9. Texts and Sūtras | Yogācāra

Vasubandhu thangka
Vasubandhu thangka

1. Sūtras

The Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra (Sūtra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets; 2nd century CE), was the seminal Yogācāra sūtra and continued to be a primary referent for the tradition.

Another text, the Mahāyāna-abhidharma-sūtra is often quoted in Yogācāra works and is assumed to also be an early Yogācāra sūtra.

The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra also later assumed considerable importance in East Asia, and portions of this text were considered as being contemporaneous with the Saṁdhi-nirmocana:

This text equates the Yogācāra theory of ālaya-vijñāna with the Tathāgatagarbha and thus seems to be part of the tradition which sought to merge Yogācāra with Tathāgatagarbha thought.

2. Asaṅga, Vasubandhu and early Śāstras

Some of the earliest Yogācāra material can be found in the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra, such as the doctrines of ālaya-vijñāna and āśraya-parāvṛtti:

This text, a massive encyclopaedic work on yogic praxis, is traditionally attributed to Asaṅga (4th century) or Maitreya, but most scholars believe it contains the work of many authors, and its components reflect various stages of historical development.

Most of its material is non-Mahāyāna and it draws extensively from on the Āgamas. Nevertheless, Asaṅga may still have influenced its development.

Authorship of several major Yogācāra treatises or śāstras are ascribed to Asaṅga, a major doctrinal systematiser of the school:

Among them are his magnum opus, the Mahāyāna-saṁgraha and also a compendium of Yogācāra Abhidharma, the Abhidharma-samuccaya.

Asaṅga's brother Vasubandhu is also considered to be an important Yogācāra figure:

He wrote various important śāstras, including:

  1. the Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa (Treatise on the 3 Natures),
  2. Viṁśatikā-kārikā (Treatise in Twenty Stanzas),
  3. Triṁśikā-kārikā (Treatise in Thirty Stanzas),
  4. Vyākhyā-yukti (Proper Mode of Exposition),
  5. Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa (A Treatise on Karma),
  6. the Pañca-skandha-prakaraṇa (Explanation of the Five Aggregates).

The Tri-svabhāva-nirdeśa is arguably one of the most philosophically detailed and comprehensive work on the 3 natures by Vasubandhu.

Vasubandhu also wrote a large systematic work on Abhidharma, the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, which remains influential in Tibet and East Asia:

Though this work is traditionally seen as being based on Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika Abhidharma, it also contains Yogācāra influences drawn from the Yogācārabhūmi.

3. Other figures and texts

There is a fairly early Yogācāra work surviving in Sanskrit called the Aloka-mala (‘Garland of Light’) of Kambala (c. 450–525), which gives of a form of Yogācāra just prior to the vigorous critical Mādhyamika response to it represented by the works of Bhāvaviveka.

This work tried to harmonize where possible the Mādhyamika position with that of Yogācāra.

 Important commentaries on various Yogācāra texts were written by Sthiramati (6th century) and Dharmapāla of Nālanda (6th century), who represent different sub-schools of the tradition.

The Indian Buddhist logician Dignāga (c. 480– 540 CE) wrote an important Yogācāra work, the Ālambana-pariksa and its vṛtti (commentary).

The work of Dharmakīrti also shows Yogācāra influence.

The Chinese figure of Xuanzang (602-664) wrote a commentary (Ch' eng wei shih lun, Skt. reconstruction: Vijñapti-mātratā-siddhi) on the Triṁśikā of Vasubandhu, for which he used numerous Indian commentaries, favouring the work of Dharmapāla. In the East Asian Yogācāra tradition, this is the central work on Yogācāra philosophy.

Besides the works of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu outlined above, the Yogācāra tradition as it is understood in Tibetan Buddhism is also based on a series of texts called the Five Dharmas of Maitreya. These are:

  1. the Mahāyāna-sūtra-alaṁkāra,
  2. Dharma-dharmatā-vibhāga,
  3. Madhyānta-vibhāga-kārikā,
  4. Abhi-samaya-alaṁkāra
  5. the Rātna-gotra-vibhāga.

These texts are traditionally said to have been related to Asaṅga by the Bodhisattva Maitreya from Tuṣita Heaven.

The 5 works of Maitreya are mentioned in Sanskrit sources from only the 11th century onwards:

Their attribution to a single author has been questioned by modern scholars, especially the Abhi-samaya-alaṁkāra and the Rātna-gotra-vibhāga (which focuses on Tathāgata-garbha).

There are also various commentaries on these texts from Indian and Tibetan authors that are important in the Tibetan scholastic tradition.

The Chinese tradition also speaks of five Maitreya texts, but considers them as consisting of the Yogācārabhūmi, Yoga-vibhāga now lost, Mahāyāna-sūtrālamkārakā, Madhyānta-vibhāga and the Vajracchedikākāvyākhyā.

4. Legacy

There are 2 important aspects of the Yogācāra schemata that are of special interest to modern-day practitioners:

One is that virtually all schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism came to rely on these Yogācāra explanations as they created their own doctrinal systems, including the Zen schools:

For example, the early Zen tradition in China was sometimes referred to simply as the Laṅkāvatāra school, due to their strong association with the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.

This sūtra draws heavily upon Yogācāra theories of the 8 consciousnesses, especially the ālaya-vijñāna. Accounts recording the history of this early period are preserved in Records of the Laṅkāvatāra Masters.

That the scriptural tradition of Yogācāra is not yet well known among the community of western practitioners is perhaps attributable to the fact that most of the initial transmission of Buddhism to the West has been directly concerned with meditation and basic doctrines.

However, within Tibetan Buddhism more and more western students are becoming acquainted with this school.

Very little research in English has been carried out on the Chinese Yogācāra traditions.