“The mind is the Buddha.” – Bodhidharma

The importance of perception is fundamental to the Yogachara school of Buddhism.  While mental processes are at the core of Buddhism itself, the Yogachara school has systematized the cognitive and idealistic aspects of of Buddhism to a degree unsurpassed by other schools.  Indeed, while Zen Buddhism emphasizes the mere act of sitting or internalizing a short saying to deprogram rational thinking, Madhyamakas flout the very idea of accepting anything, even the mind, as real, and the Pure Land school embraces faith and rebirth into a heavenly realm above all else, the Yogacharans devote their efforts unreservedly to the analysis of the complex interplay of mental processes.

Yogachara’s idealism is not as negational as the Madhyamikas regarding the realness of existence.  While the Yogachara doctrine embraces emptiness, like the Madhyamaka, there is a distinguishing facet of Yogachara in regards to emptiness.  A Yogacharin understanding of emptiness involves the trisvabhava, which a contrast to the Madhayamikan understanding of emptiness as having no attributes whatsoever.  According to Vasubandhu, it is not that emptiness has non characteristics whatsoever; instead, it is that emptiness is inexpressible and can only understood by a special kind of cognition that transcends the subject-object distinction.1

A rift in the Yogachara occurred between the Valabhi school (following Sthiramati) and the Nalanda school (following Dharmapala) about whether pure mind is the same as the storehouse conciousness.2

The Yogachara path includes the Six Paramitas, especially concentration. Beyond this, there are four stages toward liberation: first is the path of beginning to see all things as “mind-only”; second is the path of seeing in which this realization results in the removal of concepts and boundaries (the undoing of logical dualism); third, meditation (of course); and fourth, when meditation gives way to the emerging of pure Dharmakaya.

The earliest sutra clearly of the “mind-only” tradition, the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, claims it is the “third turning” of the wheel of the Dharma.3  This “third turning” is a self-aware references to earlier “turnings,” the first being the Buddha’s first sermon and the second being the Astasahasrika Sutra (a precursor to the Perfection of Wisdom literature).  The Samdhinirmocana Sutra claims that the first turnings were the Buddha’s teachings, but not his true teachings, and that the over-emphasis on emptiness by the Perfection of Wisdom literature and Madhyamaka was an unfortunate exercise in “over-negation.”The Lankavatara Sutra further enumerates the aspects of consciousness-only nature of reality.

The Life of the mind

The Fa-Hsiang school, one of the Chinese expressions of Yogachara, shares the preoccupation with psychology.  The concept of the storehouse consciousness features prominently in Fa-Hsiang philosophy, albeit of a different character.  The Fa-Hsiang school developed a teaching of the eight different types of consciousness to explain the Storehouse Consciousness.  What distinguishes the Idealists of the Fa-Hsiang school from Yogacharins is theory of 100 dharmas.  This classification of dharmas, reminiscent of the Abhidharma, groups all dharmas into five general categories:  mind/consciousness (vijnana), mental factors (chetasika), form (rupa), dharmas independent of mind, and unconditioned dharmas (asamskrita).

This intensive enumeration of mind-states and phenomena led the Fa-Hsiang school to an conclusion that distinguishes it from other Mahayana schools.  The Fa-Hsiang school denies that all beings have Buddha-nature and the capacity to attain Buddhahood. For the Fa-Hsiang, the storehouse consciousness, which is the seed of Buddhahood for all in the eyes of most Mahayanists, contains impurities. Some impurities prevent this reservoir from giving birth to any Buddhahood.  Indeed, there is even a class of beings (icchantika), according to some scriptures, who cannot achieve enlightenment.5

The One Hundred Dharmas

The idealistic Hosso school, another expression of Yogachara, borrows an analytical method from the Original Wisdom schools (particularly the Sarvastivada and Sautrantika) by dividing the world into five categories which are subdivided into one hundred dharmas.  Dharmas, in this situation, refers to aspects of reality.

The five categories are Mind (Citta-dharma), Mental Functions (Caitasika-dharma), Form Elements (Rupa-dharma), Things Not Associated With Mind (Citta-viprasyuksa-samskara), and Non-Created Elements (Asamskrita-dharma).6

Within the Mind category are the five senses, the sense-center, the thought-center, and the ideation store, for a total of eight dharmas.

Within the Mental Functions category are general functions (such as touch and thought), special functions (such as desire and resolve), good functions (such as belief and absence of covetousness), bad functions (such as covetousness and hatred), minor evil functions (such as anger and shamelessness), and indeterminate functions (such as repentance and investigations), for a total of 51 dharmas.

Within the Form category are dharmas are sense elements and agglomerations of form (such as substantial forms analyzed to the smallest atom and momentary illusive forms), for a total of 11 dharmas.

Within the Things Not Associated With Mind category are phenomena such as acquisition, name, word, and letter, for a total of 24 dharmas.

Lastly, within the Non-Created Elements category are concepts such as space, extinction, and true suchness, for a total of six dharmas.

1Siderits, in 'Discontinuity,' in Madhyamaka and Yogachara, ed. Garfield & Westerhoff (Oxford, 2015), pp. 115-116.
2Gomez, in 'Buddhism in India,' in Religious Traditions of Asia, ed. Kitagawa (Macmillan, 1989), p. 76.
3Williams, 1989, p. 79.
4Williams, 1989, p. 80.
5Takakusu, 1947, p. 91.
6Takakusu, p. 94a.