The Fa-hsiang, or Characteristics of Phenomena, School, is the Chinese transmission of the important Yogacara School of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. Its fundamental teaching is that the world is not external to consciousness, but is created by it. It is therefore also known as the Wei-shih, or Consciousness-Only School.
There are understood to be eight different kinds of consciousness. The first five correspond to the five senses and gather sensory information, the sixth orders this information into conceptions, and the seventh is the self-aware mind that thinks, wills, and desires, in regard to this information. The eighth is the store-consciousness which contains impure and pure karmic ‘seeds’. These seeds determine what information the self-aware mind creates and sees as its external environment. Impure seeds produce ignorance and a perception of the troubled world which we typically know, but pure seeds produce enlightenment, and through spiritual cultivation these seeds can be made to become active. One then sees the perfection of Ultimate Reality, and understands the world perceived previously to be a transient production of ignorance. However, not all people contain the pure seeds, and so not everyone can achieve this liberation.
In 645 the monk Hsuan-tsang (ca. 596-664) returned to China from his seventeen year pilgrimage to India, and translated one of the many Yogacara texts he brought with him, the Vijnati-matrata-trimsika, or Thirty Verses on Consciousness, by Vasubhandu. On this work, along with the ten Indian commentaries upon it, Hsuan-tsang, greatly aided by his follower K’uei-chi (632-682), founded the Fa-hsiang School. The Fa-hsiang replaced an earlier transmission of Yogacara thought, that of the She-lun scholastic study group, based on a translation by Paramartha in 563 of the Mahayana-samgraha by Asanga.
Hsuan-tsang developed a cordial relationship with the Emperor T’ai-tsung (r. 626-49) who was fascinated by the well-travelled and learned monk. This led to imperial patronage for the Fa-hsiang under both T’ai-tsung, and his son, Kao-tsung (r. 649-83), enabling the School to flourish. However its period of prominence was short-lived, and with the death of Kao-tsung it fell into decline and was soon replaced in imperial favour by the Hua-yen School.
Apart from the loss of its royal patron, there were other reasons for the failure of the Fa-hsiang in China. One was the unappealing nature of its very complex and technical philosophy. Perhaps more important was the fact two of its doctrines - the assertion that some beings would never achieve liberation, and the denial of any ultimate significance to the world - ran counter to the universalist and world-affirming trends of Chinese Buddhist thought. Certainly, on these grounds the Fa-hsiang was criticised by the two main philosophical Schools of Chinese Buddhism, the T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen.
Nonetheless, Fa-hsiang writings continued to be studied during the remainder of the T’ang Dynasty, and exerted some influence on Chinese Buddhist philosophy as a whole. Only with the persecution of 845 did it fall into a period of complete neglect. This neglect lasted until the beginning of this century when texts belonging to the School were discovered in Japan and brought back to China, resulting in a period of re-interest in the 1920’s and 30’s. As a consequence of this, although the Fa-hsiang School no longer exists today, its philosophy continues to be studied in Chinese Buddhist monasteries.