Horror Vacui: Metaphysical Yogācāra Reaction to Madhyamaka Antimetaphysical Emptiness


In the first part of this paper I critically examine some of the main interpretations of “classical” Yogācāra philosophy of Maitreya(nātha), Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. Among these interpretations, based on extant textual and contextual data, I consider philologically unlikely both metaphysical-idealistic readings, which ascribe to these authors the view that ultimate reality is a mental or subjective stuff, and epistemological-idealistic readings which advocate that either Yogācāra suspends judgment on the existence of the extramental or that it maintains that the extramental exists in itself and ultimately. Instead, I consider more likely the thesis that classical Yogācāra upholds an epistemological idealism that, while admitting epistemological priority of the mental over the extramental, rules out the ultimate existence of both the former and the latter. This exclusion, however, does not amount to the exclusion of every metaphysics, but rather to the adoption of a metaphysics of emptiness conceived, in fact, as absence of the mental/extramental (or subject/object) dichotomy. In the second part of the paper this reading of classical Yogācāra is compared with the interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s philosophy that I elsewhere called “realistic antimetaphysical”, and I reach the conclusion that, while with respect to epistemology between early Madhyamaka and classical Yogācāra there is continuity, regarding metaphysics these two schools are deeply distinct and discontinuous: while Nāgārjuna conceives of emptiness as an extinction of any metaphysical view, Yogācāra emptiness actually presents itself as a metaphysical point of view.

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  1. 1.

    More extensive comparisons than this—for example, the many that can be found in secondary sources that compare, in general, the two main Mahāyāna schools—assume that, within the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra schools there is a uniformity of views which, in fact, we cannot find. In particular, with regard to the metaphysical and epistemological questions considered here, the results we get when comparing the “founders” of these two schools are not the same as those we would get by including in our comparison the commentators and epigons of the same founders.

  2. 2.

    Cf. Ferraro (2017).

  3. 3.

    Cf. Ferraro (2019).

  4. 4.

    The fact that to be co-originated and interconnected are ideas and not things prevents this interpretation from being considered a case of what Siderits (2015, pp. 112–13) suggests calling the “‘Indra’s net’ reading of Madhyamaka”, by which “ultimately everything is connected to everything”. This reading Siderits (ibid.) ascribes to Gadjin Nagao and to Ian Harris.

  5. 5.

    Lusthaus’s proposal to consider “metaphysical idealism” as the point of view “which posited a mind (or minds) as the only ultimate reality” (Lusthaus 2019) is acceptable, provided that we take “mind(s)” in the sense of absolute subjectivity, consciousness, logos or idea(s).

  6. 6.

    Ratié (2014, p. 353), for example, considers “metaphysical idealism” as the view that simply denies “the very existence of the external world”.

  7. 7.

    For example, Ratié (2014, p. 353), who seems to consider the view according to which “we cannot decide whether objects exist or not outside of consciousness because we have no epistemic access whatsoever to these objects” as the only kind of epistemic idealism.

  8. 8.

    Cf. Buesher (2008), Schmithausen (2014, 2018).

  9. 9.

    “[A] prominent feature of the new Buddhism is also its theory of a ‘store-house consciousness’, a theory which is predominant in the first half of the period and dropped towards its end. There being no external world and no cognition apprehending it, but only a cognition which is introspective, which apprehends, so to say, its own self, the Universe, the real world, was assumed to consist of an infinity of possible ideas which lay dormant in a ‘storehouse’ of consciousness. Reality becomes then cogitability, and the Universe is only the maximum of compossible reality” (Stcherbatsky 1994, p. 13).

    “As the ground of this ālayavijñāna we have the pure consciousness called vijñaptimātra, which is beyond all experiences, transcendent and pure consciousness, pure bliss, eternal, unchangeable and unthinkable. It is this one pure being as pure consciousness and pure bliss, eternal and unchangeable like the Brahman of the Vedānta, that forms the ultimate ground and Ultimate essence of all appearance” (Dasgupta 1969, pp. 119–20).

    Pariniṣpanna is the Absolute, the undefiled, undifferentiated, non-dual consciousness (vijñaptimātratā)” (Chatterjee 1971, p. 31).

  10. 10.

    As said above, in order to speak of “metaphysical idealism”, behind the denial of external reality, it is also necessary that the ultimate existence of mental reality is explicitly affirmed.

  11. 11.

    This position is fully endorsed by Hayes (1988, p. 100): “[a] careful reading of Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra writings […] supports Hall’s interpretation quite well”.

  12. 12.

    This realistic conception looks upon reality as an “interplay of a plurality of subtle, ultimate, not further analysable elements (dharma) of matter (rūpa), mind (nāma = citta) and force (saṃskāra)” (Kochumuttom 1982, p. 17).

  13. 13.

    Also Wayman (1979, p. 65), albeit less explicitly, tends to ascribe to the classical Yogācāra not just a mere “suspension of judgment”, but the very thesis of the existence of a (plural) reality outside the mind. His main argument is that, otherwise, “it would hardly be possible to find its position attractive to the Buddhist logicians who were to follow, since Dignaga and his successors, especially Dharmakīrti, do not deny an external object”.

  14. 14.

    “That there are many things or many individual streams of existence is taken for granted. But does one’s epistemological experience reach them? The answer is negative” (Kochumuttom 1982, p. 10).

  15. 15.

    Kellner and Taber (2014, p. 10) define “subjective” as the variety of idealism that they attribute to Vasubandhu. A kind of idealism emblematically represented, in history of Western thought, by Berkeley, whose formula “to be is to be perceived” (esse est percipi) implies “that something that is not perceived or cognized cannot exist”.

  16. 16.

    It can be noted that even though Arnold (2008, p. 16) defines metaphysical idealism in terms of MeI1—i.e., “the claim that only mental things exist”—and considers Vasubandhu a metaphysical idealist, he does not point out passages where the author of the Viṃśikā supports the ultimate existence of the mere mental reality, but only shows (in tune with the definition of MeI2) that the same author denies the existence of external reality.

  17. 17.

    dvayā’bhāvo hyabhāvasya bhāvaḥ śūnyasya lakṣaṇaṃ /

  18. 18.

    dvayagrāhyagrāhakasyā‘bhāvaḥ / tasya cābhāvasya bhāvaḥ śūnyatāyā lakṣaṇam

  19. 19.

    tathatā bhūtakoṭiś cānimittaṃ paramārthatā /

    dharmadhātuś ca paryāyāḥ śūnyatāyāḥ samāsataḥ //

  20. 20.

    Gold (2015, pp. 160–1) suspects that Vasubandhu’s interpretation of the duality that the Madhyāntavibhāga (which Gold ascribes to Asaṅga) rules out since its second verse (first, in Nagao’s edition used by Gold) could be inconsistent with the original intent of the root text: what Vasubandhu reads as a duality of “grasped and grasper” would originally be the “existence and non-existence” duality. If this was the case, we should think that Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra, as far as metaphysics is concerned, moves away from the metaphysics of Maitreya’s (or Asaṅga’s) works; the present analysis, in this case, more than a reading of classical Yogācāra, would be an interpretation of the Yogācāra of Vasubandhu alone.

  21. 21.

    I cannot grasp the gain of clarity we would have by following Salvini’s (2015, p. 41) suggestion of translating grāhaka as “agent of perception” instead than of “subject [of perception]”. The words “agent” and “subject” seem, to me, in this case, to be perfectly interchangeable synonyms. However I believe “subject” should be preferred, insofar as it is opposed more directly to “object [of perception]”, which is the best version for grāhya: indeed, “subject/object” sounds better than “agent/object”. A version as “perceiver/perceived”, on the other hand, seems to reduce the emphasis on the aspects “subjectivity” (or “agency”) and “objectivity”, which seem all-important in the dichotomy under consideration, in favour of a meaning—namely the act of “perceiving”—that is far from exhausting the semantic range of the root √grah.

  22. 22.

    “It is obvious from this list of synonyms for emptiness—emptiness which is the same as the thing-in-itself (yathābhūta-vastu)—that to conceive the latter in idealistic terms does not occur to the Yogācārins” (Kochumuttom 1982, p. 6). In the same sense, Shulman (2015, p. 198) says: “To Vasubandhu it is clear that there is no ultimately real mind or consciousness; thus, he cannot be an idealist in any robust sense”.

  23. 23.

    “There was a time when one could simply take it for granted that the Cittamātra or Yogācāra […] is the school of Buddhist idealism. However, academic fashions and imperatives are such that once a position is regarded as obvious, attacking it becomes mandatory” (Garfield 2002, p. 156). “Is it merely because Yogācāra thought as traditionally understood seems so counterintuitive to modern Western common sense that some scholars think they must ‘defend’ the Yogācāras against such an understanding?” (Schmithausen 2015, p. 49).

  24. 24.

    We may observe that, anyway, neither Williams nor Garfield—in the texts of theirs that I consulted—expressly define their reading as a “metaphysical idealism”. The attribution of this interpretation to these authors is due to the circumstance that they tend to assign to Yogācāra the thesis that mind or subjectivity correspond to supreme reality—and this is precisely the definition of “metaphysical idealism” (in the sense of MeI1) here adopted.

  25. 25.

    Gold’s position with regards to Vasubandu’s idealism does not seem exempt from some ambiguities: indeed, in the section devoted to the “controversy over Vasubandhu as ‘Idealist’” in his Vasubandhu entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Gold 2017), he maintains that when Vasubandhu speaks about “representation-only”, this “cannot be the ultimate truth”; “Vasubandhu explicitly denies that ‘mind’ has ultimate reality. He is not a Hegelian idealist”. Thus, Vasubandhu’s idealism would just be epistemological, according to which “what falls within the range of experience are different form of consciousness, while the things-in-themselves remain beyond the limits of experience”; “[t]he form in which a thing is thought to be grasped is purely imagined (parikalpita) […]. It by no means implies that there is nothing apart from ideas or consciousness”. Here, therefore, Gold is defending that in Vasubandhu there is no metaphysical idealism (in the sense of MeI1), but only epistemological idealism (of the EpI1 kind). However, in his monograph on Vasubandhu (Gold 2015, from which the quotation in the main text above was taken), Gold seems to claim—if I read him correctly—that the denial of the grāhya-grahaka duality is not the same as absolute denial of the “consciousness” in the sense of a “first-person perspective” from which the world is fundamentally apprehended; what is denied is just that this fundamental perspective “is truly an intentionally structured relationship between two distinct entities (the subject and the object)” (ibid., p. 168). Now, a view that maintains that consciousness, or rather the “series of perspectival shaped moments of consciousness”, is not ultimately denied but rather ultimately affirmed, seems to me inconsistent with the thesis above, by the same Gold, that reality-in-itself cannot be defined as “ideas or consciousness”.

  26. 26.

    The position under consideration here is different from MeI2 which I attributed above to contemporary authors who defend that the mere denial of extramental reality is tantamount to the affirmation of the ultimate existence of the mental. Here, in fact, the view is that the definition of ultimate reality as mental or subjective would be explicit.

  27. 27.

    “[D]ue to the non-existence of its referent, consciousness as the agent of cognition is non-existent, but not as (having/causing) the appearance of referents, beings, self, and cognitions” (tasmād arthābhāvād vijñātṛtvena vijñānam asad, na tv arthasattvātmavijñaptipratibhāsatayā). Madhyāntavibhāgaṭīkā ad Madhyāntavibhāgabhāṣya I.4; transl. Salvini, (2015, p. 42).

  28. 28.

    evaṃ ca sarvaṃ vijñeyaṃ parikalpitasvabhāvatvād vastuto na vidyate vijñānaṁ punaḥ pratītyasamutpannatvād dravyato’sti.

    The circumstance that in this passage the dependent arising of vijñāna is referred to as the reason of its ultimate existence (dravyasat) is to prevent the possibility that somebody (viz. some Mādhyamika) blames the vijñānavādins for reifying the consciousness (see Salvini, p. 51 note 46). The latter should indeed be understood, as Gold pointed out in the passage quoted above, as a succession of singular moments of “perspectivally shaped moments of consciousness”.

  29. 29.

    A few lines before, Sthiramati has maintained that “the transformation of consciousness exists in reality” (vijñānapariṇāmo vastuto’sti). Transl. Salvini (2015, p. 46).

  30. 30.

    So, as far as we can ascribe to Sthiramati (and to other Yogācārins) the view that ultimate reality is a kind of vijñāna, Brunnhölzl (2004, p. 477) is surely wrong in asserting that “ultimate reality in Yogācāra is clearly not some real mind or ‘mere mind’”. However, I also disagree with Salvini (2015, p. 42, note 31) when he corrects Brunnhölzl by affirming that “Vasubandhu and Sthiramati are rather explicit in asserting the true/ultimate existence of dependently arisen vijñāna”: in my view, Vasubandhu is in no way explicit in supporting such a metaphysical-idealistic stance.

  31. 31.

    Even not following the Tibetan sources which consider Sthiramati a direct disciple of Vasubandhu, it is possible to think, on the basis of Chinese doxography (which represents Sthiramati as a disciple of Guṇamati), that between Vasubandhu and Sthiramati there are no more than one hundred years of difference.

  32. 32.

    “Mind, intellect, consciousness and cognition are synonyms” (cittaṃ mano vijñānaṃ vijñaptir iti paryāyāḥ. Viṃśikāvṛtti ad Viṃśikā 1).

  33. 33.

    A passage like Madhyāntavibhāga-kārikā I.2—“The imagination of what does not exist exists. There is no duality therein, but there is emptiness. And also that [imagination of what does not exist] is in this [emptiness]” (abhūtaparikalpo’sti dvayam tatra na vidyate / śūnyatā vidyate tvatra tasyāmapi sa vidyate //)—could suggest, more than other passages, a metaphysical-idealistic reading according to which the “imagination” (parikalpa, which, at any rate, is not a synonym for citta, vijñapti or vijñāna) would ultimately exist. However, it is Vasubandhu himself, in his bhāṣya to the verse in question, who rules out the possibility of this reading (as for Vasubandhu’s commentary to Madhyāntavibhāga-kārikā I.2, at any rate, see note 20 above): “The imagination of what does not exist is the discrimination between grasped and grasper” (tatrābhūtaparikalpo grāhyagrāhakavikalpaḥ). Now, as we know by the passages quoted above (Madhyāntavibhagakārikā I.14-15 and bhāṣya thereon), the grasper/grasped discrimination is what is lacking in emptiness, which corresponds to the level of “suchness” or of “supreme reality”. We understand, therefore, that the same grasper/grasped (or subject/object) discrimination is equivalent to the plane of conventional truth. The sense of Madhyāntavibhaga I.2, in sum, seems to be that conventional truth (viz. “the imagination of what does not exist”) and supreme truth (the emptiness) are not the same, but in tune with a typically Mahāyāna line of thinking—let’s think, for example, of the Hṛdayasūtra equivalence “emptiness/form” or of the identity nirvāṇa/saṃsāra advanced by Nāgārjuna—they co-imply each other.

  34. 34.

    That the word yatra, in Sthiramati’s commentary, glosses the locative “vijñānapariṇāme” of the verse seems at odds with Salvini’s suggestion (2015, p. 47) that the same locative be considered the referent of the words “ātman” and “dharma” “rather than its (existential) location”.

  35. 35.

    ātmadharmopacāro hi vividho yaḥ pravartate / vijñānapariṇāme.

  36. 36.

    Schmithausen (2018, p. 273) reports that in older versions (as those of the Yogācārabhūmi) of the doctrine of the storehouse consciousness, this would be a “spiritually neutral principle of sentience” which would last from birth to the physical death (thus including also moments of enlightenment “in life”) of a person.

  37. 37.

    “Viśālamati, those Bodhisattvas [wise in all ways] do not perceive their own internal appropriators; they also do not perceive an appropriating consciousness, but they are in accord with reality. They also do not perceive a basis, nor do they perceive a basis-consciousness. They do not perceive accumulations, nor do they perceive mind” (transl. Powers 1994, p. 75).

    Garfield (2002, p. 158) maintains that Vasubandhu, in many points of his work, “specifically asserts […] that the mind is real and persists even from the standpoint of nirvana—that is, in its guise as ālaya-vijñāna the mind exists per se and not as an illusion”. Garfield, however, does not explicitly point to anywhere where Vasubandhu would sustain—in patent contradiction with the passage of the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra just quoted—this conclusion.

  38. 38.

    A first version—which D’Amato (2005) calls “standard” and which is grounded on passages such as Triṃśikā 20–21 or Mahāyānasaṃgraha 2.4—of the doctrine of the three natures is that in which the “perfected” or “thoroughly established nature” (pariniṣpanna svabhāva), alias, according to the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra, “the ‘Suchness’ or ‘Thusness’ (tathatā), the true nature of things” (Williams 2000, p. 91), “is said to be the complete absence, in the dependent aspect, of objects—that is, the objects of the conceptualized [imagined] aspect” (ibid.). Thus, in this version, paratantra-svabhāva should be considered as an ultimately existent substratum, which could be either “defiled” by parikalpita-svabhāva or free from this latter (imagined) own-nature. In the second case—that is, paratantra without parikalpitaparatantra is the same as pariniṣpanna.

    Other passages of Yogācāra literature—for example, Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra XI.38–41—present the three own-natures as three different stages of the understanding of reality according to an ascending scale where “parikalpita is the lowest, paratantra is higher, and the highest achievement is the pure pariniṣpanna” (Lusthaus 1997, p. 46). Differently from the previous version, in this case paratantra “does not exist ultimately” (D’Amato 2005, p. 200), it “is not presented as the existent basis or substratum of reality” (ibid.), and, in the soteriological progression intrinsic to this ontological model (see ibid.) it “is to be abandoned (praheyam)” (ibid., p. 200). As pointed out by Lusthaus (1997), this second version of the doctrine under consideration, in some works (e.g., in the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra and in Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasaṃgraha), coexists with the former version.

    A third version is the one that reinterprets the three own-natures in the light of the doctrine of the “three emptinesses”, or the three “naturelessnesses” (triniḥsvabhāva): the “imagined own-nature” (parikalpita-svabhāva) is depicted, in Triṃśikā 24, as “devoid of own-nature as far as its characteristics are concerned”; the “other-dependent” (paratantra) as “devoid of being-in-itself”; and finally the “thoroughly established” as the “condition of lack of own-nature” (niḥsvabhāvatā).

  39. 39.

    In this version, indeed, the “thoroughly established own-nature” is defined, for example, as “nonexistence, existence, existence and nonexistence in equal measure, peaceless peace, absence of discrimination” (abhāvabhāvatā yā ca bhāvābhāvasamānatā | aśāntaśāntā‘kalpā Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra XI.41); “Pariniṣpanna is the culminating, fulfilling eternal ‘purity’ beyond the arising and ceasing flux of paratantra. It is suchness (tathatā), dharma-dhātu, etc.” (Lusthaus 1997, p. 46). Manifestly, none of these attributes of the highest own-nature have any possible “idealistic” connotation.

  40. 40.

    In this version, the description of pariniṣpanna as niḥsvabhāvatā—instead of pure idea, mind or absolute subjectivity—seems immediately to rule out any possible interpretations in terms of metaphysical idealism.

  41. 41.

    In the well-known definition of Trisvabhāvaniṛdeśa 2ab, the difference between other-dependent own nature and the imagined is that the former consists in “what manifests itself” while the latter is “the way in which that manifests itself” (yat khyāti paratantro'sau yathā khyāti sa kalpitaḥ).

  42. 42.

    In Frege’s terms, we could say here that not only the “meaning” (Sinn) but also the “reference” (Bedeutung) of the word paratantra is not the same in the two expressions—“paratantra with parikalpita” and “paratantra without parikalpita” do not refer to the same thing, respectively endowed and devoid of something other, as would be the case of one glass either full or empty; it seems that the case here is rather that of a color like green, that without the yellow it contains it is no more green but blue; or maybe a bubble that, emptied of the air it contains, is no more a bubble.

  43. 43.

    Discarding that the “perfected own-nature” of the “standard interpretation” should be understand as a purely mental dimension, it could be equivalent, in line with the second version of the svabhāvatraya doctrine outlined in note 38, to a cognitive plane superior to the mental one, perhaps characterizable—as required by the third version—in terms of niḥsvabhāvatā.

  44. 44.

    It has to be noted, anyway, that any interpretation of the doctrine of the “three own-natures” should be considered uncertain and provisional. Our difficulty in getting a safer reading of it resides not only in the objective difficulties of the concepts it expresses, but also in the “fact that the various sources we employ present the doctrine in different stages of its historical development. It is understandably difficult to settle on one interpretation of the three natures when different textual accounts seem inconsistent” (Sponberg 1983, p. 98).

  45. 45.

    In a recent paper, Lusthaus, who is usually critical towards idealistic readings of Yogācāra philosophy, seems to ascribe to this school a metaphysics that is different from the “non-dualistic” one we are assessing here: “Vijñapti-mātra is not a declaration of metaphysical idealism, in which only mind is real, but rather a caution about a cognitive veil, a consciousness that projects and superimposes false notions and presuppositions on to reality, by which we mistake our interpretations for reality itself. Unenlightened cognitions are cognitive constructions. The Yogācāra project is to overcome erroneous cognition and lift the veil. With enlightenment, the projections cease and one’s mind becomes the great mirror cognition (mahādarśa-jñāna) that reflects everything just as it is (yathābhūta)” (Lusthaus 2017, p. 29). These assertions, if taken literally, do not seem consistent either with non-dualistic metaphysics here ascribed to Yogācāra, or with the metaphysical-idealistic or realistic-pluralistic interpretations outlined above. Rather, if I understand Lusthaus’s point correctly, we are faced here with a further, anomalous metaphysical interpretation of Yogācāra in dualistic terms, which seems to oppose a pure contemplating subjectivity to a contemplated objectivity: a reading that, to my view, is not consistent with the primary sources at our disposal.

  46. 46.

    Some Buddha’s followers “who have not generated great roots of virtue” (transl. Powers 1994, p. 117), but “who are honest and have an honest nature” (ibid.), do not understand the teaching and are not able to make it an object of meditation; nonetheless, they do acknowledge that they do not understand it; they develop faith and reverence towards it, reproduce and memorize the sūtras that contain it. All this, the Buddha explains, is not only unharmful, but it allows these followers to progress in Dharma and to get karmical benefits.

  47. 47.

    The second wrong way to receive the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness is that of disciples—“who are not honest and do not have an honest nature” (ibid., p. 119)—who do not understand the teaching of emptiness as well, but they presume that they understand it (“they perceive what is not the meaning to be the meaning”; ibid., p. 120): “they strongly adhere just to the literal meaning of the doctrine” (ibid.) and give a nihilistic interpretation of it—“they adopt the view that all phenomena do not exist […], they also deprecate everything” (ibid., pp. 119–20).

  48. 48.

    Actually, “[d]ue to the belief in the doctrine, they progress by means of virtuous qualities. But, due to strongly adhering to what is not the meaning, they fall away from wisdom ” (ibid., p. 121).

  49. 49.

    “When people who do not delight in such views hear from others that phenomena lack an own-being and hear that phenomena are unproduced, unceasing, quiescent from the start, and naturally in a state of nirvāna, they become fearful and develop misgivings, saying, ‘This is not the word of the Buddha. This is a statement from Māra!’ Thinking in this way they also deprecate these Sūtras. They reject them, condemn them, and speak badly of them” (ibid., p. 123).

  50. 50.

    prajñaptitattvāpavādāc ca pradhāno nāstiko veditavyaḥ (Bodhisattvabhūmi, Tattvārthapaṭala II).

  51. 51.

    Schmithausen (cf., e.g., 1987, p. 183ff) questions the traditional ascription of the Yogācārabhūmi to Asaṅga.

  52. 52.

    prajñaptyadhiṣṭhānasya vastumātrasyābhāvāt saiva prajñaptiḥ sarveṇa sarvaṃ na bhavati (Bodhisattvabhūmi, Tattvārthapaṭala, II; transl. Siderits 2015, p. 124).

    As Salvini (2015, p. 43ff.) notes, Asaṅga’s need for a basis of concepts and names used in ordinary dimension—concepts and names whose extramental referents are declared inexistent—is felt by Sthiramati as well. However, the way these two authors responds to this need is, as it seems, quite different. Indeed, according to Sthiramati, the basis of the “truly existing referent” of concepts and name is “the momentary flow of vijñāna” (Salvini 2015, p. 44). Asaṅga, by contrast, is definitely more cautious in describing ultimate reality: in the Tattvārthapaṭala passage at stake here he confines himself to speaking about “thing itself” or “mere reality” (vastumātra), with no specifications in an idealistic direction. Nonetheless, there are other places of this work that suggest that according to Asaṅga ultimate reality could be described as emptiness “rightly understood” (in contrast with the wrong Madhyamaka understanding of śūnyatā). For example, at the end of Tattvārthapaṭala II we find: “suchness (tathatā) known as it really is, with its own-nature inexpressible as it really is: this is emptiness rightly understood” (yathābhūtañca tathatāṃ nirabhilāpyasvabhāvatāṃ yathābhūtaṃ prajānāti| iyamucyate sugṛhītā śūnyatā).

    Thus, both Asaṅga and Sthiramati feel the need to correct Madhyamaka philosophy—whose emptiness, in their view, amounts to the denial, not only of any description of ultimate reality, but of the very ultimate reality—through the introduction of a metaphysics. But not the same metaphysics: indeed, that of Asaṅga consists in defining reality in terms of mere “emptiness” (which in the Tattvārthapaṭala is not even described as “lack of the subject/object duality”), with no specifications in idealistic directions. As Willis (1982, p. 21) puts it: “Asaṅga clearly posits voidness, not mind, as the only absolute in the final analysis”. Sthiramati, on his side, describes ultimate reality (substrate and referent of conventional reality, characterized, in the first place, by the subject/object dichotomy) precisely in terms of vijñāna, understood as pure subjectivity, not countered by any objectivity: actually, a definitely “metaphysical-idealistic” conclusion. The circumstance that Asaṅga and Sthiramati, in opposition to Madhyamaka antimetaphysics, resort to metaphysics, certainly allows us to find continuity in the philosophical position of these two authors (who are, after all, members of the same school of thought), but the deep (at least textual) difference of their respective metaphysics does not confirm, in my view, Salvini’s (2015, p. 48) impression that “Sthiramati’s intepretation seems perfectly in line with the Tattvārthapaṭala”.

  53. 53.

    “[T]he opponent is deeply wounded and responds in anger: ‘if nothing is real, there cannot be any designation. Someone who holds this view is a nihilist’” (Transl. Eckel 2008, p. 281).

  54. 54.

    This kind of hypothesis is taken as likely by, for example, Gold (2015, p. 216): “[I]t is quite possible that Asaṅga did not have the Madhyamaka per se in mind when he made his critique”.

  55. 55.

    A clear antimetaphysical attitude can be detected in those canonical discourses in which the Buddha does not answer to metaphysical questions like the existence or non-existence of the self (see Ānanda-sutta, Saṃyutta-nikāya IV.10.419 or Cūḷamāluṅkya-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya II.2.122–8), outlines the middle path between being and non-being (Kaccānagotta-sutta, Saṃyutta-nikāya II.1.15), exhorts his disciples to not grasp to his own teachings (for example, Mahātaṇhasaṅkaya-sutta, Majjhima-nikāya I.4.396–414), or simply gets rid of any diṭṭhi (Brahmajāla-sutta, Dīgha-nikāya I.1).

  56. 56.

    It is noteworthy that the people to which the Buddha addresses some of the discourses (or the silences) quoted in the previous note are “venerables” (āyasmant) or “wondering ascetics” (paribbājaka), that is, people who are—we can figure out—more equipped than others to bear teachings that get rid of any theoretical ground to sustain their practice.

  57. 57.

    The very same difficulty in reading Nāgārjuna’s philosophy as a radical antimetaphysical project and the bias—which we can observe in modern studies devoted to Madhyamaka—to attribute to him some final position on how things ultimately are (or are not) could be a good clue of how much this tendency is deeply rooted.

  58. 58.

    In Maitreya and Asaṅga, emptiness does not still seem to be, at least explicitly, a lack of the subject/object duality. In the wording of these two authors, the concept of śūnyatā seems to be more convoluted: it is just what remains after the denial of objective referents of concepts and names.

  59. 59.

    Over time, it seems that this (non-dualistic) metaphysics of emptiness also began to be felt as unsatisfactory by later Yogācārins, who, starting with Sthiramati, would lead the philosophy of their school toward a fully fledged metaphysical idealism. The prospect of reaching a state of consciousness purified of any subject/object delusion seems indeed more graspable and reassuring than classical Yogācāra (and, even more, Madhyamaka) emptiness.

  60. 60.

    According to this reading, it is not possible to agree with Shulman’s conclusion (2015, p. 185) that the “the main differences between the two [Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu] were in their philosophical temperaments, and not in their understanding of reality”. The fact that these two authors consider reality as “similar to an illusion, being a projective manifestation of karma, of understanding, or of linguistic, perceptual, and cognitive conventions” (ibid.), only means that their views, from an epistemological point of view, are akin. On the contrary, on the metaphysical plane the circumstance that, according to Vasubandhu, emptiness, that is, the lack of duality, exists, while for Nāgārjuna it “cannot be said to exist in any way” (ibid., p. 200)—or rather, in terms of the verse 13.8 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā recalled by Shulman, it is a tool to get rid of every dṛṣṭi—is not only the “the most significant difference between Vasubandhu and Nāgārjuna” (ibid.) but a difference that marks an actual change of “philosophical paradigm”, as well as a fact that renders very questionable Shulman’s thesis that “Vasubandhu emerges as possibly the most reliable commentator on Nāgārjuna, or the closest Mahāyāna thinker to him in his exposition of the logic of the empty” (ibid., p. 185).

  61. 61.

    In the light of this reading, also questionable seems to be a thesis like that of Garfield and Westerhoff (2015, p. 1), according to which “Madhyamaka and Yogācāra are each attempts to spell out the metaphysics of emptiness characteristic of the Mahāyāna”.

  62. 62.

    This comparison just wants to point out the coincidence of the passage from a philosophical stance such Kant’s, which rejects the possibility of any definition of the noumenon, and a theoretical attitude such as Fichte’s and Hegel’s, which instead (idealistically) describes the thing-in-itself. The comparison—at any rate weak, because, besides other possible considerations, it is not the case that Fichte and Hegel do not understand Kant’s antimetaphysical project and ascribe to him a nihilist metaphysics—would be more likely if we considered classical Yogācāra philosophy as a metaphysical idealism: a possibility, however, that I have discarded here.

  63. 63.

    This conception is represented, in Buddhapālita-vṛtti ad Mūlamadhyamkakārikā 10.10, with the image of two boats with no mooring, fastened on one another.

  64. 64.

    The following verse does not appear in Vasubandhu’s svavṛtti, but the most recent Sanskrit editions of the Viṃśīkā (Ruzsa & Szegedi 2015; Silk 2016) follow Sylvain Lévi’s editio princeps in considering it the first verse.

  65. 65.

    vijñaptimātram evedam asadarthāvabhāsanāt | yadvat taimirikasyāsatkeśoṇḍūkādidarśanaṃ (Viṃśikā 1).

    An eye disease with the symptoms (floaters, strings, or “flying flies”) ascribed to timira is Posterior Vitreous Detachment.

  66. 66.

    “Guṇākara, what is the other-dependent character of phenomena? It is simply the dependent origination of phenomena” (Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra VI, transl. Powers 1994, p. 83). The equivalence between dependent co-arising and other-dependent own-nature can also be inferred from Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasaṃgraha (cf. Aramaki 1967–1968, p. 954; Keenan 2003, p. xiii), where the notion of paratantrasvabhāva is treated at length.

  67. 67.

    Let’s notice, anyway, that Nāgārjuna also knows and uses (even though in a “hymn”, whose Nāgārjuna authorship is not unquestioned) the notion of paratantra, which he equates with the scope of ordinary truth: “The ordinary [truth] is other-dependent and arises from causes and conditions (hetupratyayasaṃbhūtā paratantrā ca saṃvṛtiḥ)”, Acintyastava 44.

  68. 68.

    For example, the paradigmatic second chapter of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā explains our idea of “movement” as the interplay and reciprocal implication of the ideas of “movement” (gati or gamana), “agent of the movement” (gantṛ), “space being traversed” (gantavya or gamyamāna), and also “stillness” (sthāna).



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I would like to thank the anonymous reader of a former draft of this paper for his/her corrections, suggestions, and for directing my attention to primary and secondary sources that I have neglected.


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Ferraro, G. Horror Vacui: Metaphysical Yogācāra Reaction to Madhyamaka Antimetaphysical Emptiness. J Indian Philos 48, 401–426 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10781-020-09425-2

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  • Madhyamaka
  • Yogācāra
  • Idealism
  • Emptiness