Yogacara School: The Reality of the Mind

The second major school of interpretation of the concept of emptiness is known as the Yogacara, or “Yoga practice”. The Yogacara school was founded in the fourth century by Asanga with help from his brother Vasubandhu. Like the Madhyamaka, the Yogacara school had a long history in India. At beginning of the 7th century it was carried to China by the Chinese philosopher Xuanzang. There, it had significant influence on the orientation of Buddhist thought.

The Three Natures

The Yogacara took a position that was quite different from the Madhyamaka. Instead of using the doctrine of two truths to understand emptiness, the Yogacara used the concept of the “three natures”. They thought of ordinary experience as a flow of sensation. A flow of sound, of visual experience. They thought about that as dependent nature. This is a kind of reality that arises dependently.

They say that ordinary experience depends for its existence on a series of momentary causes and conditions. In some respects, this ordinary experience is real. In some respects, it is unreal. This is the Yogacara version of the Middle Path. In some ways, it’s there. In some ways, it’s not there.

The unreal aspect of dependent nature consists of the concepts and distinctions that we impose on the flow of experience. This is unreal. The real aspect of dependent nature is the mind itself devoid of all of this imaginary distinctions. A name for this is emptiness itself.

Verses to Explain the Concepts

The Yogacara philosophers expressed this concept in a series of verses. These verses were meant to be memorized. To our ears they sound clumsy and obscure, but they are quite precise and rhythmic. In English, one of the most important verses goes like this:

“The imagination of something that is unreal is real, but the duality in it is not real. The emptiness in it is real. It is real in emptiness.”

That’s puzzling, but in Sanskrit it is really rhythmic and clear. That makes it really easy to memorize.

Useful Graphical Examples

The best way to make sense of the Yogacara school is to look at their examples rather than on their technical concepts. Sometimes, they compare dependent nature to a dream. All the phantoms in the dream maybe are unreal, but no one would doubt the reality of the mind that does the dreaming.

Dependent nature could also be compared to a stormy ocean. Dependent nature is like separate waves on the ocean. The real aspect is the stillness of the ocean itself. Meditation is meant to still the waves, so the pure undifferentiated nature of the mind can become clear.

A Really Unique Interpretation

The Yogacara school turns the Madhyamaka understanding of the world right upside down. The Madhyamaka said that ultimately nothing is real. The Yogacara says that the mind is real. It is only the imaginary construction of the mind that is unreal.

Why did the Yogacara take a position that seems so radically opposed to the position of the Madhyamaka. Their deep motivations are pretty hard to discern, but we can say that there were two main reasons.

First of all, to take the goal of the Buddhist path seriously, you have to be convinced that it is real, that it is there in some way for you to be inspired. In this case, the goal is the complete purification of the mind. In order to reach the goal, you have to be convinced that you can overcome all the barriers that stand between you and the goal.

To say that duality is unreal means that the illusions that tie people to the world of Samsara are nothing but a dream. All that we have to do to achieve Buddhahood is to simply wake up from that dream. The Yogacara too was motivated by the pursuit of Nirvana.

This conviction about the reality of the mind is what it made the Yogacara attractive to the Chinese. The Yogacara school doesn’t exist today as a separate entity but its ideas infuse the Chinese tradition.

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