Emerging Scholar Series

May 12,  2017, 10-12 pm PDT,  SOPHERE webinar

Ālambana-pratyaya and the Question of Other Minds in Later Chinese Yogācāra

Jingjing Li (McGill University, Canada)

This paper mainly addresses the question of other minds in the Yogācāra school of Buddhism. Modern philosophy of mind provides two models to account for the way in which we access other minds: the theory-theory (TT) and the simulation theory (ST). The former argues that we infer other minds through a framework qua a commonsense theory whereas the latter contends that we use our own mind as a mirror to project others (Goldman 8, 17). Both models, however, are characterized by egocentricity, or, in Zahavi’s terms, by “a circuit through self” (Zahavi 2008, 519). This characteristic suggests that since my mind is closed off from others, I can only interact with other minds through a causal relation, the first cause either as a universal common theory or as my own mind. Buddhist clerics, who contest this egocentric worldview, approach the question of other minds quite differently. Being critical of egocentricity, Buddhist clergy highlight the interdependence of my own mind with others’. By referring to the writings of Xuanzang (602-664CE) and Kuiji (632-682CE), I argue that for later Yogācārins in China, we do have perception of other minds insofar as other minds serve as the background for all our mental acts. To expound on this conception of other minds, I first introduce the answer to the question of other minds offered by Xuanzang in the Vijñāptimātratāsiddhi (henceforth, the Siddhi) and then attempt to interpret this answer in modern terms. Through this analysis, I contend that Chinese Yogācārins examine the other mind not only for their justification of ‘consciousness-only’ but also for the goal of realizing emptiness and compassion.

Yogācārins are known for their doctrine of consciousness-only. Later Yogācārins in India and China define consciousness-only in the following manner, that is, everything in our experience, is not mind-independent but depends on our consciousness. Xuanzang specifies that consciousness does not pertain to one but to many (T31N1585, P39c10). In modern language, consciousness is not solipsistic but collective. To account for this collective consciousness, Xuanzang pinpoints the way in which other minds, just as an object as the whole, are perceived by us not as the close ālambana-pratyaya but as the remote ālambana-pratyaya (T31N1585, P39c10).

Let me unpack Xuanzang’s account by explaining the meaning of these two types of ālambana-pratyaya. Later Yogācārins use ālambana-pratyaya to identify two requirements for something to appear in our consciousness: first this thing must exists as a condition for perceiving (緣) and then it can serve as the object intended/perceived by consciousness (所緣) (T31N1624, p888b12). For instance, an atom cannot be the ālambana-pratyaya of my consciousness because atoms cannot be perceived. Likewise, a table that could not decay throughout endless time cannot serve as the ālambana-pratyaya for my consciousness insofar as such a table does not exist.

Meanwhile, what we can perceive or in, Yogācāra terms, what can be transformed from consciousness can be further classified into two types. Yogācārins distinguish eight types of consciousness. Ālaya is the eighth consciousness that serves as the absolute flow of my mind which transforms itself to various mental acts and objects for these acts. The seventh consciousness targets mental acts transformed from ālaya whereas the other six consciousnesses cognize the transformed objects. Among these six consciousnesses, the first five consciousnesses or our senses perceive parts of the entire object transformed by ālaya to deliver data to the sixth consciousness called mind for synthesizing and conceptualizing. Immediately, we see two types of ālambana-pratyaya, those that are transformed from the consciousness itself, such as the object as the whole converted or constituted by ālaya, in contrast to those that are not transformed from the same consciousness such as the object perceived by the first five senses. Xuanzang refers to the former as ‘close ālambana-pratyaya’, the latter as ‘remote ālambana-pratyaya’ (T31N1585, P40c17-18).

Let us take our perception of a Starbucks paper-cup for instance. When we look at the cup, we see only one aspect of the cup with Starbucks’s green logo. Even though the cup always appears as the whole for us, it is impossible for us to see the cup as the whole. Nevertheless, such impossibility does not obstruct of our perception of the cup as such. We can use our hand to turn the cup around, put mirrors around the cup, or simply turn our own head to have a wholesome view of the cup. We thus realize that our seeing of one aspect of the cup is holistic. Yogācārins would categorize the specific aspect of the cup that I see in one moment through one angle as the close ālambana-pratyaya, the cup as the whole as the remote ālambana-pratyaya. They would also attribute the perception of the cup as the whole to the eighth consciousness called ālaya, each specific perception to the first five consciousnesses qua our five senses.

As we have seen in the Siddhi, Xuanzang further applies this distinction between the close ālambana-pratyaya and the remote ālambana-pratyaya to our knowledge of other minds (T31N1585, P39c11). He explains the reason for this categorization in the following manner, other minds are perceived by yet are not transformed from my own consciousness, similar to my perception of rūpa (matters, se) (T31N1585, P39c13). Let me unpack this analogy between our seeing-perception and our perception of other minds. Whenever I am looking at a cup through a fixed angle now, my perception is holistic, conditioned by the wholesome perception of the cup as the whole throughout time. For this reason, I am habitually aware that when I turn the cup around, I will see another aspect of this cup. Likewise, all sentient beings including ourselves are part of the endless cosmic history. My perception of a cup shares this cosmic history with that of other minds. Even though other minds are not directly constituted by my consciousness, they are part of the holistic cosmic history. Just like I cannot see every aspect of the cup at the same time but I can still perceive the cup as the whole, I cannot see other minds and my own mind at the same time but I can still perceive the cosmic history as the whole. In parallel to our perception of the cup as the whole, my perception of other minds is the awareness that other minds, though invisible, serve as integral part of the cosmic history, namely, the background for my mind.

Xuanzang compares this perception either of an object as the whole or of other minds as mirroring (T31N1585, P39c13). I find it implausible to equate mirroring with projection. The term projection alludes to a solipsistic center that illuminates the rest of the world. Buddhists contest this duality between the self and the other. Thus, this mirror analogy suggests a disclosing that makes the invisible visible. I can see the back side of the cup if I put a mirror there. Other minds are just as invisible as the back side of the cup. They are not projected by us. Rather, they are revealed to us. Equally, my mind does not illuminate the world. Instead, other minds awake or enlighten my awareness of the fact that all sentient beings are parts of the whole, different but interdependent, just like various aspects of the same cup.

The depiction of my consciousness as interdependent with others throughout endless time alludes to Yogācāra’s conception of emptiness. For later Yogācārins, emptiness is neither the void nor a higher entity. Rather, emptiness shows the nature of things in the cosmic history, the nature of being empty of a suis generis immutable core. If we overlook the empty nature of things, we become prone to falsely imagine our consciousness as suis generis and immutable, namely, as a closure to other minds. More importantly, the awareness of our interdependence with others further awakes our compassion. Since all my mental acts involve other minds, I empathize and sympathize with them, further taking responsibility for them. For Yogācārins, the awakening of compassion reversely reinforces our conception of emptiness. Buddhist devotees, when realizing the wisdom of emptiness, thus benefit not only themselves but also all sentient beings in the cosmos.

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