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Buddhism, Yogācāra school of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F012-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 10, 2020, from

Article Summary

Yogācāra is one of the two schools of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. Its founding is ascribed to two brothers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, but its basic tenets and doctrines were already in circulation for at least a century before the brothers lived. In order to overcome the ignorance that prevented one from attaining liberation from the karmic rounds of birth and death, Yogācāra focused on the processes involved in cognition. Their sustained attention to issues such as cognition, consciousness, perception and epistemology, coupled with claims such as ‘external objects do not exist’ has led some to misinterpret Yogācāra as a form of metaphysical idealism. They did not focus on consciousness to assert it as ultimately real (Yogācāra claims consciousness is only conventionally real), but rather because it is the cause of the karmic problem they are seeking to eliminate.

Yogācāra introduced several important new doctrines to Buddhism, including vijñaptimātra, three self-natures, three turnings of the dharma-wheel and a system of eight consciousnesses. Their close scrutiny of cognition spawned two important developments: an elaborate psychological therapeutic system mapping out the problems in cognition with antidotes to correct them and an earnest epistemological endeavour that led to some of the most sophisticated work on perception and logic ever engaged in by Buddhists or Indians.

Although the founding of Yogācāra is traditionally ascribed to two half-brothers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu (fourth–fifth century bc), most of its fundamental doctrines had already appeared in a number of scriptures a century or more earlier, most notably the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra (Elucidating the Hidden Connections) (third–fourth century bc). Among the key Yogācāra concepts introduced in the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra are the notions of ’only-cognition’ (vijñaptimātra), three self-natures (trisvabhāva), warehouse consciousness (ālayavijñāna), overturning the basis (āśrayaparāvṛtti) and the theory of eight consciousnesses.

The Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra proclaimed its teachings to be the third turning of the wheel of dharma. Buddha lived around sixth–fifth century bc, but Mahāyāna Sūtra did not begin to appear probably until five hundred years later. New Mahāyāna Sūtra continued to be composed for many centuries. Indian Mahāyānists treated these Sūtras as documents which recorded actual discourses of the Buddha. By the third or fourth century a wide and sometimes incommensurate range of Buddhist doctrines had emerged, but whichever doctrines appeared in Sūtras could be ascribed to the authority of Buddha himself. According to the earliest Pāli Sutta, when Buddha became enlightened he turned the wheel of dharma, that is, began to teach the path to enlightenment. While Buddhists had always maintained that Buddha had geared specific teachings to the specific capacities of specific audiences, the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra established the idea that Buddha had taught significantly different doctrines to different audiences according to their levels of understanding; and that these different doctrines led from provisional antidotes (pratipakṣa) for certain wrong views up to a comprehensive teaching that finally made explicit what was only implicit in the earlier teachings. In its view, the first two turnings of the wheel – the teachings of the Four Noble Truths in Nikāya and Abhidharma Buddhism and the teachings of the Madhyamaka school, respectively – had expressed the dharma through incomplete formulations that required further elucidation (neyārtha) to be properly understood and thus effective. The first turning, by emphasizing entities (such as dharmas and aggregates) while ’hiding’ emptiness, might lead one to hold a substantialistic view; the second turning, by emphasizing negation while ’hiding’ the positive qualities of the dharma, might be misconstrued as nihilism. The third turning was a middle way between these extremes that finally made everything explicit and definitive (nīthartha). In order to leave nothing hidden, the Yogācārins embarked on a massive, systematic synthesis of all the Buddhist teachings that had preceded them, scrutinizing and evaluating them down to the most trivial details in an attempt to formulate the definitive Buddhist teaching. Stated another way, to be effective all of Buddhism required a Yogācārin reinterpretation. Innovations in abhidharma analysis, logic, cosmology, meditation methods, psychology, philosophy and ethics are among their most important contributions. Asaṅga’s magnum opus, the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra (Treatise on the Stages of Yoga Practice), is a comprehensive encyclopedia of Buddhist terms and models, mapped out according to his Yogācārin view of how one progresses along the stages of the path to enlightenment.

Citing this article:
Lusthaus, Dan. Buddhism, Yogācāra school of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F012-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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