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Maitreya and the Yogachara


In the development of Mahayana doctrine, Maitreya as bodhisattva is most closely associated with the Yogachara teachings and their study of consciousness and psychology. From his vantage in the meditation heaven, Maitreya contemplates consciousness and perception, deeply considering how to save all the confused and suffering beings.

AUDIO One prominent Yogachara teacher was Asanga. A story relates how Asanga spent twelve years in solitary meditation in a cave in the Himalayas, doing practices involving visualization of and devotion to Maitreya. After twelve years of intense practice without any evident result, Asanga departed his cave feeling discouraged. As he approached a town, he encountered a dog whose lower body was being eaten by worms. Struck with sympathetic concern, Asanga realized that removing the worms would kill them, but that leaving them would lead to the dog's death. Immediately Asanga decided to cut some flesh from his own body to feed the worms and remove them from the dog. He went to the town and traded his monk's staff for a knife, and then returned to the dog.
After cutting some flesh from his thigh, Asanga thought that if he picked the worms off the dog with his hands they might also die. So he decided to remove the worms from the dog with his tongue. As he was about to do that, the dog vanished, transformed into Maitreya in all his radiance. Overwhelmed with tears, Asanga asked why Maitreya appeared now, when Asanga had abandoned hope of seeing him, and had never manifested through all of Asanga's meditative exertions. Maitreya answered that he had been near Asanga from the beginning, but Asanga's conditioning had made him unable to see. But thanks to Asanga's kindness to the dog and the worms, he was now able to behold Maitreya.
Maitreya asked Asanga to carry him on his shoulders into the town. Asanga did so gladly, although the townspeople could only see Asanga carrying a smelly, infested mongrel. Asanga was then offered any wish by the brightly glowing Maitreya, and Asanga asked for guidance on how to spread the Mahayana teachings. Thereupon Asanga was transported directly to Maitreya's Tushita Heaven, where he could study with Maitreya. Sometime thereafter, Asanga returned to the human realm and established a monastic training center, where he wrote down what he had learned. Legend has it that he would give teachings at the monastery by day and return to Tushita Heaven each night to study.
Maitreya's approval of Asanga's kindness toward the dog and the worms is a vivid example of Maitreya's unconditional love. Such concern for even the humblest of creatures may be seen as a quality of Maitreya, which is echoed in some of his exemplars