Day 4: The Compilers of the Mind Only View—Asanga and Vasubandhu

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Day 4: The Compilers of the Mind Only View—Asanga and Vasubandhu

A Teaching on Vasubandhu's The Thirty Verses:

Day 4: The Compilers of the Mind Only View—Asanga and Vasubandhu

27 January 2022


A powerful recitation of Four Sessions Guru Yoga preceded today's teaching.  After the customary opening prayers and greetings, His Holiness clarified his presentation of the dharmas (the works) of Maitreya from the previous day. These works are identified somewhat differently in the Chinese versus Tibetan canons.  The Tibetan tradition holds that the Yogacara Levels was written by Asanga, but in the Chinese canon, the author is identified as Maitreya.  Differentiating the Middle from the Extremes, Ornament of the Sutras, and Discriminating Dharmas from their Nature are held by both canons to be the works of Maitreya.

Throughout his presentation, His Holiness reflected at length on the problems of assigning authorship and precise dates in early Buddhist history, given that ancient Indians had no interest in recording when the important events of their time occurred.  One example of the problem this raises is the issue of whether Maitreya was a human being or a deity.  The texts that he is said to have authored exist in the human world.  Either Asanga took notes in his presence and brought them to earth, or the deity Maitreya came to ancient India and wrote the texts, which is an uncomfortable position for some scholars to accept today.  There is a debate on this issue.  Do some contemporary scholars look down on the idea of Maitreya as a deity?  The general international view of things is that if we don't have evidence, then we shouldn't believe assertions.  Merely saying that Maitreya was a deity won't satisfy some scholars.  They are looking for facts.  But sometimes the way we think is too limited. And in fact, many scholars have great respect and affection for traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture and views, especially in Japan.  These figures, many of them members of the sangha, are trying to preserve Buddhist traditions in their scholarship.  On the other hand, some Tibetans waste too much time on pointless and meaningless scholarly activity.  They don't pay enough attention to what should be done.  They spend too much time focusing on rivalries between different schools or individuals.  There are so many important things we should do.  Karmapa added that "we need to do work whose time it is."


Whether Maitreya was a historical person or not, the individuals who organized and propagated the Mind Only view taught in the Sutra Unraveling the Intent were Asanga and Vasubandhu.  Asanga (c. 310-390) was born in North India in Purusapura [modern-day Peshawar in Pakistan], the capital of the land of Gandhara. He initially entered the Foundation vehicle and meditated on emptiness.  (According to the biography of Vasubandhu translated by Master Yijing, it was the Sarvastivada school, but Xuanzang identified it as the Mahisasaka school.) Not satisfied with his early training, Asanga took Maitreya as his guru and practiced Mahayana meditation on emptiness.  Texts written by Asanga include the Compendium of Abhidharma, the Treatise Clarifying the Teachings, and the Compendium of the Mahayana.  A Japanese scholar proposed that Similarities in the Middle Way and A Commentary on the Vajra Splitter Sutra were also written by Asanga.  He wrote a commentary on the Root Verses of the Middle Way, called Similarities with the Middle Way.  This text, along with his commentary on the Vajra Splitter Sutra, shows that the most important support for his writings was the view of the Middle Way.

The Yogacara Levels also had a strong impact on Asanga.  Did he in fact write them?  Or did they come before him?  If the latter is the case, we can say that he based the Compendium of the Abhidharma and the Treatise Clarifying the Teachings on the Yogacara Levels.  His greatest contribution was the Compendium of the Mahayana.  In writing this text, he revised and clarified all the levels in the Mind Only philosophy that had been mistaken or mixed up.  He established a complete and authoritative Yogacara philosophy.  For this reason, the Compendium of the Mahayana is a very important text.  Based on his older brother's work, Vasubandhu gave Asanga's Mind Only philosophy a new and improved form.

This is the way it's generally explained.  However, the current state of academic research is as follows: there are four different translations of the Compendium of the Mahayana in Chinese.  When comparing them, it becomes evident that there are differences.  Some key points in the Yogacara view only appear in the latter two translations. Yijing's translation of the Compendium differs most significantly from the others.  Overall, it is clear from all the translations that the Compendium is very systematic in terms of organization.  How did the main parts of the Compendium originate?  The views come primarily from practice; on the basis of that, a structured approach to the Mind Only appears in the text.  Academics have no dispute about this.  By the time of the Compendium, the Mind Only view had been fully developed and systemized.

But when we talk about the authorship of the Compendium, there are different opinions.  One Japanese scholar holds that Asanga wrote the entire work himself.  Others feel that there were many authors who worked in collaboration.  Another text said to be written by Asanga is the Treatise Clarifying the Teachings. It's not in Tibetan, but it does exist in Chinese.  Researchers say that this treatise was written after the Yogacara Levels was completed and additions had been made.  There is also the Compendium of the Abhidharma.  The basis for this text too is the Yogacara Levels.  In this work, the authors compiled a lexicon of terminology, a dictionary of terms. In the Compendium of the Mahayana, the intention was to compile all the crucial points into one text.  It was written when the Mind Only philosophy had reached its maturity.  Can we posit that one historical Asanga wrote these three texts? It's clear that they are all linked to Asanga, but it's difficult to say that he was the sole author, just as it is difficult to know who the historical Acharya Asanga actually was.

From the beginning, Yogacara practitioners developed views and ideas from their meditation.  They had the same aim and the same system and then compiled their insights into writings.  It could be that "Asanga" refers to a like-minded group.  In ancient India, a collaboration often credited the most important person's name as the author.  If we think of the Compendium of the Mahayana, it's been passed down over several centuries.  Proofreading and editing can add or take away from a text. It's possible that this accounts for the differences in translations.  We can't categorically say that it wasn't mostly written by Asanga, but the Compendium of the Mahayana is not something that he wrote and directly placed into our hands.  It came through many people; there have been numerous changes over the years.  But we can posit that the structure and organization were developed mostly by Asanga.  Whatever the case, Mind Only practitioners feel the blessings of Asanga's text.  Most broadly, the older generations have given us the Compendium of the Mahayana, so we think of them with gratitude. 


Next, His Holiness considered Vasubandhu, whose fame as a scholar extended throughout India.  Like his elder brother Asanga, Vasubandhu first entered the Sarvastivada Foundation vehicle.  Later, influenced by Asanga, he entered the Mahayana.  Tradition holds that he compiled and organized his brother's work and therefore left his traces in the literature on the Mind Only view.

Beginning in the late 19th century, scholars tried to determine the dates of Vasubandhu's birth and death.  Among these researchers, two primary positions developed: that he was born either in the 4th  century or in the 5th century.  In 1951, a scholar named Frauwallner took this dispute as a basis for claiming that there were actually two Vasubandhus who lived a century apart.  He held that the earlier one was Asanga's younger brother who lived in the 4th century—this Vasubandhu was the author of the key  Mind Only texts.  The later one wrote the Treasury of the Abhidharma. Frauwallner's analysis was very influential; it became generally accepted for awhile that there were two Vasubandhus.

Frauwallner used several different texts as sources for his hypothesis.  Among them were a life of Vasubandhu translated by Yijing, Xuanzang's accounts of his travels to India, Buton's Dharma History and Taranatha's Dharma History.  Since there are very few historical records concerning Vasubandhu himself, Frauwallner relied on such traditional accounts from previous masters. Frauwallner's second set of sources were works attributed to Vasubandhu in the Chinese canon.  A third source was the commentary by Vasumitra on the Treasury of the Abhidharma and other commentaries by later masters.  Frauwallner primarily used traditional oral accounts as sources, which no doubt contain a lot of true stories, but certainly also much that was made up. It's difficult to get a completely clear historical picture from such sources.

There were probably a lot of people at that time who objected to the idea of two Vasubandhus.  Among them was a Japanese scholar, Hirakawa Akira, who wrote there was a tradition in India of saying that one famous person wrote a lot of different texts.  The names Vasubandhu and Vasumitra are related to the well-known Sanskrit term "vasu," which is the name of a god and is therefore used often in India.  In fact, there are many Vasubandhus in Buddhist history.  A similar Tibetan example is the well-known assertion, “There is no place in Tibet where Guru Rinpoche has not gone." This can happen in pure visions.  But in actual history, most historians say that Guru Rinpoche was only in Tibet for 18 months, so it would be impossible for him to go everywhere in such a short amount of time.

In India, the later Yogacaras would assign an important text to a famous historical master.  They did this because of their faith and devotion, so we can't assert that they shouldn't have done so.  But if we rely too heavily on traditional accounts, there will be lots of debate about such things as Vasubandhu's dates.  If we don't accept certain things from traditional texts, are we being disrespectful or realistic?  One thing is clear—when considering Indian history, it's difficult to obtain facts due to the lack of written sources. "The ancient Indian people didn't think about future generations at all," Karmapa joked.  They thought, "Forget about them!" We can't even identify the date when the Buddha passed into nirvana with any certainty.  Thanks to the information Ashoka wrote on his pillars, we have some evidence that a buddha appeared and that he was probably born in a certain century.  Without those pillars, we would have no proof of the Buddha's life at all.  Modern people need evidence, yet most of early Buddhist history comes from Indian and Tibetan oral accounts.  Oral history changes from day to day.  It is passed from one person to another, and the story evolves continually.  At the same time, we can't say that there aren't some actual historical events included in them.

In 1958, a scholar named Padmanabh S. Jaini investigated the Treasury of Abhidharma and the Lamp of Abhidharma.  He found that the Treasury of Abhidharma in some respects accords with the Foundation Sutra school, and in some ways, with the Mahayana view.  In the Lamp of Abhidharma, there are refutations of the Treasury because it is very similar to another text: the Vaitulya-sastra. Lamp of Abhidharma raises objections to the Treasury because it takes so much from the Vaitulya-sastra.  Many words in the Vaitulya-sastra evoke the Mahayana, and it uses similar proofs. Jaini concluded that the Treasury's presentation of the two truths is similar to the three characteristics as the basis.  Remember that Frauwallner held that the later Vasubandhu wrote the Treasury and asserted that it did not present a Mahayana view.  Jaini refuted this.  He found that the Treasuryincludes many passages with a Mahayana orientation. In the 1980s, three Japanese scholars continued this research and ultimately supported Jaini's position.  If we look at the Treasury of the Abhidharma itself, we can conclude that there wasn't an earlier and later Vasubandhu.

In 1967, German scholar Lambert Schmithausen used two criteria for evaluating whether a text is by Vasubandhu or not.  His first criterion concerned the Sutra school's view of a single stream of consciousness.  His second criterion was the Yogacara model of complex streams of consciousness.  In the Sutra school, the mind, intellect and consciousness are all the same.  In Yogacara, chitta refers to the ground, manas is the afflicted mind, and vijnana applies to the six consciousnesses.  Using these criteria, he researched the texts, including the Treasury, Proof of Karma, the Twenty Verses and the Thirty Verses.  According to Schmithausen, all these texts conform to the Sutra school's view of a single stream of consciousness.  Therefore, he concluded that the same author wrote them all.

How does this criterion of a single stream of consciousness prove that all these texts are by the same of author?  Schmithausen examined the order and development of ideas in these texts.  First, Proof of Karma teaches the ground consciousness.  (This is probably the first text to give a presentation on this important Mind Only concept.) Next is the Twenty Verses.  In it, mind (citta), intellect (manas), and consciousness (vijnana) are all one.  These three are said to be synonymous.  Vasubandhu writes of these in Yogacara terms as "Mind Only-ness." In the Thirty Verses, he presents these terms as noted previously: citta primarily as the ground consciousness, while manas refers to the afflicted mind, and vijnana as the six mental consciousnesses.  He uses these categories to establish the Mind Only position.  These developments occur in a sequence; they record developments in Vasubandhu's thought.  By analyzing these texts, the Mind Only views evolve and become clearer.

Schmithausen originally aimed to support Frauwallner's claim that there were two Vasubandhus, but his research brought him to a different conclusion.  He used powerful logic to support the idea that Vasubandhu's works were all by the same person.  He applied his logic to the structure of the texts themselves to determine sole authorship.  This ushered in a new era of scholarship in the Yogacara school.  Instead of relying solely on traditional accounts, scholars began to use textual analysis to come to their conclusions.

In order to understand how the Mind Only view developed from the concept of a single-layer stream of consciousness, we need to know more about the Sutra school.  Was there actually an autonomous Sutra school or not, and if so, what was it like?  Regarding this question, a Japanese scholar gave a good answer.  Kato Junjo argued in a 1989 publication, after research into the Treasury of Abhidharma and the Sutra on Entering Logic, that the name of the Sutra school first appeared in the former text.  Before that, Master Srilabdha had developed ideas central to the Sutra school, but there was no name for it before the Treasury.  Therefore, Vasubandhu, the author of the Treasury, was not only associated with the Foundation school and Yogacara, but also with the Sutra school.

In the 1990s, a Japanese scholar named Sakuma Hidenori wrote that the positions found in the Treasury also appear in the Yogacara Levels.  Within the Treasury of the Abhidharma, Vasubandhu taught many views of the Sutra school, and these function as a way of refuting the Sarvastivada school positions.  Since Yogacara was mainly an approach to meditation and so did not easily develop a widely shared tradition of discourse, the Sutra school provided a common language when speaking to adherents of other schools.  Vasubandhu used this language to address followers of the Foundation school because they would be able to understand its terminology.  There are also Sutra school positions in the Twenty Verses, and these function as objections to contrary views.  They provided effective Mind Only explanations for those unfamiliar with its precepts.

To give a parallel example, the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje writes in the Chariot of the Practice Siddhas that there are two ways to give an answer.  One is according to the particular positions found in his text; the other is in a way that harmonizes with different people's views.  He identifies the need for a generally accepted way of debating ideas with other schools, the requirement for a common language.  This applies to the origins of the Sutra school as well.  The Sarvastivada and Yogacara positions diverged completely, so the Sutra school developed to provide a language that was mutually understood. 

In the 1980s, Japanese scholar Matsuda Kazunobu confirmed Schmithausen's research into the attribution of Vasubandhu's texts and added two additional works, Logic of Explanations and the commentary on the Explanation of Interdependence.  He also created an order for Vasubandhu's works.  First was the Logic of Explanations, then the Proof of Karma, next the Explanation of Interdependence, then the Twenty Verses and finally the Thirty Verses.  He concluded that the author of the Treasury wrote all these texts.  These days most scholars accept this position. 

In addition, another Japanese scholar, Hakamaya Noriaki, along with Matsuda Kazunobu, researched the Treasury of the Abhidharma.  Within it, they found that the word purvacarya appears 11 times.  It means "master of the past," a term connected to the Yogacara school. Hakamaya Noriaki noted that the meaning of this term is reserved for a master in whom one has great faith and devotion, the same way as we speak of the Kagyu forefathers.  It's an honorific term, expressing respect for the earlier teachers in the Yogacara school. Yasomitra's commentary on the Treasury identifies the purvacarya as Asanga.  From this, we can say that Asanga was among the early compilers of the Yogacara texts and was held in high esteem by this school.  Was that Asanga actually the elder brother of Vasubandhu? It's hard to be certain, but the evidence suggests that a person named Asanga was held in high esteem within the Yogacara tradition.

Traditionally, Asanga and Vasubandhu are described as brothers.  Does this necessarily mean that they had a family connection? It's difficult to say that.  To call two people "brothers" doesn't always mean that they share familial blood.  It could mean a master and a student, or strongly connected friends.  Perhaps Asanga and Vasubandhu had a close bond as guru and disciple, or as companions and fellow scholar/practitioners.  We often talk about the "Three Kadampa Brothers", who were not related but were called brothers because of their strong affection for each other.  Similarly, perhaps Asanga and Vasubandhu were labeled "brothers" in this way by their students. 

To conclude, which of Vasubandhu's works are connected to the Mind Only school?  His Holiness gave the following list: 

  1. The Twenty Verses
  2. The Thirty Verses
  3. The Proof of Karma
  4. The Five Aggregates
  5. The Hundred Gates of Dharma
  6. The Treatise on the Buddha Family
  7. Commentaries on Ornament of Mahayana Sutras, Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes, and Compendium of the Mahayana

The root text (not the commentary) of the Compendium of the Mahayana exists in four translations—three in Chinese and one in Tibetan.  Also, the Twenty Verses, the Thirty Verses (the topic of this teaching), Proof of Karma, The Five Aggregates and the Hundred Gates of Dharma exist in Tibetan.  The latter work is very important in China.  When students begin study of the Mind Only view, they start with the Hundred Gates, as well as the Eight Verses Delineating Consciousness by Xuanzang. Karmapa has translated the Eight Verses into Tibetan, but he is not satisfied with it at this point, so he is reluctant to share it.  But if it turns out well, he will.

His Holiness added that the Treatise on the Buddha Family is special; it's a commentary on the Sublime Continuum.  This is a text we will need to consider.

Karmapa mentioned that he had spoken quite a bit about the Treasury of the Abhidharma and its connection to the Mind Only school.  As an example of its importance, when Japanese students would begin studying Yogacara in the old days, this was the first text in their curriculum.  They spent eight years on the Treasury, and then after that, two or three years studying the Mind Only.

His Holiness ended the day's presentation by summarizing the contributions of Vasubandhu, who took earlier ideas and compiled them into coherent presentations.  In this, he showed great kindness toward Buddhism in general and the Mind Only school in particular.  He had a great capacity for codifying and organizing ideas from diverse texts and philosophical traditions.  Vasubandhu wrote the Twenty Verses to refute the Realists, and the Thirty Verses to put forward the positions of the Mind Only school.  He finished the Thirty Verses in the latter part of his life.  There is no auto commentary because he died shortly thereafter.  Later commentators wrote Mind Only explanations of this key text.

Yin Shun (a 20th century Taiwanese master) wrote that it was due to Vasubandhu’s emphasis on “There are no external objects, only mind”, the school came to be named "Mind Only." In emphasizing that everything is awareness, Vasubandhu made enormous contributions to Buddhist philosophy.  Because of his efforts, the Mind Only school became comparable to the Middle Way, and its influence spread widely—extending into our own time.