Yogācāra (Sanskrit: “yoga practice”), also spelled yogāchāra, is an influential school of philosophy and psychology that developed in Indian Mahayana Buddhism starting sometime in the fourth to fifth centuries C.E., also commonly known as Consciousness-only (Sanskrit: Cittamātra).
Sometimes referred to as the Knowledge Way or Vijnanavada, Yogācāra has also been called Subjective Realism, acknowledging that individual factors including karma contribute to an experience of reality that must be different for every being. It mentions the idea of “Buddha nature.”
The Yogācāra texts were composed in the period of Buddhism known to practitioners as The Third Turning of the Wheel. The Yogācāra studies texts form a survey of all of The Three Turnings of the Wheel. Originating around a set of scriptures and treatises composed by such early Indian masters as the brothers Vasubandhu and Asanga (who was said to be inspired by the legendary Maitreya-natha), this school held a prominent position in the Indian scholastic tradition for several centuries. It was also transmitted to Tibet by Dharmakirti who intiated Atisha into the Yogachara lineage, where its teachings became an integral part of much of Tibetan Buddhism up to modern times, and to East Asia, where it was studied with intensity for several centuries.
Notably, this school was in opposition to the Madhyamaka (Sanskrit: “Middle Way”) school of Buddhism. While the Madhyamaka school asserted that there is no ultimately real thing, the Yogācāra school asserts that only the mind is ultimately existent. This debate still rages in Tibet as the Shentong (empty of other) versus Rangtong (empty of self). Yogacara teachings are especially important in Tantric Buddhism, or the secret practices of Buddhism. It is often said that many Tibetan students learn the Madhyamaka school until they have mastered it, and when they are ready switch to the Yogācāra school.
Yogācāra, like all Indian schools of Buddhism, eventually became virtually extinct within its mother country. However, all four of the major schools of Buddhism did heavily influence the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Yogācāra is most prevalent in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, the teachings of Yogācāra became the Chinese Fa Xiang school of Buddhism.
The Yogacara defined three basic modes by which we perceive our world: one, through attached and erroneous discrimination, wherein things are incorrectly apprehended based on preconceptions; two, through the correct understanding of the dependently originated nature of things; and three, by apprehending things as they are in themselves, uninfluenced by any conceptualization at all. These are referred to in Yogācāra as the three natures of perception. Also, regarding perception, the Yogacara emphasized that our everyday understanding of the existence of external objects is problematic, since in order to perceive any object (and thus, for all practical purposes for the object to “exist”), there must be a sensory organ as well as a correlative type of consciousness to allow the process of cognition to occur.
Perhaps the best known teaching of the Yogācāra system is that of theeight layers of consciousness. This theory of the consciousnesses attempted to explain all the phenomena of cyclic existence, including how rebirth occurs and precisely how karma functions on an individual basis. For example, if I carry out a good or evil act, why and how is it that the effects of that act do not appear immediately? If they do not appear immediately, where is this karma waiting for its opportunity to play out?
The answer given by the Yogacaras was the store consciousness (alsoknown as the base, or eighth consciousness; Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna) which simultaneously acts as a storage place for karma and as a fertile matrix that brings karma to a state of fruition. The likeness of this process to the cultivation of plants led to the creation of the metaphor of seeds (Sanskrit, bijas) to explain the way karma is stored in the eighth consciousness. The type, quantity, quality and strength of the seeds determine where and how a sentient being will be reborn: one’s species,sex, social status, proclivities, bodily appearance and so forth.
On the other hand, the karmic energies created in the current lifetimethrough repeated patterns of behavior are called habit energies (Sanskrit:vasanas). All the activities that mold our minds and bodies, for betteror worse–eating, drinking, talking, studying, practicing the piano orwhatever–can be understood to create habit energies. And of course, myhabit energies can penetrate the consciousnesses of others, and viceversa–what we call “influence” in everyday language. Habit energies canbecome seeds, and seeds can produce new habit energies.
There are two important aspects of the Yogācāra schemata that are ofspecial interest to modern-day practitioners. One is that virtually allschools of Mahayana Buddhism came to rely on these Yogācāra explanations as they created their own doctrinal systems–even the Zen schools. For example, the important Yogācāra explanation of the pervasiveness of one’s delusions through “mind-only” had an obvious influence on Zen.
That Yogācāra is not yet that well known among the community of Western practitioners is probably attributable to the fact that most of theinitial transmission of Buddhism to the West has been directly concernedwith more practice-oriented forms of Buddhism, such as Zen, Vipassana,and Pure Land. Also, it is a complicated system, and there are still notreally any good, accessible, introductory books on the topic in Westernlanguages. However, within Tibetan Buddhism more and more Western students are becoming acquainted with this school.