Articles by alphabetic order
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
 Ā Ī Ñ Ś Ū Ö Ō
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0


A Brief Overview of the Yogacara And some of the Ramifications of Different Interpretations In Far Eastern Cultures

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Tara-Mandala-Dakini fd.jpg




0. First Section of the vi ṁ śatikā vijñaptimātratāsiddhi ḥ (with vRtti) by Vasubandhu


Atha viMsatikAvRttiH

mahAyAne traidhAtukaM VijJaptimAtraM vyavasthApyate | cittamAtram bho jinaputrA yaduta traidhAtukamiti sUtrAt | cittaM mano vijJAnaM viJjaptizceti paryAyAH | cittamatra saMprayogamabhipretaM | mAtramityarthapratiSedhArthaM |

vijJaptimAtramevedamasadarthAvabhasanAt. Yadvat traimirikasyAsatkezoNDrakAdarzAnaM || 1 ||1


Translation by Stefan Anecker2


Twenty Verses and Commentary


In the Great Vehicle, the three realms of existence are determined as being perception-only. As it is said in the sUtra3, “The three realms of existence are citta-only.” Because of the appearance of non-existent objects. Citta, manas, consciousness, and perception are synonymous. By the wordcitta”, citta long with its associations is intended here. “Only” is said to rule out any (external) objects of sense or understanding.

All this is perception-only, because of the appearance of non-existent objects, just as there may be the seeing of non-existent nets of hair by someone afflicted with an optical disorder.


My Literal Translation Word by Word

Twenty Verses and Commentary


In the Mahayana (mahAyAne), the three realms of existence [the realms of desire, form and formlessness] (traidhAtukaM) as mere-consciousness (VijJapti-mAtraM) is established (vyavasthApyate). That is (yad/uta) as mere-mind (citta-mAtraM) the venerable sons of the conqueror [who is the Buddha, i.e., Bodhisattvas] (jinaputrA[H]) which [includes] the three realms is, namely, as stated (iti) in the Sutra [as per footnote 3] (sUtrAt). The words ‘mind’ (cittaM), ‘mental’ (mano), ‘consciousness’ (VijJAnaM) and ‘perception’ are synonymous. Now (atra) [the 1 Sanskrit (for the first two verses, etc.) reconstructed by S. Lévi from Tibetan and Chinese sources. 2 Stefan Anacker; Seven Works of Vasubandhu; Motilal Banarsidass, 1984., p. 161. 3 AvataMsaka-sUtra: Daza-bhUmika VI, p. 32 (R, p 49)

word] ‘mind’(cittaM) along with its mental associations [is to be understood] as intended (abhipretaM). The word ‘mere’ (mAtra) means (iti) it is meant for the purpose of ruling out [all non-mentally experienced] objects.

As mere-perception/consciousness (vijJapti-mAtram eva/idam) because [all] phenomenal manifestion [i.e., as appearance/s]( avabhasanAt) is of objects that don’t exist [as imputed] (asadarth), That is [to say] (yadvat) just like those with diseases of the eye who see nets of hair, etc., that don’t exist (traimirikasya-asat-kezoNDrakA-darzAnaM) || My (Transcendental-Phenomenological) Interpretation


Now Twenty Verses and Running Commentary


In the Buddhist Mahayana, the three realms of existence are established as mere-perceptual-)consciousness, i.e., phenomenologically experienced only as phenomena. That is, as stated in accordance with the Sutra, by the Boddhisattvas, that the world, with its three realms of existence, is mere-mind. The words ‘mind’, ‘mental’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘perception’ are all meant to be used synonymously. Now by the wordmind’ its mental associations are also intended. Here the word ‘mAtra’ [mere, sole, alone, etc.] rules out [non-perceived/non-experienced] objects [in the so-called external world (or as non-experienced objects of consciousness)].

Mere-perception is indeed the case on account of the non-existence of [any type of] an object [for-us] [that is not constituted in phenomenal-phenomenological consciousness]. Just as those people with certain eye-diseases see non-existent nets of hair, etc. || 1||4


1. Preamble

In this overview I would like to look at the Indian Yogacara, through the lens of the first section of this treatise, and the interpretations/mis-interpretations of this philosophical school in both Eastern and Western worlds, and, the historical ramifications of such in Far-Eastern Culture with a special focus on China and Japan. (0)

  • Latest version: www.homestead.com/noelshomepage/noelsrelphil.html

4 With the implication that just as some illusory objects are ‘seen’ without reference to those imputed projections, being non-existent, then, as a consequence, it is possible to comprehend objects without reference to an object beyond experience, i.e., not constituted in intentional consciousness.


2. Introduction


There is book called Yogacara Idealism by the author Ashok Kumar Chatterjee that says it all. Or, rather, nothing! This (type of) title immediately tells me that the author has totally misread the nature of this religious-philosophical tradition in Buddhist thought. Yogacara thought is not idealistic! Certainly not in the manner as it is often construed. This author is not alone in this type of misreading. Fellow Buddhists, Hindu critics contemporary with this tradition (say 3rd to 5th Centuries, C.E., etc., and later) and Western philosophers et al have almost to the person misconstrued what this ‘school’ of thought was on about. The first translations of Yogacara texts in China were similarly misconstrued. With the return of the Chinese monk Xuanzang (c. 602-664 CE) from India a parallel set of translations were undertaken much more in sympathy with the teachings of this school. Various doctrinal disputes arose over these re-translations. Key ramifications of these contesting parallel traditions will be noted later in this paper. (1)

Stefan Anacker (whose translation is noted) tells us in his second sentence of his introduction to this treatise: “Perhaps no work of Vasubandhu’s has been more consistently misunderstood than The Twenty Verses.” In this short exposition let me show the nature of that misunderstanding and how the ramifications of this (type of) mistreatment of this (type of) text has echoed down the centuries. In China we have had competing interpretative traditions duelling over its ‘real’ significance, and, in Japan we have the contemporaneous Critical Buddhist school of academic thought that shuns a ‘topical’ or ‘non-critical’ approach with its privileging of ontological over/and/or epistemological issues along with tendencies for idealistic (or realistic) speculation. (2)

To expedite this exposition, more quickly, let me closely interpret this introductory section above in order to show the (transcendental) phenomenological nature of this type of philosophical tradition and by extension its non-idealistic (and non-realistic) tenor. In the process let me argue that this text is a critique of both idealist and realist tendencies in philosophical thought and religious practice. That to treat this text as an idealistic treatise is to totally misread it and, diametrically, misunderstand its stated intent (along with the associated sense of purpose which would have originally motivated the dissemination of this and allied texts). (3)

In a second section let me address some of the ramifications of this (transcendental-)phenomenological position. (4)

Next, I will look at the type of disputes Chinese Buddhists engaged in given these parallel translations of the same Indian texts. (5)

Then, I will note the implications of such an appreciation on the formation of a Critical Buddhist reaction in Japanese studies of Buddhist philosophy and practice. (6)

Fourth, I would like to look at another tradition, or trend in Indian Buddhist philosophy, the TatathAgatagarbha, and how that has considerably influenced an idealistic re-interpretation of the Buddhist tradition, especially in China and Japan, etc. (7)

Finally, I would like to draw a few provisional conclusions that might at least help us to recognize the complexity of this type of research and perhaps help us understand a few of the twists and turns in Far Eastern Buddhist thought and the influences it has had on cultural productions of an aesthetic nature, e.g. (8)


3. A Close Interpretation of this First Verse in the Trimsatika

The world, for-us, is a world of experience, and, what is not there for us in experience cannot be experienced! That which is experienced is experienced in intentional consciousness. We may think of the world, and all objects and subjects found therein, as beyond experience, but, even such imputations or projections are constituted in that same intentional consciousness. When a transcendental-phenomenologist tells us all intentional objects (reviewed as either objects or subjects) are constituted in consciousness they are telling us nothing that we don’t already know even if this state-of-affairs is usually overlooked through custom and through the dominancy of object-oriented languages. (9)

In this light we ‘see’ the landscape about us, we ‘hear’ the birds singing as the sun goes down, we ‘think’ about what we did yesterday, we might ‘hope’ a friend of ours will arrive tomorrow, I ‘imagine’ what it might be like to travel to China, etc., etc. All such ‘being in the world’ being conducted through this intentional nature of thought. (10)

The use of the Sanskrit word ‘mAtra’ is alerting us to this fact and this fact alone! By closely attending to the nature of ‘mere’ appearance the philosopher hopefully seeks to critically appreciate how such a presentation is put together, and, through iteration of retention simulate a sense of re-presentation which, in effect, creates a representation of that under the focus of our consciousness. Unfortunately, the intentionally constructed nature of this end product of ‘representation’ is overlooked and our imputations or projections of objects (both objective and subjective in orientation) are conducted without reference to the fact that they are rooted in our intentional ‘experience of reality’ being the very ‘reality of our experience’. Such a position does not state that the world is a mental projection only that it is experienced in experience. Such an attitude, in effect, is a transcendental suspension where neither an idealistic nor a realistic position is adopted and privileged!5 Essentially, we are attending only to how appearances are constituted in intentional experience and that and that alone! (11)

Without this transcendental-phenomenological appreciation of intentional experience all so-called philosophical language is merely playing around with concepts of realities that cannot be experienced other than as empty expressions in language! (12)

Interpretation occurs both between languages and within the same language. The use of the expression ‘Matra’, e.g., in the expression ‘citta-mAtra’, etc., in English could be translated as mind-alone, sole-mind, mere-mind, one-mind, etc., and misconstrued in a non-applicable idealistic frame of reference as something more grand like ‘Mind-alone’, etc. Once this step is undergone that process of translation now becomes nothing other than a process of mis-translation. This il 5 Because in intentional thought neither the intended/intentional process nor the intentional object-state can be privileged since both aspects must co-occur in intentional consciousness!

legal manoeuvre, in interpretation, occurred in both the contemporaneous Sanskrit world (both Buddhist and non-Buddhist) and the non-contemporaneous Non-Sanskrit world/s. (13)

Can we argue for a transcendental-phenomenological interpretation of this text? By the philosophical wordtranscendental’ is merely meant our trans-intentional appreciation of its intentional form or appearance. Husserl himself commands us to look at the mere appearing of appearance. This first section of this text commands us to do nothing else but examine how appearance is constituted in intentional consciousness. The three realms of existence are nothing but mere-consciousness, mere-perception, etc; i.e., nothing but experience constituted in and through intentional experience. (14)

The consequence of this suspension or ‘positionless’ position (by neither allying with idealists or realist, or any other ‘-ist’ or ‘-ism’) is a disavowal of all ‘objects’ not constituted in consciousness or are treated as beyond such intentionally constituted consciousness, etc. By ‘objects’ (artha) is meant both objects of sense or understanding, both objects and subjects, etc. So let us re-read this text through this type of lens…. (15)

What are the ramifications of this transcendental attitude towards experience? An attitude that does away with a so-called external world; and, by extension, an approach that does not accept the solipsistic imprisoning of the subject; a perspective that accepts the direct contact enjoined between subjects and other subjects and objects; a realization that our world is constituted by-us for-us, and, as a consequence that we need not be bound or trapped within these streams of mental proliferation(; and, by turning around such a process gives us the freedom to go beyond such arbitrary boundaries created by our intentional sense of self-identity)…. (16)


4. The Transmission of this Yogacara Tradition to China


Vasubandhu, in effect, has left the continual and controversial tennis match between idealists and realists far behind and so it is ironic that his work gets sadly misconstrued as idealistic since the overall trans-idealistic/trans-realistic message it would appear he would wish to disseminate is totally obscured by such misinterpretation. (17)

In its first transmission to China the use of Chinese expressions for technical terms, along with a number of other reasons, meant that this tradition was received and disseminated through an idealistic lens. With the return of the Chinese monk Xuanzang (c. 602-664 CE) from India a parallel set of translations were undertaken much more in sympathy with the teachings of this school.6 Between a well-established tradition based on older translations and a novel tradition based on more recent translations under the supervision of Xuanzang a vigorous period of debate was entered into. By the eight century an idealistic dhAtu-vAda style of idelology) historically won. This point is summed up by Dan Lusthaus:

The establishment of the hegemony of dhAtu-vAda ideology in eighth-century China relied in no small part on the rejection of Hsüan-tsang’s (Xuanzang) 6 The trip to the ‘West’, his stay in India and return to China took place between 629-645 C.E. He studied at various Buddhist universities such as, e.g., Nalanda in Bihar.

presentation of Indian Buddhist ideas, a rejection accompanied by a return to the ideology expressed in the works of ParamArtha and other earlier thinkers. This moment in Chinese Buddhist history proved pivotal. East Asian Buddhism returned with deliberateness and passion to its own earlier misconceptions instead of returning to the trajectory of Indian Buddhism from which it believed it had been spawned. The history of the misconceptions leading up to these moments of the late seventh and early eighth century can easily be traced through the surviving texts of the earlier periods, and many are well known to present-day scholars: From the attempts by the early so-called Prajna schools to smuggle an eternal self or spirit (shen) into their formulations; to the writings of KumArajIva’s contemporary, Hui-yüan, on the eternal spirit; to the excitement created in China when it appeared that the MahAparinirvA«a Sutra’s doctrine of Buddha-nature gave scriptural credence to the ubiquitous underlying metaphysical substratum that the earlier Chinese Buddhists had been so eagerly seeking; to the displacement of NAgArjuna’s actual Madhyamakan thought by the Ta chih tu lun, a text with dhAtu-vAda tendencies that, because it was ascribed to NAgArjuna, gave the Chinese an image of NAgArjuna as a dhAtu-vAda thinker….7 (18)

This perception of seeing NAgArjuna, e.g., as an ‘idealist’ was certainly misguided. Such historical inaccuracies in interpretation gave ample grounds for critical Buddhist scholarship, both in the academic world and in the world of Buddhist religious thought and practice, to insist on a radical sense of revision. Thence the advent of Critical Buddhism. (19)


5. Critical Buddhist Studies in Japan

A number of Japanese Buddhist scholars proposed a distinction between critical Buddhism, whose critique operates on logical grounds (and uses a more rigourous sense of historical-hermeneutical interpretation) versus a topical Buddhism whose practice operates on a more traditionally received manner along with various idealistic notions that appear to implicate a dhAtu-vAda perspective along with a substantialistic type of metaphysics with its co-option of associated epistemological and/or ontological entities such as Buddha Nature, Buddha Mind, the spiritual being of Bodhisattvas, the intrinsic purity of thought, etc., etc.8 (20)

However, one must wonder if this radical revision of Buddhism is merely ‘food’ for the scholastic academic philosopher? Moreover, does it discount the existential-religious validity of later versions of Buddhist philosophy? Just when does the validity of Buddhist philosophy and history begin and end? With the death of the Buddha? With the death of NAgArjuna? With the death of ASaNga and Vasubandhu et al? How viable, then, would be the pursuit of a Zen oriented discipline given this undercutting of notions like, e.g., Buddha Mind, etc? To what extent could a

7 Dan Lusthaus; Critical Buddhism and Returning to the Sources; essay included in the volume edited by Jamie Hubbard; Pruning the Bodhi Tree; p. 35-36; which can be found online. 8 Critical Buddhism is a trend in Japanese Buddhist scholarship, associated primarily with the works of Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shirō. According to Lin Chen-kuo, Hakamaya's view is that "Critical Buddhism sees methodical, rational critique as belonging to the very foundations of Buddhism itself, while 'Topical Buddhism' emphasizes the priority of rhetoric over logical thinking, of ontology over epistemology."[1] Hakamaya himself defines it as the position "that 'Buddhism is criticism' or that 'only that which is critical is Buddhism.'"[2] He contrasts it with what he calls Topical Buddhism, in comparison to the concepts of critical philosophy and topical philosophy. (As per Wikipedia re Critical Buddhism)

sense of Buddhist religious practice survive such a radical form of (philosophical/historical) reduction? (21)

Although an idealistic interpretation of the Yogacara could be blamed for much of this historical ‘mis-interpretation’ of Buddhist thought there is one historical strand in Buddhist thought and practice, as refined in China, that emanated in India that might be a better candidate for these idealistic-like tendencies, namely, the TathagAtagarbha tradition and whose critical examination might make for some form of a restoration of a more traditional, ‘topical’ like form of Buddhism and return a degree of authenticity to religious thought and practice as developed in the various branches of the Zen tradition, e.g., etc? To this end let me give a brief, potted version of the historical development of Buddhist thought in order to demonstrate where this later tradition might be able to be seen as making an authentic contribution within relatively ‘orthodoxBuddhist practices and beliefs, etc. (22)


6. The Historical Contextualization for the TathagAtagarbha Tradition

A classical interpretation of one aspect of Buddhist mediative practice was to reductively analyse objects and subjects in order to remove a substantialist notion of identity and through its replacement with a more nominalist sense of identity find less of an anchor for our desires, desires whose presence add to human suffering and prevent us from realizing enlightenment. Or something else along those lines to that sort of effect in accordance with which school of thought is framing that type of existential topic. Through such a lens we would end up with various lists of ultimate elements of experience, namely, dharmas. However, the great Madhyamaka Buddhist philosopher NAgArjuna came along and asked “why stop with dharmas?” Even dharmas were empty of substantial existence as much as complex objects and the complexity of subjects (as reduced in a classical format)? Then, the great Yogacara Buddhist philosophers like Asanga and Vasubandhu et al noted that as all intentional existence is constituted in intentional consciousness what role does this intentional consciousness play for NAgAjuna et al when they had so obviously (to the Yogacara) overlooked this important aspect. Then the TathagAtagarbha

tradition noted, as portrayed in my non-subtle form of a paraphrase, that if consciousness is purified of misdirected intentional consciousness by turning such proliferation around what would be left is a purity of mind that would be self-luminous and empty, revealing our inner Buddha natures, or, rather, perhaps, our collective Buddha Nature. At each stage in this semblance of historical development of overall Buddhist thought, and during such developments in their consolidation of these additional traditions, controversies were never too far away. Indeed, we might reason that it was through such intense, controversial debates that these ideas became progressively thematized to ‘miraculously’ appear in religious texts, in the form of sutras, etc., that supported such novel traditions and their novel developments. To be fair, we could say that this metaphysical position is still not substantialistic in a traditional sense since this Buddha Mind or Nature is declared to be empty. Then, it could be treated as a metaphor where ‘like’ is in a form of a partial suspension between ‘is’ and ‘is not’. That the role of language is only to suggest and that the role of religious language is no different in this regard. I.e., that in this type of tradition a religious text or religious person merely indicates the metaphoricaldirection’ one must head in order to become enlightened even though, paradoxical as it might sound, no one becomes enlightened because all forms of identity are empty of intrinsic being given this purity of Buddha Nature…. (23)

7. Provisional Conclusions


In my opinion these parallel influences of the TatathAgtagarbha and an increasing idealistic strand in Yogacara thought both contributed to this misinterpretation of Vasabandhu et al. Consequently, the general overall major discourse in Buddhist developments in China, and thence throughout the East to Japan, etc., would have been filtered through this more metaphysical style of interpretation. Such an approach, in my opinion, has its own internal religious imperative/s whose ensuing dynamics would offer a more secure sense of a ‘religious’ basis for the further propagation and dissemination of this religious tradition upon which much of Eastern aesthetics can be seen as such a wonderful by-product. With these qualifications in mind, in my opinion, these later developments of Buddhist thought should not be seen as misinterpretations, mis-directions, accretions, adulterations of Buddhist thought and practice, etc., but rather as a fleshing out of the internal essence of this existential approach as to how a Buddhist religionist should walk the Eightfold Path…? (24)

In this regard it might be better that the Buddhist practitioner look at both topical and critical forms of Buddhist exposition without exclusively privileging either approach. Indeed, might find themselves better placed in adopting and adapting a deeper, more eclectic, non-exclusive vision of what it might mean to be a Buddhist in all its traditional variety of flavours given that the existential persistence of historical developments is grounded in an authenticity of tested value formation, and, that this approach and treatment should be extended to the practitioner of any other existentially tested tradition, whether religious or non-religious in aspiration…? (25)

8. Some Later Qualifications

This paper was originally meant as an introduction to Yogacara thought for a certain group of people with an Asian background but with little direct contact with the discipline of Western philosophy. However, there are more nuanced texts out there and the reader should refer to those for a closer understanding of the complexities of this type of Buddhist thought and practice. In this regard I would recommend the reading of papers, etc., by Dan Lusthaus, e.g. I would also very much like to recommend a paper by Jingjing Li titled: Buddhist Phenomenology and the Problem of Essence (which can be found on Academia or via: Comparative Philosophy Volume 7, No. 1 (2016): 59-89 Open Access / ISSN 2151-6014 www.comparativephilosophy.org). I also note that in this latter paper a bibliography for Dan Lushaus, etc. can be found. (26)

One of my intuitions was that Xuanzang would have been very well acquainted with earlier Yogacara thought as exemplified by Vasubandhu, e.g. This I still hold to be correct. However, my intuition that this same scholar would not have subscribed to a later Yogacara penchant for a more

transcendental idealistic orientation I believe now to be generally incorrect.9 On the other hand, I perceive this later form of transcendental idealism cannot be simplistically reduced to any form of non-transcendental idealism on the grounds that an implicit transcendental reduction, or epoché, is and remains in effect through its treatment of subjective-objective duality as empty, and, that that which is empty is also an emptiness that is empty. That in effect, when this emptiness is regarded, self-reflexively, as empty then such emptiness can be treated as suchness, which in being empty, has its own pureness being empty of forms of mental proliferation, etc. That in this purity of lived-experience suchness can be seen as both immanent and transcendent to the misplaced aspirations (desires) that we attach to experience when not purified of such attitudes. That this purity of lived-experience ‘sees’ things-as-they-are by virtue of this fact that such experience is subject to this epoché and that this epoché itself is similarly subjected to an epoché… That, in this turning of the circle or wheel of Dharma, three times if not four times, a powerful lived-philosophy is enunciated that goes beyond dharmas (as factors of existence), beyond their being empty, beyond the consciousness of such emptiness (where the empty is itself empty, i.e., emptiness)… and, beyond the very emptiness of such self-awareness that also both presents in and is presented through our critical engagement with the former…. (27)

To my mind, the Tathagatagarbha trend in Buddhist textual production attempts to express this type of complex religious insight that dharmas may be empty, that such emptiness is itself empty, and, that such lived-awareness is ‘pure’ when rigorously subjected to an ongoing epoché, i.e., an ‘ongoing, overall transcendental suspension’ (as examined by myself elsewhere). Although, more truthfully, the textual representations of these subtle styles of transcendental phenomenology need to be critically appreciated in their own terms to that extent we can do that through reading such texts, paraphrasing them, skilfully translating them, and, critically comparing through apposite forms of philosophical review that are mutually productive in value formation.10 (28)





Source