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Yogācāra (Sanskrit: "yoga practice"), also spelled yogāchāra, is an influential school of philosophy and psychology that developed in Indian Mahayana Buddhism starting sometime in the fourth to fifth centuries C.E., also commonly known as Consciousness-only (Sanskrit: Cittamātra) (although scholars increasingly make distinctions between the two).

Sometimes referred to as the Knowledge Way or Vijnanavada, Yogācāra has also been called Subjective Realism, acknowledging that individual factors including karma contribute to an experience of reality that must be different for every being. According to them, only consciousness (Vijñāna) is true, and all objects of this world external to the mind are false. They believed in an absolute, permanent consciousness called ālaya vijñāna (or 'Store-House Consciousness'), which is said to house the karmic seeds which develop into our experience of reality. This branch became well-known in China, Tibet, Japan and Mongolia.


The Yogācāra texts have come to be considered part of the Third Turning of the Wheel along with the relevant sutras. The Yogācāra texts form a survey of all of The Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. Originating around a set of scriptures and treatises composed by such early Indian masters as the brothers Vasubandhu and Asanga (who was said to be inspired by the legendary Maitreya-natha), this school held a prominent position in the Indian scholastic tradition for several centuries. It was also transmitted to Tibet by Dharmarakshita who initiated Atisha into the Yogachara lineage, where its teachings became an integral part of much of Tibetan Buddhism up to modern times, and to East Asia, where it was studied with intensity for several centuries.

Notably, this school was in opposition to the Madhyamaka (Sanskrit: "Middle Way") school of Buddhism. While the Madhyamaka school asserted that there is no ultimately real thing, the Yogācāra school asserts that only the mind is ultimately existent. This debate still continues among Tibetan schools as the Shentong (empty of other) versus Rangtong (empty of self). Yogacara teachings are especially important in Tantric Buddhism, or the secret practices of Buddhism. Proponents of Yogacara characterized the Madyhamaka school and its doctrine as a preliminary path, and that students learn the Madhyamaka school until they have mastered it, and then they are ready switch to the Yogācāra school.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Despite the opposition between the Madhyamika and Yogacara, a synthesis called Yogacara-Svatantrika-Madhyamika was propounded by Shantarakshita, and was one of the last developments of Indian Buddhism before it was extinguished in the eleventh century during the Muslim invasions.

Yogācāra, like all Indian schools of Buddhism, eventually became virtually extinct within its mother country. However, all four of the major schools of Buddhism did heavily influence the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Yogācāra is most prevalent in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, the teachings of Yogācāra became the Chinese Fa Xiang school of Buddhism.

Five treatises of Maitreya

The scriptural heart of the Yogachara tradition according to the Tibetans, are the "Five Treatises of Maitreya." These texts are said to have been related to Asanga by the Buddha Maitreya. They are as follows:

  • Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayalankara, Tib. mngon par rtogs pa'i rgyan)
  • Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras (Mahayanasutralankara, Tib. theg pa chen po'i mdo sde'i rgyan)
  • Sublime Continuum of the Mahayana (Mahayanottaratantrashastra, Ratnagotravibhaga, Tib. theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan)
  • Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being (Dharmadharmatavibhanga, Tib. chos dang chos nyid rnam par 'byed pa)
  • Distinguishing the Middle and the Extremes (Madhyantavibhanga, Tib. dbus dang mtha' rnam par 'byed pa)

A commentary on the Ornament for Clear Realization called Clarifying the Meaning by the Indian scholar Haribhadra is often used, as is one by Vimuktisena.

Many of these texts are attributed to Asanga in the Chinese tradition, which is several centuries earlier than the Tibetan. The Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayalankara, is nowhere mentioned by any of the Chinese translators up to the 7th Century, including Xuanzang, who was an expert in this field.

Yogacara Tenets

The Three Natures

The Yogacara defined three basic modes by which we perceive our world. These are referred to in Yogācāra as the three natures of perception. They are:

  • Parakalpita, or Imaginary Nature, wherein things are incorrectly apprehended based on preconceptions through attached and erroneous discrimination
  • Paratantra, or Dependent Nature, by which the correct understanding of the dependently originated nature of things is understood
  • Pranispanna, or Absolute Nature, through which one apprehends things as they are in themselves, uninfluenced by any conceptualization at all.

Also, regarding perception, the Yogacara emphasized that our everyday understanding of the existence of external objects is problematic, since in order to perceive any object (and thus, for all practical purposes for the object to "exist"), there must be a sensory organ as well as a correlative type of consciousness to allow the process of cognition to occur.

Model of Consciousness

Perhaps the best known teaching of the Yogācāra system is that of the eight layers of consciousness. This theory of the consciousnesses attempted to explain all the phenomena of cyclic existence, including how rebirth occurs and precisely how karma functions on an individual basis. For example, if I carry out a good or evil act, why and how is it that the effects of that act do not appear immediately? If they do not appear immediately, where is this karma waiting for its opportunity to play out?

The answer given by the Yogacaras was the store consciousness (also known as the base, or eighth consciousness; Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna) which simultaneously acts as a storage place for karma and as a fertile matrix that brings karma to a state of fruition. The likeness of this process to the cultivation of plants led to the creation of the metaphor of seeds (Sanskrit, bijas) to explain the way karma is stored in the eighth consciousness. The type, quantity, quality and strength of the seeds determine where and how a sentient being will be reborn: one's species, sex, social status, proclivities, bodily appearance and so forth.

On the other hand, the karmic energies created in the current lifetime through repeated patterns of behavior are called habit energies (Sanskrit: vasanas). All the activities that mold our minds and bodies, for better or worse--eating, drinking, talking, studying, practicing the piano or whatever--can be understood to create habit energies. And of course, my habit energies can penetrate the consciousnesses of others, and vice versa--what we call "influence" in everyday language. Habit energies can become seeds, and seeds can produce new habit energies.

Śūnyatā in Yogachara

The concept of emptiness (Skrt: śūnyatā) is central to Yogachara. As one Buddhologist puts it, "Although meaning 'absence of inherent existence' in Madhyamaka, to the Yogacarins [śūnyatā] means 'absence of duality between perceiving subject and the perceived object.'"[1]

The Legacy of the Yogacara

There are two important aspects of the Yogācāra schemata that are of special interest to modern-day practitioners. One is that virtually all schools of Mahayana Buddhism came to rely on these Yogācāra explanations as they created their own doctrinal systems--even the Zen schools. For example, the important Yogācāra explanation of the pervasiveness of one's delusions through "mind-only" had an obvious influence on Zen.

That the scriptural tradition of Yogācāra is not yet that well known among the community of Western practitioners is probably attributable to the fact that most of the initial transmission of Buddhism to the West has been directly concerned with more practice-oriented forms of Buddhism, such as Zen, Vipassana, and Pure Land. Also, it is a complicated system, and there are still not really any good, accessible, introductory books on the topic in Western languages. 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.

External links

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  1. Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Windhorse Publications, London:1994. pg 124