What is Denied in the Statement

External Objects Do Not Exist?1

Dan Lusthaus
Florida State University

    When Yogaacaarins deny External objects, what are they rejecting and what, if anything, are they affirming? Before leaping to the standard answers, we need to take note of several basic facts. First, Yogaacaara employs many words to designate types of cognitive objects vi.saya, artha, aalambana, vastu, aakaara, prameya, jñeya, vi.saya-gocara, ruupa-pratibhaasa, graahya, nimitta, etc. while we tend to homogenize their discourse by using the single English term object. Second, many of these terms are never rejected at all by Yogaacaarins. For instance, Yogaacaarins do not reject the category of ruupa (matter); eleven of the one hundred dharmas in Yogaacaara abhidharma are ruupa-dharmas. We will have to determine which types of 'objects are challenged, and under what circumstances. Third, they also use a technical vocabulary for the sorts of cognitive activities in which cognitive objects appear - pratyak.sa, upalabdhi, graaha, khyaati, pratibhaasa, pratibimba, vijñapti, parinaa.ma, vi'se.sa-praapti, prav.rtti, abhuuta-parikalpa, etc. Without some understanding of what these cognitive activities entail, it will be difficult to decide what they include or exclude and why.2

Yogaacaara is not Metaphysical Idealism

    Yogaacaara (yoga practice) doctrine received that name because it provided a 'yoga,' a comprehensive, therapeutic framework for engaging in the practices that lead to the goal of the bodhisattva path, namely enlightened cognition. Meditation served as the laboratory in which one could study how the mind operated. Yogaacaara focused on the question of consciousness from a variety of approaches, including meditation, psychological analysis, epistemology (how we know what we know, how perception operates, what validates knowledge), scholastic categorization, and karmic analysis.

    Yogaacaara doctrine is often encapsulated by the term vijñapti-maatra, "nothing-but-noetic constitution" (often rendered "consciousness-only" or "mind-only") which has sometimes been interpreted as indicating a type of metaphysical idealism, namely, the claim that mind alone is real and that everything else is created by mind. Vijñapti-maatra and its corollaries vijñaana-maatra and citta-maatra have repeatedly been interpreted by Western and Asian scholars as promoting metaphysical idealism. Maatra ("only"), according to this interpretation, acts as an approving affirmation of mind as the true reality. However, the Yogaacaarin writings themselves argue something very different. Consciousness (vijñaana) is not the ultimate reality or solution, but rather the root problem. This problem emerges in ordinary mental operations, and it can only be solved by bringing those operations to an end.

    Why has Yogaacaara been misinterpreted as idealism? The common way of interpreting maatra so as to valorize 'consciousness' is striking since those same interpreters never impute such implications to maatra on the other occasions it is used by Buddhists or Yogaacaarins. For instance, the closely allied term prajñapti-maatra ("only nominally real" has never led a modern interpretor to speculate that Language is the metaphysical reality behind the world of experience; on the contrary, those prone to idealist interpretations tend to privilege ineffability and yearn for a realm beyond language and conceptions. Similarly, terms found in Yogaacaara texts such as kalpanaa-maatra (nothing but imaginative construction),3 bhraanta-maatra (nothing but cognitive error),4aakaara-maatra (nothing but a noema),5 aak.rti-maatra (nothing but construction),6 and so on, have never led interpretors to speculate that the terms accompanying maatra in those instances should be treated as metaphysical realities. It is commonly recognized that terms such as kalpanaa, bhraanta, etc., are emblematic of the problems Buddhism seeks to overcome, namely ignorance and misconceptions (avidyaa, moha, etc.), and do not signify a positive reality. That the term vijñapti-maatra has been valorised while no one would dream of valorizing the other -maatra compounds is perhaps a testament to the pernicious persistence of bhaavaasava, the compulsion to assert something existent to which one can cling. That is one of two extremes from which the middle way is designed to steer us (nihilism is the other). Yogaacaara is deeply concerned about the human propensity to posit things we can appropriate.

    Yogaacaara tends to be misinterpreted as a form of metaphysical idealism primarily because its teachings are taken to be ontological propositions rather than epistemological warnings about karmic problems. The Yogaacaara focus on cognition and consciousness grew out of its analysis of karma, and not for the sake of metaphysical speculation. Two things should be clarified in order to explain why Yogaacaara is not metaphysical idealism: 1. The meaning of the word "idealism" and 2. an important difference between the way Indian and Western philosophers do philosophy.

Meanings of "Idealism" in Western Philosophy

    The term "Idealism" came into vogue roughly during the time of Kant (though it was used earlier by others, such as Leibniz) to label one of two trends that had emerged in reaction to Cartesian philosophy. Descartes had argued that there were two basic yet separate substances in the universe: Extension (the material world of things in space) and Thought (the world of mind and ideas). Subsequently opposing camps took one or the other substance as their metaphysical foundation, treating it as the primary substance while reducing the remaining substance to derivative status. Materialists argued that only matter was ultimately real, so that thought and consciousness derived from physical entities (chemistry, brain states, etc.). Idealists countered that the mind and its ideas were ultimately real, and that the physical world derived from mind (e.g., the mind of God, Berkeley's esse est percipi, or from ideal prototypes, etc.). Materialists gravitated toward mechanical, physical explanations for why and how things existed, while Idealists tended to look for purposes - moral as well as rational - to explain existence. Idealism meant "idea-ism," frequently in the sense Plato's notion of "ideas" (eidos) was understood at the time, namely ideal types that transcended the physical, sensory world and provided the form (eidos) that gave matter meaning and purpose. As materialism, buttressed by advances in materialistic science, gained wider acceptance, those inclined toward spiritual and theological aims turned increasingly toward idealism as a countermeasure. Before long there were many types of materialism and idealism.

    Idealism, in its broadest sense, came to encompass everything that was not materialism, which included so many different types of positions that the term lost any hope of univocality. Most forms of theistic and theological thought were, by this definition, types of idealism, even if they accepted matter as real, since they also asserted something as more real than matter, either as the creator of matter (in monotheism) or as the reality behind matter (in pantheism). Extreme empiricists who only accepted their own experience and sensations as real were also idealists. Thus the term "idealism" united monotheists, pantheists and atheists. At one extreme were various forms of metaphysical idealism which posited a mind (or minds) as the only ultimate reality. The physical world was either an unreal illusion or not as real as the mind that created it. To avoid solipsism (which is a subjectivized version of metaphysical idealism) metaphysical idealists posited an overarching mind that envisions and creates the universe.

    A more limited type of idealism is epistemological idealism, which argues that since knowledge of the world only exists in the mental realm, we cannot know actual physical objects as they truly are, but only as they appear in our mental representations of them. Epistemological idealists could be ontological materialists, accepting that matter exists substantially; they could even accept that mental states derived at least in part from material processes. What they denied was that matter could be known in itself directly, without the mediation of mental representations. Though unknowable in itself, matter's existence and properties could be known through inference based on certain consistencies in the way material things are represented in perception.

    Transcendental idealism contends that not only matter but also the self remains transcendental in an act of cognition. Kant and Husserl, who were both transcendental idealists, defined "transcendental" as "that which constitutes experience but is not itself given in experience." A mundane example would be the eye, which is the condition for seeing even though the eye does not see itself. By applying vision and drawing inferences from it, one can come to know the role eyes play in seeing, even though one never sees one's own eyes. Similarly, things in themselves and the transcendental self could be known if the proper methods were applied for uncovering the conditions that constitute experience, even though such conditions do not themselves appear in experience. Even here, where epistemological issues are at the forefront, it is actually ontological concerns, viz. the ontological status of self and objects, that is really at stake. Western philosophy rarely escapes that ontological tilt. Those who accepted that both the self and its objects were unknowable except through reason, and that such reason(s) was their cause and purpose for existing - thus epistemologically and ontologically grounding everything in the mind and its ideas - were labeled Absolute Idealists (e.g., Schelling, Hegel, Bradley), since only such ideas are absolute while all else is relative to them.

    With the exception of some epistemological idealists, what unites all the positions enumerated above, including the materialists, is that these positions are ontological. They are concerned with the ontological status of the objects of sense and thought, as well as the ontological nature of the self who knows. Mainstream Western philosophy since Plato and Aristotle has treated ontology and metaphysics as the ultimate philosophic pursuit, with epistemology's role being little more than to provide access and justification for one's ontological pursuits and commitments. Since many of what are decried as philosophy's excesses - such as skepticism, solipsism, sophistry - could be and were accused of deriving from overactive epistemological questioning, epistemology has often been held suspect, and in some theological formulations, considered entirely dispensable infavor of faith. Ontology is primary, and epistemology is either secondary or expendable.

Primacy of Epistemology in Indian Philosophy

    In Indian philosophy one finds the reverse of this. Epistemology (pramaa.navaada) is primary, both in the sense that it must be engaged in prior to attempting any other philosophical endeavor, and that the limits of one's metaphysical claims are always inviolably set by the parameters established by one's epistemology. Before one can make claims, one must establish the basis on which such claims can be proven and justified. The Indians went so far as to concede that if one wishes to debate an opponent with a differing view, one must first find a common epistemological ground upon which to argue. Failing that, no meaningful debate can transpire.

    Since one's ontology (prameya) depends on what one's epistemology makes allowable, many Indian schools tried to include things in their list of valid means of knowledge (pramaa.na) that would facilitate their claims. Hindus, for instance, considered their Scriptures to be valid means of knowledge, but other Indians, such as Buddhists and Jains, rejected the authority of the Hindu Scriptures. Therefore if a Hindu debated a Buddhist or Jain, he could not appeal to the authority of Hindu Scriptures, but had to find a common epistemological ground. In the case of Buddhism that would be perception and inference; in the case of Jainism, only inference. All schools except Jains accepted perception as a valid means of knowledge, meaning that sensory knowledge is valid (if qualified as non-erroneous, non-hallucinatory, etc.). What is not presently observed but is in principle observable can be known by inference. Without actually seeing the fire, one knows it must exist on a hill when one sees smoke in that location, because both fire and smoke are in principle observable entities, and an observed necessary relation (vyaapti) exists between smoke and fire, viz. where there is smoke there is fire. Were one proximate to the fire on the hill, one would undoubtedly see the fire. One cannot make valid inferences about things impossible to perceive, such as unicorns, since no observable necessary relation obtains, so one cannot infer that a unicorn is on the hill. Perceptibility therefore is an indispensable component of both perception and inference, and thus, for Buddhists, of all valid knowledge. In order to be considered "real" (dravya-sat) by the standards of Buddhist logic, a thing must produce an observable effect. Buddhists argued among themselves whether something was real only while it was producing this observable effect (the Sautraantika position), or whether something could be considered real if it produced an observable effect at some moment during its existence (the Sarvaastivaada position), but all agreed that a thing must have observable causal efficacy (kaara.na) in order to be considered real. This helps explain the centrality of perception and consciousness for Yogaacaara theory.

    The logico-epistemological wing of Yogaacaara7 drew a sharp distinction between perception and inference. Perception involves sensory cognitions of unique, momentary, discrete particulars. Inference involves linguistic, conceptual universals, since words are meaningful and communicative only to the extent they designate and participate in universal classes commonly shared and understood by users of the language. Inferences are true or false depending on how accurately or erroneously they approximate sensory particulars, but even when linguistically true, they are still true only relative (sa.mv.rti) to the sensations they approximate. Conversely, sensation (and only sensation) is beyond language. Sensory cognition devoid of linguistic overlay or theoretic assertions (samaaropa) is correct cognition and precisely,not approximately, true (paramaartha). While this seems to involve metaphysical claims about categories such as particulars and universals, sensation and language, in fact it is a request that we should cognize things as they are without imposing any metaphysical assertions or conceptual framework whatsoever. The cognitive and epistemic, not the metaphysical, is at stake. What is the case is beyond description not because it is something ineffable residing outside or behind human experience, but because it is the very sensory stuff of human experience whose momentary unique actuality cannot be reduced to universalistic, eternalistic language or concepts. To interpret this position itself as a metaphysics of particularity is to remain trapped in a conceptual framework and hence to miss its point.

    Epistemological concerns pervade Indian philosophy. This is especially true of Buddhist philosophy. Many Buddhist texts assert that higher understanding has nothing to do with ontology, that focusing on the existence or nonexistence of something (asti-naasti, bhaavaabhaava) is a misleading category error. They typically remove important items - such as emptiness and nirvana - from ontological consideration by explicitly declaring that these have nothing whatsoever to do with existence or nonexistence, or being and nonbeing, and they further warn that this is not a license to imagine a higher sense of existence or being into which such items are then subsumed or sublated.8The Buddhist goal is not the construction of a more perfect ontology. Instead its primary target is always the removal of ignorance. Hence while Buddhists frequently suspend ontological and metaphysical speculation (tarka), denouncing it as useless or dangerous, correct cognition (samyag-jñaana) is invariably lauded. Even Madhyamakas, who question the feasibility of much of Buddhist epistemology, insist that we should understand where the errors lie and correct the way we cognize accordingly. Stated bluntly, Buddhism is concerned with Seeing, not Being; i.e., epistemology rather than ontology.


    Tellingly no Indian Yogaacaara text ever claims that the world is created by mind. What they do claim is that we mistake our projected interpretations of the world for the world itself, i.e., we take our own mental constructions to be the world. Their vocabulary for this is as rich as their analysis: kalpanaa (projective conceptual construction), parikalpa and parikalpita (ubiquitous imaginary constructions), abhuuta-parikalpa (imagining something in a locus in which it does not exist), prapañca (proliferation of conceptual constructions), samaaropa (assertive reification), khyaati (appearance according to conceptual, linguistic assertions), pratibimba (projection), to mention a few. Correct cognition is defined as the removal of those obstacles which prevent us from seeing dependent causal conditions in the manner they actually become (yathaa-bhuutam). For Yogaacaara these causal conditions are cognitive, not metaphysical; they are the mental and perceptual conditions by which sensations and thoughts occur, not the metaphysical machinations of a Creator or an imperceptible domain of inchoate or insensate material. What is known through correct cognition is euphemistically called tathataa, "suchness," which Yogaacaara texts are quick to point out is not an actual thing, but only a word (prajñapti-maatra).

    What is crucial in the forgoing for understanding Yogaacaara is that its attention to perceptual and cognitive issues is in line with basic Buddhist thinking, and that this attention is epistemological rather than metaphysical. When Yogaacaarins discuss "objects," they are talking about cognitive objects, not metaphysical entities.9 Rather than offer one more ontology, they attempt to uncover and eliminate the predilections and proclivities (aa'srava, anu'saya) that compel people to generate and cling to such theoretical constructions. Since, according to Yogaacaara, all ontologies are epistemological constructions, to understand how cognition operates is to understand how and why people construct the ontologies to which they cling. Ontological attachment is a symptom of cognitive projection (pratibimba, parikalpita). Careful examination of Yogaacaara texts reveals that they make no ontological claims, except to question the validity of making ontological claims.10 The reason they give for their ontological silence is that were they to offer a metaphysical description, that description would be appropriated by its interpreters who, due to their proclivities, would project onto it what they wish reality to be, thereby reducing the description to their own presupposed theory of reality. Such projective reductionism is the problem. That is what vijñapti-maatra means, viz., to mistake one's projections for that onto which one is projecting. Vasubandhu's Thirty Verses (Tri'm'sikaa) states that if one clings to one's projection of the idea of vijñapti-maatra, then one fails to truly dwell in an understanding of vijñapti-maatra (verse 27). Enlightened cognition free of all cognitive errors is defined as nirvikalpa-jñaana, "cognition without imaginative construction," i.e., without conceptual overlay. Ironically, Yogaacaara's interpreters and opponents nevertheless could not resist reductively projecting metaphysical theories onto what Yogaacaarins did say, at once proving Yogaacaara was right and at the same time making actual Yogaacaara teachings that much harder to access. Interpreting their epistemological analyses as metaphysical pronouncements fundamentally misconstrues their project.

    The arguments Yogaacaara deploys frequently resemble those made by epistemological idealists. Recognizing those affinities Western scholars early in the twentieth century compared Yogaacaara to Kant, and more recently scholars have begun to think that Husserl's phenomenology comes even closer. There are indeed intriguing similarities, for instance between Husserl's description of noesis (consciousness projecting its cognitive field) and noema (the constructed cognitive object) on the one hand, and Yogaacaara's analysis of the (cognitive) grasper and the grasped (graahaka and graahya) on the other hand. But there are also important differences between those Western philosophers and Yogaacaara. The three most important are: Kant and Husserl play down notions of causality, while Yogaacaara developed complex systematic causal theories it deemed to be of the greatest importance; there is no counterpart to either karma or enlightenment in the Western theories, while these are the very raison d'être for all Yogaacaara theory and practice; finally, the Western philosophies are designed to afford the best possible access to an ontological realm (at least sufficient to acknowledge its existence), while Yogaacaara is critical of that motive in all its manifestations. To the extent that epistemological idealists can also be critical realists, Yogaacaara may be deemed a type of epistemological idealism, with the proviso that the purpose of its arguments was not to engender an improved ontological theory or commitment, but rather an insistence that we pay the fullest attention to the epistemological and psychological conditions compelling us to construct and attach to ontological theories.

Karma, Matter, and Cognitive Appropriation

    The key to Yogaacaara theory lies in the Buddhist notions of karma which it inherited and rigorously reinterpreted. As earlier Buddhist texts already explained, karma is responsible for suffering and ignorance, and karma consists of any intentional activity of body, language, or mind. Since the crucial factor is intent, and intent is a cognitive condition, whatever lacks intent is both non-karmic and non-cognitive. Hence, by definition, whatever is non-cognitive can have no karmic influence or consequences. Since Buddhism aims at overcoming ignorance and suffering through the elimination of karmic conditioning, Buddhism, they reasoned, is only concerned with the analysis and correction of whatever falls within the domain of cognitive conditions. Hence questions about the ultimate reality of non-cognitive things are simply irrelevant and useless for solving the problem of karma. Further, Yogaacaarins emphasize that categories such as materiality (ruupa) are cognitive categories. "Materiality" is a word for the colors, textures, sounds, etc., that we experience in acts of perception, and it is only to the extent that they are experienced, perceived and ideologically grasped, thereby becoming objects of attachment, that they have karmic significance. Intentional acts also have moral motives and consequences. Since effects are shaped by their causes, an act with a wholesome intent would tend to yield wholesome fruits, while unwholesome intentions produce unwholesome effects.

    In contrast to the cognitive karmic dimension, Buddhism considered material elements (ruupa) karmically neutral. The problem with material things is not their materiality, but the psychology of appropriation (upaadaana) - desiring, grasping, clinging, attachment - that permeates our ideas and perceptions of such things. It is not the materiality of gold that leads to problems, but rather our ideas about the value of gold and the attitudes and actions we engage in as a result of those ideas. Those ideas have been acquired through previous experiences. By repeated exposure to certain ideas and cognitive conditions, one is conditioned to respond habitually in a similar manner to similar circumstances. Eventually these habits are embodied, becoming reflexive, presuppositional. For Buddhists this process by which conditioning becoming embodied (sa'mskaara) is not confined to a single life-time, but accrues over many life-times. Sa'msaara (the continuous cycle of birth and death) is the karmic en-act-ment of this repetition, the reoccurrence of cognitive embodied habits in new life situations and life forms.

    For all Buddhists this follows a simple sensory calculus: Pleasurable feelings we wish to hold on to, or repeat. Painful feelings we wish to cut off, or avoid. Pleasure and pain, reward and punishment, approval and disapproval, and so on, condition us. Our karmic habits (vaasanaa) are constructed this way. Since all is impermanent, pleasurable feelings cannot be maintained or repeated permanently; painful things (such as sickness and death) cannot be avoided permanently. The greater the dissonance between our actual impermanent experience and our expectations for permanent desired ends, the more we suffer, and the greater tendency (anu'saya) toward projecting our desires onto the world as compensation. Though nothing whatsoever is permanent, we imagine all sort of permanent things - from God to soul to essences - in an effort to avoid facing the fact that none of us has a permanent self. We think that if we can prove something is permanent, anything, then we too have a chance for permanence. The anxiety about our lack of self and all the cognitive and karmic mischief it generates is called several things by Yogaacaara, including jñeyaavara.na (obstruction of the knowable, i.e., our self-obsessions prevent us from seeing things as they are) and abhuuta-parikalpa (imagining something - namely permanence or a self - to exist in a locus in which it is absent).

    The karmic cause of the fundamental dis-ease (du.hkha) is desire expressed through body, speech, or mind. Therefore Yogaacaara focused exclusively on cognitive and mental activities in relation to their intentions, i.e., the operations of consciousness, since the problem was located there. Buddhism had always identified ignorance and desire as the primary causes of suffering and rebirth. Yogaacaarins mapped these mental functions in order to dismantle them. Because maps of this sort were also creations of the mind, they too would ultimately have to be abandoned in the course of the dismantling, but their therapeutic value would have been served in bringing about enlightenment. This view of the provisional expediency of Buddhism can be traced back to Buddha himself. Yogaacaarins describe enlightenment as resulting from Overturning the Cognitive Basis (aa'sraya-parav.rtti), i.e., overturning the conceptual projections and imaginings which act as the base of our cognitive actions. This overturning transforms the basic mode of cognition from consciousness (vi-jñaana, dis-cernment) into jñaana (direct knowing). Direct knowing was defined as non-conceptual (nirvikalpa-jñaana), i.e., devoid of interpretive overlay.

    The case of material elements is important for understanding one reason why Yogaacaara is not metaphysical idealism. No Yogaacaara text denies materiality (ruupa) as a valid Buddhist category. On the contrary, Yogaacaarins include materiality in their analysis. Their approach to materiality is well rooted in Buddhist precedents. Frequently Buddhist texts substitute the term "sensory contact" (Paali: phassa, Sanskrit: spar'sa) for the term "materiality." This substitution is a reminder that physical forms are sensory, that they are known to be what they are through sensation. Even the earliest Buddhist texts explain the four primary material elements are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterization as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction. Instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived. Yogaacaara never denies that there are sense-objects (vi.saya, artha, aalambana, etc.), but it denies that it makes any sense to speak of cognitive objects occurring outside an act of cognition. Imagining such an occurrence is itself a cognitive act. Yogaacaara is interested in why we feel compelled to so imagine.

The Crux

    Everything we know, conceive, imagine, or are aware of, we know through cognition, including the notion that entities might exist independent of our cognition. The mind doesn't create the physical world, but it produces the interpretative categories through which we know and classify the physical world, and it does this so seamlessly that we mistake our interpretations for the world itself. Those interpretations, which are projections of our desires and anxieties, become obstructions (aavara.na) preventing us from seeing what is actually the case. In simple terms we are blinded by our own self-interests, our own prejudices (which means what is already prejudged), our desires. Unenlightened cognition is an appropriative act. Yogaacaara does not speak about subjects and objects; instead it analyzes perception in terms of graspers (graahaka) and what is grasped (graahya).

    Yogaacaara at times resembles epistemological idealism, which does not claim that this or any world is constructed by mind, but rather that we are usually incapable of distinguishing our mental constructions and interpretations of the world from the world itself. This narcissism of consciousness Yogaacaara calls vijñapti-maatra, "nothing but conscious construction." A deceptive trick is built into the way consciousness operates at every moment. Consciousness projects and constructs a cognitive object in such a way that it disowns its own creation - pretending the object is "out there" - in order to render that object capable of being appropriated. Even while what we cognize is occurring within our act of cognition, we cognize it as if it were external to our consciousness. That self-deception folded into the very act of cognition is what Yogaacaarins term abhuuta-parikalpa. Realization of vijñapti-maatra exposes this trick intrinsic to consciousness's workings, catching it in the act, so to speak, thereby eliminating it. When that deception is removed one's mode of cognition is no longer termed vijñaana (consciousness); it has become direct cognition (jñaana).

    Consciousness engages in this deceptive game of projection, dissociation, and appropriation because there is no "self." According to Buddhism, the deepest, most pernicious erroneous view heldby sentient beings is the view that a permanent, eternal, immutable, independent self exists. There is no such self, and deep down we know that. This makes us anxious, since it entails that no self or identity endures forever. In order to assuage that anxiety, we attempt to construct a self, to fill the anxious void, to do something enduring. The projection of cognitive objects for appropriation is consciousness' main tool for this construction. If I own things (ideas, theories, identities, material objects), then "I am." If there are permanent objects that I can possess, then I too must be permanent. If I can be identified with something permanent, then I too must have a permanent identity. To undermine this desperate and erroneous appropriative grasping, Yogaacaara texts say: Negate the object, and the self is also negated (e.g., Madhyaanta-vibhaaga, 1:4, 8).

    That this is the motive behind the denial of external objects is reinforced by Vasubandhu who, in two texts, offers a nearly identical formula, both hinging on two terms: upalabdhi, which means to 'cognitively apprehend,' i.e., to grasp or appropriate cognitively; and artha, 'referent' of a linguistic or cognitive act, i.e., that toward which an intentionality intends.11

Apprehending vijñapti-maatra is the basis for the arising of the nonapprehension of artha. The nonapprehension of artha is the basis for the nonapprehension of vijñapti-maatra.

vijñapti-maatropalabdhim ni'srityaarthaanupalabdhir-jayate. Arthaanupalabdhim ni'sritya vijñapti-maatrasyaapi-anupalabdhir-jayate. (Madhyaantavibhaaga-bhaa.sya I.7)

By the apprehending of citta-maatra, there is the nonapprehension of cognized artha. By nonapprehending cognized artha, citta also in nonapprehended.

citta-maatra-upalambhena jñeyaarthaarthaanupalambhataa. Jñeyaartha anupalambhena syaac-cittaanupalambhataa. (Trisvabhaavanirde`sa 36)

    By recognizing that what appears as something apart from an act of consciousness only assumes that appearance within an act of consciousness, that is, that cognitive-objects appear to exist apart from cognition only within an act of cognitive construction, one ceases to grasp at one's own construction as if it were a graspable entity 'out there.' One does not reject the 'object' or noema in order to reify or valorize noesis or noetic constitution. On the contrary, because one ceases to grasp at the noema, noesis too ceases to be grasped. The circuit of grasped and grasper (graahya-graahaka) is disrupted, and the type of cognition that endeavors to seize and 'apprehend' its 'object' ceases. This bears repeating. Not only is the object, the artha, negated, but that which noetically constitutes it (vijñapti-maatra, citta-maatra) is also negated.12 Vijñapti-maatra or citta-maatra are provisional antidotes (pratipak.sa), put out of operation once their purpose has been achieved. They are not metaphysically reified or lionized.

Vasubandhu's Twenty Verses

    Vasubandhu's Twenty Verses defends Yogaacaara from objections by Realists who would assert that what we experience corresponds accurately to real entities that cannot be limited to the constructive activity of individuals. The Yogaacaara view is that consciousness is driven by karmic intentionalities (the habitual tendencies produced by past actions), and how we perceive is shaped by that conditioning. The goal of Yogaacaara is to break out of this cognitive narcissism and finally wake up to things as they are, devoid of erroneous conceptual projections.

    The objections Vasubandhu allows the Realist are strong and pointed. Realists, in fact, must hold precisely these assumptions. For them, external things must exist because such objects are consistently located in

(1) space and

(2) time;

(3) individuals reach a collective consensus about objects in the world rather than each individual being solipsistically trapped in her own private world; and

(4) the objective world operates by determinate causal principles, not through unreal, ineffective fantasies.

The rest of the text replies to these four objections on a variety of levels. I haven't time to lay this out in full detail, but will sketch some highlights. (1 & 2) Objects also seem to have spatial and temporal qualities in dreams, although nothing 'external' is present. Thus the appearance of cognitive objects does not require an actual object external to the consciousness cognizing it; but without the consciousness, nothing whatsoever is cognized. In other words, consciousness is a necessary and sufficient condition for the appearance and perception of cognitive objects, while external objects are neither necessary nor sufficient.

(3) Vasubandhu argues that groups, due to collective karma, give rise to misperceptions or interpretations in common. According to karma theory, it is the consequences of one's own actions (karma) that determine what sort of situations one will be 'born into,' and thus the types of groups with which one will share common views and ways of seeing. Thus, his general point is that how we see things is shaped by previous experience, and since experience is intersubjective, we congregate in groups that see things the way we do (based on similarities in our previous experiences). In an intriguing example, Vasubandhu argues that the torturing guards in hell are not real beings but communal projections by hell denizens with which they torture themselves, since it is illogical that one would be born into hell unless one deserved it based on one's previous actions, and if so, then one would not be immune to hell's tortures—but the guards don't suffer, they mete out suffering. The implication of his argument is that hell itself is merely a paranoid projection.

(4) The appearance of causal efficacy also occurs in dreams. Moreover, in a wet dream, even though the erotic 'object' is not externally real, it causes an observable physical effect (with moral consequences) observable in the waking world as well in the dream. Thus our conscious 'dreams' do have causal efficacy. What is important here is that the 'reality' - defined as causal efficacy - has its 'karmic' effects in the non-dream world. In other words, even when we are trapped in the fantasies of our own consciousness, those fantasies can have 'real' consequences. This is not, as some have argued, a case of Vasubandhu weaking his idealist position (he is not an idealist), but of a direct and potent statement of what Yogaacaara holds to be the case: We need to Awaken because our dreams (fantasies) are pernicious.

    After critiquing Indian atomist theories and explaining his seed theory, he returns to the analogy of dreams when addressing the question 'Can we know other minds?' To the claim that other minds are unknowable or at least opaque, Vasubandhu replies that they are knowable, and no more opaque than our own minds are to ourselves. Buddha, who is fully Awakened (=enlightened) knows others' minds more clearly than we know our own. The reason objects and events seem less clear, less consistent in dreams than when awake is because during sleep the mind is overcome by sleepiness and, thus, it is not 'thinking clearly.' Therefore, in a dream one does not know the objects therein are only dream-objects until one awakens. To awaken (become enlightened) is to perceive clearly without any mental obstructions. Not only can we know other minds, but we constantly influence each other for better and for worse. Thus karma is intersubjective. Moreover, since the more awake one is, the more causally effective one's mind becomes, sages and Buddhas can exert powerful effects on the world, including devastating destruction, and even life and death.

Here is a partial schematic illustrating how the text develops each of the four issues:

causal efficacy
dreams are spatial
dreams are sequential
pretas share a common vision (pus-river) though erroneous
wet dream (fiction has real, ethical consequences)
...imagine hell guards on the basis of previous karma...
...and are tortured by their own imaginings
seed and its fruit occur in the same place
as seeds mature
by understanding 'this,' one is initiated into non-essentialism of pudgala and dharmas
in terms of their being essentially imagined (kalpita-aatmanaa)
atoms not in same place
at same time
not joined (sa.myoga)
atoms cannot form things
perception (pratyak'sa-buddhi) like dream...
...involves an inexistent artha
from vijñapti...
...memories arise.
those not awake...
...don't know that the vi.saya seen in a dream are nonexistent
vijñaptis of various individuals determine each other (anonya-adhipatitvena vijñapti-niyamo mitha.h)
In a dream, citta is overpowered by sleepiness, ergo its causal power and consistency is less than when awake
knowing other minds is as hard as knowing one's own mind; but Buddhas know other minds since they no longer discriminate grasped-grasper


Yogaacaarins deny the existence of external objects in two senses:

1. In terms of conventional experience they do not deny objects such as chairs, colors, and trees, but rather they reject the claim that such things appear as such anywhere else than in an act of consciousness. It is externality, not objects per se, that they challenge.

2. While such objects are admissible as conventionalisms, in more precise terms there are no chairs, trees, etc. These are merely words and concepts by which we gather and interpret discrete sensations that arise moment by moment in a causal flux. These words and concepts are mental projections. The point is not to elevate consciousness, but to warn us not to be fooled by our own cognitive narcissism. Enlightened cognition is likened to a great mirror that impartially and fully reflects everything before it, without attachment to what has passed nor in expectation of what might arrive. What sorts of objects do enlightened ones cognize? Yogaacaarins refuse to provide an answer aside from saying it is purified from karmic pollution (anaa'srava), since whatever description they might offer would only be appropriated and reduced to the habitual cognitive categories that are already preventing us from seeing properly.

Awakening consists in bringing the eight consciousnesses to an end, replacing them with Awakened cognitive abilities (jñaana). Overturning the Basis turns the five sense consciousnesses into immediate cognitions that accomplish what needs to be done (k.rtyaanu.sæhaana-jñaana). The sixth consciousness becomes immediate cognitive mastery (pratyavek.sa.na-jñaana), in which the general and particular characteristics of things are discerned just as they are. This discernment is considered nonconceptual (nirvikalpa-jñaana). Manas becomes the immediate cognition of equality (samataa-jñaana), equalizing self and other. When the Warehouse Consciousness finally ceases it is replaced by the Great Mirror Cognition (Mahaadar'sa-jñaana) that sees and reflects things just as they are, impartially, without exclusion, prejudice, anticipation, attachment, or distortion. The grasper-grasped relation has ceased. It should be noted that these "purified" cognitions all engage the world in immediate and effective ways by removing the self-bias, prejudice, and obstructions that had prevented one previously from perceiving beyond one's own narcissistic consciousness. When consciousness ends, true knowledge begins.


1. This paper was read at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, San Francisco, November 21-25, 1997.Return to text

2. While it is beyond the scope of the present paper to delineate fully all the terms mentioned so far, some attempt will be made to suggest ways that many of these terms should be interpreted. This attempt will stay focused on the question of what sort of 'objects' Yogaacaara rejects. Return to text

3. Trisvabhaavanirde`sa 2. Return to text

4. Ibid. 15. Return to text

5. Ibid. 15. Return to text

6. Ibid. 29. Return to text

7. After Vasubandhu Yogaacaara developed into two distinct directions or wings: 1. a logico-epistemic tradition, exemplified by such thinkers as Dignaaga, Dharmakiirti, 'Saantarak.sita, and Ratnakiirti; 2. an Abhidharmic psychology, exemplified by such thinkers as Sthiramati, Dharmapaala, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), Viniitadeva, and (again) Ratnakiirti. While the first wing focused on questions of epistemology and logic, the other wing refined and elaborated the Abhidharma analysis developed by Asa'nga and Vasubandhu. These wings were not entirely separate, and many Buddhists wrote works that contributed to both wings. Dignaaga, for instance, besides his works on epistemology and logic also wrote a commentary on Vasubandhu's Abhidharmako'sa. What united both wings was a deep concern with the process of cognition, i.e., analyses of how we perceive and think. The former wing approached that epistemologically while the latter wing approached it psychologically and therapeutically. Both identified the root of all human problems as cognitive errors that needed correction. Return to text

8. That rhetorical move, frequently found in Madhyamaka and Prajñaapaaramitaa literature, is also echoed in Yogaacaara texts; but Yogaacaarins, aware that such rhetoric can be dismissed as nihilistic by unsympathetic opponents, also deployed another rhetorical strategy by which something could be said to exist and not exist at the same time, though in different senses. Return to text

9. This becomes clear as soon as one examines the rich vocabulary Yogaacaarins employ to denote 'objects' and their place in cognitive acts. This vocabulary will be briefly examined shortly. Return to text

10. Instead of making ontological claims, Yogaacaara texts tend to offer a discourse on "purity" (vi'suddhi, vyavadaana. Ana"srava, etc.), which will be discussed later. Return to text

11. The double sense of artha as both a linguistic referent ('meaning' and a sensorial object is poignantly reinforced in Trisvabhaavanirde`sa by the repeated use of the term khyaati 'cognitive appearance.' Kyaati actually means a 'statement,' or 'theoretical assertion,' or something asserted to be the case (Monier-Williams, p. 341a: "'declaration,' opinion, view, idea, assertion... perception,knowledge... name, denomination, title..." ; in other words, something which appears to be the case because it has been linguistically, conceptually asserted as such. The explication and disruption of this linguistic-cognitive construction is one of the primary subtexts of Trisvabhaavanirde`sa. Return to text

12. While some later traditions in China and Tibet differentiated sharply between vijñapti-maatra (Ch. wei-shih) and citta-maatra (Ch. wei-hsin), it is clear from passages such as these that Vasubandhu countenanced no such distinction. Return to text