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Dan Lusthaus. Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch'eng Wei-shih Lun. Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism Series. London: Routledge, 2002. xii + 611 pages. Appendices, bibliography, index. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-7007-1186-4.

Reviewed by Charles Muller, Faculty of Humanities, Tōyō Gakuen University, for Philosophy East and West, vol. 27 Number 1, 2004, pages 135-139.

Western students of Yogācāra Buddhism have long been in need of full-length work that analyzes the key Yogācāra problematic concepts in a comprehensive manner. Due to the lack of such a text, many non-specialists have been forced to rely on the accounts provided in reference and survey works, which have tended to offer vague and confusing interpretations of what the tradition actually represents. In writing Buddhist Phenomenology, Dan Lusthaus has provided us with the most comprehensive and coherent response to these needs seen in recent years. Having spent decades reading descriptions of the school written by both classical and modern scholars that he considers to have missed the point in one way or another, the aim of his writing of Buddhist Phenomenology is to set the meaning of Yogācāra straight. In so doing, he provides a re-articulation of Yogācāra that amounts to a must-read for anyone with an interest in this seminal Buddhist system.

The core thread in this work lies in treating what Lusthaus takes to be the foremost of the misunderstandings of Yogācāra — the meaning of vijñapti-mātra, commonly rendered as "consciousness-only" or "mind-only." Standard introductions to Yogācāra have for several decades now, tended to explain vijñapti-mātra as either a Buddhist form of "idealism," or as a Jungian psychologism wherein the store consciousness is equated with a collective unconscious. Most introductions to "consciousness-only" continue to explain it as a "kind of happy realization and valorizing affirmation of consciousness as a reality, meaning something like 'true cognition' or 'consciousness is real.'" (p. 435) Lusthaus argues that Vasubandhu and his colleagues never intended such a valorizing signification, but in fact used the term vijñapti-mātra with "the intent of laying out an indictment of the problems that the activities of consciousness engender." (p. 435) The explanation of exactly how and why this is so necessitates a re-examination of a wide array of arcane Yogācāra concepts, but in a more fundamental sense—at least for Lusthaus (and we would suppose, for Vasubandhu and Xuanzang)—it implies a re-evaluation of one's understanding of the most basic concepts of Buddhism itself, including karma, dependent origination, and selflessness. Lusthaus' main vehicle for carrying out this project is Xuanzang's Cheng Wei-shih lun [CWSL], which Xuanzang composed for the express purpose of clarifying the meaning of Yogācāra in his own time. Lusthaus has been working on the CSWL for decades, and so this book also represents a culmination of his studies on that text.

We should not misunderstand based on the title that Lusthaus is attempting to write a work of East-West comparative philosophy that directly correlates Husserlian phenomenology and Buddhism. The reason for the reference to phenomenology, as explained in the first two chapters, is that despite the numerous fundamental differences that lie between Buddhism and Western philosophy, when we attempt to translate the discourse of a Buddhist tradition such as Yogācāra, which is epistemological in character (and not ontological or metaphysical as it is often construed to be), the branch of Western philosophy that has the language most applicable to the task is that of phenomenology, with such hallmark concepts as noesis/noema and hyle.

In these first two chapters Lusthaus gives a welcome review of the various permutations and usages of the term "idealism," as understood by different branches of philosophy so that we may, later in the book, see exactly why the term is not applicable to what is going on in Yogācāra. In the second part of the book (starting from Chapter Three), Lusthaus shows how Yogācāra fleshes out the fundamental components of the Buddha's teaching by examining the terms and concepts located within the discourse of four basic models from which Buddhism, in all its complexity, can be generated: These four are: (1) the five skandhas; (2) the twelve links of pratītya-samutpāda (dependent origination); (3) the tri-dhātu (triple realm), and (4) the trialectic practice of śīla, samādhi, and prajñā. Each concept is examined for its historical and etymological bases, as well as its place in the broad scheme of Buddhist doctrine as a whole. One of the most valuable aspects of Lusthaus' re-articulation of these categories is the plethora of alternative, and invariably more energetic and meaningful English renderings for Buddhist concepts (that have in many cases become stale in their established renderings), and his explanation of them with interesting and concrete metaphors drawn from everyday experience. For example, after a two page explanation of the various permutations of the seminal Buddhist concept of prajñā, Lusthaus sums up with:

Prajñā thus means "know-how." Tying shoelaces requires prajñā (the requisite know-how) as well as the skillful means (upāya). To tie someone else's laces, or to teach that person how to tie his/her own, or to tie one's own in order to make oneself available to help others is karuṇā. To claim one knows how to tie shoelaces is meaningless unless one can demonstrate this "knowledge" by actually doing it. Likewise, without upāya or karuṇā, there is no prajñā, since knowledge is only valid when it is demonstrable. Whether tying shoelaces or resolving the dukkhic dilemma, prajñā signifies the enabling insight. (p. 117)

Chapter Seven, which concludes the second section of the book, examines the relationship between the two most advanced forms of contemplation in Indian Buddhism, asaṃjñī-samāpatti (thoughtless concentration) and nirodha-samāpatti (concentration of complete cessation).

In the third section, entitled "Karma, Meditation, and Epistemology" the seminal Buddhist notion of karma receives deepened nuance based on an explanation of its plethora of Yogācāra permutations. The chapter on Mādhyamika shows us, by comparison, how Nāgārjuna and his descendants understood karma, giving a special focus on the personal aspect of karma known as saṃskāra. Chapter eleven shows how prajñā came to assume a position in Buddhist discourse greatly privileged over śīla and dhyāna. The author shows us when and where such a privileging tendency first began to come to the fore, and what some of the major ramifications of such a privileging have held for the Buddhist tradition as a whole.

Coming to Part Four we arrive to the crux of this work, a detailed analysis of the Triṃsikā. The Triṃsikā has traditionally been understood to contain in its brief thirty stanzas the gist of the Yogācāra doctrine, especially as concerns the three natures of cognition, the eight types of consciousness, the status of external objects—which entails the implications of "consciousness-only." Lusthaus arranges for comparative analysis: (1) Vasubandhu's original Sanskrit verse; (2) An English translation by Richard Robinson; (3) (a) Paramārtha's Chinese translation, (b) Lusthaus' English translation of (3a); (4) (a) Xuanzang's Chinese translation and (b) Lusthaus' English translation of 4a. With extensive notation and commentary, he examines where it is that the understandings concur or vary, as well as the implications of these variations.

Central to the matter is the repeated divergence on key issues between Paramārtha and Xuanzang. In general, Lusthaus sees Paramārtha as either missing the point, or deliberately twisting the text to make it fit the paradigms of consciousness that he understands, paradigms that are reflected in tendencies seen in the Shelun schools (for example, the positing of a separate ninth āmala, "immaculate," consciousness) or in the Awakening of Faith (which emphasizes the "suchness" aspect of the One Mind). Lusthaus sees these as essentializing tendencies that establish an East Asian-characteristic notion of an originally pure nature that are not to be found in Vasubandhu's text. This section, with the author's notes, offers one of the most concise summaries of Yogācāra available in the English language.

In the final, extensive discussion (encompassing almost 200 pages) Lusthaus focuses on what he sees as a key problematic issue in both ancient and modern apprehensions of Yogācāra's famous notion of "consciousness-only." Consciousness-only has often been explained to be a sort of enlightened view of existence, in the sense that enlightenment is understood as becoming "enlightened to the fact of consciousness-only." Thus, "consciousness-only" has been regularly cast as a kind of idealism, wherein the individual is empowered by consciousness to create her/his own world according to her/his own will. Although there is some sense in which this can be said to be true, one must understand that such a world is a realm of nothing but delusion, discriminated according to partial and prejudiced views (dṛṣṭi). Thus,

the key Yogācāric phrase vijñapti-mātra does not mean (as is often touted in scholarly literature) that "consciousness alone exists," but rather that "all our efforts to get beyond ourselves are nothing but projections of our consciousness." Yogācāras treat the term vijñapti-mātra as an epistemic caution, not an ontological pronouncement. (5-6)

The scriptural and logical support for this position, Lusthaus tells us, is to be found everywhere in the Yogācāra corpus, once we realize what we should be looking for. Our conscious process, wholly infected by the afflictive and cognitive hindrances, can only apprehend the world through the discriminations of language, and through the mediated signals of the sensory circuit, and thus do nothing but continue to close itself off. Lusthaus reminds us here the etymological connotations of saṃsāra as "closure," and that the term mātra, when used in combination with other terms, is invariably invoked to denote a limited type of singularity—again, a closure. Thus, Lusthaus argues, the most accurate way to understand vijñapti-mātra in English is as something like "psychosophic closure." This clarification is vitally important for the proper orientation of present and future students of Yogācāra.

One potential for misunderstanding here is that it seems possible to read this section and get the sense that Lusthaus is the first one to have articulated this point about the negative connotations meaning of vijñapti-mātra. While it is true that many scholars of Buddhism who do not specialize in Yogācāra may not be sensitive to this point, it is something that is well understood by most Yogācāra specialists. One can find this clarified in Yogācāra studies going back as far as a generation,1 and this point is not mentioned. Nonetheless, general characterizations of Yogācāra in survey and reference works do almost invariably offer the idealistic description, and thus Lusthaus is certainly justified in raising this is as a major issue.

The remaining chapters in section five all deal with the problem of psychosophic closure from various perspectives. Chapter 16 "Alterity: Parināṃa" shows how "being other" is precisely the definition of who we are in every moment—most importantly other than ourselves as the seeds in the ālaya alter in each moment. The nature of consciousness as psychosophic closure is also treated in chapters (17) "Why Consciousness is Not Empty" and (18) "On Rūpa." In Chapter 19 "Externality," Lusthaus examines the notion of external objects, again, from the perspective of the Triṃsikā and CWSL, showing how the question of external objects itself has been misconstrued in the habitual tendency to understand Yogācāra discourse ontologically, rather than as the epistemological discipline that it is. In Chapter 20, he offers a detailed analysis of the four conditions (i.e., types of causation) taught in the CWSL. Chapter 21, "Mirror Knowing: Soteric Alterations" explains the dynamics of āśraya-paravṛtti or "overturning of the basis" which is the Yogācāra explanation for the event of enlightenment/liberation. The last two chapters treat questions of language, and what Yogācāra regards to be ultimately real.

The field of Yogācāra scholarship has been for a long time in need of such a comprehensive, insightful treatment of the tradition, which outlines the major doctrines of the school in a critical manner that helps to clear away some long-promulgated misunderstandings. The author's continued attempts to render terms in fresh and relevant language will hold much benefit for newer students of Buddhism, as well as for veteran translators of Buddhist classical texts. His generous offering of graphic metaphorical examples makes difficult concepts accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike. The use of such examples, along with efforts made toward describing the Yogācāra concepts using terminology derived from Western psychology and philosophy will help to open this field to interested persons in those fields. In the process of its in-depth treatment of Yogācāra, the book offers its readers the opportunity to gain a deepened understanding of Buddhist thought as a whole, inasmuch as the implications of karma and the understanding of the meaning of "cognition" —its functions, its hindrances and the means of removal of same—are taken to be the core component of Buddhist discourse.

There may be some complaint with the author's tendency to occasionally state personal interpretations as if they were fully accepted as fact by members of the field at large, when they sometimes are not. There were also more than a few instances where I wished I could have seen an attribution from a canonical source to support a given assertion. Finally, on the more mundane side, it should probably be made clear to the potential buyer of this book that it suffers from an unduly large number of typographical errors related to the fonts used for diacritics. These criticisms however, are, in the scope of the work as a whole, relatively trivial. No aspiring student of Yogācāra should pass up the chance to learn from this incredibly rich work.


1. As early as 1979, when, for example, Janice Dean Willis explained the error of understanding Yogācāra as idealism in her book On Knowing Reality (Columbia University Press, 1979, pp. 21-33). [back]

Copyright © Charles Muller— 2004