Main Points of the Lineage of Vast Activity by Karl Brunnhölzl

The following presentation of the major points of the lineage of vast activity relies mainly on the texts by Maitreya, Asanga (in particular his Synopsis of Great Vehicle), and Vasubandhu. The methodological basis for looking at any philosophical or religious text is well expressed by Schmithausen:

I presuppose that the texts I make use of are to be taken seriously, in the sense that one has to accept that they mean what they say, and that what they mean is reasonable within its own terms.
Having attempted to follow this approach with regard to Centrist texts, I believe that the works of Yogacara in general and the lineage of vast activity in particular are to be treated in the same way, without looking at them through the eyes of Centrism or any other system extrinsic to them. The Distinction between the Middle and Extremes says:
False imagination (abhuta-parikalpa) exists.
Duality does not exist in it.
Emptiness exists within it,
And it also exists within this [emptiness].

Neither empty nor nonempty—
In this way, everything is explained.
Because of existence, because of nonexistence, and because of existence,
This is the middle way.
To explain this from the point of view of cutting through reference points, it is said that, on the level of seeming reality, consciousness that appears as various appearances—that is, mere false imagination—exists. Since the apprehending part and the apprehended part that appear within this false imagination are merely mentally imputed, they are not even existent on the conventional level. Thus, seeming reality is free from the two extremes:
  1. It is free from the extreme of nonexistence and the extreme of extinction through accepting the mere nominal existence of false imagination on the seeming level.
  2. It is free from the extreme of permanence and the extreme of existence through lying beyond all mutually dependent and imputed phenomena, such as an apprehending and an apprehended aspect.
As for emptiness free from reference points, it ultimately exists within con­sciousness—that is, within false imagination—as the mode of the true nature of this false imagination. When emptiness is thus said to exist, it cannot be over-stressed that this means that it exists as the ultimate mode of being of all phenomena and not itself as any reified entity. For Yogacaras, existence and nonexistence are not ontological assertions but rather phenomenological descriptions of what is experienced in the mind. Thus, in the phase of ordinary beings with stains dualistic consciousness (that which bears the nature of emptiness) exists within the nature of phenomena as adventitious stains that are separable. "Adventitious" means that these stains do not really exist and are the factors to be relinquished Thus, ultimate reality is also free from the two extremes:
  1. It is beyond the extremes of nonexistence and extinction, because emptiness is ultimately established as undeceiving.
  2. It is beyond the extremes of existence and permanence, since all phenomena that consist of the duality of apprehender and apprehended—such as false imagination—do not really exist.
So, the seeming—apprehender and apprehended—is merely something that emerges as an appearance of mistakenness. Apart from this mere appearance, there is nothing that is established through a nature of its own. Therefore, the seeming is empty of a nature of its own. In terms of the dichotomy of self and others, it is obviously also empty of what is other than itself, since something that is established as the nature of something other than itself is not possible among knowable objects. Therefore, the seeming is empty in all aspects—self and other—and thus not something nonempty. On the other hand, emptiness can be said to be established from the very beginning through its own nature—the lack of nature—which is always unchanging. It is solely in this way, nominally speak­ing, that it can be said to be not empty of its own nature and always existent. Fur­thermore, it is empty of everything other, that is, the adventitious stains.

The three natures—the imaginary, the other-dependent, and the perfect nature—are described in The Sutra That Unravels the Intention:
Gunakara, what is the imaginary characteristic of phenomena? It is what is presented as names and symbols in terms of a nature or the par­ticulars of phenomena in order to subsequently designate conventional terms in accordance with [this]. Gunakara, what is the other-depend­ent characteristic of phenomena? It is just the dependent origination of phenomena. This is as follows: "Since this exists, this originates. Since this has arisen, that arises. Through the condition of unawareness, formations [arise] ..." up to "Thus, nothing but this great mass of suffering will happen." Gunakara, what is the perfect characteristic of phenomena? It is the suchness of phenomena.
The other-dependent nature is the mere consciousness of false imagination that appears as the entities of apprehender and apprehended, because these are appearances under the influence of something other, the latent tendencies of unawareness. It appears as the outer world with its various beings and objects; as one's own body; as the sense consciousnesses that perceive these objects and the conceptual consciousness that thinks about them; as the clinging to a personal self and real phenomena; and as the mental events, such as feelings, that accompany all these consciousnesses. Thus, false imagination bifurcates experience into seem­ingly real subjects that apprehend seemingly real objects. This split into subject and object—the imaginary nature—does not exist even on the seeming level, but the mind that brings about this split exists and functions on this level.

The imaginary nature is the entire range of what is superimposed by concep­tions as a self and really existent phenomena onto the various apprehended aspects within the other-dependent nature. In other words, what appears as one's own body and mind forms the bases for imputing a personal self. All that appears as other beings, outer objects, and the consciousnesses that relate to them provides the bases for imputing really existent phenomena. This imaginary nature exists only conventionally as a nominal object for the consciousnesses of ordinary sen­tient beings. It is in no way substantially established, since it does not withstand analysis. In detail, it consists of the following:
  • the aspects that appear as conceptual objects, such as the mental image of a form
  • the connections of names and referents (the notion that a name is the corre­sponding referent and the mistaking of a referent for the corresponding name)
  • all that is apprehended through mental superimposition, such as outer, inner, middle, end, big, small, good, bad, direction, time, and so on
  • all nonentities, such as space
The perfect nature is emptiness in the sense that what appears as other-depend­ent, false imagination is primordially never established as the imaginary nature. This emptiness is the sphere of nonconceptual wisdom, and its nature is phe­nomenal identitylessness. The Sutra That Unravels the Intention says:
Lack of nature, phenomenal identitylessness, suchness, and the observed object for purification, these are the perfect characteristic.
Why is this emptiness called "the perfect nature"? It is perfect because it never changes into something else, is the supreme among all dharmas, and is the observed object to be focused on during the process of purifying the mind from adventitious stains. Due to its quality of never changing into something else, it ls also named suchness. Since it is unmistaken, it is called the true end. As it is the utter peace of all discursiveness, it is signlessness. Because it is the sphere of ultimate wisdom (jnana), it is the ultimate. Through realizing it, the dharmas of the noble ones are attained. Thus, it is the expanse of dharmas (dharmadhatu).

Just like the limitless expanse of space, the nature of the expanse of dharmas is of one taste. Therefore, ultimately, there are no divisions in it. However, con­ventionally, the perfect nature may be presented as twofold:
  1. the emptiness of nonentities (abhava/avastu)
  2. the emptiness of the nature of nonentities
The first is the emptiness in the sense that the other-dependent nature is devoid of any personal (pudgala) and phenomenal (dharma) identities (atman). This has the nature of a nonimplicative negation (prasajyapratisedha). The second is the emptiness in the sense that this very other-dependent nature is not established as the nature of these two types of identity. This has the nature of an implicative negation (paryudasapratisedha) and refers to the actual nature of other-dependent cognition, or what is called "mind's natural luminosity." Another classification of this nature into two is as follows:
  1. the unchanging perfect nature (suchness)
  2. the unmistaken perfect nature (the wisdom that realizes this suchness)
It can also be presented as these two:
  1. the path of purification
  2. the observed object of this path
1) The path of purification is again divided into two:
  • cause
  • result
1a) The cause of the path of purification is the naturally abiding disposition. It is constituted by the uncontaminated seeds in the ground consciousness that are primordially present by the very nature of phenomena. These seeds are the latent tendencies of listening to the genuine dharma, the natural outflow of the expanse of dharma. The latent tendencies of listening are the seeds that spring from listening to and understanding the meaning of the Buddhadharma and thus serve as the cause for the Dharma Body. However, since they abide in the mind stream from the very beginning through the nature of phenomena, they are merely revived through listening; they are not newly created. Asanga's Synopsis of the Great Vehicle says:
The [supramundane wisdom] originates from the natural outflow of the completely pure expanse of dharmas, that is, the latent tendencies of listening that comprise all seeds.

One may say, "What are these latent tendencies of listening? Are they the very entity of the ground consciousness or are they not? If they were the very entity of the ground consciousness, how should they be suitable as the seeds of its remedy? And if they are not its entity, then what is the matrix of these seeds of latent tendencies of listening?" The matrix that is entered by these latent tendencies of listening in depend­ence on the enlightenment of Buddhas is the consciousness of com­plete ripening. [The latent tendencies of listening] enter it in a way of staying together with it like milk and water. They are not the ground consciousness, because they are the very seeds of its remedy. . .

The small, medium, and great latent tendencies of listening are to be regarded as seeds of the Dharma Body. Since they are the remedy for the ground consciousness, they are not of the nature of the ground consciousness. [In the sense of being a remedy,] they are something mundane, but since they are the natural outflow of the supramun­dane, the utterly completely pure expanse of dharmas, they are the seeds of supramundane mind. Although supramundane mind did not originate, they are the remedy for entanglement through being afflicted, the remedy for migration in the unpleasant realms, and the remedy that makes all wrongdoing vanish. They are what is in com­plete concordance with meeting Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Although [these latent tendencies in the minds of] beginner bod­hisattvas are mundane, they should be regarded as constituted by the Dharma Body and [those of] the hearers and solitary realizers as con­stituted by the Body of Complete Release. These [latent tenden­cies] are not the ground consciousness but are constituted by the Dharma Body and the Body of Complete Release. To the extent that they gradually shine forth in a small, medium, and great way, to that same extent also the consciousness of complete ripening wanes and changes state too. If it has changed state in all aspects, the conscious­ness of complete ripening becomes devoid of seeds and is also relin­quished in all aspects.

One might wonder, "How is it that the ground consciousness, which abides together with what is not the ground consciousness like water and milk, can wane in all aspects?" This is like geese drinking milk from water. It is similar to the change of state when, being free from mun­dane desire, the latent tendencies of what is not meditative equipoise wane, while the latent tendencies of meditative equipoise increase.
Thus, Asanga's explanation implies that the mere actuality of the nature of phenomena, suchness or emptiness, is not the naturally abiding disposition. Rather, the naturally abiding disposition is what realizes this actuality: It is these latent tendencies of listening, the aspect of supreme knowledge (prajna) that realizes the nature of phenomena (not, however, as a distinct thing different from itself). The reason given is that the latent tendencies of listening render the sets of the six inner sources of individual sentient beings distinct from each other. Thus, the naturally abiding disposition is what is called "the distinct feature of the six sources" (sadayatanavisesa). This means that, through the latent tendencies of listening that serve as the cause for the path of the great vehicle, the six inner sources that exist within the continuum of that person who has revived these latent tendencies are made distinct from the inner sources of those sentient beings who have not revived such tendencies. These tendencies are the indicator that the person who is endowed with them has the disposition of the great vehicle. The same goes for the latent tendencies of listening that serve as the causes for the paths of hearers and solitary realizers respectively.

Why are the latent tendencies of listening included in the perfect nature? As the above quote from The Synopsis of the Great Vehicle shows, they are neither the imaginary nor the other-dependent nature, since they constitute the remedy for affliction and so on.

1b) The results in terms of the path of purification are the actual paths that are an outcome of the latent tendencies of listening, that is, the paths of the three vehi­cles, such as the thirty-seven dharmas concordant with enlightenment and the six perfections.

2) The observed object of these paths—the genuine dharma—is also included in the perfect nature. It is not the imaginary nature, since the genuine dharma is the cause for purification. It is also not the other-dependent nature, since this dharma does not originate from the seeds of affliction. Rather, the dharma is the result that is the natural outflow of having realized the completely pure expanse of dharmas.

In brief, the other-dependent nature is like the basic materials from which an illusionist creates an illusion. The imaginary nature is like the various mistaken appearances of illusory animals that may appear to the audience due to these materials, although there clearly are no such animals in the materials. The per­fect nature is like the space that pervades all of this. It is not a superimposition like the imaginary nature; in other words, it is not a superimposition in the sense that nonexistents are taken to exist or that existents are taken not to exist. Nor does the perfect nature originate from other-dependent conditions, which are the seeds of the latent tendencies for affliction. However, the perfect nature cannot be said to be either identical to or different from the other-dependent nature. Therefore, in its nature, the perfect nature is inseparable from the other-dependent nature and is merely mentally imputed as something different, because the perfect nature is the nature of phenomena and the other-dependent nature is what bears this nature.

As for the division into seeming reality and ultimate reality, the imaginary and the other-dependent natures are only seemingly established, since they are the mistaken mind and the appearances due to this mistakenness. The perfect nature is ultimately established, since it is real as the object of the ultimate supramundane wisdom.

The seeming may be classified as threefold:
  1. The imaginary nature is the imaginary seeming.
  2. The other-dependent nature is the seeming in terms of consciousness.
  3. The terms that express the perfect nature are the seeming in terms of expression.
The ultimate is also threefold:
  1. Suchness is the ultimate object.
  2. Nirvana is the ultimate attainment.
  3. The path is the ultimate practice.
As The Distinction between the Middle and Extremes says:
What is imaginary, consciousness,
And also expressions are coarse.
Object, attainment, and practice
Are asserted as the three aspects of the ultimate.
The imaginary and the other-dependent natures are equal in three respects: They do not really exist, are appearances of mistakenness, and are something seeming and false. Nevertheless, it is necessary to classify them separately through their characteristics. The imaginary does not even exist on the level of the seeming, While the other-dependent exists on the level of the seeming. The perfect does not exist on the level of the seeming, but it exists as the ultimate nature.

Furthermore, the imaginary nature is called "the lack of nature in terms of characteristics;" the other-dependent nature is "the lack of nature in terms of arising;" and the perfect nature is "the ultimate lack of nature." Vasubandhu's Thirty Verses says:
Based on the three kinds of lack of nature
Of the three kinds of nature,
It is taught that all phenomena
Are without nature.
The imaginary nature is like mistakenly apprehending the visual appearances that are caused by blurred vision to be floating hairs and such. Since this is noth­ing but names and superimpositions, it does not exist at all. Therefore, the imag­inary nature is "the lack of nature in terms of characteristics."

The other-dependent nature consists of dependently originating appearances, like the plain visual appearances seen by someone with blurred vision. These appear in an illusionlike manner but are without any nature of their own and do not really arise. Therefore, the other-dependent nature is "the lack of nature in terms of arising."

The ultimate lack of nature of the perfect nature has two aspects. First, although there is no personal identity, the perfect nature is what functions as the remedy for the notion of a personal identity. Just as an illusory ship to cross an illusory ocean, it serves as the means to cross the ocean of cyclic existence to the other shore of nirvana. This remedial aspect is actually contained within the other-dependent nature, but it is the cause for realizing the ultimate. Therefore, it is included in the category of "the ultimate lack of nature." The second aspect of the perfect nature is the one from which enlightenment is attained through actively engaging in it. This aspect is undifferentiable from phenomenal identitylessness. Like space, it is omnipresent and not established as anything what­soever. It can be compared to the free space that is the natural object of unimpaired vision when the eye defect of blurred vision has been cured and one realizes that what appeared as floating hairs never actually existed anywhere. This aspect is "the ultimate lack of nature" per se.

The above is how the three natures and the threefold lack of nature are taught in the sixth and seventh chapter of The Sutra That Unravels the Intention. There, the Buddha also says:
Having this threefold lack of nature in mind—the lack of nature in terms of characteristics, the lack of nature in terms of arising, and the ultimate lack of nature—I have taught, "All phenomena lack a nature."
On the seeming level, the imaginary is nominally existent and the other-depend­ent is substantially existent. The perfect nature does not exist in any of these two ways, but it exists in a way of being without reference points. Thus, the imaginary is also called "the emptiness of the nonexistent," the other-dependent "the emptiness of the existent," and the perfect "the ultimate emptiness." As Maitreya says in his Ornament of the Sutras:
If one knows the emptiness of the nonexistent,
Likewise the emptiness of the existent,
And also natural emptiness,
Then this is expressed as "knowing emptiness."
Therefore, it is asserted in this system that all knowable objects are pervaded by emptiness and the lack of nature. One may wonder, "If the perfect nature exists as something really and ultimately established, does it then exist as some­thing that arises, abides, and ceases; as something that comes and goes, changes, or disappears; as something in space and time; as a unity or a multiplicity?" None of these is the case. The kinds of existents just mentioned necessarily do not really exist and are just seeming appearances. The perfect nature, however, is not con­nected with any seeming phenomena whatsoever. It is without arising, abiding, and ceasing and also without coming and going. It is neither a unity nor a mul­tiplicity, neither a cause nor a result. The triad of definition, definiendum, and illustrating example is irrelevant to it. It is free from all reference points, such as space and time. Because of all this, it is said to be naturally permanent. Likewise, it is partless, because it cannot be divided into different pieces. It is omnipresent and all-encompassing, because it is the true nature of all phenomena.