The Sources of the Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness


Thich Nhat Hanh
Excerpt from "Understanding Our Mind", Afterword, Parrallax Press



The development of Indian Buddhist philosophy and doctrine is generally divided into three periods, Original Buddhism, Many-Schools Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism.37 The Fifty Verses contain elements from the teachings of all three periods.


The Abhidharma (“Super Dharma”) is a primary text of Original Buddhism. One hundred and forty years after the Buddha’s parinirvana (“great passing away”), the Sangha underwent a division into two streams, Sthaviravada and the Mahasanghika.38 This marked the transition into the Many-Schools period, when eighteen or twenty new schools came into being, due in most cases to disputes about various points of doctrine.39 From the Sthaviravada there later arose two sects, the Sarvastivada and the Sautrantika. The other main branch of Many-Schools Buddhism, the Mahasanghika, was one of the progenitors of the third great phase of Indian Buddhism, the Mahayana (literally, “Great Vehicle”).40


During his lifetime the Buddha was the living Dharma, but after he died his disciples were left with the task of systematizing his teachings so that they could be further studied. The Abhidharma was the first such collection, but this work continued through the centuries as Buddhist philosophy was further developed and expanded upon. In the fifth century C.E., Buddhaghosa composed a popular work of systemization, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga).41 Around the same time, the great monk-scholar Vasubandhu compiled a summary and commentary of the Buddha’s teachings called the Treasury of the Abidharma (Abhidharma-kosha- bhashya).42


Vasubandhu practiced with a number of Buddhist schools around Gandhara in what is now North Pakistan. Then he went north to Kashmir, the center of the Sarvastivada school (which formed the basis of much of early Chinese Buddhism). The Sarvastivadins allowed only Kashmiris to study and practice with them, however, so Vasubandhu disguised himself in order to receive their teachings. After completing his studies with the Sarvastivadins, Vasubandhu composed the Abhidharma-kosha-bhashya. His teachers saw that he had a great understanding of the teachings of their tradition, but they didn’t realize that the Abhidharma-kosha-bhashya also included teachings from the Sautrantika and other schools.


Vasubandhu had a half-brother, Asanga, who was an accomplished Mahayana Buddhist monk and scholar. He composed an important treatise on the Abhidharma from a Mahayana perspective, the Mahayana-samgraha-shastra. 43 Asanga often spoke to Vasubandhu of the significance of the Mahayana teachings, but Vasubandhu remained skeptical. He appreci ated the teachings and practice of the Many-Schools tradition, but he felt that later developments, including the Mahayana, were not authentic Buddhism. Then one full-moon night, as Vasubandhu was practicing walking meditation, he came across Asanga standing by a clear pond chanting Mahayana teachings. Suddenly, Vasubandhu had a breakthrough into the depth and beauty of the Great Vehicle and from that moment on the two brothers practiced and taught Mahayana Buddhism together.


Vasubandhu is regarded as the patriarch and most outstanding figure of the Vijñaptimatra or Manifestation Only school, which grew out of the Yogachara school of Mahayana Buddhism.44 He wrote commentaries on Asanga’s work and he also composed two seminal treatises on the teachings of the Manifestation Only school, the Twenty Verses on the Manifestation of Consciousness (Vijñaptimatrata-vimshatika-karika) and the Thirty Verses on the Manifestation of Consciousness (Vijñaptimatrata-trimshikakarika ).45


Because of Vasubandhu’s training in several traditions, we can see how the Manifestation Only school developed from the Abhidharma of the Sarvastivada school and from Vasubandhu’s own work, the Abhidharma kosha-bhashya, which he wrote before coming into contact with the Mahayana. Thus the Manifestation Only school contains many elements of non-Mahayana teachings. Vasubandhu’s writings have served the Great Vehicle deeply and effectively, but they never became one hundred percent Mahayana. Two centuries after his time, the Manifestation Only school was still regarded as an “interim vehicle.”46


In the seventh century, the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (600–664), known as “The Pilgrim,” traveled to India and attended Nalanda University, the principal seat of Buddhist studies. In his chronicles of his travels in Central Asia and India, Xuanzang observed that ten thousand monks were studying at Nalanda.47 Under the guidance of the master Shilabhadra, Xuanzang studied Manifestation Only Buddhism. Shilabhadra, then one hundred years old, was Nalanda’s rector and the last of the ten illustrious “doctors” of the Manifestation Only school (Vasubandhu was the first. Another was Sthiramati.48 Dharmapala, Shilabhadra’s teacher, was the ninth).


Comparing the texts of Sthiramati and Dharmapala, we can see how their approaches to Manifestation Only differ. Vasubandhu’s original commentary was also added to by Dignaga, who incorporated elements of epistemology and logic into it. This mélange was the teaching that Xuanzang studied at Nalanda and later continued to study after he returned to China. He founded a school based on the teachings of the manifestation of consciousness, the Wei Shi (“Consciousness Only”) school, and wrote a commentary on Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses entitled the Standard Verses on the Eight Consciousnesses.49 Xuanzang also put forward the idea of “three realms” of perception, a system that describes the qualities of perception that correspond to different levels of consciousness. He wrote a short poem on the three realms of perception, “The Nature of the Perceived in Itself When Not According to Our Mind,” which is included in Chapter Twenty-Four of the Fifty Verses.


A decade after Xuanzang, the Chinese monk Fazang attempted to present the Manifestation Only teachings in a completely Mahayana way. Fazang was a student of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Ornament Discourse) and his important work, The Wondrous Meaning of the Avatamsaka, uses Flower Ornament teachings, especially the notion of “one is all, all is one,” to reinforce the teachings of Manifestation Only.50 But Fazang’s efforts were not long-lasting, and no one has continued the work of presenting the Manifestation Only teachings from a Mahayana viewpoint since his time. Even today, scholars and practitioners read the Thirty Verses without taking these important Mahayana Buddhist teachings into account.

The Fifty Verses here are my attempt to continue to polish the precious gems offered by the Buddha, Vasubandhu, Sthiramati, Xuanzang, Fazang, and others. After reading these Fifty Verses, if you are interested in knowing more, you may want to read and understand the classic works of these great masters.




  These three periods date from the time of the Buddha in the mid-sixth to mid-fifth century B.C.E. to about the seventh century C.E. For a general outline, see Thich Nhat Hanh,The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Chapter 4.


Here the term Sangha is used in its most restrictive sense, meaning the community of ordained Buddhist monastics. However, in modern usage and throughout the rest of the book, it refers to the community of Buddhist followers in general. The Sthaviras were the progenitors of the Theravada school (literally, “Way of the Elders”), the primary form of Buddhism found today in South and Southeast Asia.


For a detailed description of the various schools and their doctrinal differences see Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Paperbacks/University of Michigan Press, 1967, 1987).


The Mahayana developed from the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. Mahayanists proposed the ideal of the bodhisattva (literally, “enlightening being”), who works toward the awakening of all beings, in contrast to the early Buddhist ideal of the arhat (literally, “worthy one”) who focuses on his or her own liberation. Mahayana Buddhism is the most prominent form of Buddhism in China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, and most of Vietnam.


Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Translated by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli, Third Edition (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1975).


Translated into English from Louis de la Vallée Poussin’s French translation by Leo Pruden, Abhidharma Kosha Bhashya (Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, imprint of Jain Publishing Company, 1990).


Samgraha means compendium, summary, or essence. A shastra is a commentary. This text has been translated into French by Étienne Lamotte, La Somme du Grand Véhicule d’Asanga (Louvain, Belgium: Institut Orientaliste, Éditions Peeters, 1973); and into English by John P. Keenan, The Summary of the Great Vehicle (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1992).


Both Vijñanavada and Yogachara were early Mahayana Buddhist schools based on the study of the nature of consciousness. Vijñana means literally “mind” or “consciousness”; the school is more commonly referred to as the Mind Only or Consciousness Only school. This name is often misunderstood as a kind of idealism, however, so throughout this book I refer to it as the Manifestation Only (Vijñaptimatra) school. The Yogachara (literally, “application of yoga”) school derives its name from its emphasis on the practice of “yoga,” meaning meditation, particularly the meditative practices of the perfections (paramitas), the essential qualities of a bodhisattva.


Vimshatika means “twenty”; trimshika means “thirty.” Vijñapti means “manifestation”; matra means “only.” Vijñaptimatra is thus “manifestation only.” Karika is a verse that expresses a teaching concisely. These two treatises appear in a French translation, Deux Traités de Vasubandhu: Vimshatika et Trimshika, translated into French by Sylvain Lévi (Paris: Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études, 1925) and into English by many scholars, including David J. Kalupahana, in The Principles of Buddhist Psychology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987), pp. 173–92; and Francis H. Cook, in Three Texts on Consciousness Only (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1999), “Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only” (pp. 371–83), and “The Treatise in Twenty Verses on Consciousness Only” (pp. 385–408). A Sanskrit version of the Thirty Verses was discovered by Professor Sylvain Lévi in the 1920s. A translation from Vasubandhu’s original Sanskrit to Chinese by Xuanzang, along with Xuanzang’s commentary, is also extant. The original Sanskrit to Tibetan has been translated into English by Stefan Anacker in his Seven Works of Vasubandhu: The Buddhist Psychological Doctor (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1984, 1998), pp. 181–190.


The Japanese Buddhist scholar Takakusu refers to it as “semi-Mahayanistic” and “quasi-Mahayanistic” in Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1947).


Nalanda University, founded in the fifth century, was located about five miles north of Rajagriha, present-day Rajgir, in the north-central Indian state of Bihar. Xuanzang’s account of his travels in India has been translated into English by Li Rongxi, The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1996).

Sylvain Lévi also discovered a manuscript in Sanskrit of a commentary by Sthiramati on Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses and published a French translation, Matériaux pour l’Étude du Système Vijñaptimatra, edited by Honoré Champion (Paris: Librairie Ancienne, 1932). The French version was subsequently translated into English and this English version has been translated into Chinese.

This text as such is not found in the Taisho Tripitaka, but is included in a commentary on it by Xuanzang’s disciple Putai, entitled Pa-shih Kuei-chu Pu-chu (Taisho 45, 567–76). Xuanzang’s magnum opus is his commentary on Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses, the Cheng Wei Shi Lun, which is the foundational text of the Wei Shi (Consciousness Only) school of Chinese Buddhism. This text, along with Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses and Twenty Verses (see note 47, above) has been translated into English by Francis H. Cook and published under the title “Demonstration of Consciousness Only” in Three Texts on Consciousness Only (Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1999), pp. 7–370.


For more on the Avatamsaka Sutra, see Thich Nhat Hanh, Cultivating the Mind of Love (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1996). See also Thomas Cleary, The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of t he Avatamsaka Sutra (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1993), and Cleary’s Entry into the Inconceivable (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), pp. 147–170.