2. Consciousness Only | Yogācāra

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1. Consciousness Only

One of the main features of Yogācāra philosophy is the concept of vijñapti-mātra. It is often used interchangeably with the term citta-mātra, but they have different meanings.

The standard translation of both terms is consciousness-only or mind-only.

Several modern researchers object to this translation, and the accompanying label of absolute idealism or idealistic monism.

A better translation for vijñapti-mātra is representation-only, while an alternative translation for citta (mind, thought) mātra (only, exclusively) has not been proposed.

It is believed, the earliest surviving appearance of this term is in chapter 8 of the Saṅdhi-nirmocana Sūtra, which has only survived in Tibetan and Chinese translations that differ in syntax and meaning.

The passage is depicted as a response by the Buddha to a question which asks:

whether the images or replicas (*prati-bimba) which are the object (*gocara) of meditative concentration (*samādhi), are different/separate (*bhinna) from the contemplating mind (*citta) or not.

The Buddha says they are not different, Because these images are vijñapti-mātra.

The text goes on to affirm that the same is true for objects of ordinary perception.

Regarding existing Sanskrit sources, the term appears in the first verse of Vasubandhu's Viṁśatikā, which is a classical expression of the idea, it states:

Vijñapti-mātram evaitad asad arthāvabhāsanāt yathā taimirikasyāsat keśa candrādi darśanam.

This world is vijñapti-mātra, since it manifests itself as an unreal object (ārtha), just like the case of those with cataracts seeing unreal hairs in the moon and the like.

Vasubandhu, Viṁśatikā

What Vasubandhu means here is that we are only ever aware of mental images or impressions which manifest themselves as external objects, but there is actually no such thing outside the mind.

The term also appears in Asaṅga's classic Yogācāra work, the Mahāyāna-Saṁgraha (no Sanskrit original, trans. from Tibetan):

These representations (vijñapti) are mere representations (vijñapti-mātra), because there is no corresponding thing/object (artha)...

Just as in a dream there appear, even without a thing/object (artha), just in the mind alone, forms/images of all kinds of things/objects like visibles, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, houses, forests, land, and mountains, and yet there are no such things/objects at all in that place.

Asaṅga, Mahāyāna-Saṁgraha II.6

The term is sometimes used as a synonym with citta-mātra (mere citta), which is also used as a name for the school that suggests Idealism.

It is believed that the first appearance of this term is in the Pratyutpanna Samādhi sūtra, which states:

This (or: whatever belongs to this) triple world (*traidhātuka) is nothing but mind (or thought: *Cittamātra).

- Why? Because however I imagine things, that is how they appear.

2. Interpretations of vijñapti-mātra

2.1. Idealism

The interpretation of this doctrine as a form of subjective or absolute idealism has been the most common interpretation of Vijñānavāda, not only by modern writers, but by its ancient opponents, both Hindu and Buddhist.

Scholars argue that Yogācāra is similar to Idealism (closer to a Kantian epistemic idealism), though they note that it is its own unique form and that it might be confusing to categorize it as such.

Some scholars argue for the idealistic nature of Yogācāra, noting that there are numerous similarities between Yogācāra and the systems of Kant and Berkeley and Schopenhauer.

Yogācāra thinker Vasubandhu can be said to be an idealist (similar to Kant), in the sense that for him, everything in experience as well as its causal support is mental, and thus he gives causal priority to the mental.

At the same time however, this is only in the conventional realm, since mind is just another concept and true reality for Vasubandhu is an inconceivable thus-ness (tathatā).

Indeed, the Viṁśatikā states that the very idea of vijñapti-mātra must also be understood to be itself a self-less construction and thus vijñapti-mātra is not the ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya) in Yogācāra.

Thus, while Vasubandhu's vijñapti-mātra can be said to be conventionalist idealism, it is to be seen as unique and different from Western forms, especially Hegelian Absolute Idealism.

2. 2. Mere representation

Other scholars note that it is a mistake to conflate the 2 terms vijñapti-mātra and citta-mātra:

While the standard translations for both vijñapti-mātra and citta-mātra are often consciousness only and mind-only (signifying an Idealistic doctrine), objections are raised to this conflation, as well as to Idealistic interpretation.

Different alternative translations for vijñapti-mātra have been proposed, such as representation-only, ideation-only, impressions-only and perception-only.

Some argue that citta-mātra signifies a metaphysical reification of mind into an absolute, while vijñapti-mātra refers to a certain epistemological approach.

They say the term vijñapti-mātra replaced the more metaphysical term citta-mātra used in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra:

The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra appears to be one of the earliest attempts to provide a philosophical justification for the Absolutism that emerged in Mahāyāna in relation to the concept of Buddha.

It uses the term citta-mātra, which means properly thought-only. By using this term it develops ontology, in contrast to the epistemology of the term vijñapti-mātra.

The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra equates citta and the absolute.

But this is not the way Yogācāra uses the term vijñapti:

The absolute state is defined simply as Emptiness, namely the emptiness of subject-object distinction. Once thus defined as Emptiness (śūnyatā), it receives a number of synonyms, none of which betray idealism.

Vijñapti-mātra then means mere representation of consciousness:

The phrase vijñapti-mātratā-vāda means a theory which says that the world as it appears to the unenlightened ones is mere representation of consciousness. Therefore, any attempt to interpret vijñapti-mātratā-vāda as idealism would be a gross misunderstanding of it.

Arguments in defence of vijñapti-mātra

Yogācāra philosophers were aware of the objections that could be brought against their doctrine. Vasubandhu's Viṁśatikā mentions 3 and refutes them:

1. The problem of spatio-temporal determination or non-arbitrariness in regard to place and time:

There must be some external basis for our experiences since experiences of any particular object are not occurrent everywhere and at every time.

Vasubandhu explains this by using the dream argument, which shows how a world created by mind can still seem to have spatio-temporal localization.

2. The problem of multiple minds experiencing the same object or inter-subjective agreement.

Vasubandhu counters that mass hallucinations (such as those said to occur to hungry ghosts) caused by the fact they share similar karma; show that inter-subjective agreement is possible without positing real external objects.

3. Hallucinations have no pragmatic results, efficacy or causal functions and thus can be determined to be unreal, but entities we generally accept as being real have actual causal results that cannot be of the same class as hallucinations.

Against this claim, Vasubandhu argues that waking life is the same as in a dream, where objects have pragmatic results within the very rules of the dream.

He also uses the example of a wet dream to show that mental content can have causal efficacy outside of a dream.

After disposing of these objections, Vasubandhu believes he has shown that vijñapti-mātra is just as good at explaining and predicting the relevant phenomena of experience as any theory of realism that posits external objects.

Therefore, he then applies the Indian philosophical principle termed the Principle of Lightness (which is similar to Occam's Razor) to rule out realism

since vijñapti-mātra is the simpler and lighter theory, that is, the theory that posits the least number of unobservable entities.

Another objection that Vasubandhu answers is that of how one person can influence another's experiences, if everything arises from mental karmic seeds in one's mind stream.

Vasubandhu argues that impressions can also be caused in a mental stream by the occurrence of a distinct impression in another suitably linked mental stream.

This account can explain how it is possible to influence or even totally disrupt (murder) another mind, even if there is no physical medium or object in existence, since a suitably strong enough intention in one mind stream can have effects on another mind stream.

From the vijñapti-mātra position, it is easier to posit a mind to mind causation than to have to explain mind to body causation, which the realist must do.

In disproving the possibility of external objects, Vasubandhu's Viṁśatikā also attacks Indian theories of atomism and property particulars as incoherent on mere logical grounds.

Vasubandhu also explains why it is soteriologically important to get rid of the idea of really existing external objects. This is because:

 When we wrongly imagine there to be external objects we are led to think in terms of the duality of 'grasped and grasper', of what is 'out there' and what is ' in here' - in short, of external world and self.

Coming to see that there is no external world is a means, Vasubandhu thinks, of overcoming a very subtle way of believing in an 'I'... once we see why physical objects can't exist we will lose all temptation to think there is a true 'me' within.

There are really just impressions, but we superimpose on these the false constructions of object and subject. Seeing this will free us from the false conception of an 'I'.