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The Yogacara School of the Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy (trends and subdivisions)

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  By Evgueni A. Tortchinov

The Buddhist philosophical school of Yogacara established in the frames of Mahayanistic Buddhism is one of the most complex and interesting phenomena of the philosophical trends of traditional India. It exerted notable influence not only on the formation of the Buddhist philosophical thinking in different regions of the Buddhist world (China, Tibet) but also on the native cultural tradition of those regions as well (it is rather enough to mention here the Neoconfucian branch of "xin xue" in its historical development from Wang Yangming up to such contemporary post-Confucians as Liang Shuming and especially Xiong Shili). But the researches into this trend of thought have not been completed yet. Thus, in the Russian Buddhist studies (with exception of the classical works of Th. Stcherbatsky dedicated to the logico-epistemological branch existing in the frames of Yogacara, practically there are no serious studies of this school and the scholarly translations of the principal texts of Yogacara are also lacking). Here I would like to discuss the question of the existence of different trends (subschools) within the frames of this philosophical school.

It is usually conceived that the synonymous name for the title "Yogacara" ("school of the practice of yoga") is "Vijnanavada" ("the doctrine of consciousness"). Really, the maxim "All three worlds are mind only" (its locus classicus is "Dasa bhumika sutra") expresses the principal doctrinal essence of this school as a teaching which examines mainly just the problems of mind and consciousness. But not all the representatives of this school used the term "Vijnanavada" for its self denomination (it is also true regarding another denominations of Yogacara which also are conceived to be synonymous – "Vijnaptimatra", "Cittamatra", etc.).


It must be said that every outstanding representative of this school who established the subschool of his own preferred to use his own denomination of his new branch. This difference in self-denominations reflected rather subtle distinctions between the trends developing in the frames of general paradigm of the Yogacara thinking. On this foundations it seams to be possible to define the following subtraditions of this school of the Buddhist philosophy:

Subtradition of Asanga the exact name of which is Cittamatra ("psychical only", or "mind only"); it can be qualified as psychological idealism.

Subtradition of Vasubandhu, developed by his disciples Sthiramati and especially, Dharmapala. The exact name of this trend is Vijnaptimatra ("Conscious only"), or Vijnanavada ("The doctrine of consciousness"). It can be qualified as the Buddhist phenomenology of consciousness.

Subtradition of DignagaDharmakirti originated from Vasubandhu's subtradition (as it is well known, Dignaga was a disciple of Vasubandhu, and Dharmakirti – that of Dharmapala's) and its proper name is Sautrantika - Yogacara. It can be qualified as the logico-epistemological branch of the Yogacara school.

For the brief definition of these subtraditions it can be said that Asanga's teaching contains in itself the tendency to onthological and metaphysical examination of the problem of Mind. It confirms the existence not only the "store consciousness" of Alaya-vijnana which is the source of all empirical forms of consciousness and its contents as well but also supports the idea of the One and Only absolute Mind which is the same as the Dharma Body (Dharmakaya) of the Buddha itself. This Absolute Consciousness sometimes was even called "Great Self", "Highest Self", or "Pure Self" (mahatman; paramatman; suddhatman). This tendency lead Asanga to the positions of the Tathagatagarbha theory represented first of all by the treatise "Ratnagotravibhaga" (or "Uttaratantra"). This work was included by the Tibetans to the texts of "Maytreya – Asanga" (but the Chinese tradition attributed it to a certain Saramati).


It must be added that this tendency appeared in its purity first of all in the texts included by the Indo - Tibetan tradition to the group of the so-called MaitreyaAsanga works (the clearest example here is "Mahayana sutralamkara sastra"). It is possible that the position of these works of Asanga had played an important role in the process of integration of the Yogacara ideas into the theory of the Tathagatagarbha. This integration has found its most perfect expression in the famous work of pseudo - Asvaghosa "Mahayana sraddhotpada sastra" (it is existed only in Chinese). This position of Asanga supplied the reality of only psychical and was quite in accordance with the teaching of such important doctrinal text as "Lankavatara sutra". It is rather important to note that in another works of Asanga ("Yogacara bhumi sastra", "Mahayana samgraha sastra", "Abhidharma samuccaya") Asanga's position is looks like the position of his stepbrother Vasubandhu (but some differences still continue to exist).

Subschool of Yogacara presented by Vasubandhu himself could be considered to be "classical" Yogacara; it was just in Vasubandhu's and his disciples' works this school attained its perfect maturity. Unlike Asanga, Vasubandhu carefully reserves from the arguments of the onthological character having strong intention to keep himself exclusively in the frames of phenomenolology. Developing the concept of "alaya - vijnana" and the teaching about three levels of reality (trisvabhava), Vasubandhu tells nothing about any Absolute, or the Only Mind, he reserves himself from discussion about the essence, or nature of consciousness examining only its phenomena (laksana). Nevertheless, his disciples Sthiramati and Dharmapala transcended the limitations of the pure empiricism and phenomenologism of Vasubandhu distinctively proclaiming the idea of the non-existence of the world outside consciousness (this position was accepted by the Chinese Yogacarins Xuan-zang and Kuai-ji; Xuan-zang was a pupil of Dharmapala's disciples).

Sautrantika - yogacara of Dignaga - Dharmakirti branch was called by this name because of some special features of this subschool. The philosophers of this trend together with the Sautrantikas of the Hinayana tradition taught that sensations contained an element of the real knowledge. But this position did not prevent some later representatives of this subschool (Prajnakaragupta, Ratnakirti) to be proponents of the extreme illusionism and solipsism (as well as of solipsism of this moment). The best example of such extreme idealistic ideas was the treatise of Ratnakirti (XI century) "Refutation of the existence of other minds" (Santanantara dusana).

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The logico-epistemological trend of Yogacara rejected the doctrine of alaya-vijnana but preserved the concept of vasanas, or "habitual force" (the notion designated the energy of habit, which conditioned the intentions of mind to project its contents outward). The thinkers of this subschool were extreme nominalists and empiricists who underlined the theory of the momentary character of all existence and considered the contents of the present single perception (svalaksana) to be the only reality. In the same time they were extremely interested in the problems of the formal logic which was used by them in their rather successful and very active polemics with the Brahmanists.

The historical fate of the above-mentioned trends of the Yogacara school was different. In China Xuan-zang became the greatest proponent and representative of this school. His disciple Kuai-ji became Xuan-zang's most faithful successor. Both of them represented the standard classical trend of Yogacara (Vijnaptimatra, wei shi) of Vasubandhu as it was interpreted by the teacher of Xuan-zang's teacher Dharmapala. But the school which was established by them very soon lost its influence which was based extremely on the great authority of such outstanding personality as Xuan-zang (the great translator and pilgrim who became even the leading personage of the well known masterpiece novel of Wu Chengen "Travel to the West", or "Xi yu ji"). The school as such was too indianized for the Chinese (even the Buddhist) mind. Its epistemological attitude and very complicated philosophical scholasticism was alien to the metaphysical and onthological developments of the overwhelming majority of the established school of the Chinese Buddhism.

It must be noted practically complete absence of the influence of later Indian logical and epistemological trend of Yogacara (Dignaga, Dharmakirti, Prajnakaragupta, Ratnakirti) on the Chinese Buddhist philosophy (but this influence was considerably strong in Tibet). This trend became strong in India when the formation of the Chinese Buddhism completed. Besides this, it is well known that the Chinese culture never was interested in logical and epistemological topics (the only exception was a short period of IY - III centuries B.C.E. when later Mohists and the "School of Names" – ming jia established some foundations for protologic). The Chinese thinkers preferred archaic numerology and classifications to logic and epistemology. Therefore even sporadically translated into Chinese Indian logical works were practically unused untill XX century when outstanding Confucian thinker Xiong Shili (who had also some definite Buddhist sympathies) became interested in their contents. Even the intentions of the Dignaga - Dharmakirti school with its radical empiricism and nominalism were in strict opposition to the metaphysical and substantialistic intentions of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine which was normative in China, and these intentions were in perfect harmony with the Chinese (and Far Eastern) type of civilization (classical Yogacarin's faxiangdharma laksana, or dharmic phenomena versus Tathagatagarbhic faxing, or dharmic nature).

In Tibet the traditions of the Yogacara discourse kept their importance in the system of the monastic education (logical, pramana, classes were organized according to Dignaga and Dharmakirti's system, and Mahayana Abhidharma studies were based on the works of Asanga) as well as in such schools and trends as Nyingma-pa, Kagyu-pa and Sakya-pa.

Nevertheless it must be noted the great importance of Xuan-zang's introduction of the classical Yogacara philosophy (wei shi, faxiang) to China as an event of tremendous cultural meaning. It was extremely clear example of intercultural interaction and intercultural exchange between the great civilizations of India and China the positive fruits of which became completely understandable only in the present time after the beneficial influence of the Yogacara ideas on the Neoconfucian thought of Wang Yangming's xin xue and its revival in the post-Confucian thought of contemporary China (Liang Shuming and especially, Xiong Shili). And it is possible to suppose that the results of Xuan-zang's cultural labours have not been exhausted yet, and we will see the their positive and enriching influence on the Chinese and even world civilization in future.