Asanga Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Indian philosopher and Buddhist monk{$I[g]India and Sri Lanka;Asanga} Asanga is revered by Buddhists as the enlightened sage who revived Māhayāna Buddhism. He was a founder of the Yogācāra School.

Early Life

Arya Asanga (AHR-yuh uh-SUHNG-guh) was an Indian Buddhist monk and philosopher who lived during the fourth and fifth centuries c.e. Arya means “Noble One” and is a title of respect; Asanga means “untouched” or “unfettered.” He is sometimes referred to as one of the doctors of early Buddhism because of his profound erudition. He was a founder of the Yogācāra School of Buddhism, along with his guru, Maitreyanātha, and his half brother Vasubandhu. Yogācāra is a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Most of what is known about Asanga’s life rests on legendary accounts—primarily Bu-ston’s Chos-byung (History of Buddhism by Buston, 1931) and Tāranātha’s Rgya gar chos ’byun (1608; History of Buddhism in India, 1970). Some information comes from the Indian sage Paramārtha, who wrote during the sixth century an authoritative historical account of Vasubandhu’s life. He also translated important Yogācāra works into Chinese.

According to legend, Asanga’s mother was a Brahman of the Kausika clan. In an earlier life, she had been a monk who verbally wounded another during debate. For this unkindness, the monk was punished by many incarnations as a woman. During the time of incarnation as Asanga’s mother, many people had turned from the dharma, or teaching of Buddha. She offered help in her prayers to Lord Avalokita, a bodhisattva, or one who seeks enlightenment and is the embodiment of compassion. Subsequently, she had three sons: Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Virincivatsa, all of whom joined the Hīnayāna or “Lesser Vehicle” School of Buddhism. They lived in Purusapura, Gandhara, India (now Peshawar, Pakistan).

Traditional accounts relate that Asanga was a precocious child who became a monk at an early age. He belonged to the Mahīshāsakas, a sect that valued meditation and believed that only the present has reality. He studied with Pindola, an arhat, or worthy one, who had conquered hatred, desire, and delusion, the three unwholesome roots of future suffering. An arhat embodies the sought-after ideal in the Hīnayāna, the most ancient school of Buddhism, of one who has attained the highest level of enlightenment before nirvana, or escape from the cycle of rebirth. The ideal for Mahāyāna Buddhism, a school that developed after the Hīnayāna, is the bodhisattva. For the Hīnayānist, the focus of spiritual development is on liberation of the individual from suffering, whereas for the Mahāyānist, the focus is on liberation of all beings. This is accomplished by repeatedly forgoing nirvana for oneself; the bodhisattva tends, with selfless compassion over many lifetimes, to others. Compassion for suffering beings became a theme in Asanga’s eventual philosophy.

Under Pindola’s guidance, Asanga learned all the sutras of the Buddha’s discourse, reading the scriptures of Hīnayāna as well as some of Mahāyāna, or “Greater Vehicle” Buddhism. (The term “Hīnayāna” was originally a derogatory term used by Mahāyānists; the term “Theravāda,” or “Doctrine of the Elders,” is preferred today for the sole surviving Hīnayāna School.) While Pindola was Asanga’s teacher on earth, his “tutelary deity” was Lord Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya is the aspect of Buddha that is love.

Eventually, Asanga left Pindola to meditate in a mountain cave for twelve years to propitiate Maitreya. He emerged at three-year intervals, totally disheartened. When he observed stones slowly worn down by birds’ wings or by single drops of water, or iron needles made by a patient old man, he was encouraged to try again. At the end of twelve years he emerged from his cave, still unenlightened and brokenhearted. When he came on a dog whose hindquarters were infested with worms, he was filled with compassion. Rather than kill the worms, however, he intended to lure them to a piece of flesh sliced from his thigh. Just then, the Lord Maitreya appeared in place of the dog. Asanga cried out in wonder: Why did Maitreya appear now and not before? Maitreya answered that he always had been with him, but Asanga could see him only when his fervor was balanced with compassion.

At Maitreya’s behest, Asanga asked to help educate the people about Mahāyāna doctrine. In response, he was transported to Tuśita heaven, where all the bodhisattvas reside until their final incarnations as buddhas. Asanga studied all of Mahāyāna scripture with Lord Maitreya in Tuśita heaven—some legends say for six months, others for fifty-three years. Asanga had attained the third stage of a bodhisattva—there are ten stages according to the Mahāyāna—therefore, he was called Prabhākarī, or “Light-giving.”

Life’s Work

According to legend, after Asanga returned to earth, he devoted himself to all living beings with complete compassion. He opened shelters for monks to stay in during the rainy season and wrote down what he had learned from Maitreya in the “Five Books.” After this, he wrote his own texts and then converted his half brother, Vasubandhu, from Hīnayāna to Mahāyāna Buddhism. He also taught Hīnayāna monks about Mahāyāna doctrine. When his fame for profound erudition spread, King Gambhīrapaksa helped Asanga establish monasteries, which revived Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Early Mahāyāna...

(The entire section is 2301 words.)