A short note on the main teachings of the Vijnanavada or Yogacara tradition
The principal Mahayana philosophical schools are the Vijnanavada or Yogacara, founded by Asanga and the Madhyamika or Sunyatavada, founded by Nagarjuna. The development of the Tantrist teachings of Buddhist yoga is associated with Mahayana Buddhism.
The Vijnanavada tradition was established by Asanga in the 4th century BC and it was
developed by his brother, Vasubandhu. Asanga and Vasubandhu were encyclopedic systematisers. They developed ideas already established in older writings, such as the Abhidharma, the Prajnaparamita and the Lankavatara sutras and gave definitive form to earlier Mahayanist concepts like the ten stages of development of the Bodhisattva, the three bodies of the Buddha, the three levels of self-being (swabhava), and the theory that reality is consciousness only.
Vasubandhu wrote several books. Trimsatika-karika (the treatise in thirty stanzas) and Vimsatika-karika (the treatise in twenty stanzas) are very famous books because explanations of the school are given in detail in these two books.
The Vijnanavada tradition contributed two important ideas; the idea of emanation form an original universal consciousness (the Alaya-vijnana) and the three bodies of the Buddha. As a philosophical school, Vijnanavada argues that all that exists are minds and their experiences. If there are no mind-independent things, why do people seem to have similar experiences? For example, why do you and I both see the candle flame and we both feel pain when we touch it?
The explanation offered is that previous experiences create a storehouse consciousness (Alaya-vijnana) which is sometimes identified with the Tathagatagarbha and which encourages people to have similar experiences in the future.
The Alaya-vijnana is the universal storehouse consciousness, so-called because it is the repository of the vasanas (bijas), the tendencies carried over from past lives. Through the activity of vasanas, the klistamanas (defiled mind-consciousness) which is the cause of the false idea of a separate “I” or “self” or “ego”, and the seven individual consciousness – the five sense consciousness, the mind-consciousness (manovijnana), arise from the Alaya-vijnana like waves from the ocean.
According to Vijnanavada, the pristine Absolute consciousness or Vijnaptimatrata is the Absolute reality. Through individual ignorance (Avidya), vijnaptimatrata appears as the three vijnanas; Alaya-vijnana, Manas and Pravritti-vijnana which means the five sense consciousness and mind consciousness.
According to Vijnanavada School, Alaya-vijnana has to be destroyed to become a Buddha or an Arahant. In order to eliminate Alaya-vijnana, meditation (yoga) is needed. Therefore, the school emphasizes the practice (acara) of meditation (yoga). That is why the school is also called Yogacara tradition.
The Sandhinirmocana and Lankavatara sutras were especially influential in the formulation of the doctrines of the Vijnanavada School. For the Vijnanavada School, enlightenment is achieved through the recognition of the Alaya as the only reality and the consequent cessation of dualistic imaginings.