New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness is an annotated translation by John Makeham of Xiong Shili's (1885–1968) major philosophical work Xin weishi lun 新唯識論, one of the most difficult and least understood of the crucial Chinese theoretical works of the twentieth century. In this work Xiong has integrated central concepts, problems, and themes from traditional Chinese philosophy with those representative of Sinitic Buddhist philosophy in order to create an ambitious philosophical syncretism.
On the one hand, the book is a modern Confucian critique of the Buddhist theory of consciousness introduced to China by the pilgrim Xuanzang in the Tang dynasty. Xiong criticizes the original Yogācāra pioneers of this theory, for instance the brothers Vasubandhu and Asanga as well as their numerous successors. In this critical context, [End Page 605] the book is mainly directed against their theory of "seeds" (bīja 種子), which was originally only a heuristic metaphor. In the works of the Yogācāra thinkers, however, the seeds were seen as a sort of atom forming the ontological basis of everything. According to this view, they are stored in the eight levels of consciousness (ālayavijñāna), in which they become discrete causal agents that bring into being all mental and physical dharmas. Xiong believes that with this reinterpretation of the term "seeds," the Yogācarā thinkers effectively substantialized their position and, consequently, also the earlier Buddhist theories on consciousness as such.
On the other hand, however, Xiong has also applied Buddhist philosophical insights to reconstructing Confucianism, considering the fact that his theory is influenced both by Buddhism and by his own interpretations of the Book of Changes, which he regarded as one of the most important and basic Confucian classics. Both approaches have inspired Xiong to develop his own systematic philosophy, consisting of ontology (jing lun 境論) and epistemology (liang lun 量論), although the latter is not included in the present book. (Xiong has written only a rough outline of this part in his later work on original Confucianism [Yuan Ru 原儒]). Hence, the central problem Xiong has dealt with in the present work is the relation between the ontological and the phenomenal within his basic understanding of the binary oppositional relation between Fundamental Reality or dynamic essence (ti 體) and function (yong 用), or contraction (xi 翕) and expansion (pi 闢). Through the application of these correlative and complementary paradigms, he shows how and why the phenomenal is not different from Reality in the ontological sense. The only difference between both realms is to be found in our human experiencing of them.
Until recently, the original Chinese work was known in the Western world as the "New Treatise on the Consciousness-Only Theory." Makeham emphasizes that
[t]he Chinese title may well have been intended to carry a second level of meaning. Given that Xin weishi lun is presented as a critical response to Xuanzang's (602–664) Cheng weishi lun 成唯識論 (Demonstration of Nothing but Consciousness), the argument could be made that the title of Xiong's work has the additional implicit sense of a New Demonstration of Nothing but Consciousness.(p. xiv)
Makeham's rendering (or correction) of the original translation of the title is based upon Xiong's own specific elucidation of the term weishi 唯識, pointing out that in his context the multifaceted term wei 唯 means "unique" (殊特) and not "only" or "solely" (p. 53). Given the fact that such Sanskrit terms as vijñapti-mātra (weishi 唯識) and citta-mātra (weixin 唯心) mean "cognition only" or "nothing but cognition" and "mind only" or "nothing but mind," respectively, it is important to note that we are dealing here with Xiong's radical modification (or reinterpretation) of the original notions. Hence, with his new translation of the title, Makeham makes clear that Xiong's book is not based on the negation of the existence of objects, but only refutes the presumption of their independent existence, because, for Xiong, cognitive objects and consciousness...