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The Story of Asanga and Maitreya

Training in Bodhicitta to Find Our Buddha Nature

The following excerpt from Lama Tsomo’s book Deepening Wisdom, Deepening Connection (coming October 2022), demonstrates how our misperceptions of reality may cause suffering. On the other hand, when we see with the eyes of Compassion, we can see the Buddha Nature of others and ourselves. Training in bodhicitta helps us see reality and live in a more connected and compassionate state with those around us.

Here’s another story that shows how you can clean your karmic windshield not only through Shamata but through the bodhicitta approach of Boundless Compassion. Remember, whatever transforms our karmic and habitual tendency toward self-centeredness removes obscurations from our lens—our windshield. It takes a lot of repetition to transform habits, creating and expanding new neural pathways, and dissolving the old ones.

Long ago, in ancient India, a Dharma student named Asanga had a goal: to see the Future Buddha Maitreya, who was already a great bodhisattva. He then planned on getting instructions from him. He began a Maitreya practice retreat in a cave on Kukkutapada
Mountain. Asanga spent all his waking hours, every single day, reciting Maitreya’s mantra, visualizing him, making offerings to him and so on.

This went on for six years. He never saw Maitreya, even in his dreams. No sign of any kind. Nothing. He became discouraged and gave up. After completing the closing rituals for his retreat, he packed up his things and walked down the road in despair. He came upon a man
rubbing a huge iron pole with a soft cloth.

“What are you doing, my friend?” Asanga asked.
“I need a needle, so I’m rubbing this pole, to fashion it into a needle.”

“Hmmm,” thought Asanga, “It would take him a century of rubbing to do the job. Yet he’s persevering. Here I am, supposedly a good practitioner, and I’ve quit my lofty goal after only six years. And my goal is way more important and beneficial than a needle could ever
be.” He was embarrassed, regretful that he didn’t know the meaning of persistence. He turned around and went back to the cave.

For three more years he did nothing else but pray to Maitreya continuously. Still no sign whatsoever. This time he was positive that there was absolutely no hope of seeing Maitreya, that he was wasting his life, accomplishing nothing. Again, he ended retreat, packed up his few possessions, and walked down the path.

The first person he came upon was a man at the foot of a towering rock. The man was dipping a feather in water and stroking the rock.

“What are you trying to do here?” Asanga asked, more than a little bewildered.
“This rock is blocking the sunlight from my house, so I’m wearing it away,” the man explained.

Immediately Asanga’s mind went to the thoughts of three years before, and he returned to the cave, practicing with renewed vigor. Three years passed. Nothing, nada, zilch.

“That’s it!” he declared, now in complete despair. “No matter what I do, I see that if I do this for a million years, I’ll get nowhere.” He packed up his things and left for good.
This time he didn’t come upon any men doing bizarre things. He did come upon a dog, however. Her two hind legs were crippled, and she pulled herself along in the most painful way. Her hindquarters were covered with writhing maggots. Somehow she managed to find
the strength to bite any hand that came near. Asanga was overcome with the most unbearable wave of compassion. His heart would break if he couldn’t help her.

But how? When he got near her, she snarled and tried to bite his hand. He could see that on top of everything else, she was starving. Without a thought, he cut off a piece of his own flesh and fed it to her. Clearly his years of meditating on the great, compassionate Bodhisattva Maitreya hadn’t been a waste. Would we have the compassion to feed our flesh to an ill-tempered, rotting dog?

Then he turned his attention to the maggots. He didn’t see how he could pick them off of her without crushing their mushy little bodies. But he felt compassion for them too. The only thing he could think of to use was, well, his tongue. He couldn’t bear to lick them off if he looked at the maggots, so he closed his eyes and bent down to begin.

His tongue touched the ground. He opened his eyes. No dog. He looked up. There was the huge, glowing Bodhisattva Maitreya! Asanga felt the force of his power and love pouring out in all directions. The first thing he thought of to say was, “Maitreya! Where have you been all these years! I’ve been praying to you, visualizing you, saying your mantra, and you never appeared in all that time!”

Maitreya smiled, “Asanga, I was there with you every single minute. And when you gave up, I appeared as the man with the scarf, the man with the feather, and now a dog.”

Asanga wept at the thought. “But . . . but . . .”

“You couldn’t see me because of your own past negative actions and obscurations. Over all those years, you cleared away almost enough of them, so that I appeared as a festering dog. Your act of compassion finally cleared away enough, and made your vision pure enough that
you could see me.”

“No! That’s impossible. Anyone could see you the way you’re appearing now. You’re huge and glowing, and clear as day!”

“If you don’t believe me, let’s go into town and find out if anyone else can see me.” Asanga wasn’t convinced, so they went to the nearby village.

Asanga carried Maitreya on his right shoulder. He asked everyone at the market what they saw. Every one of them looked at him a little strangely and said they saw nothing. At last they came to an old woman at the edge of town, whose obscurations were relatively more cleared away than the villagers’. When Asanga asked her, she said, “The rotting corpse of a dog.”

After that, Maitreya took Asanga to a pure realm and gave him the very high teachings that he had so fervently prayed for. Asanga went on to become one of the greatest Buddhist masters of ancient India. He’s still famous today. His works are still studied, and he still inspires thousands of people.

How Bodhicitta Leads to Enlightenment

I’ve just told you his story, and you’ve now just read it, so the benefit of all of Asanga’s hard work is still rippling out. This story reminds us that, in training in bodhicitta in general, and Compassion in particular, we can accomplish the two processes that lead toward enlightenment: clearing away obscurations, and bringing forth our Buddha Nature. You can see why Compassion is essential to Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

Even though buddhas and great bodhisattvas can appear anywhere, even in the Bardo (the dreamlike state between lifetimes) or our dreams, if we’re too caught in our own fixations and obscurations, we can’t see them. And even if we do see something, we can’t see these beings as they really are. When we see with the eyes of compassion, we see more truly.

Long before we ever get within a mile of enlightenment, we can see our loved ones, co-workers, and others with purer vision and more open hearts. I remember talking with one longtime Dharma student who shook his head and mused, “After practicing Dharma, we can master worldly life . . . but by then that’s not our goal.” He was pointing to the fact that we get better at worldly life after all this practice, but by that time what we really want to do is to wake up out of it, altogether.

Learn more about Deepening Wisdom, Deepening Connection HERE. 

Excerpt, pages 56-59, from Ancient Wisdom for Our Times. Tibetan Buddhist Practice: Deepening Wisdom, Deepening Connection (c)2022 Lama Tsomo LLC. Published by Namchak Publishing Company LLC, USA.