Quarks of Consciousness and the Representation of the Rose: Philosophy of Science Meets the Vaiśeṣika-Vaibhāṣika-Vijñaptimātra Dialectic in Vasubandhu’s Viṃśikā

  • Brianna K. MorsethEmail author
  • Lisa Liang
Original Paper


The representation of a rose varies considerably across philosophical, religious, and scientific schools of thought. While many would suggest that a rose exists objectively, as a physical object in geometric space reducible to fundamental particles such as atoms or quarks, others propose that a rose is an emergent whole that exists meaningfully when experienced subjectively for its sweet fragrance and red hue, its soft petals and thorny stem. Some might even maintain that a rose is “consciousness-only,” having no existence apart from conscious perception. Thus, we find a spectrum of realist to idealist perspectives. Even in Dharma studies, with a common basis in Indian thought, the Vaiśeṣikas, Vaibhāṣikas, and the vijñaptimātra doctrine of the Yogācārin-Vijñānavādins entertain diverging perspectives. On one hand, the Vaiśeṣikas, a school of Vedic philosophy, propounded a theory of reality in the form of indivisible, eternal atoms, a metaphysical approach counter to the doctrine of not-self (anātman) in Buddhism. The Vaibhāṣikas, a school of early Buddhist atomism, on the other hand, denied the existence of a true self or eternal soul (ātman) as substratum for reality but maintained their own theory of atomism. For the Vaibhāṣikas, the flow of consciousness may be segmented into discrete moments, yet unlike many of their Buddhist contemporaries from other schools, they asserted that all cognizable phenomena are truly existent insofar as they consist of physically irreducible atoms. Among their objectors were the Yogācārin-Vijñānavādins who proposed the theory of consciousness-only (vijñaptimātra), rejecting the independent existence of indivisible atoms and discrete moments of time. This paper introduces the dialectic that formed between these schools through Vasubandhu’s fourth century C.E. text Twenty Verses on Consciousness-Only (Viṃśikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi). While the gulf between the realist and idealist positions may seem, at times, irreconcilable, we integrate findings from the field of physics, particularly quantum mechanics (and several philosophical interpretations thereof) within the realm of modern science as a possible bridge between these otherwise seemingly disparate systems of Dharma.


Atomism Consciousness Dialectic Idealism Physics Quantum Realism 

“A rose is a rose is a rose” - Gertrude Stein

“There are no roses on a sailor’s grave, / No lilies on an ocean wave.” - A German Hymn

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” - William Shakespeare

Across systems of Dharma, a rose may go by many names, whether truly existing as an externally real object or projected and thus mind-made, as reflected by the various strands of Indian thought with regard to realism and idealism. Three such strands include Vaiśeṣika and Vaibhāṣika, both ancient Indian schools of atomism, the latter an early Buddhist school, and the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, founded on the theory of “consciousness-only” (vijñaptimātra).1 Between them emerged a realist-idealist dialectic, a snapshot of which is captured in the Indian scholar-monk Vasubandhu’s treatise Twenty Verses on Consciousness-Only (Viṃśikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi, henceforth Viṃśikā). While the Viṃśikā contributes to a historical portrayal of the Vaiśeṣika-Vaibhāṣika-Vijñaptimātra dialectic,2 it further illuminates the broader vision of physical and mental reality in these traditional approaches to Dharma, which arguably find contemporary parallels in the field of quantum mechanics and its interface with consciousness studies, as in the issue of the wave function.3 For instance, capturing much of the inquiry in these realms, Goldstein and Zanghì ask:

[I]s the wave function subjective or epistemic, or is it objective? Does it merely describe our information, or does it describe an observer-independent reality? Why does the wave function collapse? What’s going on there? If the wave function is objective, is it some sort of concrete material reality or something else? (Goldstein and Zanghì 2013)

Given such questions, we explore the possible bridge provided by interdisciplinary discourse, not only in the realm of Dharma studies, but also in its convergence with modern philosophical and scientific discourse on the nature of atoms and quarks, understood to be miniscule units of matter, in relation to consciousness with its expansive potential to contain within it all of so-called reality.

Eternality and Atomism in the Vaiśeṣika School

We begin with an overview and contextualization of the Vaiśeṣika school of Dharma.4 A form of Vedic philosophy, the Vaiśeṣika school is recognized as one of six orthodox schools of Indian thought. Etymologically, the Sanskrit term Vaiśeṣika has multiple meanings, one of which connotes “superior” or “excellence” (Ui 1917, p. 6). However, these terms were not likely invoked to distinguish the school. Rather, the name Vaiśeṣika is more likely derived from viśeṣa or “particularity” which is one of the seven categories (padārtha) for classifying perceived objects. The Vaiśeṣika school stresses viśeṣa or the particularity of eternal substances and can thus be understood as a philosophy of particularity (Radhakrishnan 2006, p. 215). More precisely, viśeṣa refers to a uniqueness or distinctiveness that enables individuation of atoms.5 Thus, the Vaiśeṣikas are regarded as a school of atomism.

Two prominent authorities of the Vaiśeṣika school were Kaṇāda who authored the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra and Praśastapāda who authored the Padārthadharma Saṃgraha, also known as “Praśastapāda’s commentary” (Praśastapāda Bhāṣya). Praśastapāda was notably influenced by Buddhist philosophy (Shastri 1966, p. 100) and was possibly a contemporary of Vasubandhu (Anacker 1984, p. 128), co-founder of the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda school of Buddhism. Despite Praśastapāda’s contributions to Vaiśeṣika thought and his greater historical proximity to Vasubandhu, we focus on the contributions of Kaṇāda in the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra to the development of the Vaiśeṣika school’s atomistic philosophy due to its foundational position in the school as well as the additional time necessary to formally integrate Praśastapāda’s theories into the Vaiśeṣika orthodoxy.

Kaṇāda wrote the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra sometime between the sixth and second centuries B.C.E., with exact dates uncertain. Despite this difficulty in tracing its historicity, the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra is among the most ancient of sūtra texts, with evidence pointing toward pre-Buddhist origins (Dasgupta 1922, pp. 281–282). Several Buddhist texts reference the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra, including the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra of the Vaibhāṣika school, but no mention is made of Buddhism in the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra itself, suggesting its historical precedence. The Vaiśeṣika Sūtra probably began as a heterodox text and was later classified as orthodox as its doctrines were adopted into the existing religio-cultural framework. Through the process of assimilation, a realist interpretation intertwined with the dominant empirical ideas of the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra.

Empiricism is the basis for Vaiśeṣika epistemology. Kaṇāda referred to objects of valid knowledge under six padārtha-s, which denote objects that are knowable and nameable. These six padārtha-s are (i) substance (dravya), (ii) quality (guṇa), (iii) action (karmam), (iv) generality (sāmānya), (v) particularity (viśeṣa), and (vi) inherence (samavāya).6 A seventh, non-existence (abhāva), was later added by subsequent commentators.7 Importantly, this classification scheme emphasized that such categories are not merely terms for objects, but rather that they are objectively existing phenomena independent of consciousness.

For the Vaiśeṣikas, perception (pratyakṣa) and inference (anumāna) were the only valid sources of knowledge (pramāṇa). Indeed, the Vaiśeṣika school explained that perception consists of a chain connecting ātman and its manas, the manas and a sense organ, and the sense organ and an object.8 Self (ātman), whose existence is proven by inference, is the substratum of knowing (Kumar 2018, p. 227). While the Vaiśeṣikas acknowledged the a priori principle that a quality resides in a substance, yet they also made use of empirical inference (Matilal 1977, p. 59). The Vaiśeṣika school further declared that empirical observation derives from the existence of atoms that form physical objects. Thus, in a sense similar to the notion, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” the Vaiśeṣikas attributed fundamental substance to phenomena. According to the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika9 notion of inherence (samavāya), which is the foundation for cause-effect relations (Kumar 2018, p. 238), “this subsists in that;” for instance, a quality, red, may be said to inhere in the rose (Kronen and Tuttle 2011, pp. 292–293). In other words, one substance serves as the basis or substratum for an emergent quality that inheres in that substance. Ultimately, Nyāya lent epistemic force to Vaiśeṣika metaphysics.

Soteriologically, the Vaiśeṣika school maintained that the highest good underlying all knowledge is freedom from suffering. Not mere philosophy divorced from practice, its adherents and treatises discussed Dharma in its ethical and ritualistic applications toward the ultimate goal of liberation. Yet emphasis was placed primarily on knowledge of the six categories as the means to self-realization.10 In other words, for the Vaiśeṣikas, a thorough understanding of atoms and substances lends itself to liberation. Thus, the Vaiśeṣika soteriology is deeply epistemic. The Vaiśeṣika Sūtra posited nine substances (dravya): earth (pṛthvī), water (apas), fire (tejas), air (vāyu), ether (ākaśa), space (dik), time (kāla), soul (ātman), and mind (manas).11 The first five substances are elemental (bhūta) insofar as they are in some way perceptible to the senses (Chattopadhyaya 1986, p. 169). Thus, they qualify as material by today’s standards. However, only the first four are atomic, while ether is non-atomic, being indivisible and without parts (Kumar 2018, p. 224). Earth, water, fire, and air, as composite wholes, in aggregate form, are non-eternal, yet ultimately reducible to eternal, atomic, elemental parts. The four kinds of material atoms, namely earth, water, fire, and air, in different combinations produce physical objects in the world. By today’s standards, the last four substances, namely time, space, soul, and mind, are immaterial. Among them, the soul is considered vast, expansive, and infinitely large, while the mind is considered atomic and infinitely small.12 Space and time are all-pervading.13 In contrast to earth, water, fire, and air, which are elements (bhūta), ether, space, time, soul, and mind are pervasive (vibhu). The Vaiśeṣikas, in sum, claimed that the essence of reality is comprised of these nine eternal substances.

The Vaiśeṣika school further posited a detailed theory for the production of composite phenomena. Each object consists of component parts (avayava) that together form a whole (avayavin). The component parts are inherent causes (samāvayi-kāraṇa). Atoms (aṇu or paramāṇu) are the smallest particles, which are partless and indivisible, imperceptible, indestructible, and thus eternal, being neither created (ārambhaka) nor destroyed (anārambhaka) (Chattopadhyaya 1986, pp. 169–170). Each atom possesses its own distinct individuality or particularity (viśeṣa) (Radhakrishnan 2006, p. 202). Two atoms form a dyad (dvyaṇuka). Three dyads (six atoms) form a triad (tryaṇuka). Four triads (twelve atoms) form a quartrad (caturaṇuka). According to the Vaiśeṣikas, triads are the smallest perceivable (mahat) particles in the form of visible specks of dust (trasareṇu) (Chattopadhyaya 1986, pp. 169–170). Quartrads, in various combinations, form larger composite substances. Thus, the Vaiśeṣika theory of composite substances arising from aggregates of component parts resembles an early and rudimentary version of particle physics. In modern terms, a particular arrangement of electrons, neutrons, and protons constitutes an atom, which in aggregate, in a particular arrangement, constitute a molecule. For instance, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen constitute an H2O molecule. When H2O molecules interact, they adhere. Through adhesion, they give rise to the properties of liquidity. Importantly, the Vaiśeṣikas developed their theory of atomism without direct access to the particles themselves, only to the emergent properties to which they gave rise in aggregate.

Building upon these foundations in atomism, the Vaiśeṣikas proposed a metaphysical theory of motion whereby phenomena are created. According to an early Vaiśeṣika position:

The cause of creative motion is believed to be adṛṣṭa, that unseen moral force which guides the destiny of souls according to their karmaṇ and requires them to be provided with properly equipped bodies and an appropriate objective world for the experience of pleasure and pain. It is due to the operation of this meta-empirical force that atoms start moving to get together in order that they may be integrated into countless varieties of things. (Bhaduri 1947, p. 147)

Here, it is explained that for the Vaiśeṣikas, the origination of phenomena in the universe is due to adṛṣṭa, an invisible force that moves the atoms together. In the absence of adṛṣṭa, no contact is possible between the body and soul (ātman), which results in the collapse of cognition (Narayan 2007, p. 3; Potter 2015). Although the Vedas were referenced, note that Kaṇāda made no explicit mention of God in the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra (Dasgupta 1922, pp. 281–285). Rather, the Vaiśeṣika school propounded an epistemic form that engaged with empirical evidence via contact between the material and immaterial aspects of the person as a means of deriving valid knowledge (pramāṇa). A study of the history of science is incomplete without consideration of the Vaiśeṣika school (Subbarayappa 1967, p. 33).

Momentariness and Atomism in the Vaibhāṣika School

Given the similarities between Vaibhāṣika atomism and Vaiśeṣika atomism, we devote an abridged section to a short history of Vaibhāṣika,14 highlighting only briefly its primary divergence from Vaiśeṣika. The Vaibhāṣika school of Buddhism, no longer extant, is believed to have emerged out of the Sarvāstivāda movement in Kāśmīra, a kingdom in the Kashmir Valley referenced in the ancient Indian epic, the Mahābhārata. The very term Sarvāstivāda is derived from “everything exists” (sarvām asti), an idea that traces its origins to the Pāli Sabba Sutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya and its parallel in the Sanskrit Sarva Sūtra of the Saṃyukta Āgama. Chadha characterizes the Sarvāstivādins as direct realists given their position that perception directly apprehends external reality without need for mediating representation (Chadha 2015, p. 548). Among the primary Sarvāstivāda texts was the Jñānaprasthāna Śāstra, based on the earlier Aṣṭagrantha Śāstra (Willemen 2014, pp. 257, 261). In particular, the Sarvāstivāda of Kāśmīra15 formed their beliefs around an explanatory commentary to the former entitled the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra, considered an authoritative treatise of the Abhidharma genre whose title translates roughly as, “The Great Vibhāṣa Treatise,” from which the term Vaibhāśika, meaning upholders of the Vibhāṣa, is derived. Vibhāṣa itself broadly means “explanation.”

As the “Great” (Mahā) in its name suggests, the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra encompasses an extensive treatise filled with comprehensive discussion of all known doctrinal systems of Dharma contemporary to the time of its writing, including the Vaiśeṣika. Rather than unpack its contents, we focus momentarily on a key difference between the Vaibhāśikas and Vaiśeṣikas. While some similarities exist—for instance, according to the Vaibhāṣikas, physical atoms exist as definite entities external to the mind, in agreement with the Vaiśeṣikas—the Vaiśeṣikas adhered to the doctrine of ātman, an eternal self or soul, while the Vaibhāṣikas did not. Drawing upon their theories of atomism, the Vaiśeṣikas even proposed that ātman is one of the four eternal yet immaterial substances alongside space (dik), time (kāla), and mind (manas) (Radhakrishnan and Moore 1973, reprinted in 2014, pp. 386–423). While composite substances, wholes in aggregate, do not endure for more than a few moments (Kronen and Tuttle 2011, p. 291), making them non-eternal (Kronen and Tuttle 2011, p. 297), these non-composite substances, in being atomic, are eternal.16 Atomic substances are sustaining causes of emergent wholes (Kronen and Tuttle 2011, p. 297). In fact, the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra refers to time as the ultimate cause17 and contains elaborate discussions on the existence of self (ātman), yet no reference is made to any view of not-self (anātman), only whether the self is an object of inference or revealed by the notion of “I,” suggesting an ignorance of Buddhism (Dasgupta 1922, p. 281). In contrast, the Vaibhāśika school, tracing its roots to the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma, did not adhere to the doctrine of self (ātman), whose existence runs counter to the arguably universal Buddhist doctrine of not-self (anātman). One passage from the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra reads: “as for ‘composite things,’ they depend on real things: it is only by metaphor that they are said to exist; sometimes they exist, sometimes they do not exist” (Goodman 2005, p. 384). By Goodman’s interpretation, such a passage identifies the tendency to “incorrectly attribute existence to composite things.” (Ibid.) For instance, take the notion of self. Unlike the Vaiśeṣikas who upheld the existence of an irreducible self (ātman), for the Vaibhāṣikas, Goodman writes, “someone who understands that what we consider to be a single, unitary self is, in reality, only the many aggregates can nevertheless appropriately use the term ‘self’ metaphorically.” (Ibid.) Thus, for the Vaibhāśikas, “self” can be said to exist metaphorically or conventionally, but not in any metaphysically real, literal, or absolute sense.

Initially, however, it may be challenging to reconcile the Vaibhāśika notion of truly existent atoms with the broadly Buddhist notion of not-self (anātman). For instance, in the Vaibhāśika framework, material reality (rūpa-dharma) can be reduced to discrete momentary atoms, namely, the four primary elements.18 The Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāśikas distinguished between two types of material entities: (i) the “real-entity” (i.e., unitary or substantial) atom (dravya-paramāṇu) and (ii) the “aggregate” (i.e., composite) atom (saṃghāta-paramāṇu).19 The former consists of the four primary elements (mahābhūta), namely earth, fire, water, and air. It is the smallest unit of matter—partless, without dimensions, and imperceptible.20 The latter is an aggregation of atoms that arise and cease together, consisting of a minimum of eight elements: the four primary elements and four secondary elements.21 Yet, in light of impermanence, the fundamental existence of atoms remains consistent with the teaching of not-self (anātman).

With the question of self and not-self in mind, the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāśikas adapted the theory of impermanence into that of momentariness. According to their atomistic perspective, time can be divided into discrete moments (kṣaṇa) while the mental and physical process occurring in time can be divided into discrete momentary events (Ronkin 2005, pp. 66–78). Indeed, the Vaibhāśikas posited that “things have [a duration of] four moments: [The mark of] birth originates, [the mark of] duration stabilizes, [the mark of] age causes ageing [and the mark of] destruction destroys” (catuḥkṣaṇikaṃ vastu. jātir janayati, sthitiḥ sthāpayati, jarā jarjarayati, vināśo vināśayati) (Haribhadra 1905–1914, p. 46, 14f). A rose, for instance, comes into bloom, displays its vitality, begins to wilt, and eventually dies. Imperceptibly, this even occurs moment-to-moment. Such demarcation differs from that of the surviving Theravāda school, for instance, which instead proposes three stages: origination (uppādakkhaṇa), endurance (ṭhitikkhaṇa), and cessation (bhaṅgakkhaṇa).22 Cessation, it seems, subsumes both aging and destruction. For the Vaibhāśikas, all events are instantaneous and last only a moment (kṣaṇa) yet also exist in all three times—past, present, and future (von Rospatt 1995, p. 95). Perhaps the rose, in aggregate form, is flickering into and out of existence at a rate beyond ordinary perception, its atoms existing in previous, current, and subsequent moments in rapid succession. It appears constant but is, in actuality, inconstant. While atoms do not change in terms of essential attributes (lakṣaṇa), they are impermanent in belonging to material reality (rūpa-dharma) and being conditioned (saṃskṛta). Thus, for the Vaibhāśikas, anything resembling an enduring identity or self (ātman) is not actually eternal despite appearing to be so. When investigated at the atomistic level, any theory of self cannot hold in the Vaibhāśika system and must necessarily fall apart in the spirit of impermanence and momentariness.

Vasubandhu’s Theory of Vijñaptimātra in the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda School

The theory of vijñaptimātra in the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, in part a reaction to the Vaibhāśika and Vaiśeṣika systems, traces its genesis to the efforts of the Indian half-brothers Vasubandhu and Asaṅga. The more prolific of the duo was Vasubandhu, who lived in the fourth to fifth centuries C.E. and began his career as an Abhidharma scholar. Importantly, Vasubandhu’s early work in the Sarvāstivāda school, particularly within the Sarvāstivādin-Abhidharmic framework, would have made him well-acquainted with Vaibhāṣika theories of atomism. In fact, his texts reference both the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣikas and Vaiśeṣikas. For instance, Vasubandhu wrote the Abhidharmakośa-kārikā or the Verses on the Treasury of Abhidharma according to the Vaibhāṣika system (Hoiberg 2010, p. 31). To clarify and refine his philosophy, he then wrote a commentary entitled the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, which further explicates Sarvāstivādin and Vaibhāṣika doctrines while also presenting Sautrāntika methods and ideas. Venerable Dhammajoti comments that Vasubandhu primarily “follows the Kaśmīrian Vaibhāṣikas in expounding the Sarvāstivādin doctrines. However, in many places, he is explicitly oriented towards the doctrinal standpoints of the Sautrāntikas, together with whom he repudiates even the fundamental Sarvāstivāda tenet of the tri-temporal existence of dharma-s” (Sangpo 2012). Regardless of which school, if any, can rightly claim Vasubandhu as its own, his work clearly evolved with time. In the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, Vasubandhu identifies the Vaibhāṣikas as “followers of momentariness” (kṣaṇikavādin) (Sangpo 2012, p. 592). Furthermore, in the Abhidharmakośa-kārikā, Vasubandhu explicitly addresses the Vaiśeṣika theory of composite wholes, outlined by Anacker as follows:
  1. (1)

    When the organ of the visual or tactile consciousness is in contact with one thread, the cloth is not perceived. If the composite whole “cloth” exists in each thread, it would have to be perceived even if only one of its threads is.

  2. (2)

    If the Vaiśeṣika says that the composite whole does not exist within each of its parts, how will it be demonstrated that it is anything but the collection of these parts? (Anacker 1984, p. 129)


Given these references to the Vaibhāśikas and Vaiśeṣikas in Vasubandhu’s earlier work, we may safely presume that Vasubandhu was familiar with and likely responding to the realist objections of the Vaibhāśikas and Vaiśeṣikas, many of which he may have entertained at some point in his evolving stream of consciousness, while writing the Viṃśikā.

The evolving nature of Vasubandhu’s thought has led some scholars to speculate that there may have been “two Vasubandhus.” Perhaps Vasubandhu was of two minds, realist and idealist. Venerable Dhammajoti suggests that Vasubandhu affiliated himself with whatever accorded with truth (Sangpo 2012, p. 10). Indeed, it is not unusual for someone to revise their beliefs, to allow their ideas to evolve, and even to undergo a conversion in light of new insights, whether gleaned through intellectual reasoning or direct experience. Such trends are in fact consistent with impermanence and not-self, which suggest that even one’s cherished views cannot provide a stable source of refuge. Clarifying the developmental trajectory of his thought, Deleanu suggests that Vasubandhu lived between 350 and 430 C.E., composed the auto-commentary to the Abhidharmakośa, the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, around 380–390 while in his thirties, and converted to Mahāyāna in his forties (Deleanu 2006, pp. 186–196). Presumably, Asaṅga converted his brother Vasubandhu from the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika school to Mahāyāna. After his conversion, Vasubandhu wrote numerous Mahāyāna texts and commentaries promoting the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda notion of vijñaptimātra (consciousness-only) and rejecting the atomistic realism of the Vaiśeṣikas and Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣikas. Hence, the birth of Vasubandhu the Yogācārin.

The Yogācāra school, also known as Vijñānavāda (doctrine of consciousness), is considered one of the prominent schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which flourished in classical India from the third to fourth centuries C.E., yet no longer exists as an independent school. It combined the Mādhyamika notion of emptiness (śūnyatā) and Tathāgatagarbha thought with Abhidharmic analysis of mental processes (Lusthaus 2004). Regarded by some as a form of idealism,23 the Yogācārin doctrine of vijñaptimātra (literally, consciousness-only) maintains that the empirical world of presumably external objects is mentally constructed. Echoing a similar sentiment as, “There are no roses on a sailor’s grave, / No lilies on an ocean wave,” the philosophy of vijñaptimātra maintains that there is no abiding substance amidst the flowing nature of conscious experience. For instance, as Vasubandhu writes of the first transforming consciousness (ālāya-vijñāna)24 in the Thirty Verses on Consciousness-Only (Triṃśikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi), “It always evolves like a flowing stream.”25 Consciousness, the foundation of our experience, is here depicted as a fluid process, not a solid entity. Lacking inherent substance, all eight consciousnesses,26 in the Yogācārin model, are characterized by the Buddhist notions of not-self (anātman) and emptiness (śūnyatā).

In the same text, Vasubandhu writes of the importance of the notion niḥsvabhāva,27 which is the negation (niḥ-) of svabhāva, “own-being” or “self-nature,” sometimes though not always associated with an eternal self, substance, or soul (ātman). On the subject of “self,” Dreyfus characterizes Yogācāra as allowing for synchronic unity of experience but not diachronic unity given the absence of an enduring self (Dreyfus 2011, pp. 130–131). Chadha adds that for Yogācāra, given that there is only a succession of awarenesses, a continually renewing stream of discrete momentary impressions in the eighth consciousness, the appearance of diachronic unity in subjects or objects beyond the content of momentary dharmas is the illusory byproduct of conceptual fabrication by the seventh or “ego-”consciousness (Chadha 2015, p. 557). The absence of self-nature (niḥsvabhāva) features prominently in Yogācāra thought and runs counter to the tendency of the realist-atomist schools to attribute real existence or absolute essence to the smallest particles (paramāṇu).

One of Vasubandhu’s major works and also perhaps one of his shortest, the Viṃśikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi28 or Twenty Verses on Consciousness-Only dates to roughly the fourth century C.E. The Viṃśikā takes the form of a dialogue between Vasubandhu and an unnamed interlocutor, possibly a manifestation of Vasubandhu’s own consciousness in the form of a realist-atomist who objects to the theory of consciousness-only (vijñaptimātra). Lusthaus, who presents Yogācāra as phenomenological29 and intersubjective,30 thereby propounding a first-person methodology for understanding consciousness, lauds the Viṃśikā as Vasubandhu’s most original and philosophically interesting treatise yet dismisses any serious relation to idealism, instead suggesting, “Vasubandhu does not deny that cognitive objects (viṣaya, ālambana, etc.) exist; what he denies is that they appear anywhere else than in the very act of consciousness which apprehends them,” and the issue is in how “we mistake our interpretation of things for the things themselves.”31 Referencing the Viṃśikā, Griffiths, however, proposes that Yogācāra is ontological idealism insofar as (i) it explicitly denies that there are any extra-mental entities (verse 2) while (ii) its philosophical interest is to examine and analyze the mechanism of consciousness (verse 17) (Griffiths 1991, p. 83). Rather than provide a detailed analysis of scholars’ interpretations of the Viṃśikā, we tentatively class it as some variety of idealism, at least in being opposed to realism. We now finally turn to the text itself, particularly its realist-idealist dialectic.

Dialectical Verses on Atomism in the Viṃśikā

Here, we focus on the Viṃśikā’s depiction of the realist-idealist dialectic, particularly in the section on atomism comprising verses 11–15 of the main text (kārikā) and the corresponding sections from the auto-commentary (vṛtti). Due to its recency, we draw on Silk’s translation (Silk 2016). We do not include the original Sanskrit.

The section on atomism in the Viṃśikā begins with the Yogācāra perspective of vijñaptimātra, as depicted in verse 11:

That [sense-field of form and the rest] is not a unitary

nor atomically plural sense object,

neither are those [atoms] compounded,

since the atom [itself] is not proved.32

Anticipating the objections of the atomists, for whom there is a truly existent underlying atomic structure to which all phenomena in the so-called objective material world can be reduced, Vasubandhu identifies and rejects three realist positions on the grounds that they have not been substantiated. For Vasubandhu, objects of perception are neither unified, nor distinct atoms, nor an aggregation of atoms. In other words, it is impossible to perceive a whole independently of its parts. Further, it is impossible to perceive individual atoms distinct from one another. Lastly, it is impossible to perceive individual atoms in aggregate. These positions are reflected in Vasubandhu’s auto-commentary, which directly references the Vaiśeṣikas:

What is stated here? Whatever sense-field, consisting of visible form and the rest, would be the corresponding sense object of manifestations of visible form and the rest, would be either unitary–as the Vaiśeṣika imagine material form as a part-possessing whole–or it would be atomically plural, or it would be compounded of those very atom themselves. First of all, the sense object is not unitary, because there is no apprehension anywhere at all of a material form as a part-possessing whole separate from its parts. Nor is it plural, because there is no apprehension of atoms individually. Nor would those [atoms], compounded, come to be the sense object, since the atom is not proved to be a singular substance.33

Thus, Vasubandhu rejects the Vaiśeṣika theory of atoms among several other nuanced theories of atomism. Following this section in the auto-commentary, Vasubandhu, in the voice of the realist, inquires further:


How, then, should one understand this, namely, that while the Blessed One spoke of the existence of the sense-fields of visible form and the rest with special intention, those things which come to be the corresponding sense objects of the manifestations of visible form and the rest do not actually exist at all?34

Here, one may perhaps envision a physicist inquiring: if an atomic object cannot be or is not perceived, then does this mean it does not exist? In the modern age, scientists now have access to a measuring apparatus, namely the high resolution scanning transmission electron microscope, enabling direct perception of atomic entities, which until the advent of such technology, were imperceptible. Rhetorically, did atoms not exist before the invention of this device and suddenly exist now? Likewise with the vaguely Buddhist riddle: if a tree falls in the middle of a forest but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Such questions implicate the conscious observer and the act of conscious observation. In the realm of modern physics, according to the double-slit experiment referenced throughout the literature on quantum mechanics, the behavior of photons as either wave or particle seemingly changes depending on observation, which is hypothesized to collapse the wave function. 35 Yet a realist-atomist might argue that physical reality remains the same regardless of whether or not consciousness observes it. Sense objects, for the realists, exist irrespective of interacting with sense organs and sense consciousnesses, contrary to Vasubandhu’s philosophy of vijñaptimātra, which holds consciousness to be primary.
According to the realists, atoms are the smallest wholes—singular, partless parts that comprise greater wholes in aggregate. Thus, the dialectic continues with the realist inquiring: “How is [the atom as a singular substance] not proved?”36 The Yogācārin replies:

Because [either] in the simultaneous conjunction with a group of six [other atoms],

the atom [would have to] have six parts.

[Or] because the six being in a common location,

the cluster would be the extent of a [single] atom.37

In other words, it is logically impossible for something to be located in front of, behind, above, or below something else that has no front, back, top, or bottom. If atoms are singular, irreducible substances, then to propose that they have parts corresponding to directionality is inconsistent, as this would imply that they are indeed reducible to even smaller component parts, in which case they would not be singular. An aggregation of six sub-atoms would comprise a single atom, which is also logically inconsistent with the atomist position that atoms are singular and irreducible. Contrary to the claims of the atomists, atoms are reducible and thus not singular. In the auto-commentary, Vasubandhu, addressing the first two lines, writes: “If there were simultaneous conjunction with six atoms from the six directions [of possible orientation], this would result in the atom having six parts, because where there is one thing another cannot arise.”38 For the atom to join with six other atoms, it would have to have six parts, but for the atom to remain singular and unitary, the six parts would have to occupy the same space, and this is impossible. Addressing the latter two lines, Vasubandhu, acknowledging the Vaibhāṣika school, clarifies:

Or, the place in which there are six atoms would be precisely the same as the place of the single atom. For this [reason], because all of them would be in a common location, the entire cluster would be the extent of a [single] atom, because they would not exclude one another. Thus no cluster would be visible at all. The Kashmiri Vaibhāṣika say: “Atoms do not at all conjoin, because of being partless—absolutely not! But compounded things do conjoin one with another.”39

Here, Vasubandhu attributes to the Vaibhāṣikas the position that atoms, in being partless, do not conjoin, yet compounded things, being comprised of parts, do. This point finds parallels in particle physics, whose modern proponents, contrary to the classical atomists, argue that even atoms are comprised of sub-particles such as quarks which, themselves, may be further reducible. Vasubandhu continues from the Yogācārin perspective:

Given that there is no conjunction of atoms,

what is [conjoining] when those [atoms] are compounded?

But it is also not due to their partlessness

that the conjunction of those [atoms] is not proved.40

Further deconstructing the atomist position, if atoms have no parts, it would be impossible for atoms to join as clusters or aggregates. Nonetheless, the realist-atomists claim that aggregates join with other aggregates. Yet atoms cannot aggregate because they have no parts, so how can aggregates aggregate? The logic appears flawed. In the auto-commentary, Vasubandhu elaborates:

If you now were to claim that even compounds do not conjoin with one another, then you [Kashmiri Vaibhāṣikas] should not say that the conjunction of atoms is not proved because of their partlessness, for a conjunction of the compounded, even with parts, is not admitted. Therefore, the atom is not proved as a singular substance.41

Indeed, Vasubandhu’s refutation here relies on the incompatibility between partlessness and accumulation, conjunction, or aggregation. He again asserts the lack of evidence in favor of classing atoms as singular substances. Vasubandhu further states:

It is not reasonable that something with spatial differentiation be singular.

Or how is there shadow and obstruction?

If the cluster is not other [than the atoms],

the two [shadow and obstruction] would not be [properties] of that [cluster].42

This point is essential in the discussion of parts and wholes. The first section of the auto-commentary provides a basic elucidation: “If there were spatial differentiation of an atom—namely, the front part is different [and so are all the other sides] including the bottom part—how would the singularity of an atom with that [mutiple] nature be reasonable?”43 In other words, that which can be spatially differentiated into multiple parts (e.g., front, back, top, bottom) cannot be singular, as suggested earlier. Likewise, the second section of the auto-commentary sheds further light on the notion of spatial differentiation:

If no single atom were to have spatial differentiation, how is it that when the sun rises in one place, there is shadow in one place, sunshine in another? For that [atom] does not have another portion on which there would be no sunshine. And how is an atom obstructed by another atom if spatial differentiation is not accepted? For [an atom] has no other separate part whatsoever, from contact with which one [atom] would be resisted by another. And if there were no resistance, then because all of them would share a common location, the entire compound would be the extent of a [single] atom [...]44

Thus, the idealist challenges the realist-atomist by propounding that clusters or aggregations are not subject to overshadowing and concealment unless they are metaphysically different from component atoms, that is, a whole distinct from its parts. Their exchange continues:


Do you not accept in this way that the two, shadow and obstruction, belong to the cluster, not to the atom?


Do you, for your part, accept that the cluster which would possess those two [shadow and obstruction] is something other than the atoms?


We say: no.45

Here, the realist-atomist inquires about the cluster (i.e., aggregation) of atoms and whether or not shadow and obstruction belong to it. The idealist suggests that if shadow and obstruction belong to the cluster, then the cluster must be different from its atoms. Answering in the negative, the realist-atomist elaborates:


This is mere imaginative speculation about construction. Why do you have this worry about whether it is an atom or a compound? In any case, the characteristic of visible form and the rest is not negated.46

Evidently, the two voices, while quite possibly an inner dialogue for Vasubandhu given his earlier participation in the “realist” school and later participation in the “idealist” school, do not find common ground. As suggested, however, by other scholars, Vasubandhu’s position rests on a variation of argumentum ad ignorantiam wherein the absence of objects external to consciousness is derived from the absence of any evidence in favor of their existence (Kellner and Taber 2014). The inverse characterizes the realist-atomist position. Regardless of the intricacies of interpretation, the section on atomism concludes:

If [the sense object] were singular,

there would be no gradual motion,

no simultaneous apprehension and non-apprehension,

nor divided multiple existence, nor the invisible microscopic.47

In this verse, a monist position (i.e., singularity) attributed to the realist-atomists is equated with three impossibilities, which Vasubandhu elucidates in the auto-commentary:

If one imagines the visual sense-object, blue and the rest, as long as it is undivided, to be a single substance, there would not be gradual motion on the ground–going, that is to say–because everything would be traversed with a single foot-step. And the apprehension of a facing portion and the non-apprehension of the non-facing portion would not be simultaneous, because the apprehension and non-apprehension of the very same thing at that [same] time is not reasonable.

And there would be no existence of divided and multiple elephants, horses and so on in a single place; because one thing would be just precisely where another is, how could a division between them be reasonable? Or on the other hand, how is [it reasonable that] that [place] is single which is [both] occupied by those two [elephant and horse] and not occupied, since one apprehends that the gap between them is empty of the two? And, if you were to imagine [the two] to have a difference in substance purely because of a distinction in characteristic feature, not otherwise, microscopic aquatic creatures, having forms like macroscopic [creatures], would not be invisible.

Therefore [since this is not the case], one must certainly imagine a distinction atomically. And that [atom] is not proved to be singular. Since [the singular atom] is not proven, the fact that visible form–and the rest–are sense-fields of the visual–and the rest–is unproven; therefore Manifestation-Only comes to be proved.48

Essentially, the objection to monism (i.e., singularity) proceeds as follows. If singularity is true, we would be everywhere at the same time. We would see the front, back, top, bottom, and all sides of objects simultaneously. Elephants, horses, and so forth would be indistinguishable from one another. We would be unable to tell red and blue, roses and lilies apart. Everything would occupy exactly the same spatial coordinates. Minute aquatic bacteria would be just as visible as the ocean, quarks just as visible as roses. This, however, is all contrary to actual experience. Thus, for Vasubandhu, it appears that singularity or atomistic monism is equally as unacceptable as atomistic pluralism, both of them being refuted by experience, which for the Yogācārin reveals a world grounded in consciousness-only.

Ultimately, the Yogācāra position may be reinterpreted in light of this dialectic. After learning that objects of perception are appearances of consciousness-only without external objectivity, one penetrates the insubstantiality of phenomena (dharmas). That there can be no experience of things in themselves may suggest a form of Kantian idealism which concerns the distinction between objects as they manifest to our awareness and objects as they manifest in-and-of themselves, which Kant asserts cannot be known. One must distinguish between objects constructed by ordinary consciousness or imagination and reality as it is in itself, suchness (tathatā), whether it is knowable or not. Surprisingly, however, quantum physics could offer the beginnings of a bridge between atomism and the consciousness-only philosophy espoused by Vasubandhu, as shall be seen in the next section.

Philosophy of Science and the Realist-Idealist Dialectic

The realist-idealist dialectic finds modern parallels in the fields of quantum mechanics and consciousness studies, especially philosophical interpretations of the wave function and its collapse. In the realm of contemporary physics, a tension can be clearly felt between the discoveries of classical mechanics and those of quantum mechanics, in part due to the latter’s inclusion of a potential role for consciousness in the unfolding of physical events.49 To provide a comprehensive history of the classical-quantum dialectic is not the intent of this paper. Rather, a brief summary will be outlined and the discoveries of quantum mechanics in particular, especially as they relate to consciousness, will be highlighted for comparative purposes. It is our hope that these scientific and philosophical insights may help inform understanding of the Vaiśeṣika-Vaibhāṣika-Vijñaptimātra dialectic and vice-versa.

Inspired largely by Sir Isaac Newton, proponents of classical or “Newtonian” mechanics long assumed that a fundamental set of principles applied to all matter. Indeed, classical mechanics set out to describe the behavior of matter, such as movement, by developing presumably universal formulae for velocity, speed, acceleration, and so forth. Included among these principles are, most notably, Newton’s laws of motion, which developed from earlier theories advanced by Galileo and Kepler, among others. In particular, the laws of motion describe the relationship between a body and the forces acting upon it and are applicable to the motion of most physical systems and objects (Newton 1729). Such laws were, in part, the foundation for Einstein’s theory of special relativity, according to which the laws of physics are identical in all inertial systems and the speed of light in a vacuum is identical for all observers, regardless of the motion of the light source (Einstein 1905a), and Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which characterizes gravity as a geometric property of space-time (Einstein 1915). Astronomy and related disciplines draw heavily from this body of work. These laws arguably serve as the foundation of classical mechanics and proved consistent and reliable for several centuries.

Yet the explanatory prowess of classical mechanics, as scientists soon discovered as in the case of the wave function, was largely limited to the macroscopic level, namely to visible objects and celestial bodies. Such laws and theories accurately predicted phenomena such as gravitational pull among planets moving at rates that did not approach the speed of light yet could not account for subatomic events occurring at high velocity. For instance, classical mechanics could not explain the spectral distribution of black body radiation, the stability and origin of discrete spectra of atoms, the photoelectric effect (Einstein 1905b), and so on. At the microscopic level, several underlying assumptions of classical mechanics simply did not apply. This discrepancy led to the emergence of quantum mechanics as a means to account for the behavior of microscopic particles, which defied the until-then presumably universal laws of physics.

Relevant to Indian atomism, quantum mechanics has even challenged the notion that atoms are the fundamental building blocks of reality. A prime example is the discovery of the Higgs field, a quantum field thought to permeate the entire universe, responsible for producing the appearance of mass and matter within otherwise immaterial quantum fields (Higgs 1964). Key here is the appearance of the material within the immaterial, which interpreted liberally, seems compatible with the theory of vijñaptimātra, rendered “consciousness-only,” occasionally “merely representation,” or, by Silk, “manifestation-only,” suggesting that all perceptions of a physical reality are actually representations manifested by or manifesting to consciousness. Once assumed to be indivisible, irreducible, and indestructible, such research on the Higgs field has shattered the notion of atoms as the substratum to physicality. Counter to the atomistic tendencies of the Vaiśeṣikas and Vaibhāṣikas, quantum mechanics, by some interpretations, suggests that physical reality has no irreducible particles and is without inherent substance.

Indeed, no matter how far down physical reality is reduced on the scale of high-level macrophysics to low-level microphysics, there may be no foundation containing some irreducible substance or parts with an identity distinct from the whole. This applies even in the case of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle and quantum excitation of the Higgs field thought by some to be the “God Particle” (Lederman and Teresi 1993), thus resembling the “atoms” (paramāṇu) of the Vaiśeṣikas. However, while the Higgs boson gives mass to massless particles, thus appearing to create them, it is also characterized by unstable and unusual qualities such as no spin, zero electric and color charge, and nearly immediate decay (Dittmaier et al. 2012), thus making even it ultimately empty of enduring substance. The near immediate decay of the Higgs boson, despite its appearing stable and foundational, is reminiscent of the theory of momentariness espoused by the Vaibhāṣika school and the doctrine of vijñaptimātra in Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda. Yet counter to Vaibhāṣika atomism, no physical entity, not even the Higgs boson, is the absolute smallest and most fundamental particle, as atoms consist of hypothetical quarks, which in turn are likely to be constructed from immeasurably smaller constituents, ad infinitum. An aggregate of quarks form a hadron, which may be classified either as a baryon or meson. Similar to the Vaiśeṣika insight that atoms cannot be perceived except when in aggregate as triads, quarks cannot be observed in isolation, but rather, only in aggregate as hadrons.50 By the standards of quantum physics, much like that of non-atomist forms of Buddhism such as Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra and its theory of vijñaptimātra, to search for any fundamental, irreducible core to physical reality is a fruitless endeavor.

By the standards of Buddhist psychophysics, such questions of reducibility, the ability to reduce larger systems to smaller constituents, wholes to parts, where the smallest parts are considered the absolute basis or fundamental reality, as in the case of matter being mistaken for the foundation of all that is experienced, are set aside or suspended by not-self (anātman) and emptiness (śūnyatā). Instead, emergent properties such as consciousness arise dependent upon the interaction between various parts, which alone are arguably void of consciousness and empty of self. Describing the color of a rose in terms of its quantum properties such as light waves (e.g., red exists at wavelengths 620–750 nm at a frequency of 400–484 THz with photon energy 1.65–2.00 eV) does not explain the experience of the myriad variations in hue and intensity at the qualitative level of “red-ness.” Such first-person experience, we contend, is equally as important to Yogācāra Buddhism as it is to the interdisciplinary interface of consciousness studies with quantum mechanics.

While an atomist might suggest that sense experience can be reduced to eternally real and indestructible particles, early Buddhist texts acknowledge that sense organ, sense consciousness, and sense object disintegrate as easily as they integrate. In other words, their impermanence (just as with the decay of the Higgs boson, previously considered to be the fundamental, indestructible “God Particle” from which all else emerges) necessitates a lack of inherent substance. In fact, it often appears in experimental physics that the observer and associated conscious perception interact with objects at the quantum level to influence the appearance of classical observables, as in the case of physical measurement.

Indeed, much of the debate around the wave function seems to have its roots in the so-called measurement problem and its relationship to the wave function’s collapse. Measurement consists of interactions, namely between a measuring device and observables, but also between a measuring device and observer. A macroscopic observer (or act of observing in the form of consciousness, sometimes mistaken for an enduring self) does not interact directly with a microscopic observable (an atom as a hypothetical sense object) to give rise to perception. Even the Vaiśeṣikas acknowledge this and supplement the epistemic validity of perception (pratyakṣa) with that of inference (anumāna). Rather, at least in the modern scientific era, the interaction is mediated by a measuring apparatus, the human eye as sense organ in combination with an electron microscope to facilitate magnification. As a case in point, in the double-slit experiment51 referenced throughout the discourse on quantum mechanics, a beam of light passing through two parallel slits to illuminate a receiving surface produces an interference pattern, leaving both light and dark bands on the receiving surface. The bands result from a superposition (i.e., combination) of waves, whereby the amplitudes of two or more interacting waves are vector-summed. At the same time, the light is absorbed at discrete points. In other words, light behaves in the former description as wave and in the latter description as particle. Light is therefore characterized by wave-particle duality, exhibiting both classical particle and quantum wave properties. As hypothesized by physicist-philosophers, perhaps the measuring device influences the outcome of observation or the interference of a conscious observer influences which aspect of wave-particle duality is observed at any given time.

The interference of consciousness with physical reality, while a matter of debate, is nonetheless a subject we hope to explore further here. Consider also the example of Schrödinger’s cat (Schrödinger 1935), a thought experiment in philosophy of physics in which a hypothetical cat is contained inside a box along with a radioactive atom. The fate of the cat at the macro-level is entangled with (i.e., dependent on) the fate of the radioactive atom at the micro-level. According to Schrödinger’s equation, prior to observation, the cat’s state is represented by quantum superposition (i.e., a combination of states), suggesting it is simultaneously dead and alive. Yet the cat can only be observed in either of these states, not both, meaning that the statistical probabilities of it being either dead or alive are converted into a single outcome upon observation. The quantum event of atomic decay, and consequently, the state of the cat are influenced by the act of conscious observation: looking inside the box. Only when a conscious observer or the act of conscious observation is introduced into the equation do these probabilities convert into a single observed reality. While Vasubandhu does not explicitly state anything of this nature, recall that in the concluding verse of the section on atomism in the Viṃśikā, he writes:

If [the sense object] were singular,

there would be no gradual motion,

no simultaneous apprehension and non-apprehension,

nor divided multiple existence, nor the invisible microscopic.52

Drawing a parallel to the case of Schrödinger’s cat, the state (and fate) of the cat as either alive or dead, while in superposition, can be likened perhaps to an as-yet unperceived sense object. As long as no observer peeks inside the box, the cat is both alive and dead, in a superposition of multiple states at once, just as light is characterized by wave-particle duality. In the corresponding commentary, Vasubandhu concludes, “Since [the singular atom] is not proven, the fact that visible form–and the rest–are sense-fields of the visual–and the rest–is unproven; therefore Manifestation-Only comes to be proved.”53 Perhaps the inability to prove atomic singularity leaves open a multiplicity of potentialities, which take shape as forms only through consciousness. We dare not claim Vasubandhu’s stance corresponds neatly to that of the wave function’s collapse or Schrödinger’s cat, but hope to offer these cases as invitations to consider the possible interface between physics and consciousness, both in the realm of philosophy of science and the realm of Dharma studies.

While a rather simple illustration of the possible role of consciousness in the process of knowing the state of a physical system and collapsing the wave function, the case of Schrödinger’s cat in some ways mirrors the epistemic idealism of Yogācāra proposed by scholars such as Kaplan, Kochumuttom, Willis, and Ueda. It may not be the case that according to the theory of vijñaptimātra, the cat utterly does not exist, whether at all or until seen, but that its state of aliveness or deadness cannot be known other than through conscious observation. A rose may very well be an object in physical space, but the only way we may know whether it is in full bloom or wilted is through observation, which necessarily occurs in consciousness. As Lusthaus suggests, given that interpreters of Vasubandhu’s work appeal to the use of the term “object” rather than examining the emphasis on “external,” the tendency has been to classify Yogācāra as idealism.54 He maintains that the Yogācāra notion of vijñaptimātra ought to be interpreted as an epistemic caution rather than an ontological pronouncement (Lusthaus 2002, p. 6). Perhaps, in the Viṃśikā, Vasubandhu does not completely reject the existence of atoms or objects in any metaphysical or ontological capacity, instead proposing that they can only be known, can only acquire meaningful reality through consciousness in the epistemic sense.

Whether the convergence of wave-particle duality into singularity upon observation in the double-slit experiment, or, likewise, the convergence of “alive-dead” duality into singularity upon observation of Schrödinger’s cat, both qualify, by some standards, as emergent states insofar as they exhibit novel properties resulting from a particular interaction between the quantum event and conscious observation that did not exist at more fundamental levels. At the very least, they are clear illustrations of macroscopic interference, whereby a higher level event (i.e., conscious observation) interferes with a lower level state (i.e., the behavior of photons or atomic decay), resulting in collapse of the wave function. On one hand, similar in some ways to the epistemic interpretation of Vasubandhu’s work, proponents of the Copenhagen interpretation (Bohr 1928; Heisenberg 1930, reprinted in 1949) believed measurement collapses the wave function. Prior to measurement, physical systems simply lack definite properties. In other words, in a pre-measurement state, properties of physical systems are indeterminate and unknown. Measurement enables a knowledge of them. On the other hand, proponents of the von Neumann-Wigner interpretation (von Neumann 1932; Wigner and Margenau 1967) went a step further in postulating that consciousness directly collapses the wave function, reducing a superposition of several eigenstates (i.e., measured states of an object) to a single eigenstate. Indeed, by this interpretation, consciousness is believed to be absolutely necessary for quantum measurement, as without it, quantum particles would remain in a state of unobserved indeterminacy. This is in some ways reminiscent of Vasubandhu’s stance, which gives primacy to consciousness. For Vasubandhu, sense objects remain in a state of unobserved indeterminacy until consciously perceived, unlike for the realists who maintained that sense objects exist meaningfully irrespective of interacting with sense organs and sense consciousnesses. Regardless of which (if either) interpretation of wave-function collapse is true, both interpretations feature observation prominently, ascribing to it an essential role in the quantum-classical dialectic, in ways that begin to parallel the precedence assumed by consciousness in Vasubandhu’s understanding of so-called reality.

Do measurement and observation, or moreover, consciousness help fill the explanatory gap between quantum and classical worlds? It appears that introducing consciousness into the equation provides a bridge between quantum events and classical emergence, converting quantum multi-state indeterminacy into classically observable single-state outcomes. Following the section on atomism, Vasubandhu immediately writes:

The idea that there is direct perception [of the external object takes place] as in a dream and so on.

Additionally, that external object is not seen [at the moment]

when one has [the idea that there is direct perception of an external object];

[so] how can you consider that [the external object] is directly perceived?55

For Vasubandhu, similar to the potential role of consciousness in converting quantum states to classical observables, observation or perception of external objects is only possible through the aid of consciousness. Direct access to objects without the aid of consciousness is impossible. For quantum physicists, the property of phenomenal multifoldness holds that a quantum particle can take infinitely many appearances according to the measurement apparatuses used, including those that are mutually exclusive (Arai 2003). A similar sentiment is echoed by Vasubandhu. Ultimately, only by understanding the indispensable role of consciousness in experience may we transcend its tendency to distort reality as it is.


In our contemporary era, the interconnected histories of various schools of Dharma and their notions of physical and mental reality stand to enrich the ever-evolving theories of cognitive, natural, and contemplative science. From our perspective, several of the insights of the Vaiśeṣikas, Vaibhāṣikas, and Yogācārin-Vijñānavādins such as Vasubandhu’s theory of vijñaptimātra correspond to ideas entertained within philosophy of science. Vasubandhu’s Viṃśikā and its Vaiśeṣika-Vaibhāṣika-Vijñaptimātra dialectic captures not only the realist-idealist encounter but also finds rough parallels in the classical and quantum realms of modern physics, including philosophical interpretations pertaining to the measurement problem and collapse of the wave function.56 Perhaps this introductory paper on the subject will help catalyze further inquiry into the burgeoning dialectic between philosophy, Dharma, and science, all of which, we hope, may collaboratively provide a means toward letting the rose be perceived “as it is” (yathābhūtaṃ).


  1. 1.

    We acknowledge that the work of Vasubandhu resists characterization as idealism in the Western philosophical sense and that, likewise, Vaiśeṣika and Vaibhāṣika have been variously characterized as different subschools of realism. We hope not to conflate materialism with physicalism or naturalism and so refrain from categorizing Vaiśeṣika and Vaibhāṣika as anything other than realism in this paper. We further recognize the importance of the Cārvāka-Lokayatā school, which is more consistently understood as a materialist system, in the realist-idealist dialectic, but choose not to feature it in this paper given limitations of space and time. Across various schools of Dharma can also be traced doctrines corresponding roughly to anti-realism and neo-idealism, which we choose not to include here for the sake of parsimony. While Keng (Keng, C. “Three types of atomic accumulation—an interpretation of Vasubandhu’s Viṁśikā stanzas 12–13 in light of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya and Dharmapāla’s Dasheng Guangbailun Shilun.” Unpublished) suggests that Vasubandhu’s work can be classified as anti-realism and Lusthaus (Lusthaus, 2002) opts for phenomenology, the majority seem to favor some form of idealism, which we provisionally adopt here.

  2. 2.

    While it may be argued that the relationship was that of a polemic rather than dialectic, we deem polemic unsuitable given its associations with contentious debate, opting instead for dialectic, which is applicable to discourse intended to arrive at truth through reasoned arguments. Given this distinction, dialectic more accurately characterizes the Viṃśikā, at least in our reading and analysis. In the auto-commentary to the Viṃśikā, Vasubandhu references both the Vaiśeṣikas and Vaibhāṣikas. While these two schools depart in significant ways, we feel that the doctrine of atomism remains in common between both the Vaiśeṣikas and Vaibhāṣikas while opposed to the idealism of vijñaptimātra (i.e., the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda school). Regardless of the identity of Vasubandhu’s objectors in the Viṃśikā, we suspect that the intention of the “exchange,” albeit portrayed hypothetically and presumably penned by a sole author, may actually have been to constructively challenge the realist and idealist positions in order to lend clarity to the process of discerning the truth of the matter (or mind) through reasoned argument, not to prove the superiority of one philosophical school over the others.

  3. 3.

    In physics, the wave function (ψ(x,t), where x refers to position and t refers to time) can be used to calculate a system’s future behavior, albeit only probabilistically. Its role in such physical and thought experiments as the double-slit experiment and Schrödinger’s cat, respectively, has raised philosophical questions concerning the possible role of consciousness in collapsing the wave function’s probability predictions into a single observable outcome. For a more in-depth treatment of this subject, see the section of this paper entitled “Philosophy of Science and the Realist-Idealist Dialectic.”

  4. 4.

    We draw from Sinha’s translation of the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra in this paper (Sinha 1911).

  5. 5.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra I.ii.6

  6. 6.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra I.i.5–8

  7. 7.

    Udayana, a later logician and Nyāya commentator, includes abhāva as a separate category, while his contemporary, the mathematician Śrīdhara, noted that even Praśastapāda among the Vaiśeṣikas did not formally recognize abhāva as a distinct form of padārtha. See Nyāyakaṇḍalī p. 6 and Lakṣaṇāvalī, p. 2, cited in Dasgupta (1922, p. 312).

  8. 8.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra 3.i.18

  9. 9.

    The Nyāya dimension of what is now understood as the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school (originating c. tenth century C.E.) utilizes logical reasoning as a means to demonstrate the veracity of atomism. Importantly, such demonstration was, unlike experimental physics (but consistent with theoretical physics), not the result of direct measurement via experimentation, but rather a combination of perception and inference, the two epistemic methods considered valid by the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas. Providing a detailed analysis of Nyāya, however, is not relevant to the task of this paper. We mention Nyāya only to credit its later influence upon the Vaiśeṣika school. For the purposes of focusing on atomistic philosophy relative to that of the Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda school of Buddhism, we will continue to refer to the pre-Buddhist atomistic school as Vaiśeṣika rather than Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, especially given that the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra was written roughly eleven to fifteen centuries before the unification of Nyāya with Vaiśeṣika and Vasubandhu’s Viṃśikā was written roughly five centuries before unification.

  10. 10.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra I.i.4

  11. 11.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra I.i.5

  12. 12.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra VII.i.22–23

  13. 13.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra VII.i.24–25

  14. 14.

    There appears to be a paucity of research, especially recent, on Vaibhāṣika, due in part to loss of Sanskrit materials. To our knowledge, the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra is extant only in Chinese.

  15. 15.

    The Sarvāstivāda of Kāśmīra comprised the Vaibhāśika subschool of Sarvāstivāda. A second subschool by the name of Sautrāntika, whose adherents rejected the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra in favor of the sūtras, also existed. In the same sense that Vaibhāśika means upholders of the Vibhāṣa, Sautrāntika means upholders of the sūtras.

  16. 16.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra IV.i.1–2

  17. 17.

    Vaiśeṣika Sūtra II.ii.9 and V.ii.26

  18. 18.

    Abhidharmakośa-bhasya 12ab (Ronkin 2005, p. 57)

  19. 19.

    Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra 702ab (SA.IV.199) and Saṃghabhadra (Ny, 383c) cited in Abhidharmakośa-bhasya (2012): 413 (Karunadasa 1967)

  20. 20.


  21. 21.


  22. 22.

    Sāratthappakāsinī (Saṃyutta-nikāya commentary; Spk) II 266; Manorathapūraṇī (Aṅguttara-nikāya commentary; Mp) II 252

  23. 23.

    While several modern scholars agree that Yogācāra represents a form of idealism, whether that idealism is ontological, metaphysical, epistemological, formal, transcendental, or absolute idealism remains unclear (and varies by Yogācāra text and its author). For instance, Griffiths, Schmithausen, Wood, and Yamabe identify Yogācāra with ontological idealism while Kaplan, Kochumuttom, Willis, and Ueda understand it as epistemological idealism. Butler suggests that while Yogācāra shares elements in common with Berkeley’s metaphysical idealism, Kant’s epistemic idealism, and Hegel’s absolute idealism, it does not equate fully to any of these forms and must instead be viewed as its own form of idealism (Butler 2010).

  24. 24.

    The ālāya-vijñāna, occasionally rendered as storehouse-consciousness or repository-consciousness, is the eighth consciousness in the Yogācāra school. It is often likened to the ocean and is understood to house habit-energy or “seeds” (bīja) “planted” through volitional action (karma) and “ripening” as experienced fruits (vipāka).

  25. 25.

    (Cook 1999, p. 378)

  26. 26.

    The eight consciousnesses correspond to the five sense consciousnesses, mind-consciousness (mano-vijñāna), “ego” consciousness (manas), and the storehouse-consciousness (ālāya-vijñāna). For an authoritative exposition, see Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasaṃgraha.

  27. 27.

    (Cook 1999, pp. 381–2)

  28. 28.

    We use the abbreviated form Viṃśikā rather than the popular Vimśatikā given Silk’s note: “Concerning the proper title of the work, it has long been referred to in modern scholarship as the Vimśatikā, a mistake found in the Sanskrit manuscript of the Vṛtti which has at last been corrected by Kano (2008: 350)[...]Aside from the detailed Pāṇinian analysis provided by Vairocanarakṣita, as Kano points out there has long been abundant evidence for the correct title Viṁśikā” (Silk 2016, p. vi). We retain the form Viṃśikā rather than Viṁśikā given the former’s consistency with the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration.

  29. 29.

    Phenomenology, from the Greek phainómenon “that which appears” and lógos “study,” is a philosophical approach to the study of the structures of conscious experience. For a representation of the Western phenomenological tradition, see the works of German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger as well as French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

  30. 30.

    Intersubjective, in the field of phenomenology, refers broadly to that which is shared between more than one mind.

  31. 31.

    Lusthaus, Dan. “Vasubandhu.” Yogacara Buddhism Research Association Online Articles. (

  32. 32.

    Viṁśikā-kārikā 11, in Silk (2016, p. 14)

  33. 33.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 11, in Silk (2016, p. 85)

  34. 34.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 11, in Silk (2016, p. 81)

  35. 35.

    This remains a highly contentious point and will be addressed further in the section of this paper entitled “Philosophy of Science and the Realist-Idealist Dialectic.”

  36. 36.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 11, in Silk (2016, p. 87)

  37. 37.

    Viṁśikā-kārikā 12, in Silk (2016, p. 15)

  38. 38.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 12, in Silk (2016, p. 87)

  39. 39.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 12, in Silk (2016, p. 89)

  40. 40.

    Viṁśikā-kārikā 13, in Silk (2016, p. 16)

  41. 41.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 13, in Silk (2016, p. 91)

  42. 42.

    Viṁśikā-kārikā 14, in Silk (2016, p. 17)

  43. 43.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 14, in Silk (2016, p. 93)

  44. 44.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 14, in Silk (2016, p. 95)

  45. 45.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 14, in Silk (2016, p. 97)

  46. 46.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 14, in Silk (2016, p. 99)

  47. 47.

    Viṁśikā-kārikā 15, in Silk (2016, p. 9)

  48. 48.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 15, in Silk (2016, pp. 105–109)

  49. 49.

    We realize this remains debatable and that physicists have cautioned against attributing the behavior of quantum events to consciousness. Nonetheless, we entertain this possibility in order to offer a connection between realism and idealism in the interface between Dharma studies and philosophy of science, a position which we support in this section through reference to some of the fundamental theories and findings of quantum mechanics.

  50. 50.

    This is a generally accepted reality in physics that often goes uncited. For one account, see Glashow (1975).

  51. 51.

    Young 1801, cited in Feynman et al. (1965)

  52. 52.

    Viṁśikā-kārikā 15, in Silk (2016, p. 19)

  53. 53.

    Viṁśikā-vṛtti 15, in Silk (2016, pp. 105–109)

  54. 54.

    Lusthaus, Dan. “Vasubandhu.” Yogacara Buddhism Research Association Online Articles. (

  55. 55.

    Viṁśikā-kārikā 15, in Silk (2016, p. 19)

  56. 56.

    We wish to acknowledge that we far from provide a perfect mapping of these three schools of Indian Dharma onto physics or its philosophical interpretations, but hope this paper provides a foundation for further inquiries into the subject.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dharma Realm Buddhist UniversityUkiahUSA

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