LECTURE: Karma, Science, and a Just Society: Yogācāra Causal Theory as a Social Philosophy

Lei Ying's picture

Dear Friends in Buddhist Studies,


You are warmly invited to a virtual talk by Jessica Zu, Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California, next Saturday afternoon. Here is more information:


Title: Karma, Science, and a Just Society: Yogācāra Causal Theory as a Social Philosophy

Date and time: October 16 (Saturday), 2021, 4 – 5:15 pm (Eastern Time)



In early twentieth-century China, against a background of the rising dominance of science and democracy, an ancient Buddhist idealism, Yogācāra (the school of consciousness-only), enjoyed increasing popularity, especially among the reform-minded intellectuals.

Why were a generation of young revolutionaries and progressive thinkers captivated by religious idealism? How could they promote scientific materialism and empirical studies and yet simultaneously dive into consciousness-only doctrines?

In this talk, I argue that the rise of modern Yogācāra hinges crucially on the power of its causal theory that provides a non-dual social ontology outside the Western impasse about whether social reality should be determined in terms of realism or idealism. As is well known, “social facts” was a modern analytic category at the core of sociology that could not be easily characterized as either objective or subjective existence. I showcase that, rather than merely participating in this imported conversation, the Buddhist intellectuals fundamentally changed the terms of the debate. More crucially, they offered a new vocabulary to talk about collective dynamics and social justice. By taking seriously this new vocabulary, we stand to learn more about the practices and assumptions that still undergird contemporary discourses about justice, equality, and collective flourishing.


Zoom link: https://amherstcollege.zoom.us/j/96640605274?pwd=aHlnS1ROMUd6d2daRWg2Q3hsOTdvQT09

Meeting ID: 966 4060 5274

Passcode: 526308


Thank you. We look forward to seeing you.



Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations

Amherst College

Contact email: leiying@amherst.edu

Here's the link to the recordings, for those of you who missed the lecture but are still interested in the topic.
The main argument is that most modern Yogācārins disliked scientific determinism and tried to explain social reality as something generated by shared karma—a constellation of Yogācāra doctrines that were theorized to describe the seemingly objective world. This talk argues that this logic does not work because shared karma directly links us back to deterministic moral universe (if modern Yogācārins accept scientific laws as correct karmic laws). This talk argues that the only exception was Lü Cheng, who theorized the social as intersubjective connections, using another set of Yogācāra doctrines. And Lü Cheng's Yogācāra social theory might work to explain the philosophical foundation of a karmic world view where everything is in flux but connected through intentional actions.

Jessica Zu