Biography of Arya Asanga
According to the Tibetan
tradition, Asanga was born in Purusapura, in India. The capital of Gandhara, of a Brahmin woman who was herself a considerable
adept in the teachings of Buddhism and who taught him the "eighteen sciences" which he mastered easily. He became
a monk and for five years applied himself diligently, memorizing one hundred thousand verses of dharma each year and correctly
understanding their meaning.
He then left the monastery to practice the Arya Maitreya Sadhana in a cave at the
foot of a mountain. For three years, not a single good sign appeared, and he became depressed and decided to leave his retreat.
Emerging from his cave he noticed a bird's nest by the mountain where the rock had become worn just by the brushing of
the bird's wing as it flew back and forth. Realizing his perseverance was weak, he returned to his cave to practice. For
three more years he meditated, but again not a single good sign appeared. He became discouraged and left again. This time
he saw a rock beside the road that was slowly disintegrating because of the trickle of single drops of water. Inspired by
this, he returned and practiced another three years.
When again no signs appeared, he left his retreat a third
time. He encountered an old man who was rubbing a piece of iron with a smooth cotton cloth. "I am just finishing this
needle," the man said to Asanga. "I have already made those over there" and pointed to small pile of needles
lying nearby. Asanga thought, "If such effort is put into a mundane task such as this, my effort so far has been merely
He returned and meditated for another three years. Although he had by now meditated for 12 years
on Maitreya, he still had no signs of favor. He became extremely despondent and walked away from his cave. After awhile he
came across a half-dead dog lying beside the road, infested with maggots, crying out in pain. Asanga thought, "This dog
will die if these worms are not removed, but if I try to lift them out with my hand, I will crush them." So using his
tongue so as not to hurt them, and cutting off some of his own flesh for them to live in, he bent down to remove them. At
that moment the dog vanished and Maitreya appeared, showering cascades of light in all directions.
into tears and cried, "Ah, my sole teacher and refuge, all those years I made so much effort in my practice, exerting
myself in a hundred different ways, but I saw nothing. Why has the rain and the might of the ocean come only now when tormented
by pain, I am no longer thirsting?" Maitreya replied, "In truth, I was in your presence constantly, yet because
of karmic obscuration you were unable to see me. However, your practice has purified your karma and removed your obstacles.
Now by the force of your great compassion you are able to meet me. To test my words, put me on you shoulders for others to
see and carry me across the city."
Asanga was overjoyed. Lifting Maitreya onto his shoulders carried him
into town, yet no one saw Maitreya. One old woman saw Asanga was carrying a dead dog and that brought her endless good fortune.
A faithful servant saw Maitreya's feet and found himself in a state of samadhi which granted him all the siddhis. Asanga
himself realized the samadhi called "Continuum of Reality". "What is your desire now?" Maitreya asked
him. "To revive the teachings of the Mahayana," Asanga replied. "Well then, hold onto the end of my robe."
Asanga did this and together they ascended to the pure land of Tushita where they stayed for fifty years. Here Asanga mastered
the teachings of the Mahayana and received the famous Five Texts of Maitreya, each of which opens a different door of samadhi.
Dedicated to actualizing these teachings, Asanga returned to the earth and built a small temple in a forest. At
first only a few students came to learn teachings from him, but gradually the fame of his doctrine spread and the Yogacara
School was established. He became the abbot of Nalanda and lived to be well over 100, but always had a youthful look, with
no gray hair or wrinkles.
He compiled many important Mahayana works including what has come to be known as The
Five Texts of Maitreya. These include the Abhisamayalamkara (Ornament of Clear Comprehension), the Mahanaya Sutralankara
(Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras), theMadhyanta-vibhanga (Discourse on the Middle between the Extremes), the Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga,
and the Uttaratantra (The Peerless Continuum). His Mahayana-samparigraha (Compendium of the Mahayana), Abhidarma-samuccaya
(Compendium of Higher Doctrine), and Yogacharabhumi-shastra (Treatise on the Stages of Yoga Practice) are also famous.
According to the Tibetan historian Taranatha, Tantric teachings were handed down in secret through the Yogacara lineage
from the time of Asanga. In the Tibetan canon are several Tantric works ascribed to Asanga including a Maitreya Sadhana and
a Prajna-Paramita Sadhana.
Geshe Phuntsok chose to name the
institute after the great teacher Arya Asanga, one of the eight Indian great masters of Buddhism. He is the pioneer of the
Cittamatra School. The Cittamatra is one of the four schools of Buddhist philosophy which focuses on the nature of the
mind and psychology .