Our Wisdom of the Ages section attempts to demonstrate the continuous stream of the ancient Wisdom Tradition throughout human history. As we continue to build the section we will regularly bring to the fore selections highlighting individuals, systems of thought, schools, movements, etc.. We now highlight our section on Yogācāra, complete with a selection of works and articles.
The Yogācāra school is one of two ancient branches of Northern (or Mahayana) Buddhism. As D. T. Suzuki remarks:
“The Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, as far as it is known in China and Tibet, divides itself into two great schools, the Mādhyamika and the Yogācāra. … The Mādhyamika and the Yogācāra are generally contrasted, one as a system of negation or emptiness and the other as that of affirmation. The ultimate object of the Mādhyamika school is çūnyatā and that of tbe Yogācāra is dharmalakṣaṇa or ālīyavijñāna. Philosophically speaking, the former treats more of ontology and the latter chiefly of cosmogony or, better, psychology.” 1
There is a wide gulf in interpretations between modern scholars and what we have from H.P. Blavatsky on the subject of the Yogācāra school, and a brief analysis of these differences can be found in our biography of Aryasanga. Blavatsky refers to Aryasanga as “the Founder of the first Yogâchârya School”2 to distinguish him from the later (historical) Asanga, whom she refers to as the pseudo-Asanga. Thus, of the Yogācāra, she says:
“…there are two Yogâchârya Schools, one esoteric, the other popular. The doctrines of the latter [the popular, exoteric] were compiled and glossed by Asamgha [Asanga] in the sixth century of our era, and his mystic tantras and mantras, his formularies, litanies, spells and mudrâs would certainly, if attempted without a Guru, serve rather purposes of sorcery and black magic than real Yoga.”3
According to Blavatsky, the original Aryasanga was “a direct disciple of Gautama, the Buddha”2, and therefore we could venture that the former school (the esoteric), referred to above, may have been founded sometime in the 6th century BCE. Of this esoteric school she says that it is “…neither northern nor southern, but absolutely esoteric,” and goes on to explain that “none of the genuine Yogâchârya books (the Narjol chodpa) have ever been made public or marketable…”2 She leaves her explanation with a hint that “there must exist somewhere a genuine rendering…” of the Yogācāra system; one free from the influence of the later pseudo-Asanga, and thus entirely free “from popular Sivaism and left-hand magic.”2
Modern scholarship, however, places the founding of this school squarely with this later Asanga, and his brother Vasubandhu4. The tenets of this school, as we have them today come primarily from the works of this later Asanga5, most notably from the Yogācāra-Bhūmi. This work Blavatsky refers to as containing “a great deal from the older system” (i.e. the original, esoteric Yogācāra), but to also be “mixed up with Sivaism and Tantrika magic and superstitions.”2 We must be mindful then, in our study of the Yogācāra system, of this mixture of teachings. It falls upon each student to filter through the texts themselves and come to their own decisions as to what the teachings of the original, esoteric school may be, as distinguished from the outer exoteric or popular, even ‘left-hand’ teachings.
With all this in mind, we may look to a renowned lifelong student of Mahayana Buddhism—D. T. Suzuki—for a beginning to our studies. An introduction to what this great Buddhist thought of the system of Yogācāra can be found in his article “The Philosophy of the Yogācāra”,1 which examines several of the fundamental tenets of the school as it comes to us today. This we highly recommend as a starting point for students.
Following this, if the student is interested in exploring further the Mahayana tradition and its schools in their relation to Theosophy, we’d highly recommend several articles by David Reigle, for instance:
For more on both Aryasanga and the Yogācāra School, see here:
For the other main branch of ancient Buddhist teachings—Madhyamika—see here:
^1. Philosophy of the Yogācāra: The Mādhyamika and the Yogācāra, by D. T. Suzuki