Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Thomas Riggins

Discussion Seventeen Hsuan-tsang [Xuanzang] in a series on Chinese Philosophy

“How are you today Fred? I’ve been looking over Fung Yu-lan’s exposition of Hsuan-tsang’s thought. Its pretty complicated.”

“You’re telling me? Nevertheless, we should have a go at it. I’ve read over Chan and am ready to give it the old college try.”

“Let’s go.”

“I’ll start with background based on Chan’s introductory remarks. Hsuan-tsang (596-644) was quite a character. He entered a Buddhist monastery when he was thirteen. Then moved around China studying under different masters. Finally he went off to India to study Buddhism at its source and with Sanskrit masters. He spent over ten years in India, wrote a famous book about his journey, and returned to China with over six hundred original manuscripts. He spent the rest of his life with a group of translators rendering seventy five of the most important works into Chinese. All of this work was sponsored by the Emperor of the newly established T’ang Dynasty.”

“Sounds like he had an interesting life.”

“He certainly did, but too short. He died in his forty eighth year. He created what Chan calls the ‘most philosophical of Buddhist schools.’ It is called the ‘Consciousness-Only School’ and is based on the Indian Buddhist school, founded by Asanga (c.410-500) and his brother Vasubandhu (c.420-500), known as Yogacara (way of Yoga). What Hsuan-tsang did, among other things, was to take a major work of Vasubandhu, Treatise in Thirty Verses on Consciousness-Only (Vijnatimatratrimshika), plus ten commentaries on it, including that of Dharmapala (439-507), add his own views, stir all this together and come up with his own concoction called Ch’eng-wei-shih lun (Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Consciousness-Only). This work was in Sanskrit , Vijnaptimatratasiddhi, but was translated into Chinese by his student K’ue-chi (632-682) who wrote sixty chapters of commentary based on his translation notes. This is the Ch’eng-wei-shih lun shu-chi (Notes on the Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Consciousness-Only). Chan says we couldn’t really understand Hsuan-tsang without it.”

“Great. Now we are going to try to understand him based on our own notes from Chan, Fung and a few others.”

“That’s how it goes Karl.”

“Well, finish up on Chan’s intro so we can get to the text.”

“OK. In outline, it goes like this. Humans have eight forms of consciousness which are (1-5) the different senses, (6) a concept forming ‘sense-center’ which organizes the raw data of the senses into ordered ideas, (7) a willing and reasoning consciousness or ‘thought-centered’/ self-centered one, and finally (8) one called the “storehouse” or alaya consciousness.”

“What’s that last one? Is it ‘memory’?”

“Much more than that. It's not memory in any conventional Western sense which would be in number seven.”

“So why is called alaya?”

“It's called alaya because all the other ones are ‘stored’ in this one. All these eight consciousnesses are in constant flux. Chan says, ‘It is so called because it stores the “seed” or effects of good and evil deeds which exist from time immemorial and become the energy to produce manifestation. This storehouse consciousness is in constant flux, constantly “perfumed” (influenced) by incoming perceptions and cognitions from external manifestations. At the same time, it endows perceptions and cognitions with the energy of the seeds, which in turn produce manifestations.’”

“Let me chime in here with some Fung. He says, ‘According to the teachings of this school, all sentient beings suffer from two erroneous beliefs: that in the subjective existence of an ego or atman (wo), and that in the objective existence of external things or dharmas (fa). The purpose of the [Consciousness-Only] or Wei-shih school is to destroy these two beliefs by showing that both are equally unreal (empty or shunya). Thus the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun maintains that what we call the “ego” and “things” have “only a false basis and lack any real nature of their own”; their manifestations are “all mental representations dependent upon the evolutions of consciousness.”’”

“Very interesting. Is that it?”

“No, Fung also gives Ku’ei-chi’s comment, which is a good gloss on your quote from Chan. Namely: ‘From this (it may be seen that) the inner consciousness is not, in its essential nature, non-existent, whereas the ego and things, considered as external to the mind, are not, in their essential nature existent. In this way we exclude the heterodox doctrine which clings to the additional reality of objects aside from the mind; we also exclude the erroneous view which, because it wrongly believes in “emptiness,” sets aside consciousness itself as non-existent, thus reducing (everything) to “emptiness.” Equally to avoid (the dogmas of) “emptiness” on the one hand and “being” on the other: this is what the School of [Consciousness-Only] teaches.’”

“That’s great. So we know the alaya is the fundamental consciousness. The other seven are ‘in’ it. Now we must note the three transformations that are always going on as well. The first is just the alaya-vijnana (storehouse consciousness) itself. The second is the transformation brought about by the ‘thought-centered consciousness’ which objectifies the alaya-vijnana as the ‘self’-- specifically as a personal self ‘always accompanied by the evils of self-interest.’ The third is the result of the actions of the senses and the co-ordinator of the senses (the sixth consciousness) constructing out of the alaya-vijnana (unconsciously) an external world (illusory as ‘external’). ‘Because these six consciousnesses,’ Chan says, ‘ have external things [he means so called ‘external’ things] as their objects, they are conditioned by them and are therefore crude, superficial and discontinuous.’”

“Let me interrupt here Fred. This is the place, I think, for me to jump in with my notes from the Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion as they clarify much of what you have said.”

“Go ahead. I welcome the relief.”

“In Chinese this school is called Fa-hsiang or ‘Marks of Existence School.’ Remember the Chinese use ‘fa’ for ‘dharma.’ Let’s take up with the ‘thought-centered’ consciousness, number seven. This is the go between the first six and number eight-- the alaya-vijnana. The ‘self’ arises in this interaction so I’m just going to refer to this seventh type of consciousness as the ‘Ego.’ For this school, the task is to overcome the Ego, recognize the ‘illusory nature of the world’ and thus gain enlightenment -- that is to become bodhi (‘awakened’) so it is suggested that awakening is a better term to use.”

“Awakening to what? To the ultimate ‘Truth’?”

“That is correct Fred. There are three levels of ‘Truth.’ Namely, 1) The Parikalpita level: ‘that which is imagined or conceptualized.... that which people take to be the “objective” world is imagined or conceptualized; i.e., this world is illusory and deceptive; it exists only as a semblance but not as a true reality.’”

“So this is like Kant I suppose-- the noumenal world and the phenomenal world of appearances. I think we can sort of accept this, Karl, if we think of the everyday world on the one hand and the worlds explained by science on the other. What is the second level?”

“The Paratantra level: ‘The level of “contingent nature”.... on this level dharmas enjoy only temporary existence, since everything that arises contingently (i.e., interdependently) possesses neither self-nature nor “reality”....’”

“This is a special use of ‘reality,’ I guess.”

“Yes, somewhat like Plato’s. The ‘real’ is self-subsistent and eternal as well as external-- the objects in the realm of the ideas (the forms) for Plato. Everything in our empirical world is in flux and change, so by this definition ultimately unreal. I think we can accept this level also.”

“What’s the last level?”

“The Tathata (suchness) level: ‘central notion of the Mahayana referring to the absolute, the true nature of things. Tathata is generally explained as being immutable, immobile, and beyond all concepts and distinctions. “Suchness” is the opposite of “that which is apparent”-- phenomena.’ This is the Absolute Reality.”

“Very similar to Kant in many respects Karl.”

“I think so. The noumenal realm is beyond our ability to comprehend (Kant)-- pure reason breaks down. Buddhists can become mystical here but they really don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t say that disparagingly but as a consequence of their own doctrines.”

“Well, this is all very interesting, but Chan points out this school did not have much of a future in China.”

“And why is that?”

“For two reasons. First, it was too ‘Indian.’ Chan says both it and the Three Treatise School we discussed yesterday were simply Indian schools transplanted into China where they ultimately didn’t mesh with the Chinese ‘psyche,’ if I can put it that way. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the school didn’t believe that all people were capable of salvation! As Chan says, it lost prestige ‘because it advocated that some people, being devoid of Buddha-nature, can never achieve Buddhahood, thus clearly betraying the Mahayana ideal of universal salvation.’ This was a really big objection.”

“Are we ready to hit the texts?”

“Yes. I’m going to quote from eight selections from Hsuan-tsang’s Ch’eng wei-shih lun.”

“So what’s the first selection?”

“Its called The Nonexistence of the Self and in it Hsuan-tsang says: ‘Both the world and sacred doctrines declare that the self and dharmas are merely constructions based on false ideas and have no reality of their own.... On what basis are [the self and dharmas] produced. Their characters are all constructions based on the evolution and transformation of consciousness....’”

“Is there a comment?”

“Yes. Chan says: ‘The denial of the ego is the starting point of Buddhist philosophy in general and the Consciousness-Only School in particular. The idealism of Berkeley and that of this school are very much alike. But while Berkeley’s philosophy is built on the assumption of individual minds and therefore finds itself in an “ego-centric predicament.” Buddhist idealism rejects the ego to start with and is therefore able to be free from solipsism.’”

“Fred, we should note that Berkeley also escapes from solipsism as he has more than just individual minds. He rejects ‘matter’ and thinks things only exist as objects of mentation-- esse est percepi- to be is to be perceived- but everything is perceived by the mind of God. Even for Hsuan-tsang there is an ‘ego’-- it's just not the ultimate reality which is the alaya-vijnana.”

“Here is the second selection: The Nonexistence of Dharmas. I’m not going to quote from this selection. You remember the comment I quoted from Chan yesterday when we discussed Chi-tsang. I mean his point on the ‘Four Points of Argumentation.’”

“You mean all that ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes and no.’ ‘neither yes nor no’ type of argumentation. I remember.”

“Well, in the same way Chi-tsang used the Four Points to refute our ordinary conceptions of causality, Hsuan-tsang uses them to argue for the nonexistence of dharmas. The point is, of course, not the absolute nonexistence of dharmas -- but rather that they are phenomenal not noumenal. Chan says, ‘The Four Points of Argumentation are ... employed to refute the doctrines of existence of dharmas. Whether the logic is sound or not, it cannot be denied that Buddhist thinking is rational and methodical, absolutely contrary to the common belief, even among some scholars, that the only mental activity of the Buddhist is intuition. It is significant that in a school chiefly concerned with the thinking process, the rationalistic and methodical elements are so strong.’”

“An interesting point Fred. The rationalistic aspect of Buddhist argumentation is often neglected.”

“Time to move on to selection three: The First Transformation of Consciousness. Here is a quote: [I]t is clear that the self and dharmas separated from consciousness conceived by the heterodoxical and other schools are all unreal.... From this we ought to know that there is really no external sphere of objects. There is only inner consciousness which produced what seems to be the external sphere....’”

“This is Descartes’ Evil Demon with a vengeance!”

“And without the demon. “The characters transformed by consciousness are infinite in variety, but the consciousnesses that transform can be divided into three kinds. The first is the consciousness where fruits ripen at a later time. It is the eighth consciousness. [It is so called] because it possesses in abundance the nature to ripen at later times. The second is called deliberation. It is the seventh consciousness. [It is so-called] because it is continuously in the process of deliberation. The third is called the consciousness that discriminates spheres of objects. It is the same as the first six consciousnesses (the five sense-consciousnesses and the sense-center consciousness. [It is so called] because it discriminates gross spheres of objects....’”

“Vasubandhu called this first (the eighth) the ‘storehouse consciousness’ (alaya-vijnana). This is the fundamental root of all consciousness and it contains the ‘seeds’ of all that we will later experience as the ‘external’ world. The other consciousnesses are responsible for our conception of an ‘external’ world by the way they interact with the alaya-vijnana and cause as it were the germination of the seeds. This process is called ‘perfuming.’”

“That seems to be what is going on Karl. Hsung-tsang says, ‘The act of enabling the seeds that lie within what is perfumed (the storehouse consciousness) to grow, as the hemp plant is perfumed, is called perfuming. As soon as the seeds are produced, the consciousnesses which can perfume become in their turn causes which perfume and produce seeds. The three dharmas (the seeds, the manifestations, and perfuming) turn on and on, simultantaneously acting as cause and effect....’”

“I wonder how much the hemp plant had to do with this. At any rate, this is a perpetual transformation.”

“Yes it is and from it arise what we experience as the four realms of existence, the five stages of transmigration, and the four kinds of living beings.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This is the medieval or ancient Buddhist world view-- their pre-scientific outlook on reality. Here, this will make it clear. This is how Chan puts it in a footnote. ‘In Buddhism, there are four realms which constitute the substances of all existence: earth, water, fire, and air; the five stages of transmigration: the hells, those of ghosts, animals, human beings, and heavenly beings; the four kinds of beings: those produced from the womb, from eggs, from moisture, and through metamorphosis. The Consciousness-Only School, because it denies the reality of the self and dharmas, regards all these as constructions of consciousness.’”

“Well, indeed, I agree this is a construction of consciousness! The ‘four realms’ are the same primary elements of the Greeks (Empedocles). Today we have the Periodic Table. We can’t take transmigration seriously from a scientific point of view, and hells, ghosts, and heavenly beings are definitely out in any case. The ‘four kinds of beings’ is also a group to revise in the light of modern biology. But even then, the modern scientific world view will be considered as only a ‘construction of consciousness.’ I think this would require that the alaya-vijnana be the universal first principle of the world.”

“Lets see. Hsuan-tsang says, ‘By “transformation” is meant that this consciousness [the alaya], from time immemorial, comes into and goes out of existence every moment and changes both before and after, for while it goes out of existence as cause, it comes into existence as effect, and thus is neither permanent nor one.... Being like a violent torrent, it neither comes to an end nor is eternal. As it continues for a long time, some sentient beings will float and others will sink. It is the same with this consciousness....’”

“And I have no idea what that would be like.”

“I don’t think anyone has. Here is an interesting comparison to Hume made by Chan. ‘The theory that consciousness is a constant stream of ideas inevitably reminds one of Hume. The comparison between him and the Consciousness-Only School has been made by Fung Yu-lan among others. Both that school and Hume hold that the mind is nothing but a stream of ideas, that ideas are governed by a causal relationship, and that the external world is ultimately unreal [this may be too much of a claim as to what Hume says]. But Buddhism is free from the skepticism of Hume, for Nirvana is realizable through spiritual cultivation. Furthermore, in Buddhism, but not in Hume, the source of ideas is known and can be controlled.’”

“Fred, I don’t think this quite right. You can’t really say that Hume held to the unreality of the external world. That’s too positive for a skeptic. What he holds is that all our ideas come from impressions of sense but he doesn’t claim to know where these originate-- externally or internally. This is a far cry from claiming that the external world is unreal.”

“Now I’m going to turn to selection four, The Second Transformation of Consciousness.”


“Here Hsuan-tsang explains how the thought- centered consciousness interacts with the alaya-vignana. He writes:
‘...Spontaneously this thought-centered consciousness perpetually takes the storehouse consciousness as an object and is associated with the four basic defilements. What are the four? They are self-delusion, self-view, self-conceit, and self-love. These are the four. Self-delusion means ignorance, lack of understanding of the character of the self, and being unenlightened about the principle of the non-self. Therefore it is called self-delusion. Self-view means clinging to the view that the self exists, erroneously imagining certain dharmas to be the self that are not the self. Therefore it is called self-view. Self-conceit means pride. On the strength of what is being clung to as the self, it causes the mind to feel superior and lofty. It is therefore called self-deceit. Self-love means a greedy desire for the self. It develops deep attachment to what is clung to as the self. It is therefore called self-love.... These four defilements constantly arise and pollute the inner mind and cause the [six] other transforming consciousnesses {the five senses and the self-centered consciousness}to be continuously defiled. Because of this, sentient beings are bound to the cycle of life and death and transmigration and cannot be free from them. Hence they are called defilements.’”

“I can see the benefit of trying to overcome these ‘defilements’ Fred. Not because of any imaginary ‘transmigration’ but just in terms of living a calmer and happier life here and now. If you want to take the cycle of life and death and transmigration in a philosophical way-- in this case metaphorically-- we can say that these defilements of an individual are spread about things (s)he comes into contact with and this perpetuates the cycle. ‘Transmigration’ is just a poetical way of talking about how we can transmit influences from our own lives to those of others. If my self-love influences your self-love then, in a manner of speaking, a little bit of me is ‘reincarnated’ or has transmigrated to you. Let us not, like hoi polloi, take these images literally.”

“I agree Karl. We must transcend the literal meaning to get any insight from this way of thinking. I would also maintain this has to be done with all religious writings-- not just Buddhism.”

“What a world of misery would be overcome if people only understood this.”

“Now I’m going on to the fifth selection, The Third Transformation of Consciousness. This is the relation of the five senses plus the sense-centered or coordinating consciousness. Hsuan puts it this way: ‘The root consciousness is the storehouse consciousness because it is the root from which all pure and impure consciousnesses grow.... By ‘causes’ are meant rising activities of the mind, the sense organs, and spheres of objects. It means that the five consciousnesses arise and manifest themselves, internally based on the root consciousness and externally as a result of a combination of the causes like the rising activities of the mind, the five sense organs, and spheres of objects.’”

“This is fairly confusing, especially when he says the ‘causes’ behind the activities of the mind are both ‘internal’ and ‘external.’ If you hold to consciousness-only there is no ‘external’-- only an apparent external. The external should be an illusion produced by the sense-centered consciousness.”

“You think Hsuan-tsang is confusing? This comment by Chan is just as confusing. ‘[T]he primary concern of the school has always been on characters of dharmas. In accepting them as real, is not quite Mahayana and has therefore been regarded as quasi-Hinayana which, generally speaking, accepts the external world as real. One wonders if the Chinese refusal to regard the world as illusory did not have something to do with the school’s position.’”

“But Fred, this is an Indian school transplanted into China. Chan has already established that this is one of the reasons it failed to ultimately catch on. I don’t know about calling it ‘quasi-Hinayana.’ The problem has to to with the concept ‘real.’ If ‘real’ means ultimately reducible to the alaya-vijnana, then the dharmas are ‘real’ and one doesn’t have to say the world is illusory. The same as with Berkeley. There is no matter. The tree is a percept. Everything ultimately exists because it is a perception in God’s mind. That doesn’t make the things illusory, just non-material. I think the same thing goes for what Hsuan-tsang is saying. Maybe Chan is so confusing because he too is a victim of the ‘Chinese refusal."

“Lets look at selection six then: Consciousness -Only. This section begins with a quote from Vasubandhu: "Thus the various concsiousnesses transform and change. Both discrimination (consciousness) and the object of discrimination Are, because of this, unreal. For this reason, everything is consciousness only." This is explicated thusly by Hsuan-tsang: ‘”The various consciousnesses” refer to the three transforming consciousnesses previously discussed and their mental qualities. They can all transform and appear as the perceiving and the perceived portions. The term “transformation” is thus employed.... Therefore everything produced from causes, and everything seemingly real or unreal, are all inseparable from consciousness. The word “only” is intended to deny that there are real things separated from consciousness, but not to deny that there are mental qualities, dharmas, and so forth inseparable from consciousness. The word “transform” means that the various inner consciousnesses transform and manifest the characters which seem to be the external spheres of the self and dharmas.... Therefore everything is consciousness only, because erroneous discrimination in itself is admitted as a fact. Since “only” does not deny the existence of dharmas not separated from consciousness, therefore true Emptiness [mental qualities--K’uei-chi] and so forth have the nature of being. In this way we steer away from the two extremes of holding that dharmas are real [although they have no natures of their own] or holding that dharmas are unreal [although they do function as causes and effects], establish the principle of Consciousness-Only, and hold correctly to the Middle Path.’”

“These quotes, Fred, clear up the issue we just discussed about the confusion between ‘internal’ and ‘external.’ There really is no ‘external.’ It also clarifies that Chan comment about the dharmas being ‘real.’”

“The next selection concerns several objections raised against the Consciousness-Only School. I’m not going to go over all of them, but since, as Hsuan-tsang says, ‘One’s own principle cannot be established by demolishing those of others,’ I will point out some of his responses to criticisms.”

“I for one am interested in the ‘Two Levels of Truth’ doctrine.”

“His discussion of this point comes from the criticism that if everything is ultimately ‘Emptiness’ then his philosophy of Consciousness-Only is also Empty. He rejects this view. ‘Empty’ is not the same as ‘Nothing.’ It just means the view of hoi polloi that dharmas have real external being is wrong. But consciousness is real. He says, ‘If there were no such consciousness, there would be no worldly (relative) truth, and if there were no worldly truth, there would be no absolute truth, for the Two Levels of Truth are established on the basis of each other. To reject the Two Levels of Truth is to have evil ideas of Emptiness, a disease the Buddhas consider to be incurable. We should realize that some dharmas [which are imagined] are empty and some [which depend on something else, i.e., cause, to be complete-- K’uei-chi] are not....’”

“So why do we think that some dharmas are external?”

“His answer is that, ‘At the time the external spheres are realized through immediate apprehension, they are not taken as external. It is later that the sense-center consciousness discriminates and erroneously creates the notion of externally. Thus the objective spheres immediately apprehended are the perceived portion of the consciousnesses themselves.’”

“So, ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Awakening’ is when we realize that, just as our dreams in sleep, the so-called world of independent reality is really a creation of the mind.”

“Yes. Hsuan-tsang says, ‘This is why the Buddha spoke of the long night of transmigration, because of our failure to understand that the objective spheres of color [and so forth] are consciousness only.’”

“So is there one big mind-- an ocean of consciousness-- or just individual minds?”

“There appear to be many individual streams of consciousness. I think the best view is that the alaya-vijnana of each person is always an endless stream. Individuals are perfumed seeds that develop from the the other seven consciousness interaction with the alaya as temporary aggregates. They dissolve eventually back into the stream. Then a new ‘Ego’ is perfumed. Reincarnation may be that the new aggregate contains reperfumed seeds from the old aggregate-- but there is no permanent ego or self. I have to agree with Chan when he says, ‘In the final analysis, Buddhism is mysticism and a religion. All speculation is but a way to Nirvana.’”

“That’s it?”

“More or less. There is a final section which is just a lot of quotes from Vasubandhu but we have basically covered this philosophy.”

“OK. What’s on the agenda for tomorrow then?”

“Ch’an Buddhism, better known by its Japanese name of ‘Zen.’ So bone up on it tonight so we can discuss Hui-neng (638 to 713).

“See you tomorrow Fred.”

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