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Yogachara (devanāgarī: योगाचार yogācāra, literally: "yoga practice") is an influential school of Buddhist philosophy and psychology that explains how our human experience is constructed by mind and emphasizes meditative and yogic practices. Along with the Madhyamaka, it is one of the two principal philosophical schools of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism.

General information

The Yogācāra school is traditionally thought to have been founded by the brahmin born half-brothers Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. However, as scholar Dan Lusthaus pointed out, the Yogacara teachings predated them:

Though the founding of Yogācāra is traditionally ascribed to two half-brothers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu (fourth-fifth century C.E.), most of its fundamental doctrines had already appeared in a number of scriptures a century or more earlier, most notably the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra (Elucidating the Hidden Connections).

. . .

Since the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra offers highly sophisticated, well-developed doctrines, it is reasonable to assume that these ideas had been under development for some time, possibly centuries, before this scripture emerged. Since Asaṅga and Vasubandhu lived a century or more after the Saṅdhinirmocana appeared, it is also reasonable to assume that these ideas had been further refined by others in the interim. Thus the traditional claim that the two brothers are the founders of Yogācāra is at best a half-truth.[1]

The Yogācāra school was prominent in Indian Buddhism for centuries. Its philosophy commonly known as chittamatra or Vijñapti-mātra ("mind-only" or "consciousness-only") because it states that subjects and objects are not real separate entities but the only thing that exists in the experience happening in the field of mind or consciousness.

This school influenced East Asian Buddhism (like Zen, among others) and Tibetan Buddhism (especially the teachings of Mahamudra and Dzogchen).


The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, "Sūtra of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets" (2nd century CE), was the seminal Yogācāra sutra and continued to be a primary referent for the tradition.

Asaṅga wrote many of the key Yogācāra treatises such as the encyclopedic Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra ("Discourse on the Stages of Yogic Practice"), the Mahāyāna-saṃgraha ("Mahāyāna Compendium"), the Abhidharma-samuccaya ("Compendium of Abhidharma") and others. Some of his works were attributed to Maitreya (see below).

Vasubandhu, who is considered the systematizer of the Yogacara philosophy, wrote three foundational texts of the Yogācāra: the Trisvabhāva-nirdeśa ("Treatise on the Three Natures", Tib. Rang-bzhin gsum nges-par bstan), the Viṃśaṭikā-kārikā ("Treatise in Twenty Stanzas"), and the Triṃśikaikā-kārikā ("Treatise in Thirty Stanzas").

Other prominent Yogācāra sutras include the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (4th century CE), the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra and the Gaṇḍavyūha Sutra.

Other important commentaries on various Yogācāra texts were written by Sthiramati (6th century) and Dharmapāla (7th century), and Śāntarakṣita (8th century), who wrote an influential Yogācāra-Mādhyamaka synthesis.

Five treatises of Maitreya

Among the most important texts to the Yogācāra tradition is the "Five Treatises of Maitreya", which are said to have been taught to Asaṅga by the the Bodhisattva Maitreya. They are as follows:

  • Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayālaṅkāra, Tib. mngon-par rtogs-pa'i rgyan)
  • Ornament for the Mahāyāna Sutras (Mahāyānasūtrālaṅkāra, Tib. theg-pa chen-po'i mdo-sde'i rgyan)
  • Sublime Continuum of the Mahāyāna (Ratnagotravibhāga, Tib. theg-pa chen-po rgyud bla-ma'i bstan)
  • Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being (Dharmadharmatāvibhāga, Tib. chos-dang chos-nyid rnam-par 'byed-pa)
  • Distinguishing the Middle and the Extremes (Madhyāntavibhāga, Tib. dbus-dang mtha' rnam-par 'byed-pa)

According to scholar David Reigle there is a certain connection between the Ratnagotravibhaga, and the Stanzas of Dzyan.[2]



One of the main features of Yogācāra philosophy is the concept of vijñapti-mātra or citta-mātra. This is translated in different ways as "consciousness-only", "mind-only", or "representation-only". This approach is frequently described as an "idealistic monism". This view states that the world as it appears to people (as consisting of a subject-object distinction) is not real. Yogacara texts give a detailed explanation of the way our mind constructs reality as we experience, were both subject and object are not real separate entities but mere representations in consciousness.

Threefold nature

An important Yogacara concept taught by Vasubandhu is that of the three natures (trisvabhava) or three distinguishing characteristics (trilaksana). It postulates that the world is the product of not one, but three simultaneous realities. The three intrinsic natures posited by Vasubandhu are:

  • Parikalpita: The conceptually-constructed nature created by how our minds interpret the world.
  • Paratantra: The phenomenal existence as it is free from verbal expression.
  • Parinishpana: The true nature.

This theory was put forward to explain not only the illusion of the world that we see around us, but how that unreality is created. Vasubandhu aim is to show that the subject/object dichotomy that exists between the emerging All-ground Consciousness (alaya-vijnana, the "eighth consciousness") and the ground of all phenomena (dharmadhatu) is born from a misapprehension of a single reality (tathata). That which misapprehends this greater reality are all sentient beings born in the world, but the root of the misapprehension is created by the all-ground consciousness itself, which acts as a spell enchanting beings into believing in the facticity of the world in which they live.

Eighth consciousness

Another important concept in the Yogacara school is that of ālayavijñāna, "store-house consciousness", which is an eighth kind of consciousness (aṣṭa vijñāna).

According to the traditional interpretation the first five kinds are the ones derived from the senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body or skin). Then come two kinds of mental consciousnesses: "of ideation" (perception) and "of obscuration" (self-consciousness). Finally, there is the "store-house consciousness" or "causal consciousness". This is the basis of the other seven, which are "evolving" or "transforming".

The store-house consciousness accumulates the karmic causes (the potential energy for the mental and physical manifestation) of an individual, thus explaining how rebirth and karma occurs.

In one of the Mahatma Letters it is defined as "hidden knowledge".[3]

Buddha nature


Meditation and the practice of yoga are the main means for attaining liberation. A number of Yogacara treatises explain systematically the different stages of meditation the yogi experiences in his spiritual practice.

See also

Online resources



Additional resources


  1. See What is and isn't Yogācāra by Dan Lusthaus
  2. See Theosophy in Tibet: The Teachings of the Jonangpa School by David Reigle
  3. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 104 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 361.