The Yogachara or Yogacara Lineage is the second of the two great mahayana schools in India and is based on the Third Turning of the Wheel of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings. The first is represented by the Profound Lineage and based on the Prajnaparamita teachings of the Second Turning of the Wheel .
These teachings were united with the meditative and devotional traditions of Mahayana by a brilliant set of teachers and half-brothers from Gandhara, Asangha and Vasubhandu, whose works are the culmination of the early Mahayana movement. The school that held this transmission tradition was known as the Yogachara, or the Method or Extensive Lineage and sometimes referred to as the Vast Bodhisattva Way. These teachings became the leading philosophical school in India during the 3rd to 5th centuries. Yogachara teachings still form the philosophical core of the great Buddhist contemplative lineages such as Mahamudra and Dzogchen (Great Perfection) in Tibet as well ad the T’ian T’ai and Fa-hsiang schools in China and the Tendai in Japan. The Samdhinirmoncana Sutra is one of the Yogachara School’s major scriptures.
Yogachara translates as “practitioners of yoga” emphasizing the school’s commitment to meditation as the essential nature of the Buddhist path. It is also known as the Consciousness-Only or Mind-Only School for their central teaching that all reality is a display of consciousness.
According to the Tibetan tradition, Asanga was born in Purusapura, the capital of Gandhara, of a Brahmin woman who was herself a considerable adept in the teachings of Buddhism and who taught him the “eighteen sciences” which he mastered easily. He became a monk and for five years applied himself diligently, memorizing one hundred thousand verses of dharma each year and correctly understanding their meaning.
He then left the monastery to practice the Arya Maitreya Sadhana in a cave at the foot of a mountain. For three years, not a single good sign appeared, and he became depressed and decided to leave his retreat. Emerging from his cave he noticed a bird’s nest by the mountain where the rock had become worn just by the brushing of the bird’s wing as it flew back and forth. Realizing his perseverance was weak, he returned to his cave to practice. For three more years he meditated, but again not a single good sign appeared. He became discouraged and left again. This time he saw a rock beside the road that was slowly disintegrating because of the trickle of single drops of water. Inspired by this, he returned and practiced another three years.
When again no signs appeared, he left his retreat a third time. He encountered an old man who was rubbing a piece of iron with a smooth cotton cloth. “I am just finishing this needle,” the man said to Asanga. “I have already made those over there” and pointed to small pile of needles lying nearby. Asanga thought, “If such effort is put into a mundane task such as this, my effort so far has been merely a trifle.”
He returned and meditated for another three years. Although he had by now meditated for 12 years on Maitreya, he still had no signs of favor. He became extremely despondent and walked away from his cave. After awhile he came across a half-dead dog lying beside the road, infested with maggots, crying out in pain. Asanga thought, “This dog will die if these worms are not removed, but if I try to lift them out with my hand, I will crush them.” So using his tongue so as not to hurt them, and cutting off some of his own flesh for them to live in, he bent down to remove them. At that moment the dog vanished and Maitreya appeared, showering cascades of light in all directions.
Asanga burst into tears and cried, “Ah, my sole teacher and refuge, all those years I made so much effort in my practice, exerting myself in a hundred different ways, but I saw nothing. Why has the rain and the might of the ocean come only now when tormented by pain, I am no longer thirsting?” Maitreya replied, “In truth, I was in your presence constantly, yet because of karmic obscuration you were unable to see me. However, your practice has purified your karma and removed your obstacles. Now by the force of your great compassion you are able to meet me. To test my words, put me on you shoulders for others to see and carry me across the city.”
Asanga was overjoyed. Lifting Maitreya onto his shoulders carried him into town, yet no one saw Maitreya. One old woman saw Asanga was carrying a dead dog and that brought her endless good fortune. A faithful servant saw Maitreya’s feet and found himself in a state of samadhi which granted him all the siddhis. Asanga himself realized the samadhi called “Continuum of Reality”. “What is your desire now?” Maitreya asked him. “To revive the teachings of the Mahayana,” Asanga replied. “Well then, hold onto the end of my robe.” Asanga did this and together they ascended to the pure land of Tushita where they stayed for fifty years. Here Asanga mastered the teachings of the Mahayana and received the famous Five Texts of Maitreya, each of which opens a different door of samadhi.
Dedicated to actualizing these teachings, Asanga returned to the earth and built a small temple in a forest. At first only a few students came to learn teachings from him, but gradually the fame of his doctrine spread and the Yogacara School was established. He became the abbot of Nalanda and lived to be well over 100, but always had a youthful look, with no gray hair or wrinkles.
He compiled many important Mahayana works including what has come to be known as The Five Texts of Maitreya. These include the Abhisamayalamkara (Ornament of Clear Comprehension), the Mahanaya Sutralankara (Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras), the Madhyanta-vibhanga (Discourse on the Middle between the Extremes), the Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga, and the Uttaratantra (The Peerless Continuum). His Mahayana-samparigraha (Compendium of the Mahayana), Abhidarma-samuccaya (Compendium of Higher Doctrine), and Yogacharabhumi-shastra (Treatise on the Stages of Yoga Practice) are also famous.
According to the Tibetan historian Taranatha, Tantric teachings were handed down in secret through the Yogacara lineage from the time of Asanga. In the Tibetan canon are several Tantric works ascribed to Asanga including a Maitreya Sadhana and a Prajna-Paramita Sadhana.
The cofounder of Yogacara, Vasubandu, is traditionally said to be the younger half-brother of Asanga. He was also born in Purusapura in Gandhara and became a monk of the Sarvastivadin school. He went to Kashmir to study their teachings including their renown Abhidharma works. He also was said to possess a complete understanding of the Tripitaka and the tenets of all the Hinayana schools.
Vasubandu wrote Seven Branches of Metaphysics, an encyclopedic work clarifying the main points of teachings of the early Arhats, The Four Oral Traditions of Vinaya on Buddhist discipline, and the most famous compendium of Abhidharma teachings in the Buddhist tradition, the Abhidharma-kosa and a commentary to it called the Abhidharma-kosa-Bhayasa. The Kosa describes the Buddhist path to enlightenment by categorizing and analyzing the basic factors of experience called dharmas.
Already famous for his intellectual understanding of Buddhism, Vasubandu came to Nalanda University and was converted to the Mahayana by Asanga. According to a traditional account, Asanga summoned Vasubandu under the pretext that he was dying. When Vasubandu arrived and asked the cause of his illness, Asanga replied, “I have a serious disease of the heart which arose on account of you.” Vasubandu asked, “How did it arise on account of me?” Asanga replied, “Because you do not believe in the Mahayana and are forever attacking and criticizing it. For this wickedness you will be reborn in a miserable existence. Grieving for you has brought me close to death.” Vasubandu was surprised at this and asked Asanga to expound the Mahayana to him. Upon doing so he became convinced of the truth of the Mahayana and asked his brother what he could do to overcome the negative karma he had accumulated. Asanga answered, “Since your skillful and eloquent speech against the Mahayana earned you this negative karma, you must now use your skillful and eloquent speech to propound the Mahayana.”
Vasubandu went on to write many works which systematized the Consciousness Only teachings including On the Three Natures, the Twenty Verses, and the Thirty Verses, perhaps the most famous of the Consciousness Only texts. He also wrote devotional hymns and commentaries on Mahayana texts, including works of Asanga.
After Asanga passed away, Vahubandhu became abbot of Nalanda. Every day he taught 20 classes on various Mahayana Sutras and constantly met in debate and defeated the false views of other teachers. For over 100 years he traveled in India and Nepal establishing the dharma and teaching the Mahayana doctrine. Many of his debates were with Samyka teachers, a school like Yogacara based on yogic experience that flourished at that time. Other debates were with proponents of yoga as reflected in Patanjali’s famous sutras.
Stirmati was one of the famous disciples of Vasubandu. He was born in the southern Indian city of Dandakaranya of low caste parents, and studied with Vasubandu from age seven. He wrote commentaries on Abhidharma and the works of Vasubandu, including the Trimsikabhasya (Commentary on The Thirty Verses).
Gunaprabha, one of Vasubandu’s closest disciples, is famous for his mastery of Vinaya. He was born in Mathura of a Brahmin family. He studied the Vedic teachings, and the Hinayana teachings in addition to receiving Mahayana teachings from Vasubandu. According to the Tibetan accounts, he recited the Hundred Thousand Vinayas daily and resided in a monastery in Mathura called Adrapuri that had 5000 monks, all of whom kept the Vinaya rules perfectly. He composed the Vinaya-Sutra, Basic Teachings of the Vinaya and One Hundred Actions. His Aphorisms of Discipline are one of the “five great books” that form the basis for the twenty year study program in Tibetan monastic colleges. In some sources he and Sakyaprabha were listed as the Six Jewels of India instead of Nagarjuna and Asangha.
Vimuktasena was another close disciple of Vasubandu. He is famous for his mastery of the Prajna-Paramita Sutras. He was born in Jvala-guha in south-central India. He was a devotee of Maitreya and received both advice and teachings from the celestial Buddha. He wrote a text called Twenty Thousand Lights on the Prajna-Paramitas. Towards the end of his life he became the spiritual guide of a king in South India and supervised twenty-four temples where he widely taught the Prajna-Paramita Sutras.
Paramartha was one of the great translators of Buddhist texts into Chinese. Paramartha was already a master in India when he traveled to China in 546 at the age of 47. At the request of the emperor of China, he settled in the capital and began the translation of texts. Political instability in China forced him to move quite often, but he was still able to translate the important works of the Yogacara lineage into Chinese including the Abhidharmakosa, the Mahayana-Samparigraha (Compendium of the Mahayana), and various works of Vasubandu. He is also famous for his translation of the Diamond Sutra. All together, Paramartha translated sixty-four works in 278 volumes. His translations made the later success of Yogacara possible in China and inspired Hsuan Tsang (Xuanzang) several generations later to travel to India for additional texts and commentaries.
Hosso, the Japanese name for Yogacara, thrived during the Nara period and today several prominent ancient temples are still functioning. Yogacara proper in India and China did not fare so well. The Yogacara School in India became part of a Yogacara-Madhyamika School which thrived in the last centuries before Buddhism disappeared in India under Islamic persecution. This school became influential in Tibet through Shantaraksita, one of the first Buddhist Masters to teach in Tibet, and today all Tibetan sects have a strong Yogacara component. This is especially visible in the more contemplative Kagyu and Nyingma practice traditions. Several Kagyu teachers have supervised English translations of Asanga’s works in recent years.
An example of the respect Tibetan teachers have for Yogacara is this appreciation taken from a dharma talk by the Venerable Traleg Rinpoche, “People have generally ignored how Yogacara philosophy influenced Buddhist tantra and its development. Even though it’s quite patent in the writings of Buddhist tantra… Yogacara philosophy itself developed as a reaction against too much theorization. It came to emphasize individual experience and practice,hence the name Yogacara, meaning practitioners of yoga… You could not theorize about Yogacara philosophy without meditating. In fact, you could not be a Yogacara philosopher unless you meditate. When we look at the writings of Yogacara philosophy, we discover many tantric concepts mentioned.”
Perhaps the greatest success of the Yogacara teachings was in Gandhara. There Yogacara became the foundation for Dzogchen considered by some to be the summit of Buddhist philosophy. That is no small honor for the remarkable work the early Yogacara Masters accomplished in clarifying the essence of the Mahayana path.