The School of Conscious Mind

Shisen-do Temple, Northern Higashiyama, Kyoto. Claire Takacs / Getty Images

Yogacara ("practice of yoga") is a philosophical branch of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in India in the 4th century CE. Its influence is still evident today in many schools of Buddhism, including Tibetan, Zen, and Shingon.

Yogacara is also known as Vijanavada, or the School of Vijnana, because Yogacara is primarily concerned with the nature of Vijnana and the nature of experience. Vijnana is one of the three kinds of mind discussed in early Buddhist scriptures such as the Sutta-pitaka.

Vijnana often is translated into English as "awareness," "consciousness" or "knowing." It is the fifth of the Five Skandhas.

Origins of Yogacara

Although some aspects of its origins are lost, British historian Damien Keown says that early Yogacara very probably was linked to the Gandhara branch of an early Buddhist sect called Sarvastivada. The founders were monks named Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Maitreyanatha, who are all thought to have had some connection to Sarvastivada before they converted to Mahayana.

These founders saw Yogacara as a corrective to the Madhyamika philosophy developed by Nagarjuna, probably in the 2nd century CE. They believed Madhyamika leaned too closely to nihilism by over-emphasizing the emptiness of phenomena, although no doubt Nagarjuna would have disagreed.

Adherents of Madhyamika accused the Yogacarins of substantialism or a belief that some kind of substantial reality underlies phenomena, although this criticism doesn't seem to describe actual Yogacara teaching.

For a time, the, the Yogacara and Madhyamika philosophical schools were rivals. In the 8th century, a modified form of Yogacara merged with a modified form of Madhyamika, and this combined philosophy makes up a large part of the foundations of Mahayana today.

Basic Yogacara Teachings

Yogacara is not an easy philosophy to understand.

Its scholars developed sophisticated models explaining how awareness and experience intersect.These models describe in detail how beings experience the world.

As has already been said, Yogacara is primarily concerned with the nature of vijnana and the nature of experience. In this context, we can think of vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena (visible object, sound, smell taste, tangible object, thought) as its object. For example, visual consciousness or vijnana -- seeing -- has the eye as its basis and a visible phenomenon as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (​manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object. Vijnana is the awareness that intersects faculty and phenomenon.

To these six types of vijnana, Yogacara added two more. The seventh vijnana is deluded awareness, or klista-manas. This kind of awareness is about self-centered thinking that gives rise to selfish thoughts and arrogance. The belief in a separate, permanent self arises from this seventh vijnana.

The eighth consciousness, alaya-vijnana, is sometimes called "storehouse consciousness." This vijnana contains all the impressions of previous experiences, which become the seeds of karma.

Read More: Alaya-vijnana, the Storehouse Consciousness

Very simply, Yogacara teaches that vijnana is real, but objects of awareness are unreal. What we think of as external objects are creations of consciousness. For this reason, Yogacara is sometimes called the "mind only" school.

How does this work? All unenlightened experience is created by the various kinds of vijnana, which generate the experience of an individual, permanent self and project delusional objects onto reality. Upon enlightenment, these dualistic modes of awareness are transformed, and the resulting awarenesses are able to perceive reality clearly and directly.

Yogacara in Practice

The "yoga" in this case is a meditation yoga (see "Right Concentration" and "Samadhi") which was central to practice. Yogacara also emphasized the practice of the Six Perfections.

Yogacara students went through four stages of development. In the first, the student studied the Yogacara teachings to get a good grasp of them. In the second, the student moves beyond concepts and engages in the ten stages of development of a bodhisattva, called bhumi. In the third, the student finishes passing through the ten stages and begins to liberate himself from defilements. In the fourth, defilements have been eliminated, and the student realizes enlightenment