5. Karma | Yogācāra

Xuanzang statue
Xuanzang statue

1. Karma

An explanation of the Buddhist doctrine of Karma (action) is central to Yogācāra, and the school sought to explain important questions

- such as how moral actions can have effects on individuals long after that action was done, that is, how karmic causality works across temporal distances.

Previous Abhidharma Buddhist schools like the Sautrāntika had developed theories of karma based on the notion of seeds (bījā) in the mind stream,

- which are unseen karmic habits (good and bad) which remain until they meet with the necessary conditions to manifest.

Yogācāra adopted and expanded this theory. Yogācāra then posited the storehouse consciousness (Sanskrit: ālaya-vijñāna), also known as the basal, or 8th consciousness, as the container of the seeds:

It simultaneously acts as a storage place for karmic latencies and as a fertile matrix of predispositions that bring karma to a state of fruition.

In the Yogācāra system, all experience without exception is said to result from karma or mental intention (cetanā), either arising from one's own subliminal seeds or from other minds.

For Yogācāra, the seemingly external or dualistic world is merely a by-product (adhipati-phala) of karma.

The term vāsanā (perfuming) is also used when explaining karma

and Yogācārins were divided on the issue of whether vāsanā and bīja were essentially the same, whether the seeds were the effect of the perfuming, or whether the perfuming simply affected the seeds.

The type, quantity, quality and strength of the seeds determine where and how a sentient being will be reborn: one's race, sex, social status, proclivities, bodily appearance and so forth.

The conditioning of the mind resulting from karma is called saṁskāra.

Vasubandhu's Treatise on Action (Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa), treats the subject of karma in detail from the Yogācāra perspective.

2. Meditation and awakening

As the name of the school suggests, meditation practice is central to the Yogācāra tradition.

Practice manuals prescribe the practice of mindfulness of body, feelings, thoughts and dharmas in oneself and others, out of which a revolutionary and radically transformative understanding of the non-duality of self and other is said to arise.

This process is referred to as āśraya-parāvṛtti, overturning the Cognitive Basis, or revolution of the basis, which refers to overturning the conceptual projections and imaginings which act as the base of our cognitive actions.

This event is seen as the transformation of the basic mode of cognition into jñāna (knowledge, direct knowing), which is seen as a non-dual knowledge that is non-conceptual (nirvikalpa), i.e., devoid of interpretive overlay.

When this occurs, the 8 consciousnesses come to an end and are replaced by direct knowing.

Overturning the Basis turns the 5 sense consciousnesses into immediate cognitions that accomplish what needs to be done (kṛtyānuṣṭhāna-jñāna).

The 6th consciousness becomes immediate cognitive mastery (pratyavekṣaṇa-jñāna), in which the general and particular characteristics of things are discerned just as they are. This discernment is considered non-conceptual (nirvikalpa-jñāna).

Manas becomes the immediate cognition of equality (samatā-jñāna), equalizing self and other.

When the Warehouse Consciousness finally ceases it is replaced by the Great Mirror Cognition (Mahā-darśa-jñāna) that sees and reflects things just as they are, impartially, without exclusion, prejudice, anticipation, attachment, or distortion.

The grasper-grasped relation has ceased. ...purified cognitions all engage the world in immediate and effective ways by removing the self-bias, prejudice, and obstructions that had prevented one previously from perceiving beyond one's own narcissistic consciousness.

When Consciousness ends, True Knowledge begins. Since Enlightened Cognition is non-conceptual its objects cannot be described.

3. 5 Categories of Beings

One of the more controversial teachings espoused by the Yogācāra school was an extension of the teachings on seeds and store-consciousness:

Based on the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, the Yogācāra School posited that sentient beings had innate seeds that would make them capable of achieving a particular state of Enlightenment and no other.

Thus, beings were categorized in 5 ways:

1. Beings whose innate seeds gave them the capacity to achieve full Buddhahood (i.e. Bodhisattva path).

2. Beings whose innate seeds gave them the capacity to achieve the state of a Pratyekabuddha (private Buddha).

3. Beings whose innate seeds gave them the capacity to achieve the state of an Arhat.

4. Beings whose innate seeds had an indeterminate nature, and could potentially be any of the above.

5. Beings whose innate seeds were incapable of achieving Enlightenment ever because they lacked any wholesome seeds.

The 5th class of beings, the Icchantika, were described in various Mahāyāna sūtras as being incapable of achieving Enlightenment, unless in some cases through the aid of a Buddha or Bodhisattva.

Nevertheless, the notion was highly criticized by adherents of the Lotus sūtra (e.g. the Tiantai School) and its teaching of Universal Buddhahood. This tension appears in East Asian Buddhist history.

4. Alikākāravāda and Satyākāravāda

An important debate about the reality of mental appearances within Yogācāra led to its later subdivision into 2 systems of Alikākāravāda (False Aspectarians) and Satyākāravāda (True Aspectarians) or Aspectarians (ākāra) and Non-Aspectarians (anākāra).

The core issue is whether appearances or aspects (ākāra) of objects in the mind are treated as true (satya) or false (alika).

While this division did not exist in the works of the early Yogācāra philosophers, tendencies similar to these views can be discerned in the works of Yogācāra thinkers like Dharmapāla (c. 530–561?) and Sthiramati (c. 510–570?).

The distinction is:

Although Yogācāra in general do not accept the existence of an external material world,

according to Satyākāravāda its appearances or aspects (ākāra) reflected in consciousness have a real existence, because they are of one nature with the really existent consciousness, their creator.

According to Alikākāravāda, neither external phenomena nor their appearances and/in the minds that reflect them really exist:

What exists in reality is only primordial mind (jñāna), described as self-cognition (sva-sam-vedanā/ sva-sam-vṛtti) or individually self-cognizing primordial mind.