Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara

1. Self and Other

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Self and Other


Everything conceived as self or other occurs in the transformation of consciousness. || 1 ||

I invite you to take a moment to investigate what you are experiencing right now. In all likelihood, you have a sense of being in a location, perhaps in a chair or a bed. There are sensations in a body that you think of as yours, there is a visual field that can be scanned from left to right (that is to say, from what you probably think of as your left and right), there are things behind you that you cannot see but you can feel: the soft back of a chair perhaps. There are words in front of you that you conceive to be my words that you would likely say that you are reading. We can divide everything in this moment of experience into things that we conceive to be ourselves and things that we conceive to be other than ourselves, with ourselves unconsciously placed in the center. Whether we know it or not, this division and this self-­centering is constantly occurring, and this division—and the problems it causes and the possibility of transcending 26them through intimacy with them—is the principal subject of the “Thirty Verses.”

A brief investigation of our consciousness like the one above is likely to lead us to the idea that we have a consciousness that experiences things: consciousness is the self, and the world around us is other. At the start of this work, Vasubandhu points toward another view: “Everything conceived as self or other occurs in the transformation of consciousness.” Neither the self nor the other is consciousness; they are merely conceptions occurring within a process of consciousness.

The transformation of consciousness is a constant flow. If you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation. The first thing these verses give us is an opportunity to experience a sense of wonder about what we are experiencing right now, a sense that our most basic understanding of where and what we are in the world is not quite right, that we are instead involved in a mysterious, flowing unfolding. We see this teaching reflected in the Tibetan classic The Thirty-­Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva by Tokme Zangpo (1245–1369):

Whatever arises in experience is your own mind.

Mind itself is free of any conceptual limitations.

Know that and don’t generate self-­other fixations—

this is the practice of a bodhisattva.


Consciousness Only puts forth the split between subject and object as the ultimate aspect of our consciousness we must see through if we want to realize our capacity to appear in the world in a purely kind and joyful way. As we will see at the end of the “Thirty Verses,” letting go of the sense that we are a self experiencing things is the way to enter this mysterious flowing unfolding, so that whatever is here that we might call ourselves is just a natural, generous, joyful, compassionate occurrence. The Buddha called himself tathagata or “that which is thus coming and going.” He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help. This is the way of being these verses offer to you.

In Sanskrit the first two words of this text are atma and dharma. Atma is a key Indian term meaning “self” or “soul.” Dharma means various things, but here it means “phenomenon,” something that is experienced, something other than ourself. Many Early Buddhist practices involved investigating phenomena and realizing that they were not one’s self: for example, seeing that one’s thoughts are not one’s self, the sensations in the body are not one’s self, feelings are not one’s self, etc. By seeing that all these things are not our selves we become liberated from the endless cycle of dissatisfaction that characterizes human experience. We see that that there is no I to be dissatisfied. We can let go of 28clinging, let go of feeling upset over and over again because the world does not function according to our desires.

These practices were developed over the years, and great bodies of literature and practice grew around them: the Abhidharma. The Abhidharma view came to be that although atman didn’t exist, dharmas did. Abhidharmists refined a complex system of categorization of dharmas that were to be seen and memorized. Deep practice was to see the constant flow of phenomena, of dharmas, without having a sense of one’s self in the midst of it. As the great fifth-­century Theravada monk Buddhaghosa wrote:

There is suffering, but none who suffers;

Doing exists although there is no doer;

At some point, Mahayana Buddhists started to think that the Abhidharmists had gotten stuck. Stuck on their investigation of dharmas. Stuck on memorizing, categorizing, and believing in their system. Great bodies of Mahayana literature sprang up teaching that dharmas were empty of self-­existence. As it says at the beginning of the most widely chanted and celebrated Mahayana text, the Heart Sutra, the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, relieves all suffering by seeing that all dharmas, all phenomena, are empty, without their own self-­nature. Deep practice in the 29Mahayana tradition was to see that nothing at all had its own self-­nature. So in the early part of the first millennium, there were great debates about whose view or method was correct, or most helpful.

Yogacara, in general, sought to reconcile divisions in Buddhist thought. And here Vasubandhu, using Consciousness Only teachings, pursues that end. He says that whatever conceptions one has about self and other occur in the transformation of consciousness, they are all Consciousness Only. That is to say, within this transformation of consciousness, one can realize that no phenomena is our self, as the Abhidharmists say, and one can also realize that phenomena are not themselves, that they are empty of an independent, lasting nature. This verse gives us a ground on which to do our practice, including the practice of realizing that there is no ground. This ground is this ineffable transformation of consciousness far beyond any conceptions we may have of what it is—it is just this moment of experience.

It seems clear that Vasubandhu hoped to bring people together with these verses and to reconcile systems of thought, but his interest was not academic. He reconciles these two systems of thought because they are both valuable for helping people find peace, compassion, and kind action. The Abhidharma system of dharmas, as we will see in verses 10–14, focuses on whether the mind contains beneficial or afflictive 30emotions and provides a method for cultivating the beneficial ones and letting go of the afflictive ones, so that we may be profound peace and kindness. Its psychological precision helps us to know and let go of harmful habits, even those of which we are usually unaware. The Mahayana emphasis on emptiness of all phenomena can allow us to be completely liberated from the delusion of separateness, our constantly arising tendency to put ourselves at the center, so that we may be vast freedom and compassion. Yogacara teachings, including the “Thirty Verses,” refer to two barriers: afflictive emotion and delusion. The Abhidharma teachings and practices in the first half of this book are to help you let go of afflictions; the Mahayana-­style teachings in the second half are to help you let go of delusion. The vision of the “Thirty Verses” is that both of these methods combined are more powerful than either alone, and they can provide anyone willing to do the practice a way to shed suffering and step into a life of ease, joy, and compassionate action.

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