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Imagine Being a Preta: Early Indian Yogācāra Approaches to Intersubjectivity

A Commentary to this article was published on 15 March 2019


The paper deals with the early Yogācāra strategies for explaining intersubjective agreement under a ‘mere representations’ view. Examining Vasubandhu, Asaṅga, and Sthiramati’s use of the example of intersubjective agreement among the hungry ghosts (pretas), it is demonstrated that in contrast to the way in which it was often interpreted by contemporary scholars, this example in fact served these Yogācāra thinkers to perform an ironic inversion of the realist premise—showing that intersubjective agreement not only does not require the existence of mind-independent objects but is in fact incompatible with their existence. By delineating the phenomenological complexity underlying this account, the paper then proceeds to unpack the emergent Yogācāra account of intersubjectivity, its implications on the understanding of being, the life-world, and alterity, arguing that it proposes a radical revision of the way we conceive of the ‘shared’ and ‘private’ distinction in respect to experiences, both ordinarily and philosophically.

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  1. For instance, a similar conceptual analysis is applied to a different corner of Buddhist thought in Robert Sharf’s inquiry into the concepts of insentience in the context of Indian and mostly Chinese Buddhist thought. He demonstrates that the meaning of this category in Buddhist lore—which is often treated as if self-evident—is in fact context-specific, conditioned upon a particular philological setting, and conveys a complex set of cultural preferences and doctrinal premises regarding the understanding of life, personal identity, and ethics (Sharf 2014). Similarly, my own revaluation of the Yogācāra philosophical and cosmological conception of intersubjectivity aims to reveal the uniqueness of the school’s understanding of several basic concepts and categories—such as the private/shared distinction with respect to experience—that are often treated generically.

  2. For opposing interpretations of Vasubandhu and a thorough picture of the current state of this debate, see Garfield and Gold’s public polemic (2011) and Schmithausen’s (2005) critique of Lusthaus (2002).

  3. This sort of interpretation of the Yogācāra ideas can be found, for instance, in the early translations and interpretations by La Vallée Poussin (1928), and in D.T Suzuki’s study of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, (Suzuki 1930) and later in (Matilal 1974; Griffiths 1986; Wood 1991; Hopkins 1999; Siderits 2007; Schmithausen 2005).

  4. Works that feature such an interpretation—while varying in their ontological commitment—include Wayman (1965), Ueda (1967), Willis (1979), Kochumuttom (1982), Kalupahana (1987), and most recently Gold (2015). Works that set the epistemic idealist interpretation against the background of a distinctly phenomenological approach are Lusthaus (2002) and Garfield (2015).

  5. So, for example, regarding the question’s context-sensitivity, various scholar have emphasized the dynamic intellectual development of the Yogācāra textual corpus, pointing out the differences on this note between the earliest strata of the Yogācārabhūmi (as well as the abhidharmasamuccya) and later independent Yogācāra treatises ascribed to the Asaṅga and Vasubandhu and their interpreters. See, for instance, Schmithausen (2005, 9–10). Regarding the way in which this question is dependent upon the method of inquiry and its textual scope, the various interpretations of Vasubandhu’s Viśatikā offer a good example: When read in light of Gold’s extensive philosophical analysis of several fundamental themes and concerns across Vasubandhu’s unified body of works (2015), the text seems to align with epistemic idealism, whereas considered in light of Kellner and Taber’s (2014) focus on the text’s argumentative strategy (rather than individual isolated arguments, an approach supported on hermeneutical grounds by tracing similar strategies in the AKBh), it appears to align with metaphysical idealism. In another vein, other scholars have shown that much of the controversy regarding the Yogācāra’s idealism turns on the precise semantic and philosophical meaning attributed to the term ‘idealism.’ Most recently, Garfield (2015, 186–199) has demonstrated that the Yogācāra philosophical worldview does not adequately align with the framework of the realist/idealist dichotomy. Considering its relation to contemporary philosophical perspectives, Garfield argues that it is best described as presenting a phenomenological approach, which is distinct, however, from the two main phenomenological strands in contemporary continental philosophical thinking, identified with Husserl and Heidegger respectively.

  6. vijñaptimātram evaitad asadarthāvabhāsanāt |yathā taimirikasyāsat keśacandrādidarśanaṃ ||Viśatikā 1. (Lévi 1925).

  7. This is a variant of a standard realist response to the skeptic: showing that his skepticism is necessarily parasitic upon knowledge that appears as self-evident and, as such, renders his doubt incoherent. For a discussion of this argument as it applies to the adequacy of the Yogācāra doubt regarding the existence of an external world as well as selves, see Garfield (2015) discussion of Wittgenstein’s appeal to the social dimension of knowledge in his consideration of Moore’s refutation of idealism in On Certainty. A distinct example of such a realist response (though one that does not address doubt of the external world) in an Indian Philosophical context appears in Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartan ī verse 5, where the realist opponent points out that universal negation is untenable since it necessarily requires the acceptance of some knowledge claim and hence affirms at least the viability of the epistemic procedure (if not its end product). In this sense, the realist does not acknowledge any difference between philosophical skepticism and ordinary incredulity. See Bhattacharya (1970/1971).

  8. Vasubandhu does not state the opponent’s identity anywhere in the work, but Vinītadeva’s sub-commentary (Prakaraṇa Viśatikāīkā, rab tu byed pa nyi shu paigrel bshad) takes him in this case to be a ‘proponent of [the existence of] external objects’ (phyi rol gyi don du smra ba), probably in the sense of direct realism. In the ensuing arguments, however, which deal with intersubjective agreement, Vinītadeva attributes some objections to a Vaibhāika Buddhist realist (bye brag tu smra ba), and others to a Sautrāntika (mdo sde pa) whom he takes to be promoting a form of representationalism. See (Derge 1986, 4065: 175a1, 178b3, 180a7 respectively).

  9. For an assessment of this objection, see (Siderits 2007, 150–51).

  10. For the sake of clarity, I present the objections and their responses in an order other than the one in which they appear in the Viśatikā. For a presentation that preserves their original order, see (Lévi 1925, 3–5).

  11. | taddeśakālapratiṣṭhitānāsarveāsatāna utpadyate na kevalam ekasya | yathā taimirikāāsatāne keśādyābhāso nānyeāṃ | Ibid., 3. In discussing intersubjective agreement, both the objection and the ensuing response use the term ‘streams’ (satāna) rather than ‘persons’ (whose existence both Vasubandhu and the opponent apparently deny). These ‘streams’ are said to stand for the mental continua that underlie and come to constitute such imagined entities as persons. This already represents a highly phenomenalist perspective on experience, according to which the opponent questions the ability of a mere representations view to account for the epistemic boundaries between one such mental stream and another—boundaries manifested, for instance, in the sharp distinction we draw between shared and strictly private experiential content. As we will see below, the Yogācāra response is to account for this distinction—and indeed for any experiential particularity—with causal explanations. This understanding of satāna is clearly reflected in a definition provided by Vasubandhu elsewhere—in the ninth chapter of his seminal Abhidharmakośabhāya (Treasury of Abhidharma and Commentary), which is dedicated to a refutation of the existence of persons. As translated by Kapstein (2001, 374):

    That which, preceded by deeds, is an on-going coming-to-be of mental events, is a continuum [satāna R.T]. Its arising otherwise is transformation. And moreover, that potency, which immediately produces the fruit, being distinct from [that involved in] other transformations, is the distinctive feature of the transformation....

    This definition, which equates satāna with a causal mental process, indicates that the distinctiveness of each such stream is accounted for by the particularity of the specific causal chain that constitutes it. Similarly, the particularity and distinctiveness of any experience is accounted for by a certain ‘restriction’ or ‘delimitation’ (niyamaḥ) imposed upon it, so to speak, by the particularity of the causal chain of mental events that constitutes it.

  12. See (Matilal 1974, 142–43), (Wood 1991, 165–67); and (Siderits 2007: 152–53, 55–56).

  13. Rab tu byed pa nyi shu paigrel bshad (prakaraṇa viśatikāīkā) (Derge 1986) 4065, 177a4–6.

  14. See Mahāyānasagraha II 14, 14b in (Lamotte 1973: 30–31, 104–106 n14); and the Madhyāntavibhāgaīkā on chapter I verse 3 (Yamaguchi and Lévi 1934: 18 line 25–19 line 14).

  15. Pra-ita, literally ‘gone forth,’ ‘departed.’

  16. See (Jones 1949, 22–24).

  17. Under this interpretation, the pretas’ shared vision is understood similarly to a perceptual illusion of sorts—a collective hallucination or a mirage shared by several perceivers undergoing similar circumstances, whose fictional nature is revealed once its efficacy is put to the test. If that were the case, however, the argument could not satisfactorily undermine intersubjective agreement as evidence for the existence of external physical objects, since in this case doubt in respect to the validity of the pretas’ shared experience is dependent upon an implicit reaffirmation of the validity of human shared experience (in this case, of the clean rivers) as a criterion for truth, which is precisely the premise that the Yogācāra seeks to undercut.

  18. yady ubhayam apy anākāraparasparabhinnaca svarūpam rūpādivac cakurādivac caivasati lokaśāstraprasiddhebyo rūpādibhyaś cakurādibhyaś ca vijñānasya ko ‘sāv ātmātiśayo yatas tān nirāktya tāir abhinnarūpavijñānaghyate | tadvyatiriktasyārthasyāsabhavāt | etad evavyavasthā pyate yasmād bhinnārthasvarūpam asann api cittasatānapratiniyamena svabījāt pratyekātmaghītabhinnārthād pratibhāsavijñānaprasūyate | tathā hi preta apapūyapurīamūtrādipūrnā dhtadaṇḍapāibhir ubhayatapuruaisarakyamāāpaśyanti | manuyādayapuna svacchaśītalodakaparipūrā nirvibandhā ity upalabhante | yoginaś cāśubhamanasikārādyabhyastā nirantarapthivīkakālapūrāpaśyanti | tathā pth ivyādiktsneu sarvapthivyādibhir vyāptapaśyanti | na cārthapratibaddhātmalābhasyārtham antareṇārthasvarūpād vā bhinnākārasya vijñānasya prasutir yuktā | tasmāt tadartham antarea sarvam arthasattvādinirbhāsavijñānam eva prasūyata iti niścīyate| MAVṬ I.3, Yamaguchi and Lévi (1934: 18, line 25–19, line 14).

    The italics (in the original) signify those parts that are extant in Sanskrit, while the unitalized parts are those reconstructed in the Yamaguchi edition from the Tibetan (Narthang and Peking edition). An indication that this argument targets any kind of intersubjective agreement and not just the special case of the pretas is its use of additional examples, among them the discrepancies between ordinary everyday perception and yogic perception of the same objects.

  19. Namely, a critique of its adequacy as an ālambana, i.e., as the cause of perception that accounts also for the content that is represented. Consider for instance Sthiramati’s different treatment of this issue in his Triśika-bhāya in response to the following objection: ‘[It may be argued:] how is this arrived at, that without an external object, a consciousness having the [specific] appearance of that object has arisen? [Reply]external object is [specifically] required as the objective condition (ālambanapratyaya) of a cognition by virtue of the generation of a cognition having an appearance of its own, [and] not by virtue of merely being a condition in general, since [then] a condition [such as] the proximate [condition] would be without the consequence of [accounting] for differences [between objects].’ katham etad gamyate vinā bāhyenārthena vijñānam evārthākāram utpadyata iti | bāhyo hy arthasvābhāsavijñānajanakatvena vijñānasyālambanapratyaya iyate na kāraatvamātrea samanantarādipratyayād viśeāprasagāt | (Buescher 2007, 42:19–22).

    Here, the opponent argues that external objects must exist since there are no other causal determinants for the content of their corresponding cognitions. Sthiramati replies that this is untenable, since if indeed external objects were the sole causal determinant of the content of cognitions (and not an ensemble of different causes), then any perception of the external world would supply a representation of objects as an undifferentiated whole. He then proceeds to demonstrate that even if that were the case, there would be no object that could serve as the material cause and content determinant of a corresponding cognition. The reason he gives—in a variant of Vasubandhu’s mereological arguments in the Viśatikā—is that all objects are divisible into parts. If the opponent argues that these parts can be seen as indivisible ontological units, atoms of sorts, which can serve as the material cause for cognition, Sthiramati would point out that these atoms, whether aggregated or alone, are by definition formless and therefore incapable of determining any corresponding cognitive content. See Ibid, 42:22 cf.

  20. This framework is outlined in Vasubandhu’s Triśikā and further developed in Sthiramati’s commentary, the Triśikā-bhāya. See (Tzohar 2011, Chapter 5, especially pages 227–29).

  21. ‘By whom was the manifold variety of the sentient and in-sentient [receptacle] world created?… The variety of the world arises from action of beings….’ sattvabhājanalokasya bahudhā vaicitryam uktatat kena ktaṃ [?] ….sattvānākarmajalokavaicitryaṃ IV.1a, in (Pradhan 1975, 192: 3–5).

  22. According to Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāya III.4ab. (Pradhan 1975) 114 (4–7). Other sources enumerate six realms of rebirth, adding also the asuras. See (La Vallée Poussin 1971, 500 n.26).

  23. For a definition of satāna, see note 11.

  24. In this respect, every form of life, insofar as it constitutes a certain pattern of causal mental events, is seen as the outcome of a respective chain of past causal mental events, i.e., as the outcome of a particular past karma. For an account of the Buddhist conception of the category of a species and of the world in terms of karma, see Waldron (2003), and the analyses of related discussions in the ninth chapter of Vasubandhu’s AKBh by Kachru (2015, 198–201).

  25. See Kachru (2015, 140–150) discussion of this point following Vasubandhu’s third Lokanirdeśa chapter of the AKBh.

  26. See (Newland 2008, 74–75), and (Siderits 2007, 155).

  27. (Gethin 1997, 211).

  28. This claim is made by Vasubandhu, and reiterated by other sources as well. See (La Vallée Poussin 1971, 476); and (Kajiyama 2000, 188).

  29. In light of which the kind of apologetics often found in modern scholarship toward cosmology as dogma seems unjustified. Consider, for instance, the following quote from Anacker (1984, 160) regarding Vasubandhu’s hell example: ‘Since it is admitted that entire “realities” may be mentally created, Vasubandhu can dispense with a feature of Buddhist dogmatics that does not seem to him logical. Traditional Buddhist exegeses sometimes speak of “hells” as places of temporary retributional suffering for those “series” that committed acts of suffering. Vasubandhu says that these hell-states must be totally “internal”, since assuming “an approved place for the infliction of suffering” is to him abhorrent. These hell states arise in the psychophysical complex, and it is there where the working out from them is done.’ It appears to me that a close reading in the Viśatikā (see below) will show that Vasubandhu argues for the nonexistence not of the hells but rather of the hell guardians (this is further supported by Vinītadeva’s commentary. Anacker’s point is that since the hell is only a ‘state of mind’ (mind-dependent), it cannot be taken to be a real physical locus as prescribed by Buddhist dogma. It should be noted, however, that this is precisely the kind of sharp ontological distinction that the Yogācāra framework described above avoids—because it sees both physical loci and ‘states of mind’ as manifestations on the same spectrum of causal and mental phenomena, which differ phenemenologically and perhaps in their levels of coherency (see note 35). The same also applies to modern apologetics that sees the Buddhist realms as merely figurative, with ‘hell’ standing for an experience of hell on earth rather than a physical locus: Such a distinction is in fact unnecessary given that the Yogācāra understands physical loci as essentially experiential, but without undermining their phenomenological difference from moods, attitudes, or comportments.

  30. In Asaṅga’s Abhidharmasamuccaya, the distinction between shared and unshared karma appears to explain in the first place the distinction between sentience and insentience, in this case between what is understood to pertain to living beings (i.e., karma producing) and to the surrounding world of objects. However, the ensuing use of shared karma to explain also the reciprocal relations between living beings (their seeing of one another, for example) seems to interpret this distinction along more phenomenal lines, aligning it with the distinction between shared and unshared elements in our experience. In the Mahāyānasagraha, this tendency is even more pronounced as the distinction between shared and unshared karma is further qualified by the commentators so as to differentiate between the world and what pertains to the individual and between the common and private aspects of experience, respectively. See (Pradhan 1950, 55); and (Lamotte 1973, 81–84).

  31. See Waldron’s analysis (2003: 158–61, 164–169) of the Mahāyānasagraha 1.58–61 discussion of shared and unshared karma, and of the Sadhinirmocanasūtra (SNS), chapter 5 section 2 understanding of the store-house consciousness with respect to the ‘the appropriation which consists of the predispositions toward profuse imaginings in terms of conventional usage of images, names, and concepts’ (nimitta-nāma-vikalpa-vyavahāra-prapañca-vāsanā-upādāna): der dang pordi ltar len pa rnam pa gnyis po - rten dang bcas pai dbang po gzugs can len pa dang /mtshan ma dang ming dang rnam par rtog pa la tha snyaddogs pai spros pai bag chags len pa- la brten nas / sa bon thams cad pai sems rnam par smin cingjug la rgyas shingphel ba dang yangs pargyur ro rgyas shing ’phel ba. SNS V.2, Lamotte (1935: 55). Regarding the meaning of upādana in this section, Schmithausen further points out that: ‘In this context : objective phenomena as they are experienced or imagined, admitting of being associated with names, and being (co-)conditioned by subjective conceptual activity (vikalpa), which has become habitual so that it permeates all (ordinary) perceptions and cognitions’ (1987: 357, n.512).

  32. In the sense in which a naturalized epistemology is committed to an understanding of knowledge foremost in terms of causal processes. Here, I find useful Coseru’s introduction (2015: 20. Cf) of what he calls ‘phenomenological naturalism,’ which he argues is ‘one way to spell out the relation between phenomenology and the project of naturalization that neither eliminates the givenness of experience, nor collapses all of nature into what is experientially available,’ thus for example explaining also intentionality in terms of embodied and complex nonlinear causal processes. Whereas Coseru presents his phenomenological naturalism with respect to the Buddhist epistemologist conception of perception, Guerrero’s suggestion (2015) to reframe it in terms of the two truths doctrine makes it more applicable to our discussion of the Yogācāra worldview.

  33. That is, both a phenomenal subject and a primitive one—for instance, the notion of an experiential core self in the sense presented by Zahavi (2011, 65–70), according to which the first-person perspective serves as a uniform structure that accounts for the ‘mineness’ and self-givenness of all experience. Whether or not the Yogācāra present a surviving notion of subjectivity beyond this negation—for instance, as a nondual consciousness, as argued by Dreyfus (2010: 121–126)—stands at the core of the debate regarding the Yogācāra idealism mentioned above; however, as shown by our account, it does not serve an explanatory function in the Yogācāra account of intersubjectivity (in contrast, for instance, to its role in the debates about reflexive awareness).

  34. yathā hi narakeu nārakāānarakapālādidarśanadeśakālaniyamena siddhaśvavāyasāyasaparvatādyāgamanagamanadarśanacety ādigrahaena sarveāca naikasyaiva taiś ca tadbādhanasiddham asatsv api narakapālādiu samānasvakarmavipākādhipatyāt|…(Lévi 1925,4). The passage indicates that insofar as the hell guardians are perceived in a certain time and a place, and effect tortures, this example also serves as a response to the objections regarding spatial and temporal determinacy and efficacy.

  35. (Biderman 2008) 273–74. Biderman reads the logical untenability of the hell guardians’ argument as serving Vasubandhu to establish a coherentist notion of truth, with which he counters the realist opponent.


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This paper is part of a broader research project on the concept of the external world (Sattva-bhājana-loka) in Early Indian Yogācāra Buddhism, which I have been pursuing with the generous support of the Marie Curie IRG fellowship of the EU (CORDIS). An early version of the paper was presented as part of the Aspects of No-Self lecture series at the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies, University of Hamburg, Germany, and I am grateful to the Center’s director, Michael Zimmerman, for his kind support. I am especially indebted to Jay Garfield, Yale-NUS College, and Sonam Kachru, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, from both whose comments I have benefited greatly. Any mistakes if befall are of course mine alone.

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Correspondence to Roy Tzohar.

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Tzohar, R. Imagine Being a Preta: Early Indian Yogācāra Approaches to Intersubjectivity. SOPHIA 56, 337–354 (2017).

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  • Buddhism
  • Yogācāra
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Cosmology
  • Personal identity
  • Hell
  • Vasubandhu
  • Sthiramati
  • Asaṅga