Monday, December 25, 2017

Caveats, Corrections, and Clarifications: The meaning of ‘ Mind-only’


Caveat Lector:  Examples of false or misleading statements to beware of:

(1) “The ' Mind Only School’ is a Mahayana school founded by Asanga.”

(2)  The Chittamatra ( Mind-Only) Philosophical School.”

(3)  “[he]was influenced by the development of Buddhist ‘idealism’, the Yogacara or Cittamatra tradition.”

(4)  “Hsuan-tsang selected K‘uei-chi as the chief transmitter of the Mind-Only Buddhism that he brought back from India.”

(5)  “Ge-luk-ba scholars hold that even for the Proponents of Mind-Only the Perfection of Widsom Sutras are the supreme of sutras, even though their literal reading must be interpreted.”


(1) “ Mind-only” or cittamatra, is not synonymous with Yogacara and is not a formal “school” in the manner of the Yogacara school foundered by the half-brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (or in the manner of the Madhyamaka school founded by Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and their followers).  Mind-only is an orientation or perspective based on meditative realization whose coherence may be called a movement or tradition, not a doctrinaire school. There is no “founder” of the teaching of Mind-only awareness outside the Sutras.

(2)  Mind-only is not a philosophical school and is not “a philosophy” in any modern sense of the word. The terms “doctrine” and “philosophy” just do not apply to Mind-only.

(3)  Mind-only is not ‘idealism’ as that term is used in Western contexts.  Tibetan Buddhists, because of their emphasis on commentary over Sutra, erroneously hold that there are only two major streams of philosophical thought in Buddha Dharma: that of Madhyamaka and Cittamatra, and they mistakenly use the name Cittamatra or Mind-only as a term for the Yogacara tradition and teachings. Yogacara teachings are primarily  Consciousness-only (Skt. vijnanamatra) and  Conscious-data-only (Skt. vijnaptimatra), and only indirectly and tangentially connected to Mind-only.

(4) The Buddhism that Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang, 596–664) brought back with him from India was one of the Yogacara school’s branches as taught by Dharmapala, as opposed to the other 7th century Yogacara branch taught by Sthiramati. And neither of these two branches was the 6th century Yogacara branch perspective based on One Vehicle Buddhism brought to China by Paramartha 100 years before Xuanzang, and also taught by Wonchuk a student of Xuanzang who did not completely accept his version of Yogacara because he had previously studied Paramartha’s version and would not disavow its perspective as demanded by the other students of Xuangzang establishing their otrthodoxy. 

(5) Actually, Mind-only, i.e., cittamatra, is a core teaching of the One Vehicle (Skt. Ekayana) movement that appeared prior to Asanga and Vasubandhu and is found in the One Vehicle sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Samdhinirmocana Sutra, and Lankavatara Sutra, that the Samdhinirmocana Sutra termed “the Third Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma”. Thus, it is the One Vehicle Sutras that are received as “the supreme sutras” for the proponents of Mind-only, not the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom or Transcendent Wisdom) Sutras. In general, the Yogacara teachers who self-identified as such, with best intentions, appropriated the Mind-only teachings from the One Vehicle sutras, but they extracted them out of context to construct a separate system of doctrines that emphasized their own commentarial schemes. 


I learned about “ Mind-only” (Skt. cittamatra, while some translators capitalize the “-Only” I do not and follow the convention of other translators such as D.T. Suzuki.) through the so-called “East Asian” Buddhism of China, Korea, and Japan. In the Buddha Dharma that permeated China and flowed through to Korea and Japan, the “ Mind-only” movement and perspective is derived from the One Vehicle Sutras and expressed in such phrases as:

I designate not giving birth to antithetical conceptions and the complete realization that existence and nonexistence are nothing but the manifestations of one’s own mind.” (Lankavatara Sutra)  

That, in the clear and pure mind of one’s own nature yet there is contamination, is difficult to be able to comprehend.”  (Queen Srimala’s Lion’s Roar Sutra) 

“The three realms are vacant and false, and are only the doings of mind.”  (Dasubhumika-sutra, part of the Avatamsaka Sutra)

“Since there is only the ultimate meaning of mind, characteristics depend on the root emptiness, on objectless emptiness, on the emptiness of one’s own essence, on the essenceless emptiness of one’s own essence, and on the emptiness of the ultimate meaning, that sever those characteristics of difficult cultivation and practice.” (Samdhinirmocana Sutra)

Though the designation seems to be lost to modernity, Chan/Zen Buddhism was called the “Buddha Mind School (Lineage)” (佛心宗) for its emphasis of the Mind-only perspective through such teaching phrases as “ Mind is Buddha,” “ordinary Mind is the Way,” “the Dharma of the One Mind,” etc. And of course there is the famous Zen motto: 

"Not established by written words,
Transmitted separately outside the teaching,
Pointing straight to the human mind,
To see the nature and become Buddha.” 

Thus, the One Vehicle tradition found in Tiantai, Huayen, and Zen were the expressions of the Mind-only tradition.  For example, Chan/Zen Master Huangbo Xiyun (J. Obaku Kiun) (d. c. 850) said in the Synopsis of the Dharma of Transmitting Mind of Zen Master Duanji of Huangbo Mountain (黃檗山斷際禪師傳心法要) written by his lay disciple Pei Xiu (797-870), a government official and member of the Chinese literati:

The Tathagata appeared in the world and wanted to explain the True Dharma of the One Vehicle, however the multitude of beings did not believe and raised slanders, sinking in the sea of sufferings.  If he did not explain at all, however, he’d fall into stingy greed, and not serve as the subtle Way of universal renunciation for the multitude of beings.  He proceeded to establish the expediency of explaining there are three vehicles. For the vehicles there is great and small; for attainment there is shallow and deep. All are not the original Dharma.  For this reason it was said, “There is only the Way of the One Vehicle, two or more however, are not true.”  So, in the end, because he had not yet displayed the Dharma of the One Mind, he called Kasyapa to share the Dharma seat and separately handed over the One Mind, going away from words to explain the Dharma. The Dharma of this One Branch decrees a distinguished practice.  If you are able to agree with those who awaken, then you arrive at the Buddha stage! (My translation from [T48n2012Ap0382b03 to T48n2012Ap0382b09])

This distinction seemed straight forward to me with the Yogacara School being correctly labeled the Consciousness–only (vijnanamatra) or Conscious-data-only (vijnaptimatra) tradition as distinguished from the Mind-only (cittamatra) tradition of Huayen and Chan/Zen.  The term vijnapti is not uniformly translated in the way that vijnana is. Vijnapti has been translated as “representation” (e.g. D.T. Suzuki), “perception” (e.g. Stefan Anacker), “projection” (e.g., Ben Connelly and Weijen Teng), “forms of consciousness” (e.g., Wutai)  “cognition” (e.g. Sāgaramati), “consciousness” (e.g., Diana Paul), etc.  Because of the common root conscious “vijna” shared with conscious-ness (vijna-na), I say that the word vijna-apti (one of the “a”s is dropped in the conjunction) should be translated using “conscious” as the prefix and a term for “apti as the suffix. The term “apti” means that which is noticed and what is represented in consciousness, i.e., the information or data of consciousness. Thus, vijnapti has connotations suggesting of the modern notions of semiosis or sign process. So I am currently preferring to translate vijna-apti as “conscious-data” to indicate the meaning of the data points of consciousness. Other translations could be “conscious-sign,” “conscious-notice,” “conscious-information,” etc.   

However, when I came into contact with Tibetan Buddhist teachings there was an immediate cognitive dissonance and frustration with their use of the term “ Mind-only.” The Tibetan traditions are derived from post-seventh century Indian Buddhism that had morphed into a Doctrinaire Buddhism based on Treatises over Sutras on the one hand and Tantric Buddhism on the other. While Chinese Buddhism is derived from pre-eighth century Indian Buddhism that was primarily Sutra based. 

For example, wanting to learn what the Tibetan teachings are on Mind-only entailed, I picked up Jeffrey Hopkins’ Emptiness in the Mind-Only School of Buddhism and was completely shocked to see that they use the label “ Mind-only” erroneously for the Yogacara teachings and do not have a distinct awareness or acknowledgement of Mind-only as a different tradition from Yogacara.  This erroneous designation is found in other books describing Tibetan Buddhism such as the generalist survey Mahayana Buddhism, The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams. Caveat Lector: Williams does not advise the reader that he is presenting Mahayana Buddhism from his Tibetan Buddhist perspective, so that unacknowledged standpoint makes his presentation of Yogacara as Mind-only into an expression Tibetan Buddhist prejudice.  Reading these books using the label “ Mind-Only” when they mean Yogacara was nearly nauseating to me, in the sense of creating a vertigo sensation where many times on nearly every page I have to do a mental translation to read “Yogacara” or “ Consciousness-only” when they write “ Mind-only.”

Though I personally came to this understanding of the Tibetan usage of “ Mind-only” relatively late, as I had mostly ignored Tibetan Buddhism until a couple years ago, this problem was acknowledged in a paper from the journal Philosophy East and West, volume 27, No.1, January 1977, by Whalen Lai titled “The Meaning of ‘ Mind-only’ (wei-hsin): An analysis of a sinitic Mahayana phenomenon.”  His paper begins:

Modern Japanese Buddhologists, following a distinction that was evident already in the T'ang Buddhist circles, speak of a Mind-Only (Sanskrit: Cittamatra) school usually covering Zen and Hua-yen as being distinct from, and superior to, the Consciousness-Only (Sanskrit: Vijnaptimatra) tradition, represented by the Wei-shih school (Fa-hsing) of Hsuan-tsang's followers.(1) This distinction between the so-called Wei-hsin (Mind-Only) and Wei-shih (Consciousness-Only) is often assumed to be self-evident. However, there is, in Indian Buddhism, only one term, Yogacara or Vijnaptimatra, covering these two distinct branches in China. In the Tibetan Buddhist canon also, the section known as Cittamatra designates only Yogacara texts. There is no sharp distinction made in India or Tibet between Cittamatra and Vijnaptimatra,  Mind-Only or Consciousness-Only, or, for that matter, between citta, mind, or (alaya) -vijnana, (storehouse)-consciousness. In Yogacara traditions, citta is often another term for alayavijnana. How is it then that the Chinese and then the Japanese have this clear notion that Mind-Only is something other than, and superior to, Consciousness-Only? (Page 65, I have altered his style of writing the Sanskrit words.)

Yes, in my studies of Mind-only from the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist perspective , I too learned that Mind-Only is “other than and superior to Consciousness-Only.” While I agree with Lai on many points, especially the acknowledgement of the problem, I don’t agree with much of his analysis (as he tries to make the problem out to be a translation issue and not a systems issue), and I think that he too misunderstands the Indian sources for Mind-only when he denies their existence.  The problem seems to lie in the distinction between placing primary reliance on the Sutras themselves or on the Treatises (Shastras) of the Indian doctrinal masters, and as followed by the Tibetan masters of doctrinal scholasticism, that interpret the Sutras.  When Lai says, “There is no sharp distinction made in India between Cittamatra and Vijnaptimatra,  Mind-Only or Consciousness-Only” he is referring to the distinctions made by the Indian Yogacara teachers’ treatises, not in the Sutras themselves. This is not surprising in that the Yogacara teachers were confusing the mind and consciousness teachings of the Sutras and deliberately failing to acknowledge the distinctions between the terms. 

D.T. Suzuki refers to this problem in his Studies of the Lankavatara Sutra:

There is one thing in the foregoing account given by Tao-hsiian of the history of the Lankavatara that requires notice: that there was another school in the study of the sutra than the one transmitted by [Bodhi]Dharma and Hui-k'e. This was the school of Yogacara idealism. The line of Hui-k'e belonged to the Ekayana school (一乘宗) of Southern India which was also the one resorted to by [Bodhi]Dharma himself when he wanted to discourse on the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. To this Ekayana school belong the Avatamsaka and the Straddhotpanna as well as the Lankavatara properly interpreted. But as the latter makes mention of the system of the eight Vijnanas whose central principle is designated as Alayavijnana, it has been used by the Yogacara followers as one of their important authorities. (P. 55.)

The doctrine expounded in the Lankavatara and also in the Avatamsaka-sutra is known as the Cittamatra and never as the Vijnanamatra or Vijnaptimatra as in the Yogacara school of Asanga and Vasubandhu. (P. 181.)


     Suzuki adds in the introduction to his translation of the Lankavatara Sutra:  

This is the point where the Lanka comes in contact with the Yogacara school. The Yogacara is essentially psychological standing in contrast in this respect to the Madhyamaka school which is epistemological. But the Alayavijnana of the Yogacara is not the same as that of the Lanka and the Awakening of Faith. The former conceives the Alaya to be purity itself with nothing defiled in it whereas the Lanka and the Awakening make it the cause of purity and defilement. Further, the Yogacara upholds the theory of Vijnaptimatra and not that of Cittamatra, which belongs to the Lanka, Avatamsaka, and Awakening of Faith.  The difference is this: According to the Vijnaptimatra, the world is nothing but ideas, there are no realities behind them; but the Cittamatra states that there is nothing but Citta, Mind, in the world and that the world is the objectification of Mind. The one is pure idealism and the other idealistic realism. To realise the Cittamatra is the object of the Lanka, and this is done when Discrimination is discarded, that is, when a state of non-discrimination is attained in one's spiritual life. Discrimination is a logical term and belongs to the intellect. Thus we see that the end of the religious discipline is to go beyond intellectualism, for to discriminate, to divide, is the function of the intellect. Logic does not lead one to self-realisation.

The problem of confusionof terms can be traced at least back to Vasubandhu who at times failed to clearly distinguish the difference between Consciousness-Only (vijnanamatra) and Mind-only (cittamatra). Though in his Thirty Verses he appears to distinguish  Consciousness-only (vijnanamatra) from Conscious-data-only (vijnaptimatra) without mentioning Mind-only, and in his The Teaching of the Three Own-Beings he does mention Mind-only in a manner that can be construed as being superior to Consciousness-only (vijnanamatra) from Conscious-data-only (vijnaptimatra), the followers of the Yogacara school in general tend to overlook these distinctions and be comfortable with the confusion caused by conflation of the terms.  For example, Vasubandhu begins his “Twenty Verses and Commentary” stating:

In the Great Vehicle, the three realms of existence are determined as being perception-only [vijnaptimatra].  As it is said in the [Dasa-bhumika section of the Avatamsaka] sutra, “The three realms of existence are citta-only.” Citta, manas, conscousness, and perceptions are synonyms.” (Stefen Anacker translation in Seven Works of Vasubandhu, p. 161, brackets added by me.)

We can see from this excerpt that Vasubandhu can blithely gloss over the very important distinctions between the terms mind (citta), cognition (manas), consciousness (vijnana), and perceptions (vijnapti, i.e., conscious-data, not perception samjna).  Mind , consciousness, and conscious-data have all had the term “-only” (matra) attached to them in various teachings, while manas never has “-only” attached to it in that way. Thus, any approach to understanding Mind-only (cittamatra) must begin by distinguishing it from Conscousness-only (vijnanamatra) and Conscious-data-only (vijnaptimatra) which is exactly what the Yogacara teachers Asanga and Vasubandhu fail to adequately do. Instead Vasubandhu uses the terms mostly as synonyms because of, it seems, his preference for the terms Consciousness-only and Conscious-data-only which he uses much more frequently than Mind-only. However, while I think this “error of synonyms” is Vasubandhu’s greatest weakness, it should not suggest that I think any less of Vasubandhu’s great works overall.  

A further discussion of the differences between these three “-onlys” of Mind-only,  Consciousness-only, and  Conscious-data-only will have to wait for a subsequent post. For now, the important point is that Mind-only is inclusive of consciousness, and conscious-data but that the other two are not inclusive of mind in the sense of all things are only manifestations of mind. From the Mind-only perspective, mind is the ocean, consciousness is the dynamic surface of the ocean, and conscious-data are the apparently individual peaks of the waves on the ocean.  Thus, to say that either the peaks of the waves or the moving surface of the ocean are synonymous with the ocean is an absurdity. They too are the ocean, and they are not separate from the ocean, but they not the round fullness that includes the profound depths of the complete ocean. 

This leads us to the question of where genuine Mind-only teaching is to be found in the Tibetan doctrinal systems that mistakenly call the Yogacara “ Mind-only.”  It is found in two places. First it is hidden in the doctrinal discussion of the so-called Tathagatagarbha texts, which is actually a misnomer when applied to the One Vehicle texts. Tathagatagarbha means the “Inner Tathagata” of each person and is an interesting word composed of three elements thus (tatha), come (agata), and inner (garbha). “Tathagata,” the “Thus-come-one,” or “One who comes as thusness”, is the self-referential term used in the Sutras by the Buddha instead of the first-person pronoun “I.”  Without going into too much explanation, I translate garbha as “inner” to render the term Tathagatagarbha as “the Inner Tathagata” in the sense of the psychological term the Inner Child.  Garbha has several connotations, such as fetus, womb, matrix, and sanctum sanctorum, i.e., a very private or secret place.  The garbha of the tathagata is the private place or buried seed within each of us from where our Buddha Nature is germinated and brought forth.  In other words, it is the essence of our own mind’s most personal being that is identical with Buddha in the sense of Mind is Buddha. 

The scholars’ conflation of the Tathagatagarbha teaching with the teachings of the One Vehicle Sutras, and thus obscuring the One Vehicle teachings, is the second most important reason (after the confusion of synonyms) that Mind-only has not been sufficiently analyzed in the doctrine-oriented scholarship of both Tibetan monastic colleges and Western academies.  This is because the scholars (both of old and today, in both Tibet and the West) prefer to extract and appropriate specific teachings out of the One Vehicle Sutras to create doctrinal systems to ply against each other. 

However, the primary purpose (paramartha) of the One Vehicle Sutras is found in their synthesis and syncretism of the Buddha Dharma. So when the One Vehicle Sutras, like Queen Srimala’s Lion’s Roar Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra address the various topics like the Eight Consciousnesses, the Three Own-natures, the Four Noble Truths, the Five skandhas, Emptiness (sunyata), Dharmakaya, Tathagatagarbha, etc. it is not listing them in order to be extracted by various schools, but listing them as notions already variously taught within the Buddha Dharma that must be synthesized and syncretised in order to personally know and see the Tathagata’s awareness as the inclusive, whole or compete teaching (圓教) known as the Third Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. 

And second, from my reading of Hopkins, the genuine Mind-only teaching in Tibetan Buddhism is found in the Jo-nang-ba school promoted by Shay-rap-gyel-tsen (1292-1360). The Gelug-ba school’s founder Dzong-ka-ba (1357-1419) was a prolific author who appears to have written one of his most famous treatises The Essence of Eloquence in large part to refute the real Mind-only teachings of Shay-rap-gyel-tsen (diacritical marks omitted, hereafter “Shay” when not in quoted material) and his Jo-nang-ba school by presenting the Yogacara as the only legitimate and orthodox Mind-only school. Using a process of “synthesis” (a hallmark of the One Vehicle) Shay coined the term “the Great Middle Way” which appears to be his own version of the One Vehicle. (Yes, I need to study this more before making too firm conclusions.)  As Hopkins points out:

For instance, he [Shay] considered separate passages of the Sutra Unraveling the Thought [Samdhinirmocana Sutra], usually considered to be Mind-Only [i.e., Yogacara] to present the views of Mind-Only and the Great Middle Way, the latter being concordant with Ultimate Mind-Only, or Supermundane Mind-Only, which is beyond consciousness.” (Hopkins, p. 51.)

The terms Ultimate Mind-Only, or Supermundane Mind-Only appear to refer to the real Mind-only, not to Yogacara’s “ Mind-only,” as Shay notes his Ultimate Mind-Only is beyond the  Consciousness-only of the Yogacara. This concordance of “Ultimate Mind-Only” with the “Great Middle Way” indicates Shay is referring to a perspective consonant with the One Vehicle’s ultimate purpose (paramartha).  As stated, one primary hallmark of the One Vehicle is its syncretic approach to the plethora of teaching in the Buddha Dharma.  Hopkins says,

Thus Shay-rap-gyel-tsen’s synthesis was by no means a collage drawing a little from here and a little from there and disregarding the rest. Rather, he had a comprehensive, thorough, and overarching perspective born from careful analysis. For him, others had just not seen what the texts themselves were saying and, instead of that, red into the classical texts the views of single systems. (Hopkins, p. 52.)

This exactly describes my own observations of the usual scholarly systems built upon material extracted and appropriated into doctrinal teachings outside the context of the Sutras.  One point the previous quotation seems to overlook is that Shay’s perspective was not actually just “born from careful analysis.” Elsewhere Hopkins acknowledges that Shay’ new (as to Tibetan’s doctrinal systems) perspective was born of his own direct realization of the nature of reality through meditation during an intensive retreat.  Hopkins adds,

His view of “other emptiness,” based largely on his profound understanding of the Kalachakra Tantra and commentary by Kalki Pundarika and bolstered by the Lion’s Roar of Shrimaladevi Sutra, and so forth, was received with amazement and shock. (Hopkins, p. 49.)
           This reference to Queen Srimala’s Lion’s Roar Sutra is more evidence that Shay was taking the perspective of the One Vehicle, as the One Vehicle is the central teaching of that Sutra. The reference to the Kalachakra [Wheel of Time] Tantra indicates the profound meditation techniques of this method of Tantra. “Other emptiness” refers to the label used to indicate Shay’s challenge to the Yogacara model of seeing phenomenal things (dharmas) as having an inherent self-nature, so that while dharmas are ultimately empty, they are not empty of self-characteristics . Under the rubric of “other emptiness,” Shay “taught that conventional phenomena are self-empty, in the sense that they lack any self-nature, whereas the ultimate is other-empty, in the sense that it is empty of the relative but has its own self-nature.” (Hopkins, p. 49.)  This “own self-nature” of the ultimate is none other than the True Suchness of the One Mind of the One Vehicle teachings.

The nuances of this “other-emptiness” verses “self-emptiness” debate are too convoluted to detail here, .As stated earlier, Hopkins’ book details the attempt by the Gelug-ba school’s founder Dzong-ka-ba to refute Shay’s teachings in the Mind-Only section of Dzong-ka-ba’s treatise The Essence of Eloquence.  However, as I read Hopkins translation and synopsis of the text, Dzong-ka-pa does not present persuasive arguments against Shay’s teaching of other-emptiness nor does Dzong-ka-pa present a clear rationalization for the validity of his separation of systems when contrasted to the One Vehicle’s and Shay’s syncretic approach.  Dzong-ka-ba fails to refute Shay’s accurate presentation of the relationship of the Three Own-nature (trisvabhava) and agues unsuccessfully in favor of the Yogacara misinterpretation.  Based on Hopkins book, Dzong-ka-ba’s doctrinal analysis appears to be mostly logical fallacies of smoke and mirrors, relying on intellectual wordiness and being oblivious to Shay’s (and Zen’s) necessity of actual meditation methods taking one beyond words to generate one’s own realization that all things are only manifestation of mind, which is the genuine Mind-Only teaching. 

            So be alert to the use of the term “ Mind-only,” and when you see it be sure to distinguish if it is being used wrongly as the synonym of the Yogacara school or correctly as label for the genuine Mind-only teachings of the One Vehicle school.

See Caveats, Corrections, and Clarifications for links to this series.