In the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City there is an easily overlooked 19th century Tibetan tapestry that recounts an odd tale from the life of Asanga, a fourth-century Buddhist monk born in the Gandhāran Kingdom. According to tradition, Asanga dedicated himself to a spiritual path, spending most of his life in a monastery until he decided in middle age that the monastery was, in fact, a hindrance to his spiritual progress. And so Asanga left the monastery and sought an encounter with the divine in a remote cave. After three years of life as a cave-dwelling hermit with no perceivable progress on his path, he ventured out into the world where he received insight into the spiritual life through his encounters with ordinary people dedicated to seemingly impossible tasks.
After exploring the world for some time, Asanga came upon a miserable, unwanted dog with only two legs and wounds infested with maggots. Asanga looked upon the dog and loved him, and so he could not help but try to ease the suffering of the discarded creature. He careful removed the maggots, attentive not harm them lest he add to the cycle of suffering revealed before him. So that both the dog and the maggots might live, Asanga cut from himself a piece of flesh and gently transfered the maggots from the dog’s body to the piece of his own body, alleviating the suffering of one creature and ensuring the continued life of others in an act of self-sacrifice.
When Asanga looked up from the maggots, he was no longer in the presence of a dog. Instead, he beheld a vision as bright as the Sun — it was Maitreya, whose presence he had sought in vain through many years outside the monastery. In that moment Asanga understood: Only when he ceased searching for the Great Buddha Maitreya and turned his attention to the needs of an unwanted, useless, suffering creature — only when he abandoned his grasping attachment to the goal of his spiritual path — was he able to see the One who was always present to him.
The story then takes an odd turn: The dog-buddha Maitreya tells Asanga that it was his compassion for an unwanted dog that removed the clouds of Karma that had blinded him. Maitreya, once again a dog, proposes a game: Put me on your shoulder and carry me about. Let’s see if anyone else understands what you now understand.
And so Maitreya wanders through a village with the miserable cur on his shoulder asking strangers: What do you see on my shoulders?
Nothing, one person responds.
A dead dog, says another.
You are carrying someone on your shoulders, yet another replies.
In reading the story and examining the tapestry, I couldn’t help but think on two striking elements:
Asanaga doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his own body in his mission to alleviative suffering. He gives his own flesh to creatures that no one else would bother to save. This is, essentially, a description of the Bodhisattva, which Christians honor in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and which they ritualize in the Eucharistic Liturgy (i.e., the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Liturgy, the Service of Holy Communion, etc.).
There is also a Roman chant that honors the flagellation (whipping) Jesus suffered during his Passion by quoting Psalm 21: Ego autem sum vermis et non homo. (“But I am a worm [maggot] and no man.”)
But there is another, more extraordinary connection between this episode from the life of Asanga and the primitive Christian community. The earliest images of Christ crucified are not carefully chiseled marble monuments or gleaming golden mosaics. They are graffiti showing a donkey or a dog on the Cross. It’s presumed that these images were meant to insult the faith of early Christians, though perhaps we take umbrage too easily. (Such ridiculous images would not be targeted by Iconoclasts trying to wipe out the memory of Jesus. Apparent mockery ensured that the testimony of faith made by the first followers of Jesus would survive across time.) The dog on the Cross, naturally, has two arms and two legs. These two legged dogs got around, it seems.
To my mind, it seem likely that elements of the Christan mythos filtered Eastward and met the Buddhist world within the context of the Gandhāran Kingdom.
There is one last detail to the Rubin tapestry that stands out to me: Just above the episode of the dog-buddha, there is a stag drinking from a stream, recalling Psalm 41/42 from the Psalter of David: Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus. (“As the deer longs for flowing waters, so does my soul long for you, O God.”) This is likely a nod to one of the most primitive Christian liturgical chants by the 19th century Tibetan Buddhist monks who created the tapestry. Perhaps they also knew that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina wrote a motet around this text when he was charged with saving polyphony from the wrath of boorish, over-zealous Roman bureaucrats during the Counter Reformation.
No doubt there are many lessons to learn from the story of Asanga and Maitreya, as well as from the many other Tibetan Buddhist art works at the Rubin.
May 30, 2017