Vasubandhu was a Buddhist monk and scholar in the 4th to 5th century CE, from Gandhara (in present-day northwest Pakistan and northeast Afghanistan). His writings in the Buddhist Yogacara school of philosophy resemble the much-later Idealist position of George Berkeley. One of these Yogacara writings is the Twenty Verses. Vasubandhu’s position in the Twenty Verses is that everything that exists is nothing but mind. There are no external objects of perception – only appearances. When we seem to see external things, we are incorrect. He points out that someone who is afflicted with a perceptual disorder may “see” hairs and bees that don’t exist; thus mental appearances are not external realities.
DREAMING AND BEING AWAKE
Vasubandhu also argues (as did Descartes) that in dreams, we seem to encounter external objects, but they are mere appearances: they are unreal. So it follows that the objects we seem to encounter when we are awake are unreal too.
In this DQ we want you to address an objection that Vasubandhu considers (to his own view on dreaming and being awake), and Vasubandhu’s reply to that objection.
Here is a passage from George Cronk’s rendering of the Twenty Verses [slightly abridged*]:
Objection: There is a significant difference between waking states and dream states. Everybody recognizes that objects experienced in dreams aren’t real but rather mentally constructed. But this is not recognized with regard to objects experienced in waking states.
Reply: This argument won’t sustain your position because someone who isn’t awake doesn’t recognize the unreality of objects experienced in a dream. Only he who has awakened from a dream is able to “see-through” the objects experienced while he was dreaming. In the same way, only those who have achieved enlightenment are able to discern the unreality of the world presented in what is commonly taken to be [but which really is not] the waking state. Thus, the dream experience and the so-called waking experience are similar [in that they are both superseded by a “higher consciousness”]. (173)
Carefully read the above Objection and Reply. Here is an interpretation of them; see if you agree with it as an interpretation:
Let us call the objects and events we experience in dreams, dream objects. Let us call the objects and events we experience in everyday states while awake, waking objects.
– The Objection is saying that we can tell that dream objects are unreal, but that is not true of waking objects. So waking objects must be real.
– The Reply: Vasubandhu responds that no, while dreaming we cannot tell that dream objects are unreal: we are fooled by them and believe they are real. So the fact that while experiencing an object I think it is real, does not prove that it is real: as dreams demonstrate. We only realize that dream objects are unreal when we wake up from the dream. So the question is: could we “wake up” from our everyday world and view it from a higher level still? (Just as the everyday world is a higher level than dreams.) And Vasubandhu answers that yes, we can achieve enlightenment, and when we do, we ascend to a higher consciousness from which we realize that our everyday “waking” state is actually unreal too.
Answer these questions: (refer to the question numbers in your answer)
1 – do you agree with this interpretation of the Objection and Reply? Does it capture what was being said? If not, why not?
2 – what do you think of Vasubandhu’s reply to the Objection? Has he refuted it? Explain your answer.
3 – what do you think of Vasubandhu’s claim that it is possible, by way of enlightenment, to “wake up” from our everyday waking reality and realize the unreality of its objects? Give some thoughts on this claim.