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Dharma character school

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The Dharma-character school (Chinese: 法相宗, Pinyin fǎ xiàng zōng, Wade-Giles: Fa-Hsiang, Japanese: Hossō) is the common name for a stream of thought that represented the Indian Yogācāra system of thought in East Asia. The term Faxiang itself was first applied to this tradition by the Huayan thinker Fazang (法藏), who used it to emphasize the inferiority of Faxiang teachings, which only dealt with the phenomenal appearances of the dharmas in contrast to Huayan, which dealt with the underlying nature on which such phenomenal appearances were based. However, its Chinese proponents preferred the title Consciousness-only (Sanskrit: Vijñaptimātra; Chinese: 唯識; ||pinyin]]: wéi shí; ||Wade-Giles]]: wei shih, Japanese: Yuishiki). The "Dharma-Character" name stuck, and was carried by its proponents to Korea and Japan where the name lost its pejorative undertones.

Origins and History

The movement that would eventually receive these names was initiated in China by Xuanzang (玄奘), who, on his return from India, brought with him a wagon-load of the most important Consciousness-only texts:[1]

These, with government support and many assistants, he translated into Chinese, in addition to writing the influential text, the Cheng Weishi Lun (Discourse on the Theory of Consciousness-only). His disciple Kuiji (窺基) wrote a number of important commentaries on the Yogacara texts and further developed the influence of this doctrine in China. Kuiji is considered the first patriarch of this school.[2] In time, the Faxiang school in Chinese Buddhism died out due to competition with more native Chinese schools of thought such as Tiantai and Huayan, and further with more popular Chan and Pure Land sects. Nevertheless, later schools relied on its translations, commentaries and concepts heavily and absorbed the teachings as part of their own.[1]

Branches in Korea and Japan

The Faxiang teachings were transmitted to Korea as Beopsang and Japan as Hossō, where they made considerable impact. In Korea, Beopsang teachings did not endure long as a distinct school, but as with China, its teachings were frequently assimilated into later schools of thought.[1]

One of the founders of the Hossō sect in Japan was Kuiji.[3] Although a relatively small Hossō sect exists in Japan to this day, the sect has survived long after it died out in Korea and China, though its influence has diminished as the center of Buddhist authority moved away from Nara, and with the rise of the Ekayana schools of Buddhism (Tendai, Zen, Pure Land, etc).[1] During its height, scholars of the Hossō school frequently debated with other emerging schools. Both the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kūkai, and the founder of Tendai Buddhism, Saichō exchanged letters of debate with Hossō scholar Tokuitsu, which became particular heated in the case of Saichō.[4] Nevertheless, the Hossō maintained amicable relations with the Shingon esoteric sect, and adopted its practices while providing further scholarship on Yogacara philosophy.

Hōnen, founder of the Jōdo Shū Pure Land sect, likewise sought advice from Hossō scholars of his time as a novice monk, and later debated with them after establishing his sect.[5] Another Hossō scholar, Jōkei was among Hōnen's toughest critics, and frequently sought to refute his teachings, while simultaneously striving to make Buddhism more accessible to a wider audience as Hōnen by reviving devotion to Maitreya Bodhisattva and teaching followers the benefits of rebirth in the Tusita Heaven, rather than the Pure Land of Amitabha.[6]

In Meiji Period Japan, as tourism became more common, the Hossō sect was the owner of several temples famous for their beauty, age, and location, notably Hōryū-ji and Kiyomizu-dera. However, as the Hossō sect had ceased Buddhist study centuries prior, the head priests were not content with giving part of their tourism income to the sect's organization. Following the end of World War II, the owners of these popular temples broke away from the Hossō sect, in 1950 and 1965, respectively. The sect still maintains Kōfuku-ji and Yakushi-ji.


Like the parent Yogacara school, the Faxiang school teachings that our understanding of reality comes from our own mind, rather than actual empirical experience. The mind distorts reality and projects it as reality itself. Among the foundational teachings of Dharma-character school is the notion of the Four Aspects of Cognition:[7]

  1. The objective aspect (raw reality as-it-is)
  2. The subjective aspect (sensory perception of reality)
  3. The witnessing aspect (cognition of this perception)
  4. The re-witnessing aspect (thoughts that follow cognition)

The example explained by Rev. Tagawa, the current head of the Hossō school in Kōfuku-ji, is that of looking at a watch to tell time. The watch itself is the objective aspect. Perceiving the watch is the subject aspect. Determining what time it is by the hands of the watch is the witnessing aspect, while subsequent thought is the re-witnessing aspect.

Additionally, all objects are broken into three categories of "transformed objects":[7]

  1. Objects as they are in themselves
  2. Objects that are mere illusion
  3. Objects that are originally derived from raw sense experience, but are falsely perceived

These overlap with the Four Aspects of Cognition to produce what we view as reality.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Tagawa, Shun'ei (2009). Charles Muller. ed. Living Yogacara: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism. Wisdom Publications. p. xx-xxi (forward). ISBN 0861715896. 
  2. Lusthaus, Dan (undated). Quick Overview of the Faxiang School 法相宗. Source: [1] (accessed: December 12, 2007)
  3. Sho, Kyodai (2002). The Elementary-Level Textbook: Part 1: Gosho Study "Letter To The Brothers". SGI-USA Study Curriculum. Source: [2] (accessed: January 8, 2007)
  4. Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. p. 208–219. ISBN 0231112866. 
  5. "Life of Honen, Jodo Shu homepage Homepage". Retrieved 2009-07-01. 
  6. Ford, James (2009). "Chapter 6: Buddhist Ceremonials (Kōshiki) and the Ideological Discourse of Established Buddhism in Medieval Japan". in Payne, Richard K.; Leighton, Taigen Dan. Discourse and Ideology in Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Routledge. p. 110–113. ISBN 0415544459. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Tagawa, Shun'ei (2009). Living Yogacara: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism. Wisdom Publications. p. 1–10. ISBN 0861715896. 


  • Lusthaus, Dan (undated). Quick Overview of the Faxiang School 法相宗. Source: [3] (accessed: December 12, 2007)

Further reading

  • Paul Hoornaert. "Bhavaviveka's Critique against the "Vijnaptimatra" Doctrine". Journal of Indian and Buddhist studies 41.1 (1992).
  • Sachiyoshi Minagawa. "Medieval Japanese Vijnaptimatra Thought--On nyakunmuro". Journal of Indian and Buddhist studies 46.2 (1998).
  • Hiromi Yoshimura. "Plural Theories on Vijnaptimatra in the Mahayanasutralamkara". Journal of Indian and Buddhist studies 54.2 (2006).

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