Asanga Buddhism


Asanga (Aryasanga), fourth century, Gandharian Buddhist monk from Puruṣapura, now Peshawar, Pakistan, is one of the founders of the Cittamātra school with his half-brother Vasubandhu and Maitreyanatha.

The latter author is generally assimilated by the Buddhist tradition to the bodhisattva Maitreya, who would be according to this point of view the inspiration of Asanga.

The Sanskrit term "Asanga" means non-attachment, from which his name translated into Chinese is Wuzhuo (Wúzhuó 無著, unattached) or the bodhisattva Wuzhuo (Wúzhuó púsà 無著菩薩), his Chinese name from the phonetic transcription Asengjia (Asēngjiā 阿僧伽) is hardly used anymore. His name in Japanese is Mujaku.

The works attributed to him (although dictated by Maitreyanātha), translated into Chinese and Tibetan, have exerted an important influence on Mahāyāna Buddhism and particularly the Vajrayāna. According to the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the Guhyasamāja tantra was revealed to him by the future Buddha Maitreya.


The sources concerning Asanga's life are the biography of Vasubandhu written by Paramārtha (Zhēndì 真諦 499-569), translator and representative of the yogācāra school in China (Pósǒupándòu fǎshī zhuàn 《婆藪槃豆法師傳》), the Dàtáng xīyóujì (《大唐西遊記》) recounting the journey of Xuanzang (Xuánzàng 玄奘 600-664), as well as Tibetan authors; these sources rarely agree in detail.

The dates of his birth and death are not certain. He is thought to have been born between the mid-second and fifth centuries in Puruṣapura (present-day Peshawar) in Gandhâra to a Brahmin family.

Born as Vasubandhu Kanushika, he took the name of Asanga, "the unfettered man", when he was admitted to the monastic order. When he was older, his disciples gave him the name Aryasanga out of admiration. His works are numerous: the principal one mentioned is the Yogacharya Bhumishastra.

He founded the Buddhist Yogacharya (Cittamātra) school, which at first seems to have attempted the fusion of Buddhism and the philosophical system of Yoga. He traveled extensively and played a major role in the reform of Buddhism.

His reputation was important and his name is cited with those of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva: they were named the three suns of Buddhism, because they allowed its radiation.

The Tibetan sources relate a version of his origins that is probably symbolic, which makes his mother a nun (bhikhunī) named Prasannashila.

Aware that she was living in a period of decline of Buddhism and moved by the desire to contribute to its maintenance, she is said to have abandoned celibacy to give birth to two sons, Asanga born to a king (kshatriya caste), and Vasubandhu born to a brahmin, when Asanga was already a monk or novice.

They also had a younger brother named Virincivatsa. Some claim that Vasubandhu (high kinship, good family) was a common name for the three brothers, which only the second brother retained, while the eldest and the youngest are known by their religious names.

According to Chinese sources, Vasubandhu and Asanga are both Brahmins of gotra Kaushika, and their mother is named Virinci.

Religious career

According to Paramārtha, Asanga belonged to the Sarvāstivādin (Sarvāstivāda) school, the best established in Gandhara, but according to the Dàtáng xīyóujì he followed a dissident branch, Mahishasaka, which was detached from Sarvāstivāda in the first century B.C., of which the Dharmaguptaka is a branch.

He probably had Maitreya or Maitreyanātha as his master, converted to the mahāyāna and joined his younger brother Vasubandhu in it. After producing and commenting on numerous works, he is said to have died at the age of seventy-five.

The sources make the events of his life a largely legendary account in which Maitreyanātha is equated with the bodhisattva Maitreya :

Despairing of his lack of progress in understanding non-substantiality, Asanga is said to have thought of committing suicide. An arhat named Pindola, having sensed his distress, came on purpose from Purvavideha, one of the four continents of Indian mythical geography, located east of Mount Meru, to explain the principle to him.

He finally managed to understand, but after a while felt the inadequacy of the hīnayāna and desired to understand the concept of emptiness (śūnyatā) according to the mahāyāna.

To this end, he deployed powers acquired through asceticism to ascend to Tusita heaven where Maitreya taught him what he desired, as well as meditation which develops understanding and memory.

He was then able to fully understand the mahāyāna sutras such as the Avatamsaka, and took the name Asanga, "without attachment." He subsequently continued to receive Maitreya's teaching, dividing his time between Jambudvipa, the central continent, and Tuṣita Heaven.

Asanga and the dog

A variant of the encounter between Asanga and Maitreya is particularly prevalent because of its imagery: In his search for the understanding of emptiness, Asanga is said to have meditated in a cave, soliciting Maitreya to appear to him, but to no avail.

Coming out for the first time after twelve years, he saw a dog covered with worm-infested sores that, despite its condition, was bravely trying to trot along. Driven by compassion, Asanga knelt down to clean his wounds.

As he was about to wipe them, he felt compassion for the worms themselves, and decided to remove them with his tongue, because that would be less likely to hurt them.

When he got up, Maitreya was standing in front of him. He asked him why he had waited twelve years to appear, and the bodhisattva revealed that he had been by his side from the beginning, but that his level of spiritual development was not advanced enough for him to see him.

He had, however, seen him in an imperfect form, the dog that had enabled him to develop his compassion fully. To demonstrate to him that reality depends entirely on consciousness, Maitreya perched on his shoulders and asked him to walk to the village.

Of all the people they passed, no one noticed anything, except an old woman who asked him, "What are you doing with that sick dog on your shoulders?"


Texts attributed to Asanga:

Two works called in Tibetan The Two Summaries (Tibetan: སྡོམ་རྣམ་གཉིས, Wylie: sdom rnam gnyis)
Mahāyānasamgraha (Summa of the mahāyāna) - Tibetan: ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོ་བསྡུས་པ, Wylie: theg pa chen po bsdus pa - ch: Shèdàchéng lùn (《攝大乘論》), commented by Vasubandhu

Abhidharmasamuccaya (The Compendium of Super-Doctrine) - Tibetan: ཆོས་མངོན་པ་ཀུན་ལས་བཏུས་པ, Wylie: chos mngon pa kun las btus pa - ch: Dàchéng āpídámó jílùn (《大乘阿毘達磨集論》).

It is a general review of the Abhidhamma from the Mahāyāna point of view, containing all the important notions of this current at the time of Asanga; it was translated into Tibetan by Atisha and Tsultrim Gyelwa (ninth century), and into Chinese, accompanied by Buddhasimha's commentary, by Xuanzang (sixth century); Walpola Rahula's French translation is based on a previously unpublished Sanskrit version discovered in Tibet in 1934.

Nevertheless, it is Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa, representing the hīnayāna point of view, that constitutes the basic text for the teaching of the Abhidharma in mahāyāna and vajrayāna monasteries, the Abhidharmasamuccaya being studied only by those who want to deepen their knowledge in this field.

Texts attributed according to the sources to Asanga (under the inspiration of the bodhisattva Maitreya) or to Maitreyanātha :

Panca maitreyograntha (The Five Treatises of Maitreya) - Tibetan: བྱམས་ཆོས་སྡེ་ལྔ, Wylie: byams chos sde lnga - ch: Mílé wǔlùn 《弥勒五論》
Āryavācāprakaraṇa-śāstra- ch: Xiǎnyáng shèngjiào lùn (《顯揚聖教論》)Treaty on the Explanation of the Noble Teaching.

Abhisamaya alamkara nāma prajnāpāramitā upadeśa śāstra (Ornament of Clear Realization) - Tibetan: མངོན་པར་རྟོགས་པའི་རྒྱན, Wylie: mngon par rtogs pa'i rgyan ch: Xiànguān zhuāngyán lùn 《現觀莊嚴論》

Mahāyānasūtralankara (Ornement des sūtras mahāyāna) - tibétain : ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོ་མདོ་སྡེའི་རྒྱན, Wylie : theg pa chen po mdo sde'i rgyan, commenté par Vasubandhu; - ch: Dàchéng zhuāngyájīnglùn (《大乘莊嚴經論》)

Madhyanta-vibhanga (Discrimination entre le milieu et les extrêmes) - tibétain : དབུས་དང་མཐའ་རྣམ་པར་འབྱེད་པ, Wylie : dbus dang mtha' rnam par 'byed pa'' - ch : Biàn zhōngbiān lùn (《辯中邊論》), commenté par Vasubandhu et Sthiramati

Dharmadharmatavibhanga (Discrimination entre existence et essence) - tibétain : ཆོས་དང་ཆོས་ཉིད་རྣམ་པར་འབྱེད་པ, Wylie : chos dang chos nyid rnam par 'byed pa - ch : Fēnbié yújiā lùn (《分別瑜伽論》)

Mahāyānottaratantra-śastra ou Ratnagotravibhaga (Traité sur la nature de bouddha) - ti : theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bsten chos ou rgyud bla ma - ch : Dàchéng wúshàngyàoyì lùn (《大乘無上要義論》), texte intermédiaire entre sutras et tantras.

Yogācāra-bhūmi śastra (Terres de bodhisattva/Traité des terres des pratiquants du yoga) - ti : sa sde lnga- ch : Yújiāshī dìlùn (《瑜伽師地論》), décrivant les étapes de la voie de bodhisattva

Yogācāra-bhūmi - tib: rnal'byor spyod pa'i sa
Yogācāra-bhūmi-niranaya-samgraha - tib: rnal byor spyod pa'i sa las gtan la phab pa'i bsdu ba

Yogācāra-bhūmau vastu-samgraha - tib: rnal 'byor spyod pa'i sa las gzhi bsdu ba

Yogācāra-bhūmi paryaya-samgraha - tib: rnal 'byor spyod pa'i sa las rnam grangs bsdu ba

Yogācāra-bhūmi vivarana-samgraha - tib: rnal 'byor spyod pa'i sa las rnam par bshad pa'i bsdu ba

Autres attributions :
Traité sur le Sūtra du Diamant - ch : Jīn'gāng bōrè bōluómì jīnglùn (《金剛般若波羅蜜經論》)

Selon certains auteurs comme Charles Eliot, L'Éveil de la foi dans le mahāyāna - ch : Dàchéng qǐxìn lùn (《大乘起信論》), serait d'Asanga et non d'Aśvaghoșa

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