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Buddhism in China: Yogācāra Buddhism Essay

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How Did Yogācāra Buddhism Change on the Way to China?

Buddhism started to spread to China for two centuries around the beginning of the Current Era. The study of the passage of the Buddhist thought from India to China raises numerous challenges. While scholars have to deal with a certain degree of uncertainty in attributing accurate dates to the vast corpus of scriptures, other factors make the research more complicated and multifaceted. Cultural differences and limited knowledge of Sanskrit favored the process of the Sinification of Buddhism. Moreover, the Indian doctrine was still developing, and several schools were thriving, each carrying unique seeds bound to influence other cultures. The most influential interpretations of Buddhism were the Theravāda and Mahayāna schools. The former spread to Southeastern Asia, the latter became especially prominent in China, Japan, and Korea. In turn, both the Theravāda and the Mahayāna created peculiar traditions, including the Mahayāna Yogakāra.

The importance of the Yogakāra is in its theoretical framework which offers a philosophical and psychological background to the notions of Buddhahood, consciousness, and reality. The ontological and phenomenal approach of the Yogakāra has suggested a comparison to Western idealism. However, the logical structure of the Yogakāra was not mere speculation, and the ultimate scopes of tradition remained the attainment of the Buddhahood and liberation from the Samsāra.

After a short section aimed at framing the spread of Buddhism from India to China, this paper describes the cultural background that favored the thriving of the Yogakāra. Similarities and differences between Mahayāna and Theravāda are explained to introduce the basic concepts of the Mahayāna phenomenology from the Yogakāra perspective. Divergences between Indian and Chinese Yogakāra are also highlighted, such as in the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine. Finally, the text offers further hints on the influence of the Yogakāra tradition on modern Chinese thought and the rise of the New Confucianism.

The spread of Buddhism into China and basic notions on the Mahāyāna

The spread of Buddhism into China is shrouded in mystery. The Buddhist doctrine reached the imperial court during the Han dynasty which ruled China from 206 BCE to 220 CE. Realistically, the Buddhist tradition penetrated China during the first century BCE or the first century CE following the commercial silk routes across Asia. The official historiography, however, found it convenient to resort to mythological narratives to celebrate the emperor, while the apocryphal Buddhist literature tended to enhance the prestige of the monks (Zurcher, p. 19). As a consequence, assigning accurate dates to most of the early work that marked the passage of Buddhism to China is a hard task. Also, the Chinese started to have some knowledge of Sanskrit in the fourth century CE, and the early translations were convoluted and somehow misleading, with significant use of Chinese terms and categories usually associated with non-Buddhist concepts (Zurcher, p. 2). Inevitably, these factors concurred with the Sinification of early Buddhist teaching.

The rise of the Mahāyāna Tradition

During the initial stages of the diffusion of Buddhism across China, the Indian doctrine was still in its early period, and the Mahāyāna tradition was emerging as a prominent school of interpretation of the Buddhist scriptures. The Mahāyāna started as a movement aimed at returning to the original teachings of Buddha, and it became one of the most important currents of Buddhism together with the Theravāda. However, the two traditions take a different stance on the possible paths to reach perfection. While the Theravāda privileges the way of the disciple to attain arhatship, the Mahāyāna favors the heroic path of the Bodhisattva to obtain the perfect awakening of the fully awakened samyak-sambuddha (Gethin, p. 225). The difference is substantial because the heroic path of the Bodhisattva includes compassion (karunā) and the implicit mission of enlightening the other sentient beings. While the attainment of perfection remains the common goal, the disciples who manage to reach arhatship disappear from the samsāra, the bodhisattva choose to come back to the suffering of the world out of compassion. For this reason, this tradition is called Mahāyāna, the “great vehicle,” while the Theravāda is the Hīnayāna, the “the inferior vehicle.”

The Theravāda spread in Sri Lanka and across South-East Asia, the Mahāyāna became the dominant canon in China, Korea, and Japan. Inevitably, the two interpretations of the Buddhist scriptures affected the Buddhist philosophies and practices in the countries where they spread. It is also quite remarkable that the Theravāda did not remain in its inception stage in the Sri Lankan culture but, instead, gained new attributes, thus incorporating the elements of the ancient culture and the components of the recipient culture, evolving into a new philosophy. Similarly, the influence that Mahāyāna gained in China, Korea, and Japan has been mutual, affecting the nature of the philosophy and transforming people’s culture. For instance, in China, Mahāyāna introduced new concepts that were alien to the Chinese culture yet were integrated into it with the spread of Buddhism across the state. In addition, the transition from the Indian philosophy to the Chinese one that Mahāyāna witnessed involved the active participation of Chinese monks in the translation of the scripture and the dissemination of its philosophy among citizens. Therefore, the process of Buddhist principles being transferred to the Chinese culture also involved significant social changes, with the increase in the role of monks as educators.

The development of the Mahāyāna

Trying to assign accurate dates to Mahāyāna sūtras rises further challenges to the already complicated field of attribution, dates, and publications. Besides the normal issues in dating, many sūtras constitute concepts directly taught by the Buddha but spread later when the right time had come, entangling further the situation (Gethin, p. 225). The first evidence of the existence of a corpus of Mahāyāna sūtras dates back to the second century CE when some sūtras were translated to Chinese. The most important Mahāyāna sūtras relate to the bodhisattva path, the “ideas only” concept, the “embryo of the Tathāgata,” the “one vehicle notion,” the “interpenetration of all phenomena,” the “pure land,” and the meditation sūtras. The core of the Mahāyāna tradition, the path of the bodhisattva consists of ten levels and goes beyond the development of spiritual practices, including good conduct, concentration, and wisdom. Firstly, the bodhisattva arouses the awakening mind through a series of meditation; then, they practice a series of perfections connected to the stages of the path of the bodhisattva, eventually reaching the Buddhahood, where there is no need for further training.

The perfections are divided into two groups. The first group includes generosity (dāna), good conduct (śīla), patient acceptance (ksānti), vigor (vīrya), meditation (dhyāna), and wisdom (prajñā). The last four perfections are skill in means (upāya-kauśalya), determination (pranidhāna), strength (bala), and knowledge (jñāna) (Gethin, p. 230). The awareness of the awakening corresponds to a sort of threshold, the reaching of the first stage of the path of the bodhisattva. Completing the first six levels allows practitioners to get arhatship. The last, advanced, steps are necessary to reach the full Buddhahood. However, there is still a difference between tenth-stage bodhisattvas and buddhas. Though they substantially behave in the same way, and both are liberated from the samsāra, buddhas remain linked to the world because of their compassion: the condition of Buddhahood, then, implies the capacity of creating a visible body, a nirmāna-kāya (Gethin, p. 233). The real buddhas are in the Pure Abodes, the highest level of the Indian cosmology. Hence, while the nirmāna-kāya, the visible buddha, is born, lives, and dies, the cosmic buddha, the sambhoga-kāya, teaches the Dharma in elevated pure lands.

While the concept of the nature of buddhas led to different interpretations, the ideas of wisdom, the perfection of wisdom, and emptiness raised a lively philosophical debate, giving birth to some of the most influential Mahāyāna schools, including the Madhyamaka and the Yogācāra schools. From a Chinese perspective, the Yogācāra is essential for several reasons. From a historical point of view, it contributed to shaping the development of the indigenous religion, philosophy, art, and literature. More recently, it informed the Chinese attitude towards the challenges of modernity; finally, the Yogācāra has provided the foundation for the rise of a modern Chinese philosophical current, namely the New Confucianism (Makeham, p. 3). However, in the passage of the Yogācāra Buddhism from India to China, the understanding of some critical concepts differed markedly (Ming-Wood, p. 352). The Yogācāra represents the peak of the tradition of northern Indian Buddhism, and it provides a solid psychological corpus for the path of liberation, offering a thorough perception of the Buddhahood as well. Nevertheless, it is important to notice that the ultimate scope of the Yogācāra remained the provision of a coherent path to liberation for beings.

By the time when the Tang Dynasty gained vast influence over the Chinese society and became the absolute power in the empire, the number of Buddhist translations was truly vast. As a result, opportunities for different interpretations of the text emerged, thus spawning multiple interpretations of the traditional Mahāyāna philosophy. However, the specified outcome resulted in several difficulties, the problem of translating the theoretical tenets of the Buddhist principles into practice being the most important and problematic ones.

It is also noteworthy that the multiple reiterations of the Buddhist principles and concepts have affected not only the Chinese religion but also other areas, including art and philosophy. The principles of Buddhism and its key principles permeated the realm of literature, architecture, and other types of artistic expression, creating a unique culture and shaping people’s perceptions of Buddhist values. In a certain sense, the Chinese interpretation of Buddhist principles has allowed merging religion and philosophy, creating a unique set of principles that could not only guide but also inspire people, providing both ethical and aesthetic development.

Yogācāra Buddhism

The Yogācāra school thrived within the Mahāyāna Buddhism during the third and to fifth century CE. As suggested by the name, which can be translated as Practitioners of Yoga, Yogācāra’s main concern revolved around the concept of consciousness and its transformation in the samsāra along the path to liberation (Waldron, “Indian Yogācāra Buddhism”, p. 283). The idea of consciousness, however, was lively debated among Yogācāra exponents. The doctrine was developed by Asańga and Vasubandhu in India and spread into China through the work of Paramārtha and Hsüan-Tzang almost immediately, around the fifth century CE. The Yogācāra was also known as Nothing but Consciousness (Vijñānavāda), The Way of Consciousness (Vijñapti-Mātra) in India, and Weishi (Nothing But Consciousness) and Faxiang (Dharma Characteristics) in China. Curiously, while Faxiang was often used as a denigratory term, it became the official name of the Yogācāra school in China and, later, in Japan (Makeham, p. 2). The opponent schools commented sardonically on the Yogācāra attitude of searching for the characteristics of dharmas rather than the nature of dharmas.

Mind-only or consciousness-only, the supremacy of the mind, is one of the central themes of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and it was deepened by the Yogācāra tradition. From this perspective, the basic concept of the Yogācāra is that the samsāra, the cycle of rebirths and lives, can be explained and understood in terms of mind and ideas (Gethin, p. 244). It was a topical subject in early Buddhism and is related to the ontology of the dharmas and the concept of emptiness. Substantially, dharmas are “merely beings of the mind (…). When the mind arises, dharmas [also] arise; and when the mind is annihilated, dharmas are annihilated” (Hui-Yüan qtd. in Ming-Wood, p. 352). Hence, the starting point of Yogācāra is that the known world is purely mental, and our experience of it is based on Vijñapti, namely information, and ideas. Vijñapti is the only real world and the question of whether there is an external world matching ideas and perceptions brings to further developments and concepts.

Main concepts in Yogācāra Buddhism

If consciousness and perceptions determine the reality, or non-reality, of the world, it is essential to define what mind and perceptions are. Gethin (pp. 248-249) highlights that Yogācāra is not entirely agnostic about the existence of the world: though objects do not exist, yet we share common experiences as the products of many past karma influences. By showing how we create ideas, experiences, and, ultimately, suffering, the Yogācāra aims at empowering us to reverse the process, triggering awakening and escaping from misery. There are no separate experiencing subjects and separate experienced objects: what matters, in Yogācāra philosophy, is “the way things are rather than what is” (Gethin, p. 249). For this reason, the idea of consciousness in Yogācāra revolves around the concepts of grāhaka and grāhya, namely graspers and what is grasped rather than around subjects and objects (Lusthaus, p. 2). It is, substantially, a change of perspective to change our understanding of the mind process, to get rid of what provokes suffering.

The Chinese monk Hui-Yüan explains the ontology that underpins the mind-only concept plainly: “(…) the grasping and the deluded mind erroneously regards dharmas outside the mind as possessing self-nature, and does not perceive that [all] nameable functions are without [self-] essence”, and “(…) the false consciousness deceives and hides the true essence, and wrongly considers dharmas arising from itself as real” (Hui-Yüan qtd. in Ming-Wood, p. 351). The ontological aspects of dharmas, they are arising from false thoughts, and the attainment of the truth of the mind-only is the subject of the practice of Yogācāra, especially rooted in yoga and meditation. From this perspective, some concepts, including the eight types of consciousness, the three natures (tri-svabhāva), the tathāgatagarbha, the store of consciousness (ālaya-vijñana), and the karmic seeds are among crucial central to understand Yogācāra.

The eight types of consciousness represent a more refined theoretical construction of the early Buddhism teaching which divided consciousness according to the five senses and the mind. The Yogācāra provides a more comprehensive explanation of the mind, including two further types of consciousness which play a massive role in how we experience the world. The defiled mental vijñana (klihia-manovijñana) is the mind defiled by the unsatisfactory condition of the samsāra (Waldron, “The Buddhist Unconscious”, p. 139). Beyond the defiled mind, there is the eighth type of contagiousness, the store of consciousness or alaya-vijñana, where the experiences and the knowledge collected traveling through the samsāra, the karmic seeds, are gathered. The store of consciousness has some unique features which make it suitable for infusing the karmic seeds simultaneously and constantly (Waldron, “The Buddhist Unconscious”, p. 138). Simultaneity ensures the karmic continuity which allows the gathering, the receiving, and, eventually, the blooming of the seeds.

Tathāgatagarbha, literally the womb or the embryo of the Tathāgata, refers to basic Buddhist teaching which states that the mind is originally pure and radiant but becomes impure and stained. In other words, everybody is potentially a Buddha, even if not everybody manages to reach the awakening and remains trapped in the defilement of the mind and the path of individuality, inevitably bounding themselves to delusion and suffering (Gethin, p. 246). Among the Buddhist scriptures, the concept of tathāgatagarbha, the potential Buddhahood, has been interpreted differently, representing an essential divergence of the Chinese tradition from the original Indian canons. While some writings suggest the hypothesis that the Buddhahood might exclude some beings, the East Asian school tends to apply the intrinsic nature of Buddha to all individuals (Gethin, p. 252). The notion of Buddhahood and the doctrine of the Tathāgatagarbha are explained in the Dasheng qi xin lu or Treatise on the Mahāyāna Awakening.

The treatise is traditionally attributed to the Indian poet Ashvaghosha while the translation into Chinese is accredited to Paramartha. However, several doubts have been raised about this attribution as Ashvaghosha was a poet who never adhered to the Yogācāra or even to the Mahayāna doctrine. Hence, the text is probably an original Chinese work (Miles and Lopez, p. 1186). Anyway, the document represents a peak of the Chinese Yogācāra tradition, and it revolves around the concept of the ultimate reality (zhenru) from a Tathāgatagarbha perspective: if everybody bears the nature of Buddha, why there is still ignorance? The answer is in the doctrine of one mind – two aspects: the “principle of One Mind has two aspects. One is the aspect of Mind in terms of the absolute, and the other is the aspect of Mind in terms of phenomena” (Aśvaghoṣa, p. 11). The two aspects of the one mind are mutually inclusive and embrace all states of existence.

Yogācāra Revival and New Confucianism in Twentieth Century China

During its journey to and through China, Indian Buddhism went in contact with a flourishing and vibrant culture, and with its autochthonous schools of thought influencing Confucianism, Taoism, and the whole of Chinese society. However, the original core of the Indian doctrine started to decline during the eighth and ninth centuries, becoming more and more tinted with Chinese culture (Tang, p. 51). The Yogācāra remained influential, but its multifaceted theoretical approach hindered its diffusion, and other traditions, including the Chan and the Pure Land, took over. Though Buddhism has had a considerable influence on Chinese society, other schools have contributed to shaping it to create modern China. Besides Buddhism, there are Nestorianism, argakun, and, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the influence of Western culture (Tang, p. 47). Coming in contact with the Western philosophies urged Chine’s scholars to study the original Chines philosophies and to develop a modern and systematic framework to analyze beings, ontology, consciousness, and the universe.

The last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a reappraisal of the Confucian doctrine and the rise of a school of thought known as the New Confucianism. The innovative approach to the traditional Chinese theories was influenced by Western culture. It consisted of a creative blending of Kantian and Hegelian philosophy, psychology, evolution theory, empirical science, logic, and original Confucian thoughts (Makeham, p. 3). However, Makeham notices that while the Western and traditional influences have been thoroughly analyzed, the heritage from Indian Buddhism, and specifically of the Yogācāra tradition, has been neglected (p. 3). The impact of the Yogācāra tradition on the New Confucianism should be sought in the revival of Yogācāra of the late decade of the nineteenth century. In a period dominated by scientific categories, the alignment of Yogācāra with modern scientific principles made the doctrine appealing to the cultural elite.

The cognitive approach of Yogācāra would have allowed scientists to overcome imperfect and biased observations. The Buddhist reformer Taixu went so far as to support the thesis that Yogācāra could lead to sensible improvements in scientific methods and observations (Makeham, p. 17). After Taixu, Yogācāra was seen as a robust theoretical framework to improve the condition of human life, making science accessible to all people. In the same period, Yogācāra provided the Chinese intellectuals with adequate tools to understand and interpret the rising science of psychology: the concepts of karmic seeds and store consciousness, for example, were largely utilized to explain the functioning of processes engaged by memory and instinct (Makeham, p. 19). While the core structure of Yogācāra could be supportive of science, it could also be used to criticize it. Some famous episodes related to the assertion that Einstein’s theory of relativity lacked the level of comprehensiveness of Yogācāra and that Bertrand Russel asserted that cameras could see things (Makeham, p. 19). The popularity of Yogācāra among Chinese intellectuals was due to the spread acceptance that it was a legitimate epistemological stance.

The focus on the work of mind rather than the experience, which the East Asian interpretation of Indian Buddhism, in general, and its Chinese rendering, in particular, implied could be seen as a significant change. The notions of path and goal were also expanded in the Yogācāra philosophy after being viewed through the lens of Chinese culture. Encompassing the notions of emptiness and brotherhood, the Yogācāra philosophical framework allowed expanding the Chinese philosophy, at the same time being enriched with the traditional Chinese philosophical and religious values.

The relationship between Yogācāra and New Confucianism is complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, the New Confucianism has developed through a dialectical confrontation on Yogācāra’s theoretical framework; on the other hand, it critically opposed the Yogācāra teaching, adhering to a cultural trend which considered the Mahayāna’s doctrine of enlightenment as false Buddhism, as it was not part of the original Indian scriptures (Makeham, p. 30). However, the New Confucianism cannot be understood without a thorough understanding of theory and the role of Chinese Buddhism, and the Yogācāra tradition is still an argumentative component within the New Confucianism’s theoretical approach.


The spread of Buddhism into China presents a series of challenges that make the topic especially complex. Accurate historical chronology and dating of the sources are difficult if not impossible: the coeval chronicles indulge in mythical episodes, and the transmission of the fundamental Buddhist doctrine was not linear. However, it is established that Buddhism began to spread across China during the Han dynasty from 206 BCE to 220 CE. To further entangle the situation, there was limited knowledge of the Sanskrit language in China, and the first transcriptions were inaccurate and misleading. Moreover, the extensive and consistent use of Chinese expressions carrying already codified meanings contributed to the process of the signification of Buddhism.

Diverse interpretations of the original scriptures resulted in different schools, including the Theravāda, which spread across Southeastern Asia, and the Mahāyāna, which reached China, Japan, and Korea. Buddhism Mahayāna, in turn, originated several schools, including the Yogakāra, whose influence on the Chinese culture is still perceivable today. Adhering to the Mahayāna mainstream, Yogakāra privileged the Bodhisattva path to reach the Buddhahood through ten levels of perfection. Yogakāra focused on the transformation of consciousness through the practice of Yoga and created a sophisticated ontological framework to explain samsāra, consciousness, and phenomena. The main concepts of Yogakāra are the eight types of consciousness, the three natures (tri-svabhāva), the tathāgatagarbha, the store of consciousness (ālaya-vijñana), and the karmic seeds. The notion of Buddhahood and the doctrine of the Tathāgatagarbha, which establish that every being carries the nature of Buddha, are peculiar to Yogakāra and represent a significant feature of Chinese Buddhism.

In addition, the changes to the Indian concept of Buddhism have contributed to shaping the Buddhist religious tenets to make them the foundation for the Buddhist philosophy as it was viewed through the lens of the Chinese culture. The numerous reiterations f Buddhist concepts that found their way into the Chinese art, literature, and architecture, as well as a range of other domains, have affected people’s perception of religion, its role in society, and the effects that it produces on people. In addition, a shift in the hierarchy of Chinese society could be observed as the role of monks in Chinese culture increased. Overall, the alterations that Indian Buddhism underwent when being adjusted to the context of the Chinese society were quite expected yet nonetheless impressive.

Though Yogakāra lose its original popularity around the eighth and ninth centuries CE, the school witnessed a revival at the turn of the twentieth century, when its coherent epistemological stance proved effective in offering a robust framework to deal with the modern concepts of science and psychology. For this reason, Yogakāra became popular among the Chinese intellectual elite, and its heritage is still visible in the thriving of the New Confucianism of the last decades of the twentieth century, though with a dual and contrasting role.

Works Cited

  1. Aśvaghoṣa. The Awakening of Faith / Attributed to Aśvaghosha; Translated from the Chinese of Paramārtha (Taishō Volume 32, Number 1666). Translated by Yoshito S. Hakeda. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2005.
  2. Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 1988
  3. Lusthaus, Dun. Buddhist Phenomenology. A Philosophical Investigation of Yogäcära Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei -shih lun. Routledge, 2002
  4. Makeham, John. Transforming Consciousness: Yogācāra Thought in Modern China. Edited by Jiang Tao. Ofxord University Press, 2015.
  5. Miles, Jack, and Donald S. Lopez, editors. The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Buddhism. W. W. Norton, 2017.
  6. Ming-Wood, Liu. “”. Philosophy East and West, vol. 35, no. 4, 1985, pp. 351-376. Web
  7. Tang, Yijie. Anthology of Philosophical and Cultural Issues. Springer, 2016.
  8. Waldron, William S. “Indian Yogācāra Buddhism: A historical Perspective.” History of Indian Philosophy, edited by Purushottama Bilimoria. Routledge, 2018
  9. The Buddhist Unconscious: The Alaya-Vijñana in the Context of Indian Buddhist Thought. Routledge, 2003
  10. Zurcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest to China. The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China. 3rd ed., Brill, 2017
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