Sunday, June 3, 2012

Yogacara, it's not what you think

Arguably, there is no facet of Buddhism more misunderstood than Yogacara. Contrary to popular belief, among both scholars and Buddhists alike, Yogacara is not  a form of idealism. The 'mind-only' label attached to Yogacara is a misnomer, especially when held against a Western philosophical backdrop. If you're at all interested in what Yogacara Buddhism really is, then pick up a copy of Dan Lusthaus's Buddhist Phenomenology.

Dense, monolithic, dizzying, and masterfully executed, Buddhist Phenomenology is a massive tome of scholarship. By no means is it an easy read, nor should it be, for Dan Lusthaus is a preeminent expert in Yogacara, a complicated and highly influential system of Buddhist thought. The book is nothing short of flawlessly thorough in every detail. Honestly, I am shocked that any single human being could know so much about one subject. It's beyond impressive.

So if Yogacara isn't a form of idealism, what exactly is it? If you've ever read a Yogacara or hybrid-Yogacara text like the Lankavatara Sutra, you'll remember there's a lot of mention of 'mind-only'; according to Lusthaus, this is not a denial of external reality, but rather a recognition that all experience occurs within consciousness. For this reason, he identifies Yogacara as a type of phenomenology a la Edmund Husserl. Lusthaus's primary text of reference is the Ch'eng Wei-Shih lunwritten in the 7th century CE by the Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang.

Yogacara, like its Indian cousin Madhyamaka, is not interested in asserting any ontological statement about reality. What it is interested in is waking people up; it does this by attacking our attachments, namely the human propensity to objectify (or to use Lusthaus's term, "appropriate") reality. Humans cling to all sorts of things: ideas, objects, identities, etc. Yogacara's unique approach--and brilliant contribution to Buddhist praxis--is its understanding that consciousness itself is the one thing that cannot be grasped or appropriated because of its empty nature. If Yogacara privileges consciousness over other phenomena (or dharmas, to use Buddhist terms) it's simply because our only way to know, or better yet, experience, those phenomena is in our through consciousness; hence, its emphasis.

As Lusthaus reveals, the Yogacaric refrain of 'mind-only' is in fact, like much of Buddhism, upaya or skillful means. Its intention is to break our attachments, period. The goal is to break our habit of grasping at external objects, and the way Yogacara does that is to refute externality altogether. When we grasp onto Yogacara and reify it into a statement about reality--as if the world and everything in it is the projection of our minds--then we have fallen into the very trap that Yogacara is trying to free us from.

Don't get me wrong; Yogacara does acknowledge that the world we experience is a projection, but it's more concerned with how we experience and understand reality, rather than what reality is; its focus is epistemological not ontological. Basically, Yogacara says that we confuse our mental maps of reality for reality itself, a diagnosis familiar to all students of Zen.

This is the barest explanation I can give of this rich, dynamic tradition; I've done it and Lusthaus's treatment of the subject little justice. Yogacara left an indelible mark on East Asian Buddhism, influencing such seminal texts as the Awakening of Mahayana Faith and the aforementioned Lankavatara Sutra, not to mention Tien'tai and Zen. We would be wise as Buddhists to study and learn from all that Yogacara has to offer. Buddhist Phenomenology, a magnum opus of Yogacara studies, is both a great place to begin and continue one's studies; Buddhists from all traditions would benefit from reading this brilliant treatise.

Thanks to Routledge Taylor & Francis Group for sending me a copy of this wonderful book to review.

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