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According to Buddhist lore, as told here and elsewhere, Asanga lived in India about nine centuries after Buddha. Asanga decided to meditate on Buddha Maitreya in order to receive direct teachings from him. He became discouraged after three years of no progress, and quit. As he was leaving his meditation cave he met a man who was rubbing a large rock. He asked the man why he was doing this, and the man replied that the rock prevented the sun from shining on his house, so he was rubbing it to wear it away so his house could get more light. Impressed with the man's diligence in such a mundane matter, Asanga returned to his meditation. But after another nine years without a vision of Maitreya he gave up again. Leaving his retreat cave again he saw a sickly dog whose body was covered in sores infested by maggots. He had compassion for the dog, and wanted to remove the maggots from the sores, but he also had compassion for the maggots who might be injured or killed if he cleaned them out too roughly. Finally, seeing no other solution he decided to clean them out of the dog's sores with his tongue! As he bent down to do so the dog transformed into Maitreya, and Maitreya, impressed with the compassion Asanga had developed during his 12 years in retreat, then gave five famous sets of teachings to Asanga.
This book is a commentary on one of those fives teachings, or shastras, the Abhisamaya-lankara. The original shastra is not translated or included here (would have been nice), only the commentary by the author. The book is divided into chapters that seem to parallel a series of talks the author gave to students, with a few very well-chosen questions and answers at the back of many of the chapters.
The Abhisamaya-lankara summarizes the Prajnaparamita teachings, on which the Mahayana branch of Buddhism is based. It does so from a "Vast Path" standpoint which emphasizes the actual method of progress a Bodhisattva must employ, as opposed to the "Profound Path" wisdom teachings (written by Nagarjuna and his disciples) about the ultimate reality that a Bodhisattva must realize.
The book starts with an outline summary of the topics covered, and this proves useful in lending some insight into the structure of the book, which is hard to fathom at first. Then there is a foreword, several tables, and two introductory chapters, the first introducing the underlying Prajnaparamita, the second covering the introductory verses by Asanga.
Then the rest of the body of the book covers eight main topics:
1. The Knowledge of All Phenomena.
2. Knowledge of the Path.
3. Knowledge of the Foundation.
4. The Application of Realization of All Aspects.
5. Application when Reaching the Peak.
6. Gradual Application of the Bodhisattva Path.
7. Instantaneous Application.
8. The Dharmakaya.
At the back, the book is rounded out by a good glossary, a glossary of Tibetan terms, some notes on the text, and a nice bibliography.
The material is most sublime, dense and rich, but the book turned out to be less user-friendly than I would have liked. The presentation could be improved upon. To give the author and translators credit, I think their efforts were as straightforward as possible, although I noticed their word-choices for translating certain technical terms were not the ones usually seen in English-language Dharma texts. This, plus the very frequent typos made the book harder to read than it needed to be. It's printed in India, which means it's gonna have typos a-plenty, and yet these were not the usual occasional minor slips, but major omissions and errors that often seriously obscured key passages.
But I think most of the difficulty of reading this book has to do with the style of organizing the material, a style which goes back to Asanga and the foundations of the tradition. Later teachers like Atisha did all of us a real service by smoothing out this style into the very user-friendly Lamrim texts. Asanga's style is pre-Lamrim, and difficult to follow. Having said that, however, I grew rather fond of struggling with this text to gain its wonderful teachings, to the point that I plan to go through it again, in a more studied fashion, just to get the flow of the odd organization down, and yet again to compare it to the original Prajnaparamita texts it is organized around and based on. I suppose what I'm saying is that the book needs to be studied, not merely read: probably not a bad thing for an important Dharma text! The upshot is that his book taught me a lot, and seems like it will teach a lot more with repeated readings and study. So "Five Stars" despite it's difficulties.