One of the fundamental points of departure between Yogacara and psychologies based on Greek and Roman thought (so-called “Western Psychologies”) is the way they treat perception.
Yogacara posits a structural view of consciousness in which what I call the “bottom five” correspond to the five senses: sight consciousness, sound consciousness, smell consciousness, taste consciousness, and touch consciousness. Collectively, Western psychologies might categorize these as “perception,” while the sixth consciousness might be analogous with Western “conception.”
This sixth consciousness is often called “mind consciousness,” but it might also be called dharma-consciousness or conceptual consciousness. This part of the Yogacara structure describes the function of consciousness that takes sensory data and makes “things” or “concepts” or “dharmas” out of the data. When we look at a cup of coffee, we don’t actually see a cup of coffee. We see light and shadow and colors, we smell the rich scent, we might feel the heat, etc. It is the function of mind-consciousness to take these direct perceptions and create the concept, associated with words and feelings and narratives, of a cup of coffee.
This activity is widely recognized by Western psychologies, and is the ground of a great deal of Post-Modern Psychology. Still, it is the basic assumption of Western psychologies, based upon Greek and Latin philosophical underpinnings and assumptions, that while conceptualization involves the activity of the mind - so much so that it can be fairly said that the cup of coffee isn’t a cup of coffee until we make it so with our minds - sensation is still viewed largely as passive.
Yogacara, however, deeply questions this. Yogacara goes so far as to say that while we do not create the deep brown of the coffee in the cup, neither does it exist apart from our perception of it. This is one reason that it is significant that Yogacara posits that even the object of sight (brown) depends on the faculty of seeing (the eye, etc.) to arise. Likewise, sight itself depends on the object of sight to arise. This is the buddhist doctrine of interdependent arising applied to the functions and activities of consciousness.
The Heart Sutra, the most widely chanted scripture in all of Buddhism, addresses the six consciousnesses of Abhidharma psychology (the precursor of Yogacara), stating that in emptiness there is: no eye, no color, no realm of sight; it repeats the formula for each sense and for conceptual consciousness. The eye depends on color, color depends on the eye, and the entire visual world (of consciousness) arises from their interplay as subjects become objects and vice versa.
This may all seem quite esoteric, until it is considered practically. While Western psychology addresses interventions that introduce doubt and reduce certainty and assumptions regarding the objectivity of conceptualization, Yogacara also questions the objectivity of the senses, of ground reality, and of the so called objective, external world. This can be seen in such historic and well-known koans as: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is not a bit of word-play, but a genuine line of inquiry. According to Yogacara psychology, there is no way to know for sure. After all, the sound arises with the ear; if there is no ear, there is no sound. To suggest that it must surely make a sound is to treat the matter entirely on the basis of the conceptual consciousness; in other words, we imagine that it must make a sound based on the conceptual model of the world that we have built.
Just how deeply are Western Post-Modern psychologies willing to question that validity, and help patients question the validity, of their conceptual worlds and the accuracy and fidelity with which they have built them?
By extending the inquirty beyond obvious conceptualization to the activity of perception and by questioning how passive we are in the world as we know it, Yogacara reveals through direct experience the house-of-cards nature of the so-called “objective world.”