Existence and Enlightenment in the Lankavatara-Sutra

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Existence and Enlightenment in the Lankavatara-Sutra
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About The Book

This book offers a systematic analysis of one of the most important concepts characterizing the Yogacara School of Buddhism (the last creative stage of Indian Buddhism as outlined and explained in one of its most authoritative and influential texts, Laithavathra-sutra. Compiled in the second half of the fourth-century A.D., this sutra not only represents a comprehensive synthesis of both early and late religio-philosophical ideas crucial to the understanding of Buddhism in India, but it also provides and insight into the very early roots of Japanese Zen Buddhism in the heart of the South Asian esotericism.


The first part of the book outlines the three-fold nature of being, as conceptualized in Buddhist meta-physics. The author uses an interpretive framework -borrowed from the existentialist philosophy of Heidgger, in order to separate the transcendental Essence of Being from its Temporal manifestation as Self, and from its Spatial or Cosmic dimension. The second part clarifies the Buddhist approach to knowledge in its religious, transcen-dental sense and it shows that the Buddhists were actually first in making use of dialectical reasoning for the purpose of transcending the contradictory dualities imbedded in the common ways of perceiving, thinking, and arguing about reality. "No Comparable work has been published on the Laithavatizra—sistra since that of D.T. Suzuki"



Dr. Sutton has written a striking book, which is the first systematic work on the subject since D. T. Suzuki's path-breaking work on the Latikavatara Sutra. It sets forth a radically different view from Suzuki's: it sees that the Yogacara was not a subjective idealism. In this, Mr. Sutton's analysis is attractive, for it enables him to do full justice to the dialectical-critical nature of Yogacara. The result of a systematic understanding of the Lankavatara Sutra places it in relation-ship to some key Western philosophical and psychological ideas—to the linguistic analysis of Wittgenstein, the dialectics of Hegel, the depth psychology of Freud and Jung, the Humean flux and Kant's critical stance. But he also emphasizes the soteriological flavor of Buddhist thought. He points out that the idea that Yogacara is 'consciousness-only' refers to its spiritual practice, not to its metaphysics, which has room for a theoretical realism, not unlike Kant's ideas of a world 'out there' of things-in-themselves, inaccessible to perception and beyond narrow conceptualization. He also emphasizes the closeness of Madhyamika and Yogacara approaches: for Yogacara too, he argues, rejects a specific philosophical point of view, in favor of a dialectical relativism. He concludes that the Yogacara wisdom may help to enlighten our planet and encourage tolerance. I agree. It conduces to an attitude of mellowness in relation to transcendental and absolutist claims, without abandoning the essence of contemplative religion, which is wanting in many areas of secular and religious thought.



This is an interpretation of the Mahayana Buddhist world of ideas and spiritual aspirations, as it appeared toward the end of its Indian phase, before its further expansion beyond the land of its birth into China, Korea, and Japan. Our focus is the Yogacara philosophy, as reflected primarily in that fourth-century creative synthesis called The Visit to Lanka. This is perhaps the least explored, and certainly the most controversial, school of philosophical Buddhism, in spite of the enormously influential role it played in the subsequent development of Buddhism, especially in the Zen schools of China and Japan.


During the last half century since the publication of Professor Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's outstanding Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra, "One of the most important texts of Mahayana Buddhism, in which almost all its principal tenets are presented, including the teaching of Zen" (London: 1930, reprint in 1968), there have been to my knowledge only three book-size studies of this school, and a handful of scholarly articles. The first of these three books, Agok Kumar Chatterjee's The Yogacara Idealism (Varanasi 1962), made no attempt to reinterpret critically the groundwork laid by Professor Suzuki's initial interpretation of the school as an "absolute idealistic monism." The two subsequent books, however, can be said to represent major steps away from this traditional interpretation, which was almost unanimously, and perhaps too uncritically, embraced by the students of this school, from both East and West, for an amazingly long time.


Janice Dean Willis' study On Knowing Reality (New York: 1979) Mains a brief yet insightful introduction to her translation of the Tattvarthe chapter of Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi. In this introduction she characterizes Yogacara as "a kind of nominalist philosophy" p. 36) which underscores "the ordinary being's chief delusion," that _ the error of confusing the naming of objects with the objects themselves. Although she •attributes the "mistaken" interpretation of the Yogacara as absolute idealism to the misleading literal translation of the key notion of "Mind-only" (Citta-matra), Willis' makes a distinction between the early writings of the two masters of the school, Asanga and Vasubandhu, and the writings of the "later historical and philological period," particularly the Latikapatara-sutra (pp. 25, 31, 36) where, she claims (unfortunately without adequate documentation), the terms "Conceptualization-only" (Vijziapti-matra) and "Mind-only" (Cittamatra) are employed "in senses that seemingly deny the existence of external objects altogether" (p. 36). To be fair, however, one should also note that she does not exclude the possibility (first suggested by the great medieval master Tson-kha-pa) that most of the "idealistic" proclamations of the sutra were intended in a "provisional sense" only, in order "to divert sentient beings from their preoccupation with materialism" (p. 32).

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