Integrating Yogacara in Your Practice

Guo Gu offers a practical four-step process for integrating the Yogacara teachings in your practice to transform thought and emotion.

By Guo Gu

Photo by Sheehan H. Ahmed.

Buddhist practitioners are all too familiar with the ups and downs of meditative experience, but most have no idea why certain experiences occur while others never happen. When our practice hits a low point, we don’t know how to pull ourselves out. And even when our practice is strong, we don’t know how to sustain it. In truth, on those rare occasions when we do slip into a peaceful, clear state of mind in meditation, we’re most often like a blind cat that has caught a dead mouse.

Human experience is complex; what shapes our lives changes from moment to moment with our perception. From the Yogacara, or consciousness-only, perspective, our subtle momentary mental states, or factors, determine the quality and experience of our lives. We are habituated to behave and perceive in patterned ways. If we want to change, we must transform the patterns of our mental life. One of the primary reasons we struggle with this is that we don’t know what’s present in our minds. When we lack awareness of the workings of our minds, we misinterpret our experiences, creating all sorts of problems for ourselves.

If we can open our hearts and minds to what our dharma ancestors have to tell us, these teachings can offer us valuable guidance.

Yogacara played a central role in the development of most Mahayana Buddhist traditions. First systemized in India during the fifth century by brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, and popularized in China during the seventh century by Xuanzang, Yogacara teachings are deeply embedded in Abhidharma—the second basket of the Tripitaka, which contains schematic classifications and lists summarizing the philosophical, psychological, epistemological, and metaphysical teachings of the earliest Buddhist scriptures. As such, Yogacara can be difficult to appreciate without a firm grasp of that body of literature, and most in-depth works on Yogacara in English, until recently, have been written in a dry scholarly fashion. For those seeking practical guidance on how to live according to Buddhist wisdom and compassion, it may be difficult to see how a collection of dusty volumes of long, often repetitive treatises filled with unfamiliar words and ideas could be of help on the path. But if we can open our hearts and minds to what our dharma ancestors have to tell us, these teachings can offer us valuable guidance.

The central teaching of Yogacara is simple: everything is created or mediated by consciousness. In life we experience happiness and anger, highs and lows, pleasure and sadness. We believe these emotions are the result of a world that exists outside us, and so we invest endless effort in trying to perpetuate, possess, change, and control things “out there” so we can be happy. Yet our attempts are always met by unpredictability and uncertainty.

Yogacara teachings show us how, in the fluctuating stream of our experiences, we persistently and irrationally imagine two constants against which and through which we interpret and evaluate life: self and others. In traditional Buddhist language, these are atman and dharmas, “self” and “things.” Yogacara proposes that our sense of self is an illusion and that the world is a construct—both are fantasies. To see this clearly, we must explore these two constants in light of Yogacara’s teaching on the three natures: imagined nature, interdependent nature, and perfected nature.

The Three Natures

Most people equate a sense of self with perceptual and conceptual experiences—feelings and ideas. After all, feelings and ideas are all we’ve ever known about ourselves. Our self-narratives, values, and knowledge are based on them. What unites these experiences is our ongoing assumption that there is a me, I, and mine at the center of them. Moreover, we can see experientially that the degree of our suffering or happiness depends on the intensity of our attachment to views. For example, we like those who agree with our political opinions and we demonize those who don’t. Neuroscience tells us we are synaptically wired to be self-conscious, self-referential. Yogacara teachings tell us this tendency is subliminal, always seeking to perpetuate itself, and deluded. It contributes to our pattern of self-grasping.

The problem isn’t the wiring, though, or our tendency to simulate, in our consciousness, realities of ourselves. The problem is our attachment to our own sense of self as separate, independent, permanent, and ultimately correct. This attachment is a kind of stubborn fixation. Not only do we vilify others as enemies if things don’t go our way, we even objectify ourselves as a thing for self-criticism. When we examine more closely, this reified self is simply a continuous flow of momentary states of feelings and ideas, which are the contents of our consciousness. Mistaking the contents of our minds for who we are is like mistaking furniture in a room for the room. Yogacara calls this way of living self-referentially the imagined nature of existence.

Yogacara also offers us a way out of this dilemma, directing us to become aware of the momentary states of feelings and ideas—the mental factors that are responsible for shaping who we are. When our consciousness is under the influence of certain negative mental factors, we experience vexations and create actions (karma) that lead to suffering. When our mind is influenced by wholesome mental factors, we experience joy and contentment. The point of Yogacara is to transform unwholesome obstacles into wholesome opportunities for awakening.

Our mental factors not only reify a sense of self, they also shape our experience of the world. Conventional belief tells us the world exists “out there” as reality, and that we are both products and producers of the world. This is one fundamental reason we continue with our futile attempts to perpetuate, possess, and control everything around us. Yet neuroscientists tell us that what we experience “out there” is merely a complex simulation that occurs in our brains through synapses and neurotransmitters, and that these simulations are deeply influenced by our specific psychological makeup. Yogacara teachings agree with this but push it further, adding that our sense of the world is the result of the coming together of numerous past and present interdependent conditions. Yogacara calls this the interdependent nature of reality. This understanding challenges the distinctions we tend to make between inside and outside, body and mind, experience and experiencer. Yet we don’t tend to live as though that were true.

Moment by moment, we are already free.

These two concepts—imagined nature and interdependent nature—point to the essence and function of reality: emptiness and clarity. Contrary to commonly held misconception, emptiness does not mean vacuity or cessation. It simply means everything is in relationship with everything else (spatial emptiness) and has endless potential for change (temporal emptiness). Our mind’s original nature is empty. Consciousness is defined not by its content, the mental factors, just as the furniture doesn’t define a room. Emptiness gives us the freedom to rearrange our mental furniture to make the room more pleasant for ourselves and others.

Clarity is the natural function of cognition through our senses: seeing form, hearing sounds, and understanding concepts. This is the natural way we are wired. In this way, all of our experiences are already complete. Everything that needs to be done has already been accomplished. Self-referentiality is just an overlay. There’s no need for it. Moment by moment, we are already free. From the Chan, or Zen perspective, this is Yogacara’s teaching on the perfected nature of reality, or as I like to say, “It’s all good!”

Yogacara texts use the analogy of a rope to describe these three natures of reality. First, we typically don’t see things as they are. Our mental factors constantly skew the way we experience the world. We encounter a rope but see a snake. This is the imagined nature. Second, everything is made up of everything else, interrelated and interdependent. There is no separateness of self and others. Rope is made up of hemp, non-rope; this is the interdependent nature of things. Similarly, what we consider to be mind is made up of momentary mental factors, some of which are wholesome, while others are unwholesome. Third, not only is everything interrelated but there’s actually nothing, in here or out there. When an awakened mind perceives that self and others are fabrications, openness and freedom result. There is neither suffering nor the cessation of suffering. All beings are already liberated. Buddhahood is already attained. This is the perfected nature of all things.

These three natures are something we can work with anytime, anywhere. But to do so, we must first familiarize ourselves with Yogacara’s conceptual framework.

The Eight Consciousnesses

Yogacara details eight types of consciousnesses, which are present at any given moment in time. These eight are also known as the primary minds, or “mind-kings.” The first six are seeing-consciousness, hearing-consciousness, smelling-consciousness, tasting-consciousness, tactile-consciousness, and discriminating-consciousness. The seventh is self-referential-consciousness, and the eighth is the storehouse-consciousness—a kind of repository of all residual impressions from the actions of our body, speech, and mind. These impressions become seed-like latent potentials that may mature in the future when the right conditions trigger them. From a Yogacara perspective, these eight constitute the infrastructure of mind and are sustained by the corresponding sense faculties and objects.

The sense objects—whatever things “out there” we may experience—are never perceived by primary minds devoid of mental factors, nor are mental factors unaccompanied by primary minds. Yogacara teachings list fifty-one mental states (see sidebar) in a hierarchy of wholesome, unwholesome, and other groupings. At any given moment, these mental factors shape the primary minds and determine our experience. Our faculties, if flawed, also shape our experience. In other words, the primary mind and the mental factors therein, along with the objects and the faculties used to perceive them, all operate in tandem. The primary minds are like the palm of a hand, and the mental factors are like the fingers that grab objects. These two are never separate; they’re interdependent.

For example, if a particular wholesome mental factor is present when we engage in meditation, our experience of meditation is likely affected. Likewise, if we are possessed by subtle negative mental factors, such as craving for good results or jealousy of another practitioner’s meditative experience, then no matter what we do or how hard we try, no positive experience will result. Therefore, knowing the architecture of our minds, along with the workings of mental factors and our sense faculties, is essential.

Wholesome and Unwholesome Factors

Yogacara texts name eleven wholesome factors. Of these, two deserve particular attention: diligence and vigilance. Diligence is a joyful and wholehearted practice of virtue, without laziness; vigilance guards against outflows of virtue and keeps one alert. The first ensures active engagement with practice, and the second protects our practice and clarifies the mind. These two work in tandem; if we don’t practice both of them in meditation, then whatever wholesome state we may experience will either be soiled by vexations or carelessly fade away.

In order to incorporate these two factors, we must ensure that we have the correct attitude in our meditation. Meditation practice should not feel like a chore but rather something we actually enjoy. That serenity or joy leads to diligence. In embracing this joyful and wholehearted diligence, we transform a scattered mind into a concentrated mind, and a concentrated mind into a unified mind. With vigilance, we protect that cultivation.

Over time, diligence and vigilance give rise to equanimity, which is a state free from exertion or contrived effort. Equanimity is not only a kind of clarity; it is also the entry point to awakening. People are easily pushed and pulled by passing thoughts and feelings, and too often, when practitioners cultivate concentration and insight (shamatha and vipashyana), their practice becomes lopsided. Too much concentration leads to a stagnant trance state, while too much focus stirs up wandering thoughts. Only in the perfect equipoise of the two does one perceive self-nature, or emptiness, and realize awakening. Diligence and vigilance prime the mind for equanimity. In this same way, all of the wholesome mental factors are necessary and interrelated. The more we explore the mental factors, the more skilled we become at meditation.

But just cultivating wholesome factors is not enough. Practitioners must strive to remove unwholesome factors, which are obstacles to awakening. The root unwholesome factors or vexations give rise to the twenty secondary vexations; each of these is an extension of the three poisons. In many cases, the secondary unwholesome factors differ only in their intensity.

Not all mental factors are easily classified as either wholesome or unwholesome. The four indeterminate factors might be considered neutral, or they can be swayed under the influence of wholesome or unwholesome mental factors. For example, if we commit a crime or do something harmful, regret has the potential to prevent us from doing it again. If, however, regret turns to obsessive guilt, this mental state can become unwholesome. Sleep is another indeterminate factor—we need to sleep in order to remain clearheaded and energetic, but we must also take care not to become lax or lazy.

In order to integrate Yogacara teachings into your practice, it’s not enough to memorize the mental factors and intellectualize them. Practitioners engaged in the Yogacara project of identifying the numerous negative mental factors run the risk of reifying them as discrete things that must be destroyed. This can easily become another form of greed or aversion, fueled by ignorance. In order to truly appreciate these teachings, it’s important to remember that they, like all Buddhist teachings, are simply expedient means.

Integrating Yogacara in Your Practice

Yogacara provides meditators with a useful conceptual framework for understanding the workings of mind, but we also need a practical model for integrating the Yogacara teachings and transforming our thoughts and emotions. For this, I teach a four-step process: recognizing, embracing, transforming, and freeing or letting go. These four steps are neither theoretical nor linear. In order to be of use, they must be experiential, reciprocal, and continuous.

In essence, we are embracing the truth that our own perceptions shape the world.

Let’s examine how this process works in light of what happens when we become distracted during meditation. Many meditators mistakenly believe it’s the mental factor of conception, which enables us to create symbols through words and language, that causes distraction in meditation, but that is not actually the case. Rather, it is craving, one of the unwholesome factors, that causes us to lose attention. When we are distracted, it’s most often because we wish the moment to be other than it is. We may be subtly seeking calm and clarity, so the unwholesome mental factor of craving for something better has set in. The fact that other people may not be distracted by whatever is calling our attention means the external stimulus can’t be responsible; we are distracted because of our own craving for something different. We need to first recognize this.

In order to embrace this reality, the second step, we need to accept the reality of both our own craving and our distraction. In essence, we are embracing the truth that our own perceptions shape the world.

To transform this experience, the third step, we must relax the whole body. When we become distracted or stressed, cortisol is released throughout our bodies, making us tense. In such situations, we are at a disadvantage to do anything about our craving and tend to default to our habitual tendency to blame objects “out there” for disturbing us. To short-circuit this tension, I teach progressive relaxation, using sensation as a guide to scan the body, section by section. From head to toe, we recognize the tension and relax each part as a foundation for meditation. In doing so, we learn to embody and integrate the Yogacara insight and avoid being in our heads. This method can also be used anytime we experience tension, whether psychological or physical. When our bodies are relaxed, our breath becomes calmer, and the presence of craving will naturally dissipate. Only then can the negative mental factor be transformed, allowing the wholesome factor to be. When we can do this, we are ready to return to our method of practice without getting caught up with the object of our distraction.

The final step is freeing ourselves from vexations, or harmful mental conditionings. This ability develops over time through engaging in the above practice until it becomes second nature. The practice of recognizing, embracing, and transforming prepares us to relax our grip on our fixations, which is the first step to letting go. Once our grip is loosened, we give ourselves room for insight into the imagined, interconnected, and perfected nature of this moment. We are released.

It’s important to familiarize and explore this on your own, as well as with a teacher. Begin gradually, practicing with only one or two mental factors for a couple of weeks. Then, move onto a few other factors for two more weeks, and so on. Practicing in this way brings Yogacara teachings to life. Not only will you deepen your meditation practice but the quality of your life will also improve. These teachings are nothing less than a means to discover your perfected nature within.

Rev. Guo Gu

Guo Gu

Guo Gu is a Chan teacher and professor of Buddhism and East Asian religions at Florida State University. The founder and teacher of the Tallahassee Chan Center in Florida, he is the trainer of all Western dharma teachers in the Dharma Drum lineage of master Sheng Yen; in 2020, he also founded the socially engaged, intra-denominational Buddhist organization Dharma Relief. His books include Essence of Chan and Silent Illumination (2021).