We must first acknowledge statements made by H.P. Blavatsky that there were, in fact, two distinct Aryasangas, separated by long centuries.1 The first is said by her to have been “a direct disciple of Gautama Buddha” and to have “founded the first Yogacharya school”. This first school, Blavatsky says, is “neither northern nor southern, but absolutely esoteric”. She says further that “none of the genunine Yogâchârya books have ever been made public or marketable”, as of her time (late 19th century). Due to the esoteric nature of the original Yogācāra doctrine, and due to the absence of traditional accounts to verify the existence of the first Aryasanga2, we are left to decide for ourselves the validity of these statements.
What is generally accepted is that there is no clear record of the historical development of the Yogācāra system prior to the historically known Aryasanga, but that many of the ideas encompassed in it can be found scattered among earlier Buddhist texts, such that it is entirely plausible that this ‘first Aryasanga’ did indeed produce an early ‘esoteric’ school of Buddhist teachings that were later popularized in an ‘exoteric’ form by the ‘second Aryasanga’.
The history of this ‘second Aryasanga’, who is commonly referred to simply as Asanga, is itself steeped in mystery and myth. The main source for biographical information on Asanga is The Life of Vasu-Bandhu3 wherein a brief sketch of his life is given. As the story goes, there were three brothers, all of whom were named Vasubandhu (in the tradition of the time). The eldest son, who Paramartha says “was a man endowed with the innate character of a Bodhisattva”, first became a priest in the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism, became free of desire through meditation, and was afterwards instructed in the doctrine of nothingness of the Hinayāna and came to comprehend it. Finding no comfort in these attainments alone, he is said to have ascended to the Tuṣita heaven where Maitreya himself instructed him in “the doctrine of nothingness belonging to the Mahā-yāna”.
Through his investigation of the teachings of Maitreya, this eldest brother became enlightened. He thereafter took upon himself the name Asanga, which means “without attachment”. It is said that Asanga went back and forth between Earth and Tuṣita heaven, learning extensively from Maitreya in Tuṣita and instructing others on Earth. Elsewhere it is said that Asanga spent fifty earth-years in Tuṣita before returning as a Teacher of the Law.4
According to the Tibetan tradition, five central works are attributed to Maitreya himself, while other works, like the famous Yogācāra-Bhūmi, were composed by Asanga5. The Chinese tradition differs in which works are attributed to Maitreya and which to Asanga, but both traditions agree that all are based on the teachings of Maitreya. The teachings recorded in these works compose the central tenets of the popularized Yogācāra school. H.P. Blavatsky comments that the Yogācāra-Bhūmi includes “a great deal from the older system” (i.e. the esoteric Yogācāra of the ‘first Aryasanga’) but that it is also “mixed up with Sivaism and Tantrika magic and superstitions”.
However we view it, the core ideas encompassed in the Yogācāra system find their expression scattered throughout modern Mahayana Buddhism and Theosophical literature, of particular uniqueness being the concept of ālaya-vijñāna, along with specific interpretations of paraniṣpanna and parmārtha. The Yogācāra system is often constrasted with the Mādhyamika system founded upon the teachings of Nāgārjuna, these forming two ancient ‘pillars’ of Buddhist thought.
Even with our limited historical knowledge of Aryasanga one thing is clear: the teachings of Gautama Buddha were taught and in some sense systematized by at least one great teacher, if not several, into what we now recognize as the Yogācāra philosophy. The sublime and high-reaching thought of this system is itself evidence of the presence of some great teacher at some age in human history. For a wonderful introduction to this system see Philosophy of the Yogācāra, by D. T. Suzuki.
See here for more: Aryasanga.
^2. “In none of the sacred books treating on the Mahâyâna system do we find a record of the historical development of its theories prior to the appearance of Âryâsanga (in Tibetan Chagpa thogmed), a reformer who founded the Yogâchârya school (in Tibetan, Naljor chodpa). It is impossible, therefore, to indicate, with any approximation to accuracy, either the origin, or the authors, of the divergent theories to be clearly traced in the Mahâyâna religious books, which were all of them written before Âryâsanga’s time. — Emil Schlagintweit, Buddhism in Tibet, Chapter V (1863)
“…it is beyond dispute that the Mahayana religious works were all written far before Âryasangha’s time … and that these contain all and far more of the fundamental tenets of the Yogâchârya system…” — H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary, see Aryasangha.
These refer to the ‘second Aryasanga’ – the historically known one – and demonstrate the difficulties in tracing the transmission of the Mahāyāna system of thought. We may observe, however, that core ideas interpreted and popularized by the historically known Aryasanga were present in prior Mahāyāna theory. (Ed.)
^4. See The Door of Liberation, by Geshe Wangyal