Conflict between the Yogacara and Madhyamaka

A key characteristic within buddhism is conflict. There are different opinions and beliefs that lead to disagreements. This is in part because the buddha did not write down his words. As a result within the Mahayana school of thought, his sutras are either interpreted as being literal, or metaphorical. Within Mahayana Buddhism there are the three turnings of the wheel of the dharma. The first, the four noble truths are the base. The second is Madhyamaka, which teaches emptiness. And the third is the yogacara, which focuses on Mind only. The first turning is uncontested, the other two are controversial.

Within Mahayana buddhism there is much conflict because of the divergence between the second and third turnings of the wheel of the dharma. “There is a very clear impression that the distinction is based on purely subjective criteria, which explains why, quite frequently, the scholars are not in agreement” (Lamotte, 17). The sutras are interpreted at will, and as Lamotte discusses this has led to disagreements and differences within the Mahayana school of thought. In the Madhyamaka belief all things lack an essence. “Given that things have no intrinsic nature, they are not essentially different” (Garfield 112). We have no essence because all things arise from something else, we are interconnected. However within the Yogacara this differs: “The doctrine of mind-only may be described as the view that reality is nothing-but mind” (DAmato 205). By interpreting the buddha’s words in this way, the yogacara belief is that we have an essence. This can be seen as problematic as many believe that we do not, and by focusing on the mind, there is risk in forming attachments to the idea of having an essence. This is examined by Huntington who examines both the madhyamaka and yogacara. The Yogacara is limited in that it only sees the essence less of  objects, and not the subject. “Some of those who understand the objects lack of intrinsic difference will immediately comprehend the similar lack of any intrinsic existence in the subject” (Huntington, 318). The Yogacara is limited because it does not look beyond the object, it fails to see the emptiness in everything, which Huntington sees as foolish, he believes that the second step in understanding emptiness is to understand that everything is empty, not just objects. By placing so much value and emphasis on the mind and soul, some believe the Yogacara fails to fully grasp the Buddha’s words. It interprets the sutras incorrectly, focusing on the metaphor and believing it to be literal. This conflict in opinion is a result of the open nature of the Mahayana tradition.

If the Buddha often said conflicting words, how are we to be sure which is true and which is not? The sutras are conflicting, and can be understood in a variety of ways. This has led to the confusion present in Mahayana today. If the Buddha’s words had been written down in his lifetime it would be much easier to grasp his true meanings.

Works cited

D’Amato, M. “Three Natures, Three Stages: An Interpretation of the Yogācāra Trisvabhāva-Theory.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 33.2 (2005): 185-207. Web.

Garfield, Jay. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Huntington, C.W., Jr. “Chapter 27.” Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. By William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. N. pag. Print.

Lopez, Donald S., and Etienne Lamotte. “The Assessment of Textual Interpretation in Buddhism.” Buddhist Hermeneutics. Honolulu: U of Hawaii, 1988. N. pag. Print.


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