From Self-Attaching to Self-Emptying: An Investigation of Xuanzang’s Account of Self-Consciousness

  • 1 McGill University, , Montreal, Canada


In this paper, I investigate the account of self-consciousness provided by Chinese Yogācārins Xuanzang (602-664CE) and Kuiji (632-682CE). I will explain how they clarify the transition from selfattaching to self-emptying through the articulation of consciousness (vijñāna). Current scholarship often interprets the Yogācāra account of consciousness either as a science of mind or as a metaphysical idealism. Both interpretations are misleading, partly because they perpetuate various stereotypes about Buddhism, partly also because they overlook the religious goal of realizing in practice the wisdom of emptiness and the non-egoistic compassion. Against the status quo, I argue that through their account of self-consciousness, Xuanzang and Kuiji advocate what can be referred to as transcendental idealism that stresses the correlation between subjectivity and objectivity. Yogācārins thus neither nullify the existence of subjectivity nor formulate subjectivity as a higher entity. The transcendental idealism yields a Buddhist phenomenology that is similar to and also different from Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. In what follows I will first characterize Husserl’s phenomenology as an approach to consciousness at two levels (the descriptive level and the explicative level). Then, I elicit the Buddhist phenomenology from Yogācāra philosophy that is not only descriptive and explicative but also prescriptive. This three-level architectonic of consciousness, while reaffirming the importance of agency, further justifies the role of religious rituals and moral practices for Yogācāra devotees.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Chatterjee, A.K. The Yogācāra Idealism. Varanasi: Banaras Hindu University, 1962.

  • Coseru, Christian. Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Flanagan, Owen. The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

  • Griffiths, Paul. On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-body Problem. La Salle: Open Court, 1986.

  • Hori, Victor. “Openings: How do we study Buddhism in Canada?” In Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada. 12-38. Ed. Harding, John; Hori, Victor; and Soucy, Alec. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

  • Husserl, Edmund. Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vortrage, Hua1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1973.

  • Husserl, Edmund. Ideen zu einen Reinen Phaenomenologie und Phaenomenologischen Philosophie, erstes Buch, Hua3. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1950.

  • Husserl, Edmund. Die Krisis der Europaeische Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phaenomenologie, Hua6. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1976.

  • Husserl, Edmund. Zur Phaenomenologie der Inneren Zeitbewusstseins (1983-1917), Hua10. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1969.

  • Husserl, Edmund. Logische Untersuchungen, Zweiter Bund, Hua19. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2005.

  • Husserl, Edmund. Aufsatze und Vortrage (1922-1937). Hua27. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.

  • Kuiji. 成唯識論述記 [Commentaries on Vijnāptimātratāsiddhi]. T43N1830

  • Lü, Cheng. 呂澄佛學論著選集(一)[The Collected Writings of Lu Cheng on Buddhism, Vol 1]. Jinan: Qilu Press, 1986.

  • Rhys-Davids, T.W. Buddhism, Ist History and Literature. New York: Putnam, 1896.

  • Sūtrālamkārakārikā. trans. Prabhākaramita. 莊嚴經論[The Adornment of Mahāyāna Sūtras]. T31N1604.

  • Schmithausen, Lambert. Ālayavijnāna: On the Origin and the Early Development of a Central Concept of Yogācāra Philosophy. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1987.

  • Suzuki, D.T. Essays in Zen Buddhism, Vol 1. London: Luzac Press, 1927.

  • Vijnāptimātratāsiddhi. trans. Xuanzang. 成唯識論 [Discourse on the Perfection of Consciousness-only]. T1585.

  • Wayman, Alex. “The Yogācāra Idealism”, Philosophy East and West. 15:1 (1965): 65-73.


Journal + Issues

Open Theology is an international Open Access, peer-reviewed academic journal that welcomes contributions written in English addressing religion in its various forms and aspects: historical, theological, sociological, psychological, and other.