Master Asanga was born with uniquely deep talent and wisdom from his past lifetimes. When studying sutras and commentaries, he was able to understand the meaning with a quick reading. Later, he practiced meditative concentration and became free of desires. He repeatedly thought about the “meaning of emptiness” but was unable to deeply understand and explain it. He was quite unhappy for that. An Arhat named Pindola-Bharadvaja heard about his difficulty and came to him to teach “the Small-Vehicle (Hinayana) School’s view of emptiness.” Then, he practiced contemplation according to the teaching and achieved a deep understanding. However, Master Asanga was still not satisfied after learning the Small-Vehicle School’s view of emptiness because he still did not have perfect answers for many doubts and questions he had.
At that time, the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism (the Large Vehicle) was available from Maitreya Bodhisattva. However, to receive Maitreya Bodhisattva’s teaching in person, one must successfully enter into the state of concentration. Due to his urge to quest for the dharma, Master Asanga longed for the opportunity to meet Maitreya Bodhisattva in person to be taught with the dharma. Therefore, he chose a mountain cave in a sparsely populated area and began practicing cessation and contemplation diligently.
As time was flowing away continuously, six years elapsed. Master Asanga still was unable to see Maitreya Bodhisattva while practicing concentration in the cave. A thought came up in his mind, “If it is impossible to see Maitreya Bodhisattva, I should just give up!” Thus, he decided to take a break from cultivating and practicing in the cave. He put on his regular clothing and walked out of the cave. On his way of coming down from the mountain, he saw a white-haired elder lady, who held an iron stick and was laboriously grinding it on a flab of stone. The scene caught Master Asanga’s attention.
“Elder lady. May I ask what you are doing?” Master Asanga asked.
“Oh, I am grinding this iron stick into a thin needle.”
“You are grinding it into a thin needle?” Master Asanga was very much astonished and also greatly moved. He thought, “This elder lady was willing to grind it day after day with a seemingly silly movement. In contrast, as a cultivator, I could not adhere to practicing true Buddha-dharma to pursue wisdom.” The arising of this extremely precious thought caused Master Asanga to introspect himself and generate humility in mind. Then, he returned to the cave to devote himself into the difficult and hard cultivation and practice once again.
During the next three years, Master Asanga still did not make any achievement. Another thought rose in his mind, “Why should I waste time? It is simply impossible to see Maitreya Bodhisattva!” So he again broke his practice in retreat and went down the mountain. This time, he met a person, who was using a feather to scrub an enormously big rock. Master Asanga asked that person what he was doing. That person said, “This big rock blocks sunlight. I am grinding it to make it smaller, so that sunlight can shine into my room.” Upon hearing that, Asanga was alerted and began to introspect himself, “This person can be so unyielding in doing such a ridiculous thing. Comparing to him, I am so ashamed. I receded from my determination just because of a small setback!” With regret he again returned to his retreat chamber in the mountain.
Thus, another three years passed. Master Asanga was still unable to see Maitreya Bodhisattva appearing. At last, he receded from his determination once more. With discouragement, he left the retreat chamber again. On the way of coming down from the mountain, he saw a dying old dog, whose body had already begun to rot. The wounds were totally covered by maggots that were diffusing an awful stench. Compassion rose in Master Asanga toward this dog. He cut off a piece of flesh from his own body to feed the dog and also intended to remove the many maggots from the dog’s wounds. At that time, Master Asanga thought, “These maggots have very tender and fragile bodies. If I use my coarse fingers to move them, they will definitely be harmed.” Therefore, he decided to use his tongue to carefully lick up the maggots to move them to an inhabitable place for them. However, those maggots really looked very terrible. Master Asanga had to kneel on the ground and close his eyes. He then lowered his body to lick the maggots with his tongue.
As he was lowering his body, Master Asanga actually felt that his tongue was touching the ground. He opened his eyes and saw that the dog was no longer there. The solemn and majestic Maitreya Bodhisattva was standing in front of him. After the moment of excitement, Master Asanga asked Maitreya Bodhisattva, “I wholeheartedly prayed and beseeched you, revered Bodhisattva, to manifest before me for the last twelve years. Why didn’t you?”
Maitreya Bodhisattva replied, “Starting from the first day when you entered the retreat and began to pray, I was with you and next to you at every moment. However, due to the obstruction by your karmic forces, you were never able to see me. Through your diligent cultivation and practice during these twelve years, most of the karmic hindrance has been purified. Additionally, you generated great compassion in the occasion that just passed. Now all your karmic hindrance has been removed. That is why you can see me now! If you do not believe what I said, you can carry me on your shoulder and walk around at the market to see if people can see me.”
Thus, Master Asanga carried Maitreya Bodhisattva on his shoulder and walked to the market. While walking, he yelled to people, “What do you see that is on my shoulder?” People all thought that he had mental problems. They laughed and said, “There is nothing!” Only one old lady said that he was carrying a dog with scabies. Thus, Master Asanga was totally convinced and free of any doubt. Uncommon respect and faith rose in him toward Maitreya Bodhisattva.
After meeting Maitreya Bodhisattva, Master Asanga politely sought teaching from the Bodhisattva. Maitreya Bodhisattva asked, “What do you want to learn?” Master Asanga said, “My wish is to propagate the Mahayana Dharma.” Maitreya Bodhisattva was delighted to hear that and brought him to the pure land within the Tusita Heaven. Maitreya Bodhisattva expounded to him the precious views of Mahayana Buddhism and the “Five Shastras (Commentaries) by Maitreya.” The teachings enlightened Master Asanga like pushing away clouds to see the Sun. Many doubts that he had had before were completely removed. Since then, he followed Maitreya Bodhisattva’s teaching to dedicate himself to study “the View of Emptiness of Mahayana Buddhism.” Maitreya Bodhisattva gave him a series of discourses and also explained the essence of the Mahayana sutras to him in detail. Master Asanga was enlightened from listening to the teachings and basically gained the understanding and proficiency in the sutras and shastras of Mahayana Buddhism. Later, Master Asanga also practiced the Dharma of Sunlight Samadhi. Through learning and practicing diligently, he eventually attained holy accomplishment. From then on, he was able to understand what he could not before and could forever remember all Buddhist scriptures he read. Later, he built a big lecture hall and dedicated himself to expound all Mahayana sutras to the great masses.
Master Asanga lived in the world for 150 years and made great contributions to the undertaking of widely propagating the teachings and dharmas of Mahayana Buddhism. He benefited countless living beings.