7. History | Yogācāra

Asanga statue
Asanga statue

1. History

The Yogācāra, along with the Mādhyamika, is one of the 2 principal philosophical schools of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, while the Tathāgatagarbha-thought was also influential.

One of the earliest texts of this tradition is the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra which might be as early as the 1st - 2nd century CE:

It includes new theories such as the basis-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) and the doctrine of representation-only (vijñapti-mātra) and the 3 natures (tri-svabhāva).

However, these theories were not completely new, as they have predecessors in older theories held by previous Buddhist schools, such as the Sautrāntika theory of seeds (bīja) and the Sthāvira Nikāya’s Abhidharma theory of the bhavaṅga.

There is a similarity between the Sautrāntika representationalism and the Yogācāra:

The Sautrāntika accept that it is only the form (ākāra) or representation (vijñapti) of an object which is perceived.

Where the schools differ is in the Yogācāra refusal to accept the validity of discussing external objects as causes (nimitta) given that an external object is never (directly) perceived.

The Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra, as the doctrinal trailblazer of the Yogācāra, inaugurated the paradigm of the 3 Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, with its own tenets in the 3rd turning.

Yogācāra texts are generally considered part of the 3rd turning along with the relevant sūtra. (Some traditions categorize this teaching as within the 4th turning of the wheel of Dharma.)

Moreover, Yogācāra discourse surveys and synthesizes all 3 turnings and considers itself as the final definitive explanation of Buddhism.

The early layers of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra also contain very early Yogācāra material, perhaps earlier than the Saṁdhi-nirmocana. This work is strongly influenced by Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.

The orientation of the Yogācāra School is largely consistent with the thinking of the Pāli Nikāyas. It frequently treats later developments in a way that realigns them with earlier versions of Buddhist doctrines.

One of the agendas of the Yogācāra School was to reorient the complexity of later refinements in Buddhist philosophy to accord with early Buddhist doctrine.

2. Asaṅga and Vasubandhu

Yogācāra philosophy's systematic exposition owes much to Asaṅga and Vasubandhu.

Little is known of these figures, but traditional hagiographies state that Asaṅga received Yogācāra teachings from the Bodhisattva and future Buddha, Maitreya:

Accounts of this are given in the writings of Paramārtha (6th century) and Xuanzang, who reports that important texts like the Mahāyāna-sūtra-alaṁkāra and the Madhyānta-vibhāga are divinely revealed from Maitreya.

Asaṅga went on to write many of the key Yogācāra treatises such as the Mahāyāna-saṁgraha and the Abhidharma-samuccaya as well as other works,

although there are discrepancies between the Chinese and Tibetan traditions concerning which works are attributed to him and which to Maitreya.

Asaṅga also went on to convert his brother Vasubandhu into the Mahāyāna Yogācāra fold.

Vasubandhu had been a top scholar of Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika Abhidharma thought, and the Abhidharma-kośa-kārikā is his main work which discusses the doctrines of these traditions.

Vasubandhu also went on to write important Yogācāra works after his conversion, explaining and defending key Yogācāra doctrines.

3. Development in India

The Yogācāra School held a prominent position in Indian Buddhism for centuries after the time of the 2 brothers. After Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, 2 distinct wings of the school developed:

1) A logico-epistemic tradition focusing on issues of epistemology and logic, exemplified by such thinkers as Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, Śāntarakṣita, and Ratnakīrti;

2) an Abhidharmic psychology which refined and elaborated Yogācāra Abhidharma, exemplified by such thinkers as Sthiramati, Dharmapāla, Śīlabhadra, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), and Vinītadeva.

However, the doctrines of the Abhidharmic wing came under increased attack by other Buddhists, especially the notion of ālaya-vijñāna, which was seen as close to the Hindu ideas of ātman and prakṛti.

Because of this, the logical tradition shifted over time to using the term citta-santāna instead of ālaya-vijñāna, since it was easier to defend a stream (santāna) of thoughts as a doctrine that did not contradict not-self.

By the end of the 8th century, the Abhidharma wing had mostly become eclipsed by the logical tradition as well as by a new hybrid school that combined basic Yogācāra doctrines with Tathāgatagarbha thought:

The Tathāgata-garbha hybrid school was no stranger to the charge of smuggling notions of selfhood into its doctrines, since, for example, it explicitly defined Tathāgata-garbha as permanent, pleasurable, self, and pure (nitya, sukha, ātman, śuddha).

Many Tathāgata-garbha texts, in fact, argue for the acceptance of selfhood (ātman) as a sign of higher accomplishment.

The hybrid school attempted to conflate Tathāgata-garbha with the ālaya-vijñāna:

Key works of the hybrid school include the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Rātna-gotra-vibhāga (Uttara-tantra), and in China the Awakening of Faith.

This syncretic form of Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha became extremely influential in both East Asia and Tibet.

During the 6th - 7th centuries, various forms of Yogācāra dominated the Chinese Buddhist landscape such as orthodox forms and hybrid Tathāgatagarbha forms.

There were feuds between these 2 approaches:

The translator Bodhiruci (6th century CE) for example, took an orthodox approach while the Rātnamati was attracted to Tathāgatagarbha thought and sought to translate texts like the Daśabhūmika sūtra in conformity with his understanding.

Their disagreement on this issue led to the end of their collaboration as co-translators.

The translator Paramārtha is another example of a hybrid thinker:

He promoted a new theory that said there was a 9th form of consciousness, the amala-vijñāna (a pure vijñāna), which is revealed once the ālaya-vijñāna is eliminated. He also associated his theory with Tathāgatagarbha ideas.

Xuanzang's travels to India and his composition of the Cheng Weishi Lun was an attempt to return to a more orthodox and authentic Indian Yogācāra and thus put to rest the debates and confusions in the Chinese Yogācāra of his time.

The Cheng Weishi Lun returns to the use of the theory of seeds instead of the Tathāgata-garbha to explain the phenomena that Tathāgata-garbha is supposed to explain (that is, the potentiality for Buddhahood).

However, in the 8th century, this 'schism' was finally settled in favour of a hybrid version, which became definitive for all subsequent forms of East Asian Buddhism.

Later Chinese thinkers like Fa-Tsang would thus criticize Xuanzang for failing to teach the Tathāgata-garbha in his system.

It has been noted that this syncretic tendency also existed in India, but:

It seems that Yogācāra masters generally adopted the notion of Tathāgata-garbha in accordance with the Uttara-tantra only later, when Buddhist tantra with its very similar notions of ground tantra and all beings’ primordially being Buddhas was flourishing.

Examples of such Yogācāras include Jñānaśrīmitra, Ratnākaraśānti, and the authors of several commentaries on the Prajñāpāramitā from a Yogācāra perspective.