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The Philosophy of Mind Only
Dr. Peter Della Santina

The Mind Only school and the Middle Way school are the philosophical backbone of the Mahayana tradition. There are several names by which the Mind Only school is known, the three most popular being Chittamatra (school affirming Mind Only), Vijnanavada (school affirming consciousness), and Yogachara (school affirming the unity of meditation and action). Yogachara refers to the union of the practice of meditation (yoga) and conduct (achara). The Mind Only school arose as an independent and identifiable philosophical tradition in the fourth century C.E.

Two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu, played a central role in the formulation and popularization of the philosophy of this school. They were born in Northwest India, in what is now Pakistan. Through their writings and skill as teachers and debaters, they popularized the Mind Only philosophy within a relatively short time. Both started out as realistic pluralists, and in addition to his many works on the Mind Only philosophy, Vasubandhu is well known for his Abhidharmakosha, a collection of Abhidharma philosophy written from the standpoint of the Vaibhashika school.

These two great scholars were converted to Mahayana and together produced a large number of works defining, categorizing, and setting forth the Mind Only philosophy. Asanga is famous for his Stages of the Bodhisattva Path (Bodhisattvabhumi), Compendium of the Abhidharma (Abhidharmasamuchchaya), written from the Mahayana or Mind Only viewpoint, and many commentaries on major works of the Mind Only school. Vasubandhu is renowned for his short treatises on Cognition Only and a treatise explaining the three natures of the Mind Only philosophy.

Asanga's commentaries to a number of important texts of the Mind Only school are attributed by the Mahayana tradition to Lord Maitreya. Although modern scholars have attempted to identify Maitreya with a historical personality, the Mahayana tradition has no doubt that Maitreya is the future Buddha, now residing in Tushita Heaven. The major works of the Mind Only school attributed to him include the Distinction of the Middle from the Extremes (Madhyantavibhaga) and the Ornament of the Mahayana (Mahayanasutralankara). They are said to have been transmitted by Maitreya to Asanga, who wrote them down and added commentaries. It is in this sense that a large portion of the textual foundation of the Mind Only philosophy is attributed to the future Buddha Maitreya.

Like the Middle Way philosophy, the Mind Only philosophy has its origin in the earliest tradition of Buddhism. For example, even according to the Theravada canon, the Buddha declared that mind is the creator of all things and referred to the luminous and pure nature of consciousness. The body of Mahayana sutras includes many discourses, like the Lankavatara Sutra, that deal at some length with the fundamental principles of the Mind Only philosophy. A long and weighty textual tradition thus precedes the emergence of the Mind Only tradition as an independent philosophical school.

In addition to these textual anticipations in the canons of the Hinayana and Mahayana traditions, we find conceptual antecedents of the Mind Only philosophy in the course of the development of Buddhist thought. We all know that mind has been extremely important in Buddhism from the beginning. We need only remember the Buddha's affirmation of the creative role of the mind to realize what a central place mind has in Buddhist thought, or look at the thirty-seven factors conducive to enlightenment to be struck by how many of them have to do with the mind.

The central importance of mind continued in the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika schools, two realistic and pluralistic schools that flourished prior to the emergence of the Middle Way and Mind Only schools. The Vaibhashika took its name from commentaries composed during the Fourth Buddhist Council, in the first century C.E. It is perhaps the most atomistic, realistic, and pluralistic of the Indian schools, and is even more pluralistic and realistic than the Theravada school of Sri Lanka. The Vaibhashikas advocated the doctrine of the two natures of factors (dharmas)--the phenomenal nature and the eternal nature. This eternal nature has sometimes been likened to Plato's doctrine of ideas in Greek philosophy.

The Sautrantika takes its name from the fact that it wanted to return to the original teachings of the Buddha contained in the sutras. This is the school that rejected the authenticity of the Abhidharma. The Sautrantikas are interesting philosophically because they emphasized the role of conceptualization, or discrimination (vikalpa). They rejected the independent, objective reality of many of the factors the Vaibhashikas accepted, ascribing these dharmas to the functioning of discrimination or imagination. This goes some way toward the standpoint of the Mind Only school, which eventually denied the objective reality of all objects and affirmed the sole reality of mind.

In addition, the Sautrantikas formulated a very interesting theory of perception. They believed that we never really know external objects directly and that what we perceive--what we take to be an external object (for example, the cup in front of me)--is a mental reflection or representation of that object, so that the process of perception is the process of perceiving mental reflections of external objects. The Sautrantikas claimed that these mental representations are the effects of external objects. Consequently, they held that we know of the existence of external objects by inference. The mental images or reflections of an external object are evidence of that object's existence, although we cannot know it directly.

This theory is very similar to John Locke's representative theory of perception. What I find important about this view is that if it is accepted, it leaves the status of the external world in a very precarious position, since we would never know objects in themselves but only the objectified contents of our consciousness. By thus emphasizing the role of conceptualization or imagination, this philosophical development of the Sautrantikas anticipates the full-fledged mentalist philosophy of the Mind Only school, which claims that the apparently real objects of the world are none other than mind.

There are a number of lines along which the Mind Only philosophy developed its doctrine of the primacy of consciousness. Its adherents were convinced that objects depend on mind for their nature and being. First, the school put forward the view that a single object appears differently to different sentient beings. This argument is worked out with respect to the six realms of existence. For example, a cup of milk appears to us as milk, but it would appear as nectar to the gods, as molten iron to hell beings, and as pus or blood to hungry ghosts. A single object appears differently to different beings in samsara according to their respective karma. In other words, an object appears in different forms according to the conditioned, subjective state of the mind. We can see this even without reference to the six realms. For example, a woman may appear as an object of sexual attraction to a man, a heap of meat to a wolf, and a skeleton to an Arhat. This is the first argument the Mind Only school used in support of its subjectivist view of experience.

Second, the Mind Only school made extensive use of the analogy of dreaming, arguing that in dreams the mind creates and projects a world which, for all intents and purposes, it experiences as real as long as the dream state prevails. If we look at Vasubandhu's Twenty Verses on Cognition Only we can see how he rejects several objections to this argument by analogy. For example, opponents of this view said that dream experience is not collective the way waking experience is, to which Vasubandhu countered that we do experience events in common with the other figures in a given dream. Opponents also said that dream experience is not effective and does not have the power to bring about real effects, yet Vasubandhu showed, by using the example of nocturnal emission, that this is not so. In short, if we look closely at dream experience, we will be forced to admit that, as long as we are in a dream state, there are no reasonable grounds on which we can distinguish it from waking experience.

It is interesting to note that this analogy has received some support in recent years from the evidence of experiments in the field of sensory deprivation. These experiments place volunteers in situations where they are cut off from all sensory stimuli; some subjects then begin to create, out of their own minds, an entire three-dimensional universe. It would follow that the Mind Only argument developed on the analogy of dream experience has a certain amount of cogency.

Third, the Mind Only school rejected the independent existence of objects by exposing the infinite divisibility of matter. This is another early conceptual conclusion reached by the Buddhist tradition that has recently been confirmed by scientific discoveries. Mind Only philosophers argued that the notion of an atom--an irreducible unit of matter--is impossible. They argued this on the grounds of the necessity of the combination or collection of atoms in order to produce a mass, an extended material object.

The atom was thought to be unitary and indivisible, and was therefore held to be without parts, yet it was thought that objects (like a cup or a table) are collections of atoms that form extended objects. Objects acquire mass through the collecting together of countless atoms in an assembly. If atoms are indivisible and without parts, then it will be impossible for them to assemble together. However, if atoms assemble, as they must, to form extended material objects, then each atom must have at least six distinguishable parts: an upper part, a lower part, and an eastern, southern, western, and northern part.

By means of this argument, Vasubandhu and other Mind Only philosophers established the concept of the infinite divisibility of the atom. This conclusion has been verified by modern physics, so once again we have an early analytical conception that has been confirmed experimentally by discoveries of modern science. The atom as well as its components have been shown to be reducible to even smaller components, and we have finally arrived at a point in time when there is precious little evidence of any ultimate element of matter.

Through these arguments rejecting the existence of material objects, Mind Only philosophers established the relativity of subject and object, the identity of the objects of consciousness with consciousness itself. They revealed what we might call the nonduality of the subject and object of consciousness--of consciousness and its contents.

I want now to touch upon a conception which appears in the Lankavatara Sutra and to which Vasubandhu devoted one of his more famous works, the Exposition of the Three Natures. This is a doctrine very important to Mind Only philosophy, namely, the doctrine of the three natures, or levels, of reality: (1) the illusory or imputed nature (parikalpita), (2) the dependent or relative nature (paratantra), and (3) the perfected or accomplished nature (parinishpanna).

These three natures may be likened respectively to (a) the mistaken belief that water exists in a mirage; (b) the appearance itself of the mirage, dependent on atmospheric causes and conditions; and (c) the empty nature of the mirage, inasmuch as it is conditioned, relative, and dependent on causes and conditions. The belief that water exists in the mirage is utterly false and is similar to the illusory nature. The simple appearance of the mirage relative to causes and conditions is similar to the dependent nature. The empty character of the mirage, inasmuch as it is dependent and conditioned, is similar to the perfected nature.

It is necessary to draw particular attention to the second of the three natures, the dependent nature, because it is this nature that is central in the Mind Only philosophy, insofar as it is concerned with liberation and emancipation. The dependent nature is identical with mind, and particularly with the storehouse consciousness, which we discussed in our consideration of the Lankavatara Sutra (see Chapter 17). What this means is that in this dependent nature we have, on the one hand, the potential to produce the illusory prison of samsara and, on the other, the potential for the liberation of nirvana. I have said that the storehouse consciousness was termed by the Tibetans 'the all-base consciousness,' and that in that sense it is the root of samsara and nirvana. Here, too, we can see, on the one hand, how the dependent nature, if it is objectified by discrimination of an external object, results in the fabrication by mind of an external world, which is samsara. If the mind discriminates an external object--bifurcates this dependent nature into subject and object--then we have the creation of the illusory nature, that is to say, the imposition of false ideas (such as the idea of the existence of water in a mirage, or of the self and other): in a word, we have samsara.

On the other hand, if this dependent nature, which is identical with the storehouse consciousness, is purified of discriminating thought and the emptiness of subject and object is realized, then the storehouse consciousness results in the perfected nature; it results in freedom. The dependent nature is therefore the central nature of the three. If played upon by discrimination, it becomes illusion, samsara; if played upon by the knowledge of the abandonment of duality, it becomes nirvana.

It is interesting to note that this dependent nature is also the source of the phenomenalizing activity of the enlightened beings. In other words, the dependent nature, or storehouse consciousness, supplies the potential for the emanation of all forms, the forms of the terrestrial dimension and those of the celestial dimension--the heavenly Bodhisattvas like Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara, who work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

You will recall that, in the example of the mirage, it is the notion of the existence of water that belongs to the illusory nature; the mere appearance of the mirage as a pure, conditioned phenomenon belongs to the dependent nature. We might interpret this in terms of experience--that is, the experience of subject and object as different. The notion that an external object exists independent of consciousness, or mind, belongs to the realm of the illusory nature, whereas the appearance of phenomena without the mistaken notions of their objectivity and independence belongs to the dependent nature.

This dependent nature is thus intrinsically pure and can function in an altruistic way for the liberation of others. It is in this sense that the three natures in the Mind Only system correspond to the three dimensions of Buddhahood: the illusory nature corresponds to the terrestrial dimension, the dependent nature to the celestial dimension, and the perfected nature to the transcendental dimension. Therefore, when Buddhas appear as objective historical personalities, this is the appearance of the dependent nature--in the guise of subject-object duality--in the sphere of the illusory nature. When Buddhas appear free from the duality of subject and object, in the ideal form of celestial Bodhisattvas like Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara, this is an appearance of the celestial dimension, of the dependent nature free from the illusion of subject-object duality.

I would like to conclude by underlining what I believe to be the very close correspondence between the philosophies of Mind Only and the Middle Way. You will recall that we have the conceptions of samsara and nirvana in the Middle Way philosophy, just as we do in the whole of Buddhist thought. In addition, we have two pedagogical concepts--those of conventional truth and ultimate truth, which refer respectively to samsara and nirvana.

What is it in the philosophy of the Middle Way that mediates between conventional truth and ultimate truth, between samsara and nirvana? How is it that eventually we have an identity, or non-differentiation, of samsara and nirvana professed in the Middle Way school? If we look at the Middle Way philosophy, we find that interdependent origination is the principle that unites conventional and ultimate truth, samsara and nirvana. In the Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna says that if we take interdependent origination as the relationship between cause and effect, we have samsara, but if we take interdependent origination as non-causal--as emptiness--we have nirvana. The link between cause and effect, between karma and its consequences, is conceptualization or imagination. Nagarjuna says clearly that imagination is responsible for the connection between cause and effect. This, in general, is the scheme we find in the Middle Way school.

When we look at the Mind Only philosophy, we see that it runs parallel to that of the Middle Way. The conventional truth in the Middle Way philosophy is similar to the illusory nature of Mind Only philosophy, and in both systems this corresponds to cause and effect, to samsara. The ultimate truth in the Middle Way philosophy is similar to the perfected nature in the Mind Only philosophy, and in both systems this corresponds to emptiness, nonduality, non-origination, and nirvana. What in the Middle Way school is interdependent origination--the link between samsara and nirvana--is the dependent nature in the Mind Only school.

Mind is of the utmost importance to both interdependent origination and the dependent nature. Mind is the essence of both. In both systems we have the conventional, samsaric, illusory reality on the one hand, and the ultimate, nirvanic, perfected reality on the other; mediating between the two is the principle of relativity, the principle of dependence, which is of the essence of mind. In Chapter 20 we will further explore the parallelism between the Middle Way philosophy and the Mind Only philosophy. We will then try to apply the combined vision of these philosophies to the practice of the Mahayana path.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 167-176].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 1-5-2000

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