Comparative Philosophy, – or cross-cultural philosophy-, has become an important discipline at the institute for Philosophy. As philosophers, it is important to leave the beaten track and being open to different philosophies across the globe. Thauma editor Sascha Luinenburg studied the different interpretations of Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses. He discovers that sometimes scholarly interpretations of an ancient text are troubling.
The Indian philosopher Vasubandhu (4th-5th century CE) is widely seen as one of the foundational thinkers of Mahayana Buddhism’s influential Yogacara school, and as a core contributor to its philosophical canon. Vasubandhu’s short text the Vimsika (the Twenty Verses, hereafter generally referred to simply as the Verses) is seen as a seminal text of this tradition. In contemporary scholarship, its philosophy is generally read in two somewhat conflicting ways. The first, and generally dominant view, is that the Twenty Verses are espousing a metaphysical idealism; the belief that there is no external world, and only our cognition exists. The second is that Vasubandhu can be read as an epistemological idealist; that is, as saying that all we experience is our cognitions, without this necessarily precluding the existence of a world external to us. (Kellner and Taber 2014, 1-2) One interesting development in this latter direction is Ethan Mills’ reading, which defends the view that Vasubandhu’s position can be read as a form of real-world skepticism. He argues that the Verses seem to prove that we cannot know the external world. (Mills 2017, 1)
Although this essay’s reading of Vasubandhu will generally be more in line with the latter view, I will argue that the text can be read most coherently if we take its primary focus to be soteriological rather than metaphysical, or even epistemological. That is: Vasubandhu can be read as being interested in the metaphysical nature of reality, and our epistemological relationship to it, only insofar as it helps us achieve liberation. This point will be illustrated by a discussion of readings from Kellner and Taber’s article “Studies in Yogacara-vijñanavada idealism I: The Interpretation of Vasubandhu’s Vimsika,” as well as readings from Mills’ “External-World Skepticism in Classical India: the case of Vasubandhu,” and with some reference to the Verses themselves.
The Metaphysical Idealist Reading of the Twenty Verses
To begin with, I want to examine some of the weaknesses of an explicitly metaphysical-idealist reading of the twenty verses; namely, that given by Kellner and Taber in the article mentioned above. They read Vasubandhu as making an explicit verdict against the existence of an external world, using an argument from ignorance. (Kellner & Taber, 2014, 2)
However, this view requires one to take some interpretive freedom with Vasubandhu’s arguments. Beyond the first verses of the text, Vasubandhu never explicitly makes any statement that can be read as denying the existence of externality. Kellner and Taber argue as follows:
“The idea seems to be – given the lack of information provided by the text, we have to speculate – that all of our cognitions are structurally indistinguishable from ones in which were are presented with non-existent objects. Therefore, we are justified in regarding all cognition in the same way, as mere cognition without an object.” (Kellner & Taber 2014, P28)
Kellner and Taber see this as the thesis statement which the rest of the text is backing up. They make this argument based on the opening verses, in which Vasubandhu sums up ways in which cognitions of unreal things, like dreams and visual illusions caused by eye disease, are indistinguishable from cognitions we take to be caused by external objects (Vasubandhu, 2-3). However, we will examine another reading later – Ethan Mills’s (2017) – which offers a plausible alternative to this one.
But just because (all) our cognition is not ultimately traceable to an external object, this doesn’t necessarily mean there is no external world; only that we need not deal with (the idea of) such a world to understand our situation properly. The fact that Vasubandhu doesn’t explicitly make this step, of explicitly denying the external world – although he could, in the verses – can be taken as a first indicator that his focus lies elsewhere.
Kellner and Taber argue that we can assume that, when Vasubandhu is using an argument from ignorance, he wants to disprove the existence of something. They refer to the way Vasubandhu uses an argument from ignorance in chapter 9 of the Abidharmakhosabhasya to disprove the existence of a self. They note that we can assume that, since he’s using the same strategy in the Verses, he must be pursuing the same conclusion. (Kellner & Taber, 2014, 2) However, I want to make two points against this line of reasoning. First, it’s telling that Vasubandhu explicitly makes the step from ignorance to disproving the self, but that he doesn’t explicitly use it to disprove the external world. Rather, he never goes further than disproving the mind’s access to external objects. Kellner and Taber speculate that this is because:
“Aware that one’s object of proof – mere-cognition – has aspects that are inaccessible to argument, one will be hesitant to try to prove it directly.” (Kellner & Taber, 2014, 40)
However, this remains speculative; they present no textual evidence for it. Second, even if, as Kellner and Taber argue, Vasubandhu shifts the burden of proof away from those disproving a world and a self and towards those trying to prove them, this is not the same as categorically denying the possibility of either. It may indeed be the case that Vasubandhu considered the argument from non-apprehension (ignorance) to be shifting the burden of proof away from the non-existence of the world, and towards the existence thereof. But that’s still not as strong a conclusion as to categorically deny the existence of anything external to the mind.
It is worth noting that Vasubandhu’s differing conclusions between the two texts are our second indicator that – typical, perhaps, for a Buddhist thinker – his concern with metaphysics and epistemology only goes so far. He draws a stronger conclusion about the soul than about the external world, despite similar arguments, because to argue against the soul is primary to this soteriological enterprise, whereas the existence of the external world is secondary
One could of course counter – as Kellner and Taber do – that just because Vasubandhu doesn’t explicitly conclude that the external world doesn’t exist, the way he concludes the self doesn’t exist, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want us to conclude it for ourselves. That is: he may still lead us to this conclusion, even if he doesn’t explicitly reach it. But to this I would respond that
A) the combination of the same argumentative structure as in the abidharmakhosabhasya with different subject matter doesn’t necessarily have to yield the exact same conclusion; and
B) that either way, one can read Vasubandhu as clearly less interested in explicit conclusions about the nature of the external world, than in conclusions regarding the self. This suggests again that metaphysical concerns interest him less than soteriological ones.
A Phenomenological, Skeptical Reading of the Twenty Verses
Rather than reading Vasubandhu as arguing explicitly against the existence of any external reality, we can also read him as advising us to simply suspend our judgment. Mills argues for this reading. He describes the Verses’ philosophy as phenomenalist, and its attitude as skeptical, as “essentially metaphysically agnostic.” He notes that even if Vasubandhu’s metaphysics were idealist, he still uses a skeptical methodology, although he notes later in his essay that Vasubandhu stops short of a full-fledged skeptical conclusion. That is; Vasubandhu never explicitly says that knowledge of the external world is a priori impossible. (Mills, 2017, 11, 12)
Mills argues that Vasubandhu’s focus on dreams shows us that his stance towards external reality is not so much one of abject denial, as it is one of skepticism. He quotes Hall:
“Stop at the bare percept; no need to posit any entity behind it’” (Hall as discussed in Mills, 13)
To back up this phenomenologist reading, Mills refers to numbers 3, 16 17, 20, and 22 of the Verses (Mills, 2017, 13-15):
[Without external objects, Vasubandhu makes his opponents object, there would be “no restriction of place and time.” But he responds:]
But it is not the case that it is unreasonable, because – Verse 3. The restriction of place and so forth is established, as in a dream. (Mills 2017, 13)
And in verse 17, Vasubandhu writes:
Verse 17. … A person who is not awake does not know that a visual senseobject in a dream does not exist. (Mills 2017, 14)
Mills quotes the scholar Keith Rose on how the anatomy of a skeptical argument traditionally looks:
DeRose’s Schema of the Argument from Ignorance
- I don’t know that not-H.
- If I don’t know that not-H, then I don’t know that O.
C: I don’t know that O. (Derose, 1995, as discussed in Mills, 2017, 6)
Mills likens this to Vasubandhu’s main inference in the Verses:
Vasubandhu’s Main Inference
- Conclusion: This world is cognition-only.
- Because of the appearance of non-existent objects.
- What ever possesses the appearance of non-existent objects is cognition-only, as in hallucinations and dreams. (Mills, 2017, 7)
Mills notes that DeRose’s form has the advantage that it can be applied to arguments from dreams (as in verses 2 and 16-18 of the Vimsika), but also to arguments from collective hallucinations (such as the hell-being arguments Vasubandhu uses later in the text.) Using it, Mills argues that it’s more plausible to say that Vasubandhu is drawing a skeptical conclusion about the external world, than to say that he concludes the external world categorically doesn’t exist.
Finally, Mills notes that Vasubandhu himself (in verses 20-22, as discussed in Mills 2017, 15-16) notes that the exact nature of our relationship to the world – be it metaphysically, or only epistemologically idealist – is not quite conceivable to any but a Buddha. Mills notes this as an argument against Vasubandhu making any kind of description of absolute, metaphysical, reality.
Relevance of Mills’ Phenomenalist, Skeptical Reading for a Soteriology-Focused Interpretation of the Text
Mills’ phenomenological idealist, and epistemologically skeptical reading of the Verses can also be seen as further support for the thesis that Vasubandhu’s aim is primarily soteriological. Vasubandhu makes statements in the ontological status of reality only insofar as it affects us – insofar as it affects our relationship to the world and our knowledge thereof. He’s interested in metaphysics only insofar as it helps us clarify these. Under this reading we can see something important about the Verses; its practical use to a thinker like Vasubandhu, who was, after all, a monk, concerned with enlightenment.
One might counter Mills’ reading of the argument from dreams by saying that, in the Indian tradition, non-apprehension is seen as evidence of non-existence (as Kellner and Taber do in their article; Kellner and Taber, 2014, 26). But here again I want to refer to the difference in Vasubandhu’s conclusions with regards to the similar argument made in the Abidharmakhosabhasya chapter 9. If we hold that Vasubandhu wants to lead us to a similarly strong conclusion there as here, we must ask (as we did before) why he does so explicitly in that text, but not in the Verses; and we must ask how such an interpretation can be reconciled with his explicit admission that certain aspects of the problem of the external world are simply beyond our (unenlightened) grasp.
Reading the Mission Statement in the Verses themselves
Kellner and Taber note that verses 11 through 15 of the Verses are generally taken to be their core argument. These are Vasubandhu’s arguments regarding atoms, and against the possibility of their ability conjoining in spatial extension. (Kellner and Taber, 2014, 26, Vasubandhu, 10-13). However, if we take follow Mills’s argument that Vasubandhu is not simply denying the possibility of externality, but rather as asking us to suspend judgment regarding external reality as unknowable, we can read the text without seeing these verses as its core.
Rather, we may look at verse 10 as providing us with evidence of the text’s main purpose. It reads:
“Moreover, teaching in another way leads to the understanding of the selflessness of elemental factors of existence.” (Vasubandhu, 8)
“In another way,” according to the commentary, is meant to refer to the teaching of manifestation-only. The commentary elaborates on this: to understand that the world which we perceive as material form external to ourselves does not exist – either, as Kellner & Taber might read it, because it categorically does not exist, or, as Mills might read it, because it is essentially inaccessible to us – helps us to realize the selflessness of material factors, and thus, to liberate us of an important illusion about our existence. Kellner and Taber argue in their text that the primary purpose of the Verses is to establish the philosophy of Vijnaptimatrata (Kellner & Taber, 2014, 1). However, I would argue this is one step short of its actual goal. Why establish a philosophy? I think the above verse shows clearly that it is for a soteriological, rather than a purely metaphysical, purpose. Note that Kellner and Taber might not disagree with this notion; however their focus seems to remain on the metaphysical as the core of Vasubandhu’s thought.
Kellner and Taber admit that the Vimsika is:
“[certainly] not a purely philosophical treatise that can be completely taken out of its religious context.”
Neither do I mean to argue that it is a purely religious treatise that can be read without considering its philosophical positions and its style of reasoning. However, as I hope to have shown adequately above, one could opt to read it as primarily religious/soteriological, which deals in philosophy mainly to support this aim – especially under a phenomenalist reading of its arguments. I hope to have shown that Vasubandhu, under such a reading, can be read as rightly reluctant to draw conclusions with regard to metaphysical questions.
Vasubandhu’s Viṃśikā. Asiatische Studien – Études Asiatiques, 68(3).
Mills, E. (2017). External-World Skepticism in Classical India: The Case of Vasubandhu. International Journal for the Study of Skepticism, 7(3), pp.147-172.
Vasubandhu, Silk, J. (n.d.) Materials towards the study of Vasubandhu’s Vimsika.