Journal of Indian Philosophy

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 475–504 | Cite as

How Do We Understand the Meaning of a Sentence Under the Yogācāra Model of the Mind? On Disputes Among East Asian Yogācāra Thinkers of the Seventh Century



Understanding the meaning of a sentence is crucial for Buddhists because they put so much emphasis on understanding the verbal expressions of the Buddha. But this can be problematic under their metaphysical framework of momentariness, and their epistemological framework of multiple consciousnesses. This paper starts by reviewing the theory of five states of mind in the Yogācārabhūmi, and then investigates debates among medieval East Asian Yogācāra thinkers about how various consciousnesses work together to understand the meaning of a sentence. The major differences between the various explanations proffered lie in the minimum number of types of consciousnesses involved, and the minimum linguistic marks (sound, syllable, term, sentence and meaning) cognized, in order for one to understand a sentence consisting of four Chinese characters. I show that in these disputes, two points are key: First, the role played by the mental consciousness that arises simultaneously with a sensory consciousness: that is to say, whether a sensory consciousness should still be regarded as essential for understanding, if the simultaneous mental consciousness also cognizes the same mark. Second, whether the syntactic structure of a sentence is taken into consideration: that is to say, whether there is a separate determination of understanding regarding each character, or there is no determination until one has heard two or more characters and takes them as a syntactically meaningful unit.


Yogācāra Yogācārabhūmi Theory of Understanding the Meaning of a Sentence Kuiji 窺基 (632–682 CE) Wŏnch’ŭk 圓測 (613–696 CE) Huizhao 慧沼 (651–714 CE) 


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This work was supported by the Academy of Korean Studies (KSPS) Grant funded by the Korean Government (MOE) (AKS-2012-AAZ-104) and by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST 104-2410-H-004 -194 -MY2). My special thanks are due to Professor Jeson Woo for involving me in the very prestigious project. I thank Professor Michael Radich, who has very generously read an earlier draft of this paper, offered valuable suggestions and improved the English. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewer for very useful advice.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Chengchi UniversityTaipei CityTaiwan

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