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The Sautrāntika were an early school of Buddhist philosophy, generally believed to be descended from the Sthaviravada by way of their immediate parent school, the Sarvāstivādins. Their name means literally "those who rely upon the sutras", and indicated their rejection of the Abhidharma texts of other early Buddhist schools. The Sarvāstivādins sometimes referred to them as the Dārṣṭāntika school, meaning "those who utilize the method of examples". This latter name may have been a pejorative label. It is also possible that the name 'Dārṣṭāntika' identifies a predecessor tradition, or another related, but distinct, doctrinal position; the exact relationship between the two terms is unclear. Charles Willemen identifies the Sautrāntika as a Western branch of the Sarvāstivādins, active in the Gandhara area, who split from the Sarvāstivādins sometime before 200 CE, when the Sautrāntika name emerged. Other scholars are less confidant of a specific identification for the Sautrāntika; Nobuyoshi Yamabe calls specifying the precise identity of the Sautrāntika "one of the biggest problems in current Buddhist scholarship."
The Sautrāntika differed from their parent school, the Sarvāstivādins, on matters of ontology. While the Sarvāstivādins abhidharma described a complex system in which past, present, and future phenomena are all held to have some form of their own existence, the Sautrāntika subscribed to a doctrine of "extreme momentariness" that held that only the present moment existed. They seem to have regarded the Sarvāstivādin position as a violation of the basic Buddhist principle of impermanence (anicca). The Sarvāstivādin abhidharma also broke down human experience in terms of a variety of underlying phenomena (a view similar to that held by the modern Theravada abhidhamma); the Sautrāntika believed that experience could not be differentiated in this manner.
They used the concept of an āśraya (substrate, refuge) to explain the continuity of consciousness through rebirth, whereas the Pudgalavādins and the Vātsiputrīya school posited a pudgala (a 'personal entity' distinct from the five skandha), and where non-Buddhist Indian philosophy typically referred to an ātman. Vasubandhu, one of the Indian monastic scholars primarily responsible for articulating the doctrines of the Yogācāra school, was sympathetic to the Sautrāntika on many doctrinal issues, and wrote critiques of the Vaibhashika tradition from a Sautrāntika perspective.
No separate monastics code specific to the Sautrāntika has been found, nor is the existence of any such separate disciplinary code evidenced in other texts; this indicates that they were likely only a doctrinal division within the Sarvāstivādin school.
- Williams, Paul and Tribe, Anthony. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. Routledge. 2000. pg. 118
- Cox, Collett (2004), "Mainstream Buddhist Schools", in Buswell, Jr., Robert E., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, USA: Macmillan Reference USA, p. 505, ISBN 0-02-865910-4
- Yamabe, Nobuyoshi (2004), "Consciousness, Theories of", in Buswell, Jr., Robert E., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, USA: Macmillan Reference USA, p. 177, ISBN 0-02-865910-4
- Willemen, Charles (2004), "Dharma and Dharmas", in Buswell, Jr., Robert E., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, USA: Macmillan Reference USA, p. 220, ISBN 0-02-865910-4
- Guang Xing. The Concept of the Buddha: Its Evolution from Early Buddhism to the Trikaya Theory. 2004. p. 67
- Lusthaus, Dan (2004), "Vasubandhu", in Buswell, Jr., Robert E., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, USA: Macmillan Reference USA, p. 878, ISBN 0-02-865910-4