The Vijnanavadins have long been characterized as believing in an Absolute. Thomas Wood investigates the extent to which this characterization is true. Though a detailed analysis of some of their fundamental texts, Dr. Wood demonstrates that the Vijnanavadins were in fact ambivalent - and in some cases even inconsistent - in their philosophical views on this point.
This monograph is directed primarily to scholars of Indian philosophy and religion interested in the schools of Mahayana Buddhism and in its doctrinal relation to Vedanta; but with its treatment of philosophical topics of universal interest - idealism, solipsism, the nature of the inference to other minds - it is of interest to Western and comparative scholars as well.
Thomas Wood received his B.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught Eastern and Western Philosophy at the California State University at Fresno and the State university of New York at New Paltz.
The Vijnanavada was one of the two major schools of Mahayana Buddhism. It flourished in India from the 4th to the 12th century C.E., when it disappeared — along with the other entire Buddhist schools in India — during the period of the Muslim conquests.
The adherents of this school (called Vijnanavadins or Yogacarins) held that the world is nothing but mind or consciousness (vjnana-matra, citta-matra, vijnapti-matra). Since the Vijnanavadins held that the world is mind only, there are many similarities between the Vijananavada and other idealist philosophies, both Eastern and Western. Nevertheless, the Vijnanavada was very much a Buddhist formulation of idealism, and it is as a specifically Buddhist idealism that the Vijnanavada is unique.
(1) One thing that makes the Buddhist idealism of the Vijnanavada different from most other forms of idealism is the doctrine of illusion (maya). According to the Buddhist schools, all things are unstable, insubstantial, and impermanent (anitya). The Mahayanists went even further than this, however, and maintained that the world is actually unreal (asat; maya). The Vijnanavadin interpretation of this doctrine was that the mind, under the influence of a beginning less delusion or ignorance (avidya), believes that it apprehends, in both the waking and dreaming states, objects which are external to it, when in fact it is only the mind itself which is projecting, or appearing, as something external. Hence, although mind is real, the world (i.e. what is thought to be perceived by the mind) is unreal.
(2) The Vijananavada is also of interest because it does not fit neatly into any of the categories of either solipsism, theistic idealism or monism. First of all, the Vijnanavadins — as I shall later argue at some length — were not solipsists. Secondly, the Vijnanavadins did not believe that the world was in God’s mind, nor did they believe it was in the mind of an Absolute. In this respect, the Vijnanavadins were simply orthodox Buddhists, for, though the Buddhists believed in the existence of a rather large number of deities (devas), Buddhism is an atheistic religion (an-isvara—vada), in the sense that it does not believe in a God or Absolute which is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient etc. Consequently, the Vijnanavada doctrine that the world is "nothing but mind" does not mean that the world is the manifestation or creation of some infinite or absolute mind. If the world is mind only, and if the Vijnanavadins were neither solipsists, theists, nor absolutists, whose mind did they think the world was in? The answer, as I shall argue at some length in the text, is as follows:
The world exists (at least at the level of relative truth) in a multiplicity of independent minds. The impression that these minds have of an external world which is public (i.e. perceived by other minds as well as their own) is entirely false. However, the experiences of these minds - or at least the experiences they have in the normal waking state — are coordinated with each other because these minds are in immediate, mind-to-mind contact. It is this coordination of normal waking experiences which gives rise to the erroneous impression of an external world. The world we seem to see in our waking state is in fact just as unreal as the things we dream about at night. The only difference is that objects seen in the normal, waking state are collectively hallucinated, whereas the things seen in dreams are not.
(3) Another important difference between the Vijnanavada and other forms of idealism (both Eastern and Western) is that the Vijnanavadins, as Buddhists, were principally interested in the cessation of the mind (pratimmkhyti-nirodha). The Buddhist analysis of mind or consciousness, which makes this wholly negative evaluation of mind understandable, may be described briefly as follows.
Buddhist philosophy, which holds that there is no self or soul (titman), analyzes a person into the following five components or groups: form (rupa), feeling (vedana), impulses (samskaras), conception (samjana) and consciousness (vijnana). These five groups (skandhas), in turn, are broken down into a number of different constituent elements called dharmas. The constituent elements of the mental group (vijnana—skandha) were the various kinds of mental impressions or thoughts (vijnapati). Since the Buddhists held that there is no underlying soul (atman) or substance (dravya) to be found anywhere —-and consciousness itself is no exception — no distinction can be drawn in Buddhist philosophy between mind, thoughts, ideas, impressions etc. It is therefore not strictly correct, according to the Vijnanavada or any other Buddhist school, to say that a mind or a person has thoughts, because a mind (vqritina) just is the stream of these thoughts (vijnapati).
Although there was disagreement within Buddhism over the classification and numbering of the constituent elements (dharmas) of the various groups, all Buddhists agreed that all the impermanent dharmas comprising a person involve suffering (duhkha). As long as we are in this life, this suffering cannot be completely avoided. However, if one follows the way (marga) laid down by the Buddha and practices the appropriate mental discipline, one can achieve the interruption (or at least the attenuation) of the stream of thoughts. The attainment of this state involves a temporary respite from suffering; it also tends to cut off the defilements that lead to future rebirths and future suffering. The Buddhist who has attained this "deliberate cessation" (pratisamkhya - nirodha) of the stream of thoughts, and who has lived the Buddhist life and cut off all the "defilements" (asravas), is called an Arhat. While he lives, the Arhat is said to have attained the "nirvana with a basis still remaining" (sopadhi-sesa—nirvana), i.e. the nirvana in which the five groups of form, feeling, impulses, perception and consciousness still remain. However, the Arhat is also destined at his physical death to attain release from suffering forever. This total release from suffering is called the "nirv¢im1 of total extinction" (nirupadhi-sesa- nirvana).
While the foregoing can be taken as an accurate account of the Hinayanist views about nirvana, the Mahayanist views about nirvana are somewhat more complicated because the Mahayanists introduced the doctrine that the Buddha (unlike the Arhats) had not entered the nirvana of total extinction at the time of his physical death at Kusinagari.4 They taught instead that the Buddha had entered what was called the "apratishits-nirvana," in which he continued to work for the salvation of all sentient beings suffering in samsara.
Orthodox Buddhist doctrine had always drawn a very sharp distinction between samsara (consisting of compounded (samskrta) dharmas), on the one hand, and nirvana (the cessation of samsara or what is compounded), on the other. The doctrine of an active, post-Kusinagari Buddha consisting of the skandhas of form, feeling, impulses, conception and consciousness (or any combination of these) threatened to undermine this absolutely fundamental Buddhist teaching. According to the traditional teachings, in fact, the assertion that nirvana could include any of these skandhas is virtually a contradiction in terms.
The difficulties that this Mahayanist doctrine of an apratisthita- nirvana raised for Buddhist doctrine appear quite clearly in some of the Vijnanavada writings. The chapters of Part I ("Sunyata and the Doctrine of the Three Natures") and Part II ("Nirvana and Buddhahood") are concerned with these doctrinal problems, and with the closely connected issues involving the Vijnanavada doctrine of the three self natures (tri—svabhava—laksana) and the Vijnanavada interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (sunyata).
Chapter 1 of Part I discusses the first chapter of the Madhyanta— vibhaga; chapter 2 discusses the Tri-svabhava-nirdesa; chapter 3 discusses the Trimsika; and chapter 4 of Part II discusses the views of the Trimsika and the Tri—svabhava-nirdesa on the related topics of nirvana and Buddhahood. In these chapters I argue that the Mahayanist doctrine of the apratisthita-nirvana led to the development in the Vijnanavada of a very peculiar notion of an Absolute. The Vijnanavada "Absolute" was not mind (vijnana) —- not even absolute or nondual mind — but rather none—mind (acitta). (Mind, however, was its manifestation.) The Vijnanavadins identified this Absolute with emptiness, and its attainment was said to ensue upon the realization that mind is empty (sunya), in the sense that it is devoid of the imagined and totally unreal external objects (i.e. matter).
Chapters 5-8 of Part III are concerned with the question of the existence of other minds and the closely related question of the Buddha’s omniscience. For the Vijnanavadins, the existence of other minds was somewhat problematic. The Buddhist scriptures (sutras) clearly take the existence of other minds for granted, but they also attribute, both to "ordinary" yogins and to the Buddhas, the power of knowing other minds directly (i.e. telepathically). Furthermore, according to most of the Buddhist schools the Buddha is (or was) omniscient, and the Mahayanists even held that the Buddha had transcended the subject-object distinction altogether. This raises some interesting questions. If the yogins and the Buddhas can know other minds directly, are the minds which appear to be separate from each other really separate? In particular, if the Buddha knows all other minds directly, and if his knowledge is nondual, how can it be said that for the Buddha there are other minds?
In the four chapters of Part III I argue that this doctrine of the nondual omniscience of the Buddha provided another impetus within the Vijnanavada towards the development of a notion of an Absolute. I also contend that the Vijnanavadins did not succeed in reconciling their views on this point with orthodox, traditional Buddhist doctrines. (Given the nature of these orthodox, traditional doctrines, it is hard to see how this could have been done.) I also contend that these difficulties could not be resolved (as the Vijnanavadins attempted to do) by invoking the distinction between relative (samvrti) and absolute (paramartha) truth.
At the level of relative truth, at any rate, the Vijnanavadins believed in a multiplicity of different mind streams. According to the Vijnanavadins, the impressions of the various mind streams are coordinated with each other because the various minds are always in immediate mind—to-mind contact (paras-paratah) through a special causal efficiency.
I refer to this doctrine of the coordination of a multiplicity of mind streams as the doctrine of Collective Hallucination. Chapter 9 of Part IV discusses this doctrine of Collective Hallucination as it is presented in Vasubandhu’s Vimsatika and the Cheng Wei shilun of Xuan Zang (Hsuan Tsang). Chapter 10 presents a critique of the doctrine. The main purpose of chapter 10 is to show that the Vijnanavadins did not find a philosophically convincing or viable alternative to materialism, on the one hand, and theistic idealism on the other. (Solipsism I do not consider in any detail as a philosophical doctrine, although I do contend that the Vijnanavadins could not possibly have been consistent solipsists for purely doctrinal reasons.) In this chapter I am not concerned to defend or advocate materialism, idealism or dualism (in any version) as a philosophical doctrine. I do argue, however, that without adopting some version or other of theistic idealism (either monistic or dualistic) one cannot make any sense of the notion that the world is "nothing but mind."
The texts of the Vijnanavada which I discuss in some detail are the first chapter of the Madhyanta-vibhaga [MV], the Trimsika [Trims.], the Tri-svabhava-nirdesa [TSN], the Vimsatika [Vims.], the Cheng wei shilun [CWSL], the Samtanantara-siddhi [SS], the Samtanantara—dusana [SD] and the Tattva—samgraha—(panjika) [TS(P)]. My own translations of the MV, TSN, Trimsika and Vimsatika appear in chapters 1, 2, 3 and 5, respectively. Comprehensive synopses of the Samtanantara-siddhi and of the Samtanantara-dusana are given in the Appendixes.
In Appendix I ("Authors and Texts"), I give a brief account of some of the authors and texts discussed in the book. Appendix II contains a synopsis of the Samtanantara-siddhi. This is based on a comparison of the two available English translations from the Tibetan by Th. Stcherbatsky and Hidenori Kitagawa. In Appendix III ["A Note on the Tattva-samgraha-(panjika) as a Vijnanavada Text"], I argue — against the Tibetan tradition and against some modern scholars who have apparently followed the Tibetan tradition — that the TS(P) is a purely Vijnanavada work. Appendix IV contains a comprehensive synopsis of the Samtanantara-dusana of Ratnakirti.
The references to primary and secondary sources mentioned or used in the text are included in the Bibliography at the end of the work.
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