Whoever thoroughly experiences Samsara as it really is, circles in Samsara with an undefiled mind. And whoever has a mind which is unwearied by the aspects of impermanence, suffering and egolessness of Samsara, such a one does not quickly enter Nirvana. And whoever has a mind which is unfrightened by Nirvana stores up equipment for it, and though beholding the good qualities and benefits in Nirvana, nonetheless does not yearn for it, and so does not quickly enter Nirvana. This is the bodhisattva's great means for attaining perfect Enlightenment. This means is well grounded in that firm conviction in supreme shunyata. Therefore, for the bodhisattva who has well taken hold of shiksha marga, the Path of Instruction, cultivating conviction in supreme shunyata, is said to be the Mahan Upaya, the Great Means, for reaching knowledge of the Tathagata.
Tradition teaches that there have been three revolutions of the wheel of Dharma. The first was inaugurated by Gautama Buddha's public Teachings, enshrined in the doctrines of eighteen schools collectively called Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle, and surviving today in the Theravada, the way of the elders. The second was initiated by Buddha's esoteric doctrines, emerging as the Mahayana or Great Vehicle, which is the source of the diverse schools of Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, China and Japan. The third revolution commenced with Asanga and the Yogacara school, a branch of the Madhyamika which emphasized meditation as a fundamental aspect of Buddhist practice. H.P. Blavatsky suggested that this complex history contains a deep mystery. Asanga, also known as Arya Asanga or Aryasanga, has been confused with another teacher, Aryasangha, a direct disciple of Buddha, who is the true founder of the first and ever secret Yogacharya school. In conflating the earlier teachings of the arcane Yogacharya school with elements of tantric and magical practices, Asanga compromised his exceptional brilliance and insight. Since the pure Yogacharya books – Narjol chodpa in Tibetan – have never been made public, one must cautiously examine Asanga's encyclopaedic Yogacarabhumi, of which the Bodhisattvabhumi is a part, for it contains "a great deal from the older system", according to H.P. Blavatsky.
Asanga's birth is shrouded in legend. Taranatha wrote that Asanga's mother had been in a previous life a monk with a mastery of the Tripitaka, the Three Baskets of the Theravadin canon. Once, when arguing with a monk, he deeply hurt the feelings of his opponent by accusing him of having a female brain. Avalokiteshvara, to whom the offender was pledged, predicted that he would live a number of lives as a woman to understand the utter injustice of the remark. Sometime in the fourth century this monk was born as Prakashashila in the city of Purushapura (modern Peshawar) in Gandhara. Though a Brahmin, she first married a Kshatriya and gave birth to Asanga. Sometime later she married a Brahmin and had two other sons, Vasubandhu and Virinchivatsa. Though Asanga was considerably older than his half-brothers and would be expected to take up the duties of a warrior and leader, Prakashashila told him that he was destined for other service and encouraged him to enter the Sangha.
Asanga entered the Sangha and spent a year serving the upadhyaya, the acharya and the Sangha, and then he studied the sacred texts, including the Tripitaka and the Mahayana sutras, for five years. As a blue-robed Mahishasaka monk, he learnt advanced methods of meditation. When his understanding equalled that of his teacher, he received a secret initiation and withdrew to a cave on a mountain called variously Kukkutapada, Gurpaparvata and Gurupada. There he meditated upon Maitreya, to whom he dedicated himself. After three years, however, he had failed to behold his celestial preceptor and made ready to leave his rocky abode. As he stepped outside the cave, he saw that the wings of birds had gradually worn down the rocks around their nests, and thinking, "I have lost assiduity", he returned to his meditations. Disappointed after another three years, he again made ready to leave, but he noticed the effect dripping water had had on the stones on which it fell, and he returned to his contemplation. A third time he left his cave and came across an old man rubbing a piece of iron with a fine cloth to make needles out of it, and he returned to his meditation. But in the twelfth year he gave up all hope and left his mountain fastness.
Heavy-hearted, he made his way towards the city of Achintya, where he saw a dog infested with worms. Realizing that the poor creature would die of the infestation, but not wishing to destroy the worms, he determined to give them flesh cut from his own body. No sooner had he made the sacrifice of his physical form than the dog vanished and in its place stood Maitreya, resplendent in a halo of lakshanas, divine graces. Asanga could not contain himself. Weeping, he asked why the vision had not occurred before, but only now when he was in too much physical pain to have wished for it. Maitreya explained that he had always been present, but that Asanga's own blindness had prevented him from seeing. Once his great insight – prajna – had been matched by compassion – karuna – his eyes became clear. Maitreya asked what Asanga truly desired, and he replied, "To spread the Mahayana." Thereupon Maitreya took Asanga into the Tushita realm, Maitreya's celestial abode. There he was taught the deepest meanings of the Prajnaparamita sutras and was instructed in the five works of Maitreya. When Asanga returned to terrestrial existence six months – some say twenty-five years – later, he began an energetic career in rejuvenating Buddhist thought and practice in India.
The Tibetans call this form of history rnam thar, sacred biography, which is essential for understanding the path to Enlightenment and is therefore less concerned with the exact details of external events than with the inner significance of the life recounted. Asanga began by founding viharas, monastic communities, and since he had mastered the abhijnas, supernormal powers, he could travel as far in one day as the average monk could cover in nothing less than a month. Since he could read the minds of others, he matched his teachings to the understanding of his hearers. Eventually his great erudition brought him to the attention of King Gambhirapaksha, who became his patron and generously financed much of Asanga's work. In time Asanga wrote down the five books of Maitreya and wrote commentaries on them, including the Uttaratantra, a work which Tsong-Kha-Pa said was not a Yogacara but a Madhyamika text. In addition, Asanga wrote commentaries on the Prajnaparamita sutras as well as his own expositions, including his enormous Yogacarabhumi (Stages of Yoga Practice). Late in life he persuaded his brother Vasubandhu to join the Yogacara school, and Vasubandhu successfully laboured to make Asanga's doctrines accessible to the general population. Asanga, his work thus secured by his brother, retired to Rajagriha – the site of the First Council after the Buddha's Parinirvana – and died. His disciples built a chaitya, a reliquary, in his honour.
Despite the tremendous spiritual impulse Nagarjuna had imparted to the Mahayana, his sheer dialectical brilliance had frightened many followers. He had steered a middle course between the tendencies to take the world of phenomena as real in itself and to reject all existence as unreal. Between naive realism and nihilism, Nagarjuna placed the doctrine of shunyata as Tathata, the Void, as the essential nature of all things. Recognizing the meta-psychological proclivity to hypostasize shunyata itself as a 'thing' alongside other phenomena, he taught the principle of shunyatashunyata, the emptiness of the Void. At the same time, he insisted that shunyata was not a mere nothing, for "if all this were not shunyata, there would be no creation and no destruction". Shunyata is not another category of phenomena, and yet it is the sine qua non of all phenomena. Nonetheless, many who followed the Madhyamika found this doctrine too subtle and drifted into a depressing nihilism, whilst those of other schools found their doctrines shaken by Nagarjuna's devastating dialectic.
Asanga attempted to counter these tendencies, while remaining loyal to the spirit of Nagarjuna's teachings, through a variety of upaya or methods. He modified the ancient formula of "two truths", Paramarthasatya and samvritisatya, absolute and relative truth, into the trilakshana or "three natures" standpoint. In this view, phenomena have three natures: parikalpita, which is a mental construct and in that sense imaginary and corresponding to samvritisatya; paratantra, a nature independent of the mind yet subject to dependent origination; and parinishpanna, absolute nature corresponding to Paramarthasatya. This perspective is not so much a denial of the ancient doctrine of two truths as a practical means to avoid nihilism on the path towards Enlightenment. As the mind frees itself from its self-imposed constructs, it does not drop into an abyss of nothingness, but rather discovers that things-in-themselves exist, though dependent for their existence on other things and therefore not absolutely real. The root of this intermediate existence is shunyata, the Void. The schema fills the gap between the mind's freedom from its own delusions and the supreme realization of Paramarthasatya.
In conjunction with the threefold doctrine of truth, Asanga also posited an eightfold classification of consciousness. Consciousness, vijnana, under the impulsion of karma, hypostasizes the duality of appearances, though such duality has no real existence. Consciousness evolves eight aspects to present the world as the ordinary individual experiences it. Five of these aspects correspond to the five sense-organs, and the sixth is mental perception. Seventh is the defiled mind, that is, the mind deluded by the notion of a self as a real entity. The eighth aspect of consciousness is alayavijnana, the universal storehouse of all impermanent experience. Over time it gathers the seeds of karma and thus reflects both all that has been done and all that will unfold in the fruition of karma. Alayavijnana is not, however, ultimate reality: it is chitta, mind, in its most universal sense, and as such it is part of the skandhas, aggregates out of which a persona is formed. The skandhas are anitya, dukha and anatma, impermanent, suffering and without self. Just as alayavijnana draws upon the mind's experience of the world, so the mind is affected by alayavijnana. What arises out of alayavijnana, therefore, is not shunyata.
For Asanga, the world is chittamatra, 'mind-only', but not in the absolute sense suggested by some scholars and even by late Yogacara writers. Asanga borrowed the term from the practice of meditation wherein any image which comes into the mind is said to be chittamatra, 'mind-only'. Such images, however splendiferous, are entirely creations of the mind and do not constitute a direct transcendental experience of shunyata. Similarly, Asanga argued, the famous passage in the Dashabhumika Sutra, "chittamatram idam yad idam traidhatukam" ("these three realms are nothing but mind"), means that the experiences one has of the three realms, kamaloka, rupaloka and arupaloka – the worlds of desires, forms and formlessness – are all like the images held in meditation. They are creations of the mind and are not the lineaments of reality. Though the Lankavatara Sutra identifies alayavijnana with the Tathagatagarbha, the world of the Tathagata, Asanga rejects the equation. Tsong-Kha-Pa later wrote that the doctrines of the Lankavatara were provisional, that is, suitable as medicine for most minds but requiring inner interpretation for those ready to achieve insight. Hinting at a deep mystery in regard to Tathagatagarbha, Tsong-Kha-Pa supported Asanga's view that alayavijnana is not ultimate reality. Once one achieves such purity of consciousness in meditation that any sense of subject and object utterly vanishes, one witnesses shunyata and then recognizes the true meaning of calling the world 'mind-only'. But in that indescribable exaltation one is not other than shunyata.
That is called reality which is the sphere of cognition completely purified of the obscuring force of defilement. What is that reality? The Four Noble Truths – suffering, its origin, the cessation and the path leading to its cessation. It is that knowledge which arises in those having clear comprehension who, after thorough investigation, arrive at the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. . . .
What is the reality which is the sphere of cognition completely purified of the obscurations to the knowable? . . . It is the domain and the sphere of cognition that belongs to the Buddha-Bhagavans and bodhisattvas who, having penetrated dharmanairatmya, the non-self of dharmas, and having realized, because of that pure understanding, the inexpressible nature of all dharmas, know the sameness of the essential nature of verbal designation and the non-discursively knowable. That is the supreme Tathata, real nature, there being none higher, which is the supreme limit of the knowable and for which all analyses of the dharmas are undertaken, and which they do not surpass.
Since Tathata, 'suchness' or 'real nature', is shunyata, the Void, the nature of names or designations of things and the things themselves have the same nature, for sameness, samata, is also equivalent to shunyata. Thus the neophyte on shiksha marga, the Path of Instruction, comes to realize that dharmanairatmya, the non-self of all dharmas, and knows that no dhamma or element of existence has any independent nature or self, that it has no expressible nature, and therefore that it cannot allow attribution. Thus dhammas do not exist as they are generally thought or expressed. For Asanga, this explains the meaning of Buddha when he taught that he came for the redemption of all beings although he knew that there are no beings to be redeemed. Reality, for the Enlightened Ones, transcends both being and non-being, but Reality is not somehow a third thing apart from them. Rather, Reality is both being and non-being simultaneously. Dharmas exist, but not as they are thought or designated, and yet both the phenomenal and noumenal aspects of dhamma have the same essence, for the essential nature (svabhava) of all dharmas is shunyata.
Freedom from the delusion of discursive thinking necessarily comes in stages, for the eight aspects of consciousness, though a functional unity, are not all one. Each aspect has to be understood for what it is, emptied of its false claims to an independent nature, and put in its place. For example, the three kleshas or defilements of consciousness – lust, hatred and delusion – are often depicted at the centre of the Wheel of Samsara on Tibetan banners. From a psychological and ethical standpoint they can be considered the basis of dukha, suffering. From a metaphysical viewpoint, however, the three ashravas would be thought of as the 'gates to hell'. They are 'outflows' associated with sense-desire, love of existence and ignorance. For Asanga, unlike most Buddhist thinkers, these perspectives are deliberately conflated, so that the ashravas are the kleshas, the same forces present in different aspects of eightfold consciousness. If one truly eradicated the kleshas, Asanga held, one would have removed the ashravas as well. The bodhisattva who reaches that lofty plane of knowledge where mental defilements are purged and Reality is understood has freed himself from every vestige of discursive thought. But this means that the various modes of delusion are as deeply rooted as consciousness itself when conceived apart from shunyata. The kleshas have to be removed at every level right up to alayavijnana.
Thus that one, with such mastery, is the best of and incomparable amongst all beings. And you should understand that the bodhisattva has five superior benefits which govern all circumstances. They are that he attains supreme peace of mind, having gained the tranquil stations and not through pacifying defilement; that his knowledge and vision with respect to all the sciences are unimpeded, utterly pure; and perfectly clear; that he is unwearied by his circling in Samsara for the sake of all beings; that he understands all speech of the Tathagatas that has veiled meanings; and that, because he is self-reliant and does not depend on others, he is not led away from his zealous devotion to the Mahayana.
Such a sublime accomplishment does not allow the bodhisattva to retire from the world of anguish and ignorance, however, for the bodhisattva cultivates a profound compassion commensurate with his wisdom and insight. Each benefit he has garnered from his journey along the Path of Instruction is matched by concomitant action undertaken on behalf of all living beings. Since his mind is truly tranquil, he dwells always in a state of happiness, a state appropriate to a bodhisattva who knows the way to Enlightenment and the yoga that removes the weariness of mental and physical exertion. His supreme knowledge of the sciences impels him to nurture the Buddhadharmas – the knowledge, attainment, method and teaching of Buddha – amongst all beings. His freedom from weariness in circling through Samsara allows him ceaselessly to nurture and encourage the evolution of beings, each at its own level and each within the karmic limits of its incarnation and mode of existence. His ability to understand the speech used with veiled meaning by the Tathagatas permits him to remove the doubts and difficulties of serious disciples who want to follow the Path he has trodden. It also gives him the power to discern saddharma, the true Dharma, from its subtle but fictitious resemblances, so that he can uphold the Teaching which is otherwise undermined by shadowy inversions. Finally, his complete self-reliance guarantees that he will never fall into error and thus mislead others and that he will remain faithful to his vow and thereby be a worthy example.
The five activities appropriate to a bodhisattva strengthen him even as they help others. They are called karaniyas or bodhisattva duties, because in them the distinction between prajna and karuna dissolves, as does the distinction between self and others, and even that between Nirvana and Samsara.
According to Taranatha, the Mahayana had suffered great decline before Asanga came to spread its teachings. During his long lifetime he vigorously disseminated the Dharma to tens of thousands of individuals who entered the Sangha. He came to be called Arya, 'noble', and Maitreyanatha, 'one devoted to Maitreya', and it is said that though he taught for well over ninety years, he never looked a day older than he did on the day he beheld Maitreya near Achintya. Though all his works were eventually translated into Chinese, the sage Dharmakshema was so moved by the Bodhisattvabhumi that he translated it immediately after its composition. It became one of the six basic texts of Atisha's school in Tibet (which was later reformed as the Gelukpa order by Tsong-Kha-Pa), where it remains an essential part of Mahayana studies. Traditional sources agree that Asanga attained the third of the ten stages associated with the Bodhisattva Path, that of Prabhakari, the 'Light-giving', where the bodhisattva "diffuses the great light of the Teaching amongst all living beings". Asanga the Light-Giver is revered as the perfected practitioner of meditation and an exemplar of selfless service to humanity.
The subtle Soul sits everywhere, unstained:
Like to the light of the all-piercing sun
Which is not changed by aught it shines upon
The Soul's light shineth pure in every place;
And they who, by such eye of wisdom, see
How Matter, and what deals with it, divide;
And how the Spirit and the flesh have strife,
Those wise ones go the way which leads to Life!