UBC Community, Partners, and Alumni Publications

Xuanzang's Yogācāra Tradition Qi, Guanxiong


This entry is aimed to document the religious beliefs and activities of Xuanzang and his major dharma heirs. Xuanzang (intentionally or subconsciously) established the "Yogācāra" tradition, which he deemed as the genuine form of Mahāyāna Buddhism, in China. Xuanzang is one of the most famous pilgrims in world history who took an arduous journey to India, studied at the Nalanda Monastery, and introduced thousands of Buddhist scriptures to China. After returning from India, Xuanzang accompanied the Emperor Taizong of Tang for a period of time. Later, with the royal patronage, he initiated mass translation projects and thus also renowned as one of the “Four Greatest Chinese Buddhist translators.” Within his translation teams, a few members became his intimate disciples, e.g. Kuiji, Woncheuk and Puguang. They carried and developed Xuanzang’s teaching and wrote many commentaries to explain this sophisticated scholastic Buddhist tradition. As a request received from Kuiji, Xuanzang, based on the works of the ten greatest Yogācāra commentators at the Nalanda Monastery, manufactured the classic compendium Cheng weishi lun, which later became the most seminal text not only for the whole Yogācāra tradition but also for the whole Chinese Buddhism tradition. Despite its particularity, this tradition is far from institutionalized and only bonded by their doctrinal proclivities. Societally speaking, this tradition did not last more than a century. Its cradle place, the Great Ci’en Temple, soon became Tantric-focused. The tradition neither has a patriarchal system by itself nor provide a clear dharma-transmission narrative. After two generations, the number of commentaries gradually diminished. Since then, this strand of Yogācāra thoughts is fully dismantled into Chinese Buddhist traditions, such as Chan and Huayan. Along with four major and minor transmission, this tradition is transmitted into Japan and became fully sectarianized as the Hossō sect, which remained as one of the strongest Buddhist sects in Japan. This idiosyncratic tradition offers a set of unique doctrines, such as "eight consciousnesses and four aspects" and “three natures,” which represents the Abhidharmic psychological wing of Yogācāra Buddhism. It offers a unique soteriological path by analyzing one’s cognitive process and subsequently acquire the divine cognition to perceive the “true nature” (buddha-nature, so-to-speak) of existence. The title of Xuanzang’s compendium expresses the central idea of this tradition—“merely consciousness.” Its philosophy draws a similarity with Kantian Transcendental Idealism, which asserts the world we human perceived is bonded by our epistemological limit and supported by a transcendental cognito, and Husserlian Phenomenology, which suspends the ontological inquiry and shifts to study and propose a universal cognitive structure that we human perceive experience. And therefore, nowadays, this tradition is commonly rendered as the Buddhist phenomenology, which contributed enormously to modern scientific disciplines, e.g. cognitive science, psychology, and science of mind.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution 4.0 International