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Asian Philosophy

Vol. 15, No. 3, November 2005, pp. 231246

Idealism and Yogacara Buddhism


Saam Trivedi

Over the last several years, there has been a growing controversy about whether Yogacara
Buddhism can be said to be idealist in some sense, as used to be commonly thought by
earlier scholars. In this paper, I first clarify the different senses of idealism that might be
pertinent to the debate. I then focus on some of the works of Vasubandhu, limiting myself
to his Vimsatika, Trimsika, and Trisvabhavanirdesa. I argue that classical Yogacara
Buddhism, at least as found in these works of Vasubandhu, is closer to epistemic rather
than metaphysical idealism or absolute idealism, as I understand these. However, there
are undoubtedly some important differences between Vasubandhus Yogacara and
Western epistemic idealism that cast doubt on the idea that Yogacara is simply to be
lumped together with Western epistemic idealism.
Over the last several years, there has been a growing controversy about whether
Yogacara Buddhism can be said to be idealist in some sense, as used to be commonly
thought by earlier scholars. On one side of the debate, writers such as Jay Garfield,
Jeffrey Hopkins, Paul Williams, and others maintain the idealism label, while on the
other side, Stefan Anacker, Dan Lusthaus, Richard King, Thomas Kochumuttom,
Alex Wayman, Janice Dean Willis, and others have argued that Yogacara is not
idealist (see, for example, Garfield, 2002; Hopkins, 2003; Williams & Tribe, 2002;
Anacker, 1984; Lusthaus, 2002; King, 1994, 1998; Kochumuttom, 1982; Wayman,
1996; Willis, 1982).
In this short essay, I shall first try to clarify the different senses of idealism that
might be pertinent to the debate. I shall then focus on some of the works of
Vasubandhu, limiting myself to his Vimsatika, Trimsika, and Trisvabhavanirdesa.1
My attempt will be to try to suggest that classical Yogacara Buddhism, at least as
found in these works of Vasubandhu, is closer to epistemic rather than metaphysical
idealism or absolute idealism, as I understand these. However, there are undoubtedly
some important differences between Vasubandhus Yogacara and Western epistemic
idealism that cast doubt on the idea that Yogacara is simply to be lumped together
with Western epistemic idealism.
Correspondence to: Saam Trivedi, Philosophy Department, Brooklyn College CUNY, 2900 Bedford Avenue,
Brooklyn, NY 11210-2889, USA. Email: trivedi@brooklyn.cuny.edu.
ISSN 0955-2367 print/ISSN 1469-2961 online/05/030231-16 2005 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09552360500285219

232 S. Trivedi

I. Different Senses of Idealism


One of the most striking things in the debate about whether Yogacara is in fact
idealist is that few writers are clear about the different senses of idealism, and few
agree about what sense of idealism is said by some to apply to Yogacara. As Mario
DAmato (2003) has recently pointed out, there is need to define idealism in this
debate so that the terms of the debate will be clear.
Here, I want to distinguish very briefly between at least three senses of idealism: (i)
metaphysical idealism; (ii) epistemic or epistemological idealism; and (iii) absolute
idealism. Metaphysical idealism is the view that the external world and objects in it
exist in a mind-dependent way, and it is opposed to metaphysical realism, the view
that the world and material objects in it exist in a mind-independent, objective way.
I take Berkeley to be the prime example of a Western metaphysical idealist (see
Berkeley, 1954). I cannot outline Berkeleys views in detail here, but, in a nutshell,
Berkeley claims that material objects are nothing but collections of mind-dependent
ideas or secondary qualities, the existence of which consists in their being perceived,
their essence being what is perceived. There is a further division amongst
metaphysical idealists between subjective idealists, who claim that things depend
for their existence on my mind, and objective idealists such as Berkeley, who claim
that the existence of things depends not just on my mind or your mind but on a more
objective or greater mind, Gods mind, as Berkeley claims. Moreover, some
metaphysical idealists are solipsists who are extreme subjective idealists and claim
that the only thing that exists is me, my mind, and ideas and things in it.
Epistemic idealism, in contrast, makes not an ontological claim but rather the
claim that we know things not as they really are, as claim epistemic realists, but rather
as they are given to us by our ideas, our concepts, and categories. To put things
differently, epistemic idealists claim we know things not as they are but rather as we
are. Kant is the prime example of a Western epistemic idealist, but I cannot present
his position here in great detail (see Kant, 1965). Very briefly, however, Kant claims
that things-in-themselves, the noumena, are forever beyond our ken, and things as
they appear to us, the phenomena, are given to us as conditioned by our concepts
and categories, which we cannot step out of. To use a well-worn analogy, it is almost
as if our knowledge and perception are conditioned and framed by unremovable
conceptual glasses tied to our heads. It is interesting to note that one could be a
metaphysical realist and an epistemic idealist; I take Kant to be one. One could also
be an epistemic idealist, while being above the battle, so to speak, in the debate
between metaphysical realism and metaphysical idealism. Such a metaphysically
agnostic reluctance to make ontological pronouncements, combined with something
like epistemic idealism, just might be Vasubandhus position if he doubts not external
objects themselves but externality, that is if he doubts not external objects but instead
whether our ordinary consciousness can say anything about objects outside its acts of
cognizing them.2
Absolute idealism, very roughly, is the view that what exists ultimately (and, in
some versions of absolute idealism, creates all that exists) is one overarching

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mentalistic or spiritual thing or principle or force, whether the Absolute or Mind or


Brahman. Advaita Vedanta as well as Hegel and later Hegelians such as Bradley
provide examples of this variety of idealism.
Having clarified these three senses of idealism, let us return to the debate over
Yogacara and idealism. While I cannot here offer a comprehensive overview of what
sense of idealism different authors impute or deny to Yogacara in the debate about
Yogacara and idealism, it is important to note that different authors disagree about
what sense Yogacara might be said to be idealist in. For example, Garfield sees
Yogacara as metaphysically idealist at least as does Ornan Rotem (1993), while
Williams sees Yogacara in terms closer to absolute idealism. Anacker, Lusthaus, and
Willis deny Yogacara is absolute idealist and Lusthaus also denies Yogacara is
solipsist; Lusthaus also claims that Yogacara is closer to what I have called epistemic
idealism and perhaps closest even if not identical, claims Lusthaus, to Western
phenomenologists such as Husserl, a claim I will not delve into here. Interestingly,
Lusthaus also understands idealism in the sense of that term in which it is opposed
not to realism which is the contrast that I have mainly been concerned with, but rather
to materialism, the view that all that exists is ultimately constituted only by matter or
stuff. Idealism in this anti-materialist or immaterialist sense, a fourth sense of
idealism, is the view that all that exists is ultimately only made up of minds or ideas
or something mentalistic, and Lusthaus denies that Yogacara is idealist in this sense.
Note that one could, of course, be idealist in both the anti-realist (or irrealist) and the
anti-materialist (or immaterialist) senses, and Berkeley is, once again, a good example
of this.
II. Vasubandhus Yogacara
I now turn to explaining what I take to be the main claims in Vasubandhus
formulation of Yogacara. Though I do not offer here a translation of and
commentary on the well-known Vimsatika, Trimsika, and Trisvabhavanirdesa, I
shall first try to summarize what I take to be Vasubandhus main claims in these
works. All too often, scholars and Buddhologists get caught up in the details of
Yogacara texts and their translation and thus miss the forest for the trees, and I hope
that what I offer next is a broader overview of Vasubandhus views. I shall then look
closely at specific passages from these three works of Vasubandhu.
As I see it, Vasubandhus classical Yogacara emphasizes the use of Yoga and
meditation, hence the name Yogacara, meaning the practice or conduct of yoga. This
use of meditation is meant to overcome our ordinary, dualistic consciousness that
imposes subjectobject and other distorting dualities on the world, dualities that
prevent us from seeing reality as it is. Yogacara wants to understand our ordinary
consciousness, which conditions all our ordinary knowledge and perception with its
subjectobject dualities, and stresses the use of meditation to transcend our dualistic
consciousness so that we see things as they really are. To borrow and vary somewhat
Dan Lusthaus memorable formulation, for Yogacara, our ordinary consciousness is
not the ultimate reality or solution, but rather the root problem (Lusthaus, 1998a).

234 S. Trivedi

One might thus see Vasubandhus Yogacara teachings as providing some sort of
preparatory school before one practices meditation, and indeed as providing the
theoretical framework and rationale behind the practice of meditation. As Alex
Wayman puts it, Yogacara put its trust in the subjective search for truth by way of
a samadhi. This rendered the external world not less real, but less valuable as the way
of finding truth (Wayman, 1996, p. 470).
To see things as they really are, claims Vasubandhu, is to see them in meditation
without the distorting dualistic mentations and imputations of our ordinary
consciousness. Instead, they are seen in an ineffable meditative experience as being
dependent and always changing, as being part of a flow of things that have no
essences or fixed natures or own-beings (nihsvabhava). This, I suggest, is what
Vasubandhu means by the claim that the perfected or fulfilled aspect ( parinispannasvabhava) of things is their dependent aspect ( paratantrasvabhava) without the
imagined or constructed aspect ( parikalpitasvabhava). Indeed, such an understanding of Vasubandhu makes his Yogacara continuous with Nagarjunas
Madhyamaka school and with earlier Buddhism, which stress the basic Buddhist
insight of dependent origination. This is not to deny that there are important
differences between Yogacara and Madhyamaka, most notably in that while
Madhyamaka sees emptiness as absence of inherent or independent existence,
Yogacara sees emptiness as absence of subjectobject dualities and emphasizes the use
of meditation to see this. One might say, then, that Vasubandhus Yogacara extends
some of the basic insights of Madhyamaka, and adds its own distinctive teachings to
them, just as other schools of Indian thought (e.g. Vedanta) often expound old
teachings in new ways and through new interpretations.3 Moreover, it is possible to
argue, though I shall not do so here, that absence of subjectobject dualities (is a
metaphor that) means that one should not see the subject or knower and the object
or known as two (radically) separate, inherently existing independent entities
instead of as interacting, interdependent entities, and thus as non-dual and one, in
some sense.4
It might be objected here that absence of subjectobject dualities means only that
the object vanishes in the transcendental awareness of meditation, wherein one has
objectless knowledge whereby the object no longer appears as an object set against an
experiencing subject. Against this, it must asked where specifically Vasubandhu says
the object vanishes, and one must also wonder if to say that the object vanishes and
(presumably) the only thing that is found to exist in meditation, as Williams claims,
is Mind (or Subject) is not a claim closer to absolute idealism rather than the
Berkeley-style straightforward metaphysical idealism that Garfield, for one, sees
Vasubandhu as espousing. Moreover, even if it be claimed in response here that
Vasubandhus view is metaphysically idealist in that the existence of an object is
ontologically dependent upon a deluded subject, I must point out that such a view is
not metaphysical idealism, or at least not metaphysical idealism as found in Berkeley.
For Berkeley does not appeal to deluded subjects nor claim that the existence of
objects depends on ordinary, deluded subjects such as ourselves as opposed to being
dependent on the mind and perception, ultimately, of God. Instead, such an

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understanding of Vasubandhuwhich I take to mean that our ordinary consciousness cannot reveal the nature of things and instead reifies them in a deluded manner
as substantialist objectsis in some ways closer to Kants epistemic idealism, though
it also differs from Kant in the ways I note at the end of this paper. Moreover, the
object vanishes might only mean that objects do not appear in meditation as they
appear to our ordinary consciousness, as reified and substantialist, not that they do
not exist at all.
To return to Yogacara, why is this school of Mahayana Buddhism also sometimes
called Cittamatra, which means Mind-Only or Consciousness-Only, and suggests to
many that the school is idealist in some sense of that term? I suggest that this is
because this school of thought, as found in Vasubandhu, claims that representations
of things, as given to us by our minds, are merely that, to wit, representations only
or cognitive representations only or perceptions only or conceptualizations only
(vijnapti-matra). Things as they appear to us, and as they are experienced by us, are
due to the dualistic constructions and imputations of the mind or consciousness
alone (cittamatra). What things are really like is something that we cannot know
through our dualistic ordinary consciousness alone, which we must transcend
through meditation. External things and externality is something the true nature of
which is not revealed by our ordinary consciousness, which only gives us a picture
of things as shaped by and limited to our dualistic mental constructions.
How about the standard textbook Yogacara notions of the eight consciousnesses
and their role in Vasubandhus Yogacara? The first six consciousnesses, including the
five external senses and the mind, and the seventh consciousness, the tainted mind
(klista-manas), which imposes distorting subjectobject dualities on things, are all
intentional and directed outwards. The eighth consciousness, the storehouse
consciousness (alaya-vijnana), is non-intentional and is the underlying repository
that contains various karmic influences as well as the seeds (bijas) of future actions as
well as experiences. One might wonder here where the very first seeds come from if
not from an experience of something external, and even if it be said in reply that all
ordinary experiences come from the defiled seeds that the storehouse consciousness
has always been full of, that still does not show objects do not exist, as an idealist
interpretation of Vasubandhu might claim. For not only does one still need textual
support in Vasubandhu for the claim that objects do not exist at all, but also, more
importantly, while reified, substantialist objects and our ordinary experiences of them
may come from the seeds, that shows at best that these constructions are the creations
of our ordinary consciousness, not that objects themselves must be identical with
such imagined constructions or be otherwise non-existent.
With that brief summation of Vasubandhu behind us, I turn to crucial passages in
the Vimsatika, using Anackers translation throughout (unless specified otherwise),
with some changes of my own:
All this is consciousnessonly, because of the appearance of non-existent
objects, just as someone with an optical disorder may see non-existent nets of
hair. (Verse 1)

236 S. Trivedi

Here, for comparison, is Alex Waymans (1996, p. 457) translation of this opening
verse:
This just amounts to representation, as the sight of unreal hair, moon etc. of one
with an eye-caulbecause being the (subsequent) manifestation of an unreal artha
(external thing).

This opening verse suggests, as I take it, that all phenomena as they appear to us, as we
know and experience them, are due to the representations and constructions of our
consciousness alone (vijnapti-matra). It does not mean, as is sometimes thought, that
external objects themselves are created by the mind or are somehow mind-dependent.
For while what is experienced in an optical disorder or illusion or a mirage may be
created by our consciousness, the content of what is given to us in such experiences
by our ordinary consciousness and its constructions does not say anything about
things themselves. It is important to note here that the phrase appearance of nonexistent objects (avabhaasanaat) in Anackers translation of this opening verse
should not be taken literally or out of context to mean that objects themselves are
non-existent. Instead, it means only that objects do not exist as they appear to us, as
given to us by our representations. To see this, consider again the simile with optical
disorders (or eye-cauls or cataracts). The one with optical disorders sees non-existent
hairs and moons, but that does not mean that outside her acts of perception, there are
no hairs and moons at all. Likewise, I suggest Vasubandhu is saying that our ordinary
consciousness represents objects to us in a (reified, substantialist) manner in which
they do not exist, but that need not mean that objects do not exist at all outside our
ordinary acts of perception.
. . . the teaching of perception-only is entry into the selflessness of events, when it
becomes known that this perception-only of visibles etc. arise, and that there is no
experienced event with the characteristics of visibles etc. . . . But its not because
there isnt an event in any way that there is entry into the selflessness of events . . .
through this determination of perception-only, there is entry into the selflessness of
all events, and not by a denial of their existence. (Vasubandhus Commentary on
Verse 10; italics mine)

Here I take it Vasubandhu is saying that all experienced events and appearances as
experienced are shaped by ordinary consciousness only. This Yogacara teaching is
one way to convey the fundamental Buddhist idea of dependent origination as
applied to events, i.e. that events are not independently existing entities with a fixed
essence but instead are dependent and always changing. It is important to note that
Vasubandhu is not denying the existence of events, as metaphysical idealists as well as
absolute idealists might do. Note also that Vasubandhu is not denying events the way
an anti-materialist idealist might do in saying they are solely mental creations. Also,
while Vasubandhu is clearly trying to refute atomism in the Vimsatika, he may well
be doing this to refute the atomism of the contemporaneous Hindu school of NyayaVaisesika rather than to deny matter. For to deny atomism, one need not deny
matter, as Vasubandhu must have been smart enough to realize, and while the text
clearly says (e.g. in Verse 11) that atoms cannot be demonstrated, it does not say that

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matter does not exist, which is what an idealist interpretation of Vasubandhu would
need to show.
It might be said in response here that verse 10 of the Vimsatika has a statement that
there are no objects, so let us look at that verse, first in Sanskrit and then in English:
Tathaa pudgalanairaatmyapravesho hi anyathaa punaha
Deshnaa dharmanairaatmyapraveshaha kalpitaatmanaa

Now here is the English from Anacker, with some changes of mine:
And in this way, there is entry into the selflessness of personality
And in another way, this instruction is entry into the selflessness of events in regard
to a constructed self.

Instead of finding a statement here that there are no objects, all this verse says, as I
understand it, is that the self, events, and so forth are not substantialist.
It might also be said in response that verse 16 of this work by Vasubandhu claims
that perception makes no sense because it has no object at all, so let us look at the
Sanskrit and then the English translation of this verse as well:
Pratyakshabuddhihi swapnadau yathaa sa cha yadaa tadaa
Na sohortho drishyate tasya pratyakshatvam katham matam

Here is the English for this verse from Anacker, with some changes of my own:
Cognizing by direct perception is like in a dream, and so on
And when it happens, the object is not seen, so how can it be called direct
perception?

As I understand it, this verse is saying only that we do not ordinarily and directly see
objects as they really are but instead perceive directly only a dream-like constructed
or imagined object. This does not mean that perception has no object or that objects
do not exist, but only that the object of our ordinary, direct perception is something
constructed by our ordinary consciousness. The object of our ordinary perception is
in fact a reified, substantialist object as presented to us by our ordinary consciousness
and the constructed aspect of things.
I turn now to conduct a similar exercise with the Trimsika, picking out some
crucial passages in that work that cast doubt on the idea that Vasubandhu is a
metaphysical idealist a` la Berkeley as well as on the idea that Vasubandhu is an
absolute idealist in the manner of an Advaita Vedantin or a Hegelian:
Whatever is discriminated is just a constructed essential nature and doesnt really
exist. The dependent underlies these constructions, and the perfected is the
dependent without the constructed. (Verses 2021)

Here I take Vasubandhu to be saying that our conceptual imputations and


constructions are just imagined and need not have a basis in reality, which is always
in flux. To see reality as it is, i.e. to experience the fulfilled or perfected aspect of
things in meditation, is to see things as being dependent and in flux, without
imposing dualistic constructions on them. It is very important to note here that
Vasubandhu is not denying that reality exists, as an idealist might do, but instead

238 S. Trivedi

is only denying that our conceptual constructions, as presented to us, correspond to


something out there. A simple and familiar example will make this point clear and
indeed show some of the continuities, despite other differences, between Vasubandhu
and earlier Buddhists including Nagarjuna. Take the notion of Atman or a
permanent, separate self found in Hindu philosophy and criticized heavily by
Buddhists over the ages, beginning with the Buddha himself. Suppose you believe you
have an Atman. Vasubandhu would say, I suggest, that the notion of an Atman is
only an imagined conceptual construction, with nothing corresponding to it out
there. However, this does not mean that you do not have a self at all out there that
other selves such as mine can interact with and discuss Buddhist philosophy with,
say. Rather, Vasubandhu would say that your self is a dependent, ever-changing
thing, dependent on its five psychophysical aggregates (skandha) or processes as well
as on other things. You will see this dependent, fluctuating nature of your self
in meditation, when you will be rid of your distorting conceptual constructions such
as the notion of an Atman. I suggest similar claims would apply to other things.
Vasubandhu would not deny their existence, as idealists might do, but instead claim
they are revealed in meditation to be dependent entities in flux, not reified
substantialist entities as presented to us by the constructions of our ordinary
consciousness.
Let us now look at the Trisvabhavanirdesa to see if we can find any crucial passages
that shed light on the idealism debate concerning Vasubandhus Yogacara:
The constructed, the dependent, and the perfected
These three own-beings are the most profound things known by the
knowledgeable.
That which appears is the dependent, how it appears is the constructed
The former develops subject to conditions, the latter is construction-only.
(Verses 12)

Here I take Vasubandhu to identify the three aspects of things straightforwardly in


the opening verse. The second verse (which I will return to below) characterizes the
nature of reality in the familiar Buddhist terms of dependent origination and flux,
while how reality appears to us, how it is represented to us by our cognition, is purely
constructed. Note again that Vasubandhu does not deny that reality exists. Instead
the only thing that is constructed or imaginary, according to Vasubandhu, is how
reality is presented to us, how we experience it ordinarily, that is, as reified.
The perfected is the absence of the constructed in the dependent.
What appears? A construction of what was not. How does it appear? Through
dualities. But non-duality is the perfected.
What is a construction of what was not? An awareness by which the dependent
becomes constructed in such a way that the object which it constructs cannot be
completely found in that way (Verses 35; italics mine)

Vasubandhu here stresses ideas presented above in my brief discussion of verses


2021 from the Trimsika. Constructed dualities are only apparent, and things do not
exist in the way they are presented to us by the constructions of our cognition. Note
that he is not denying the existence of things, nor is he is saying that no objects we

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experience exist outside our minds. Instead he is only denying that they exist in the
manner constructed and given to us by our ordinary consciousness. For Vasubandhu,
things may be presented to us in certain ways by our consciousness but no matter
how they are presented, they exist as dependent, dependent at least on other things
even if not necessarily on the mind. Indeed, such an understanding of things as
existing and dependent is continuous with the dependent origination, antieternalism, and anti-nihilism found in Buddhist thinkers, including Nagarjuna,
before Vasubandhu.
The constructed is perceived as existent, but it is non-being; so it has both an existent
and a non-existent character.
The dependent exists but not as it appears, so it also has an existent and a nonexistent character. (Verses 1112; italics mine)

Again, Vasubandhu is not denying the existence of things, but is only claiming that
they do not exist in the dualistic manner in which our constructions present them.
Indeed, things exist as being part of a dependent flow, a claim continuous with
fundamental Buddhist ideas.
III. Is Vasubandhus Yogacara Idealist?
In this section, I will look closely at arguments and passages cited in support of the
claim that Vasubandhus Yogacara is idealist in some sense. For several reasons, I will
limit myself here to claims made in this vein by Garfield. Why Garfield? For starters,
Garfield says explicitly that Yogacara is metaphysically idealist a` la Berkeley, which
view is my main target, whereas others see Yogacara as idealist in different senses, as
explained briefly in the first section of this paper. Moreover, I focus on Garfield also
as he is a contemporary analytic philosopher, as am I, and a very fine one at that who
has made significant contributions to Buddhist philosophy. Also, I cannot do a
comprehensive literature survey (which is not my purpose anyway) in a short paper
such as this one, and singling out Garfield gives the paper a tight focus, I believe.
I do not mean any disrespect to those who I cannot discuss at length here.
To begin with, Garfield writes that the Trisvabhavanirdesa is an idealistic treatise.
As far as Vasubandhu is concerned, to be a phenomenon is to be an object of a mind
(Garfield, 2002, p. 117). Now phenomena or things as they appear to us, and as they
are experienced ordinarily, as reified and substantialized, are certainly mental objects
for Vasubandhu, represented to us by the minds constructions. However, contra
Garfield, it is not clear that Vasubandhu would say that objects themselves are
phenomena only, as an idealist might say. As Richard King points out, for
Vasubandhu we cannot go from phenomena to externality, for objects may or may
not exist independent of the mind (King 1998). This makes Vasubandhus view one
that would have no ontological commitments such as metaphysical realism or
metaphysical idealism at least in the domain of our ordinary consciousness. Rather,
talk about external objects would not be appropriate on this understanding of
Vasubandhu, for it goes beyond what is experientially given at least to our ordinary
consciousness. To put it differently, Vasubandhus view is metaphysical agnosticism

240 S. Trivedi

plus something like epistemic idealism, at least as far as our ordinary cognitive
operations are concerned. We cannot infer external causes from our ordinary
experiences, for to do so causes delusion and suffering due to the dualistic distortions
of our ordinary consciousness. What is in doubt is not external objects but
externality, that is whether our ordinary consciousness can say anything about
external objects outside its acts of cognizing them.
Garfield also translates the second verse of the Trisvabhavanirdesa, from Tibetan,
as follows (Garfield, 2002, p. 117):
Arising through dependence on conditions and existing through being imagined,
It is therefore called other-dependent and is said to be merely imaginary.

Compare Garfields translation of this second verse (which I have also discussed
above) with the original Sanskrit, and then with Anackers translation from Sanskrit
with my minor changes:
Yatkhati paratantrohosau yatha khyati sa kalpitaha
Pratyayadhinavrittitvat kalpanmatrabhavataha

Now here is Anackers translation:


That which appears is the dependent, how it appears is the constructed
The former develops subject to conditions, the latter is construction-only.

As I hope this comparison shows, unlike Anacker, Garfield here fails to distinguish
clearly and adequately between the dependent aspect and the constructed or
imagined aspect of things. Instead, he conflates the two, and then proceeds to
claim: For anything to exist as an object, its objective existence depends upon
mental causes and conditions. This is a straightforwardly Kantian point, that there
are conditions on the side of the subject that make it possible for anything to exist
as an object (Garfield, 2002, p. 136). Such an idealistic interpretation of
Vasubandhu differs from one that, following Anacker, sees the objective existence
of things as dependent on causes and conditions, which need not be mental. While
our representations of things are mental, objects themselves need not be mental.
This is what I take Vasubandhu to hold. Moreover, contra Garfield, it would be
closer to Kant to see him as saying not that for anything to exist as an object there
are mental causes and conditions, but rather that for anything to appear as an
object of a subjects knowledge, as a cognized object that is, there are mental causes
and conditions such as our concepts and categories. To put it in Vasubandhus
terms, the imagined or constructed aspect of things as having subjectobject and
other dualities depends on our minds and conditions how things appear to us.
However, the dependent aspect of things, things as they are, is not conditioned by
the mental constructions of our ordinary consciousness, and is to be seen in
meditation without the constructed aspect, as being dependent and without
subjectobject and other dualities.
Garfield writes: . . . all external appearances are merely ideal and originate from
potentials for experience carried in the mind (Garfield, 2002, p. 129). Here I submit
that in Vasubandhus scheme of things, appearances and how things appear to us as

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substantialized and reified may be mental and ideal, being due to the constructions of
our minds, but it need not follow that objects themselves are mental, which is what
someone who believes Vasubandhu is a metaphysical idealist or an absolute idealist,
or even an anti-materialist idealist, would need to show.
Garfield also cites verses 1 and 16 from the Vimsatika in support of his claim that
Vasubandhu is an idealist. As I have discussed the first verse from this work by
Vasubandhu above, I shall quote below Garfields translation and comment on verse
16 (Garfield, 2002, p. 157):
Perception is like a dream
That is, when it occurs
The object it distinguishes does not appear.
So, how can one call this perception?

Garfield then writes: Vasubandhu in this text explicitly asserts that the entire
phenomenal world is in fact consciousness only. . . . What is apparently the
perception of external objects is actually more like a dreamthe confusion of mere
phantoms of the mind with physical objects. Here, contra Garfield, I suggest that
Vasubandhu means that phenomena, or objects as they appear to us, are
representations only and are due to the constructions of our mind or consciousness,
which gives us the imagined or constructed nature of objects. This need not mean
that objects themselves are non-existent or are solely mental, which is what an idealist
might claim. Vasubandhu means that perception is like a dream, but this need not
mean that objects themselves are dream-like. The act of perception as well as the
direct object of perception, which is what is directly before our minds, may be due
to the constructions of the mind, but this need imply nothing about what objects
themselves are really like out there. This is why it is claimed sometimes, as I have
suggested above, that what is in doubt for Vasubandhu is externality, not external
objects themselves. A comparison with Anackers translation of this verse might help
make this point clearer:
Cognizing by direct perception is like in a dream etc.
And when it occurs, the object is already not seen,
so how can it be considered a state of direct perception? (Italics mine)

To return to Garfield, let us now look at verse 20 of the Trimsika (which I discussed
earlier) and which Garfield also cites to support the claim that Vasubandhu is an
idealist:
Whatever is an object of conceptual thought
That is thoroughly imaginary. Without any entity, it does not exist.

Here I submit that what is imaginary and does not exist is what is constructed
by the mind, not necessarily objects themselves. For example, suppose this
constructed aspect or nature of things is presented to us by our ordinary
consciousness in terms of subject and object being dual, being separate and
independently existing. Nothing corresponding to such a construction exists, on
Vasubandhus view, for there are no separate, independently existing entities.

242 S. Trivedi

However, this need not mean that nothing exists whatsoever, or that whatever
exists is purely mental as an idealist might say. The constructed aspect of things
whereby our ordinary consciousness substantializes and reifies things and ourselves
as separate and dual is purely imaginary, but things and our selves still exist and
have a dependent aspect or nature, which we see in meditation as the perfected
aspect of things.
Garfield also cites verse 5 from the Trisvabhavanirdesa (a verse I discussed earlier)
to defend the idealist thesis (Garfield, 2002, p. 157):
What is the imagination of the nonexistent?
Since what is imagined absolutely never exists in the way it is imagined
It is mind that constructs that illusion. (Italics mine)

He then goes on to claim that: In the Trisvabhavanirdesa as well, Vasubandhu


emphasizes the illusory character of external objects and the reality of the mind as the
source of that illusion. Here again I am not convinced that Garfield is right. As I
understand Vasubandhu, and as I hope the phrase I italicized above in Garfields own
translation shows, Vasubandhu only means that things as represented and perceived
are only imagined. They do not exist that way, and are only constructed by our
ordinary consciousness to be in that manner. However, contra Garfield, this need not
mean that things themselves do not exist or are illusory.
So much for Garfields use of various passages from Vasubandhu. I turn now
to other passages from Garfield himself where he expounds his view that Yogacara
is idealist. Garfield (2002, p. 159) writes: . . . for Vasubandhu insofar as any
phenomenon is ideal, its status as an external object is merely imagined. We see
physical objects . . . as existing external to us. But that status is illusory . . . . Second,
each phenomenon is asserted by Vasubandhu to have an other-dependent nature.
That is, for an object to be ideal is for it to exist in dependence upon the mind . . . .
Third, each object of consciousness has a consummate nature. This is the nature a
thing is seen to have when it and its ideal status are completely understood. The
consummate nature is the absence of the imagined nature . . . . Here again I am
unpersuaded that Garfield has Vasubandhu right. For Vasubandhu, the representation
of objects is mental, not necessarily the status of objects themselves. Our cognitive
representations of things depend on the mind, not necessarily objects themselves.
Second, for things to be other-dependent means only that they do not exist as
separate, independently existing entities but as part of a flow of things. They are
dependent on other things, which may or may not include the mind. Even if they are
not dependent on the mind, they could be dependent on other things and each other.
Third, contra Garfield, the consummate nature is the dependent nature without the
constructed nature, and we see this as we meditate and see the flow of things as being
without subjectobject dualities.
Garfield (2002, p. 160) also writes: . . . from the standpoint of the consummate
nature, it [the imagined nature] reveals the nondifference of object from mind, by
virtue of its nonexternality. The consummate nature hence reflects a complete
understanding of objects qua ideal and an abandonment of the subjectobject duality

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apparent in the imagined . . . things as they really are are empty of the subjectobject
duality and are empty of any real distinction from the mind through which they are
imagined. Once again, such an idealist understanding is debatable. As I understand
Vasubandhu, to give up subjectobject duality means only that one sees the flow of
all things, seeing all things as dependent instead of as independent, separate,
substantialist entities. It does not mean, as Garfield contends, that we see things as
empty of any real distinction from the mind. Indeed, if Vasubandhu is idealist in this
sense, a Berkeleyan metaphysical idealist sense, then he is saying that things
themselves are merely mental creations, that they are merely imaginary and illusory,
a charge made by Kant against Berkeley. If so, then Vasubandhu would be some sort
of nihilist, quite contrary to Nagarjuna and earlier Buddhists who do not deny the
existence of reality in claiming that it is dependently originated and between the two
extremes of eternalism and nihilism. This alone should cast at least some doubt on
whether Vasubandhu would want to make so radical a departure from basic Buddhist
ideas that idealism entails.
Some brief, final remarks about Garfield before concluding this paper. Garfield
seems to think that claims by Berkeley and Kant map on to Vasubandhus imagined
nature and dependent nature. However, pace Garfield, it is not clear that the
mappings are as neat as he suggests. For Vasubandhus project is quite different from
those of Berkeley and Kant. This should not surprise us given that Vasubandhu lived
more than a millennium before these two Western philosophers, in a different culture
that had little contact with the West (barring the presence of some Greeks such as
Menander or Milinda after Alexander the Greats invasion of northern India), and
Vasubandhu had Nagarjuna, Asanga and others, not Locke, as predecessors in his
own tradition. In particular, in Vasubandhus terms, Berkeley and his brand of
metaphysical idealism are claiming more than warranted. For the epistemic idealism
that Vasubandhu bears some similarities to does not, strictly speaking, entail
metaphysical idealism, even if it is compatible with it.5
IV. Conclusion
I hope it has emerged from the discussion above that Vasubandhus Yogacara has
some similarities with epistemic idealism. Most notably, Yogacara thinks like
Western epistemic idealism that our ordinary mental processes are so tied up with
our ways of knowing that they condition the latter. Our knowledge of things is
determined by what concepts and mentations we bring with us to our experience of
them. In particular, according to Yogacara, our ordinary consciousness brings our
subjectobject and other dualities to our experience of things.
We should also note differences between Vasubandhus Yogacara and Western
epistemic idealism, despite various similarities between them, for Vasubandhus
Yogacara is not identical to the latter; and while it is very easy to get carried away by
similarities when doing comparative philosophy and see other traditions through
concepts most familiar to us, it is at least as important to note the many genuine
differences too. Most importantly, while for Western epistemic idealists such as Kant

244 S. Trivedi

we cannot know noumena or things as they are, in the Yogacara scheme of things we
can know the world as it is once we transcend our ordinary dualistic consciousness
and see things through meditation as being part of a flow of things. This is precisely
why Vasubandhu stresses meditation and Yoga and his position is known as
Yogacara, for in common with many other schools of Indian thought (Yoga, Advaita
Vedanta, etc.), Yogacara stresses that our ordinary waking consciousness cannot give
us knowledge of reality and our selves as they truly are. Consequently, while there is
a basic Buddhist notion of enlightenment in Yogacara, consisting of seeing reality as
it is, there are no equivalent soteriological notions in Western epistemic idealism.
Moreover, Western epistemic idealists such as Kant posit the existence of noumena
or things-in-themselves as what lies behind phenomena and causes them and is the
source of freedom, even though we have no access to noumena. In contrast, at least as
far as ordinary consciousness is concerned, Yogacara makes no such ontological
posits or assumptions about realityor about metaphysical realism or idealism, for
that matterfor our ordinary consciousness is limited to its own constructions, and
its cognitive objects never appear outside acts of cognition. It is only when we
transcend this ordinary consciousness in meditation and see the dependent flow of
things that we see reality as it is, according to Yogacara.
By way of conclusion, imagine the following thought-experiment. Suppose
Germany had been invaded by the Scandinavians in the late nineteenth century,
and German scholars had escaped en masse to France in the wake of the destruction
of German universities and texts. Extant works by German philosophers such as Kant
and those after him were then translated into French. Kant was now studied not in
the context of philosophers who preceded and influenced him such as Leibniz,
Hume, Wolff, and others, but rather in French and through the eyes of later German
philosophers such as Fichte, Schelling, and the like, as well as through the eyes of
French philosophers such as Sartre and Camus. While such a post-Kantian take on
Kant may be novel and interesting and very valuable in itself, it cannot, I submit,
substitute for reading Kant in his own context. I suggest the situation with Buddhist
Studies today is somewhat similar, as this remark from Garfield amply illustrates:
Sthiramatis commentaries became the standard entre into Vasubandhus work for
Tibetan scholars, following Tsong Khapas extensive use of them . . . (2002, p. 112).
While it is lamentable that Buddhist scholars were driven out of India into Tibet by
Islamic invaders and that Buddhism more or less died out in India, to see classical
Buddhism and Yogacara solely through later interpretations (whether Tibetan or
Western) would be to ignore classical Buddhism in its own context.
One might wonder here what gives us, almost two thousand years on, the right to
see ourselves as having a superior understanding of these texts from our contexts
than do Tibetan exegetes, say. The reply to that is that we may know more about the
broader overall cultural, historical, and philosophical context of Vasubandhu
(including earlier Buddhist philosophy as well as other contemporaneous schools
of Indian philosophy), and thus have more privileged access than Tibetan exegetes.
Note also that to bracket the Tibetan commentarial tradition is not necessarily to
appeal to a hermeneutic of authorial intent, with all of its pitfalls. For one might take

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the anti-intentionalist position that the meaning of texts is determined only by the
public meanings of their constituent words and word-sequences; or else one might
take the hypothetical intentionalist view, very roughly the view that the meaning of
texts is determined by reading them and their constituent words in their broad
cultural, historical, and philosophical contexts of origin, a position I have defended
elsewhere (Trivedi, 2001). Also, I submit that Sthiramati and Candrakirti are not so
much a part of the cultural, historical, and philosophical context that Vasubandhu
himself was writing in as they are part of the post-Vasubandhu context, just as Fichte
and Schelling are part of the post-Kantian context rather than Kants own context.
Thus to read Vasubandhu through Sthiramati or Candrakirti would be to see
Vasubandhu through a later perspective rather than in his own context, just as to read
Kant through Fichte and Schelling would be to adopt a post-Kantian take on Kant.
When seen in its own context, Vasubandhus classical Yogacara at least is,
I contend, not idealist in any sense, even if it has some affinities with epistemic
idealism. I have not said anything here about later Yogacara developments and
whether these are idealist; that topic is beyond the scope of this paper and it might
well be the case, as Willis (1982, pp. 2122) suggests, that later Yogacara thinkers
such as Dharmapala and Hsuan-tsang give an idealistic cast to Vasubandhu.6
Notes
[1] All of these are translated in Anacker (1984).
[2] Compare Willis (1982, p. 59, n. 79): . . . Yogacaras conceptualization-only (vijnaptimatra)
theory. . .declares that ordinary cognitions do not actually reach outside objects. Rather
they are just mental reflections, object-like mental images (vijnapti).
[3] Compare Rahula (1972, p. 118): [Yogacara thinkers] . . . were expounding the old teaching
with their own new interpretations. . . . Their contribution to Buddhism lay not in giving it a
new philosophy but providing, in fascinatingly different ways, brilliant new interpretations
and explanations of the old philosophy.
[4] Compare Lusthaus (1998b, p. 4): Dualism is not the imagining of metaphysical objects
opposed to metaphysical subjects. That is a linguistic embellishment, and, according to
Sthiramati, comes later. The appearance of duality, Sthiramati says, is the rending apart of the
sensorial act in such a way that eyes are given essential (svaruupa) existence apart from their
apprehending visibles, and visibles are given essential (svaruupa) existence apart from eyes
that envision them.
[5] It is noteworthy that there are passages even in Asanga that cast doubt on the idea that
classical Yogacara is metaphysically idealist. For instance, Asanga does not deny that rupa or
matter is one of the five aggregates of the Buddhist notion of the self, nor does he reduce it to
something purely mental as an idealist might do. See Asanga (2001, p. 1ff.).
[6] Many thanks to Jay Garfield for prompt and detailed comments and discussion via email on
an earlier version of this paper, despite our disagreements. His vigorous opposition has greatly
enriched this paper.

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