The Abhidharmasamuccaya

Presentation of the Abhidharmasamuccaya by Asanga (tib : chos mngon pa kun las btu spa)



Asanga was born in the region of Purusapura, Peshawar, the present Kashmir in the 4th century. His birth had been predicted by Buddha Shakyamuni, who announced that about 900 years after his parinirvana, the venerable Asanga would appear in this world to protect the teachings of the Mahayana. His younger brother was no other than Vasubandhu. Their mother, Prasannasila, from Brahmin caste and a former nun had made the vow to give birth to two sons whom she would rear to help spread and strengthen the teachings of the Buddha, particularly the Abhidharma, which had been in a period of decline after the destruction of a great part of the library of Nalanda university by a devastating fire.

The entire work of Asanga is rooted in the Mahayana perspective, or more precisely in the "yogachara" school of thought.


Asanga took monastic vows, studied the tripitaka of the Theravada and the Mahayana, and pursued his search for a definite understanding of ultimate reality by entering the path of the tantras. During an initiation, at the moment of tossing a flower on a mandala indicating the karmic link between the deity and the initiatee, Asanga's flower fell on the field of Buddha Maitreya. Consequently, Asanga decided to meditate on Buddha Maitreya.

He journeyed to the mountain called Riwo Tchakang, at the Indian Tibetan border, and sat down to meditate in seclusion, wanting to meet Buddha Maitreya face to face in order to receive instructions, especially on Prajnaparamita topic.

After three years without result, he felt very depressed and left his cave. On his way, he saw a pigeon leaving its nest through a small hole in the rocks. Noticing how that hole had been worn smooth by the feathers of generations of pigeons, Asanga was inspired to more diligence and returned to his practice. After three more years of fruitless meditation, he again felt like giving up. On his way to town he met a man who was rubbing an iron bar with a smooth cloth. Upon asking the man what he was doing, he was told that he was making a needle! So much diligence for such a small worldly aim encouraged Asanga to return to his retreat place once more.

After 12 years of meditation, he still had not met Maitreya. Desperate and discouraged, he again left his retreat place and on the way to the next town, he passed a sick old dog on the side of the street. The dog's hind part was paralyzed and eaten by worms. Although the animal tried to attack him, Asanga only felt overwhelming compassion. He thought of removing the worms, but realized that he would squeeze them to death with his fingers. Therefore he decided to remove them with his tongue. He knelt down, closed his eyes, unable to bear the sight of the dog's wounded flesh, lowered his head and - touched the dusty ground. He opened his eyes and saw Maitreya in front of him.

Asanga, surprised, asked him why he hadn't appeared earlier. Maitreya answered: "I have been with you since the very beginning, but your mind was not open enough to see me. Now, because of your great genuine compassion, your karmic obscurations have been purified, and you are able to see me."

They left in order to introduce Maitreya to the town's people. But none was able to see Maitreya, only an old woman perceived one of Maitreya's feet. And so Asanga understood what it meant to be veiled by mental obscurations. Without great compassion and understanding, karmic obscurations could not be dispelled.

Asanga's perception was now purified, and he experienced the pure dimension of Tushita, the dwelling place of Maitreya. There he received from Maitreya the "Five Great Treatises of Maitreya." Returning with them to our world, he taught them widely.


The work of Asanga

The entire work of Asanga is rooted in the Mahayana perspective, or more precisely in the yogachara school of thought.

In brief, this school of thought establishes the view that all phenomena are the expression of habitual tendencies, stored in the fundamental continuum of the mind (sanskrit : alaya; tibétain : kun gzhi), which is the basis of all manifestation. Just as in a dream the dreamer believes his dream to be reality, the mind, under the influence of confusion, perceives manifestation as something really existing and separate from itself. The aim of the path is to realize the emptiness of mind's manifestations, thereby attaining liberation all suffering.

The works of Asanga are: 

• " The Five Treatises of Maitreya " (sanskrit: Panca maitreyograntha; tib : byams chos sde lnga)

It is the name of a collection of teachings written down by Asanga after having received them directly from Buddha Maitreya.
These five treatises are:

  1. skt : Abhisamayalankara; tib : mngon par rtogs pa’i rgyan
  2. skt : Mahayana-sutralankara ;tib : theg pa chen po mdo sde’i rgyan
  3. skt : Madhyanta-vibhanga; tib : dbus dang mtha’ rnam par ‘byed pa
  4. skt : Dharma-dharmata-vibhanga; tib :chos dang chos nyid rnam par ‘byed pa
  5. skt : Mahayanottaratantra-shastra ; tib : theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma’i bsten chos

 • " The Five Treatises on the Bhumis "(skt: yoga cara bhumi ; tib: sa sde lnga)

They were composed by Asanga himself. These are texts which discuss the progression of a bodhisattva towards enlightenment through the bhumis, the levels of enlightenment.
These five treatises are:

  1. skt : Yogacara-bhumi; tib: rnal ‘byor spyod pa’i sa
  2. skt : Yogacara-bhumi-niranaya-samgraha; tib: rnal byor spyod pa’i sa las gtan la phab pa’i bsdu ba
  3. skt : Yogacara-bhumau vastu-samgraha; tib: rnal ‘byor spyod pa’i sa las gzhi bsdu ba;
  4. skt : Yogacara-bhumi paryaya-samgraha; tib: rnal ‘byor spyod pa’i sa las rnam grangs bsdu ba
  5. skt : Yogacara-bhumi vivarana-samgraha; tib: rnal ‘byor spyod pa’i sa las rnam par bshad pa’i bsdu ba

The first text and main part of the "sa sde lnga" describes the development towards enlightenment in steps (skt : bhumi, tib : sa) by the means of the yogachara.

• "The Two Summaries", (tib: sdom rnam gnyis)

A shorthand way of referring to the two compendia by Asanga. The two summaries are :

  1. skt : mahayna samgraha; tib : theg pa chen po bsdus pa, « the compendium of The Great Vehicle »
  2. skt : abhidharmasamuccaya ; tib : chos mngon pa kun las btus pa


The Abhidharmasamuccaya and its translations

The Abhidharmasamuccaya discusses the Abhidharma from the point of view of the Mahayana. It holds an outstanding place in Buddhist literature. Nearly all of the principal doctrines of the mahayana are contained in it, and it is considered to be a compendium of all other works of Asanga.

The text was originally composed in Sanskrit , and contains two parts: The Compendium of Characteristics in four chapters, and The Compendium of Explanations in another four chapters.

A disciple of Asanga, Buddhasimha, wrote a commentary on it, the Abhidharma Samuccaya Abhashya.

The Abhidharmasamuccaya was translated from Sanskrit to Tibetan by the Indian master Atisha and his translator Tsultrim Gyalwa in the 9th century. A Chinese translation by Xuanzang (7th century) also exists.

For his translation into French, Walpola Rahula relied on a fragmentary Sanskrit version which had been discovered in a Tibetan monastery in 1934, the complete Sanskrit original having been considered lost. He also consulted Chinese and Tibetan translations.


The Abhidharmakosha and the Abhidharmasamuccaya in Tibet

Although belonging to the corpus of Mahayana scriptures, in Tibet the Abhidharmasamuccaya is less known than the Abhidharmakosha. Only those who wish to acquire a deeper knowledge of the Abhidharma would study the Abhidharmasamuccaya after having learned the Abhidharmakosha.

Mipham Rinpoche, one of the principal Nyingma lamas of the 19th century, synthesized these two books in one text called "mkhas 'jug", or The Gateway to Knowledge in its English translation (Rangjung Yeshe Editions).

Mipham Rinpoche establishes the differences in classification between the Theravada approach (Abhidharmakosha) and Mahayana approach (Abhidharmasamuccaya)concerning the aggregates (skt: skandha, Tib: phung po), the elements (skt: dhatu, tib: khams) and the mental obscurations (skt: klesha; tib: nyon mongs).

The aggregate of formation:

For example, in the discussion on the aggregate of formation, it is explained that all conditioned things are included within matter, mind and nonconcurrent formations. The nonconcurrent formations which are neither completely associated with the mind, nor with matter, are formations such as vows, aging, birth, and the fact of receiving something. The Abhidharmakosha lists 14 nonconcurrent formations. The Abhidharmasamuccaya adds another 10, like time, speed, location, and so on, totalling 24 of these formations. (mipham rinpoché : gateway to knoweldge: vol 1 P32-33)

The aggregate of consciousness:

Another example illustrating the differences between the two texts concerns the presentation of the aggregate of consciousness. The Abhidharmakosha divides the mind into six collections: the five sense cognitions and the mental cognition. The Abhidharmasamuccaya holds that there are two further collections: the disturbed mental cognition and the all-ground consciousness (skt: alaya; tib: kun gzhi). This division of the mind into eight collections is specific to the Cittamatra approch. (Gateway to Knowledge, vol.I.p.34.)

Mental obscurations:

Mipham Rinpoche also emphasizes the difference between the two approaches in his chapter on mental obscurations: the Abhidharmakosha mentions 98 elements related to the three worlds which have to be abandoned, whereas the Abhidharmasamuccaya has 112 obscurations to be eradicated. (Gateway to Knowledge, vol II p133)