In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sautrāntika

  • Introduction

Buddhism Sautrāntika
Tadeusz Skorupski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0210


Since the late 1980s, a number of Buddhist scholars have produced a vibrant wave of academic studies on the Sautrāntika history and doctrines. In a number of these studies, their authors frequently attempt, directly or indirectly, to probe into the nature and character of the Sautrāntika identity. Some of them refer to the past perceptions of the Sautrāntikas as the traditional view, traditional accounts, or the tradition. These and similar phrases are not properly explained, but it is clear that they basically stand for the views and images of the Sautrāntikas as preserved in Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan sources, and in the uncritical studies that stem from them. Having done extensive research, the present-day scholars fairly claim that the depictions of the Sautrāntikas in Indian and other sources cannot be accepted without reservations or at their face value but need to be rigorously analyzed and revaluated. In other words, they maintain that the time-honored perceptions of the Sautrāntikas as an independent school with a set of their own tenets should be revised and reformulated. Unfortunately, these scholars have encountered serious difficulties that hinder them from formulating a fresh and objective interpretation of the Sautrāntika identity in contrast to the traditional view. The difficulties are not due to the lack of academic competence and skill, but rather to the fact that the available research resources frequently disagree and disclose variant or discordant opinions. Thus, because of textual and other difficulties, and also because of the paucity of unbiased evidence, the scholars have been unable to formulate one coherent, unambiguous, and uniformly acceptable interpretation of the Sautrāntika identity; they can offer only intelligent guesses and conjectures. Among them, some scholars broadly follow the traditional accounts, and at the same time try to account for textual and other inconsistencies. Some other scholars do the same but go a step further and venture to offer new opinions on the Sautrāntika identity, some of which seriously challenge the traditional view. What must be said is that the actual research information and concrete findings are sound and reliable, and considerably broaden our knowledge of the Sautrāntikas. However, some of the conclusions and theories based on those findings are largely tentative or provisional. So for the time being, the precise identity of the Sautrāntikas remains unresolved, and continues to be subject to academic speculations and debates.

General Overview

Indian sources agree that the Sautrāntikas are a branch of the Sarvāstivāda school. The history and identity of the Sautrāntikas from the time of their origin and up to the time of Vasubandhu is sparsely documented. During this period there existed Buddhist masters who are referred to as either Dārṣṭāntikas or Sautrāntikas, but their identities and dates are obscure. The earliest reference to the Sautrāntikas as a distinct group relying on the Buddha’s discourses (sūtra) is in Vasubandhu’s 5th-century Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. In this treatise, Vasubandhu places the Sautrāntikas on the scenario of Indian Buddhism. From that period onward, the Sautrāntikas are recognized as a distinct intellectual group, and the later Indian sources treat them as one of the four principal schools of Indian Buddhism: Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra, and Mādhyamika. The Sautrāntikas have affinities with the Dārṣṭāntikas, but their precise relationship remains undetermined, because of discrepant textual statements. Chronologically, the Dārṣṭāntikas are earlier than the Sautrāntikas. Some sources treat the Sautrāntikas as successors to the Dārṣṭāntikas. Other sources treat them as being either different or synonymous. Certain scholars postulate that the names Dārṣṭāntika and Sautrāntika represent different perspectives on the same group. In terms of monastic ordinations, the Sautrāntikas appertain to the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya lineage. In terms of scriptural authority, they rely on the Buddha’s discourses, and accept the abhidharma only as taught by the Buddha. They reject the seven Vaibhāṣika abhidharma treatises as being the Buddha Word but accept them as human treatises (śāstra). However, this situation does not imply the rejection of all the Vaibhāṣika doctrines. In terms of a doctrinal manifesto, the Sautrāntikas do not have a consolidated body of doctrines. They affirm a fair number of Vaibhāṣika doctrines, but challenge some of their central tenets, and instigate their own interpretations. The Sautrāntika ideas provoked negative reactions from the Vaibhaikas, but also gained adherents in India and beyond. Some scholars established textual similarities between the Sautrāntika ideas and the Yogācārabhūmi. On the basis of this textual affinity, certain scholars postulate that Vasubandhu uses the term Sautrāntika to designate the doctrines found in Yogācāra sources, and to adjust the Vaibhāṣika abhidharma to Yogācāra doctrines. Other scholars favor the traditional view that Vasubandhu wrote his Abhidharmakośa as a Sautrāntika. When reading present-day scholars dedicated to finding the Sautrāntika identity, it is advisable to differentiate between their concrete findings and their conjectured opinions.

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