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Is Yogācāra Phenomenology? Some Evidence from the Cheng weishi lun


There have been several attempts of late to read Yogācāra through the lens of Western phenomenology. I approach the issue through a reading of the Cheng weishi lun (Treatise on the Perfection of Consciousness Only), a seventh-century Chinese compilation that preserves the voices of multiple Indian commentators on Vasubandhu’s Triṃśikāvijñaptikārikā (Thirty Verses on Consciousness). Specifically, I focus on the “five omnipresent mental factors” (pañcasarvatraga, Chin. wu bianxing xinsuo) and the “four aspects” (Chin. sifen) of cognition. These two topics seem ripe, at least on the surface, for phenomenological analysis, particularly as the latter topic includes a discussion of “self-awareness” (svasaṃvedana, svasaṃvitti, Chin. zizheng). Yet we find that the Cheng weishi lun account has little in common with the tradition associated with Husserl and his heirs. The categories and modes of analysis in the Cheng weishi lun do not emerge from or aver to a systematic reflection on the nature of “lived experience” so much as they are focused on subliminal processes and metaphysical entities that belong to the domain of the noumenal. In my conclusion I suggest that the later pramāṇa tradition associated with Dignāga and Dharmakīrti—a tradition that profoundly influenced later Yogācāra exegesis in Tibet—did indeed take a “phenomenological turn.” But my comparison shows that both traditions falter when it comes to relating conceptual content to non-conceptual experience, and thus there is reason to be skeptical about claims that phenomenology is epistemologically grounded in how the world presents itself first-personally.

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