Saturday, 25 May 2019

Rethinking classical yoga: the 'other' yogaśāstra

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Figure 1: Bodhisattva Maitreya and disciples.
Gandhara, 2nd-3rd century CE.
Ostasiatische Kunst Museum. Photograph by PHGCOM (2007).

Conventionally, the label ‘classical yoga’ has been aligned to, and sometimes conflated with, the text of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, which was composed in the 4th-5th century CE. Yet if we broaden the scope of discussion to a wider textual corpus from the same period, we can identify a richer and more complex discourse of classical yoga, which is also employed in Buddhist traditions and which is semantically entangled across religious boundaries. My doctoral research has focused on dialogic interaction between three contemporaneous texts via the use of shared metaphorical systems to explain theories of liberation. There are a number of close correspondences between ideas and practices that we find in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and positions that are outlined in the Buddhist Abhidharmakośabhāṣya and the earliest textual layers of the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra. These communities shared metaphors to conceptualise how liberation ‘worked’ in theory and practice.

Maas’s date range for the final redaction of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra is from 325-425 CE.1 The dating of the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra is complex, but most scholars now settle on a final redaction around the fourth century (Kragh 2013: 26). Yet the earliest two layers or ‘books’, the Śrāvakabhūmi and the Bodhisattvabhūmi, date to the 3rd century CE, if not before. As Demiéville first outlined, two Chinese meditation manuals were rendered from a work whose title has been reconstructed as the (hypothetically titled) *Yogācārabhūmi:2 the Xiuxing dao di jing (*Yogācārabhūmi of Saṅgharakṣa)3 and the Damoduoluo chan jing (The Meditation (dhyāna) Scripture [Taught] by Dharmatrāta) (Demiéville 1951).4 The earliest of these two works, the Xiuxing dao di jing, is based on the work of Saṅgharakṣa, a Sarvāstivādin patriarch who lived around the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd century CE (Deleanu 2006: 157) and contains a systematic account of yogācāra not unlike that of the Śrāvakabhūmi (Deleanu 2006: 195). (Subsequently, An Shigao partly translated this text into Chinese in the 2nd century and Dharmarakṣa made a fuller Chinese translation in 284 CE.)5 The other meditation treatise that bears resemblance to the Śrāvakabhūmi is the Meditation Scripture Taught by Dharmatrāta. This appears to have been authored by the Sarvāstivādin Buddhasena (although based on the teachings of Dharmatrāta), who is usually described in Chinese sources as ‘one of the most famous Buddhist meditation masters active in Kashmir around the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th century’ (Deleanu 2006: 158). (This meditation treatise was translated into Chinese by Buddhasena’s disciple, Buddhabhadra, in 413 CE.)

The existence of these two texts (and others) demonstrates that there was already a textual tradition of Sarvāstivāda Buddhist meditation called yogācāra by the early 2nd century (if we go with Saṅgharakṣa’s dates) or by the late fourth to early fifth century (if we go with Buddhasena’s dates). These Chinese meditation manuals overlap with the content of the Śrāvakabhūmi and the Bodhisattvabhūmi. Given that both of these ‘books’ present disciplines of yoga, and draw on earlier Sarvāstivāda discussions of yogācāra,6 there is a case for arguing that the first detailed systematizations of yoga discipline were developed not in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, but in the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra.7

Of course, the meaning of the term yogācāra is still much debated, as has been discussed by Silk, Deleanu, Kragh, and others. It is usually rendered as ‘one who practices yoga’ or the ‘practice of yoga’ and primarily denotes systems of meditation.8 Within a text as vast and stratified as the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra, it is to be expected that the semantic field for this key term shifts around somewhat. But it is clear that that yogācāra is not, as some have suggested, a generic placeholder for any spiritual practice within Buddhism or a term that means something entirely different from text to text. Nor is the term used in an arbitrary way. The very title of the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra signals that this text is a self-declared authoritative exposition on yogācāra

The dialogic relationship between Brahmanical and Buddhist yoga soteriology suggests a need to re-assess which texts are included under the rubric of ‘classical yoga’ and to foreground the significance of yogācāra and its śāstra to this category.


1 See Maas 2013 for more on the title and dating of this text. For Maas’s identification of ‘adaptive text reuse’ between the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, see Maas 2014.

2 These texts are extant only in Chinese.

3 This is Stuart’s’ translation of the title (Stuart 2015, 1: 15). T606.

4 This is Deleanu’s translation of the title (Deleanu 2006: 157). This text is also referred to as the Dharmatrāta Dhyānasūtra (DDS).

5 The partial translation of the *Yogācārabhūmi into Chinese by An Shigao around the 2nd century CE was titled Dao Di Jing (Demiéville 1951: 343-347). 

6 The term yogācāra appears in Buddhist literature in the early centuries of the common era in Sarvāstivāda texts such as the Abhidharmamahāvibhāṣā (Deleanu 2006: 195). 

7 For more on dating, see Deleanu 2006: 183-196.

8 I am referring here to early yogācāra to denote a community of meditators in the first centuries of the common era, which is distinct from Yogācāra, the more crystallised form of philosophy from around the middle of the first millennium.

Deleanu, F. (ed.) 2006. The Chapter on the Mundane Path (Laukikamārga): a Trilingual Edition (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese), Annotated Translation and Introductory Study (2 vol). Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies.

Demiéville, P. (1951) ‘La Yogācārabhūmi de Saṅgharakṣa’, in Bulletin du l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient, XLIV(2), pp. 339–436.

Kragh, U. T. 2013. The Foundation for Yoga Practitioners: The Buddhist Yogācārabhūmi Treatise and Its Adaptation in India, East Asia, and Tibet. Cambridge, MA, and London, England: Harvard University Press (Harvard Oriental Series).

Maas, P. 2013. ‘A Concise Historiography of Classical Yoga’, in Franco, E. (ed.) Periodisation and Historiography of Indian Philosophy. Vienna: University of Vienna.

Maas, P. 2014. ‘Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma and the Yoga of Patañjali’, Paper presented at the 17th Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, University of Vienna, Austria. August 18-23 2014.

Silk, J. 2000. ‘The Yogācāra Bhikṣu’, in Wisdom, Compassion, and the Search for Understanding: The Buddhist Studies Legacy of Gadjin M. Nagao. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Stuart, D. 2015. A Less Travelled Path: Saddharmasmṛtyupasthānasūtra Chapter 2: Critically Edited with A Study on Its Structure and Significance for the Development of Buddhist Meditation. Volumes 1 and 2. Beijing and Vienna: China Tibetology Publishing House and Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

About the Author
Karen O’Brien-Kop is currently a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Religions and Philosophies at SOAS University of London and a Visiting Lecturer in Indian Philosophy and Religion at the University of Roehampton, UK. Her doctoral research at SOAS was on the inter-textuality of Pātañjala yoga and Buddhist yoga in the classical era. She was a co-founder of the Sanskrit Reading Room and is a committee member of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. She has published in the journal Religions of South Asia (2017) and is co-editing The Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies (forthcoming 2020).

Karen O’Brien-Kop will teach a session on ‘Yoga and Buddhism’ in the SOAS Yoga Studies Summer School.

O'Brien-Kop, Karen. 2019. “Rethinking classical yoga: the 'other' yogaśāstra.” The Luminescent, 25 May, 2019. Retrieved from:


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