In Praise of Buddha’s Acts

by Charles Willemen | 77,962 words

Buddhacharita (of Bodhisattva Aśvaghoṣa) is an epic poem in the Sanskrit mahakavya style on the life of Gautama Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa, composed in the 1st century CE....

Translator’s Introduction

The Buddhacarita (Buddha’s Acts) is a complete biography of Śākyamuni, from his birth until after his death, when his relics were distributed. The text was composed by Aśvaghoṣa (early second century C.E.), the main author of kāvya literature (poetic prose or ornate poetry) before Kālidāsa (late fourth–early fifth century C.E.). The text consists of twenty-eight chapters in both the Tibetan and Chinese translations, but of the original Sanskrit text only fourteen chapters are known today. In 1830 Amṛtānanda added the last part of Chapter Fourteen, Chapter Fifteen, and Chapter Sixteen. The Tibetan translation was probably made between 1260 and 1280 (see D. P. Jackson, “On the Date of the Tibetan Translation of Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita,Studia Indologiczne 4 [1997]: 54).

The author, Aśvaghoṣa, was a brahman from Sāketa in Central India who converted to Sarvāstivāda Buddhism. His mother’s name was Suvarṇākṣī but we know little of his life. He was deeply influenced by the ideas of the Mahāsāṃghikas, much in the same way as another convert brahman from Sāketa, Harivarman (ca. 300 C.E.). Harivarman was the author of the Chengshi lun (Taishō 1646), or Prodbhūtopadeśa, often Sanskritized as Tattvasiddhi-śāstra. Both authors were non-Vaibhāṣika Sarvāstivādins.

It is said that Aśvaghoṣa was a contemporary of Kaniṣka (probably second century C.E.). He may have lived before the time that the Mahāvibhāṣā (Taishō 1545) was compiled by five hundred arhats in Kaśmīra, at the occasion of Kaniṣka’s council. The end of the Chinese Buddhacarita mentions the First Council, in Rājagṛha, and the compilation of the Sutra portion of the Tripiṭaka. We also read that Aśoka was called Caṇḍa (“Fierce”) before his conversion, just as Kaniṣka used to be called Caṇḍa during his conquering days. The end of the Buddhacarita seems to allude to Kaniṣka, to the new king Aśoka, and to his council. If so, Aśvaghoṣa may have been a contemporary.

The term Sautrāntika first emerged in northwestern India with Kumāralāta and the Mahāvibhāṣā. Kumāralāta was the first teacher (mūlācārya) of the Sautrāntikas. He was the author of the Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā (Taishō 201), for a long time incorrectly called Aśvaghoṣa’s Sūtrālaṃkāra. While Aśvaghoṣa may have lived before the advent of the Sautrāntikas, a posteriori he may doctrinally be called a Sautrāntika—but what kind of Sautrāntika is not clear.

Aśvaghoṣa was fascinated by conversion. The Buddhacarita was composed in order to convert, as the last words of the text clearly state. In addition, Aśvaghoṣa’s other works—those certain to be of his authorship—deal with conversion. The Saundarānanda relates the conversion of the Buddha’s half-brother, Nanda. This work may have been composed somewhat later than the Buddha carita. His third great work, the Śāriputraprakaraṇa, is a nine-act play about the conversion of Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana. As an excellent teacher and propagator of the Law, Aśvaghoṣa could be called a bodhisattva. Excellent teachers were called bodhisattvas in China, a habit that may have originated in Dharma guptaka circles.

The Buddhacarita reads like a play. The work is lyrical in its Indian original, less so in the Chinese version. E. H. Johnston’s appreciation of the Chinese version in “The Buddha’s Mission and Last Journey: Buddhacarita XV–XXVIII” is quite accurate:

The author . . . in addition to some misunderstandings of the original . . . has paraphrased . . . the poem. . . . [T]he translator . . . was evidently a pious Buddhist, keen on matters of legend or moral, but with little taste for literature. . . . [H]e evades textual niceties, contenting himself with giving the general sense. . . . (2004: XIII)

In other words, while the Sanskrit version belongs to the corpus of world literature, the Chinese version is more suited to the average reader.

Ōminami Ryūshō, author of the Busshogyōsan, the latest Japanese translation and study of the Chinese Buddhacarita, makes use of all existing studies of the text and revisits the Chinese catalogues as well. He concludes that Sengyou’s information is sound, and that the author of the Chinese Buddhacarita is the Chinese monk Baoyun (376–449), not the Indian Tan Wuchen.

Baoyun was from Liangzhou. He traveled to Central Asia, Khotan (Hotan), and India around 397. There he met Faxian and other Chinese pilgrims. In India he studied languages, then returned to Chang’an and became a follower of Buddha bhadra (359–429). Buddhabhadra was in Chang’an from 406–408. Baoyun then followed Buddhabhadra south to Mount Lu, and ultimately to Jiankang (Nanjing). His good friend Huiguan accompanied Baoyun throughout the entire journey. All three men stayed at Daochang Temple in Jiankang. Baoyun later moved to Liuheshan Temple, outside of Jiankang. It was at these two temples that he made his translations, reading the Indian text and translating orally. In this way the Buddhacarita was rendered in 421 C.E. (Yongchu 2 of the Liu Song), at Liuheshan Temple.

Alternative Chinese titles of the Buddhacarita are the Maming pusa zan (Bodhisattva Aśvaghoṣa’s Kāvya) and the Fo benxing zan (Buddhacarita-kāvya). Sengyou also mentions a Fo benxing jing (Buddhacarita-sūtra). Hikata Ryūshō thinks that this text was written shortly after Zhi Qian (third century) but before Kumārajīva (344–413?). Fei Changfang mistook this sutra for the kāvya, and this mistake has found its way into the colophon of the Taishō edition.

Tan Wuchen (385–433) was from Central India. The “sound translation,” i.e., phonetic rendering, of his Indian name is Tanwuchen but this is probably better rendered as Tan Wuchen, which gives it the appearance of a real Chinese name. The actual Chinese translation of the name is “Dharma Abundance,” Dharmarddhin  in Sanskrit, though some think Dharmavṛddhin is more likely. Tan Wuchen is phonetically quite possible in either case. A variant phonetic rendering is Tanmoluochen, where the luo renders an “r.” Tan Wuchen’s biography informs us that he was versed in incantations and magic, and that he had the nickname Da Zhoushi, “Great Spell Master.” This information points to the name Dharmarddhin.

Tan Wuchen arrived in Guzang in 412, where he did translation work between 414 and 421. Guzang is known as Liangzhou, in present-day Wuwei district, Gansu province. There in 421 he brought out his famous translation of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra (Taishō 374), known as the northern version. That same year Baoyun brought out his Buddhacarita near Jiankang. Tan Wuchen’s translation of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra was revised in Jiankang during the Yuanjia era (424–453). This text (Taishō 375) is known as the southern version. It was completed after the Chinese Buddhacarita.

Baoyun’s good friend Faxian, with the help of Buddhabhadra, had also produced a version of the Nirvana Sutra in Jiankang in 418 (Taishō 376). The fifth of the five volumes of the Chinese Buddhacarita corresponds with the contents of the Nirvana Sutra. It seems that Tan Wuchen’s name was added to the Buddha carita for a number of reasons. For example, both texts are dated to 421; the northern Nirvana Sutra was being studied in Jiankang and another version had just been brought out there; and an important section of the Buddhacarita, the last part, agrees with the Nirvana Sutra. Finally, Baoyun was from Liangzhou (Guzang).


The Chinese Text

As the result of Baoyun’s oral “translation,” the text shows us his understanding and his explanation of the original Sanskrit. The explanation of early Sāṃkhya in Chapter Twelve, stanzas 14–33, is a good example. One must be careful not to draw any hasty conclusions for the original Sanskrit on the basis of the Chinese text. Baoyun’s Sanskrit text was probably not the same as the Nepalese texts we have now, but the differences are so numerous that one can say that Baoyun gave his own oral version of the contents, at the same time making the contents clear to his Chinese audience.

The text has many stock phrases of technical terminology. Its penta syllabic verse is split up into two- and three-character, or three- and two-character, phrasing. This requirement explains many compounds and redundant terms, such as jin (now), ji (immediately, then), youruo (as if), ze (then), etc. The text has many Chinese grammatical particles, pronouns, and so on, unusual in poetry but commonplace in colloquial language. Sometimes the grammatical elements are used to render Sanskrit morphology, for example, the instrumental and locative cases. Indian praeverbia are often rendered as one Chinese character. Compounds are the norm. The language here is quite different from that of the Confucian Classics.

Baoyun leaves out many of the descriptive parts that make the Sanskrit text so beautiful and lively. Hindu mythology is simplified, probably to make it more easily understandable to a Chinese readership. The circumstances of the Buddha’s birth (conception, childbirth) are not related as mythological but are described much more realistically. The role of women is explained but abbreviated, and described in modest terms. The characteristics of Baoyun’s text can be explained at length but the conclusion one draws is that the Chinese is not as poetic and lyrical as the Sanskrit; rather, it is more explanatory, in a vernacular style. Of course, Baoyun used some terms and transcriptions of names that were well known at the time. This established terminology was probably based on a Prakrit language, though Baoyun’s text was in Sanskrit.

Some examples of passages in the text that are clearly marked by Baoyun’s knowledge of Chinese mythology and history:

“His robe of the Law helped the morning freshness arise, just as when the sun is shining from the mulberry tree.” (Chapter Ten, stanza 18)

Chinese mythology holds that the sun comes up far to the east, underneath a giant mulberry tree, which has one root but two mutually supporting trunks. This tree, the rodhra tree, has yellow flowers, like the color of the robe of the Law.

“An execution underneath a banner in the eastern marketplace. . . .” (Chapter Eleven, stanza 31)

During the Han era the eastern market in Chang’an was a place where executions were carried out.

Furthermore, Mount Tai, a Chinese place name, is often mentioned in the text.

Chapter Twenty-four, stanza 26, mentions “the unique vehicle” (ekayāna).

This definitely gives the impression that Baoyun shared Huiguan’s ideas in Jiankang. The concept of “unique vehicle” comes from the Lotus Sutra, and was propagated by Huiguan.

These examples all point to Baoyun as the author of the Chinese Buddha carita.