Bimal Krishna Matilal (1986:242), a renowned Indian philosopher, once maintained thus: “Even the color‐expanse is only a phenomenon, for that is not the ‘ultimately real’ entity. The ‘ultimately’ reals (also called the ‘substantially’ reals) are the atomic constitutes of these phenomena or sensibilia. Our familiar chair has, therefore, first to be resolved into (or ‘dissolved’ into) a set of familiar sensibilia, and then the gross sensibilia are in turn resolved into a cluster of atomic sensibilia.” This article is designed to critically review this claim and set a foundation for the reconstruction of Vasubandhu’s (i.e., Kośakāra) view of sense‐perception with special reference to the role of the notion of ‘atom’ (paramāṇu) therein. For this purpose this article will examine a few of paramāṇurelated passages throughout AKBh.
In short, the kind of ultimate reality (paramārthasat) that Vasubandhu conceived of is in effect opposite to what Matilal claims; the ultimate real for him are not substance‐atoms (dravyaparamāṇu) but individual dharmas constituted of assembled atoms (saṃghātaparamāṇu). In other words, for Vasubandhu ultimately real are dharmas which are the basic categories or constituents of our sense‐experiences such color (rūpa), sound (śabda).
Vasubandhu does not accept the Vaiśeṣika view of substance‐atoms (dravyaparamāṇu). He only acknowledges assembled atoms (saṃghāta paramāṇu) in so far as they are able to collectively constitute dharmas (the objects of our sense‐perception). This entails that Vasubandhu understands atoms only as the smallest but still visible units of properties like dharmas.
That is, Vasubandhu drastically reinterprets the notion of an atom in a way in which it can be suited to his view of dharma (property)‐centered phenomenalism.
The kind of interpretation put forth above can be buttressed throughout paramāṇu‐related discussions in the AKBh. In the AKBh II‐22ab Vasubandhu defines a paramāṇu as the smallest unit of material‐complex (saṃghātarūpa), which is still recognizable by our sense‐perception. This definition is in stark contrast to the Vaiśeṣika or Vaibhāṣika view of a paramāṇu as an indivisible infinitesimal unit (bhedaparyanta) of material (rūpa) which is beyond our sense‐perception (atīndriya). The peculiar characteristics of Vasubandhu’s presentation of paramāṇu as above lie in the fact that he rejects the notion of an atom as an indivisible smallest entity of material, which is only theoretically assumed, defining a paramāṇu as an actually visible particle which can constitute our empirical world of sense‐objects(dharmas).
This is in line with Vasubandhu’s understanding of ‘ultimate real’ (paramārthasat) in the AKBh VI‐4, in which he explicitly declares that dharmas with their own characteristics (svabhāva) are ultimate real, but not atoms themselves.
In the AKBh I‐43d Vasubandhu criticizes the Vaibhāṣika notion of paramāṇu as an irreducible but still resistant smallest unit of material as nonsensical in that one cannot explain the arising of the world by accumulating such partless (niravayava) atoms. With reference to Vasubandhu’s critique of the Vaibhāṣika notion of paramāṇu, Yaśomitra says in AKVy: “The master (ācārya) [critically] examines this [issue] with the intention of arguing that [the notion of] an atom cannot be established” (paramāṇvapariniṣpattiṃ vaktukāmaḥ ācāryo vicārayati). Yaśomitra further says that the kind of paramāṇu that Vasubandhu thought of is like a bean as observed in a pile of beans (māṣarāśi). This example also shows that the kind of paramāṇu that Vasubandhu supports is like a small particle with parts (sāvayava) from which the gross world can arise. In the AKBh III‐100ab Vasubandhu says that he does not acknowledge the existence of the atoms of four fundamental material elements (mahābhūta) separate from dharmas such as color, smell, taste, touch when they arise together in the realm of desire (kāmadhātu). This clearly shows that Vasubandhu only accepts dharmas, i.e., properties, but not dharmins, i.e., substrata to which properties belong.
This corroborates our view that Vasubandhu defines assembled atoms (saṃghātaparamāṇu) as a paramāṇu with a view to explaining the arising of the world of sense‐objects (dharmas) from these quality/property‐atoms and thereby rejects the Vaiśeṣika or Vaibhāṣika notion of a substanceatom (dravyaparamāṇu). Vasubandhu’s rejection of the substantial notion of paramāṇu indicates that at the stage of the AKBh he already held a phenomenalistic view of the world, which admits only dharmas or properties, a position which is to be condemned by non‐Buddhist sides as characteristically Buddhist later on.