Vasubandhu and his reaction and addition to the "Abhidharma". A historical and doctrinal analysis

Essay, 2015

8 Pages, Grade: A

Andrew Baston (Author)

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Vasubandhu and His Reaction and Addition to the Abhidharma and Abhidharma Consciousness: a Historical and Doctrinal Analyses of his Contributions to Mahayana Philosophy

The Abhidharma is a voluminous collection of early Buddhist works written during the 3rd and 4th century. The works contain Buddhist fundamental psychology that go into more detail than any other work on human psychology before its time, containing an incredibly detailed analysis of the human mind. It is based on the teachings of the Buddha and supports a tremendous hosts of traditions that still base their dogma on it today. It was designed to address major doctrinal, however fundamental, positions held by Buddhist, and has been commented on as the basis – even authority – on a range of topics beyond psychology, including dimensions of metaphysics, ontology and phenomenology.

In this essay, I will argue that despite the meticulous detail the Abhidharma provides, consciousness and causality was left unclear, forcing philosophers like Vasubandhu to invent remarkable theories to develop Mahayana consciousness and solve causality.[1] Then I will explain consciousness as it is described in the Abhidharma and the problem of the absence of causality, and introduce Vasubandhu and his development of consciousness as a solution to the absence of causality. Finally, I will draw from more recent scholars who have benefited and teach his teachings. Before beginning, I should first note that Vasubandhu never stated that he was struggling with understanding causality or that his theories were designed to solve causality. It will be my goal to expose that in the development of consciousness as a Yogacharin, building on Abhidharma consciousness (with the addition of the 7th and 8th consciousnesses) that he, even without making any commitment to such a task was forced to improve the structure of Abhidharma consciousness in order to increase our understanding of causality.

Consciousness According to Abhidharma

The Abhidharma describes consciousness as being a part of the Five Aggregates (or Skandas); form, sensation, perception, formations and consciousness. Form referring simply to material, sensation to our reactionary interaction with material forms, perception – associating, formations – mental constructs, and consciousness, cognizance. This is the basic make-up of the subject and his or her world. The subject exists in a world of physical, material substance (form), reacts to it (sensation/perception) and thinks about it (cognizance). Furthermore, eighteen elements are described as a part of the subject’s consciousness and interaction with reality. Mipham Rinpoche, in his Gateway to Knowledge, explained it like this:

There are ten elements taken from the aggregate of forms. What are they? They are the five (elements of the sense faculties) from the eye element to the body element and the five (elements of the sense objects) from the element of visible form to the element of textures totaling ten.[2]

The first five are the five senses – the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue and the body with its touch- sensory function. The next five are the material aspects of consciousness that the subject interacts with, the forms in relation to the sense faculties afore mentioned: visible form, auditory form, olfactory form, gustatory form and tactile form. Mipham’s commentary continues:

There are seven elements from the (aggregates of) consciousness: the six from the eye consciousness elements to the mind consciousness element, and the mind element, thus totaling seven.[3]

These seven refer to the awareness that is present upon contact[4] between the subject, his sense faculty (i.e. eye, ear, nose, etc.) and the form it reacts to. These include visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, olfactory consciousness, gustatory consciousness, and tactile consciousness. For example, if the subject (“an aggregation of many parts”) sits in a chair experiencing the form of the chair, perceiving it to be the proper structure for him to sit on and sensing that it is pleasant, will then proceed to make conscious contact, sitting, and igniting an awareness between the subject and the object as he sits.

Mipham continues on to describe the eighteenth element:

The element of mental objects are the three aggregates of sensation, perceptions and formations in addition to imperceptible forms and all unconditioned things.[5]

Since we have already exhausted our evaluation of the aggregates, and having made clear the fundamental structure of Abhidharma consciousness, we should – and even must – before going any further, give some light to the mental factors, five of which, are pertinent to our understanding of consciousness in Buddhism. There are actually fifty-one mental states, but five of them are ever-present, continuous – functioning at every moment of consciousness. It is in this nexus of the Abhidharma’s matrix of consciousness that we will uncover the problem of causality that I believe Vasubandhu attempted to solve with his eight consciousnesses theory.

The five ever-present mental states are sensation, perception, intention, contact, and attention. To briefly illustrate these: as the subject is constantly sensing (and thereby determining pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), he is also perceiving things to be specific by labelling them. He also gives intention (or receives intention)[6], and contact having occurred (which is simply the meeting of the three – object, sense faculty and consciousness) maintains attention (or focus). This is the Abhidharmic process that a subject undergoes as he interacts with reality.

Abhidharma from a Yogacara Perspective

Vasubandhu is considered one of the organizers of Yogacara thought. He took the works of Abhidharma and the six consciousnesses and improved it my adding two deeper metaphysical elements; the manas (the 7th consciousness) and the alaya (The 8th consciousness). The Abhidharma, in such detail, originally listed the basic elements of consciousness and how we experience reality, but it left philosophers with important questions concerning the origin of karma, origin of ignorance, and how we travel in a realm of time, space and causation-limited reality toward liberation. The Abhidharma addresses the origins of karma as the following:

…All beings are born of karmic causes. The abodes are created by the ‘shared karma of experiences’, while the individual bodies, pleasure, and pain are created by the ‘unshared karma of experience’. What are the categories regarding these karmic actions? There are three types: 1) virtuous actions that produce the physical form and happiness and are the basis of the higher realms; 2) unvirtuous actions that create the physical form and suffering and are the basis of the lower realms; 3) undetermined actions that create neither of these two.[7]

Although this section of the Abhidharma is often titled “The Origin of Karma,” the origin of karma is never really explained. What originates from karma is clear, and also how karma manifests itself physically in actions and in words, but where it comes from remains rather mysterious with only a slight analyses. If karma originates from unvirtuous acts, we might come to believe that our consciousness is infinite or that time is circular. If karma comes from actions then when was the first act? Or should we ask, what is the origin of action? A lot is left to the philosopher to wonder at the possibilities.

Although the Abhidharma does suggest other unnamed parts of consciousness and its momentary process, it doesn’t specifically describe what these parts are. In chapter four of the Abhidharma, it says, “Formation therefore means that seeds of reincarnation are being planted in the consciousness.”[8] This line alone would surely be enough to cause thinkers like Vasubandhu to find a deeper understanding of consciousness. Following aforementioned verse, the Abhidharma, on the topic of consciousness, says (I will underline the key words and phrases):

These formations give rise to the consciousness which goes to the birthplace of the next existence. The seed placed in the (all-ground) consciousness which propels one to the (next) rebirth is called impelling consciousness, and that which leads to the birthplace of that life once the conditions have come together is called the consciousness of the impelled result.[9]

This, I believe, is where Vasubandhu’s creativity ignites and he begins to philosophize. “Formations give rise,” the Abhidharma placing causality in karmic formations that as “seeds” are placed in “the all-ground consciousness,’ calling it the “impelling consciousness.” This is the description of consciousness, or we could call it the “deep consciousness,” that the Abhidharma describes in the context of the topic of chapter four Dependent Origination – designed to aid the reader in understanding interdependence as it relates to rebirth, and the twelve links of dependent origination. Interestingly, the Abhidharma doesn’t describe these parts as conscious. There are six consciousnesses in the Abhidharma. Vasubandhu extended that number to eight, calling that which attaches itself to the “all-ground” consciousness the manas and the “all-ground” the alaya. Here in his famous Thirty Verses, he describes consciousness with the addition of the manas and the alaya:

Among these the vijñāna that is ‘maturation’ is called the ‘repository’ (ālaya), which is all the seeds (bījas). And that (ālaya) possesses a subliminal (asaṃvidita) cognition of place (sthāna), which it grasps at (upādi). It is always accompanied by contact (sparśa), attention (manaskāra), sensation (vedanā), apperception (saṃjñā), and intention (cetanā). The ālaya’s feeling-tone is indifference (upekṣā), it is unobstructed (nivṛta) and [karmically] undetermined (avyākṛta). The same is true of contact, etc. It flows on like a river in spate. The cessation of this ‘stream’ takes place when one attains Arhantship. With the ālaya as support (āśritya), there originates the vijñāna called manas, which has the ālaya as its object. It has the nature of mentation.

Here we have a very detailed summary of his eight consciousnesses. First he addresses the five ever-present mental factors (as I described above), which are the basis for psychology and consciousness in Buddhism, and then described the alaya as the basis from which the rest of the seven consciousnesses exist, calling it “unobstructed”, “undetermined”, “flowing…like a river.” And then, with the alaya’s “support”, we have the manas, which is somehow attached to the alaya. Vasubandhu continues to describe the manas:

(Manas is) always accompanied by four afflictions (klesas), which are obstructing, but karmically undetermined. They are known as ‘self-view (ātmadṛṣṭi), self-delusion (ātmamoha), self-conceit (ātmamāna), and self-love (ātmasneha)’.

It is through this treatise of Vasubandhu’s that he attempted to delve deeper into the origins of our actions and karma. The alaya is believed to be vast, potentially infinite. It is considered to be the base of consciousness. It functions to collect karma as acts of volition, recycling them into future acts of volition. And both the positive and negative are stored in the alaya. They (alayas) are conditioned and evolve to cause some measure of positive or negative effect that determines, to some degree, the course of our future life experiences. He calls it “karmically undetermined.” It is, therefore, for lack of causality, essentially the essence upon which everything else is constructed.

Modern Interpretations of Vasubandhu’s Work

In early Pali texts the alaya was considered consciousness and cognition, an essential factor to the existence of any sentient thing, or as Bill Waldron put it in his book How Innovative is the Alaya-Vijnana, “Necessary for animate existence and without which one would die (during pregnancy or at birth).”[10] Waldron linked the alaya to sentience and physical, conscious experience by identifying the point at which cognition occurs as happening at the moment of contact between the sense organ and its object of attention.[11] Waldron argued that because the alaya arrives at conception the alaya “constitutes one of the preconditions for any cognitive activity whatsoever.” Apart from the alaya, Waldron also considers anusaya, or “latent tendencies,” as factors. The nature and role of these latent dispositions became a part of the debate during the Abhidharma era, which eventually led Yogacarins to develop another part of the deep mind, apart from, and functioning together with the alaya, called the manas.[12] The manas, whose main function is to identify things as ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ receives its predisposition of latent tendencies from the conditioning of past lives, which causes the manas to react to feeling and sensation in a predisposed manner, and they (the latent tendencies) are fundamental to the psyche of a person and its personality. So at the point of contact and sensation, consciousnesses from both the deeper seventh and eighth, are active with the lower five consciousnesses while the 6th consciousness, under the forces of latent tendencies, cycles new action.[13] This moment of contact “occurs in unison,” as Shun’ei explained, where both members of the deep mind, the manas and the alaya influence the proceeding volition.[14]

The encyclopedic nature of the Abhidharma has served as the basis from which thinkers like Vasubandhu have built their theories, but no other theory can compare to the extension of the six consciousnesses in that it provided answers to the deeper thoughts of Mahayana thinkers, and eventually led us to know the hard determinism of karmic causality. The Abhidharma very clearly explains the development of karma and the things that karma causes, but it leaves out one important mystery: its origin. To say, “The origin of karma is unvirtuous acts and virtuous acts,”[15] as it does, isn’t sufficient for the critical and curious. I believe it was here, in this thought, that Vasubandhu realized the alaya as providing a basis for consciousness, an attachment for the ego and continuity of the self. Furthermore, he designed a framework from which to build more theories that allow us to see the cyclic movement of karma as it seems to spontaneously spark into existence at the moment of volition.[16]

Mipham, Jamgon. Gateway to Knowledge, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2000

Shun’ei, Tagawa. Living Yogacara, Translation by Charles Muller, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2009

Waldron, William S. How Innovative is the Alayavijnana, the alaya-vijnana in the context of canonical and Abhidharma vijnana,

[1] Vasubandhu, although a Yogacarin (and/or other labels he may have been given) did convert along with his brother Asanga to Mahayana.

[2] Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2000, 2.1

[3] Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2000, 2.2

[4] Contact – one of the fifty-one mental states (and five ever-present mental factors), which I will explain in more detail toward the later.

[5] Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2000, 2.4

[6] I say that he may receive intention to expose the problem of causality that Vasubhandu may have been attempting to solve. Intention, or cetana, which is described as will, volition and even karma itself will be a key part to my thesis toward the end of the paper.

[7] Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge Vol. II, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2000, 9.2-3

[8] Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2000, 4,9

[9] Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2000, 4,10

[10] William S. Waldron, How Innovative is the Alayavijnana, the alaya-vijnana in the context of canonical and Abhidharma vijnana, , 1

[11] William S. Waldron, How Innovative is the Alayavijnana, the alaya-vijnana in the context of canonical and Abhidharma vijnana, , 1

[12] William S. Waldron, How Innovative is the Alayavijnana, the alaya-vijnana in the context of canonical and Abhidharma vijnana, , 2-5

[13] I have determine the 6th consciousness, the mind, to be the point at which karma cycles, because it is the point at which volition occurs.

[14] Tagawa Shun’ei, Living Yogacara, Translation by Charles Muller, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2009, 32

[15] Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Gateway to Knowledge, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2000, 4,10

[16] This recycling of karma almost makes time seem circular – another topic that could be argued using Buddhist philosophy

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Vasubandhu and his reaction and addition to the "Abhidharma". A historical and doctrinal analysis
Kathmandu University  (Rangjung Yeshe Institute)
Yogachara Philosophy (300)
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Buddhism yogacara yogachara religion psychology of religion
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Andrew Baston (Author), 2015, Vasubandhu and his reaction and addition to the "Abhidharma". A historical and doctrinal analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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