By John Y. Cha


The interpretation of classical Indian Yogācāra as a kind of idealism is based on such teachings as "consciousness-only" and "the triple world is mind-only." Indeed many of the Yogācāra theoretical discourses also lend themselves to interpretations of idealism. For example, in the Madhyānta-vibhāga-ṭīka (MV-T), Sthiramati explains how a personality stream (saṃtāna) experiences its own realm of existence:

Since the own-nature of a distinct object is grasped by the individual [sentient being] from [the maturation of] its own seed according to [its] particular mental stream, though [the object] does not exist, consciousness arises as the appearance of a distinct object, etc. For example, the dead see a river filled with pus, feces, and urine, which is being guarded on both sides by demons with sticks held in their hands. Human beings, however, perceive a pool filled with clear, cool, water. And Yogins, who have constantly cultivated a thorough investigation on impurity, etc., see the earth occupied by skeletons. (1)

This passage, like so many others found in the Yogācāra texts, maintains that the experiences of external objects are merely the constructions of consciousness, that our perception of a specific object is really the maturation of past mental impressions coming to fruition in the present act of cognition. Furthermore, the Yogācāra do not admit of some material world upon which our constructed world of experience is based; for example, there is no 'real' body of water that is perceived as a polluted river by some and as clear water by others. There is, in other words, mental representation (vijñapti) without extra-mental referents.

If the Yogācāra assume that only the mind exists, then the mind or consciousness would have to be the ultimate (and only) reality. All phenomena, then, would necessarily be generated from this absolute mind. In other words, ultimate reality gives rise to conventional, i.e., non-existent reality. Indeed, some scholars of classical Indian Yogācāra have maintained just this view, that Yogācāra philosophy is best understood as a substantive and/or generative metaphysics, that ultimate reality-emptiness (śūnyat�?), suchness (tathat�?), dharmat�?, etc.-is the locus for and cause of phenomenal appearances (dharmas).(2) This interpretation, while not specifically labeling Yogācāra as idealism, is fundamentally related to it. Both interpretations maintain that phenomena, appearing as objects external to consciousness, are constructed from a more fundamental reality, be it called mind or suchness.

However, as will become apparent, textual evidence in several classical Yogācāra works contradict this claim. Indeed, the Yogācāra maintain that the foundation (�?śraya) for phenomenal appearances is not a monistic reality or an absolute mind, but rather unreal mental construction (abhūtaparikalpa).(3) This suggests that the Yogācāra hold a more complex theory regarding the relationship between ultimate reality (tathat�?, etc.) and phenomenal appearance (dharma or artha) than the above metaphysical/idealistic interpretations suggest.

In this paper, I analyze the relation between the appearance of external objects (artha) and unreal mental construction (abhūtaparikalpa). I also want to touch upon the issue of how the concept "the non-existing external object" functions within Yogācāra soteriology. Rather than attempt to describe Yogācāra as a kind of philosophy I briefly examine the relevant stages of the Path to Buddhahood where the comprehension that external objects do not exist is a necessary component.

The Meaning of the Non-existence of Artha

How do we define the "external object" in Indian Yogācāra? There are many terms that signify "object," artha, ālambana, viṣaya, etc. What is clear is that all objects of consciousness (vijñeya) do not exist separate from consciousness (vijñāna); i.e., vijñeyas do not possess independent existential/ontological existence. Moreover, the term "external" (bāhya) does not refer to entities literally outside of consciousness, i.e., non-mental objects. It includes both the five "material" entities identified as rūpa (rūpa, śabda, etc.) as well as those "mental" entities categorized under "dharma" (e.g., vedan�?, saṃjñ�?, etc.). The term "external" therefore, refers to an object falsely constructed as being separate from a perceiving consciousness (ṣaḍvijñāna). The issue, therefore, is not one of a false externality, but of an unreal duality. Artha, therefore, means any phenomena, either material or mental, that appears separate from consciousness.

We can see the concern for non-duality in the Madhyānta-vibhāga, where four kinds of objects are enumerated: artha, or the external fields (bāhya-āyatana), including visible forms (rūpa), sounds (śabdha), odors (gandha), tastes (rasa), tangibles (spraṣṭavya), and non-sensuous objects (dharma); sattva, or the five sense faculties (pañcendriya); ātman, or self-view, identified as the defiled mind (kli.ṣtam manas); vijñapti, or the six-fold functioning consciousness (ṣa�?-vijñāna). Kārika I.3 states:

artha-sattva-ātma-vijñapti-pratibhāsa.m prajāyate/ vijñāna.m nāsti cāsyārthas tad-abhāvāt tad apy asat//(4)
Consciousness arises as the appearance of objects, sentient beings, self and cognitions; furthermore, the object (artha) of that [consciousness] does not exist. Because its [object] does not exist, that [consciousness] too is unreal.

The consciousness mentioned in the verse generates these appearances and is equated with unreal mental construction. Moreover, all of these appearances, which are objects for consciousness do not exist because they are merely the modes of appearance (ākāra) of consciousness. And, according to the Yogācāra, when external objects are non-existent consciousness itself as an agent of cogntion (vijñātṛi) does not exist.(5) However, it is not any kind of ultimate reality or 'absolute' mind that generates external objects; rather, it is dichotomous conception (vikalpa) that bifurcates perceptions into subjects and objects thus providing the basis for the construction of external objects.

On the Nature of Dharma

We now turn to the Dharma-dharmat�?-vibhāga (DDV), in part, because the analyses in this text are based on the distinction between dharma, or phenomenal appearances, and dharmat�?, or ultimate reality (suchness, or tathat�?). This distinction may seem to indicate an outlook similar to the monistic/idealism interpretation; however, as we will see, a closer examination of dharma demonstrates that phenomenal appearances, i.e., external objects, do not arise from dharmat�?. In fact, the text's analysis discloses two levels contained in dharma.

The DDV equates the characteristic of dharma with unreal mental construction (abhūtaparikalpa), which consists of the appearance of duality (dvaya-saṃprakhyāna) and the appearance according to language (yathābhilāpa-saṃprakhyāna).(6) In this passage, the DDV implies that all phenomenal appearances (dharma or artha)(7) have a cognitive and linguistic basis. Commenting on this passage, the Dharma-dharmat�?-vibhāaga-vṛtti (DDV-V) explains:

The appearance of duality and according to language [means:] the appearance of duality and the appearance according to language. In this case, the existence of the object and subject of cognition (grāhya-grāhaka), such as material form and the eye, etc., is the appearance of duality. [And] that which depends on that [duality] is the appearance according to language. [This] is unreal mental construction, which is the real basis (�?śraya) for the designations (prajñapti) of own-nature (svarūpa) and distinctive marks (viśeṣa).(8)

The commentary identifies the cognitive basis for the experience of external objects as the duality of the subject and object of cognition (grāhya-grāhaka). Furthermore, the construction of the external object also has a linguistic basis; that is, based on cognitive duality, language (prajñapti) functions to designate the general object (svarūpa) and identify its particular characteristics (viśeṣa). The experience of phenomena as external objects, then, comes at the end of a process where the dualistic structure of cognition and the delineating functions of language converge. The delimited external object, therefore, is a construct of language and is non-existent; however, the linguistic activity that postulates these objects is based on dualistic cognition. The locus for phenomena, therefore, is not suchness but unreal mental construction. But more specifically, that aspect of unreal mental construction most responsible for giving rise to external objects is dichotomous conception, or vikalpa. In order to understand the relation between the cognitive and linguistic spheres, an analysis of prajñapti and vikalpa is needed.

Prajñapti and Vikalpa

As stated above, according to the Yogācāra external objects (artha) do not exist they are merely linguistic constructs: "Conventional designation (prajñapti-saṃvṛtti) [means] the positing of non-existent objects such as material form (rūpa), an earthen jug (ghaṭa), a garment (paṭa), etc. (emphasis mine)."(9) The experience of external objects depends on the signifying activity of language (prajñapti); however, the Yogācāra admit of a kind of circularity in the linguistic construction of objects. Sthiramati provides two other views:
[1.] Others [state:] Conventional designation (prajñapti) is language (abhilāpa) which refers [to objects] on the basis of the general nature (svabhāva) and specific marks (viśeṣa) of material form (rūpa), sensations (vedan�?), ideations (saṃjñ�?), etc. [2.] Some [state:] Conventional designation (prajñapti) is that [object] which is designated as "material form" or "sensation" depending on language (abhilāpa).(10)

The first statement defines prajñapti as verbal or linguistic activity that refers to objects. In this context, language functions by identifying and characterizing phenomena. The second statement, however, equates prajñapti with those objects that are designated by language. Prajñapti functions as the referent in this case, a phenomenal appearance constructed by language (abhilāpa). Prajñapti, therefore, plays both the roles of naming and being named. Considered as both the linguistic signifier and the constructed signified, prajñapti is never a designation for something extra-mantal.

The perception of external objects, however, requires another element, i.e., dichotomous conception (vikalpa). Vikalpa is the bifurcation of all experience into a perceived object and a perceiving subject. More specifically, it is the basis for the unreal appearance of objects external to consciousness. Here, Sthiramati equates vikalpa with conventional understanding (pratipatti-saṃvṛtti):

Conventional understanding [means:] On the basis of vikalpa material form, etc. and a pot, etc. [appear] as if [they] existed apart from the appearance of consciousness, though [actually] they do not exist separate [from consciousness]. The mode by which one attaches to the positing [of constructed entities] in the form of real objects (vastu), that is vikalpa as conventional understanding.(11)

This passage seems to suggest that vikalpa refers not only to dualistic construction but also to an adherence (abhiniveśa) to that very construction which posits objects as if they were external to consciousness. Vikalpa, may mean not only dualistic cognition but also the propensity to maintain this duality.

But how are prajñapti and vikalpa related? Again we consult Sthiramati who explains the relationship among causal factors (nimitta), names (nāman) and vikalpa:

Among them, causal factors (nimitta) are the repository consciousness (ālayavijñāna), defiled mind (kliṣtam manas), and the functioning consciousnesses (pravṛtti-vijñāna). [These are] causal factors because [they are in a] mutually causal relation. Name is signification as the reference to those causal factors, which exist, though are ineffable, just like a closed eye. Dichotomous conception (vikalpa) is the mind and mental functions (cittacaitta) belonging to the three worlds (traidhātuka), and consists of the conceptual distinction between these [causal factors] and the own-nature (svabhāva) and distinct characteristics (viśeṣa) of the aforementioned causal factors.(12)

The functioning of prajñapti and vikalpa depends on the eight evolutions of consciousness. These evolutions are equated with unreal mental construction. It is prajñapti that names the various factors of nimitta; however, the activities of language leave their impressions (vāsan�?) in the repository consciousness, which then mature into another false cognition of an external object. It is in this way that prajñapti acts as both signifier and signified, for unreal mental construction itself can never be an object-and also, the subject-of cognition.(13) Vikalpa operates in all the different realms of existence, by bifurcating experience into subjects and objects. Furthermore, it erroneously separates the causal factors from those designations that name these factors. The MV-T explains the process:

Moreover, the sequence of these [aspects of cognition] begins with causal factors, because [these factors are] the objective basis (vastu) for defiling designations. Immediately following that is name, because it is the defiling designation (saṃkleśa-prajñapti) [itself]. Just as there is a name, so immediately following that is dichotomous conception (vikalpa), because [vikalpa] is the conceptual differentiation between the objective base, [i.e., causal factors,] and defiling designation, [i.e., name].(14)

It is interesting to note that although unreal mental construction, which includes vikalpa, is the basis for prajñapti, unreal mental construction in many ways depends on linguistic activity for its functioning. While it is true that the linguistic activity of signifying objects must depend on the subject/object dichotomy, it is dichotomous conception, or vikalpa, itself that depends on the name and its object to complete the process of constructing external objects by (falsely) separating them. Also, because the activity of prajñapti itself affects the repository consciousness (i.e., by leaving vāsan�?) it functions in the eight evolutions of consciousness and therefore plays a role as both linguistic designation and the object designated.

These commentaries from the MV-T clarify the relationship between the DDV's analysis of the appearance of duality (dvaya-saṃprakhyāna) and appearance according to language (yath�?-abhilāpa-saṃprakhyāna). To review, first of all there is the fact of the perceptual process made up of causal factors (nimitta), which involves the interdependent functioning of the eight consciousnesses-this process, according to the Yogācāra exists, though not as ultimate reality. It should be noted that the structural core of this eight-fold functioning is dichotomous conception (vikalpa); both the manifest images (nirbhāsa) perceived and the unmanifest impressions (vāsan�?) that will arise in the future are dualistic constructions.(15) Next, names (nāma) designate certain aspects of this perceptual process, that is, nimitta, though, in reality, the causal factors are ineffable. Following the naming process is dichotomous conception (vikalpa), which divides the ineffable perceptual process of the eight consciousnesses from the designations (prajñapti) that refer to nimitta. Dichotomous conception, therefore, constructs a division between the signifying activity (abhidhāna) and that which is signified (abhidheya), reifying the content of cognitive and linguistic activities. On the basis of this created duality arises the illusion of an extra-linguistic realm refered to by language, and therefore, the view of entities external to consciousness. Unreal mental construction, therefore, contains the paradox of being a unitary process, on the one hand, but having a distinction between the process (as nimitta) and content (artha, parikalpita, abhidheya, etc.) of perception, on the other.

The Soteriological Significance of Seeing Objects as Non-existent

The theoretical dimension of Yogācāra philosophy should not be seen as mere intellectual activity. In the earlier stages of the Path to Buddhahood(16) a proper conceptual understanding seems to be a necessary condition for direct realization. In verse six of the Mahāyāna-sūtrālṃkāra (MSA) it is stated:
saṃbhṛtya saṃbhāram ananta-pāraṃjñānasya pu�?yasya ca bodhisatvaḥ/ dharmeṣu cint�?-suviniścitatvāj jalpānvayām artha-gati�? paraiti//(17)

The Bodhisattva, having accumulated an infinite collection of virtue and wisdom attains an understanding in conformity with words, because with regard to the factors of experience he has discerned [them] well with his mind.

This verse emphasizes the importance of the discursive (mano) and linguistic (jalpa) elements for comprehending the fundamental constituents of existence (dharma).(18) This seems to demonstrate that the Yogācāra considered a proper cognitive/conceptual orientation as a basis for further progress on the path. For example, the DDV contends that the preliminary foundations (ālambana) for non-conceptual wisdom (nirvikalpa-jñāna) are: the Mahāyāna teachings; reverence or esteem (adhimukti) for the doctrine; a certainty (niścaya) of the veracity of the doctrine; the maturation of accumulated provisions.(19) In conjunction with MSA VI.6, the first of the four elements demonstrates the importance of discursive investigation.

The comprehension of the external object as non-existent plays an important role in the Path. Beginning with an intellectual comprehension, the practitioner moves toward direct realization of the non-existence of the external object. In verses seven and eight of the MSA,(20) we see this progression from intellectual understanding to direct insight:

arthān sa vijñāya ca jalpa-mātrān saṃtiṣtḥate tan-nibha-citta-mātre/ pratyakṣatām eti ca dharmadhātus tasmād viyukto dvaya-lakṣaṇena//7//
na-asti-iti cittāt param etya buddhy�? cittasya na-astitvam upaiti tasmāt/ dvayasya na-astitvam upetya dhīmān saṃtoṣtḥate 'tad-gati-dharma-dhātau//8//

And having [conceptually] understood that objects are mere [constructions of] language, one abides in the mind-only which mirrors that [understanding of the object]. And because of that [previous understanding], the dharmadhātu, which is free from the two-fold characteristic [of the subject and object], attains the state of direct perception.(21) Having comprehended, through wisdom, that nothing exists apart from mind, one [also] comprehends that mind too is non-existent. Therefore, the wise person, having comprehended that the duality [of subject and object] does not exist, abides in the dharma-dhātu where that [duality] cannot go.

There two points in verses seven and eight above that clarifies the importance of comprehending the non-existence of the external object. First, there is the necessary discursive, or conceptual understanding (indicated by vijñāya in VI.7) that external objects are merely products of language. On the basis of this discursive insight, the practitioner moves toward a direct perception of the non-existence of the object. Secondly, the insight into the non-existent object is followed by the insight that the subject too does not exist. At this point, one enters into the dharmadhātu which is utterly devoid of duality. In other words, the insight into the nonexistence of the subject and object is the point when vikalpa is relinquished, along with the defilements that would have arisen.(22)


1 yasmād bhinnārtha-svarūpam asann api citta-saṃtāna-pratiniyamena svabījāt pratyekātma-gṛhīta�? bhinnārthādi-pratibhāsa�? vijñāna�? prasūyate/ tath�? hi/ pret�? apaḥ pūya-purīṣa-mūtrādi-pūrn.�? dhṛta-da�?ḍa-pāṇibhir ubhayataḥ puruṣaiḥ saṃrakṣyamānāḥ paśyanti/ manuṣyādayaḥ punaḥ svaccha-śīta-lodaka-paripūr�?�? nirvibandh�? ity upalabhante/ yogina�? c�?śubha-manasikārādy-abhyast�? nirantara�? pṛthivī�? kaṇkāla-pūr�?ām| paśyanti/ ed. Yamaguchi, p. 19.Return to text

2 Specifically Matsumoto and Hakamaya. E.g., Matsumoto constructs a theory of "Locus" which explicates six criteria for what constitutes, what he has coined, dhātu-vāda. See "The Doctrine of Tathāgata-garbha Is Not Buddhist," in Pruning the Bodhi Tree, ed. by Hubbard and Swanson, pp. 165-173.Return to text

3 E.g., Sthiramati: "Because the duality of the subject and object of cognition has the nature of being mentally constructed either in unreal mental construction or by means of it, it does not exist as a real object (dvasya grāhyasya grāhakasya ca-abhūtaparikalpe 'bhūtaparikalpena v�? parikalpita-ātmakatvāt vastu-rūpeṇa-abhāvaḥ/)." MVBh-T, ed. Pandeya, p. 37.Return to text

4 MV-T, Yamaguchi, p. 16.Return to text

5 This theory, that without an object of consciousness, consciouness too, as a subject or agent of cognition does not exist is found in several Yogācāra texts (see the Dharma-dharmat�?-vibhāga-vṛtti, Nozawa ed., pp. 48-49, and the Mādhanta-vibhāga-bhāṣya (MVBh), Pandeya ed. pp. 19-20). This is actually a description of the process of awakening, or the "means of entering the characteristic of non-existence." For example, in the MVBh, Vasubandhu states: "Relying on the perception of representation-only, the non-perception of the [external] object arises. Relying on the non-perception of the object, the non-perception of representation-only also arises. Thus one enters into the characteristic of the non-existence of the subject and object (vijñapti-mātropalabdhi�? niśritya artha-anupalabdhir jāyate/ artha-anupalabdhi�? niśritya vijñapti-mātrasya-apy anupalabdhir jāyate/ evam asal-lakṣaṇa�? grāhya-grāhakayoḥ praviśati//, p. 20).Return to text

6 gnyis dang brjod pa ji ltar snang ba yang dag pa ma yin pa'i kun tu rtog pa ni chos kyi mtshan nyid/ Nozawa p. 11.Return to text

7 In the Madhyānta-vibhāga, kārika I.3 (Yamaguchi ed. p.16) lists the four kinds of objects of consciousness (artha); artha, sattva, ātman, and vijñapti. These headings make up the entire range of the phenomena that can be experienced.Return to text

8 gnyis su snang ba dang ji ltar mngon par brjod par snang ba ni gnyis dang ji ltar mngon par brjod par snang ba'o// de la gzung ba dang/ 'dzin pa'i dngos po mig dang gzugs la sogs pa'i gnyis su snang ba gang yin pa dang/ de la brten pa ji ltar mngon par brjod par snang ba gang yin pa ste/ ngo bo nyid dang khyad par du gdags pa'i rten gyi ngo bo de ni yang dag pa ma yin pa'i kun tu rtog pa'o// Nozawa, pp. 21-22.Return to text

9 asato 'rthasya rūpam| ghaṭaḥ paṭaḥ ceti vyavasthāna�? prajñapti-saṃvṛttiḥ/ MV-T, Yamaguchi, p. 124.Return to text

10 MV-T: rūpa-vedan�?-saṃjñādi-svabhāva-viśeṣeṇa nāmābhilāpaḥ prajñapti-saṃvṛttir ity anye/ abhilāpāpekṣay�? yad vyavahriyate rūpa�? vedaneti v�? tat prajñapti-saṃvṛttir iti ke cit/ Yamaguchi, p. 124.Return to text

11 pratipatti-saṃvṛttir vikalpena yena rūpādayo ghaṭādaya�? ca vijñāna-nirbhāsād abahirbhūtān api bahirbhūtān iva vastu-rūpeṇa yath�? vyavasthānam abhiniviśate sa vikalpaḥ pratipatti-saṃvṛtti/ Yamaguchi, p. 124.Return to text

12 tatra nimittam ālayavijñāna�? kliṣṭa-manaḥ pravṛtti-vijñānāni ca/ anyonya-nimitta-bhāvād nimittam/ nāma yat tasyaiva nimittasya-anabhilāpyasya-api sato 'kṣinikoca-vat sūcakam abhidhānam/ yathokta-nimitta-svabhāva-viśeṣa-vikalpakās traidhātuka-pratisaṃyukt�?�? citta-caitt�? vikalpaḥ/ p. 131.Return to text

13 "Indeed, unreal mental construction is not the perceiver of anything, nor is it perceived by anybody; however, it is the sole existence (bhāva-mātra), being devoid of both the subject and object of perception (na hy abhūtaparikalpaḥ kasya cid grāhako nāpi kena cid gṛhyate/ ki�? tarhi/ grāhya-grāhaka-rahita�? bhāva-mātram eva/ Yamaguchi, p. 11)."Return to text

14 kramah\ punat eṣā�? tatra saṃklesśa-prajñapti-vastutvān nimittam ādau/ saṃkleśa-prajñaptitvāt tadanantara�? nāma/ yath�? nāma tath�? saṃkleśa-prajñapti-vastu-vikalpakatvāt tadanantara�? vikalpaḥ/ Yamaguchi, ed., p.131.Return to text

15 In this case, dichotomous conception as the images of self and material form, etc., arise from the repository consciousness due to the maturation of the impressions of the dichotomous conception as self and material form, etc. (tatra-ātmādi-vikalpa-vāsan�?-paripoṣād rūpa-ādi-vikalpa-vāsan�?-paripoṣāc ca-ālayavijñānād ātma-ādi-nirbhāso vikalpo rūpa-ādi-nirbhāsa�? cotpadyate/ Triṃśik�?-bhāṣya, Levi ed., p. 16.) In other words, phenomenal appearances are rooted in dichotomous conception (vikalpa) whether they are explicitly in consciousness (as images), or are in a preconscious state (as impressions in the ālayavijñāna).Return to text

16 For the system of the path see, e.g., the Abhidharmasamuccaya (ed. Pradhan, p. 65): "Moreover, the path is five-fold: the path of accumulation (saṃbhāra-mārga), the path of preparation (prayoga-mārga), the path of vision (darśana-mārga), the path of cultivation (bhāvan�?-mārga), and the path of completion (niṣṭh�?-mārga) (punar mārgaḥ pañca-vidhaḥ/ saṃbhāra-mārgaḥ prayoga-mārgaḥ darśana-mārgaḥ bhāvan�?-mārgaḥ niṣṭh�?-mārgaḥ/).Return to text

17 Levi, p. 23.Return to text

18 This is not to suggest that the discernment of dharma is merely an intellectual enterprise in the saṃbhāra-mārga.. In the MSA-Bh, Vasubandhu stresses the role of samādhi in this stage. See Levi, p. 24.Return to text

19 DDV-V: theg pa chen po ston pa dang/ de la mos pa dang/ nges pa dang/ tshogs yongs su rdzogs pas so// rnam par mi rtog pa'i ye shes de'i dmigs pa ni theg pa chen po ston pa dang/ de la mos pa dang/ nges pa dang/ tshogs yongs su rdzogs pa yin te/ gang rung zhig med na de mi skye ba'i phyir ro// p. 34.Return to text

20 P. 24.Return to text

21 VI 7 c-d and VI 8 are equated with the darśana-mārga, where one attains non-dualistic wisdom and enters the first of the ten Bodhisattva stages.Return to text

22 According to the Yogācāra, the mentally constructed objects (parikalpita) are not abandoned on the path because they have no reality whatsoever. What is abandoned is the adherence to the subject/object duality (vikalpa as abhiniveśa) and the defilements (saṃkleśa) caused by this duality. See, e.g., MVBh and MV-T, ed. Pandeya p. 93; DDV-V, p. 23. Return to text