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The Yogacara School of the Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy

(trends and subdivisions)

Evgueni A. Tortchinov

(St. Petersburg State University, Russia)

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:

  1.  Subtradition of Asanga the exact name of which is Cittamatra ("psychical only", or "mind only"); it can be qualified as psychological idealism.
  2.  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.
  3. Subtradition of Dignaga – Dharmakirti 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.

Cittamatra.  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 "Maitreya – 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 Maitreya – Asanga works (the most clear 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).

Vijnaptimatra.  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).  It can be added here that in India such words as Vijnaptimatra and Cittamatra were pure synonyms but the Chinese tradition absolutely correctly distinguishes them. In the Chinese Buddhist parlance Cittamatra (wei xin) is the name for the Tathagatagarbha theory based schools whose intention was to investigate the very nature of Mind (cittatva; xin xing), and Vijnaptimatra (wei shi) is a designation of the school of classical Yogacara with a phenomenological approach to Mind; their intention was to investigate only phenomena (laksana; xiang) of consciousness and not its transcendental nature (that is paratantra and not parinispanna level). Xuan-zang's School of the Dharmic Phenomena (fa xiang zong) just was a representative of this philosophical attitude.

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).   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.

Master Dharmakirti - 600-660 AD,
Exponent of the Madhyamika Prasangika.
(Tibetan block print)
external linkBuddhist Artworkmirror (Australia)

It is important to note that all mentioned Yogacara trends are not purely philosophical but religious—philosophical. All Yogacara discourse takes place within the religious and doctrinal dimension of Buddhism. It is also determined by the fundamental Buddhist problem, that is living being and its liberation from the bondage of Samsara. Just the thinkers of this school worked out the detailed version of the Mahayanistic doctrine of Buddha's Three Bodies (trikaya, fo san shen) and the teaching about ten stages of the bodhisattva path: the chapters on these themes not only constitute important structural units of
such important Yogacara texts as Asanga's "Mahayana samgraha" or Vasubandhu—Xuan-zang's "Vijnaptimatra siddhi sastra" but determine as well the contents and structure of such longest Buddhist philosophical treatise as Asanga's "Stages of the Yogic Path" (Yogacara bhumi sastra). Historically different subschools of the Yogacara tradition played unequal roles in the history of the Mahayanistic Buddhist thought. Thus, the branch of Asanga (or Maitreya-Asanga) which represented by itself a kind of synthesis between Yogacara and the theory of Tathagatagarbha was very fruitful for the Chinese tradition. And in Tibet it had only very limited popularity.

Vasubandhu's Vijnaptimatra determined the character of the Chinese school of Faxiang zong founded by Xuan-zang; it was known very well in Tibet as well.  Logico-epistemological trend had no followers in China or in the Far East as such but it exerted a powerful influence on the formating of the logico-theoretical tradition in Tibet. But in any case the school of Yogacara Buddhist philosophy is one of the most profound and subtle Indian philosophical system spreading with the Buddhist religion all along Eastern and Central Asia. And Xuan-zang was the greatest exponent of this philosophical trend in China.

This text was presented as a paper on the Second International Academic Conference on Xuanzang Studies (China, Shaanxi Province, town of Tongchuan -- March 22-23, 1999).
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page uploaded 4 December 1999, last modified 12 July 2004