6. Practice | Yogācāra

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Buddhism Practice
Buddhism Practice

1. Practice

The main source for the yogic and meditative practices of the Yogācāra School is the encyclopaedic Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra (YBh, Treatise on the Foundation for Yoga Practitioners).

The YBh presents a structured exposition of the Mahāyāna Buddhist path of yoga (here referring to spiritual practice in general) from a Yogācāra perspective

and relies in both Āgama/Nikāya texts and Mahāyāna sūtras while also being influenced by Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma.

According to some scholars, this text can be traced to communities of Yogācāra, which initially referred not to a philosophical school, but to groups of meditation specialists whose main focus was Buddhist yoga.

Other Yogācāra texts which also discuss meditation and spiritual practice (and show some relationship with the YBh) include:

  1. the Saṁdhi-nirmocana-sūtra,
  2. the Madhyānta-Vibhāga,
  3. Mahāyāna-Sūtrālamkāra,
  4. Dharma-dharmatā-vibhāga
  5. Asaṅga’s Mahāyāna-saṁgraha.

The main or basic section of the YBh is structured around 17 bhūmi (explained in 14 books), which are foundations or groundings of meditation,

referring to a field of knowledge that the Yogācāra acolyte ought to master in order to be successful in his or her yoga practice.

Some of these are doctrinal topics such as the 5 vijñānas (book 1), the ālaya-vijñāna, afflictive cognition (kliṣṭaṁ manaḥ), the 51 mental factors (book 2), and the defilements (saṁ-kleśa, book 3).

Other books discuss meditation practice proper (books 4, 9, 10, and 12).

The YBh discusses numerous classic Buddhist topics dealing with the spiritual practice of both Śrāvakayāna and Mahāyāna.

Some of the main topics are the 8 different forms of dhyāna (meditative absorptions), the 3 Samādhis, different types of liberation (vimokṣa),

meditative attainments (samāpatti) such as nirodha-samāpatti, the 5 hindrances (nīvaraṇa), the various types of foci (ālambana) or 'images' (nimitta) used in meditation,

the various types of meditation used as antidotes (pratipakṣa) against the afflictions (like contemplating death, unattractiveness, impermanence, and suffering),

the practice of śamatha through the 9 aspects of resting the mind (nava-kāra citta-sthitiḥ), the practice of insight (vipaśyanā), mindfulness of breathing (ānāpāna-smṛti),

how to understand the 4 noble truths, the 37 factors of Awakening (sapta-triṁśad bodhipakṣyā dharmaḥ), the 4 immeasurables (apramāṇa), and how to practice the 6 perfections (pāramitā).

2. Bodhisattva practice

The YBh's Bodhisattvabhūmi section discusses the Yogācāra School’s specifically Mahāyāna forms of practice which are tailored to Bodhisattvas:

These figures are seen as spiritual virtuosos who are working on attaining full Buddhahood through a process that can take hundreds of aeons of spiritual development (and countless rebirths).

Unlike other books in the YBh (such as the Śrāvaka-bhūmi) which are more influenced by Śrāvakayāna texts, the Bodhisattvabhūmi is strongly influenced by Mahāyāna works, including the Prajñāpāramitā literature.

The aim of the Bodhisattva's practice in the Bodhisattvabhūmi is the wisdom (prajñā) which realizes of the inexpressible Ultimate Reality (tathatā)

or the 'thing-in-itself (vastu-mātra), which is essenceless and beyond the duality (advaya) of existence (bhāva) and non-existence (abhāva).

The Bodhisattvabhūmi outlines several practices of Bodhisattvas, including the 6 perfections (pāramitā), the 37 factors of Awakening, and the 4 immeasurables.

2 key practices which are unique to Bodhisattvas in this text are the 4 investigations (paryeṣaṇā) and the 4 correct cognitions (yathā-bhūta-parijñāna).

The 4 investigations and the corresponding 4 correct cognitions or knowledges which arise from them are:

1) The investigation of the names of things (nāma-paryeṣaṇā), leads to correct cognition resulting from the investigation of names just for what they are, which is just names (nāma-mātra).

2) The investigation of things (vastu-paryeṣaṇā), leads to correct cognition resulting from the investigation of things.

One sees things just for what they are, namely a mere presence or a thing-in-itself (vastu-mātra). One understands that this is apart from all labels and is inexpressible (nirabhilāpya).

3) The investigation of verbal designations suggesting and portraying an intrinsic nature (svabhāva-prajñapti-paryeṣaṇā), leads to correct cognition resulting from the investigation of such designations.

One sees the designations just for what they are, namely as mere designations (prajñapti-mātratā). Thus, one sees the idea of intrinsic nature to be illusory like a hallucination or a dream.

4) The investigation of verbal designations expressing individuation and differences (viśeṣa-prajñapti-paryeṣaṇā), leads to correct cognition resulting from the investigation of such designations.

One sees the designations just for what they are, namely as mere designations.

For example, a thing may be designated as existing or non-existing, but such designations do not apply to true reality or the thing-in-itself.

The practice which leads to the realization of the true nature of things is based on the elimination of all conceptual proliferations (prapañca) and ideations (saṁjñā) that one superimposes on true reality.

This elimination of concepts and ideas is the basic framework applied by the Bodhisattva to all meditative practices. The YBh states:

The path of practice shall be correctly followed in order to eliminate that ideation:

Through understanding, thoroughly exercised upon all objects of knowledge, and by keeping in mind only the ideation that the ideations of all phenomena are nothing but adventitious,

you should thus repeatedly remove any ideation conducive to the proliferation directed at all phenomena

and should consistently dwell on the thing-in-itself by a non-conceptualizing mental state which is focused on grasping only the object perceived without any characteristics.

Thus you will obtain the concentration stemming from the lineage of those practicing the pure contemplation of the Tathāgata’s Supreme Cognition.

Even when you practice the meditation on the impurity, you should not relinquish this mental orientation.

Likewise when you practice the meditation on friendliness, dependent origination, analysis of elements, mindfulness of breathing, the first absorption and so on

up to the station of neither ideation nor non-ideation as well as the Bodhisattva's countless meditations, supernatural faculties, contemplations, and attainments,

- you should not relinquish precisely this mental orientation.

The 3 Samādhis (meditative absorption and unity) are likewise adapted into this new framework. These 3 are:

  1. the emptiness (śūnyatā), Samādhi
  2. wishlessness (apraṇihita), Samādhi
  3. imagelessness (ānimitta) Samādhi.

Another original contribution of the YBh regarding the Bodhisattva's practice is the doctrine of the 13 (or sometimes 12) abodes or dwellings (vihāra).

This framework of the Bodhisattva's Path to awakening is as follows:

1) The abode of the predisposition (gotra-vihāra). This refers to someone with the predisposition for being a Bodhisattva who has not given rise to the resolve for awakening.

2) The abode of practicing with ascertainment (adhi-mukti-caryā-vihāra).

This is when a Bodhisattva has given rise to the resolve for Awakening and begins to practice, but they have an impure conviction and unstable meditation.

3) The abode of joy (pramudita-vihāra).

This is when a Bodhisattva has pure conviction due to having their first glimpse of direct realization. Their meditation is now vast, uninterrupted, and certain.

4) The abode higher discipline (adhi-śīla-vihāra) is when discipline is cultivated on the basis of pure conviction.

5) The abode of higher mind (adhi-citta-vihāra) is when one practices all stages of mundane meditation on the basis of higher discipline.

6) The abode of higher insight associated with the factors of Awakening (bodhipakṣyā prati-saṁyukto adhi-prajñā-vihāra) is the level of analysing the thirty-seven factors of Awakening in order to realize the truths, beginning with the 4 foundations of mindfulness.

7) The abode of higher insight associated with the truths (satya-prati-saṁyukto adhi-prajñā-vihāra) is the level of fully realizing the truths as they are on the basis of having analysed the factors of Awakening.

8) The abode of higher insight associated with the arising and ceasing of dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda-pravṛtti-nivṛtti-prati-saṁyukto adhi-prajñā-vihāra)

This is the level wherein the practitioner after having mastered the truths sees how suffering arises when the existential facts are not understood

and how suffering comes to an end when the existential facts are understood (through the process of dependent origination).

9) The abode free from conceptual characteristics where the path is steadily followed intentionally and with effort.

One constantly cultivates non-conceptual insight into the reality of all phenomena, while applying intention and effort.

10) The abode free from conceptual characteristics where the path is automatically followed spontaneously and effortlessly.

On this level, the Bodhisattva is able to walk the path spontaneously and effortlessly.

11) The abode of analytical knowledge (prati-saṁvid-vihāra)

This is when the Bodhisattva uses their mastery of insight and meditation to teach the Dharma to others using all terms, their meanings, their derivative analyses, and subdivisions.

12) The highest and perfected Bodhisattva abode (Bodhisattva-vihāraḥ) is the culmination of the path, where the highest and complete Awakening is achieved.

This life is their final rebirth or their penultimate rebirth before entering Nirvāṇa.

13) The abode of a Tathāgata (tathāgato vihāraḥ) is when a Bodhisattva becomes a Buddha, and performs all the various deeds of a Buddha.