A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of uncompromising idealism or the school of vijnanavada buddhism: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the thirteenth part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 13 - Uncompromising Idealism or the School of Vijñānavāda Buddhism

The school of Buddhist philosophy known as the Vijñānavāda or Yogācāra has often been referred to by such prominent teachers of Hindu thought as Kumārila and Saṅkara. It agrees to a great extent with the Śūnyavādins whom we have already described. All the dharmas (qualities and substances) are but imaginary constructions of ignorant minds. There is no movement in the so-called external world as we suppose, for it does not exist. We construct it ourselves and then are ourselves deluded that it exists by itself (nirmmitapratimohi)[1]. There are two functions involved in our consciousness, viz. that which holds the perceptions (khyāti vijñāna), and that which orders them by imaginary constructions (vaṣṭuprativikalpavijñāna). The two functions however mutually determine each other and cannot be separately distinguished (abhinnalakṣaṇe anyonyahetuke). These functions are set to work on account of the beginningless instinctive tendencies inherent in them, in relation to the world of appearance (anādikāla-prapañca-vāsanāhetukañca)[2].

All sense knowledge can be stopped only when the diverse unmanifested instincts of imagination are stopped (abhūta-parikalpa-vāsanā-vaicitra-nirodha)[3]. All our phenomenal knowledge is without any essence or truth (nihsvabhāva) and is but a creation of māyā, a mirage or a dream. There is nothing which may be called external, but all is the imaginary creation of the mind (svacitta), which has been accustomed to create imaginary appearances from beginningless time. This mind by whose movement these creations take place as subject and object has no appearance in itself and is thus without any origination, existence and extinction (utpādasthitibhaṅgavarjjani) and is called the ālayavijñāna. The reason why this ālayavijñāna itself is said to be without origination, existence, and extinction is probably this, that it is always a hypothetical state which merely explains all the phenomenal states that appear, and therefore it has no existence in the sense in which the term is used and we could not affirm any special essence of it.

We do not realize that all visible phenomena are of nothing external but of our own mind (svacitta), and there is also the beginningless tendency for believing and creating a phenomenal world of appearance. There is also the nature of knowledge (which takes things as the perceiver and the perceived) and there is also the instinct in the mind to experience diverse forms. On account of these four reasons there are produced in the ālayavijñāna (mind) the ripples of our sense experiences (pravrttivijñāna) as in a lake, and these are manifested as sense experiences. All the five skandhas called pañcavijñānakāya thus appear in a proper synthetic form. None of the phenomenal knowledge that appears is either identical or different from the ālayavijñāna just as the waves cannot be said to be either identical or different from the ocean. As the ocean dances on in waves so the citta or the ālayavijñāna is also dancing as it were in its diverse operations (yrtti). As citta it collects all movements (karma) within it, as manas it synthesizes (yidhīyate) and as vijñāna it constructs the fivefold perceptions (yijñānen vijānāti dṛśyam kalpate pañcabhiḥ)[4].

It is only due to māyā (illusion) that the phenomena appear in their twofold aspect as subject and object. This must always be regarded as an appearance (samvrtisatyata) whereas in the real aspect we could never say whether they existed (bhāva) or did not exist[5].

All phenomena both being and non-being are illusory (sadasantaḥ māyopamāḥ). When we look deeply into them we find that there is an absolute negation of all appearances, including even all negations, for they are also appearances. This would make the ultimate truth positive. But this is not so, for it is that in which the positive and negative are one and the same (bhāvābhāvasamānatā)[6]. Such a state which is complete in itself and has no name and no substance had been described in the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra as thatness (tathatā)[7]. This state is also described in another place in the Laṅkāvatāra as voidness (śūnyatā) which is one and has no origination and no essence[8]. In another place it is also designated as tathāgatagarbha[9].

It may be supposed that this doctrine of an unqualified ultimate truth comes near to the Vedantic ātman or Brahman like the tathatā doctrine of Aśvaghoṣa; and we find in Laṅkāvatāra that Rāvaṇa asks the Buddha

“How can you say that your doctrine of tathāgatagarbha was not the same as the ātman doctrine of the other schools of philosophers, for those heretics also consider the ātman as eternal, agent, unqualified, all-pervading and unchanged?”

To this the Buddha is found to reply thus—

“Our doctrine is not the same as the doctrine of those heretics; it is in consideration of the fact that the instruction of a philosophy which considered that there was no soul or substance in anything (nairātmyā) would frighten the disciples, that I say that all things are in reality the tathāgatagarbha. This should not be regarded as ātman. Just as a lump of clay is made into various shapes, so it is the non-essential nature of all phenomena and their freedom from all characteristics (sarvavikalpalakṣaṇavinivṛttam) that is variously described as the garbha or the nairātmya (essencelessness). This explanation of tathāgatagarbha as the ultimate truth and reality is given in order to attract to our creed those heretics who are superstitiously inclined to believe in the ātman doctrine[10].”

So far as the appearance of the phenomena was concerned the idealistic Buddhists (vijñānavādins) agreed to the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda with certain modifications. There was with them an external pratītyasamutpāda just as it appeared in the objective aspect and an internal pratītyasamutpāda. The external pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination) is represented in the way in which material things (e.g. a jug) came into being by the co-operation of diverse elements—the lump of clay, the potter, the wheel, etc. The internal (ādhyātmika) pratītyasamutpāda was represented by avidyā, tṛṣṇā, karma, the skandhas, and the āyatanas produced out of them[11].

Our understanding is composed of two categories called the pravicayabuddhi and the vikalpalakṣanagrahābhiniveśapratisthā-pikābuddhi. The pravicayabuddhi is that which always seeks to take things in either of the following four ways, that they are either this or the other (ekatvānyatvd); either both or not both (ubhayānubhaya), either are or are not (astināsti), either eternal or non-eternal (nityāuitya). But in reality none of these can be affirmed of the phenomena. The second category consists of that habit of the mind by virtue of which it constructs diversities and arranges them (created in their turn by its own constructive activity — parikaīpd) in a logical order of diverse relations of subject and predicate, causal and other relations. He who knows the nature of these two categories of the mind knows that there is no external world of matter and that they are all experienced only in the mind. There is no water, but it is the sense construction of smoothness (sneha) that constructs the water as an external substance; it is the sense construction of activity or energy that constructs the external substance of fire; it is the sense construction of movement that constructs the external substance of air. In this way through the false habit of taking the unreal as the real (mithyāsatyābhiniveśa) five skandhas appear.

If these were to appear all together, we could not speak of any kind of causal relations, and if they appeared in succession there could be no connection between them, as there is nothing to bind them together. In reality there is nothing which is produced or destroyed, it is only our constructive imagination that builds up things as perceived with all their relations, and ourselves as per-ceivers. It is simply a convention (vyavahāra) to speak of things as known[12]. Whatever we designate by speech is mere speech-construction (vāgvikalpa) and unreal. In speech one could not speak of anything without relating things in some kind of causal relation, but none of these characters may be said to be true; the real truth (paramārtha) can never be referred to by such speech-construction.

The nothingness (śūnyatā) of things may be viewed from seven aspects—

  1. that they are always interdependent, and hence have no special characteristics by themselves, and as they cannot be determined in themselves they cannot be determined in terms of others, for, their own nature being undetermined, a reference to an “other” is also undetermined, and hence they are all indefinable (lakṣaṇaśūnyatā) ;
  2. that they have no positive essence (bhāvasvabkāvaśūnyatā), since they spring up from a natural nonexistence (svabhāvābhāvotpatti);
  3. that they are of an unknown type of non-existence (apracaritaśūnyatā), since all the skandhas vanish in the nirvāṇa;
  4. that they appear phenomenally as connected though non-existent (pracaritaśūnyatā), for their skandhas have no reality in themselves nor are they related to others, but yet they appear to be somehow causally connected;
  5. that none of the things can be described as having any definite nature, they are all undemonstrable by language (nirabhilapyaśūnyatā) ;
  6. that there cannot be any knowledge about them except that which is brought about by the long-standing defects of desires which pollute all our vision;
  7. that things are also non-existent in the sense that we affirm them to be in a particular place and time in which they are not (itaretaraśūnyatā).

There is thus only non-existence, which again is neither eternal nor destructible, and the world is but a dream and a māyā; the two kinds of negation (nirodha) are ākāśa (space) and nirvāṇa ; things which are neither existent nor non-existent are only imagined to be existent by fools.

This view apparently comes into conflict with the doctrine of this school, that the reality is called the tathāgatagarbha (the womb of all that is merged in thatness) and all the phenomenal appearances of the clusters (skandhas), elements (dhātus), and fields of sense operation (āyatanas) only serve to veil it with impurities, and this would bring it nearer to the assumption of a universal soul as the reality. But the Laṅkāvatāra attempts to explain away this conflict by suggesting that the reference to the tathāgatagarbha as the reality is only a sort of false bait to attract those who are afraid of listening to the nairātmya (nonsoul) doctrine[13].

The Bodhisattvas may attain their highest by the fourfold knowledge of

  1. svacittadṛśyabhāvanā,
  2. utpādasthitibhaṅgavivarjjanatā,
  3. bāhyabhāvābhāvopalakṣaṇatā and
  4. svapratyāryyajñānādhigamābhinnalakṣaṇatā.

The first means that all things are but creations of the imagination of one’s mind. The second means that as things have no essence there is no origination, existence or destruction. The third means that one should know the distinctive sense in which all external things are said either to be existent or non-existent, for their existence is merely like the mirage which is produced by the beginningless desire (vāsanā) of creating and perceiving the manifold. This brings us to the fourth one, which means the right comprehension of the nature of all things.

The four dhyānas spoken of in the Laṅkāvatāra seem to be different from those which have been described in connection with the Theravāda Buddhism.

These dhyānas are called

  1. bālopacārika,
  2. arthapravicaya,
  3. tathatālambana
  4. and tathāgata.

The first one is said to be that practised by the śrāvakas and the pratyekabuddhas. It consists in concentrating upon the doctrine that there is no soul (pudgalanairātmya), and that everything is transitory, miserable and impure. When considering all things in this way from beginning to end the sage advances on till all conceptual knowing ceases (āsaṃjñānirodhāt)\ we have what is called the vālopacārika dhyāna (the meditation for beginners).

The second is the advanced state where not only there is full consciousness that there is no self, but there is also the comprehension that neither these nor the doctrines of other heretics may be said to exist, and that there is none of the dharmas that appears. This is called the arthapravicayadhyāna, for the sage concentrates here on the subject of thoroughly seeking out (pra-vicaya) the nature of all things (artha).

The third dhyāna, that in which the mind realizes that the thought that there is no self nor that there are the appearances, is itself the result of imagination and thus lapses into the thatness (tathatā). This dhyāna is called tathatālambana, because it has for its object tathatā or thatness.

The last or the fourth dhyāna is that in which the lapse of the mind into the state of thatness is such that the nothingness and incomprehensibility of all phenomena is perfectly realized; and nirvāṇa is that in which all root desires (vāsanā) manifesting themselves in knowledge are destroyed and the mind with knowledge and perceptions, making false creations, ceases to work. This cannot be called death, for it will not have any rebirth and it cannot be called destruction, for only compounded things (saṃskṛta) suffer destruction, so that it is different from either death or destruction. This nirvāṇa is different from that of the śrāvakas and the pratyekabuddhas for they are satisfied to call that state nirvāṇa, in which by the knowledge of the general characteristics of all things (transitoriness and misery) they are not attached to things and cease to make erroneous judgments[14].

Thus we see that there is no cause (in the sense of ground) of all these phenomena as other heretics maintain. When it is said that the world is māyā or illusion, what is meant to be emphasized is this, that there is no cause, no ground. The phenomena that seem to originate, stay, and be destroyed are mere constructions of tainted imagination, and the tathatā or thatness is nothing but the turning away of this constructive activity or nature of the imagination (vikalpa) tainted with the associations of beginningless root desires (vāsanā)[15]. The tathatā has no separate reality from illusion, but it is illusion itself wrhen the course of the construction of illusion has ceased. It is therefore also spoken of as that which is cut off or detached from the mind (cittavimukta), for here there is no construction of imagination (sarvakalpanāvirahitam)[16].

Footnotes and references:


Laṅkāvatārasūtra, pp. 21-22.


Ibid. p. 44.


Lañkāvatarasūlra, p. 44.


Ibid. pp. 50-55.


Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra , pp. 58-59.


Asaṅga’s Makāyānasūlrālamkāra, p. 65.


Laṅkāvatārasūtra , p. 70.


Ibid. p. 78.


Ibid. p. 80.


Ibid. pp. 80-81.


Laṅkāvatārasūtra , p. 85.


Laṅkñvatārasūtra , p. 87, compare the term “vyavahārika” as used of the phenomenal and the conventional world in almost the same sense by Śafikara.


Laṅkāvatārasūtra , p. 80.


Laṅkāvatārasūtra , p. 100.


Ibid. p. 109.


This account of the Vijñānavāda school is collected mainly from Laṅkāvatārasūtra , as no other authentic work of the Vijñānavāda school is available. Hindu accounts and criticisms of this school may be had in such books as Kumarila’s Sloka vārttika or Śaṅkara’s bhāsya, 11. ii, etc. Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra deals more with the duties concerning the career of a saint (Bodhisattva) than with the metaphysics of the system.

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