Asanga Helps Spread Mahāyāna Buddhism

Asanga revived Mahāyāna Buddhism, which was in decline, and founded the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Summary of Event

According to Tārānātha, Asanga’s mother was of the Brahman caste of the Kauśika clan, Prasannaśīla. She conceived Asanga with a man who belonged to the warrior (Kṣatriya) caste, whereas her two other sons were fathered by a Brahman. According to Paramārtha’s Basohanzu hoshiden (sixth century c.e.; The Biography of Vasubandhu, 1995), three sons were born to a Brahman woman of the Kauśika clan in Puruṣapura (modern Peshawar, Pakistan). All three were given the name Vasubandhu. The eldest became known as Asanga, the middle son retained the name Vasubandhu, and the third son became known as Viriñcivatsa. In Paramārtha’s account, there is no indication that Asanga was the stepbrother of the other two. All three sons are said to have entered the Sarvāstivādin sect of Hīnayāna Buddhism. Not much else is known about the youngest son, Viriñcivatsa. Asanga

Asanga reportedly studied under Piṇḍola. According to Tārānātha, Asanga, dissatisfied with his understanding of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, retreated to a cave in the mountain Kukkuṭapāda until the bodhisattva Maitreya took him up to the Tuṣita Heaven and expounded the Mahāyāna sutras and doctrine to him. (A bodhisattva is a being who strives for enlightenment for himself but who also remains in this world to help others advance toward enlightenment.) According to Paramārtha, Asanga reached the Tuṣita Heaven through his own powers and received instruction from Maitreya. Scholars have debated whether Maitreya was the bodhisattva or a historical person who happened to be named after the bodhisattva.

Returning from Tuṣita Heaven, Asanga set about spreading the Mahāyāna doctrine. The sources agree in stating that at this time, the Mahāyāna was in decline. In this respect, Asanga was reported to have set up various monasteries (vihāras) throughout India to disseminate the teachings of the Mahāyāna. It is reported that the number of practitioners of Mahāyāna increased through the influence of Asanga. One of the monasteries set up by Asanga was the Dharmāṅkura-vihāra, in which he composed his works.

In spreading the Mahāyāna doctrine, Asanga enlisted the help of his brother, Vasubandhu, who had been a vehement expounder of the Sarvāstivādin sect and who had denounced the teachings of the Mahāyāna. Entreating Vasubandhu to come to him because of illness, Asanga in the end converted Vasubandhu to the Mahāyāna. After Asanga’s death in Rajagṛha, Vasubandhu became a major proponent of the Mahāyāna and in particular the Yogācāra school.

Although exact dates vary, most scholars place Asanga’s lifetime spanning the fourth and fifth centuries c.e. The attribution of writings to Asanga has been much debated. Most scholars would agree that at least the following were composed by Asanga: the Abhidharmasamuccaya (fourth-fifth centuries c.e.; Compendium of the Higher Teaching, 2001); the Xianyang shengjiao lun (fourth-fifth centuries c.e.; a Chinese translation of the Āryadeśanāvikhyāpana), an abridgment of the Yogācārabhūmi (fourth century c.e.); and Mahāyānasaṃgraha (fourth century c.e.; The Summary of the Great Vehicle, 1992). Traditionally the Yogācārabhūmi, the foundation text of Yogācāra, is the most well-known work attributed to Asanga; however, it is also assigned to the historical Maitreya or is taken as a compilation of several sources.

Asanga’s most significant achievement is the founding of the Yogācāra school. The Yogācāra and the Mādhyamika, founded by Nāgārjuna (second-third century c.e.), are the major schools of Mahāyāna thought.

The Yogācāra philosophy posited three aspects of consciousness: vijñāna, manas, and citta. Earlier Buddhist thinkers treated these terms as synonyms. Asanga, however, looked on vijñāna as the consciousness related to the sense organs (for example, visual and auditory consciousness). Manas was the seat of discursive reasoning, connected with the illusion of self. Citta was the ālayavijñāna, the store-consciousness, which contained traces from one’s past lives and potentialities for future actions. It is through the “revolution” or “uprooting” of the ālayavijñāna that one attains enlightenment. The seeds of defilement of the ālayavijñāna must be purified.

The uprooting of the ālayavijñāna ultimately amounts to the realization of the emptiness (śūnyatā) of all phenomena. Earlier, Nāgārjuna, the founder of the Mādhyamika school, had offered a devastating critique in which he argued that all phenomena were “empty” of any permanent substance or essence. In doing this, many thought that he was advocating some form of nihilism because he was arguing that there was no permanent substance. However, Nāgārjuna was very careful to point out that he was following the middle way (mādhyama) between essentialism and nihilism. The phenomena exist as transforming and changing forms without substance or essence.

Asanga’s approach was somewhat different. He advanced the doctrine of three natures (trisvabhāva). According to this doctrine, phenomena have an “imaginary” nature (parikalpita-svabhāva); a dependent nature (paratantra-svabhāva); and a “perfected” nature (pariniṣpanna-svabhāva). It is people’s past experiences in the ālayavijñāna that impose the imaginary nature on phenomena. The imposition of constructions on the phenomena gives them the appearance of independent substances. Thus the belief that people perceive independently existing things is reducible, according to Asanga, to constructions of the mind. (This school of thought is also known as the mind-only—cittamātra—school.) However, phenomena are empty; they exist only in their relative, dependent nature. Moreover, when the phenomena are seen without the superimposition of the imagination, when they are viewed in their undifferentiated relativity, then the phenomena are seen in their perfected nature. It is through the uprooting of the ālayavijñāna that a person attains this vision.

This vision of the perfected nature of phenomena forms an important part of the understanding of reality that the bodhisattva has. Asanga contributed to the Mahāyāna understanding of the bodhisattva by positing ten stages in the development of the bodhisattva toward this understanding of reality. These stages are not found in earlier Buddhism.

Another important aspect of the Yogācāra view of Buddhas is the doctrine of the three bodies of Buddhas. The first body is the Dharmakāya, the truth or essence body of Buddhas. Also there is the Sambhogakāya, the enjoyment body, through which the Buddhas enjoy the doctrine and assemblies of the Buddhas. Finally, there is the Nirmanakāya, the appearance body of Buddhas, which is the physical form in which Buddhas appear among people. These latter two bodies are dependent on the essence body.


Vasubandhu, Asanga’s brother, continued to propagate the Yogācāra philosophy after Asanga’s death. After Vasubandhu’s death, various branches of the Yogācāra school were formed. One branch was formulated by Sthiramati (510-570 c.e.). Paramārtha (499-569) introduced Sthiramati’s system into China in the fifth century. This branch formed the basis of the Shelun sect. The name is an abbreviated form of the Chinese name for Asanga’s The Summary of the Great Vehicle. Dignāga (400-480) and Dharmapāla (530-561) set up another branch, and Xuanzang (more well known as the Chinese pilgrim who visited India, brought it to China. This school was called Faxiang (Fa-hsiang; Dharma characteristic). In the eighth century, it arrived in Japan, where it was called the Hossō school.

Further Reading

  • Asanga. La Somme du Grande Véhicule d’Asanga (Mahāyānasaṃgraha). Louvain-la-Neuve, France: Univeristé de Louvain, Institut Orientaliste, 1973. Translation into French with notes of this major work of Asanga. Tibetan and Chinese texts are included. Bibliography.
  • Griffiths, P. J., N. Hakayama, J. P. Keenan, and P. L. Swanson. The Realm of Awakening: Chapter Ten of Asanga’s “Mahāyānasaṃgraha.” Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989. Text, translation, and commentary on this text, which explains the Yogācāra doctrine of the three bodies of the Buddhas. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Paramartha. “‘The Life of Vasu-bandhu’ by Paramartha (a.d. 499-569).” Translated by Junichiro Takakusu. T’oung Pao 2, no. 5 (1904): 269-296. A translation of the biography of Asanga’s brother; it also gives the most authoritative information on the life of Asanga.
  • Willis, J. D. On Knowing Reality: The “Tattvartha” Chapter of the Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhūmi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. A translation with commentary of the text, which explains in what way a bodhisattva apprehends reality. The introduction gives a good general overview of Yogācāra philosophy. Willis argues strongly for the view that Asanga’s philosophy should not be regarded as idealistic. Glossary and bibliography.

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