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Intro to Yogacara

By accident I enrolled in a class in which I thought was all about African Witchcraft. I was in an internet cafe in rural Ghana with a connection speed slower than an unhappy grandma, so I guess I had all things Africa on the brain, or I was too frustrated to double check the course description. And maybe I should have read the course title properly too. If I had, I would have known that I'd be spending the next 4 months losing myself in the empty, balanced world of Buddhism. My last class ended today, and it was a life/mind changing AH-HA Moment. If anything gets me off my sugar-highed-motor-mouthed-hyper-self pedestal, it's Yogacara. Shhhhhh, people are trying to meditate here... Yogācāra ("one whose practice is yoga"/"consciousness-only") developed from Mahāyāna (Sanskrit "Great Vehicle") Buddhism in India, 4th C.E.


Yogācāra philosophy: the existential truth of the human condition is that everything we perceive and experience as human beings is mediated and imagined by our minds, through the lens of the senses, filtered by ideals.

The Four Noble Truths (part of the The Wheels of Dharma (wisdom), Yogācāra) preached by the Buddha:

 1. Suffering exists

   2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires

   3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases

   4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practising the Eightfold Path (eight         consciousness)

Through meditation and yoga it is possible to see only with our minds, unobstructed by ideas, standards and judgement. Enlightenment can be experienced by our consciousness only. There is one true reality only.

The Eight Consciousnesses 

Yogacara Buddhists practice the concept of The Eight Consciousnesses (Sanskirt: Astavijnana: “asta”-eight, “vijnana”- consciousness). The first five are for the senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue and body consciousness)  and the sixth consciousness of Ideation, or the mind’s ability to create and imagine. The Yogacara School’s Cittamatra Doctrine includes the two unique additional seventh and eighth levels: Manas Consciousness (Sanskirt meaning poison, enemy, obstruction) and describes the formation of fears, apprehension and negative ideals. Alayavijnana is the Eighth meaning “Storehouse” Consciousness and provides the foundation upon which all other seven can exist and function. It is the most powerful and important of all and its purity is the defining aspect of Yogacara Buddhism which sets it apart from other Buddhist schools.

Alayavijnana: The Storehouse

It is believed that this Eighth level collects and holds on to all incoming, surrounding and all present energy from one’s manifestations (“rupa” physical/”mana” mental) of reality and therefore can control and give meaning to all aspects of our existence, including the seven other aspects of consciousness. It directs the others, but also retains and builds impressions and new notions. It is known as the base conscious and is always gathering, transforming and imagining. However, in Yogacara teachings it is thought that the information kept within the storehouse of our minds is not pure, but has been manipulated as it travels from reality to within us via the consicousnesses. Since our “being” or identity is created based on the ideas inside the storehouse, Yogacara Buddhists believe that our perceived identity is therefore false, misunderstood and is solely an imitation of our idea of the truth. Only through the journey of cleansing self-delusion, egocentrism and self-insecurities, or the toxic ideas living within the in the Seventh Consciousness, can our reality be purified into the reality of one raw experience, unfiltered by any aspect of consciousness. We do not need to see, hear and think about ourselves, for we do no have a self; we simply are, through one common, real experience of the one truth.  A Buddha is someone with all her “seeds cleansed” meaning all the collected seeds of experience being stored in the Eight Consciousness exist there in their true form. Remaining trapped in the imaginary process of separating ourselves vs. reality is not a path toward Yogacara Buddhist enlightenment.

The Three Natures


The Yogācārins defined three ways in which we perceive our surroundings and form connections to our existence. These are referred to in Yogācāra as the three natures of perception. They are:

Parikalpita ("fully conceptualized"): "an imaginary nature", our visions and ideas are based on obstructed senses and therefore our conceptions, interpretation and mode of thinking is false; we are hindered by attachment, desire and insecurity. Paratantra ("other dependent"): "a dependent nature", the understanding of something's nature is correct; the dependant cycle of the world is interpreted and apprehended. Pariniṣpanna ("fully accomplished"): "an absolute nature", in which one can fully understand and experience nature and existence just as they are, free of influence from any ideals and conceptions: pure conscious awareness.  The Teachings of the Three Natures (Trisvabhavanirdesa):

"A magical creation produced by force of mantras may appear like an elephant, but there is only an appearance there, and no elephant is there at all.

The imagined nature is the elephant, The dependant nature is its appearance, And the perfected nature is the non-being of the elephant there.

The imagination of the non-exsistent appears in the same way From the root-consciousness by nature of duality; There is no duality there at all: there is only an appearance there.

The root-consciousness is like the mantra; reality is like wood Discrimination is like the elephant's appearance; Duality is like the elephant itself"

Emptiness in Yogācāra 

Attainment of emptiness is central to the Yogācāra philosophy. This should not be interpreted as a "lack of" or "feelings of unfulfillment", but instead as an absence of duality between subject/object, imagination/reality and truth/perception.

For each of The Three Natures there is a mirroring Absence of Nature

Parikalpita -> lakṣana-niḥsvabhāvatā ("absence of inherent characteristic") Paratantra -> utpatti-niḥsvabhāvatā ("absence of inherent arising) Parinispanna -> paramārtha-niḥsvabhāvatā ("absence of inherent ultimacy") Nothing possess an unchanging, unique identity. Recognition and judgement only takes us further from inner peace. Enlightenment comes from acceptance of the truth of everlasting emptiness and releasing any formed ideas of the Self. Awareness of constant experience connects us into this natural unity that exists everywhere. We can choose to separate ourselves and live in Samsara. Or we can accept the raw truth and melt into an existence of Nirvana... 

Yeah, not quite African Witchcraft, but part of the same cycle.