Sarvastivada and its Theory of Sarvam Asti

Justin Williams's picture

If there is such a thing that

If there is such a thing that is supposedly existent in the past, until it bares fruit, then how can we say it is in the past, rather than the future? If it is yet to bare fruit, if we say it exists outside of this time, should we not rather assume it is in the future, rather than the past?

And if we posit that it is in the past, how do we posit a mechanism for it to travel from the past to the future, where it would have to go in order to reach the present? This is of course assuming that there exists past, present and future.

And also if we do assume past present and future exist, then at what point does the thing existing in the past move to the future? The only logical answer I can see to that is that it enters the future as soon as it enters the past. Now if that is the case, does this mean that the past does not actually exist, only the present and the future? Everything enters the future as soon as it has exited the present.

Unless anyone has any evidence to suggest that the past exists?

bhantekirti2019's picture


Buddha's view on past and future is clearly seen in the following excerpt from Bhaddekaratta Sutta of Majjhima Nikaya. Past or future is relative comparing to the present.

You shouldn't chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
The future
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.

To give you an example of past, I share a story of a young person who was around 3 to 5 years old. When his foster parents were chanting, this boy also started chanting. Before he could speak properly, he was chanting a very long discourses through memory. He has said that he was a monk in his previous life. Therefore the memory came back as soon as he hears a chanting.

When there is a claim of absolute existence, I suppose it is contradictory to the doctrine of impermanence and not self.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Quantum Physics

Watched a series on Nova this weekend called "the Fabric of the Cosmos".
It covers space & space-time, relativity theory, quantum theory, etc.

Many of the topics shed some interesting light on Abhidharmika discussions of conditioned and unconditioned dharmas.
While I cannot restate the argument here, a proof was presented for the reality of all time.
I believe the statement was that just as everything exists in space, so too does everything exist in time.
This was presented in the context of an explanation of the implication of the reality of relativity.

The videos of this series are available on YouTube and the one on the "illusion of time" is here:
The referenced discussion is at about the 23 minute mark.

Sometimes interesting to see the modern scientific reinforcements of these early positions based on the "mental science" of Buddhism.

new wine in old skins

contemporary science often just restates what old religions have been saying for millennia.

The boons of commitment are endless. Vajrayana Buddhist nun and speaker Robina Courtin suggests to take one or more Buddhist pledges. Even if that sounds hard, and even if we end up breaking the vow often, nonetheless we make merit for all the rest of the time we are not actively breaking it: the vow somewhat acts as barrier to deter our behavior.
Professor of psychology DeWall shuns religious fairy tales and refers to the exact same thing as the scientific “implementation intention”1:”Usually such hermeneutical attempts are really efforts at modernizing an outmoded faith that has become an embarrassment to its latter-day adherents.”.
Indian thought -whether Upanishadic or Buddhist- has been warning against excessive maximalism, and in favor of self-contentment, for ages. Political scientist H.A Simon posited satisficing in 1956: self-contentment as a form of optimization that balances sets of constraints.

In 1971 Brickman&Campbell introduced “the hedonistic treadmill”: striving and getting more -or less- is no guarantee of a stable -or incremental- increase in lasting (dis)satisfaction, which over time tends to float around an average. Again, Upanishadic and Buddhist thought had already eviscerated the conundrum of greed, hatred, doubt, sloth, torpor and delusion ages before the 1970s: Mahayana Buddhism posited emptiness as key to existence.


Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Kasyapian Perspective

Regardless of defenses or critiques of tri-temporality, I'm confronted with a potential conflict with the Kasyapian position that past dharmas that have not yet borne fruit are existent.

If past dharmas not having borne fruit are real until they bear fruit, it would seem that a past act of karma could bear fruit multiple times.

It is an alambana right now if it bears fruit as I reflect upon it and is again an alambana in the future if, again reflecting on it, it bears fruit.

If this alambana is a real dharma in the past until it bears fruit, it would have to become real again to bear fruit again - according to this perspective (but not a problem for the Sautrantika).

This would suggest that a past dharma could become real repeatedly, passing in and out of reality....

That seems to be a difficult position to accept/defend.

The Theravada explicitly reject this position in the Kathavatthu, stating that once a dharma passes into the past mode, it cannot arise again.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


In reviewing the notes for Lesson 3, Buddhadeva's argument for tri-temporality is presented.
(ref pages 2-3)

He states that dharmas "operate in time" and compares them to "one who is called daughter relative to her mother and mother relative to her daughter."

Given that the "one" referred to exists as an assemblage and that both daughter and mother exist in name only, this argument seems problematic.

Given that the doctrine of trisvbhava holds that dharmas are real in the three times and have svabhava in each of these three times, it seems to be contradictory that Buddhadeva would compare the real entities to that which does not have intrinsic nature, unless he's stating that the notion of past and future are real in name only - which itself would seem to contradict the very premise he's defending.

Is anyone aware of a documented criticism of Buddhadeva's position?
I'd certainly be interested to see how it's presented.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Basis for Sarvam Asti

Thanks so much for sharing this!

Interesting and well argued. Particularly helpful is the comparison between the canons and the textual context (or lack thereof) for this position.

I'm interested to see if you have any insight or documentation of the supposed basis for this doctrine in the Abhidhamma.

I'm currently taking ME6102 - Mahayana - and Peter Della Santina states in the lectures that the basis for this idea of real past, present and future dhammas is based on the Abhidharmika position on real present dhammas.

"Sarvāstivāda multiplied and enforced the idea of the self-existing dharma, the self-existing factors. From that point of view, it was a Ābhidharmika school par excellence. It was the most extreme Ābhidharmika School."
- Lecture 3, the Fourth Council

The suttas seem to be in conflict with this position - as I've posted elsewhere - but even Nagarjuna seems to be of this opinion, stating ", the schools of Hinayana... you people believe in Interdependent Co-arising and by that believe that all the factors are independent, they all depend on each other, and still you believe these factors exist of their own right? Are they independent? Are they substantial? Do they have self-existence, svabhava? This is not correct."

Since this is in conflict with at least my reading of the doctrine of the Three Marks in particular, I'm interested to find the basis for this statement that the Abhidharmikas believed in real dhammas. I don't believe Nagarjuna, Della Santina and others are just referring to the Sarvastivadins here, as Della Santina states in the lectures that the position of sarvam asti is an evolution, the logical conclusion of the existing, orthodox Sthavira or at least Abhidharmika position.


Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

6220 Theravada Abhidhama

I think I have a better perspective on this having taken 6220.

It appears that full-blown realism was the position of the Sarvastivada-Vaibashika, rejected by the Sautrantika (and pretty much everyone else).

This is certainly not the only Abhidhammika position that seems to deviate from a straightforward reading of the suttas.

Glad I've taken this course, but it has not been easy.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


Does anyone have the reference to the Theravada rejection of the Sarvastivadin tri-temporality of dhammas from the Kathavatthu?

I'm thinking this over in light of learnings from 6220.

The Sarvastivadin rationale for future and past dharmas is that the reflection of these were "effective" in that they lead to the Buddha's renunciation/detachment

Does not pannatti address this? The past and future dhammas did not need to exist in some way to be effective.
In fact whether they did or did not exist in a realistic sense, it would seem that it was the mere concept of them that lead to the dispassion.

Interested to see the Theravada refutation then as it seems like this would be a clear application of nama-pannatti.


Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


According to Dhammajoti, "[t]he svhabhava of a dharma, even from the orthodox Vaibhasika standpoint, is not as immutable as is conceived by many scholars." (Sarvastivada Abhidharma, p 131)

He continues, "[i]n the depths of their hearts, however, it would seem that it is their religious insight and intuition - even if they happen to defy Aristotelian logic - that must be upheld at all cost." (p 132)

There's a great deal of additional material here not included in the lecture notes, including an overview of and commentary on Frauwallner's thoughts on the four theories explaining tri-temporality.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Peter Harvey

There is a brief mention in Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhism suggesting Sarvastivadins rejected my proposed arguement.

See Chapter 4:
"Sarvāstivādins held that past and future dharmas differ from things that are pure illusion, and from conceptual labels for groups of dharmas, in that they each have a specific 'own-nature' (Skt svabhāva), a unique defining characteristic that is intrinsic to it and is present whenever, however, it exists (Williams, 2009: 68)."
-Harvey p. 93.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Mahayana roots

Interesting that the critical position of the Sautrantikas became central to the Mahayana schools, particularly the Madhyamaka and Yogacara.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


Interesting that Dhammajoti - in his Sarvastivada Abhidharma - points to the difficulty of accounting for the consistency of the existence of the living being to the development of both the notion of pudgala for the Vatsiputirya and the notion of the tathagatagarbha in Mahayana. (ref p 131)