The Yogācāra (practitioners of yoga) school, also known as citta-mātra (mind-only), or vijñānavāda (consciousness school), is one of two major schools of Indian Mahayana Buddhist thought, which flourished in classical India from the 3rd–4th century CE to the 9th century CE. It is important both for the way it synthesized and developed all aspects of contemporaneous Mahāyāna Buddhism, as well as for its historical influence on subsequent forms of Buddhism both inside and outside of India. Its encyclopedic aims led Yogācārins first to outline the “practice of yoga,” which combined Abhidharmic modes of analyzing mental processes with the Mādhyamikan notion of emptiness, and, second, to systematize the Mahayana path system and developing notions of buddhahood. Both of these syntheses—philosophical analyses of mental processes and systematization of the Buddhist path and goal—were very influential in later Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhist history, while only the second—systematizing the Buddhist path and goal—attained similar importance in Tibet. Understanding the whole of Yogācāra is a challenge commensurate with its ambitious aims; accordingly, there are still no comprehensive treatments of Yogācāra in Western languages. Moreover, a huge gulf still exists between works that are relatively accessible to nonspecialists and those written for and by specialists. Academic interest in the school has been increasing since the 1990s, however, partly as a result of increased historical knowledge about and interaction between South and East Asian forms of Buddhism, and partly in response to the many venues for dialogue between Yogācāra and modern thought.
Though Yogācāra is an elaborate scholastic school, it purports to describe everyday experience, however deluded, as well as its transformation through the practice of yoga to the ultimate state of buddhahood. In accessible terms, Nhât Hanh 2006 and Tagawa 2009 show how Yogācāra analyses of mind elucidate everyday experience and their transformations. Davidson 1985 illustrates, more technically, the multiple systems whereby Yogācārins conceived of such transformation, while Nagao and Kawamura 1991 addresses the various philosophical, interpretive, and historical issues these practices raised. Potter 1999 contains useful synopses of most Buddhist texts from the formative period of Yogācāra. Lusthaus (What Is and Isn’t Yogācāra) provides an excellent and succinct outline of classical Indian Yogācāra while arguing against the standard interpretation of Yogācāra as metaphysical idealism—an interpretation whose history in Western scholarship he reconstructs in Lusthaus 1999. General Bibliography on Yogācāra and especially Powers 1991 can be consulted for further sources.
Davidson, R. M. Buddhist Systems of Transformation: Āśraya parivṛtti/parāvṛtti among the Yogācāra. PhD diss., Berkeley: University of California, 1985.
The only work that effectively encompasses the various dimensions of classical Yogācāra systems of transformation in its Indian historical milieu. It assumes some background on the part of the reader.
Lusthaus, Dan. “What Is and Isn’t Yogācāra.”
A succinct summary of Yogācāra along with the clearest argument against its standard interpretation as a form of metaphysical idealism.
Lusthaus, Dan. “A Brief Retrospective of Western Yogācāra Scholarship in the 20th Century.” Paper presented at the 11th International Conference on Chinese Philosophy, Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan, 26–31 July 1999.
A useful overview of Western scholarship on Yogācāra during the 20th century. Includes references. Available online.
Muller, Charles. General Bibliography on Yogācāra.
An accessible online bibliography of Yogācāra materials.
Nagao Gajin, and Leslie S. Kawamura, trans. Madhyamaka and Yogācāra: A Study of Mahāyāna Philosophies: Collected Papers of G. M. Nagao. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
A collection of seminal essays by one of Japan’s leading Yogācāra specialists. A great place for graduate students to begin, especially those interested in philological issues.
Nhât Hanh, Thich. Understanding Our Mind. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2006.
A simple, though not simplistic, introduction to the major concepts of Yogācāra from the point of view of a leading Buddhist teacher and monk. Accessible, although somewhat repetitious.
Potter, Karl, ed. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: Buddhist Philosophy. Vols. 8–9. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999.
A useful collection of detailed outlines of Buddhist philosophical texts from roughly 100 to 350 CE, a period that encompasses the classical texts of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. It includes a long introduction contextualizing the development of Yogācāra doctrines within the larger world of Indian Buddhist thought.
Powers, John. The Yogācāra School of Buddhism: A Bibliography. ATLA Bibliography Series 27. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1991.
The most comprehensive bibliography in English. It includes references to all the important editions of Yogācāra texts in their Sanskrit originals and Tibetan and Chinese translations, their modern critical editions, as well as works by traditional Tibetan and modern scholars from around the globe. Lists no publications beyond 1991.
Tagawa Shun’ei. Living Yogācāra: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism. Translated by Charles Muller. Boston: WisdomPublications, 2009.
A nontechnical introduction to the basic ideas of Yogācāra, heavily influenced by East Asian perspectives. Accessible and engaging.
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