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....

Chapter IV - Renunciation

1. When the Crown Prince entered the garden, a multitude of maidens came to welcome him. They all gave rise to the idea that [such beauties] are rarely encountered. Rivals in attractiveness, they presented their subtle sincerity. Each one exhausted her ingenious poses, waiting upon him as was fitting.

2. Some grasped his hands and feet and some fondled him all over. Others laughed in response and some showed a sad countenance. They planned to please the Crown Prince, so that he would have happy thoughts.

3. When the multitude of maidens saw the Crown Prince’s bright complexion and his appearance, which was that of a celestial figure, and which did not require any ornamentation but whose plain person surpassed all adornment, they all looked on and thought that Candramas, the celestial son, had come.

4. They devised all kinds of means [to please him] but they did not move the Bodhisattva’s mind. Looking at each other, they became ashamed and fell silent, not uttering a word.

5. There was the son of a brahman called Udāyin. He said to the ladies, “You are all beautiful.

6. “You are intelligent and very skillful, but the power of your beauty is not permanent. You fully understand the worldly and its secret ways to comply with desire.

7. “Your appearance is wonderful, as if you have the look of jade ladies. When gods see you they may reject their queens, and divine seers would waver because of it. Why would it be impossible for the son of a human king to be moved by his emotions?

8. “Even though this royal crown prince’s self-control may now be firm, he may be pure and just, and endowed only with virtue, he is not superior to the power of women.

9. “Long ago, Sundarī was able to destroy a great seer.[1] She led him to indulge in desire and stepped on his head with her foot. Dīrghatapas Gautama was also ruined by a celestial queen.

10. “The son of the seer Vibhāṇḍaka[2] indulged in desire and he subsequently went along with the currents [of samsara]. The brahman seer Viśvāmitra cultivated the path for tens of thousands of years. He became deeply attached to a celestial queen and was suddenly destroyed in one day.

11. “If the power of those beautiful maidens overcame pure conduct, all the more can your skills move the prince! Apply yourselves even more diligently and do not let the royal succession be interrupted!

12. “A woman may be low by nature, yet the worthy will subsequently be overcome by her. Why do you not exhaust your tricks so that he may have tainted thoughts?”

13. Then, when the crowd of ladies had merrily heard Udāyin’s explanation, they increased their joy, just as when a fine horse is flogged with a whip. They went before the Crown Prince and each one presented several kinds of tricks.

14. They sang and danced, or talked and laughed, raising their eyebrows and showing their white teeth. They glanced sidelong at him with their beautiful eyes, and their sheer garments made their white bodies visible. Daintily moving with a mincing gait, feigning affection, one after the other attended to him.

15. In their desire they were genuine at heart, and fully carried out the words of the great king. With dissolute appearance, irreverent and vulgar, they forgot their sense of shame.

16. But the Crown Prince’s mind was firm. He was unyielding and did not change his countenance. He was like a great dragon-elephant, surrounded by a herd of elephants.

17. They could not confuse his mind. He dwelled among the multitude as if he were residing in solitude, just like Śakra, ruler of the gods, surrounded by celestial maidens. While the Crown Prince was in the garden, he was surrounded in the same way.

18. Some arranged their dress for him, and some washed his hands and feet. Some applied perfume, and some adorned themselves with flowers.

19. Some strung necklaces, and some embraced him closely. Some rested on their couches, and some murmured confidentialities with heads inclined.

20. Some engaged in common diversions, and some talked of a multitude of amorous things. Some assumed a lustful appearance, trying to move his heart.

21. The Bodhisattva’s heart remained pure, firm and difficult to change. Hearing the words of the ladies, he felt neither sorrow nor joy.

22. He doubled his considerations of disgust. He sighed, thinking all this was strange. He knew for the first time that lustful thoughts of women were so abundant.

23. “They do not know that youthful beauty is ruined in a moment by old age and death. Alas! Such great delusion! Foolishness obscures their minds.

24. “They should consider old age, illness, and death, and night and day apply and exert themselves! While a sharp sword hangs over their neck, how can they still have fun?

25. “They see the old age, illness, and death of others but do not know how to observe themselves. They are people of mud and wood—what anxieties would they have?

26. “When, for instance, there are two trees in the wild, both with luxuriant flowers and leaves; when one is cut down, the other one does not know fear. These people are just as unwitting.”

27. Then Udāyin came to where the Crown Prince was. He saw that he was quietly meditating in silence, his mind free from any notion of the five desires.

28. He then said to the Crown Prince, “Earlier I was ordered by the great king to be a good friend for his son. I shall offer you some honest words now.

29. “There are three kinds of friends. One may do away with what is unprofitable. One may accomplish what is profitable for someone else. And one will not abandon you in adversity.

30. “If, after having been called your good friend, I were to abandon my duty as a man and if my words do not fully reveal my feelings, why use the term ‘three gains’? I shall therefore speak true words now in order to show my sincerity.

31. “If one’s years are in a time of abundance and one is fully endowed with a beautiful complexion but does not esteem women, this is not the style of a superior man. They may just bring about unreal thoughts, but you should strive to be receptive!

32. “You should have yielding thoughts and captivate them with courtesy! Desire increases pride, and nothing surpasses that of a woman. Your thoughts may be averse now, but you should strive to comply with their way!

33. “When you are courteous to a maiden, her heart is happy. Courtesy is an ornament. If one forsakes courtesy, one is like a tree without flowers and fruits.

34. “Why the need for courtesy? In order to receive their services! You have obtained hard-to-obtain sense objects. Do not give rise to any idea of contempt!

35. “Desire is first and foremost. Even the gods cannot forget about it! Even Lord Śakra had an illicit affair with the wife[3] of the seer Gautama.

36. “The seer Agastya practiced asceticism for a long time, but because he wanted a celestial queen his wishes were consequently unrealized.

37. “The seer Bṛhaspati and the celestial son Candramas, the seer Parāśara and Kapiñjalāda, all such, out of many others, were ruined by women.

38. “In addition, regarding your own sense objects now, would you be unable to enjoy them? Having planted meritorious roots in your past lives, you have obtained these numerous beauties. The whole world is attached to happiness, but your heart, on the other hand, does not value this.”

39. Then, when the royal Crown Prince had heard the specious words and fluent eloquence of his friend Udāyin, skillfully explaining the characteristics of the world,

40. He answered, “Udāyin, I am moved by your sincere explanation. I will say something to you now. Listen attentively!

41. “I do not despise fine sense objects and I know that they give people in the world happiness, but because I see that they are characterized by impermanence, I am weary of them in mind.

42. “If [such sense objects and pleasures] would permanently stay this way, without the suffering of old age, illness, and death, I too would experience happiness and never feel any disgust.

43. “If one might [make fast] the beauty of the maidens, without final decay, even though desire is an error I might yet entertain my human feelings.

44. “If someone experiences old age, illness, and death, he himself should not be happy, much less feel any attachment for someone else!

45. “Impermanent are the objects of the five desires, and the same also applies to one’s own person. But if one lets thoughts of happiness arise, one is on a level with birds and beasts.

46. “The seers you mentioned were attached to the five desires. One should immediately be weary of them. They were ruined because they indulged in desire.

47. “You have further extolled that excellent king who was attached to the objects of the five desires, but he too was ruined in the same way. Know that he was not excellent!

48. “If you skillfully say that one should pretend, make an effort, and attend to them out of courtesy, if one indulges in them, then one really is attached. Why use the term ‘effort’?

49. “Considering deceit to be courtesy, I do not do such a thing. To someone who is really courteous, this is wrong.

50. “Such thoughts are hard to repress. One becomes attached according to the circumstances. If one is attached, one does not see any error. Why make an effort for [the sake of] courtesy?

51. “A devious mind with idle courtesy—I do not see that it is right. Know that old age, illness, and death are a mass of great suffering!

52. “Advising me to fall into that—these are not the words of a good friend. Alas, Udāyin! You really are very sincere!

53. “The ailments of birth, old age, illnesss, and death—this suffering is very dreadful. The eyes see that all decays, yet one finds happiness in their pursuit.

54. “I am utterly wearied now, and this heart of mine is constrained too. Considering that old age, illness, and death suddenly arrive, unanticipated, night and day I forget to sleep. Why would I indulge in the five desires?

55. “Old age, illness, and death are ablaze. They will surely arrive, without any doubt. If one still does not know any sadness, one’s heart really is made of wood or stone.”

56. While the Crown Prince was explaining to Udāyin with all kinds of ingenious means that desire is a profound ailment, he did not notice that the sun was setting.

57. As their music and ornaments all were useless, the multitude of ladies then felt shame and returned to the city.

58. When the Crown Prince saw that the decorations in the garden were all withdrawn and that the singing women had all returned home, the place completely deserted, he doubled his thoughts about impermanence and quickly returned to his palace.

59. When the king, his father, heard that the Crown Prince was averse to the five desires, he was utterly and deeply grieved, as if a sharp dart had pierced his heart.

60. He immediately summoned his ministers and asked them to devise a means. They all said, “It is not the case that what the five desires are capable of will hold his attention.”

Footnotes and references:


I.e., Vyāsa.


I.e., Ṛṣyaśṛṅga.


I.e., Ahalyā.

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