Vasubandhu (4th century ad) Twenty Verses on Consciousness-Only

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Vasubandhu (4th century AD)

Topics Covered in the Twenty Verses

  • Reality as Consciousness-Only

  • Perception & its Objects (No Self/No Thing)

  • Atomism & Experience

  • Monism & Experience

  • What is Perception?

  • Interactions between Individuals

  • The Problem of Other Minds

  • Conclusion

The dialogical structure of the text

  • Objections

  • &

  • Yogacara (Vasubandhu) Replies

Vasubandhu’s thesis

  • Reality as Consciousness-Only

  • Metaphysical Idealism

Objections to metaphysical idealism

  • any idea could arise at any time or in any place;

  • different minds could “perceive” different objects at the same time & in the same place;

  • objects could function in unexpected (surprising, unpredictable) ways.

Vasubandhu’s Reply

  • Even in dreams, ideas (images, events) arise in particular places at certain times.

  • Souls in hell experience the same things although the things experienced do not really exist (i.e., hell is a mental state).

  • Things experienced in dreams can function in the expected ways.

Critical Question

  • Do V’s replies establish the truth of metaphysical idealism?

  • Or do they merely suggest that the consciousness-only thesis MAY be true?

A debate about the existence & nature of hell

  • Why say that the things experienced in hell do not have objective existence?. Because the guardians of hell, who inflict the sufferings of the hellish state, are in hell but do not experience its torments.

  • Animals, hell-guardians, & rebirth.

  • Hell as the creation of the bad karma of the condemned -- best interpreted as a mental state rather than as an external, objective reality.

Perception & its Objects

  • No Self / No Thing

Perception & its Objects

  • Objection: The Buddha taught that consciousness arises out of the interaction of the six senses with external objects.

  • Reply: Yes, but that teaching was merely an introductory & exoteric preparation for a deeper, esoteric view of reality (102) -- namely, the “seed-consciousness” doctrine.

self & objects as constructed by ordinary consciousness,

  • as opposed to reality as it is in itself (tathata, “suchness”).

  • Beyond the ordinary, constructed self (ego) & its subject-object duality, there is

Atomism & Experience

What is an “atom”?

Vasubandhu’s criticism of atomism

  • We have no perceptual experience of atoms (since atoms are imperceptible).

    • no experience of wholes without parts (indivisible entities), i.e., individual atoms
    • no experience of groups of distinct & separate atoms
    • no experience of aggregations of atoms

2. A logical critique of atomism

  • If atoms are indivisible & thus have no parts, then they cannot form aggregations.

  • If atoms can aggregate, then they must have parts (& be divisible) & are thus not atoms.

  • If the atoms in an atomic aggregation occupy different locations, then each of them has parts & is not an atom.

  • If all atomic aggregates occupy the same location, then “they” would be just a single atom, & the “aggregation” would not be an aggregation.

The Kasimira Vaibhashika view

Logical criticism, cont’d

  • If one atom can be “in front of,” “behind,” “over,” or “under” another, then atoms must have fronts, back, tops, & bottoms, i.e., parts, & thus atoms are not atoms.

  • If atoms have no fronts, backs, tops, or bottoms -- i.e., no parts -- then how is the overshadowing & concealment (e.g., sunlight & shadow, etc.) of atoms possible?

V’s reply to the latter objection (p. 227)

  • Either atomic aggregations are (A) essentially different from atoms, or they are (B) not essentially different from atoms.

  • If (B), then how can atomic aggregations be any more subject to overshadowing & concealment than atoms are?

  • If (A), then what happens to the atomic theory of the nature of macroscopic objects (i.e., that they are composed of atoms)?

Another argument against atomism that seems to be sprinkled through pp. 225-7 is the following:

  • Atoms are indivisible.

  • Whatever is located in space (& time?) is divisible (because space & time are divisible).

  • So atoms cannot be located (extended) in space (or in time?) -- they are “no place” at “no time.”

  • Now, atomism is the view that everything in the space-time world is composed of atoms.

space & time

  • are infinitely divisible.

  • So whatever is located in space & time is infinitely divisible.

  • Atoms are indivisible.

  • Either atoms are (A) located in space & time, or (B) they aren’t.

  • Either way, atoms cannot exist. Can you see why?

Monism & Experience

V’s arguments against monism

  • If monism were true, then

    • there could be no gradual motion from one place to another (since everything would be in one place);
    • it would not be possible to see only one side of an object while not seeing the other side of it (no difference between one side & another);
    • there would be no distinctions or differences between different beings (in fact, there wouldn’t be different beings);
    • all things would have the same location (no separation of things in space); and
    • there would be no difference between the visible and the invisible (the macroscopic & the microscopic).

What is

  • Perception?

V’s Reply

  • There is perception in dreams, but the objects perceived are not external to the mind.

V’s Reply

  • What we remember are not external objects, but rather our perceptual experiences, which, as shown above, are constructions of consciousness.

only the enlightened (who are few) can KNOW that reality is consciousness-only

  • & that everybody else must either take it on faith (in the authority of the enlightened)

  • or not believe it at all

  • (since V’s arguments in support of metaphysical idealism

  • do not seem very effective)?

1st Objection: Doesn’t the fact that one mind can be influenced by another prove that there are objects external to one’s own consciousness (e.g., friends, teachers, etc.)?

  • V’s Reply:

  • The doctrine of consciousness-only does not deny the existence of other minds external to one’s one; what it denies the existence of external material objects.

2nd Objection: Different degrees of moral concern with regard to the consequences of what we do in dreams as opposed to waking states.

  • V’s Reply:

  • That’s because the mind has more control of itself in the waking state than it does in dream states.

  • (More control, more moral concern?)

3rd Objection:

  • If there are no material objects, then there are no bodies.

  • If there are no bodies, then how can butchers kill sheep & then be blamed for taking life?


  • Can one mind have knowledge of another?

  • If so, doesn’t that refute the consciousness-only thesis?

Conclusion (228)

  • Only the enlightened can truly know & understand the truth of consciousness-only.

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