QUERY> The Consciousness-only Debate on Idealism

Ronald Davis's picture

Dear Colleagues,

I'm writing a somewhat journalistic series of pieces, in which I nonetheless am trying to provide firm scholarly footing for accounts of various controversies that have taken place in Buddhism, both in classical and modern times. The piece that I am working on now involves the characterization of the "Yogachara Buddhism" as "idealism." Meaning "idealism" as a position that takes all of reality to reside within the mind, and not in the external world.

It seems that there was apparently a debate on this topic between the scholars Kapstein and Hopkins in the 1980's, centered on works from the Tibetan tradition. In any case, I'd be interested in knowing other circumstances and traditions in which the debate took place, and if this issue still has currency in modern scholarship?

Much obliged for any information.

Ron

 

Hi Ron,

I do not recall a debate with Hopkins on this topic. For my recent
reflections on the idea of "idealism" in this context, please refer to my article
"Buddhist Idealists and their Jain Critics on our Knowledge of External Objects" which you will find available here:
https://www.academia.edu/10346557/Buddhist_Idealists_and_their_Jain_Critics

thank you for your interest and best regards,
Matthew

Matthew Kapstein
EPHE (Paris) and the University of Chicago

Dear Ron,

Apologies if I'm merely reiterating sources that others have listed, but I would look most immediately at _Buddhist Phenomenology_ by Dan Lusthaus, which contains a spirited critique of "idealism" as an appropriate descriptor for yogācāra thought.

For an opposing voice (arguing that yogācāra "is" idealism), I suggest you look at the Yogācāra section in Jay Garfield's excellent collection of essays, _Empty Words_. I suspect that chapters 7 and 8 (especially the latter) will be of the most interest to you.

Another possible source to consider is Jonathan Gold's "No Outside, No Inside: Duality, Reality and Vasubandhu's Illusory Elephant" (Asian Philosophy 16:1, March 2006). Gold doesn't engage with the category of idealism per se, but he does indicate that realizing seemingly-external phenomena as vijñaptimātra (the move that leads some academics to characterize yogācāra as "idealism" is an early, perhaps even a preliminary, step in a long process aimed at the full realization of non-conceptual (niśprapañca) non-dual awareness (advayajñāna).

All of these sources are, admittedly, 10+ years old. I hope that others will offer more recent materials for your research, and look forward to reading the results!

Best,
Daniel McNamara
Ph.D. Candidate, West and South Asian Religions
Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA

There is a rich debate on the subject, with anti-idealist or non-idealist readings of Yogacara having been primarily advocated by scholars in Northern America since the 1980s, I think. John Taber and myself surveyed some of the pertinent positions in our recent article "Studies in Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda idealism I: The interpretation of Vasubandhu's Viṃśikā." Asiatische Studien/Études Asiatiques 68/3 (2014) 709-756. This may be a good starting-point, with many pointers to pertinent literature.

With best regards,

Birgit Kellner

Dear Ron,

You will basically find two groups of authors writing on this issue:

Group one consists of scholars who have a solid working knowledge of Sanskrit and a record of publications on Indian Yogācāra in reputable academic sources.

Group two consists of other authors.

For authors of group one, there was never any doubt that classical Yogācāra sources, such as Vasubandhu's Twenty Verses, teach that the material world is a mere mental projection.

Authors of group two hold various positions.

I hope this helps somehow...

With my best regards,

Achim Bayer.

I very much appreciate this from Achim, and the prior responses by Matthew, Birgit, and Daniel.

I was able to read the article recommended by Matthew, and just got hold of a copy of Buddhist Phenomenology from my library (but am still only in the first chapter). I have not yet been able to get a copy of the article recommended by Birgit (I don't have a subscription to that service). Nonetheless, at an early stage, after what I've read, I've gotten the impression that the issue is not as cut-and-dried as Achim has presented it. But I need to read more...

Ron

 

Dear Colleagues,

I have succeeded to download the excellent article by Kellner and Taber. But I find a discrepancy between the position of this article and the one expressed by Achim Bayer. Prof. Bayer writes:

For [scholars who have a working knowledge of Sanskrit and a record of publications on Indian Yogācāra in reputable academic sources], there was never any doubt that classical Yogācāra sources, such as Vasubandhu's Twenty Verses, teach that the material world is a mere mental projection.

But Kellner and Tabor write:

Wayman 1979, Kochumuttom 1982, Hall 1986, Hayes 1988, Oetke 1992, King 1998, and most recently
Lusthaus 2002 can all be seen as denying that Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda is idealism in the sense defined, though in somewhat different ways.

Well, I don't mean to pin people down, but it seems, after all, that there has been room for debate on the matter among trained specialists who know Sanskrit. Would that be right?

Ron

 

Dear Colleagues,

I have succeeded to download the excellent article by Kellner and Taber. But I find a discrepancy between the position of this article and the one expressed by Achim Bayer. Prof. Bayer writes:

For [scholars who have a working knowledge of Sanskrit and a record of publications on Indian Yogācāra in reputable academic sources], there was never any doubt that classical Yogācāra sources, such as Vasubandhu's Twenty Verses, teach that the material world is a mere mental projection.

But Kellner and Tabor write:

Wayman 1979, Kochumuttom 1982, Hall 1986, Hayes 1988, Oetke 1992, King 1998, and most recently
Lusthaus 2002 can all be seen as denying that Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda is idealism in the sense defined, though in somewhat different ways.

Well, I don't mean to pin people down, but it seems, after all, that there has been room for debate on the matter among trained specialists who know Sanskrit. Would that be right?

Ron

 

Hi. I'm writing off-the-cuff here, but I was intrigued by the idea of a debate between Hopkins and Kapstein on idealism in Yogācāra. I suspect that what lies behind this is a conflation of two things. First, one of the loudest and most idiosyncratic voices in discussions in this (or, indeed, any other) area was Alex Wayman, who had a real bee in his bonnet about insisting that that Cittamātra was not tantamount to idealism. (He also insisted strenuously at one point at an AOS meeting that kāraṇa did not mean "cause," but that was Alex...) Second, there was a feisty debate between Wayman and Hopkins that played out, if I remember correctly, over Wayman's translation of part of the sNgags rim chen mo, in the Journal of the Tibet Society, ca. early-mid 1980s. Maybe these got reconfigured as a Hopkins/Kapstein debate?

Christian

I'm rather taken aback by this discussion. First, it's simply outrageous for any discussion of yogacara and phenomenological tools without including the man whose career included moving interpretation of Buddhism in the correct direction: Herbert V. Guenther.

Admittedly, Guenther is a difficult read. Those who've read Jeff Kripal's Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion will understand Guenther's work falling more into the emerging tertium quid of 'consciousness based' studies and liberative/transformational psychologies rooted in cartography of dormant human potentials. As such, discourse concerned with 'schools and doctrines' merely repeats erroneous Western European colonialist discourse of both monotheism in religion and the monotheism inherent in Scientism, both suffering from the Gnosis Deficiency Disorder! Ironically, just yesterday a certain Buddhist scholar and I concluded visionary leadership among knowing senior scholars in Buddhist studies would at this point declare nearly two centuries of achievement to be a condition of shackled within Golden Handcuff, declare a mistrial, then kickstart the effort into satisfactory action.
Guenther and Conze both held the meaning of a text ultimately mandates its interlocutor/scholar immerse themself gaining competency in its methods of achieving altered states of consciousness or an epistemological gnosis. Looking for doctrines and schools well serves the sense of historicism and histrionics so habitual to monotheism while leaving aside the vital matters of meaning and transformational understanding of the nature of Mind inherent in buddhist meta-praxis.

Guenther exemplied the sort of mandatory transdisciplinarity needed for informed if not intelligent discourse regarding the nature and function of any buddhist meta-therapeutic, particularly those oriented to attaining transforms to peak performance.

Given establishment of Esalen in 1962 and its iconic presence as the Mountain of a revolution in consciousness research - a movement now approaching its 60th anniversary, perhaps a few brave souls in the realm of Bukkyogaku might venture into the realms of consciousness sutras and meta-praxis alert us to the existence of as matters of utmost soul-making. So begins an authentic bukkyogaku.

Dear Colleagues,

Jay L. Garfield and Jan Westerhoff, ed. "Madhyamaka and Yogacara: Allies or Rivals?" (Oxford University Press, 2015) is of relevance to this discussion. Eviatar Shulman (“Nagarjuna the Yogacarin? Vasubandhu the Madhyamkia? On the Middle-Way between Realism and Antirealism," ib. 184-212) criticizes the Madhyamaka-Realist for using the verses on the two truths (MMK 24.8-10) to argue that “Nagarjuna has affirmed relational existence after all” (188). and thus “to blunt Nagarjuna’s thorough refutation of existence; they prefer to say that Nagarjuna denies only a certain type of existence—substantial, inherent existence” (190). Shulman espouses a Madhyamaka closer to Vasubandhu: “In an empty world, all is a manifestation of ignorant understanding, or desire, or the conditioning manipulation of our previous, unenlightened deeds” (197-8). Both Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu “deny a truly existent, objective reality, and they see what remains to depend on subjectivity” (207). This is a kind of idealism (at least as much as the transcendental idealism of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason). Rather than pin down one correct interpretation of Nagarjuna or any other Madhyamaka or Yogacara thinker, “we should be more interested in the places to which these forms of thinking can take us” (208).

Joseph O'Leary

Dear Ron,

Thanks for your posting. We possibly all agree that there is no benefit in singling out specific authors and engaging in a kind of ad-hominem criticism.

On the other hand, there is a dire need to evaluate the secondary sources addressing the issue whether or not external phenomena are a mere mental projection.

It might be worthwhile to ask, in the course of this evaluation, "Has this author spent a significant part of his or her professional life dealing with the original Sanskrit texts ascribed to Maitreyanātha, Asanga and Vasubandhu with a serious academic methodology?"

Considering how much is written on (un)disputed academic issues such as the factuality of climate change or the effectivity of vaccinations, the evaluation of secondary sources seems to be quite essential, let alone reading the primary texts mentioned above, at least in good translations.

Best of success with your article!

Achim Bayer
Kanazawa Seiryo University

Dear Ron,

reading through the responses to your query, it might be worth adding that the question of mind and matter in the writings of Maitreyanātha, Asanga and Vasubandhu actually involves two different questions:

1. Whether or not material phenomena are a mere mental projection.
2. Whether or not mind is inherently existent.

The two questions are related, but they need to be treated as distinct.

The first question must clearly be answered as "yes", and this is the objection that specialists have against Kochumuttom's "experience" theory.
The second question should, in my opinion, be ultimately be answered as "no", but this is probably not undisputed due to the phrasing of some original passages.

Whenever these two questions are blurred in secondary literature, it could be a sign that the source should be taken with a grain of salt. It seems that at times, authors holding to the "non-idealist" theory try to defend Yogācāra against Candrakīrti's unjustified criticism, which is of course a laudable undertaking.

Again, best of success with your ariticle, and looking forward reading it,

Achim Bayer
Kanazawa Seiryo University.

I agree with Achim Bayer that these (and other questions) are often blurred, but it also seems important to bear in mind that Buddhist philosophical elaborations of Vijñānavāda do not reduce just to the question of mind and matter, and of whether material phenomena are mental projections.

There's a richer tapestry of problems that are being investigated, including what evidence there might be for the existence of external objects (usually presumed to be material), and if there is none, what follows from that. These are debates that have occupied Buddhists and their brahminical (in the loose sense) interlocutors for a long time.

At the risk of oversimplifying, scholars with a stronger focus on and interest in logic and argumentation (specifically the tradition initiated by Dignaga and Dharmakirti) also tend to approach the subject more from the viewpoint of arguments, argument strategies, and the positions that these might or might not support. It's not just a question of what positions one can "extract" from earlier Yogacara literature (meaning up to and including Vasubandhu, what Achim probably has in mind), but also of what arguments Yogacara and associated later philosophers use and develop in order to support views such as that there are no external objects independently of consciousness. Here there is much that is still left to be explored, especially in Dharmakirti and in later authors (cf. also Matthew Kapstein's paper that he referred to in an earlier contribution to this thread).

For those interested in pursuing this further (this might well go beyond Ron's immediate questions), here's a final self-advertisement of a paper where I tried to analyze Dharmakirti's arguments on the matter, in a rather blunt and survey-style fashion (and compare them to Vasubandhu): "Proving Idealism in Indian Buddhist Philosophy: Vasubandhu and Dharmakīrti", Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy, ed. Jonardon Ganeri, online at:

http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199314621.001.0...

Also available here:

https://www.academia.edu/26144507/Proving_Idealism_in_Indian_Buddhist_Ph...

With best regards,

Birgit Kellner

Dear Colleagues,

many thanks to Birgit for her expert remarks. I do agree that the doctrine of early Yogācāra does much more than simply answer the question whether or not material phenomena are a mere mental projection to the positive.

This point is, as far as I see, undisputed among scholars who professionally deal with the Yogācāra texts attributed to Maitreya, Asanga and Vasubandhu in their Sanskrit original.

More profoundly, one may then ask whether mind itself does inherently, or absolutely, exist. Although it might seem absurd at first sight, the non-existence of external objects could lead to the conclusion that the subjective mind does not exist either, or even, that one's ordinary conception of "existence" might not withstand closer scrutiny.

Nonetheless, the point in this thread seems to be that some authors have claimed that external, material objects have not been explicitly denied in early Yogācāra sources. This is demonstrably inaccurate.

The discussions by later authors, such as Sthiramati, Dignāga and Dharmakīrti are a source of great wisdom and it is very important that they are studied by specialists. Especially, I would say, it should be made clear that Dignāga and Dharmakīrti take a "Sautrāntika" stance when writing for specific audiences, following the example of the Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya. "Sautrāntika" systematics do not deny the existence of external phenomena, at least not as plainly as we find it in the Thirty Verses and the Twenty Verses.

P. Jaini has produced convincing evidence that even the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya was written by an author who ultimately adhered to the Yogācāra view.

As for the "Sautrāntika" stance of later authors, I may humbly refer to some arbitrary notes on pages 7 and 3 of the following publicaiton:

https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/bayer/bayer-20...

Nonetheless, the issue of "Sautrāntika" is complex and by far not settled among specialists.

I would suggest that in this thread, we should stick to the core issue at stake, namely that the classical Yogācāra tradition designates external phenomena as mere mental fabrications.

If we make this issue more complex than it is, we risk confusing interested readers who already have to work their way through a mass of complex and contradictory material, only to find, in the end, that the early Yogācāra tradition does indeed declare external phenomena to be mental fabrications.

Again, many thanks for the stimulating remarks,

Achim Bayer
associate professor
Kanazawa Seiryo University

PS. Time will not permit me to enter a discussion on the topics of Sautrāntika and the logicians.