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Vijnanavada

The origin and development of Vijnanvada

 The development of the Vijnanavada began around 150 C.E. with the Sandhinirmochana Sutra.  In the next few centuries this was followed by the very important Lankavatara sutra in the early 4th century, and the Abhisamayalankara (a Prajnaparamita commentary) and Avatamsaka sutras later in the century [Edward Conze, Buddhism, its Essence and Development, p.164].

The Sandhinirmochana and Lankavatara sutras were especially influential in the formulation of the doctrines of the Yogachara school, founded by two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandu (the latter, because of his great learning, was given the singular honour of being called "the second Buddha"), natives of North-West India, in the 4th or 5th century.  Another source of Yogachara teachings was Asanga's little-known teacher Maitreyanatha, who has been called the true founder of the school [Chandradhar Sharma, A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy, p.108].  Asanga and Vasubandu were encyclopaedic systematisers, who developed ideas already established in older writings, such as the Abhidharma, the Prajnaparamita, and the Lankavatara, and gave definitive form to earlier Mahayanist concepts like the ten stages (bhumis) of development of the Bodhisattva, the three "bodies" of the Buddha (trikaya), the three states or levels of self-being (swabhava), and the theory that reality is consciousness-only [Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India, p.250; and Buddhism, its Essence and Development, p.164].  This last is the most important aspect of Vijnanavada/Yogachara, for this school differs from the Prajnaparamita and the anti-metaphysical Madhyamika approach in that it gives a positive, qualitative description of the Absolute Reality, which is described as being of the nature of pure Consciousness (vijnana); "consciousness-only" (vijnanamatrata, vijnaptimatrata); or "Mind-only" (Chittamatra).

Vijnanavada Buddhism contributed two important emanationist ideas: the metaphysical idea of emanation from an original universal consciousness (the Alaya-vijnana), and the theological idea of the Trikaya, the Three Bodies of the Buddha.  As a philosophical school, Yogacara argues that all that exists are minds and their experiences. If there are no mind-independent things, why do people seem to have similar experiences (e.g., why do you and I both see the candle flame, and we both feel pain when we touch it)?  The explanation offered is that previous experiences create a storehouse consciousness (alaya-vijnana, sometimes identified with the tathagatagarbha) which encourages people to have similar experiences in the future.

Late Yogacarins (Dignaga and especially, Dharmakirti, Shantarakshita, Kamalashila and Ratnakirti) were not only logicians but experts in epistemology, theory of consciousness and the Tantric yogins as well.  The Mahasiddhas (Great Perfect Ones) in some aspects were also adherents of  the Yogacara school.


go toThe Vijnanvada Conception Of "Consciousness-Only"
go tothe Trikaya, the Three Bodies of the Buddha.
go toThe Yogacara School of the Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy - Evgueni A. Tortchinov

Chinese Vijnanvada

 The Yogachara metaphysic, thus formulated in India, was further developed in China, where, due to an artifact of translation and interpretation, the Tathagata-garbha (in Chinese fo-hsing - "Buddha-womb" - the womb of the Buddha or storehouse of the Buddha, the potential for Buddhahood which all beings possess.), was distinguished from the Alaya-vijnana.  In Indian texts such as the Lankavatara and the Mahaparinirvana sutras the Tathagata-garbha was specifically identified with the Alayavijnana, and referred to the potential or cause leading or pointing towards enlightenment, rather than an actual state or reality.  In Chinese, due to Mencian Confucian and Chuang-tze Taoist preconceptions, it came to mean "Buddha-nature", an ontological reality or essence, like the Vedantic Atman [Whalen Lai, "The Meaning of "mind-only" (wei-hsin): An analysis of a sinitic Mahayana phenomenon", Philosophy East and West 27, no 1; p.73-74].  The Alayavijnana then came to be seen as a lower or impure level of Consciousness, the "tainted consciousness" (shih) relative to the Tathagatagarbha or innately pure Absolute Buddha Mind (hsin) or Buddha-nature.   Tathagatagarbha or Mind or hsin thus became a "ninth consciousness" or original principle over and above the other eight.  This idea of the superiority of Mind (hsin) over consciousness (shih) was used by the Mind-Only schools of Hua-yen and Ch'an to claim superiority over the consciousness-only school of Wei-shih (Chinese Yogachara) [Ibid, pp.65, 79].  In all this we see the development of an emanationist cosmology more like Neoplatonism or Kashmir Shaivism than original Yogachara Mahayana.  But the anti-metaphysical emphasis of even the most elaborate Buddhist schools prevented this modified Yogachara from ever becoming as sophisticated as those other two systems.


Vijnanvada and the West

 In the Nineteenth century, elements of Vijnanavada, such as the Alayavijnana and the Manas, were adopted in modified from by H. P. Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy.  As was mentioned earlier, Blavatsky was also influenced by the Vedantic idea of koshas, so Yogachara can be seen to be a second source of inspiriation.  More recently, young Buddhist-orientated Westerners have made much of the parallel between the Alaya-vijnana and the Collective Unconscious of the psychologist-mystic Carl Jung.  Certainly there are many parallels (e.g. in both there is a universal substratum, a sort of Un- or Super-consciousness, behind the surface consciousness; and the repository of subconscious impulses to manifestation).  But there are also important differences too.  Jung's archetypes are universal transpersonal religious or mythological motifs, more equivalent to the "gods" of polytheism then to the karmic seeds or vasanas; and Jung's positive assessment of the ego - the ego being a necessary state in the development of self - and higher consciousness, is diametrically opposed to the ego-transcending perception of the various Indian philosophies.




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page by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 27 October 1998, last modified 12 July 2004