Translations of
Yogacāra school
EnglishYoga Practice, Doctrine of Consciousness, Consciousness-Only Doctrine, Cognizance-Only, Mind-Only
SanskritYogacāra, Vijñānavāda, Vijñaptivāda, Vijñaptimātratā, Cittamātra
(Pinyin: Wéishí Yúqiexíng Pài)
(Rōmaji: Yugagyō)
(RR: Yusik-Yugahaeng-pa)
(rnal 'byor spyod pa)
VietnameseDu-già Hành Tông
Glossary of Buddhism

Yogachara (Sanskrit: योगाचार, IAST: Yogācāra; literally "yoga practice"; "one whose practice is yoga") is an influential tradition of Buddhist philosophy and psychology emphasizing the study of cognition, perception, and consciousness through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices. Yogachara was one of the two most influential traditions of Mahayana Buddhism in India, the other being Madhyamaka.

Yogācāra is also variously termed Vijñānavāda (the doctrine of consciousness), Vijñaptivāda (the doctrine of ideas or percepts) or Vijñaptimātratā-vāda (the doctrine of 'mere representation'), which is also the name given to its major epistemic theory. There are several interpretations of this main theory: various forms of Idealism, as well as a phenomenology or representationalism, aimed at deconstructing the reification of our perceptions.

According to Dan Lusthaus, this tradition developed "an elaborate psychological therapeutic system that mapped out the problems in cognition along with the antidotes to correct them, and an earnest epistemological endeavor that led to some of the most sophisticated work on perception and logic ever engaged in by Buddhists or Indians."

While Yogācāra was mainly associated with Indian Mahayana Buddhism from about the fourth century CE onwards, it also included non-Mahayana practitioners of the Sautrāntika school. The 4th-century Gandharan brothers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, are considered the classic philosophers and systematizers of this school, along with the figure of Maitreya. Yogācāra continues to be influential in Tibetan Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism. However, the uniformity of a single assumed "Yogācāra school" has been put into question.


Yogācāra philosophy is primarily meant to aid in the practice of yoga and meditation and thus it also sets forth a systematic analysis of the Mahayana path of mental training (see five paths pañcamārga). Yogācārins made use of ideas from previous traditions, such as Prajñāpāramitā and the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma tradition, to develop a new schema for spiritual practice.

According to Thomas Kochumuttom, Yogācāra is "meant to be an explanation of experience, rather than a system of ontology". For this reason, Yogācārins developed an Abhidharma literature set within a Mahāyāna framework. In its analysis, Yogācāra works like the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra developing various core concepts such as vijñapti-mātra, the ālaya-vijñāna (store consciousness), the turning of the basis (āśraya-parāvṛtti), the three natures (trisvabhāva), and emptiness. They form a complex system, and each can be taken as a point of departure for understanding Yogācāra.

The doctrine of Vijñapti-mātra

One of the main features of Yogācāra philosophy is the concept of vijñapti-mātra. It is often used interchangeably with the term citta-mātra in modern and ancient Yogacara sources. The standard translation of both terms is "consciousness-only" or "mind-only." Several modern researchers object to this translation, and the accompanying label of "absolute idealism" or "idealistic monism". According to Kochumuttom, a better translation for vijñapti-mātra is representation-only.

The meaning of this term is at the heart of the modern scholarly disagreement about whether Yogacara Buddhism can be said to be a form of idealism. As Saam Trivedi notes: "on one side of the debate, writers such as Jay Garfield, Jeffrey Hopkins, Paul Williams, and others maintain the idealism label, while on the other side, Stefan Anacker, Dan Lusthaus, Richard King, Thomas Kochumuttom, Alex Wayman, Janice Dean Willis, and others have argued that Yogacara is not idealist."


According to Lambert Schmithausen, the earliest surviving appearance of this term is in chapter 8 of the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra, which has only survived in Tibetan and Chinese translations that differ in syntax and meaning. The passage is depicted as a response by the Buddha to a question which asks "whether the images or replicas (*pratibimba) which are the object (*gocara) of meditative concentration (*samadhi), are different/separate (*bhinna) from the contemplating mind (*citta) or not." The Buddha says they are not different, "Because these images are vijñapti-mātra." The text goes on to affirm that the same is true for objects of ordinary perception.

The term is sometimes used as a synonym with citta-mātra (mere citta), which is also used as a name for the school that suggests Idealism. Schmithausen writes that the first appearance of this term is in the Pratyupanna samadhi sutra, which states "this (or: whatever belongs to this) triple world is nothing but mind (or thought: *cittamatra). Why? Because however I imagine things, that is how they appear."

Regarding existing Sanskrit sources, the term appears in the first verse of Vasubandhu's Vimśatikā (Twenty Verses), which states:

This [world] is vijñaptimātra, since it manifests itself as an unreal object (artha), just like the case of those with cataracts seeing unreal hairs in the moon and the like (vijñaptimātram evaitad asad arthāvabhāsanāt yathā taimirikasyāsat keśa candrādi darśanam).

According to Mark Siderits, what Vasubandhu means here is that we are only ever aware of mental images or impressions which manifest themselves as external objects, but "there is actually no such thing outside the mind."

The term also appears in Asaṅga's classic work, the Mahāyānasaṃgraha (no Sanskrit original, trans. from Tibetan):

These representations (vijñapti) are mere representations (vijñapti-mātra), because there is no [corresponding] thing/object (artha)...Just as in a dream there appear, even without a thing/object (artha), just in the mind alone, forms/images of all kinds of things/objects like visibles, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, houses, forests, land, and mountains, and yet there are no [such] things/objects at all in that [place]. MSg II.6

Another classic statement of the doctrine appears in Dharmakīrti's Pramānaṿārttika (Commentary on Epistemology) which states: "cognition experiences itself, and nothing else whatsoever. Even the particular objects of perception, are by nature just consciousness itself."

Interpretations of vijñapti-mātra


According to Bruce Cameron Hall, the interpretation of this doctrine as a form of subjective or absolute idealism has been "the most common "outside" interpretation of Vijñānavāda, not only by modern writers, but by its ancient opponents, both Hindu and Buddhist." The German scholar and philologist Lambert Schmithausen affirms that Yogacara sources teach a type of idealism which is supposed to be a middle way Abhidharma realism and what it often considered a nihilistic position which only affirms emptiness as the ultimate. Schmithausen notes that philological study of Yogacara texts show that they clearly reject the mind independent existence of the external world. He also notes that the current trend in rejecting the idealistic interpretation might be related to the unpopularity of idealism among the Western philosophy academy.

Scholars such as Jay Garfield, Saam Trivedi, Nobuyoshi Yamabe, Paul Williams, and Sean Butler argue that Yogācāra is similar to Idealism (and they compare it to the idealisms of Kant and Berkeley), though they note that it is its own unique form and that it might be confusing to categorize it as such. Similarly, Jonathan Gold writes that the Yogācāra thinker Vasubandhu can be said to be an idealist (similar to Kant), in the sense that for him, everything in experience as well as its causal support is mental, and thus he gives causal priority to the mental. At the same time however, this is only in the conventional realm, since "mind" is just another concept and true reality for Vasubandhu is ineffable, "an inconceivable 'thusness' (tathatā)." Indeed, the Vimśatikā states that the very idea of vijñapti-mātra must also be understood to be itself a self-less construction and thus vijñapti-mātra is not the ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya) in Yogācāra. Thus according to Gold, while Vasubandhu's vijñapti-mātra can be said to be a “conventionalist idealism”, it is to be seen as unique and different from Western forms, especially Hegelian Absolute Idealism.

Mere representation

The interpretation of Yogācāra as a type of idealism was standard until recently, when it began to be challenged by scholars such as Kochumuttom, Anacker, Kalupahana, Dunne, Lusthaus, Powers, and Wayman.

Some scholars note that it is a mistake to conflate the terms vijñapti-mātra and citta-mātra. While the standard translations for both vijñapti-mātra and citta-matra are often "consciousness only" and "mind-only" (signifying an Idealistic doctrine), objections are raised to this conflation, as well as to Idealistic interpretation. Different alternative translations for vijñapti-mātra have been proposed, such as representation-only, ideation-only, impressions-only and perception-only. David Kalupahana argues that citta-mātra signifies a "more metaphysical" reification of mind into an absolute, while vijñapti-mātra refers to a certain epistemological approach.

According to Thomas Kochumuttom, Yogācāra is a realistic pluralism which does not deny the existence of individual beings. Kochumuttom argues that Yogācāra is not idealism since it denies that absolute reality is a consciousness, that individual beings are transformations or illusory appearances of an absolute consciousness. Thus, for Kochumuttom, vijñapti-mātra means "mere representation of consciousness" and is "a theory which says that the world as it appears to the unenlightened ones is mere representation of consciousness". Furthermore, according to Kochumuttom, in Yogācāra "the absolute state is defined simply as emptiness, namely the emptiness of subject-object distinction. Once thus defined as emptiness (sunyata), it receives a number of synonyms, none of which betray idealism."

Alex Wayman notes that one's interpretation of Yogācāra will depend on how the qualifier mātra is to be understood in this context, and he objects to interpretations which claim that Yogācāra rejects the external world altogether, preferring translations such as "amounting to mind" or "mirroring mind" for citta-mātra. For Wayman, what this doctrine means is that "the mind has only a report or representation of what the sense organ had sensed." The representationalist interpretation is also supported by Stefan Anacker.

Soterological phenomenology

According to Dan Lusthaus, the vijñapti-mātra theory is closer in some ways to Western Phenomenological theories and Epistemological Idealism or Transcendental idealism, but it is not an ontological idealism because Yogācāra rejects the construction of metaphysical or ontological theories. Moreover, Western idealism lacks any counterpart to karma, samsara or awakening, all of which are central for Yogācāra. Regarding vijñapti-mātra, Lusthaus translates it as "nothing but conscious construction" and states it is:

A deceptive trick is built into the way consciousness operates at every moment. Consciousness projects and constructs a cognitive object in such a way that it disowns its own creation - pretending the object is "out there" - in order to render that object capable of being appropriated. Even while what we cognize is occurring within our act of cognition, we cognize it as if it were external to our consciousness. Realization of vijñapti-mātra exposes this trick intrinsic to consciousness's workings, thereby eliminating it. When that deception is removed one's mode of cognition is no longer termed vijñāna (consciousness); it has become direct cognition (jñāna).

Lusthaus further explains that this reification of cognition aids in constructing the notion of a permanent and independent self, which is believed to appropriate and possess external 'things'. Yogācāra offers an analysis and meditative means to negate this reification, thereby also negating the notion of a solid self. Therefore, for Lusthaus, when Yogācāra discusses cognitive objects (viṣaya), it is providing an analysis of cognition, and its constructions. While Yogācāra posits that cognitive objects are real, it denies "arthas" (objects of intentionality or "a telos toward which an act of consciousness intends") which are "outside the cognitive act in which it is that which is intended." So according to Lusthaus, "Yogacarins don't claim that nothing whatsoever exists outside the mind" since "consciousness enjoys no transcendent status, nor does it serve as a metaphysical foundation. Consciousness is real by virtue of its facticity -- the fact that sentient beings experience cognitions -- and not because of an ontological primacy." In this interpretation, instead of offering an ontological theory, Yogācāra focuses on understanding and eliminating the underlying tendencies (anuśaya) that lead to clinging to ontological constructions, which are just cognitive projections (pratibimba, parikalpita).

Arguments for consciousness-only

According to the contemporary philosopher Jan Westerhoff, Yogācāra philosophers came up with various arguments in defense of the consciousness-only view. He outlines three main arguments: the explanatory equivalence argument, the causation-resemblance argument, and the constant co-cognition argument.

Explanatory equivalence argument

This argument is found in Vasubandhu's Vimśatikā (Twenty Verses) and is an inference to the best explanation. It argues that consciousness-only can provide an account of the various features of experience which are explained by the existence of mind-independent material objects. This is coupled with a principle of ontological parsimony to argue in favor of idealism.

Vasubandhu mentions three key features of experience which are supposed to be explained by matter and refutes them:

  1. According to critics, the problem of spatio-temporal determination (or non-arbitrariness in regard to place and time) indicates that there must be some external basis for our experiences, since experiences of any particular object do not occur everywhere and at every time. Vasubandhu responds with the dream argument, which shows how a world created by mind can still seem to have spatio-temporal localization.
  2. The problem of inter-subjective experience (multiple minds experiencing the same world). Vasubandhu counters that mass hallucinations (such as those said to occur to hungry ghosts) caused by the fact they share similar karma (which is here understood as traces or seeds in the mind-stream), show that inter-subjective agreement is possible without positing real external objects.
  3. Another criticism states that hallucinations have no pragmatic results, efficacy or causal function and thus can be determined to be unreal, but entities we generally accept as being "real" have actual causal results (such as the 'resistance' of external objects) that cannot be of the same class as hallucinations. Against this claim, Vasubandhu argues that waking life is the same as in a dream, where objects have pragmatic results within the very rules of the dream. He also uses the example of a wet dream to show that mental content can have causal efficacy even outside of a dream.

According to Mark Siderits, after disposing of these objections, Vasubandhu believes he has shown that mere cognizance is just as good at explaining the relevant phenomena of experience as any theory of realism that posits external objects. Therefore, he then applies the Indian philosophical principle termed the "Principle of Lightness" (Sanskrit: lāghava, which is similar to Occam's Razor) to rule out realism since vijñapti-mātra is the simpler and "lighter" theory which "posits the least number of unobservable entities."

Another objection that Vasubandhu answers is that of how one person can influence another's experiences, if everything arises from mental karmic seeds in one's mind stream. Vasubandhu argues that "impressions can also be caused in a mental stream by the occurrence of a distinct impression in another suitably linked mental stream." As Siderits notes, this account can explain how it is possible to influence or even totally disrupt (murder) another mind, even if there is no physical medium or object in existence, since a suitably strong enough intention in one mind stream can have effects on another mind stream. From the mind-only position, it is easier to posit a mind to mind causation than to have to explain mind to body causation, which the realist must do. However, Siderits then goes on to question whether Vasubandhu's position is indeed "lighter" since he must make use of multiple interactions between different minds to take into account an intentionally created artifact, like a pot. Since we can be aware of a pot even when we are not "linked" to the potter's intentions (even after the potter is dead), a more complex series of mental interactions must be posited. Nevertheless, not all interpretations of Yogācāra's view of the external world rely on multiple relations between individual minds. Some interpretations in Chinese Buddhism defended the view of a single shared external world (bhājanaloka) which was still made of consciousness, while some later Indian thinkers like Ratnakīrti (11th century CE) defended a type of non-dual monism.

Causation-resemblance argument

This argument was famously defended in Dignāga’s Ālambanaparīkṣā (Examination of the Object of Consciousness) and its main target is Indian atomism, which was the main theory of matter in the 5th century. The argument is based on the premise that a perception must resemble the perceived object (ālambana) and have been caused by the object. According to this argument, since atoms are not extended, they do not resemble the object of perception (which appears as spatially extended). Furthermore, collections of atoms might resemble the object of perception, but they cannot have caused it. This is because collections of things are unreal in classic Buddhist thought (thus it is a mereological nihilism), since they are composites and composites made of parts do not have any causal efficacy (only individual atoms do).

In disproving the possibility of external objects, Vasubandhu's Vimśatikā similarly attacks Indian theories of atomism and property particulars as incoherent on mereological grounds.

Constant co-cognition argument

This argument was defended by Dharmakīrti in his Ascertainment of Epistemology (Pramāṇaviniścaya), which calls it "the necessity of things only ever being experienced together with experience" (Sanskrit: sahopalambhaniyama). According to Dharmakīrti:

Because [something blue] is not apprehended without the additional qualification of consciousness, [and] because [blue] is apprehended when this [qualification of consciousness] is apprehended, consciousness [itself] has the appearance of blue. There is no external object by itself. (PV 3.335)

According this argument, any object of consciousness, like blue, cannot be differentiated from the conscious awareness of blue since both are always experienced as one thing. Since we never experience blue without the experience of blue, they cannot be differentiated empirically. Furthermore, we cannot differentiate them through an inference either, since this would need to be based on a pattern of past experiences which included the absence or presence of the two elements. Thus, this is a type of epistemological argument for idealism which attempts to show there is no good reason to accept the existence of mind-independent objects.

Soteriological importance of mind-only

Vasubandhu also explains why it is soteriologically important to get rid of the idea of really existing external objects. According to Siderits, this is because:

When we wrongly imagine there to be external objects we are led to think in terms of the duality of 'grasped and grasper', of what is 'out there' and what is ' in here' - in short, of external world and self. Coming to see that there is no external world is a means, Vasubandhu thinks, of overcoming a very subtle way of believing in an 'I'... once we see why physical objects can't exist we will lose all temptation to think there is a true ' me' within. There are really just impressions, but we superimpose on these the false constructions of object and subject. Seeing this will free us from the false conception of an 'I'.

Siderits notes how Kant had a similar notion, that is, without the idea of an objective mind independent world, one cannot derive the concept of a subjective "I". But Kant drew the opposite conclusion to Vasubandhu, since he held that we must believe in an enduring subject, and thus, also believe in external objects.

Analysis of Consciousness

Yogācāra gives a detailed explanation of the workings of the mind and the way it constructs the reality we experience. The central Yogācāra theory of mind is that of the eight consciousnesses.

Eight consciousnesses

According to Lusthaus, "the most famous innovation of the Yogācāra school was the doctrine of eight consciousnesses." These "eight bodies of consciousnesses" (aṣṭa vijñānakāyāḥ) are: the five sense-consciousnesses, citta (mentality), manas (self-consciousness), and the storehouse or substratum consciousness (Skt: ālayavijñāna). Traditional Buddhist descriptions of consciousness taught just the first six vijñānas, each corresponding to a sense base (ayatana) and having their own sense objects. Standard Buddhist doctrine held that these eighteen "dhatus" or components of experience, "exhaust the full extent of everything in the universe, or more accurately, the sensorium." These six consciousnesses are also not substantial entities, but a series of events, arising and vanishing, stretching back from beginningless (anadi) time.

Buddhist Abhidharma expanded and developed this basic model and Yogācāra responded by rearranging these into their own schema which had three novel forms of consciousness. The sixth consciousness, mano-vijñāna, was seen as the surveyor of the content of the five senses as well as of mental content like thoughts and ideas. The seventh consciousness developed from the early Buddhist concept of manas, and was seen as the defiled mentation (kliṣṭa-manas) which is obsessed with notions of "self". According to Paul Williams, this consciousness "takes the substratum consciousness as its object and mistakenly considers the substratum consciousness to be a true Self."


The eighth consciousness, ālaya-vijñāna (storehouse or repository consciousness), was defined as the storehouse of all karmic seeds, where they gradually matured until ripe, at which point they manifested as karmic consequences. Because of this, it is also called the "mind which has all the seeds" (sarvabījakam cittam), as well as the "basic consciousness" (mūla-vijñāna) and the "appropriating consciousness" (ādānavijñāna). According to the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra, this kind of consciousness underlies and supports the six types of manifest awareness, all of which occur simultaneously with the ālaya. William S. Waldron sees this "simultaneity of all the modes of cognitive awareness" as the most significant departure of Yogācāra theory from traditional Buddhist models of vijñāna, which were "thought to occur solely in conjunction with their respective sense bases and epistemic objects."

As noted by Schmithausen, the ālaya-vijñāna, being a kind of vijñāna, has an object as well (as all vijñāna has intentionality). That object is the sentient being's surrounding world, that is to say, the "receptable" or "container" (bhājana) world. This is stated in the 8th chapter of the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra, which states that the ādānavijñāna is characterized by "an unconscious (or not fully conscious?) steady perception (or "representation") of the Receptacle (*asaṃvidita-sthira-bhājana-vijñapti)."

The ālaya-vijñāna is also what experiences rebirth into future lives and what descents into the womb to appropriate the fetal material. Therefore, the ālaya-vijñāna's holding on to the body's sense faculties and "profuse imaginings" (prapañca) are the two appropriations which make up the "kindling" or "fuel" (lit. upādāna) that samsaric existence depends upon. Yogācāra thought thus holds that being unaware of the processes going on in the ālaya-vijñāna is an important element of ignorance (avidya). The ālaya is also individual, so that each person has their own ālaya-vijñāna, which is an ever changing process and therefore not a permanent self.

According to Williams, this consciousness "seen as a defiled form of consciousness (or perhaps sub- or unconsciousness), is personal, individual, continually changing and yet serving to give a degree of personal identity and to explain why it is that certain karmic results pertain to this particular individual. The seeds are momentary, but they give rise to a perfumed series which eventually culminates in the result including, from seeds of a particular type, the whole ‘inter-subjective’ phenomenal world." Also, Asanga and Vasubandhu write that the ālaya-vijñāna ‘ceases’ at awakening, becoming transformed into a pure consciousness.

According to Waldron, while there were various similar concepts in other Buddhist Abhidharma schools which sought to explain karmic continuity, the ālaya-vijñāna is the most comprehensive and systematic. Waldron notes that the ālaya-vijñāna concept was probably influenced by these theories, particularly the Sautrantika theory of seeds and Vasumitra's theory of a subtle form of mind (suksma-citta).

Transformations of consciousness

For Kalupahana, this classification of ālayavijñāna and manas as an eighth and seventh category of consciousness is based on a misunderstanding of Vasubandhu's Triṃśikaikā-kārikā by later adherents.

According to scholar Roger R. Jackson, a "'fundamental unconstructed awareness' (mūla-nirvikalpa-jñāna)" is "described [...] frequently in Yogacara literature.", According to Kalupahana, instead of positing additional consciousnesses, the Triṃśikaikā-kārikā describes the transformations of this consciousness:

Taking vipaka, manana and vijnapti as three different kinds of functions, rather than characteristics, and understanding vijnana itself as a function (vijnanatiti vijnanam), Vasubandhu seems to be avoiding any form of substantialist thinking in relation to consciousness.

These transformations are threefold according to Kalupahana. The first is the ālaya and its seeds, which is the flow or stream of consciousness, without any of the usual projections on top of it. The second transformation is manana, self-consciousness or "Self-view, self-confusion, self-esteem and self-love". It is "thinking" about the various perceptions occurring in the stream of consciousness". The ālaya is defiled by this self-interest. The third transformation is visaya-vijñapti, the "concept of the object". In this transformation the concept of objects is created. By creating these concepts human beings become "susceptible to grasping after the object" as if it were a real object (sad artha) even though it is just a conception (vijñapti).

A similar perspective which emphasizes Yogācāra's continuity with early Buddhism is given by Walpola Rahula. According to Rahula, all the elements of this theory of consciousness with its three layers of vijñāna are already found in the Pāli Canon:

Thus we can see that Vijñāna represents the simple reaction or response of the sense organs when they come in contact with external objects. This is the uppermost or superficial aspect or layer of the Vijñāna-skandha. Manas represents the aspect of its mental functioning, thinking, reasoning, conceiving ideas, etc. Citta which is here called Ālayavijñāna, represents the deepest, finest and subtlest aspect or layer of the Aggregate of consciousness. It contains all the traces or impressions of the past actions and all good and bad future possibilities.

The Three Natures and Emptiness

Yogācāra works often define three basic modes or "natures" (svabhāva) of experience. Jonathan Gold explains that "the three natures are all one reality viewed from three distinct angles. They are the appearance, the process, and the emptiness of that same apparent entity." According to Paul Williams, "all things which can be known can be subsumed under these Three Natures." Since this schema is Yogācāra's systematic explanation of the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā), each of the three natures are also explained as having a lack of own-nature (niḥsvabhāvatā)." Vasubandhu's Trisvabhāva-nirdeśa gives a brief definition of these three natures:

"What appears is the dependent. How it appears is the fabricated. Because of being dependent on conditions. Because of being only fabrication. The eternal non-existence of the appearance as it is appears: That is known to be the perfected nature, because of being always the same. What appears there? The unreal fabrication. How does it appear? As a dual self. What is its nonexistence? That by which the nondual reality is there."

In detail, three natures (trisvabhāva) are:

  1. Parikalpita-svabhāva (the "fully conceptualized" nature). This is the "imaginary" or "constructed" nature, wherein things are incorrectly comprehended based on conceptual construction, through the activity of language and through attachment and erroneous discrimination which attributes intrinsic existence to things. According to the Mahāyānasaṃgraha, it also refers to the appearance of things in terms of subject-object dualism (literally "grasper" and "grasped"). The conceptualized nature is the world of everyday unenlightened people, i.e. samsara, and it is false and empty, it does not really exist (see Triṃśikā v. 20). According to Xuanzang's Cheng Weishi Lun, "there is the absence of an existential nature by its very defining characteristic" (lakṣana-niḥsvabhāvatā). Because these conceptualized natures and distinct characteristics (lakṣana) are wrongly imputed not truly real, "they are like mirages and blossoms in the sky."
  2. Paratantra-svabhāva (literally, "other dependent"), which is the dependently originated nature of dharmas, or the causal flow of phenomena which is erroneously confused into the conceptualized nature. According to Williams, it is "the basis for the erroneous partition into supposedly intrinsically existing subjects and objects which marks the conceptualized nature." Jonathan Gold writes that it is "the causal process of the thing’s fabrication, the causal story that brings about the thing’s apparent nature." This basis is considered to be an ultimately existing (paramārtha) basis in classical Yogācāra (see Mahāyānasaṃgraha, 2:25). However, as Xuanzang notes, this nature is also empty in that there is an "absence of an existential nature in conditions that arise and perish" (utpatti-niḥsvabhāvatā). That is, the events in this causal flow, while "seeming to have real existence of their own" are actually like magical illusions since "they are said to only be hypothetical and not really exist on their own." As Siderits writes "to the extent that we are thinking of it at all - even if only as the non-dual flow of impressions-only - we are still conceptualizing it."
  3. Pariniṣpanna-svabhāva (literally, "fully accomplished"): the "consummated nature" or the true nature of things, the experience of Suchness or Thatness (Tathātā) discovered in meditation unaffected by conceptualization or language. It is defined as "the complete absence, in the dependent nature, of objects – that is, the objects of the conceptualized nature" (see Mahāyānasaṃgraha, 2:4). What this refers to is that empty non-dual experience which has been stripped of the duality of the constructed nature through yogic praxis. According to Williams, this is "what has to be known for enlightenment" and Siderits defines it as "just pure seeing without any attempt at conceptualization or interpretation. Now this is also empty, but only of itself as an interpretation. That is, this mode of cognition is devoid of all concepts, and so is empty of being of the nature of the perfected. About it nothing can be said or thought, it is just pure immediacy." According to Xuanzang, it has the "absence of any existential nature of ultimate meaning" (paramārtha-niḥsvabhāvatā) since it is "completely free from any clinging to entirely imagined speculations about its identity or purpose. Because of this, it is conventionally said that it does not exist. However, it is also not entirely without a real existence."

The central meaning of emptiness in Yogācāra is a twofold "absence of duality." The first element of this is the unreality of any conceptual duality such as "physical" and "non-physical", "self" and "other". To define something conceptually is to divide the world into what it is and what it is not, but the world is a causal flux that does not accord with conceptual constructs. The second element of this is a perceptual duality between the sensorium and its objects, between what is "external" and "internal", between subject (grāhaka, literally "grasper") and object (grāhya, "grasped"). This is also an unreal superimposition, since there is really no such separation of inner and outer, but an interconnected causal stream of mentality which is falsely divided up.

An important difference between the Yogācāra conception of emptiness and the Madhyamaka conception is that in classical Yogācāra, emptiness does exist and so does consciousness, while Madhyamaka refuses to endorse such existential statements. The Madhyāntavibhāga for example, states "there exists the imagination of the unreal (abhūta-parikalpa), there is no duality, but there is emptiness, even in this there is that," which indicates that even though the dualistic imagination is unreal and empty, it does exist. Contra Madhyamaka, which was criticized by Vasubandhu and Asaṅga for being nihilistic (see Vimśatikā v. 10), the Yogācāra position is that there is something that exists (the paratantra-svabhāva that is mere vijñapti), and that it is empty. The Bodhisattvabhūmi likewise argues that it is only logical to speak of emptiness if there is something (i.e. dharmatā) that is empty. Thus Asaṅga speaks of emptiness as "the non-existence of the self, and the existence of the no-self."

The Yogācāra school also gave special significance to the Lesser Discourse on Emptiness of the Āgamas. It is often quoted in later Yogācāra texts as a true definition of emptiness.

Two interpretations of the three natures

Various Buddhist studies scholars such as Alan Spongberg, Mario D'amato, Daniel McNamara, and Matthew T. Kapstein have noted that there are two main interpretations of the three natures doctrine among the various texts of the Yogacara corpus. The two models have been named the "pivot" model and "progressive" model by these Western scholars.

According to these scholars, the "pivot" model can be found in texts like the Triṃśikā and the Mahāyānasaṃgraha. According to this model, the dependent nature is a kind of "ontological pivot" since it is the basis for conceptual construction (the imagined nature) and for the perfected nature (which is nothing but absence of the imagined nature in the dependent nature). As such, the imagined nature is an incorrect way of experiencing the dependent, while the perfected nature is the correct way.

The progressive model meanwhile can be found in the Trisvabhāvanirdeśa and in the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra and its bhāṣya. In this model, it is the perfected nature which is the primary element of the three natures schema. Here, the perfected nature is the pure basis of reality, while the other two natures are both impaired by ignorance. As the Trisvabhāvanirdeśa states: "The imputed and the other-dependent are to be known as having defiled characteristics. The perfected is asserted to have the characteristic of purity." In this text, the dependent nature is seen as something which must be abandoned since it has the "appearance of duality" (dvayākāra). As such, in this "progressive" model, the dependent nature is the basis for the imagined nature, but not the basis for the perfected nature. The perfected nature on the other hand is a fundamentally pure true reality (which nevertheless is covered by adventitious defilements), as the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra states:

Reality - which is always without duality, is the basis of error, and is entirely inexpressible - does not have the nature of discursivity. It is to be known, abandoned, and purified. It should properly be thought of as naturally immaculate, since it is purified from defilements, as are space, gold, and water.

Furthermore, according to the Trisvabhāvanirdeśa (TSN 17-20), the three natures are inseparable (abhinna) and as such non-dual. This is a key difference between this model and the pivot model, where the dependent nature is ultimately devoid of the imagined nature.

Another difference between these sources is that in the Triṃśikā, the main model of liberation is a radical transformation of the basis (āśrayaparāvṛtti). The Trisvabhāvanirdeśa meanwhile claims that liberation occurs through knowledge of the three natures as they are (in their non-duality).

Some scholars, like McNamara, argue that these two models are incompatible, ontologically and soteriologically. Kapstein thinks that it is possible that the Trisvabhāvanirdeśa is attempting to reconcile them. These differences have also led some scholars (Kapstein and Thomas Wood) to question the attribution of the Trisvabhāvanirdeśa to Vasubandhu.


An explanation of the Buddhist doctrine of karma (action) is central to Yogācāra, and the school sought to explain important questions such as how moral actions can have effects on individuals long after that action was done, that is, how karmic causality works across temporal distances. Previous Abhidharma Buddhist schools like the Sautrantika had developed theories of karma based on the notion of "seeds" (bījā) in the mind stream, which are unseen karmic habits (good and bad) which remain until they meet with the necessary conditions to manifest. Yogācāra adopts and expanded this theory. Yogācāra then posited the "storehouse consciousness" (Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna), also known as the basal, or eighth consciousness, as the container of the seeds. It simultaneously acts as a storage place for karmic latencies and as a fertile matrix of predispositions that bring karma to a state of fruition. In the Yogācāra system, all experience without exception is said to result from karma or mental intention (cetana), either arising from one's own subliminal seeds or from other minds.

For Yogācāra, the seemingly external or dualistic world is merely a "by-product" (adhipati-phala) of karma. The term vāsanā ("perfuming") is also used when explaining karma, and Yogācārins were divided on the issue of whether vāsāna and bija were essentially the same, whether the seeds were the effect of the perfuming, or whether the perfuming simply affected the seeds. The type, quantity, quality and strength of the seeds determine where and how a sentient being will be reborn: one's race, sex, social status, proclivities, bodily appearance and so forth. The conditioning of the mind resulting from karma is called saṃskāra.

Vasubandhu's Treatise on Action (Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa), treats the subject of karma in detail from the Yogācāra perspective.

Meditation and awakening

As the name of the school suggests, meditation practice is central to the Yogācāra tradition. Practice manuals prescribe the practice of mindfulness of body, feelings, thoughts and dharmas in oneself and others, out of which a revolutionary and radically transformative understanding of the non-duality of self and other is said to arise. This process is referred to as āśraya-parāvṛtti, "overturning the Cognitive Basis", or "revolution of the basis", which refers to "overturning the conceptual projections and imaginings which act as the base of our cognitive actions." This event is seen as the transformation of the basic mode of cognition into jñāna (knowledge, direct knowing), which is seen as a non-dual knowledge that is non-conceptual (nirvikalpa), i.e., "devoid of interpretive overlay". When this occurs, the eight consciousnesses come to an end and are replaced by direct knowings. According to Lusthaus:

Overturning the Basis turns the five sense consciousnesses into immediate cognitions that accomplish what needs to be done (kṛtyānuṣṭhāna-jñāna). The sixth consciousness becomes immediate cognitive mastery (pratyavekṣaṇa-jñāna), in which the general and particular characteristics of things are discerned just as they are. This discernment is considered nonconceptual (nirvikalpa-jñāna). Manas becomes the immediate cognition of equality (samatā-jñāna), equalizing self and other. When the Warehouse Consciousness finally ceases it is replaced by the Great Mirror Cognition (Mahādarśa-jñāna) that sees and reflects things just as they are, impartially, without exclusion, prejudice, anticipation, attachment, or distortion. The grasper-grasped relation has ceased. ..."purified" cognitions all engage the world in immediate and effective ways by removing the self-bias, prejudice, and obstructions that had prevented one previously from perceiving beyond one's own narcissistic consciousness. When consciousness ends, true knowledge begins. Since enlightened cognition is nonconceptual its objects cannot be described.

Five Categories of Beings

One of the more controversial teachings espoused by the Yogacara school was an extension of the teachings on seeds and store-conscious. Based on the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, the Yogacara school posited that sentient beings had innate seeds that would make them capable of achieving a particular state of enlightenment and no other. Thus, beings were categorized in 5 ways:

  1. Beings whose innate seeds gave them the capacity to achieve full Buddhahood (i.e. Bodhisattva path).
  2. Beings whose innate seeds gave them the capacity to achieve the state of a pratyekabuddha (private Buddha).
  3. Beings whose innate seeds gave them the capacity to achieve the state of an arhat.
  4. Beings whose innate seeds had an indeterminate nature, and could potentially be any of the above.
  5. Beings whose innate seeds were incapable of achieving enlightenment ever because they lacked any wholesome seeds.

The fifth class of beings, the Icchantika, were described in various Mahayana sutras as being incapable of achieving Enlightenment, unless in some cases through the aid of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Nevertheless, the notion was highly criticized by adherents of the Lotus Sutra (e.g. the Tiantai school) and its teaching of universal Buddhahood. This tension appears in East Asian Buddhist history.

Alikākāravāda and Satyākāravāda

An important debate about the reality of mental appearances within Yogācāra led to its later subdivision into two systems of Alikākāravāda (Tib. rnam rdzun pa, False Aspectarians, also known as Nirākāravāda) and Satyākāravāda (rnam bden pa, True Aspectarians, also known as Sākāravāda). They are also termed "Aspectarians" (ākāra) and "Non-Aspectarians" (anākāra). The core issue is whether appearances or “aspects” (rnam pa, ākāra) of objects in the mind are treated as true (bden pa, satya) or false (rdzun pa, alika). While this division did not exist in the works of the early Yogācāra philosophers, tendencies similar to these views can be discerned in the works of Yogacara thinkers like Dharmapala (c. 530–561?) and Sthiramati (c. 510–570?).

According to Yaroslav Komarovski the distinction is as follows:

Although Yogācāras in general do not accept the existence of an external material world, according to Satyākāravāda its appearances or “aspects” (rnam pa, ākāra) reflected in consciousness have a real existence, because they are of one nature with the really existent consciousness, their creator. According to Alikākāravāda, neither external phenomena nor their appearances and/in the minds that reflect them really exist. What exists in reality is only primordial mind (ye shes, jñāna), described as self-cognition (rang rig, svasamvedana/ svasamvitti) or individually self-cognizing primordial mind (so so(r) rang gis rig pa’i ye shes).

Davey K. Tomlinson describes the difference (with reference to later Yogacara scholars from Vikramashila) as follows:

On one hand is the Nirākāravāda, typified by Ratnākaraśānti (ca. 970–1045); on the other, the Sākāravāda, articulated by his colleague and critic Jñānaśrīmitra (ca. 980–1040). The Nirākāravādin argues that all appearances do not really exist. They are ersatz or false (alīka). Ephemeral forms appear to us but are the erroneous construction of ignorance, which fundamentally characterizes our existence as suffering beings in saṃsāra. In the ultimately real experience of an awakened buddha, no appearances show up at all. Pure experience, unstained by false appearance (which is nirākāra, “without appearance”), is possible. The Sākāravādin, on the other hand, defends the view that all conscious experience is necessarily the experience of a manifest appearance (consciousness is sākāra, or constitutively “has appearance”). Manifest appearances, properly understood, are really real. A buddha’s experience has appearances, and there is nothing about this fact that makes a buddha’s experience mistaken.


Maitreya meditating, 2nd century CE, Loriyan Tangai, Indian Museum, Kolkata

A key early source for the yogic practices of Indian Yogācāra is the encyclopedic Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra (YBh, Treatise on the Foundation for Yoga Practitioners). The YBh presents a structured exposition of the Mahāyāna Buddhist path of yoga (here referring to spiritual practice in general) from a Yogācāra perspective and relies in both Āgama/Nikāya texts and Mahāyāna sūtras while also being influenced by Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma. According to some scholars, this text can be traced to communities of Yogācāras, which initially referred not to a philosophical school, but to groups of meditation specialists whose main focus was Buddhist yoga. Other Yogācāra texts which also discuss meditation and spiritual practice (and show some relationship with the YBh) include the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, the Madhyāntavibhāga, Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, Dharmadharmatāvibhāga and Asanga's Mahāyānasaṃgraha.

The YBh discusses various topics relevant to the bodhisattva practice, including: the eight different forms of dhyāna (meditative absorptions), the three samādhis, different types of liberation (vimokṣa), meditative attainments (samāpatti) such as nirodhasamāpatti, the five hindrances (nivaraṇa), the various types of foci (ālambana) or 'images' (nimitta) used in meditation, the various types contemplative antidotes (pratipakṣa) against the afflictions (like contemplating death, unattractiveness, impermanence, and suffering), the practice of śamatha through "the nine aspects of resting the mind" (navākārā cittasthitiḥ), the practice of insight (vipaśyanā), mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasmṛti), how to understand the four noble truths, the thirty-seven factors of Awakening (saptatriṃśad bodhipakṣyā dharmāḥ), the four immeasurables (apramāṇa), and how to practice the six perfections (pāramitā).

Bodhisattva path

Yogācāra sources like the Abhidharmasamuccaya, the Chéng Wéishì Lùn and the commentaries to the Mahāyānasaṃgraha and the Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra also contain various descriptions of the main stages of the bodhisattva path. These Yogācāra sources integrate the Mahayana teaching of the ten bodhisattva stages (bhūmis) with the earlier Abhidharma outline of the path called the "five paths" (pañcamārga, 五位) or the "five stages of cultivating the Yogâcāra path" (唯識修道五位), a schema also found in the Abhidharmakośa.

The five paths are outlined in Yogācāra sources as follows:

  1. Path of accumulation (sambhāra-mārga, 資糧位), in which a bodhisattva gives rise to bodhicitta, and works on the two accumulations of merit (puṇya) and wisdom (jñana). These are linked with the practice of the six perfections. One attains merit by doing good deeds like giving (dana). One accumulates wisdom by listening to the Mahayana teachings many times, and contemplating them and meditating on them. One also associates with good spiritual friends.
  2. Path of engagement (prayoga-mārga, 加行位) in which one practices morality, meditation, and wisdom in order to quell the manifest activities of the two types of obscurations: emotionally afflictive and cognitive. While their active elements are quelled, they remain as seends in the foundation consciousness. Furthermore, one also cultivates the "factors conducive to penetration", which consists of the "four investigations" and the "four correct cognitions". These are ways of contemplating the truth of mind-only. At this stage one also attains various samadhis (meditative concentrations).
  3. Path of seeing (darśana-mārga, 見道位), at this stage, a bodhisattva attains an untainted knowledge (Skt. anāsrava-jñāna, 無漏智) into emptiness, the non-duality of self and other, and mind-only. This is equated with the first bodhisattva stage, the stage of joy.
  4. Path of cultivation (bhāvanā-mārga, 修道位), at this stage, a bodhisattva continues to train themselves in the two main cognitions in order to fully eliminate all the seeds of the two types of obscurations: the non-discriminative cognition of the truth and the wordly cognition which guides sentient beings according to their needs. Part of this path requires effort, but after a certain point one advances effortlessly. This path corresponds to the second to ninth stages of the bodhisattva path.
  5. Path of fulfillment (niṣṭhā-mārga), also known as the path of no more learning (aśaikṣa-mārga, 無學位) in other sources. This is equivalent to Buddhahood.

In classic Yogācāra, this bodhisattva path is said to last for three incaculable eons (asaṃkhyeya kalpas), i.e. millions of years.

Bodhisattva practice

The Bodhisattvabhūmi discusses the Yogācāra school's specifically Mahāyāna forms of practice which are tailored to bodhisattvas. The aim of the bodhisattva's practice in the Bodhisattvabhūmi is the wisdom (prajñā) which realizes of the inexpressible Ultimate Reality (tathata) or the 'thing-in-itself (vastumatra), which is essenceless and beyond the duality (advaya) of existence (bhāva) and non-existence (abhāva).

The Bodhisattvabhūmi outlines several practices of bodhisattvas, including the six perfections (pāramitā), the thirty-seven factors of Awakening, and the four immeasurables. Two key practices which are unique to bodhisattvas in this text are the four investigations (paryeṣaṇā) and the four correct cognitions or "the four kinds of understanding in accordance with true reality" (yathābhūtaparijñāna). These two sets of four practices and cognitions are also taught in the Abhidharmasamuccaya and its commentaries.

The four investigations and correct cognitions

The four investigations and the corresponding four correct cognitions or knowledges which arise from them are:

  1. The investigation of the names [of things] (nāmaparyeṣaṇā), leads to correct cognition resulting from the investigation of names just for what they are, which is "just names" (nāmamātra).
  2. The investigation of things (vastuparyeṣaṇā), leads to correct cognition resulting from the investigation of things. One sees things just for what they are, namely a mere presence or a thing-in-itself (vastumātra). One understands that this is apart from all labels and is inexpressible (nirabhilāpya).
  3. The investigation of verbal designations suggesting and portraying an intrinsic nature (svabhāva-prajñapti-paryeṣaṇā), leads to correct cognition resulting from the investigation of such designations. One sees the designations just for what they are, namely as mere designations (prajñaptimātratā). Thus, one sees the idea of intrinsic nature to be illusory like a hallucination or a dream.
  4. The investigation of verbal designations expressing individuation and differences (viśeṣaprajñaptiparyeṣaṇā), leads to correct cognition resulting from the investigation of such designations. One sees the designations just for what they are, namely as mere designations. For example, a thing may be designated as existing or non-existing, but such designations do not apply to true reality or the thing-in-itself.

The practice which leads to the realization of the true nature of things is based on the elimination of all conceptual proliferations (prapañca) and ideations (saṃjñā) that one superimposes on true reality. This elimination of concepts and ideas is the basic framework applied by the bodhisattva to all meditative practices. The YBh states:

The path of practice shall be correctly followed in order to eliminate that ideation. Through understanding, thoroughly exercised upon all objects of knowledge, [and] by keeping in mind only the ideation that the ideations of all phenomena [are nothing but] adventitious, you should thus repeatedly remove any ideation conducive to the proliferation directed at all phenomena and should consistently dwell on the thing-in-itself by a non-conceptualizing mental state which is focused on grasping only the object perceived without any characteristics. Thus you will obtain the concentration stemming from the lineage of those practicing the pure contemplation of the Tathagata's Supreme Cognition. Even when you practice the meditation on the impurity, you should not relinquish this mental orientation. Likewise when you practice the meditation on friendliness, dependent origination, analysis of elements, mindfulness of breathing, the first absorption and so on up to the station of neither ideation nor non-ideation as well as the bodhisattva's countless meditations, supernatural faculties, contemplations, and attainments, you should not relinquish precisely this mental orientation.

The three samādhis (meditative absorptions) are likewise adapted into this new framework. These three are the emptiness (śūnyatā), wishlessness (apraṇihita), and imagelessness (ānimitta) samādhis.


Yogācāra, along with Madhyamaka (Middle Way), is one of the two principal philosophical schools of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, though the related movement of Tathāgatagarbha-thought was also influential.


The bodhisattva Maitreya and disciples, a central figure in Yogacara origin myth. Gandhara, 3rd century CE.

One of the earliest texts of this tradition is the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra which might be as early as the first or second century CE. It includes new theories such as the basis-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), the doctrine of vijñapti-mātra and the "three natures" (trisvabhāva). However, these theories were not completely new, as they have predecessors in older theories held by previous Buddhist schools, such as the Sautrāntika theory of seeds (bīja) and the Sthavira nikāya's Abhidharma theory of the bhavanga.

Richard King notes that Sautrāntika's defended a kind of representationalism, in which the mind only perceives an image (akara) or representation (vijñapti) of an external object (never the object itself). Yogācāra merely removed the need for any external object which acts as a cause for the image.

The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, as the doctrinal trailblazer of the Yogācāra, inaugurated the paradigm of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma, with its own texts, sutras and teachings placed into the "third turning". Moreover, Yogācāra discourse surveys and synthesizes all three turnings and considers itself as the final definitive explanation of Buddhism. The early layers of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra also contains very early Yogācāra material, perhaps earlier than the Saṃdhinirmocana. This work is influenced by Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma and Sautrāntika thought.

According to Dan Lusthaus, the orientation of the Yogācāra school is largely consistent with the thinking of the Pāli nikāyas. It frequently treats later developments in a way that realigns them with earlier versions of Buddhist doctrines. However, according to Y. Karunadasa, the exact opposite is true, and the Pali sources are firmly realist texts that "clearly suggest" the existence of matter and the external world.

Asaṅga and Vasubandhu

Asaṅga (left) and Vasubandhu statues at Kofuku-ji

Yogācāra's systematic exposition owes much to the Kashmiri brothers Asaṅga (4th c. CE) and Vasubandhu (c. 4th - 5th CE). Little is known of these figures, but traditional hagiographies state that Asaṅga received Yogācāra teachings from the bodhisattva and future Buddha, Maitreya. Accounts of this are given in the writings of Paramārtha (6th century) and Xuanzang, who reports that important texts like the Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra and the Madhyantavibhaga were divinely revealed by Maitreya to Asanga. However, there are various discrepancies between the Chinese and Tibetan traditions concerning these so called "five works of Maitreya".

Modern scholars argue that the various works traditionally attributed to Maitreya are actually by other authors. According to Mario D'amato, the Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra and the Madhyāntavibhāga are part of a second phase of Yogācāra scholarship which took place after the completion of the Bodhisattvabhumi, but before the composition of Asanga's Mahāyānasaṃgraha (which quotes the Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra as an authoritative text). Regarding the Abhisamayalankara and the Ratnagotravibhaga, modern scholars generally see these as the works of different authors.

Asaṅga went on to write many of the key Yogācāra treatises such as the Mahāyānasaṃgraha and the Abhidharma-samuccaya. Asaṅga also went on to convert his brother Vasubandhu to Yogācāra. Vasubandhu was a top scholar of Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika Abhidharma thought, and the Abhidharmakośakārikā is his main work which discusses the doctrines of these traditions. Vasubandhu also went on to write important Yogācāra works like the Twenty Verses and the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-Only.

Development in India

The Yogācāra school held a prominent position in Indian Buddhism for centuries after the time of the two brothers. According to Dan Lusthaus, after Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, two distinct "wings" of the school developed:

  1. A logico-epistemic tradition focusing on issues of epistemology and logic, exemplified by such thinkers as Dignāga, Dharmakīrti, Dharmottara, Śāntarakṣita, Jñanasrimitra, and Ratnakīrti;
  2. An Abhidharmic psychology which refined and elaborated Yogācāra Abhidharma, exemplified by such thinkers as Gunamati, Sthiramati, Dharmapāla, Śīlabhadra, Xuanzang, and Vinītadeva.

The doctrines of the Abhidharmic wing came under increased attack by other Buddhists, especially the notion of ālaya-vijñāna, which was seen as close to the Hindu ideas of ātman and prakṛti. Because of this, the logical tradition shifted over time to using the term citta-santāna instead of ālaya-vijñāna, since it was easier to defend a "stream" (santāna) of thoughts as a doctrine that did not contradict not-self. By the end of the eighth century, the Abhidharma wing had mostly become eclipsed by the logical tradition as well as by a new hybrid school that "combined basic Yogācāra doctrines with Tathāgatagarbha thought."

Yogācāra-tathāgatagarbha synthesis

Panorama of the site of Vikramaśīla university (Bhagalpur district, Bihar). Vikramaśīla was an important center for late Indian Yogacara scholars, including the great panditas like Jñānaśrīmitra and Ratnākaraśānti.

According to Lusthaus, the synthetic Yogācāra-tathāgatagarbha school accepted the definition of tathāgatagarbha (the buddha-womb, buddha-source, or "buddha-within") as "permanent, pleasurable, self, and pure (nitya, sukha, ātman, śuddha) which is found in various tathāgatagarbha sutras. This hybrid school eventually went on to equate the tathāgatagarbha with the ālaya-vijñāna. Some key sources of this school are the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra), and in China the Awakening of Faith.

Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha became extremely influential in both East Asia and Tibet. During the sixth and seventh centuries, various forms of Yogācāra dominated the Chinese Buddhist landscape such as orthodox forms and hybrid forms. There were feuds between these two approaches. The translator Bodhiruci (6th century CE) for example, took a more orthodox approach while Ratnamati was attracted to Tathāgatagarbha thought and sought to translate texts like the Dasabhumika sutra in conformity with his understanding. Their disagreement on this issue led to the end of their collaboration as co-translators. The translator Paramārtha is another example of a hybrid thinker. He promoted a new theory that said there was a "stainless consciousness" (amala-vijñāna, a pure wisdom within all beings, i.e. the tathāgatagarbha), which is revealed once the ālaya-vijñāna is purified.

According to Lusthaus, Xuanzang's travels to India and his composition of the Cheng Weishi Lun was an attempt to return to a more "orthodox" and "authentic" Indian Yogācāra, and thus put to rest the debates and confusions in the Chinese Yogācāra of his time. The Cheng Weishi Lun returns to the use of the theory of seeds instead of the tathāgatagarbha to explain how some beings can reach Buddhahood.

However, by the eighth century, the Yogācāra-tathāgatagarbha synthesis became the dominant interpretation of Yogācāra in East Asian Buddhism. Later Chinese thinkers like Fa-Tsang would thus criticize Xuanzang for failing to teach the tathāgatagarbha in his system.

Karl Brunnhölzl notes that this syncretic tendency also existed in India, but that it only became widespread during the later tantric era (when Vajrayana became prominent) with the work of thinkers like Jñānaśrīmitra, Ratnākaraśānti, and Maitripa.

Yogācāra and Madhyamaka

Yogācāra sources indicate that they sometimes debated with the Madhyamaka tradition. However, there is disagreement among contemporary Western and traditional Buddhist scholars about the degree to which they were opposed, if at all. The main difference between these schools was related to issues of existence and the nature of emptiness. While Madhyamaka generally states that asserting the existence or non-existence of anything (including emptiness) was inappropriate, Yogācāra treatises often assert that the dependent nature (paratantra-svabhāva) really exists and that emptiness is an actual absence that also exists. For example, the Madhyāntavibhāga clearly asserts that "the imagination of the nonexistent [abhūta-parikalpa] exists. In it duality does not exist. Emptiness, however, exists in it."

Classical Yogācāra thinkers like Asaṅga and Vasubandhu critiqued those who "adhere to non-existence" (nāstikas, vaināśkas, likely referring to Madhyamikas) because they saw them as straying into nihilism (ucchedavāda). They held that there was really something which could be said to "exist", that is, vijñapti, and that was what is described as being "empty" their system. The position that Yogācāra and Madhyamaka were in dialectic was expounded by Xuanzang in the 7th century. After a suite of debates with exponents of the Madhyamaka school in India, Xuanzang composed in Sanskrit the no longer extant three-thousand verse treatise The Non-difference of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra.

Yogācāra and Madhyamaka philosophers demonstrated two opposing tendencies throughout the history of Buddhist philosophy in India, one which worked to separate and distance the two systems and one tendency which worked towards harmonizing them. The harmonizing tendency can be seen in the work of philosophers like Jñānagarbha (8th century), his student Śāntarakṣita (8th century) and also in the work of the Yogācāra thinker Ratnakaraksanti (c. 1000). These thinkers also saw the Yogācāra Alikākāravāda ("false aspectarian", those Yogācāras who believe that mental appearances are false or don't ultimately exist) view as the highest.

Śāntarakṣita (8th century), whose view was later called "Yogācāra-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka" by the Tibetan tradition, saw the Mādhyamika position as ultimately true and at the same time saw the Yogācāra view as a useful way to relate to conventional truth (which leads one to the ultimate). Later Tibetan Buddhist thinkers like Shakya Chokden would also work to show the compatibility of the alikākāravāda sub-school with Madhyamaka, arguing that it is in fact a form of Madhyamaka. Likewise, the Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyamtso has a similar view which holds that the "profound important points and intents" of the two systems are one. Ju Mipham is also another Tibetan philosopher whose project is aimed as showing the harmony between Yogacara and Madhyamaka, arguing that there is only a very subtle difference between them, being a subtle clinging by Yogacaras to the existence of an "inexpressible, naturally luminous cognition" (rig pa rang bzhin gyis ’od gsal ba).

Yogācāra in East Asia

Statue of a traveling Xuanzang at Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang
Kuījī (632–682), a student of Xuanzang

Translations of Indian Yogācāra texts were first introduced to China in the early 5th century CE. Among these was Guṇabhadra's translation of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra in four fascicles, which would also become important in the early history of Chan Buddhism. Influential 5th century figures include the translators Bodhiruci, Ratnamati, and Paramārtha. Their followers founded the Dilun (Daśabhūmikā Commentary) and Shelun (Mahāyānasaṃgraha) schools, both of which included Yogācāra and tathāgatagarbha elements. Modern scholars also hold that the Awakening of Faith, a very influential work in East Asian Buddhism, was written by a member of the Dilun tradition.

Xuanzang (fl. c. 602 – 664) is famous for having made a dangerous journey to India in order to study Buddhism, obtain more indic Yogācāra sources. Xuanzang spent over ten years in India traveling and studying under various Buddhist masters and drew on a variety of Indian sources in his studies. Upon his return to China, Xuanzang brought with him 657 Buddhist texts, including the Yogācārabhūmi and began the work of translating them. Xuanzang composed the Cheng Weishi Lun (Discourse on the Establishment of Consciousness Only) which drew on many Indian sources and commentaries and became a central work of East Asian Yogācāra.

Xuanzang's student Kuiji continued this tradition, writing several important commentaries. However, another student of Xuanzang, the Korean monk Wŏnch’ŭk, defended some of the doctrines of the Shelun school of Paramārtha, for which he was criticized by the followers of Kuiji. Wŏnch’ŭk's teachings were influential on the Yogācāra (Beopsang) of Silla Korea. Both of these competing Yogācāra sub-sects were then imported to Japan where they became the two sub-sects (the northern and southern temple lineages) of the Hossō school. Xuanzang's school later came under criticism from later Chinese masters like Fazang and it became less influential as the fortunes of other native Chinese schools rose. Nevertheless, Yogācāra studies continued to be important at different times throughout Chinese history, including during the modern revival of Yogācāra in the 20th century.

Yogācāra in Tibet

Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), founder of the Jonang school and popularizer of Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha thought

Yogācāra is studied in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, though it receives different emphasis in each of these. Yogācāra thought is an integral part of the history of Tibetan Buddhism. It was first transmitted to Tibet by figures like Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla and Atiśa.

The Tibetan Nyingma school and its Dzogchen teachings draw on both Madhyamaka and Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha thought. Similarly, the Kagyu school also relies on the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha systems in its presentation of the ultimate view (Mahamudra). The Jonang school also developed its own synthetic philosophy which they termed shentong ("other-emptiness" Wylie: gzhan-stong), which also included elements from Yogācāra, Madhyamaka and Tathāgatagarbha. In contrast, the Gelug and Sakya schools generally see Yogācāra as a lesser view than the Madhyamaka philosophy of Candrakirti, which is seen as the definitive view in these traditions.

Today, Yogācāra topics remain important in Tibetan Buddhism and Yogācāra texts are widely studied. There are various debates and discussions among the Tibetan Buddhist schools regarding key Yogācāra ideas, like svasaṃvedana (reflexive awareness) and the foundational consciousness. Furthermore, the debates between the other-emptiness and self-emptiness views are also similar in some ways to the historical debates between Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha and Madhyamaka, though the specific viewpoints have evolved further and changed in complex ways. Modern thinkers continue to discuss Yogācāra issues, and attempt to synthesize it with Madhyamaka. For example, Ju Mipham, the 19th-century Rimé commentator, wrote a commentary on Śāntarakṣita's synthesis arguing that the ultimate intent of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra is the same.


Virtually all contemporary schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism are influenced by Yogācāra Buddhist thought. This includes modern Zen, Pure Land and Tibetan Buddhism. Zen was heavily influenced by Yogācāra sources, especially the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. In Tibetan Buddhism, Yogācāra sources are still widely studied and many Yogācāra texts are key works studied in the monastic education curriculum of the various schools. Some influential Yogācāra texts in Tibetan Buddhism include: Asanga's Abhidharma-samuccaya, and the "Five Treatises of Maitreya" including the Mahayanasutralankara, and the Ratnagotravibhāga (a text which teaches Yogacara and buddha nature doctrines).

Hindu philosophers such as Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta, and Śrīharṣa were also influenced by Yogacara ideas and responded to their theories in their own works.

Textual corpus

A wall painting depicting Xuanzang's travels and his translation work, Xuanzang Memorial Hall, modern Nalanda


The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra (Sūtra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets; 2nd century CE), is a key early Yogācāra sutra which is considered to be the foundational sutra for the Yogācāra tradition. The Avataṃsaka Sūtra also contains numerous teachings on mind-only and is very influential for East Asian Buddhism. Another text, the Mahāyānābhidharmasūtra is often quoted in Yogācāra works and is assumed to also be an early Yogācāra sutra.

The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra also later assumed considerable importance in East Asia, and portions of this text were considered by Étienne Lamotte as being contemporaneous with the Saṃdhinirmocana. This text equates the Yogācāra theory of ālayavijñāna with the tathāgatagarbha (buddha-nature) and thus seems to be part of the tradition which sought to merge Yogācāra with tathāgatagarbha thought. Another sutra which contains similar themes to the Laṅkāvatāra is the Ghanavyūha Sūtra.

All these five sutras are listed by Kuiji as key sutras for the Yogācāra school in his Commentary on the Cheng weishi lun (成唯識 論述記; Taishō no. 1830).


Some of the earliest Yogācāra material can be found in the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra, such as the doctrines of ālayavijñāna and āśrayaparāvṛtti. This text, a massive encyclopedic work on yogic theory and praxis, is traditionally attributed to Asaṅga (4th century) or Maitreya, but most scholars (such as Schmithausen and Aramaki) believe it is a composite work reflecting various stages of historical development and the work of many authors. Most of its material is non-Mahayana and according to Lusthaus, it draws extensively from on the Āgamas. Nevertheless, Asaṅga may still have influenced its development.

Tibetan depiction of Asaṅga and Maitreya

Authorship of several major Yogācāra treatises or śāstras are ascribed to Asaṅga, a major doctrinal systematizer of the school. Among them are his magnum opus, the Mahāyānasaṃgraha and also a compendium of Yogācāra Abhidharma, the Abhidharma-samuccaya.

Asaṅga's brother Vasubandhu is also considered to be an important Yogācāra figure. He wrote various important śāstras, including the Viṃśaṭikā-kārikā (Treatise in Twenty Stanzas), Triṃśikā-kārikā (Treatise in Thirty Stanzas), Vyākhyāyukti ("Proper Mode of Exposition"), Karmasiddhiprakarana ("A Treatise on Karma"), and the Pañcaskandhaprakaraṇa (Explanation of the Five Aggregates). Vasubandhu also wrote a large systematic work on Abhidharma, the Abhidharmakośa, which remains influential in Tibet and East Asia. According to Robert Kritzer, though this work is traditionally seen as being based on Sarvastivada and Sautrantika Abhidharma, it also contains Yogācāra influences drawn from the Yogācārabhūmi.

Other figures and texts

According to Williams, there is a fairly early Yogācāra work surviving in Sanskrit called the Alokamala (Garland of Light) by a certain Kambala (c. 450–525), which "gives of a form of Yogācāra just prior to the vigorous critical Madhyamika response to it represented by the works of Bhavaviveka." Williams also notes that this work "tries to harmonize where possible the Madhyamika position with that of Yogācāra."

Important commentaries on various Yogācāra texts were written by Sthiramati (6th century) and Dharmapala of Nalanda (6th century), who represent different sub-traditions within the school. The Indian Buddhist logician Dignāga (c. 480– 540 CE) wrote an important Yogācāra work, the Alambanapariksa and its vrtti (commentary). The work of Dharmakirti similarly shows Yogācāra influence and defends mind-only. The Chinese figure of Xuanzang (602-664) wrote a commentary (Ch' eng wei shih lun, Skt. reconstruction: Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi*) on the Trimsikā of Vasubandhu, for which he used numerous Indian commentaries. In the East Asian Yogācāra tradition, this is the central work on Yogācāra philosophy.

The Yogācāra tradition as it is studied Tibetan Buddhism is also based on a series of texts called the Five Dharmas of Maitreya. These are the Mahāyānasūtrālamkāra, Dharmadharmatāvibhāga, Madhyāntavibhāgakārikā, Abhisamayalankara and the Ratnagotravibhaga. These texts are traditionally said to have been related to Asaṅga by the Bodhisattva Maitreya from Tusita Heaven. According to D.S. Ruegg, the "five works of Maitreya" are mentioned in Sanskrit sources from only the 11th century onwards. As noted by S.K. Hookham and Paul Williams, their attribution to a single author has been questioned by modern scholars, especially the Abhisamayalankara and the Ratnagotravibhaga (which focuses on tathāgatagarbha). There are also various commentaries on these texts from Indian and Tibetan authors that are important in the Tibetan scholastic tradition. According to Karl Brunnholzl, the Chinese tradition also speaks of five Maitreya texts (first mentioned in Dunlun's Yujia lunji), "but considers them as consisting of the Yogācārabhūmi, *Yogavibhāga [now lost], Mahāyānasūtrālamkārakā, Madhyāntavibhāga and the Vajracchedikākāvyākhyā."

See also

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