Asanga

(4-5th century)

Asanga’s name is translated as “Free from attachments”. Asanga and his brother Vasubandhu were born in India, to a Brahmin family. When the boys became old enough to choose their future occupation their mother dissuaded them from worldly occupations and directed them to the path of studying Dharma: “I gave birth to you not for wordly occupations. You have to purify your minds and to preach the Teaching.”

Following his mother’s instructions, filled with unbreakable determination to meet Buddha Maytreya and to obtain his teaching, Asanga headed to Kukkupadaparvata mountains for meditation. Three years quickly passed in practice and prayer, but a vision of Maytreya did not become closer to him. Doubts took the place of Asanga’s unbreakable confidence and he decided to leave his cave. He leaves his retreat and on his way he meets an old man, who, as legend says, was making a needle out of an iron bar by polishing this iron bar with cotton. Asanga was amazed by this strange occupation and persistence of the old man. And the old man inspired him with his words: “If a man making a moral effort wishes to accomplish something, he will never meet a failure. However hard his job may be, if he does not lose patience, he’ll be able to destroy mountains with the palm of his hand.” Inspired by the old man’s persistence Asanga went back to his cave and continued his meditation.

Three years later Asanga had attained nothing, and in doubt left his cave. On his way he meets a man who is rubbing a big piece of a stone with another stone. When asked why he is doing so he replies that he sees inside the stone signs of a diamond vein, but if he breaks the stone this may damage the diamond as well. Wealth has to be earned by the hard labor, and persistence is needed to accurately open a diamond vein. Hearing this Asanga realizes that people often spend their precious lives striving to gain wealth and fame. So Asanga went back to his cave and meditated for another three years. After another three years he is out again and this time on his way he sees a rock and realizes that it is gradually destroyed by water drops and even by the touch of birds’ feathers, and with this he returns to his cave. After another three years of persistent practice, altogether twelve years, the vision of Buddha Maitreya seems as far from him as on his first day.

Full of despair, Asanga leaves his cave, this time having an intention not return any more. On his way he saw a sick dog lying on the road: there was a deep wound swarming with maggots in the dog’s body. The dog was so sick it had no energy to move. Suddenly compassion of such intensity overwhelmed him that he acted almost non-consciously, as if he had forgotten himself: Asanga wanted to remove the maggots from the wound, but how should he do it without harming the maggots, as they are also leaving creatures? So he cut a piece of the own hip and started to carefully move maggots from the dog’s wound to his cut hip with his tongue, as he thought that if he’ll do it with his fingers he’ll harm the maggots. Suddenly the dog disappeared and on the dog’s place appeared Buddha Maitreya. Buddha Maitreya appeared inside shining light and looked exactly the way Asanga was imagining him during all the years of meditation.

Asanga became happy and angry at the same time: “For so many years I was summoning you, but you came only now, when I lost all the hope! Why?”

And Maytreya replied: “I was by your side from the very moment you started to summon me, but you were not able to see me because of your own obscurations. For these twelve years I did not leave you for a single moment. When after the first three years you left the cave the old man that you met was no one else but ME. After another three years when you left your cave the man that you met in the stone quarry was also ME. In another three years you left your cave and paid attention to the dripping water – it was ME as well. And at last, when for the fourth time you left your cave, you saw ME in an appearance of the dog. This time the great Bodhisattva’s compassion arose in you and this made you able to recognize ME.” Until consciousness is not purified, men believe in illusion and do not believe in the words of Buddha.

Maytreya took Asanga with him to Tushita paradise and gave him teachings there. Later Asanga became one of the founders of the Yogachara, which is one of the philosophical schools of Mahayana.

Comments

When we discussed the story of Asanga with my Teacher, Vova Pyatsky, he made the following comments:

While Asanga was looking for Maytreya outside of himself he was not able to meet him. But when compassion towards the dog overwhelmed him he became able to recognize himself as Buddha Maytreya, the Buddha of great compassion. Then he realized that he was never separated from Maytreya, that Maytreya is the manifestation of his own mind. Until we look for something outside of ourselves, our efforts do not bring any result. And only by understanding that all the phenomena arise from our own mind are we able to see the Buddha in front of us.

Asanga’s  leaving his cave for four times is symbolic for the four spheres of meditation; leaving of the cave is not a negative phenomenon, but the RESULT OF PERSISTENT MEDITATION, the path which is followed by practitioners. After leaving his cave for the first time Asanga experienced an ecstasy of entering the sphere of Infinite space, which includes all the phenomena of the world. This sphere is like a marquee propped with an iron pole of belief in existence. By his persistent labor an old man makes a needle out of iron pole, the pole become a needle, thus revealing an emptiness of this sphere.

Asanga is back to his meditation and his next going out of the cave is an experience of the sphere of Infinite perceptions. The sphere of Infinite consciousness is a receptacle of space and perception of space. It is in this sphere that a diamond vein of emptiness is hidden. But the man who was so persistently getting diamond from stone points to the fact that this sphere is also empty.

The third episode represents an experience of the sphere of Nothingness. From this sphere of Nothingness consciousness arises and to this sphere it sinks again the same way as it happens in dreamless sleep. It is an experience of dissolving into non-existence, which is a source of mental activity. If the practice is not aimed at donation and service to other living beings then a practitioner may stop his search, being soothed by a bliss of non-thought. The sphere of Nothingness is like a bald rock. It is through it that a drop of vitality makes it path.  This process develops Bodhicitta, which showing that also experience of the sphere of Nothingness is none other than emptiness.

After contemplating how dropping water patiently wears away the stone Asanga is back to his meditation, until he leaves his cave for the last, fourth, time. This time he leaves the cave in a state of neither meditation, nor non-meditation. The dog is neither alive, nor dead. Compassion makes him choose, and reveals his mind nature as Buddha Maitreya.

Marina Sherman

Translation: Ilona Erkin & Dorey Glenn