Read “Mere Perception in Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses” from Making Sense of Mind Only: Why Yogācāra Buddhism Matters

An excerpt from Making Sense of Mind Only: Why Yogācāra Buddhism Matters by William S. Waldron — as reviewed in the Winter 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide

By William S. Waldron

This excerpt from Making Sense of Mind Only: Why Yogācāra Buddhism Matters by William S. Waldron — as reviewed in the Winter 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide — is provided courtesy of the publisher, Wisdom Publications. We thank Wisdom for sharing this with Buddhadharma’s readers, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

Mere Perception in Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses

 width=Vasubandhu was one of Indian Buddhism’s most influential writers. We have already looked at some parts of his Treasury of Abhidharma and its auto commentary, still considered classic presentations of Abhidharma, but he also wrote many wide-ranging treatises and commentaries on various aspects of Indian thought.189 Two of his short texts, the Thirty Verses (Triṃśikā) and the Twenty Verses (Viṃśatikā),190 were influential expo sitions of the Yogācāra system as a whole and of mere perception (vijñapti mātra), respectively. A compilation of Indian commentaries on these two, Demonstration of Mere Perception (Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi), was central to the Faxiang school founded by Xuanzang, the great Chinese pilgrim and translator, in the seventh century.191 This chapter is devoted to Vasuban dhu’s Twenty Verses and his explanation of them in his own commentary, the Viṃśatikāvṛtti.

What Counts as Context?

Surely, we have all wondered at times whether the objects that appear in our world—the trees and mountains, tables and chairs, family and friends—are really there in the way that they seem to be, external to and independent of our perception of them. But how would we know? Do we have the ability to step outside of our senses and thoughts in order to see reality as it is, in and of itself? Or are we effectively bound by our cognitive faculties and cultural categories? And if so, how would realizing that affect the way we engage our individual and social worlds? These are some of the issues raised by Vasubandhu in his Twenty Verses.

Most traditional and modern scholars interpret Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses as if its primary orientation were ontological, concerning the “existence of external objects.” We, however, will take a different tack, interpreting it in light of the Yogācāra ideas we have been considering—that is, analyzing perception and illusion within the general framework of dependent arising and the specific perspective of cognitive constructivism.

As we have seen, humans tend to be naïve realists, to assume the “reality” of the world as we experience it, as if we were passively receiving “data” just as they are rather than actively participating in their ongoing construction. But from the point of view of both classical Buddhism and contemporary cognitive science, such simple realism needs to be critically examined.192 The Twenty Verses treats apparent objects not as they are “in themselves” but rather, as Werner Heisenberg, one of the architects of quantum theory, put it, as “part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; nature exposed to our method of questioning” (1971, 81). To realize that our perceptions, our vijñapti, are constructed is not only to realize that they are inseparable from our engagement with them. It is also to acknowledge that we have the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to construct worlds that are conducive to the well-being of all beings—reflecting, in Mahāyāna terms, the bodhisattva commitment to alleviate suffering and lead all beings to liberation. This is the rationale for deconstructing our naïve realism, our blinding enchantment with our own creations. Or so Vasubandhu suggests in this short but profound dialogue.

The Twenty Verses is usually considered the locus classicus of the idealist interpretation of Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra. According to that interpretation, Vasubandhu denies the existence of external objects altogether, claiming that they are mere mental projections.193 It is not hard to see why people come to this conclusion. The first few lines of the Twenty Verses make some startling statements. Citing a Mahāyāna sūtra, Vasubandhu declares:

In the Mahāyāna, everything in the three realms is established as nothing but perception (vijñaptimātra).He then states that the term vijñapti is synonymous with the other Buddhist terms for mind or consciousness we have already examined: citta, manas, and vijñāna. And “nothing but” (mātra: “just,” “only,” “mere”) is used in order to exclude any object or objective referent (artha) (adverse 1).

But what does he mean by an object or objective referent? What Vasubandhu seems to be saying is that the objects in the external world are nothing but perceptions, appearances, and cognitive phenomena of some kind. But should we take this at face value, as if he were claiming that there literally is no world out there and that all the objects we (seem to) experience are nothing but figments of our individual and collective imaginations?

Something like this has been the standard interpretation of this text and for much of Yogācāra, for many centuries, in India and Tibet. But after spending the last few chapters deciphering Yogācāra texts—examining their concepts enfolded in multiple frames of meaning—we should be wary of taking such passages at face value. How then might we better understand them? An obvious, indeed crucial, approach would be to look at its context—more than any other Yogācāra text, selected passages from the Twenty Verses have been extracted from their historical and doctrinal context and interpreted in various ways, often quite literally. So we need to take contexts into account. But this immediately raises its own thorny question: Which counts as context?

There are some texts, like the voluminous Stages of Yogic Practice (Yogācārabhūmi), which was compiled over a long period, that contain heterogeneous elements and demonstrate obvious internal development. One of the main tools for understanding these developments is reconstructing its compositional history (Kragh 2013). In the case of the Stages of Yogic Practice, this internal evidence is both primary and plentiful. The Twenty Verses is not like this. It is a short text—just ten pages—composed as a dialogue with a Buddhist “realist” of the Abhidharma persuasion that relies on concepts and models it does not explain and raises issues whose import is not entirely clear from the text alone. Why vijñapti, why seeds? Why question the reality of our “world,” comparing it to dreams, hells, and hallucinations? And who is Vasubandhu debating anyway?

To address these questions, we will consider multiple frames of relevance. First, we will consider the larger historical context since Vasubandhu’s text is critiquing multiple strands of Buddhist and Hindu thought. Second, in order to understand technical terms he does not explain, we will consider other works by Vasubandhu as well as other Yogācāra texts. And last, we will consider the Twenty Verses as a whole, especially where Vasubandhu tells us what the purpose of vijñaptimātra is. We cannot hope to understand a sharply focused and technical treatise like the Twenty Verses without taking these multiple contexts into account.

This approach differs from the influential “received” tradition of many Indian and Tibetan commentators, who tend to interpret Vasubandhu— indeed Yogācāra as a whole—from perspectives devised several centuries later. To successfully debate other Indian traditions, later Buddhist systematizers, beginning with Dignāga (480–540 CE), sought to provide more broadly acceptable rationales and justifications for their distinctive doctrines. Roughly speaking, this led them to couch their doctrines more in terms of what exists than in the earlier Buddhist terms of how things arise. This is a marked shift in Indian Buddhist thinking, which profoundly influenced how later Buddhist thinkers interpreted their own earlier traditions. Put simply, readers will interpret the Twenty Verses quite differently if they think Vasubandhu is primarily answering an ontological question, “What truly exists?” rather than a cognitive one, “How do illusions arise?” Similarly, mere perception (vijñaptimātra) is understood quite differently if it is taken as an ontological claim rather than as a critical, corrective concept.

Our approach sees Vasubandhu and classical Yogācāra as addressing issues raised within their own historical milieu and couching them in those terms: those of dependent arising, the emptiness of all dharmas, and the orientation and ideas of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra. We will briefly review these three contexts.

Context 1: Objects in earlier Buddhist perspectives

As we have seen, the status of objects in Buddhist traditions is complex, both historically and philosophically. In the early Buddhist perspective of dependent arising, all phenomena we experience occur with and depend upon various causes and conditions. This is especially so with our awareness of the world around us. What we experience as our world depends upon our faculties and what they are structured to respond to. In this early Buddhist view, what we experience as “objects” are constructs dependent on multiple causes and conditions. This was no simple empiricism, where what we perceive is simply what is “out there.” That would be an unwarranted, “realist” interpretation superimposed upon the teaching of dependent arising.196

The Abhidharma traditions departed from this simple but profound approach in their efforts to systematize the vast and variegated teachings of the Buddha. They analyzed our cognitive processes and the experiences they give rise to into their purportedly irreducible elements, their dharmas. To rigorously describe and communicate this required that dharmas have clear and stable definitions. Accordingly, the Abhidharmists defined the essence (svabhāva) or distinctive characteristic (svalakṣaṇa) of each dharma. Moreover, in contrast to our conventional understanding of the world, with its apparent objects and entities, they claimed that only dhar mas are truly “real” and that only analysis in terms of dharmas accurately describes what truly exists.197

One of these Abhidharma realists is the interlocutor in Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses. The debate over whether or not dharmas are ultimately real in this sense—and especially whether the specific dharma called object (artha) has an essence or distinctive characteristic—is arguably the main point of the text (verse 10). The arguments Vasubandhu is making are raised against this realist position that an artha has/is an essence with an ultimate characteristic, and his positions are therefore in basic agreement with the early Mahāyāna ideas we examined above.

That is, early Mahāyānists argued that the claim that a dharma has an ultimate nature or characteristic contradicts the view of dependent arising. All dharmas, they argue, are “empty” of such essence. Rather, the existence of dharmas as apparently discrete elements depends upon them being designated; that is, it depends upon our own conceptual imputations. Moreover, they continue, even emptiness is empty in that it too is a provisional designation (not a view) devised to remedy our tendencies to impute essence. Early Yogācārins similarly criticize the idea that cognitive objects (artha) have an essential nature, but more on the grounds that such apparent “objects” are the products of complex cognitive processes and are only known through our interaction with them. Hence, what we experience are mere cognitive constructs, mere perceptions (vijñaptimātra).

Context 2: Objects in other Yogācāra texts

Our second contextual frame considers how cognitive objects are treated in other Yogācāra texts. One aim of Yogācāra Buddhism is to free us from the bondage and blindness of our unexamined assumptions. One way of doing this is to show how our perceptions (vijñapti) are largely constructed by our faculties, informed by our past experiences, colored by our emotional dispositions, and shaped by our cultural and linguistic conditioning.

To this end, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu repeatedly critique our assumption that our perceptions give us unquestionable knowledge that truly corresponds to “real” objects in the world. If the appearances of such objects are mere constructs, inextricable from our cognitive processes in interaction with an environment, then they are empty of any absolute and independent nature. This insight helps us to stop grasping at the “things” that so consistently, so reliably, let us down. Although the Twenty Verses does not present this larger context in much detail, we know Vasubandhu knew it well based on his own extensive body of work.198

Yogācārins argue that forms our conscious perceptions take come about due to the underlying cognitive processes that serve as their support and seed, without which our awareness of identifiable objects would not arise in the first place. These forms are thus a function of how the underlying awareness (ālayavijñāna) itself arises. On the one hand, ālayavijñāna arises based upon our material sense faculties, the inner appropriation of our predispositions, and so on. Correlative with these, ālayavijñāna arises as a vague perception (vijñapti) of our surrounding world, whose form is both subtle and obscure. Hence our conscious perceptions arise in the forms they do—as selves, objects, and so forth—precisely because they have already been preconfigured (parikalpita) based on our faculties and subconscious predispositions. We can now see why Vasubandhu claims that the Buddha taught the concept of vijñaptimātra in order to introduce people to the emptiness of dharmas (verse 10).

Although much of the foregoing is not explicitly stated in this short, thematically focused text, Vasubandhu draws upon these two contexts for both the practical framework and the technical terminology he uses in the Twenty Verses, as will we in our interpretation.

Context 3: An overview of the Twenty Verses

Since the Twenty Verses has been the primary reference for idealist interpretations of Yogācāra, any alternative understanding of vijñaptimātra must make better sense of the text itself. This is one of our primary aims. Just as important, though, the Twenty Verses presents trenchant critiques of materialism and naïve realism that are as relevant today as they were some sixteen centuries ago. The Twenty Verses is also an engaging read, depicting the practice of philosophical debate in classical India—first Vasubandhu expresses his own ideas and then presents objections from the perspective of a Buddhist realist of the Abhidharma persuasion, which he in turn critiques. The dialogic character of the text makes for lively academic reading.

Briefly, the argument proceeds as follows: although there appear to be objects (artha) in the world independent of ourselves, what we actually perceive are just perceptions or cognitive constructs, and an understanding of this is the entry to understanding that all dharmas are empty and have no unchanging essence.

The Buddhist realist objects: but didn’t the Buddha himself teach that cognitive awareness arises from objects impinging on our sense faculties? Aren’t these objects “real”?

Echoing the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, Vasubandhu replies that the Buddha analyzed our cognitive processes into objects and their respective faculties with a “hidden intention”: to show that we are not a single, unchanging agent but an aggregation of interactive processes—that is, the selflessness of persons. But his ultimate aim, Vasubandhu explains, was to teach the Mahā yāna idea of the selflessness of dharmas. He did this by teaching that even the dharmas involved in our cognitive processes are not singular, unchanging entities with their own inherent characteristics; they are only vijñapti, which merely appear to be independent objects, faculties, and so forth. This, he claims, leads to the classical Mahāyāna understanding of the selflessness of dharmas.

Moreover, he continues, paralleling the idea of the emptiness of emptiness, the concept of mere perception is itself just another perception; it too lacks its own intrinsic essence. It is neither a foundational reality, mental or otherwise, nor a universal proposition about what truly “exists.”

This last point cautions us against reifying critical concepts. The stated purpose of teaching vijñaptimātra in the Twenty Verses is not to provide a new and improved ontology, such as: external objects do not truly exist but the “mind” that cognizes them does. Rather, it is to challenge our assumptions about our perceptions of the world around us, in much the same way that the early Buddhist idea of no-self was meant to challenge our assumptions about our personal identity, and the early Mahāyāna idea of emptiness was meant to challenge our assumptions about the nature of phenomena. Once our assumptions have been shaken to their core and we have learned how to stop imputing essences where they cannot be found, then we no longer need to hold on to the remedies, the concepts, that brought us to that realization. The overall trajectory of this process parallels Nāgārjuna’s use of emptiness, but the analyses here, reflecting the orientation of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, are directed toward the cognitive processes that underlie and drive such reifying tendencies.

We therefore need to examine Vasubandhu’s text closely. Otherwise, as with emptiness, mere perception could be interpreted nihilistically, as denying “external” objects or worlds altogether, or—at the same time— idealistically, as positing the real existence of “mind” alone. Ever the Mahāyānist, Vasubandhu is articulating a middle way between these extremes.

From Making Sense of Mind Only: Why Yogācāra Buddhism Matters by William S. Waldron. Wisdom Publications

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William S. Waldron

William S. Waldron got his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1990 after extensive travel and study in Asia with native Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese scholars and three years of research at Ōtani University in Kyoto, Japan. He has been teaching courses at Middlebury College since 1996 on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, comparative philosophies of mind, and theory and method in the study of religion. His publications focus on the Yogācāra school of Indian Buddhism in dialogue with modern thought. His first book, The Buddhist Unconscious: The Ālaya-Vijñāna in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought, was published by Routledge Curzon in 2003. He regularly gives talks and workshops at Dharma study groups in America and Asia, focusing on Yogācāra and contemporary topics. When he is not teaching, he may be found wandering the shores of Lake Huron or doing kora with his wife in Kathmandu, Nepal.