its mother in the next life. Rather, he is committed to the view that the heart, which like all other physical things is composed of atoms, becomes dissociated from one large material body and “travels” until it finds a suitable womb. This material heart serves as the bridge between one incarnation and the next is said to be conveyed in a subtle material body, that is, a body composed of atoms and therefore material but in which the atoms are not arranged with sufficient density to allow detection through the ordinary physical senses. This subtle body therefore has features in common with the non-phenomenal matter that Vasubandhu rejected in the views of other Buddhist philosophers.

At the moment when an egg is fertilized in a womb, the heart from a previous life-continuum joins with the newly fertilized egg to form a new life, and as the new fetus evolves it gradually acquires the kinds of external sense organs and other physical characteristics appropriate for the species of life-form that the mother is capable of producing in her womb. Thus a heart that once belonged to a human being might find itself in the womb of a jackal, where it becomes associated with the kinds of sense organs and bodily traits that only jackals have.

The type of egg or womb that a heart enters into is, according to Vasubandhu, determined by the quality of a special kind of karma, which is called projection, produced in previous lives. Acts accompanied by great stupidity or delusion, for example, are said to project the heart into the wombs of dumb birds or animals in future lives. Acts accompanied by strong greed or desire are said to project the heart into the wombs of hungry ghosts. And especially malicious acts are said to project the heart into the wombs of beings born in one of the many hells or purgatories. Acts accompanied by more benevolent motivations, on the other hand, project the heart into human mothers or into mothers residing in one of the paradises.

From all that has been described so far it can be seen that Vasubandhu provides answers from an abhidharma perspective to all the questions concerning karma that were raised at the outset of this lecture. Whether or not these answers are satisfactory to a critical inquirer is another matter.

Karma as fiction