A Teaching on Vasubandhu’s The Thirty Verses: Day 3
26 January 2022
The Karmapa began by recapping four of the many different conditions that led to the formation of the Mind Only school. The first of these was the general tendency of the Buddhist view towards a view of only mind, the idea that the mind is primary and most important. This is the general direction Buddhists were heading.
The second was to determine the basis for samsara. During the Period of the Schools, even though Buddhists did not accept the non-Buddhist presentation of a self, they did accept the basis of samsara. Since Buddhists do not believe in a self, the need to identify the basis of samsara led to the development of the discussion on the ground consciousness later on.
The third condition was the view of emptiness found in the Prajnaparamita Sutras. “The idea is that to determine emptiness, you have to see the inseparability of the phenomena and their nature,” said Karmapa. This was another condition for the development of the Mind Only.
The fourth was the high regard for the practice of dhyana by the practitioners of yoga. Because of their high regard, they developed their own system of explanations. This was another condition that led to the Mind Only or Yogacāra view.
The meaning of yoga and yogacāra
Karmapa reminded us that we call the people who practice the Mind Only school the yogacāras. What are the origins of these yoga practitioners? First of all, it is important for us to understand what the word yoga means. On a broad level, it means dhyana, samadhi, visualizations of deities, and other practices where the mind is focused one-pointedly. From this broader perspective, all Buddhist practitioners can be called yogis. Like Milarepa, the crown jewel of all yogis, for example, who is also known as the Lord of Yoga. “The term yogi does not necessarily refer to a layperson or householder,” commented Karmapa. “Instead, it refers to people practicing dhyana, people who are focusing their mind one-pointedly on practices such as the visualization of deities.” If we think about it in terms of this broader understanding, there is nothing wrong with calling such people yogis.
Yoga is considered an important path to liberation not only in Buddhism but also by many Hindu schools. Their primary aim of meditation is to join indivisibly with god or to come into union with god, so “yoga” can have the meaning of “joining” or “joining indivisibly”. For this reason, non-Buddhist practitioners who also practice dhyana, samadhi, and visualizations of deities can be called yogacāras—yogic practitioners—too. However, later in India and to this day, Buddhists generally accept that yogacāra refers to the yogis of the Mind Only school.
So what were the origins of these practitioners who founded and upheld the Mind Only school? How did these original yogis emerge separately from other practitioners and form an autonomous school? It would be reasonable to call buddhist practitioners ‘yoga practitioners’, but for what reason were the Mind Only yoga practitioners given the name yogacāras? The Karmapa stated that to understand this well, we need to begin with the text the Yogacāra Levels.
An introduction to the Yogacāra Levels
The Yogacāra Levels, Yogacārabhūmi in Sanskrit, is called The Levels of the Five Schools in Tibetan, and the Explanation of the Yogacāra Levels in Chinese. There are four parts to this text:
1. The Main Part of the Levels
2. Compendium of Ascertainments
3. Compendium of Enumerations
4. Compendium of the Manners of Explanation.
Karmapa mentioned that this essential text was used by the Mind Only Yogacāras as their primary source text. The title, if translated colloquially, would mean “the stages of yogis’ practice” or “the stages achieved by practitioners of yoga.” The translations of this title into Chinese and Tibetan are closer to the latter of those two, because it describes the different order in which they achieve the paths and levels. However, when we read the actual text of the Yogacāra Levels, the former is easier to understand: the main text divides the main practice into seventeen levels, or stages, of practice.
The first two of these, the level associated with a body with the five consciousnesses and the level of mind, introduce the general way the mind operates. The following seven levels—from the level where there is consideration and examination to the level without remainder—primarily introduce the stages of dhyana. The next three levels—the tenth through the twelfth—teach on the three stages of a yogic practitioner’s training. The thirteenth through fifteenth levels teach the presentation of the three vehicles based on practitioners’ various inclinations—the levels of the listeners, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. Finally, the last two levels, the sixteenth and seventeenth, teach the fruition to be attained: nirvana with and without remainder. In total, there are seventeen levels. The earlier nine levels talk about the object of meditation, the object of the yogi’s focus. The eight later levels teach the stages of conduct and fruition, and the methods of practice.
“The Yogacāra Levels contains all the paths practiced in all three vehicles, or by all Buddhist practitioners,” said Karmapa, “and the original intention for composing this text was the vast aim of compiling in one text all the stages of Buddhist practice.” Similarly, we can understand the yogis explained in Yogacāra Levels to mean all Buddhist practitioners; they are not to be understood as meaning only the practitioners of the Mahayana, such as the Mind Only, or only a few practitioners. Karmapa clarified that it could seem contradictory that the text, a source text for Mind Only yogis, also teaches the practices of all three vehicles. However, he commented, if we consider the original intent of composing this text, yogacāra can be understood as meaning all Buddhist practitioners.
Texts with the name Yogacārabhūmi
Karmapa explained that the Tibetan tradition distinguishes between the Kangyur and the Tengyur, the translated words and treatizes. In China, there is no distinction between the words of the Buddha and the treatizes; they are all included within a single canon with the three baskets. In the Chinese canon, there are an additional two texts that are called by a name similar to the Sanskrit Yogacārabhūmi.
The first text, composed by Saṅgharakṣa, was translated into Chinese by the Western Jin master Dharmarakshita, and was also called the Yogacārabhūmi. In the opening of this sutra, the term Yogacāra Sūtra, or in the Jin language Paths and Levels of Practice, is clearly written. It has been explained that this is a longer version of the Sutra of the Paths and Levels translated in the second century by An Shìgao, a prince of the Parthian (Persian) empire. It teaches primarily about meditations on repulsiveness and other types of meditation, and points of posture when practicing those meditations—where to put our hands, the need to have a straight spine, the gaze for the eyes, and so forth. Karmapa described it as an instruction manual for meditation. In terms of its contents, he said it is identical to the Sutra on the Lesser Paths and Levels translated by the Chinese master Zhī Yào of the later Han period.
The second text with a similar name was the Dharmatara dhyāna-sūtra translated by Buddhabhadra. At the end of the opening of this sutra, the name Yogacharabhūmi is written. As appropriate for its name, this text is an instruction manual on the practice of dhyana. It is called Dharmatara because that is also the name of the author of the text.
In brief, because these two texts have similar names to Yogacārabhūmi, Karmapa explained this term may have been used as a title for various texts which summarize the practices of yoga or dhyana. For that reason, sometimes they are differentiated by their authors’ names.
As Karmapa mentioned in his previous teachings, the Sarvāstivāda is a school that split off from the Sthaviravada, one of the two root schools —the other being the Mahasanghika. Both Dharmarakshita and Saṅgharakṣa were from the Sarvāstivāda school. He pointed out that it is possible the two texts similarly titled Yogacārabhumi are summaries of the Sarvāstivāda school.
He added that the word yogi appears frequently in the main source text of the Sarvāstivāda, the Great Exposition. The yogis described there are mainly meditators on the repulsiveness of corpses and so forth, or the four truths, and the practices related to the four results of spiritual practice. The Sanskrit original of the Great Exposition is no longer extant, so there is no actual way to know what the original term translated as “yogi” was. Xuanzang translated the entire text into Chinese, but there was no Tibetan translation. Later on, a master named Chöpak, who was adept in Tibetan and Chinese, translated the text into Tibetan. “It is a very large text”, said Karmapa, “but if we want to understand the view of the Sarvāstivāda, then we need to study the Great Exposition, also called the Treasury of Great Knowledge.”
Usage of the term Yogacāra
Xuanzang was also the translator of the Yogacāra Levels. Since he was the translator of both texts, Karmapa pointed out that the word translated as “yogacāra” in the Yogacāra Levels is also likely the same word used in the Great Exposition. In the Pali Canon of the Southern Transmission, which spread to Thailand and Sri Lanka, the word yogacāra does not appear, so it is possible that it may have been a particular term or jargon used by the Sarvāstivāda school. The word “yogāvacara” appears in the Pali Canon, and Karmapa posits that it could be related to the word “yogacāra”.
Continuing to speak about the usage of the word yogacāra, Karmapa relayed an account of an event in the Great Exposition: When the yogis and abhidharma masters were having a debate, the yogis said that the five sensory consciousnesses of the eye and so forth arise on the basis of the continuum of the previous mental consciousness, and are not supported by the continuum of the previous individual’s sense consciousnesses. The abhidharma masters objected by saying that the sensory consciousnesses of the eye and so forth arise in an uninterrupted continuum and that the previous instant leads to the next. For example, the eye-consciousness must arise with the continuum of the eye-consciousness as its substantial cause, otherwise, it would go against the processes of the faculties and the aggregates.
Karmapa explained how this shows that within the Great Exposition school, there were authors of the treatizes who engaged in intellectual practices, and there were those who engaged in practice. The text also illustrates the differences between the yogis from the north and south. For example, when giving an analogy for the color white, northern yogis would compare it to snow while southern yogis would compare it to sugar. This demonstrates how the yogis can be divided into different groups of practitioners based on their different geographical locations. “When we talk about the word ‘yogacāra’, it was a word that was already in widespread use during the Period of the Schools, not only later when the Mind Only school flourished,” said Karmapa. At that time, and no matter what school they belonged to or where they were from geographically, practitioners were called yogacāras or yogis.
The scholars of the treatises versus the yogis
“We need to speak about the Sarvāstivāda school since the Mind Only school originates from it,” said Karmapa, “it was really the most powerful and influential school in Northern India.” We often speak of the Great Exposition school, which is really a synonym for the Sarvāstivāda school. They were famed for their expertise in the abhidharma; their greatest accomplishment was composing the Great Exposition, which is two hundred fascicles (bundles of palm-leaf manuscripts, each holding approximately four hundred stanzas of text or 3200 words) or sections long. The abhidarma was what made the Sarvāstivāda school renowned, thus the abhidharma masters were the most important Sarvāstivāda personages.
The Karmapa then explained that the practitioners of dhyana, the yoga practitioners who were of a similar level to them, could also be like their opponents. The yogis accepted the views of the Sarvāstivāda, but occasionally they had different explanations of the view, particularly on the topic of the mind, based on their experiences while engaging in the practice of dhyana. Such yogic experience was called “the insight of yoga.” Notably, their explanation of the all-encompassing samadhi of blue, described in the Great Exposition, is very closely connected to the Mind Only view that developed later.
“It is possible that during the Period of the Schools, not only within the Sarvāstivāda but also within the other schools, there were differences between the scholars of the treatizes and the yogis,” Karmapa said. “There are communities primarily teaching on the view and those primarily on practice.” However, he explained that whether we look at the views and presentation of the other schools or the great influence the Sarvāstivāda school had in northern India, we can deduce that all the great masters of the Yogacāra tradition, be it Asanga or Vasubandhu, all came out of the Sarvāstivāda tradition.
The presentation of the Mind Only view is very similar to the Sarvāstivāda, and it also originated from northern India. However, when they were establishing their view, did they primarily continue the Sarvāstivāda tradition? Karmapa reminded us that it is not necessarily the case, because within the Sarvāstivāda tradition, there were two different groups. There were the authors of treatizes who primarily followed the teachings on the view, and then there were the yogis who primarily developed their teachings based on their yogic experience. He stated, “The Mind Only primarily followed these yoga practitioners who taught based on their experiences.”
How did they develop their experience? As Karmapa mentioned earlier, yoga primarily means meditation practice, or the practice of dhyana. At the end of the Period of the Schools, not only was there the Foundation Vehicle practice of dhyana, but the Mahayana dhyana practices flourished as well. In addition, particularly once the Madhyamika view appeared, the view of emptiness also spread widely. “The yoga practitioners practiced the Mahayana dhyana and the view of emptiness, and so they became the Mahayana yogis,” said Karmapa. “Since they meditated on everything being mind only, the Mahayana yogis were the Mind Only yogis.”
Summary of the origins of the Mind Only view
Towards the end of the first half of the teachings, Karmapa recapped the various circumstances for the origins of the Mind Only view. “During the Period of the Schools, they primarily used logical texts and philosophical arguments to establish the view, leaving many practitioners unsatisfied. This is because when we do practice, we incorporate it into our being and experience it, but if instead we only use inference and logic, then there is no point to it they feel,” Karmapa said, “so they practice the path and look at the experiences that arise based on them.”
He explained that there were four basic things they did:
- Logically investigated and experienced in meditation the basis for the projection of samsara, which is the all-ground consciousness.
- Scripturally proved that all phenomena are awareness or mind only, based on the Avatamsaka Sutra and so forth, including the Sutra of the Ten Levels mentioned earlier, which is actually only one chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra.
- Distanced themselves from the Realist view espoused by the Sarvāstivāda tradition, due to many internal and external conditions, and moved toward a view of awareness based on their experience of dhyana.
- Took many of the positive parts of the Mahayana Middle Way view that was widespread at that time, remedied its shortcomings and added more to it, making new presentations of the all-ground consciousness, the three characteristics, and the three lacks of essence, thereby creating the entire framework of their school.
From that time on, the people who asserted that school were called the Yogacāra. Karmapa emphasized that it gradually developed out of various causes and conditions; it did not appear suddenly in a single day.
Development of the Mind Only school
The Karmapa next spoke about how the Mind Only school developed. It can be divided into four parts: the spread of Mind Only in India; the spread of Mind Only in China; the spread of Mind Only in Japan; and the ancient and modern position of Mind Only in Tibet. About the position in Tibet, he mentioned, “The texts of the Mind Only had spread, but it is questionable whether the school of Mind Only spread or not.”
How to determine the spread of Mind Only in India
As Karmapa has mentioned many times previously, since there was no tradition of recording written history in India, for all texts, authors, dates of birth and death, and even when a particular school developed or what changes occurred, researchers must compare texts and refer to the oral histories passed down from previous generations, examine them in detail, and then deduce or estimate to determine dates. Thus, in order to know about the actual origins of the Mind Only school, we need to first understand what the Mind Only was originally like when it first appeared and what form it took at that time.
The second step is to determine what changes occurred to that original form, how it developed and perfected itself, and what presentation was finalized to know how the complete philosophy we see today developed. Going from the original to the complete form, there are stages of change that it went through and a sequence of different forms it took.
“We absolutely have to know the stages of these changes,” Karmapa stressed. “There are many different ways to determine them, but the best method is to read all the texts related to the Mind Only that we can currently see or hear about. After reading them, we need to distinguish the subtle differences in their thought and research them; at the very least, note the changes in the words they use, their terminology, and grammatical style.” Only when we have done so, he explained, can we have any hope of telling which text appeared earlier and which later, and settling their order.
This is really complicated with Indian history. Unlike Tibetan texts, Indian authors did not record the date when they wrote their texts. Even the author’s name is omitted from many texts. The Karmapa gave an example of how most Chinese painters in the past signed their work with their names. “In the Tibetan tradition,” he said, “we are not allowed to put our ordinary names on the representations of the body, speech, and mind of the buddhas, be it a painting or a sculpture. It is very difficult to identify a thangka from centuries ago; we have to look at the style of the painting and guess from that.” In particular, the Sanskrit manuscripts for many texts have been lost for hundreds of years. Also, with some texts, there are differences in meaning in the manuscripts translated by different translators. The differences between them can be significant enough to make it difficult to determine which of the various translations is closest to the original. Sometimes, the original manuscripts themselves did not agree. For example, some colophons can say, “ This was translated from a northern transcript”, but that one says it was from an eastern transcript.
Occasionally, the authors’ names appear differently in different translations. The Karmapa gave the following example: In Chinese, the verse version of the Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras was translated by Prabhākaramitra, and it says Asanga wrote it. In Tibetan and other Chinese texts, it is written that the text was composed by Maitreya. Similarly, the prose version of the Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras, also understood as a commentary, is said to have been written by Vasubandhu in Sthiramati’s and Butön Rinpoche’s commentary. “In order to know clearly about the development of the Mind Only philosophy, we need to compare the contents of the sutras and treatizes we currently have and determine their order,” Karmapa emphasized.
Furthermore, we need to search for sources on the related people and history. Research into the history of the Mind Only school began at the end of the nineteenth century, conducted by scholars in Japan, Europe, and America, who started by researching the dates of when Vasubandhu appeared. Gradually, they looked at Asanga and Maitreya. The Karmapa remarked that although it has been a little over a hundred years since the research began, not many areas have been definitively settled. However, there has been much promising research, and we can now have a rough understanding of the development of the Mind Only philosophy. In terms of modern research, if we look at the writings of the great scholar Kanga Tsultrim Kelsang, who lives in Japan, it is clear that he has reached an internationally recognized level of scholarship. Other than that, there are very few who have come to an appropriate international level of research on the Mind Only. The Karmapa stated, “This is an area that we are far behind in, and it is important for us to remember.”
As mentioned previously, the earliest text that clearly explains the Mind Only view is the Sutra Unraveling the Intent, or the Samdhinirmocana Sūtra. Karmapa added that there is another sutra, the Mahayana Abhidharma Sutra, that also appeared in the first century. However, it was not translated into any other language and the Sanskrit manuscript cannot be found; nothing is left of it but some passages that are quoted in other texts. The Sutra Unraveling the Intent is estimated to have appeared some time not long after Nagarjuna passed away. As Karmapa mentioned earlier, the view of Mind Only was developed gradually, and one could say that after a certain time had passed, the framework or main points of the view were compiled and the text of the Sutra Unraveling the Intent was completed. “But this is just the text that teaches the Mind Only view; the actual development and spread happened because of the bodhisattva Maitreya, Asanga, and Vasubandhu—the three incredible authors of treatizes,” said Karmapa. “Due to their kindness, the stages of the Mind Only view were completed, perfected, and spread widely.”
Who was Maitreya?
Showing us a picture of a stone-carved statue of Maitreya from Gandhara, Karmapa explained that scholars hold different positions on whether Maitreya was an actual historical personage. There are primarily two positions:
1. Maitreya was not a historical personage. Asanga was from the north of India, where people had strong faith and devotion for the bodhisattva Maitreya. This influenced him so that he considered Maitreya to be his guru. “Here,” said Karmapa, “it is not like following a human guru, but thinking about it as a yidam deity.” Additionally, he borrowed Maitreya’s name to credit him as the author for texts Asanga had written himself.
2. Maitreya was Asanga’s guru and an actual historical personage.
Karmapa explained the basis for the first explanation is that in ancient India, China, and Tibet, many textual sources wrote that Asanga accomplished dhyana, gained clairvoyance, and then went to the Tushita heaven. It is commonly acknowledged that before the Buddha Shakyamuni came to earth, he appointed Maitreya as his regent. Thus, Asanga went to Tushita where he followed Maitreya as his guru, receiving dharma teachings and instructions.
“Taking this explanation as a basis, Maitreya was like a pure vision or an image that appeared due to Asanga’s experiences in dhyana, but not an actual historical personage,” said Karmapa, “The realms of the gods and humans differ greatly, so what Asanga saw was not what ordinary people could see. If everyone could see Maitreya in their common perception, Asanga would not have to go to the heavens, and there would be no reason for him to go through such difficulties to practice dhyana meditation.”
The Karmapa added that this explanation has a very long historical pedigree; it is not something people have only been saying for a couple of decades, but has been around for well over a thousand years. In 1922, Hakuju Ui, a scholar who specialized in the modern Japanese Mind Only tradition, supported the second hypothesis. He claimed that Maitreya was a historical personage and estimated that he must have lived approximately from 270 to 350 CE. After he proposed this, there were many who agreed but many who objected, and this debate continues to the present day. Karmapa added that he would speak in more detail later about how the debate among scholars arose.
The Dharmas of Maitreya
In any case, many texts are said to have been written by Maitreya. Some of these texts display compatible thought and are closely related, so it is generally accepted that Maitreya wrote them. These are called the Dharmas of Maitreya. Karmapa explained that there are two different ways of identifying them, either according to the Chinese or the Tibetan tradition.
He elaborated that some texts were accepted as works of Maitreya by both traditions, such as the The Ornament of Mahayana Sutras, Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes, and Distinguishing Phenomena and Dharmata.
Then, there are two texts, Distinguishing Yoga and the Commentary on the Vajra Splitter Sutra, which are included in the Chinese canon but not found in the Tibetan. Next, two texts are included in the Tibetan canon, but not in the Chinese. The first is The Ornament of Clear Realization, studied while learning about Prajnaparamita. The second is Distinguishing the Family of the Jewels, also called The Sublime Continuum or Ratnagotravibhāga. The Karmapa mentioned that he would talk about this text after the teachings on the Mind Only, but it would take a few years before he was able to do this.
The Yogacāra Levels is accepted by the Chinese to be the work of Maitreya, while the Tibetans credit it to Asanga. Karmapa pointed out that its contents are different from those of the Ornament of Mahayana Sutras, Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes, and Distinguishing Phenomena and Dharmata, so there is a definite reason to question whether it was written by Maitreya.
Determining the authorship of the Yogacāra Levels
The Karmapa expressed that he would like to give some examples about style and the usage of terms in these texts. Excluding the Yogacāra Levels, the three texts that are generally accepted to be actual works of Maitreya are the Ornament of the Sutras, Distinguishing the Middle from Extremes, and Distinguishing Phenomena from Dharmata. These texts frequently use the terms abhūta-parikalpa, which means “ the non-arisen” or “the untrue imaginary”, grahya-grahaka (apprehender and apprehended), and pratibhāsa abhāsa (appearance and seeming appearance), but the terms do not appear at all in the Yogacāra Levels. “Mainly for these reasons, many contemporary scholars hold that Maitreya did not write the Yogacāra Levels,” said Karmapa.
In the opinion of the Japanese scholar Hakamaya Noriaki, when Asanga was in meditation, he met Maitreya and was taught the Yogacāra Levels. Asanga took them down in notes, and it was only then that it took a written form, as is supported by many sources. The American Buddhologist D. S. Ruegg has a similar opinion: when Asanga was working to compile the many instructions that he had received, he had a profound experience of his mind being blessed and inspired by Maitreya and wrote it in that state. Both explanations are based on the premise of Maitreya not being a historical personage. They demonstrate that Asanga received blessings to engage in the composition of the Yogacāra Levels, and that Asanga wrote it himself.
Furthermore, many scholars also hold that the Yogacāra Levels was not written by a single author but by many authors in collaboration. For example, Lambert Schmithausen, a well-known contemporary German specialist in the Mind Only, says that the Yogacāra Levels was compiled gradually over the course of several generations. A Japanese scholar called Sukoriu Shinto also believes the text was compiled by many people in collaboration. In brief, it is a commonly held opinion among contemporary researchers that the Yogacāra Levels was not written by a single author.
Karmapa then explained, “When we examine the logical presentations given in the Yogacāra Levels, we can clearly see that it is primarily written by practitioners based on their own experience, and we can really have a strong feeling of this. Looking at the content of the text, it must have taken a very long period of time to complete the work.”
Which came first: the Bodhisattva Levels or the Ornament of the Sutras?
Scholars generally hold that the earliest portion of the Yogacāra Levels to be written down was the Bodhisattva Levels.
According to some scholars who have spent over forty years researching the Bodhisattva Levels, when compared with the Ornament of the Sutras, there are great similarities between them. In 1987, the Japanese scholar Odani Nobuchiyo, was able to determine with evidence that the Bodhisattva Levels preceded the Ornament of the Sutras and was a source for it.
In 1961, the American scholar Wayman explained the influence that the Ornament of the Sutras had on the Bodhisattva Levels, based on passages from the Ornament of the Sutras cited in the Bodhisattva Levels. These showed that the Bodhisattva Levels came after the Ornament of the Sutras. However, in a 1969 publication on the usage of the word alamkara (Sanskrit for “ornament”), the German scholar Schmithausen refuted this. He maintained this was a particular style of writing and not the actual name of the title. “In this way,” said Karmapa, “he raised an objection to the American scholar’s arguement that because there were citations of the Ornament of the Sutras in the Bodhisattva Levels, the Bodhisattva Levels must have been written later.”
Likewise, in 1984 the Japanese scholar Odani Nobuchiyo was able to determine, based on Sthiramati’s commentary, that the Bodhisattva Levels appeared earlier and the Ornament of Sutras came later. Since that time, there has been a general consensus among scholars that the Bodhisattva Levels was earlier and the Ornament of the Sutras was later. “When looking at the similarities in thought between these two works, we can see that the thought of the Bodhisattva Levels preceded that of the Ornament of the Sutras, and we can see how much development had occurred in the Mind Only view between the two works,” Karmapa commented. “We can also clearly see that the Ornament of the Sutras took many sections of the Yogacāra Levels as its basis, recompiled them, and was then written down.”
Who wrote the Ornament of the Sutras?
“If the Yogacāra Levels was written by Asanga, and the Ornament of the Sutras by Maitreya, then we would have a difficulty. It is pretty well decided that the Ornament of the Sutras was written later than the Yogacāra Levels. Could Maitreya have used Asanga’s work as a basis for writing the Ornament of the Sutras?” asked Karmapa. “This leads to a big question: who wrote the Ornament of the Sutras? Was it Maitreya or Asanga?”
There are many disagreements about this question among scholars to this day. Karmapa laid out four positions as an illustration:
- The French scholar Levi proposes Asanga wrote both the prose and the verse passages of the Ornament of the Sutras.
- Hakuju Ui proposes that the verses were written by Maitreya and the prose by Asanga.
- Wayman rejects that Asanga wrote the verse and proposes that the prose was written by either Asanga or Vasubandhu.
- Susumu Yamaguchi holds that Asanga wrote the prose and Vasubandhu wrote the verse.
Later on, two Japanese scholars researched the issue of the authorship of the two texts and concluded: If we do not consider Maitreya to be a historical person, the founder of the Mind Only tradition would be Asanga. One of these two scholars holds that Maitreya is merely a vision that actually appeared to practitioners, and that these yogis did not write down their own ideas. “Instead,” said Karmapa, “they developed special powers and capacities from their dhyana meditation, and they took that experience as the basis and wrote it down. They call the great power arising from their practice the name Maitreya; there is no fault in saying this.”
Karmapa elaborated that from a scientific perspective, it might seem like science fiction, but the experiences of people who actually practice are not like the experiences of those who do not; they cannot be understood by those who don’t practice. What they identify as the “actual reality” is not the same. He explained, “We ordinary people think that everything that appears to our five sensory consciousness actually exists. For the practitioners who have visions due to having yogic perception, what they see is what becomes actual to them. They say, “This is truth!’” Thus, it is difficult in this context to say what is true and what is not. When contemporary people debate who the author was, they take it for granted that it must have been a person made of flesh and blood. Otherwise, there would be no reason to debate who the author is.
“Thus, if we want to know what the connection between Maitreya and Asanga was, determining the authorship of the Ornament of the Sutras is important,” said Karmapa. “Many decades have passed, but it is still difficult to establish a consensus about who the author was.”
Moreover, regarding the date and authorship of Distinguishing Phenomena and Dharmata, the Japanese scholar Hakamaya Noriaki holds that this text was compiled later by disciples. Some Japanese scholars support this position. Karmapa explained that this assertion came about due to the term “view of transformation” appearing in this work, a term which does not appear in any other of the Dharmas of Maitreya. In brief, many academics have done a lot of research and more than a few hold that Distinguishing Phenomena and Dharmata was a work that appeared later, and not written by Maitreya.
Summary of the research on Maitreya
Finally, the Karmapa summarized the research into Maitreya into seven points:
The first point was that it is still undetermined whether Maitreya was a historical personage or not. The second was the dispute about whether the author of the Yogacāra Levels was Maitreya or Asanga. The third was that it is established that the Bodhisattva Levels from the Yogacāra Levels precedes the Ornament of the Sutras. The fourth point is what explanation could be given if the Yogacāra Levels was written by Asanga, and the Ornament of the Sutras was composed by Maitreya. The fifth is that many contemporary academics accept that the Yogacāra Levels was not written by a single author but by several people in collaboration.
The sixth is the debate about the authorship of the Ornament of the Sutras, with there being four different possibilities. The last point is that many academics hold that Distinguishing Phenomena and Dharmata was a later work not written by Maitreya.