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Day 6:  The Mind Only School of Phenomenal Appearance in China, Japan and Korea

Day 6:  The Mind Only School of Phenomenal Appearance in China, Japan and Korea

A Teaching on Vasubandhu’s The Thirty Verses

Day 6:  The Mind Only School of Phenomenal Appearance in China, Japan and Korea

30 January 2022

The Dharma Characteristics School can be called the school of phenomenal appearance, the Karmapa explained, as he continued to explore the scientific basis of the Mind Only School as it spread from India to China, Japan and Korea. Why is it given that name - the school of phenomenal appearances?

The short answer is, it dissects exactly what happens when external phenomena appear, from the smallest object to the entire universe.  There are two distinct aspects: the manner of appearance of both the subtle aspect and the aspect of the substratum, or the material reality of phenomena; and secondly, the nature of appearance, or the way in which appearances abide.

Take for example the way that scientists explain that this entire world is comprised of atoms, or their recent discovery of subtle particles such as electrons or quarks. These combine to form gross objects. This is like the first analysis. If there is something behind this manner of appearance or some other nature or internal way they abide, that is similar to the second analysis.

Although the Mind Only school, propagated by Xuanzang and Kuiji in China, is given the name Dharma Characteristics school, if we were to be very precise, it should be called the “School of the Nature and Appearance of Phenomena.” This is a better name,” the Karmapa concluded.

One of the most important aims of Mind Only philosophy is to identify the way things appear and the way they abide distinctly and individually. The starting point is the way things appear to our mind every day, the cognitive image. How do they appear, how do we focus on them, what are the confused appearances, what is the distinction between the way phenomena are and the way they appear?  The examination of the way phenomena appear through actual experience is similar to scientific methodology. The Mind Only School, though extremely complicated, vast, profound, and detailed, is a philosophy backed up by a strong logical tradition.

The Spread of Mind Only in China

The great monk of the Tang Dynasty Xuanzang, or as he was called in the Chinese kingdom, “The Tang Master of the Tripitika”, brought the Mind Only philosophy from India to China. (He has been revived recently as one of the characters in a Chinese TV series, the Karmapa added.)

Xuanzang was driven by an appetite for knowledge no matter what topic, but he was especially drawn to the Commentary on the Ten Levels translated by Paramartha. In order to get all the works related to the Yogacara, he traveled eight thousand kilometres to India, disregarding the prohibition on travel. His diary, The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, describes how he overcame hardships, (even the spirits played up) and arrived in India in 624 CE. There he fulfilled his primary aim: to study the Mind Only treatises with the great abbot of Nalanda, Śīlabhadra, His studies included the dharma of the Mahayana and Foundation vehicles as well.

During his sojourn of 17 years in India, Xuanzang journeyed to many of the Buddhist sites and recorded it in Travels to the Western Region. The record became an invaluable guide in identifying Buddhist sites. In 645 CE, the 19th year of the emperor Taizong’s reign, he returned home to Chang-an the capital of China, bringing with him the precious Indian Buddhist texts.

The emperor Taizong was so pleased, he founded a center for translating Buddhist texts, and supported Xuanzang’s translation projects. He devoted all his physical and mental energy working without rest to translate the sutras and treatises he had brought from India. During the remaining 18 years of his life his output was formidable: 74 different dharma texts in 1350 bundles—translated into Chinese. These became known as the “new translations” as distinct from earlier translations called the “old translations.” His translations from this period include many Mind Only texts such as the Sutra Unraveling the Intent, Yogacara Levels, Treatise Clarifying the Teachings, Compendium of Abhidharma, and the Compendium of the Mahayana, along with the Hundred Thousand Stanzas of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, Treasury of Abhidharma, Samayabhedavyūhacakra, and more.

In particular, his translation of the 10-part Treatise on the Proof of Mind Only into Chinese marks the beginning of a new era of Chinese Buddhist history. This text compiles all the explanations of the Thirty Verses by the ten commentators. Instead of translating the entirety, he took the main points of the commentators and compiled them using Dharmapāla’s explanations as his source; hence the Dharma Characteristics school is also called the Dharmapala school.

Xuanzang’s foremost student was Kuiji, who collaborated on translations with his master. There are amazing stories about Kuiji. He went forth as a monk at the age of 17.  It is said that he first developed realization when translating the Treatise on the Proof of Mind Only with his master Xuanzang. With the support of Xuanzang, he wrote commentaries on the Treatise on the Proof of Mind Only, Differentiating the Middle from Extremes, and commentaries on sutras including the Praise of the White Lotus Sutra, and other important texts, such as The Teaching of Vimalakīrti, and even a short commentary on the Yogacara Levels. He was hailed as the ‘Author of a Hundred Commentaries.’  He surpassed his master and thus it is said that Kuiji was actually the founder of the Dharma Characteristics school, not Xuanzang.

The Three Mind Only Commentaries

The master who followed Kuījī as the second holder of the Dharma Characteristics lineage, Huìzhǎo (650–714 CE) wrote a text called the Definitive Meaning of the Proof of Mind Only. The third holder of the lineage, his student Zhì zhōu  (668–723 CE), wrote a text called Secret Teachings of the Proof of Mind Only which re-systematized and propagated the Mind Only thought of Dharmapāla. These commentaries are called the “Three Mind Only Commentaries,” and their work is called the ‘’analysis of the three forefathers.’’ They are considered authoritative classics. In addition, Zhizhou wrote two texts called the Treatise of the Shining Wisdom Sun of the Middle and Extremes and Selected Inspirations for Bodhichitta.

In comparison, the Mind Only philosophy taught in the Ten Levels and Compendium of Mahayana Schools is only partial; they did not have an opportunity to study the entire Indian Mind Only philosophy.  Without the influence of Dharmapala it was as if these two earlier schools had discarded the trunk and were clinging only to the branches.

It was only because of Xuanzang’s great resolve to go to India to study the Mind Only views transmitted in a pure lineage from Maitreya, Asanga, and Vasubandhu to Dharmapāla that the lineage survived intact. The Dharma Characteristics school thus flourished widely during the Tang dynasty both in religious and political terms, exerting such great pressure on the Ten Levels and Compendium schools that in the end, those two schools merged with the Dharma Characteristics school.

Decline and Revival

After the Tang Dynasty the Huichang persecution of Buddhism marked the decline of the Dharma Characteristics school in China, and later during the time of Zhizhou, (the third holder of the Dharma Characteristics lineage) the texts related to it were lost. At that point the transmission was broken.

The Avatamsaka school, which had the aim of uniting the old and new translations (unifying the Buddha nature and Mind Only), began to spread, and the practices of dhyana (Zen or Chan) and Pure Lands schools spread widely. Among the practices of Zen and Pure Lands that flourished during the Yuan Dynasty, there were many scholars who referred to the Mind Only philosophy when teaching about the Pure Lands.

Eventually the Dharma Characteristics school, which upheld the philosophy of the pure Mind Only tradition, came to an end in China. The Japanese scholar Takemura Makio presents three reasons for its demise. First of all, the emphasis on a very high level of philosophy was so strong that other than a few scholars, it was above the common person’s level. Secondly, it asserts that some people will awaken to Buddhahood and some never will. This did not fit with the hopes that many faithful Buddhists held in their hearts. Finally, since it explains a progressive and gradual path to reach the ultimate goal, it did not match the inclinations of Chinese people, Naturally, everyone wants to get there quickly, the Karmapa added.


However, in spite of this, the Mind Only School did not entirely disappear from China.

During the Ming Dynasty, Hānshān Déqīng, wishing to revive the Dharma Characteristics school, authored a text called the Xìng Xiāngtōng Suō explaining the union of appearance and nature in Mind Only philosophy, but in spite of his efforts, it failed to stir up much interest in the Mind Only School. The texts to back it up were no longer extant.

At the end of the Qing Dynasty, some new sparks rekindled when the lay practitioner Yáng Rénshān went to Japan and collected many texts of the Dharma Characteristic schools which he brought to China. His find resounded like the rumble of an earthquake in scholarly circles, because these texts were thought to have disappeared.

Similarly, during the time of the Republic of China, the Shina Buddhist Institute in the south of China revived their research into Mind Only using texts of the Dharma Characteristics school obtained from Japan. In Beijing, through the efforts of Hán Qīngjìng, Mind Only philosophy was revived in China after several centuries. Also Tibetan Buddhist texts, and Mind Only Sanskrit manuscripts that had been brought to Europe and America revived contemporary research into the Mind Only.

The Spread of the Mind Only in Japan

The Dharma Characteristics school was brought to Japan by Japanese scholars who had gone to study in China. In 653 CE, Doshoh arrived in Tang and studied with Xuanzang and Kuiji. returning to his homeland in 661 CE.  In 658 CE, Chitatsu arrived and also studied with Xuanzang and Kuiji. The scholars Chihoh, Chiran and Chiyuh arrived in 703 CE and studied with the third master of the lineage, Zhizhou.. Then there was Genboh who arrived in 717 CE and studied with Zhizhou returning to Japan in 735 CE.

The Dharma Characteristics school introduced to Japan flourished widely. During the Nara period (710–794 CE), it became a sub-school of Buddhism in the southern capital of Nanto. There was a great rivalry between the Northern and the Southern temples in their philosophical positions, which produced famous scholars and many treatises. This continued until the Edo period (17th -19th century).

In the early Edo period the tradition for many monks of all lineages, was to go to Nara to study Dharmapala’s Proof of the Mind Only and Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma. It was said, “Three years for Mind Only, eight years for Abhidharma.” In other words, monks who wanted to learn Mind Only properly had to spend 11 years immersed in its study. The reason for this is that Mind Only thought had developed into a systematized Buddhist philosophy.  The name given jointly to the Treasury and Mind Only was “Science of Nature and Appearance.” In historical terms Mind Only is the last and most sophisticated presentation of Buddhist philosophy.

The French ‘Mind Only Einstein’ and the Belgian Polymath

 In the late 19th century modern European research methods led to discoveries of the original Sanskrit texts of the sutras and treatises on the Mind Only. The evaluation of Mind Only gradually changed with this discovery, together with the study of Tibetan translations. In the early twentieth century the works and translations of the French scholar, Sylvain Levi in France (whom the Karmapa dubbed ‘the Mind Only Einstein‘)  and the polymath Louis de la Vallée Poussin in Belgium, introduced the foundations of traditional Mind Only to Europe. With the achievements of these two scholars, the new study of Mind Only suddenly flourished in Japan. Later, two pioneering scholars, Hakuju Ui and Susumu Yamaguchi, published a variety of original studies, and many scholars followed. They established new ways of studying the Mind Only school. The situation was so unprecedented, it was like a river flooding in the summer, the Karmapa remarked. 

The spread of Mind Only in Shilla (Korea)

The establishment of Mind Only in Korea has to be attributed to an outstanding student or dharma friend of the master Xuanzang, a Korean polymath called Woncheuk, living in the Chinese capital. Together Xuanzang and Woncheuk were complementary, like the right and left hand. Woncheuk’s reputation as a scholar was already well established. He was familiar with the Chinese scriptures and proficient in six languages, including Sanskrit and Tibetan; so much so that he was able to point out the mistranslation of the Master Xuanzang’s translation of the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Woncheuk was not only a respected monk, but also an original thinker.

His views and thoughts differed slightly from those of Xuanzang and Kuiji. Woncheuk was deeply influenced by his study of the Ten Levels, and Paramatha’s translations whereas Xuanzang and Kuiji inherited the lineage of Dharmapala and Silabhadra. Through his deep understanding of the Mind Only school, Woncheuk was able to integrate and extend the doctrine of Mind Only. Thereafter, the school of Mind Only in Korea differed.

After Xuanzang's death, Woncheuk continued to teach the doctrine of Mind Only at Ximing Temple in China. It was around this time that the Sutra Unravelling the Intent was written. The temple became a hub for students studying the Mind Only philosophy and Woncheuk’s reputation grew so great that the Korean King Sunmon repeatedly sent messengers to request he return to his homeland; but the Empress Wu refused to accept his departure. Although Woncheuk returned to Korea for a brief time, he soon relocated to China and lived out his life there.

His commentary on the Sutra Unravelling the Intent made a great contribution, filling in for the many commentaries that had been lost from the time of the Tang dynasty. Only this ancient Chinese commentary by Woncheuk survived. This commentary was translated into Tibetan in the 9th century by Gö Chödrup and was a primary source for Tsongkhapa’s Essence of Fine Explanations of the Definitive and Expedient.