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Yogacara Theory - Part Three: The Nature of Reality
1. Explanation of the Threefold Nature
The Tri-svabhava-nirdesa is an extremely significant treatise
written by the Yogacara master Vasubandhu, consisting of thirty-eight
stanzas explaining the concept of the three natures (trisvabhava)
or three distinguishing characteristics (trilaksana).
It is primarily an exposition of the ontological basis of the subject/object
dichotomy as understood in terms of the Yogacara view, and is very important
because it answers fundamental questions raised concerning how we view
the world in which we live. Vasubandhu aim is to show that the subject/object
dichotomy that exists between the emerging All-ground Consciousness (alaya-vijnana)
and the ground of all phenomena (dharmadhatu) is born
from a misapprehension of a single reality (tathata).
That which misapprehends this greater reality are all sentient beings
born in the world, but the root of the misapprehension is created by the
all-ground consciousness itself, which acts as a spell enchanting beings
into believing in the facticity of the world in which they live.
This theory was put forward to explain not only the illusion of the world
that we see around us, but how that unreality is created. We find that
the world is the product of not one, but three simultaneous realities.
Vasubandhu asserts that the conceptually-constructed (parikalpita) nature of reality, by virtue of precisely what it is, has to be unreal (asat) and nonexistent; it is an illusion (bramti, deceit). Nevertheless the conception that occurs—the experience of the subject/object dichotomy—is a play of various existent causes and conditions. This contrivance (vikalpa) of various causes and conditions, is described as the contingent (paratantra) nature of reality. Behind that play of causes and conditions, there must be an underlying actual (parinishpanna) nature. The actuality is the unreality of the contrived construct.
The ultimate reality (dharmata) on which these three
natures are imposed, almost like veils, is defined as Tathata
(Tib: de-bshin-nyid, "that-is-ness"),
The elephant is no more than a magician's illusion and yet the elephant is indeed seen. The hallucination (akrti), the illusion that is seen, of the elephant by the crowd may be defined as the situation's paratantra-nature. This means that the appearance of the illusion itself must be contingent on something else.
Finally, if we consider what the elephant really is in its self (i.e., a suggested image that isn't really there) then it's actual non-existence is its ultimately true or actual (parinishpanna) nature.
Vasubandhu then explains his analogy as follows: the All-ground Consciousness (alaya-vijnana) is the magic spell, with which cosmic ideation (visva-vikalpa), the Magician, magically produces the illusion of a Universe, and in which duality (dvaya) of subject and object becomes the result. The elephant is the Universe that appears to us as real. The original log of wood which has been misapprehended as the illusory elephant is the Tathata, the Absolute, that ever remains unchanged and pure from the beginning.
Thus the nature (svabhava) of reality is ultimately nondual, which means that neither an apprehender (grahika) nor objects to be apprehended (grahya) exist as such.
2. Profound Contemplation of Reality
Sankara's reference (vide Brahmasutra Sankarabhasya) of "rope and snake" is a simple version of Vasubandhu's elephant analogy given above. The noble 9th century mystic Shankara, in introducing his system of Adwaita Vedanta, suggested that the world is like falsely seeing a snake for what actually is a harmless segment of rope. The rope is lying on the ground. Dusk has gathered and it is not easy to see clearly. An observer, walking along the path, mistakes a short segment of rope lying on the ground for a poisonous cobra and takes fright. In this manner, says the great sage Shankaracarya, the world and its suffering is perceived, when in reality it is the pure Absolute (brahman) alone that exists.
In Shankaracarya's explanation, the world is purely illusion (maya). When the illusion is seen for what It truly is, just as the snake instantly becomes again the rope which it always has been, so too the world instantly transforms back to Brahman.
By this means Shankara likewise posited nonduality (adwaita). Hence his teaching is frequently known by the name Adwaita Vedanta.
Vasubandhu's explanation is, however, intrinsically more scientific than Shankaracarya. Shankara's analogy of "rope and snake" overlooks the antithesis of an absolute reality opposed to an absolute illusion, or existence (sat) versus non-existence (asat). Although Sankara and Vasubandhu are pointing in the end to the same final fact, Shankara's analysis of the problem falls short of Vasubandhu's. If we apply Vasubandhu's three natures to the rope and snake analogy we can arrive at a deeper insight into the whole problem.
Like the elephant that was not there, the snake is an illusion super-imposed on the rope. The rope is the Ultimate Reality not seen by us. What Shankara's explanation lacks, is in telling us how the illusion occurs. This, you might say, he takes for granted. Vasubandhu, on the other hand, makes it clear that we have to accept that the illusion itself is contingent (paratantra) on something deeper. This something is revealed when the actual nature (parinishpanna-svabhava) of the illusion is seen for what it is, i.e., as non-existent.
To say the world is an illusion is insufficient, insofar as in doing so we impart to the concept illusion a reality that is not there. It is not that the world is an illusion, rather it is that the illusion itself is unreal, which is more important. The collapse of this projection is what breaks the spell imposed by the magician over the crowd.
Chatterjee and Datta, in An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, Calcutta 1968, present the argument as follows:
The key, therefore, to Vasubandhu's message rests on contemplating the nature of Parikalpita, the imposition of the illusion on the Real (tathata).
3. Manjusrimitra's Final Comment
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