A Compendium of the Mahayana

Asanga's Mahāyānasaṃgraha and Its Indian and Tibetan Commentaries (3 Volume Set)

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Asanga
Translator(s): 
Karl Brunnhölzl
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications
    , December
     2018.
     1824 pages.
     $79.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781559394659.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Mahāyānasaṃgraha, rendered in English here as A Compendium of the Mahāyāna: Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasaṃgraha and Its Indian and Tibetan Commentaries, is generally ascribed to Asaṅga (fl. 4th century), and is one of the five works traditionally attributed to Maitreya (also referred to as Maitreyanātha). Karl Brunnhölzl’s massive, three volume project is more than just a translation of the Compendium, and demonstrates that the highly scholastic character of the Buddhist tradition continues today. 

The Compendium is considered one of the most important texts of the Yogācāra movement of medieval Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, a movement that was also important in the formation of Central and East Asian Buddhist thought as well. Brunnhölzl prefers the term “movement” to “school” as members of the movement saw it as “a continuation of all preceding developments in Buddhism and not as a radical departure from them or even as a distinct school per se” (xix). Present interest in the movement stems from its focus on mental dynamics, as well as the similarity of some of its ideas to modern psychological theories. 

The first volume includes a substantive introduction by Brunnhölzl, the translation of the Compendium itself, as well as a translation of the commentary on the text by Vasubandhu—Asaṅga’s half-brother, himself an important author of Mahāyāna literature. The second volume comprises translations of two works composed in Tibetan, a large commentary on the entirety of the Compendium, and a short commentary focusing on the first chapter. The third volume—made up of the twenty appendices—expands the scope to include translations of explanatory sections from related texts, including Chinese sources.

The Compendium is relatively short, running just under one hundred pages (153–250) in this translation. The text is divided into ten chapters and is structured as a description of the Buddhist path from “what is to be understood,” through what it means to comprehend this foundational concept, how it is cultivated, and the nature of the attainment of this comprehension—that is, awakening. Over the course of this trajectory, most of the central concepts of the Yogācāra movement are discussed. 

“What is to be known” is the ālayavijñāna—rendered here in the form ālaya-consciousness. This is the underlying dynamic ground of consciousness, and identifies the idea that ordinary conscious awareness arises from a basis of karmic residues that, while an individual’s, reside outside of conscious awareness. Understanding the dynamics of ālayavijñāna is key to progress on the path, and the eventual attainment of awakening. In classic Yogācāra thought there are another seven “dimensions” or “levels” of ordinary conscious awareness. The quotation marks indicate that both the character of the relations between the eight, and the nature of their existence, are issues in the broader literature. 

Complementing the ālaya-consciousness is the “afflicted mind” (kliṣṭamanas). This is the function of ordinary conscious awareness that constructs and clings to an ego, which serves to center and orient one in the world—constantly working in terms of I, me, mine. An issue raised by critics of Buddhist thought is the assertion that a transcendent observer exists, that it is the “true self,” and that one can become aware of it through yogic practice. However, “[i]n Yogācāra, the actual object of this constant concern with and clinging to ‘me’ and ‘mine’ is the ālaya-consciousness, which is mistaken for a personal self by the afflicted mind” (62). The ālaya-consciousness is impermanent, a constantly flowing construct, and therefore, not the permanent “true self” claimed by those critics of Buddhist anātman theory.  

Another of the concepts presented here is that of the “three natures” (trisvabhāva), a doctrine that has quite often been misleadingly treated as metaphysical, that is, as asserting three different kinds of being. However, it is presented in the Compendium as epistemological—three different ways of knowing. 

In his introduction, Brunnhölzl pays great attention to the ālaya-consciousness and the afflicted mind, drawing on other major Yogācāra works, both sūtras and śāstras (which are not commentaries in a derivative sense, but rather build on a text in order to present an author’s own ideas). Introducing the treatment of these two key concepts from related sources provides a richly nuanced picture. This includes, for example, noting the synonymous character of other terms, such as ālaya-consciousness, tathāgata heart (tathāgatagarbha), and mind (citta) as used in the Laṅkāvatāra sūtra (71). The introduction covers a range of source languages—Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese—in an impressive display of knowledge of the subject.

While a detailed treatment of the historical relations between these texts is outside the scope of this review, it is important to note the organization of these sources. In what appears to be an “only natural” organization, sūtra sources are discussed first, and śāstras afterwards. This does not, however, reflect the historical order, but rather a religiously informed sense of the authority and primacy of sūtras. Authors of Buddhist texts may attribute their work to the Buddha Śākyamuni—or other buddha or bodhisattva, however, from an academic perspective such ascription does not make a text inherently more authoritative than one attributed to a named author. 

Due to its influence throughout the Mahāyāna tradition, Yogācāra requires consideration in its own right, not through the lens of other systems of thought. This is a key methodological point that Brunnhölzl addresses, pointing to the distorted image of Yogācāra found in Tibetan doxographies, the point of those being to establish the superiority of the Madhyamaka “as the supreme Buddhist philosophical system” (xvi). Those doxographies refute what is known as a “mind-only” (sems tsam) system. Brunnhölzlindicates that “[i]nterstingly, the (mis)representation of Yogācāra as ‘Mind–Only’ is now almost equally widely accepted in the West, even in some academic settings” (xvi). In his analysis the reasons for this acceptance are; 1) making superficial and out-of-context judgments based on a unidimensional understanding and discussion of what seem to be stereotypical “buzz words” (such as cittamātra); 2) not treating the concepts and explanations of Yogācāra in their own terms, but looking at them through the lenses of other philosophical systems, especially Madhyamaka; and 3) indiscriminately following Tibetan doxographical categories (xvi).

In addition to Madhyamaka—the other intellectual movement central to the Mahāyāna—we can suggest that viewing Yogācāra through the lenses of modern Western philosophy and psychology are also sources of distortion. In the case of the former, Yogācāra is easily equated with classical (i.e., Berkeleyan, idealism, and the arguments of the latter then read onto Yogācāra). In the case of the latter, the key concept of ālayavijñāna has been equated to both Freudian and Jungian concepts of the unconscious. Fortunately more recent scholarship has moved beyond these facile equations, though their influence still lingers. Indeed, the work of the Yogācāra thinkers—such as Asaṅga and his brother Vasubandhu—along with their interpreters in Tibet and China presented in these volumes, has drawn attention in our own time specifically because of its apparent similarity with the modern presumption that psychology is an explanatory system that is satisfactory enough to end inquiry. It has also benefitted, more broadly, from the neo-Romantic characterization of Buddhism as an “ancient Oriental wisdom.” Particularly in combination, the representation of Buddhism as “an ancient Oriental psychology” has become rhetorically powerful. 

While this translation project is not specifically intended to inform the discourse of similarity and difference regarding Buddhism and psychology, it is an invaluable resource to the future development of that project beyond the presumptions that have to date allowed Buddhism to be explained as psychology. Indeed, this work will contribute to an adequate comprehension of Buddhist thought that does not simply subsume it under any academic category, including not only psychology, but also philosophy and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 
May 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Asanga was a fourth-century Indian adept and philosopher, and author of the foundational works of the Yogācāra school of Buddhist philosophy.

Karl Brunnhölzl was trained as a physician and also studied Tibetology. He received his systematic training in Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy and practice at the Marpa Institute for Translators, founded by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. Since 1989 he has been a translator and interpreter from Tibetan and English. He is presently involved with the Nitartha Institute as a teacher and translator.

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