Introduction to Yogacara Hosso Buddhist philosophy

Recently, I have begun reading the new book I purchased on the Hossō school of Japanese Buddhism, better known as Yogacara school of philosophy. Of the three major schools of thought within Mahayana Buddhism:

  • Madhyamika or “Emptiness” school
  • Yogacara or “Conscious-only” school
  • Avatamsaka or “Flower-garland” school

…I believe that Yogacara is the least understood of the three. I posted before how Master Yin-Shun, the famous Chinese scholar-monk, wrote that all three provide an important component to Buddhism overall, and complement one another, but until now I understood Yogacara very little.

The book I’ve been reading, by the head of Hosso school, Rev. Shun’ei Tagawa, has helped to clarify this somewhat. I’ve only read the first chapter, but he tries to draw some important analogies in how Yogacara views the mind and reality. He uses a famous Tanka poem to illustrate:

At the clapping of hands,
The carp come swimming for food;
The birds fly away in fright, and
A maiden comes carrying tea —
Sarusawa Pond. (trans. A. Charles Muller)

The last line, Sarusawa Pond, is apparently a famous pond in Nara, Japan, where one can see the temple of Kōfukuji, the head of the Hosso/Yogacara sect. The other lines show how the same event is interpreted by different people/living things. Later, he uses the analogy of Mount Fuji, and how each artist interprets it a little differently in their art.

In other words, Yogacara/Hosso Buddhism teaches that reality as we understand it is all defined by our minds, not the other way around. Raw sensory experience is immediately frozen and overlaid by our mind’s interpretation of things. We project our understanding of reality constantly, hence the somewhat pejorative term in Chinese Buddhism, “Conscious-only” school.1

Rev. Tagawa then explains that the foundation of Hosso Buddhism is the Four Aspects of Cognition and the Three Kinds of Objects. The Four Aspects of Cognition are defined as:

  1. The objective aspect (raw reality as-it-is)
  2. The subjective aspect (sensory perception of reality)
  3. The witnessing aspect (cognition of this perception)
  4. The re-witnessing aspect (thoughts that follow cognition)

Or, to clarify what this means, Rev. Tagawa explains using the following analogy. If one checks their watch to see if it’s 7:30, the watch itself is the objective aspect, the act of seeing the watch is the subjective aspect, the trained-recognition that sees the hands of the clock displaying 7:30 is the witnessing aspect,2 and the subsequent thought of “Oh, it’s 7:30, blah blah blah” is the re-witnessing aspect.

Another way to look at it is the Three Kinds of Objects:

  1. Objects as they are themselves, raw experience.
  2. Objects that are illusion (enough said).
  3. Objects that are originally derived from raw experience, but falsely perceived.

The point of all this according to Rev. Tagawa is that we sincerely believe that our view of things is clear and not distorted, but in fact, we’re constantly projecting our understanding of the world on reality itself. Everyone does this, everyone has a distorted, limited view of reality. It’s just that each one of us forms our understanding of reality a little differently. The problem is our belief in the infallibility of our own experiences, not the experiences themselves necessarily.

Although the Hossō sect of Buddhism gradually lost influence, as did all of the original ‘six schools of Nara Buddhism’, the school is clearly alive and well, and its influence can easily be seen in later schools of Buddhism like Zen which talks a lot about the discriminating mind and so on, or Pure Land Buddhism, which relied on the works of Hosso scholars among others. Later schools simply strive to put into practice what pioneers like the Hossō school first laid out.

Yogacara/Hosso Buddhism, of the three branches above, focuses on the mind itself, where Madhyamika tends to focus on external reality (empty, impermanent), or Avatamsaka tends to focus on how things relate. Again, all three are aspects of the Mahayana tradition, but all make for a fascinating read for armchair philosophers like myself. 🙂

Additional information can be found in these links:

P.S. I will post more as I read more into the book. So far, I think Rev. Tagawa has done an admirable job keeping this difficult philosophy on the ground, and keep it practical, and Professor A.C. Muller has done a great job in translating it. That is no small task.

P.P.S. Updated Wikipedia’s article accordingly. 🙂

1 The Yogacara’s name of “Conscious-only” was an insulting term first used by the Avatamsaka/Huayan school, but the name stuck, and lost its pejorative nature somewhat.

2 If you grew up differently, and were never taught how to read time on a watch, would you still recognize the two hands as 7:30? 😉


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Introduction to Yogacara Hosso Buddhist philosophy”

  1. Thanks for this Doug – very helpful. I’ll be interested to hear if Rev. Shunnei gives an equally lucid explanation of the Three Natures (Tri-svabhava). Gassho, K


  2. Yeah, it’s nice to see a smaller sect like this still going strong, and adding to the general scholarship of Japanese Buddhism, especially in English. Lord knows we could use more of it.


  3. This follows along with perceptual psychology. As an example, our eyes have blind spots where there are no sensors to pick up light because it’s where the signals leave the eye. Even with those blind spots, we don’t see black spots as we view the world. Our mind fills in those blind spots on their own. If they didn’t it would actually be very distracting. Our mind fills in other gaps from our senses too and because we sense it, we feel it’s absolute, but it’s not always the case. You can also see good examples by analyzing witness statements from a crime. Everyone is always so confident in what they believe they saw, but the statements can differ by a lot. I ran a study in college on witness accounts and the results were kind of funny.


  4. Wow, it’s interesting to see the convergence. I’d be curious to know more about the study you did in college too. 🙂


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