No Idealism in Buddhism


The Buddha’s philosophy is that of ‘realism’, as he teaches from the position that an empirical world exists external to the mind that apprehends it.  This means that the physical world exists independently of the mind that perceives it, and continues to exist irrespective of whether a mind is perceiving it or not.  However, according to the Buddha, the mind possesses the ability to perceive the world as it actually is, and that such a realisation is the same for all apprehending minds.  The Buddha explains that the world is experienced through the six senses, which in the Buddhist teachings includes the ‘mind’ as a sense-organ.  Whether or not an ‘idealist’ position exists within later Buddhism is a matter of academic dispute.  A supposed Buddhist position of idealism assumes that the empirical world is nothing but a creation or projection of the mind, and has no other or independent reality.  This is in fact the exact opposite of what the Buddha originally taught, and displays a slippage back into the ‘creationist’ dogma of theistic (i.e. ‘Brahmanic’) religion.  The incorrect assumption that, for instance, the Yogacara School (premised as it is on the Lankavatara Sutra) is ‘idealistic’ in nature appears to an error attributed to poor Japanese Buddhist scholarship (attributed primarily to DT Suzuki), which was uncritically pursued by subsequent Western scholars.  Suzuki’s assertion that the Lankavatara Sutra is ‘idealistic’, is directly and authoritatively challenged by such modern Buddhist academics as Florin Giripescu Sutton in his excellent ‘Existence and Enlightenment in the Lankavatara-sutra’.  As the Buddha taught that mind is impermanent, obviously it cannot serve as the fundamental essence of existence.  Therefore, whatever it is that the Yogacara School is teaching through its notion of ‘cittamaitra’ (mind only), it cannot be that ‘mind’ is ultimately ‘real’ and ‘unchanging’, if it is to stay within the definitional confines of Buddhist philosophy.  Walpola Rahula, in his ‘Zen & the Taming of the Bull – Towards the Definition of Buddhist Thought’, dedicates a chapter to this matter, and states that ‘cittamaitra’ should actually be translated as ‘thought only’, and not mistakenly confused with Berkley’s notion of ‘idealism’.  Neither Asanga or Vasubandhu (the founders of Yogacara) asserted that ‘mind’ is the ultimate reality, on the contrary, Asanga is quite clearly recorded as confirming the non-substantiality of mind.  What appears to be happening in this type of Mahayana literature, is that a for more sophisticated and exact assessment of the Buddhist notion of ‘mind’ is being developed as a means to understand its functionality to a greater degree (through clearly defining and distinguishing terms such as citta [mind], manas [mental organ], and vijnana [consciousness], etc.  Furthermore, Walpola clarifies that the understanding that an individual’s impression of the world (in the deluded state) is nothing other than a collection of subjective assumptions is not unique to the Yogacara School (despite its sophisticated understanding), but is found throughout Buddhist teaching, and is known and accepted within the Theravada School.  The idea of ‘emptiness’ (sunyata), as propounded by Nagarjuna is also not new and is present in the Pali texts, and refers to the non-substantial nature of ‘perception’.  In the enlightened state, the mind is free (or ‘empty’) of greed, hatred, delusion and any notion of a permanent ‘self’, so that when the physical world is ‘perceived’, it is done so ‘directly’, free of any mediating (psychologically generated), deluded traits (klesa).  This quite literally creates the impression that the ‘real’ physical world arises, and passes within a great emptiness.  The ‘real’ physical world is then understood to be ‘empty’ of any substantiality, as its material existence is always in a state of flux, of becoming and dissipation.  This is the perceptual integration of ‘form’ (i.e. the physical word) with ‘void’ (i.e. a perception cleared of all disruptive subjective traits). The Yogacara School then, is not ‘idealistic’, and it is a grave mistake (from a Buddhist philosophical perspective), to assume that it is.  The Yogacara School simply assesses human perception in a much more enhanced and subtly expanded fashion than that found in the early Buddhist texts. This ‘depth’ psychology was never intended to be interpreted as suggesting that all that there is in the universe is a ‘functioning mind’, but rather to assist those embarked on the inward path of perception, to more readily understand the inner terrain that they are likely to encounter.  It would be better to state that the Yogacara School and the Buddhist texts referred to as containing ‘thought only’ content, are simply pursuing the age old Buddhist habit of supply good quality and indepth meditational instruction.  Taking for granted the existence of the outer world, the Yogacara delves into the psychic fabric of the mind and opens-up its functionality for all to see.


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