8. Yogācāra and Mādhyamika | Yogācāra

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Asanga, Tibetan thangka
Asanga, Tibetan thangka

1. Yogācāra and Mādhyamika

According to Tibetan sources, this school was in protracted dialectic with the Mādhyamika tradition.

However, there is disagreement among contemporary Western and traditional Buddhist scholars about the degree to which they were opposed, if at all.

The main difference deals with issues of existence and the nature of emptiness:

While Mādhyamika works state that asserting the existence or non-existence of anything was inappropriate (including Emptiness),

Yogācāra treatises often assert that the dependent nature (para-tantra-svabhāva) really exists and that Emptiness is an actual absence that also exists:

For example, the Madhyānta-vibhāga clearly asserts that the imagination of the non-existent abhūta-pari-kalpa exists. In it duality does not exist. Emptiness, however, exists in it.

Classical Yogācāra thinkers like Asaṅga and Vasubandhu criticized Mādhyamikas who adhere to non-existence (Nāstikas, vaināśkas) because they saw them as straying into nihilism (uccheda-vāda).

They held that there was really something which could be said to exist, that is, vijñapti, and that was what is described as being Empty in their system.

The position that Yogācāra and Mādhyamika were in dialectic was expounded by Xuanzang in the 7th century:

After a suite of debates with exponents of the Mādhyamika School in India, Xuanzang composed in Sanskrit the no longer extant 3-thousand verse treatise The Non-difference of Mādhyamika and Yogācāra.

Yogācāra and Mādhyamika philosophers demonstrated 2 opposing tendencies throughout the history of Buddhist philosophy in India, one which worked to separate and distance the 2 systems and one tendency which worked towards harmonizing them.

The harmonizing tendency can be seen in the work of philosophers like Jñānagarbha (8th century), his student Śāntarakṣita (8th century) and also in the work of the Yogācāra thinker Ratnākaraśānti (c. 1000):

These thinkers also saw the Yogācāra Alikākāravāda (false aspectarian, those Yogācāras who believe that mental appearances are false or don't ultimately exist) view as the highest.

Śāntarakṣita (8th century), whose view was later called Yogācāra-Svatantrika-Mādhyamika by the Tibetan tradition,

saw the Mādhyamika position as ultimately true and at the same time saw the Yogācāra view as a useful way to relate to conventionalities and progress students more skilfully toward the ultimate.

This synthesized view between the 2 positions, and also incorporated the views of valid cognition (pramāṇa) from Dignāga and Dharmakīrti.

Later Tibetan Buddhist thinkers like Shakya Chokden would also work to show the compatibility of the Alikākāravāda sub-school with Mādhyamika, arguing that it is in fact a form of Mādhyamika.

Likewise, the 7th Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso has a similar view which holds that the profound important points and intents of the 2 systems are one.

Ju Mipham is also another Tibetan philosopher whose project is aimed at showing the harmony between Yogācāra and Mādhyamika,

arguing that there is only a very subtle difference between them, being a subtle clinging by Yogācāras to the existence of an inexpressible, naturally luminous cognition.

2. Yogācāra in East Asia

Translations of Indian Yogācāra texts were first introduced to China in the early 5th century CE:

Among these was Guṇabhadra's translation of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra in 4 fascicles, which would also become important in the early history of Chan Buddhism.

During the 6th century, the Indian monk and translator Paramārtha (499–569) widely propagated Yogācāra teachings in China, among monks and laypersons:

His translations include the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra, the Madhyānta-vibhāga-kārikā, the Triṁśikā-vijñapti-mātratā, and the Mahāyāna-saṁgraha.

Xuanzang (fl. c. 602 – 664) is often seen as the most important founder of East Asian Yogācāra. At the age of 33, Xuanzang made a dangerous journey to India in order to study Buddhism and procure texts for later translation.

Xuanzang had come to the conclusion that issues of dispute in Chinese Buddhism could be resolved with the availability of important texts like the Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra.

Xuanzang spent over 10+ years in India traveling and studying under various Buddhist masters.

During this time, Xuanzang discovered that the manner in which Buddhists understood and interpreted texts was much richer and more varied than the Chinese materials had previously indicated, and drew meaning from a broad cultural context.

Xuanzang's teachers included Śīlabhadra, the abbot of Nālanda, who was then 106 years old and who tutored him for 10 years.

Upon his return from India, Xuanzang brought with him 657 Buddhist texts, including important Yogācāra works such as the Yogācārabhūmi. He was given government support and many assistants for the purpose of translating these texts into Chinese.

As an important contribution to East Asian Yogācāra, Xuanzang composed the Cheng Weishi Lun, or Discourse on the Establishment of Consciousness Only:

This work is framed around Vasubandhu's Triṁśikā-vijñapti-mātratā, or Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only.

In his commentary, Xuanzang upheld Dharmapāla's commentary on this work as being the correct one, and provided his own explanations of these as well as other views.

This work was composed at the behest of Xuanzang's disciple Kuījī (632–682), and became a central work of East Asian Yogācāra.

Xuanzang also promoted devotional meditative practices toward Maitreya.

Xuanzang's disciple Kuiji wrote a number of important commentaries on Yogācāra texts and further developed the influence of this doctrine in China. He was recognized by later adherents as the 1st True Patriarch of the school.

The tradition was also brought to Korea (where it is known as Beopseong) and Japan (where it is known as Hossō).

Principal exponents of Yogācāra in Korea include Daehyeon, Sinhaeng (704-779), Woncheuk (631-696) and Wonhyo (617 - 686),

while in Japan they include Chitsū and Chidatsu of the Kusha-shū school, Dōshō, Jōkei, Zenju, Tokuitsu.

3. Yogācāra in Tibet

Yogācāra was first transmitted to Tibet by Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla and Atiśa and Yogācāra thought is an integral part of the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Yogācāra is studied in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, though it receives different emphasis in each.

Like the Chinese tradition, the Tibetan Nyingma School and its Dzogchen teachings promote a hybrid form of Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha.

The Jonang school meanwhile developed its own systematic view which they termed Shentong (other-voidness), which included elements from Yogācāra, Mādhyamika and Tathāgatagarbha:

They considered this view to be definitive, in contrast to the Rangtong (self-voidness or Prāsaṅgika), comprising both Svatantrika and Prasaṅgika Mādhyamika.

Although Je Tsongkhapa (whose reforms to Atiśa's Kadam tradition are generally considered the beginnings of the Gelug school) argued in favour of Yogācāra views (specifically regarding the existence and functioning of 8 consciousnesses) early in his career,

the prevailing Gelug view eventually came to hold Yogācāra views as a matter of interpretable meaning, therefore distinct from Mādhyamika which was held to be of definitive meaning.

Current discussions between Tibetan scholars regarding the differences between Shentong and Rangtong views may therefore appear similar to historical debates between Yogācāra and Mādhyamika, but the specific distinctions have, in fact, evolved much further.

Although later Tibetan views may be said to have evolved from the earlier Indian positions, the distinctions between the views have become increasingly subtle and complex,

especially as Tibetan Yogācāra has evolved to incorporate Mādhyamika and Tathāgatagarbha philosophies.

Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso, the 19th-century Rime movement commentator, wrote in his commentary on Śāntarakṣita's synthesis, that the ultimate view in both schools is the same, and that each path leads to the same ultimate state of abiding.