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Day 2: Origins of the Mind Only School and Its Relationship with the Madhyamaka View of Emptiness

Day 2: Origins of the Mind Only School and Its Relationship with the Madhyamaka View of Emptiness

A Teaching on Vasubandhu’s The Thirty Verses

Day 2: Origins of the Mind Only School and Its Relationship with the Madhyamaka View of Emptiness

24 January 2022

The Gyalwang Karmapa began by reminding everyone of the points he had made in the final part of the first day’s teaching.

Mind Only and Yogacara

He reiterated that the term Mind Only should be understood as the view, scriptures or explanations of the Yogacara tradition. In the Mind Only texts, two Sanskrit terms are used: vijñāpti (awareness) and vijñāna (consciousness). The basic meaning is that no phenomenon transcends the mind. It is either mind in character or just a various way in which the mind appears. These two Sanskrit terms are used almost interchangeably in Mind Only literature. So those who uphold the school of Awareness Only are called Vijnānavāda, the Proponents of Awareness Only. The collective term for the people who propagated this tradition or accepted it is Yogacara, the school of Yogic Practice. Similarly, the proponents of Madhyamaka, who accepted Nagarjuna’s Root Verses on the Middle Way as their primary text, a text which focuses on emptiness  [Skt. Śūnyatā],  were known as  Śūnyatāvādin, the “Proponents of Emptiness”.

In his travelogue, the Chinese Master Yìjìng mentioned two contemporaneous Mahayana schools. One was called the Middle Way, and the other was called the Yoga school, a shortening of the term “Yogacara”. The Japanese scholar Kōitsu Yokoyama explained that the Mind Only view of the Yogacara not only preserves the view of emptiness as taught in the Prajnaparamita sutras, but, by asserting the existence of a so-called mind, prevents the view of emptiness from deteriorating into a nihilistic view of complete nothingness. In addition, because Mind Only preserves the views of the abhidharma from the Period of the Schools and incorporates them into the framework of its philosophy, Yokoyama maintained that the Mind Only school achieved the broadest and highest level of philosophy.

The origins and development of the Mind Only school

Turning to the historical origins of the school, its growth and development, the Karmapa reiterated what he had said in the Mar Ngok teachings, that the dearth of written records for early Indian history makes dates and authorship of sutras and treatises speculative and controversial, even throwing the existence of some famous teachers into doubt. An example would be The Bodhisattva Levels: the Tibetans say it was written by Maitreya, but the Chinese credit Asanga. The lack of consensus between scholars and this general uncertainty over authorship, order, and dates could create confusion when discussing the formation and development of the Mind Only tradition. Consequently, it was impossible to speak definitively of the order and chronology of Mind Only masters, treatises and so forth. It was possible that there would be more certainty in the future. However, though his introduction would be based on up-to-date research by modern scholars, the Karmapa explained it was still not possible to speak categorically.

However, there is a brief description of the origins of the Mind Only school given in Xuanzang’s translation of commentaries on Asanga’s Yogacara Levels by Jinaputra and others.

In summary, it explains that after Shakyamuni Buddha’s parinirvana, disputes over divergent views arose among his disciples. These resulted in the appearance of many schools and tenet systems which were the subject of debate. However, most held a Realist view, asserting that phenomena existed independently. Nagarjuna wrote the Madhyamaka treatises and spread the view of emptiness as a response to the Realist view, and his disciple Aryadeva wrote the Hundred Verses and other texts. Thus the view of emptiness became widespread. However, worldly people misunderstood emptiness and fell into the extreme view, saying there were no truly existent phenomena at all, no misdeeds, no virtues, no karma, cause and effect, and so forth. For this reason, Asanga, having accomplished dhyana, developed clairvoyance and so was able to follow Maitreya. Asanga requested him to write this Yogacara Mind Only text.

Thus, it explains how, after the period of the Schools, the Middle Way school and then the Mind Only school appeared.

An example of the views prevalent during the period of the schools is found in the tenets of the Sarvāstivāda—” those who say all exists” —also known as the Great Exposition school. The name alone shows that they were Realists. They asserted that all phenomena have their own true nature. They divided all phenomena into 75 categories and explained that each had its own truly existent nature.

The Madhyamaka view of emptiness that follows the Prajnaparamita sutras is the complete opposite of the Sarvāstivāda Realist view. Primarily the Madhyamika assert that phenomena do not truly exist and lack any basis or foundation. The core of the Madhyamaka view, as found in Nāgārjuna’s Root Verses of the Middle Way, is that the Middle Way path is free of the eight extremes of conceptual elaboration [arising, ceasing, being non-existent, being permanent, coming, going, being multiple, and being single].

From one perspective, the Karmapa explained, one could think that “emptiness” means that things do not exist and that there is nothing at all, but the Middle Way teaches freedom from all elaborations, which includes both ‘existing’ and ‘non-existing’. Sometimes we assume “emptiness” means that things do not exist, but that is only part of what Nāgārjuna is saying. The danger of not understanding the view correctly is that we fall into the extreme of a nihilistic view.

And that is precisely what happened in India at that time. Many misunderstood the Middle Way view, and the Mind Only view arose as a correction to their nihilism. However, the Mind Only presentation has many vast aspects, so other important factors influenced its rise. There were four factors in particular:

  1. Buddhist thought increasingly tended towards the Mind Only view;
  2. Because Buddhists reject the idea of a self, they need to establish a basis for samsara, and this was a condition for the assertion of the All-Ground consciousness;
  3. The development of new assertions about emptiness;
  4. The great insights gained by the Mind Only masters in dhyana meditation.

a. Buddhist thought increasingly tended towards Mind Only

The primacy of mind was not a new idea; most religions tend in that direction, and it is also clearly expressed in the Buddha’s own words. The Verses of Dharma, one of the oldest extant Buddhist texts, considered by scholars to be closest to what the Buddha actually said, states:

All phenomena are mind by nature;
The mind is primary and precedes them.
Those who speak or else who act
With a purely faithful mind
Will reap the happiness that brings.
They will not be hidden by obscurations.

All phenomena are mind by nature;
The mind is primary and precedes them.
Those who speak or else who act
In a malevolent state of mind
Will reap the suffering that brings,
Just as a cart is pulled behind.

Clearly, the mind is the basis for virtue and misdeeds and the subsequent experience of pleasure or pain. There is also the well-known verse from the posada of the Seven Tathagatas, which summarises the teaching:

Do not do any misdeeds;
Act on abundant virtue.
Completely tame your own mind.
This is the teaching of the buddhas.

The Karmapa suggested that we need to understand the primacy of mind in two different ways. First, there is the view that all virtue, misdeeds, pleasure, pain and so forth occur due to various states of mind, depending on our positive or negative motivation, as illustrated by a famous passage from the Vimalakirti Sutra:

Because their mind is afflicted, sentient beings are afflicted.
Purifying their minds will purify sentient beings.

Hence, it was essential to adopt virtuous actions and abandon misdeeds. This is the general Buddhist view. However, it is not the same as the Mind Only understanding that there are no phenomena other than mind. In the Mind Only system, the world that appears to be external and the internal world of our mind are inextricably linked. They are not separate but parts of a whole; the objects of the external world are appearances in the mind. It was this second understanding that gradually began to spread widely.

There are two famous quotations from the “Chapter Taught in Verse” of the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Sutra of the Ten Levels, which are primary sources for this second understanding:

The mind is like an artist;
The mind makes the aggregates.
All these worlds that there are
In the universe are painted by mind.

Avatamsaka Sutra

For these three realms are only mind. The tathagata described what the twelve links of becoming are. He said that they all dwell in a single mind.

Sutra of the Ten Levels

The first one says that just as a skilled artist creates different images, the mind creates the various manifestations of the world. The latter says that the three realms — Desire, Form, and Formless—are created by mind and that the twelve links of dependent arising also depend upon mind. In brief, all worlds are nothing more than a creation of the mind, mere appearances, so both teach the Mind Only or Awareness Only view. These two passages are frequently cited in later Mind Only literature as scriptural supports for the Mind Only view.

But it is not just in the Mind Only texts that we come across similar ideas. In the Prajnaparamita sutras, there are many passages in the presentations on emptiness that are linked to the views of proponents of the Mind Only. For example, a citation from Nāgārjuna, used when teaching that all phenomena are emptiness, reads:

Because there is no dharma at all
That is not interdependent,
Therefore there is no dharma at all
That is not emptiness. 

Nāgārjuna reasons that because phenomena are interdependent, they have no true nature, and, because of that, they are empty. In the Prajnaparamita a section from the Eight-Thousand Verses reads:

We say the words “sentient being, sentient being,” but no sentient being is observed. That is a mere name, a mere label. That phenomenon that is named, aside from being conventionally labelled with a name or sign, does not arise and does not cease.

The passage says that all phenomena are no more than mental projections, and nothing about them is truly existent or can be proven. This is precisely the view of the Mind Only school, the Karmapa pointed out.

Other passages in Nāgārjuna’s works clearly reflect the Mind Only view. It is not evident in his most famous work, the Root Verses on the Middle Way, which primarily establishes the presentation of emptiness and does not say anything specifically about Mind Only. However, in the Twenty Verses of the Mahayana, he writes:

All of these are only mind;
They abide like illusions.

The Sanskrit text is still extant, and the word used for ‘only mind’ in the Sanskrit text is cittamātra, the term used for ‘mind-only’. Likewise,  there are passages in Nāgārjuna’s Sixty Verses of Reasoningthat clearly speak about Mind Only.

All of this is evidence that, even before the appearance of the Mind Only school itself, the mind or awareness was seen as primary, and Buddhist philosophy was moving in the direction of the Mind Only position. The Mind Only school adopted that fundamental Buddhist position of awareness or mind, made it the central pillar of their school and linked it with the ground consciousness. Only then did a fully developed Mind Only presentation arise.

b. Determining the basis of samsara: alaya-vijnana

The second factor which led to the arising of the Mind Only school was the need to determine the basis of samsara.

The alaya-vijnana or all-ground consciousness is a very subtle level of cognition at a deep level of mind. One of the four seals of Buddhism is the view that all phenomena are empty and devoid of self (Skt. anātmā). Looked at superficially, belief in an alaya-vijnana seems to contradict this fundamental Buddhist assertion. However, the view of “self” that is being negated in the Buddhist view of selflessness is ātman, the “self” asserted by the non-Buddhist Hindus schools. This “self” is understood to be permanent, singular, and autonomous. Yet, having rejected the concept of ātman, the Buddha accepted the traditional Indian view of samsara. These seemed to be contradictory views. If there is no autonomous self, what is it that moves through samsara in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth? The Buddha’s response was that it was karma that continued without interruption. The continuum of karma is unceasing. Our present situation results from previous karma, and what transpires in the future depends on our current actions.

However, during the time of the Schools, the abhidharmikas —the abhidharma masters—raised a doubt: If karma remains continuously without ceasing, there must be a place where it is stored, otherwise it would disappear and karmic imprints would not be possible. The Sthaviravada school, because they were concerned with samsara, realised the need for a basis for samsara. They asserted that there must be a subtle aspect of body or consciousness or an unmanifest basis for the projection of samsara, and the various schools gave it different names. The Sthaviravada and Vibhajyavādin named it “the discriminated consciousness”. The Mahiśāsaka called it “an aggregate that endures throughout samsara”, and theVatsipūtriya: “a self that is neither the same as nor different from the aggregates”. The Sutra school called it “the subtle consciousness”.The Mahasaṃghika also accepted a subtle consciousness, and some say they asserted it to be a pure, primary mind.

And what is the karma that had to be carried through samsara? His Holiness explained that in contemporary terms, karma could be described as a source of energy and compared it to the way physicists talk about light as energy, though it also has the aspect of matter, as in photons, and is able to affect material things. The power of karma too can affect both material and cognitive things. All the appearances of nirvana and samsara occur because of karma.  

To explain how karma functions, the Mind Only school asserted a fundamental consciousness that is deeper or subtler than the six gross consciousnesses. The concept of the alaya-vijnana – the all-ground consciousness—evolved from this and was posited as the storehouse for karma.

c. The Development of New Assertions About Emptiness

Many people believe the Mind Only assertion that the mind exists must contradict the view of emptiness as taught in the Prajnaparamita sutras and the Middle Way school. They are mistaken. The Mind Only actually preserved the view of emptiness taught in the Prajnaparamita and, in addition to that, was able to remedy the faults and shortcomings of the view, such as the extreme of nihilism. The Mind Only school developed a new logic and presentation for proving emptiness. We know this by examining Mind Only texts. For example, the Sutra Unravelling the Intent, which is regarded as the fundamental text of the Mind Only school, differentiates between the three turnings of the wheel of dharma. How it describes these three wheels clearly shows that the Mind Only preserves and maintains the view of emptiness taught by the Madhyamaka.

The first wheel is described as teachings on the four noble truths for the disciples of the vehicles of the listeners and pratyekabuddhas.

The second wheel is described as a teaching implicitly for Mahayana disciples:” ‘All phenomena are without an essence, unborn, unceasing, primordially in the state of peace, and naturally in the state of nirvāṇa,’”

The third wheel is described as taught for the disciples of all vehicles: “All phenomena are without an essence, unborn, unceasing, primordially in the state of peace, and naturally in the state of nirvāṇa,”

So, the Sutra Unravelling the Intent, the earliest text in which the Mind Only view is taught, differentiates between the second and third wheel teaching on emptiness by saying one was implicit and one was explicit. It demonstrates that not only did the Mind Only school continue the view of emptiness, but its presentation of the three characteristics and three lacks of essence was a new way of explaining the view of emptiness taught in the Prajnaparamita. The most important Yogacara masters—Asanga, Vasubandhu, Asvabhava, Sthiramati, and Dharmarakshita—commented on the meaning of the Prajnaparamita sutras based on the three characteristics and three lacks of essence, providing a new logical way of determining the view of emptiness taught in the Prajnaparamita.