Aug 20, 2022
Martin Goodson

Introduction to the Yogacara School

Teachings from the Yogacara School

How was Asanga able to visit the heavenly plane of Tusita, simply through the use of meditation?


Dominic Kearne (image source Shutterstock nc/license)

The founding of this school is attributed to Asanga and his half-brother Vasubandhu, however there is a third personage involved.

The story goes that Asanga would, in his meditation practice, visit the Tusita heaven to consult with the Buddha-to-come Maitreya.

To understand how this can come about is to understand the subject matter of the whole Yogacara School.

The Tusita heaven is the highest of the thirty-three heavens to be found on the Wheel of Life with its six realms. In this place Maitreya awaits his final incarnation where he will live his life in the same way as Shakyamuni and all the Buddhas before him (and all those to come too).

If we look at the Wheel of Life we see that those six realms, ever in motion, are fully populated with hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons, beings in the multiple hell states and the human realm. These realms are the collectively known as Samsara which means literally ‘wandering endlessly through a succession of states.

The beings may have different forms but all of them share the same root nature, that is, they come to be and eventually cease to be. Just as the Buddha taught in the Three Signs of Being.

The Wheel of Life, is a mythical place, ‘mythical’ not in the sense of ‘does not exist’ but in the sense of archetypal or symbolic. Therefore it contains within it multiple interpretations.

The basic Yogacara understanding of reality is that all of existence (another way of interpreting The Wheel of Life), is Mind or Consciousness. This is why this school is known as ‘Mind-only’ or Consciousness-only’ school.

However we must be careful with our English because here ‘Mind’ or ‘Consciousness’ is different from the usual understanding of these words by the layperson.

For most of us we think of our ‘minds’ as being closely associated with the physical brain, that consciousness is something that is within our skulls. However Yogacarins and Mahayanists generally see Mind and Consciousness as entirely non-local.

What is meant by this term non-local?

In the early teachings, the Buddha gave a six fold tri-partite structure of Mind/Consciousness as follows:

Visual objects…..eye function…. Seeing

Sounds…. Ear function…. Hearing

Tactile objects…. Touch function…. Touching

Smells…. Smell function…. Smelling

Tastes…. Taste function…. Tasting

Mental objects…. Mental organ (mano)…. Mental consciousness (thinking, feeling, remembering, willing etc.)

In total these eighteen categories are called the ‘dhatus’ and the Buddha said that together they form ‘The All’. That is they are the sum total of that which we can be conscious.

What this teaching says is that there is no such ‘thing’ as consciousness. Rather what we call consciousness is a coming-together of a sense object and sense function which gives rise to sense consciousness. This also works in reverse, without sense consciousness and/or without sense function there is no possibility of experiencing sense objects.

By taking this schema and meditating deeply on it to the point of realising that this is a description of our moment-to-moment experience, there comes the realisation that what we call ‘Mind’ or ‘Consciousness’ is this ‘All’. In other words Mind or Consciousness is not found in one place rather it is everywhere, including all things within it. Outside of this ‘everywhere’ it exists no-where.

So the idea that Asanga visits the Tusita heaven becomes quite possible. In fact it was common Mahayana thinking that such visits are possible via meditation.

So it was that Asanga began to preach the teachings given to him by Maitreya. His half-brother Vasubandhu later systematised them into formal teachings.

This school, along with the Madhyamika form the two pinnacles of Indian Mahayana Buddhism.

There were a number of schools of thought classified as Yogacara and they did not always agree on everything however there are a number of basic tenets upon which Yogacara could be identified.

These schools no longer exist in their own right, however Yogacara thought influenced a number of Chinese and Tibetan schools, including Chan/Zen.

 The Lankavatara sutra expounds a number of the teachings of this school and tradition says that it was Bodhidharma who brought this sutra to China. So closely associated did this sutra become that early Chan schools in China were known as Lankavatara schools.

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