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 VII - Entry into the Forest of Asceticism

1. As the Crown Prince was about to enter the place of seers, having sent Chandaka away, his majestic person was radiant, shining all around in the forest of asceticism.

2. Being endowed with all that was meaningful, he complied with the meaningful and went there. He went like a lion, king of the animals, entering among a herd of beasts.

3. His common appearance was completely abandoned. He showed only the true appearance of the path. The anchorites unexpectedly saw the wonder and they were discerning and pleasantly surprised. They held their palms together and stared straight at him.

4. Men and women gazed directly at him as they managed their affairs, without any change in their deportment. When the gods observe Lord Śakra they gaze at him without blinking, and the seers looked at him in the same way, not moving a foot.

5. As they managed their heavy burdens with their hands, they kept looking, not stopping their activities. Just like an ox in shaft and yoke, their bodies were bound but they relied on the mind. And the divine seers, full of application, all said they had never seen such a thing.

6. Flocks of birds, peacocks and others, soared and cried out in confused voices. Brahmans who kept the precepts of deer followed the deer and wandered into a mountain forest.

7. Deer glance about by nature, but seeing the Crown Prince they looked straight at him. The brahmans who were following the deer likewise looked directly at him.

8. The lamp of Ikṣvāku was twice as bright, like the first light of the sun. It caused the milk cows to give more sweet-scented milk.

9. The brahmans were pleasantly surprised and said to each other, “Is he the eighth Vasu god?[1] Is he one of the two Aśvins?[2]

10. “Is he the sixth King Māra?[3] Is he a brahmakāyika god?[4] Is he the celestial son of the sun or of the moon who has descended here?

11. “In short, we should respect him! Let us hurry and strive to bring worship!” The Crown Prince still remained humble. He respectfully declined and made polite inquiries.

12. The Bodhisattva observed the brahmans all over the forest. They were practicing all kinds of meritorious actions. They were all seeking for the happiness of rebirth in heaven.

13. He asked elder brahmans about the true path he should practice. “I have just now arrived here. I do not yet know which way to practice. Con-

sequently I beseech you to please give me your explanation!”

14. Then the twice-born consequently and in due order spoke about the austerities they were practicing and about the fruition of their asceticism.

15. Some ate roots, stalks, and leaves, things that were not produced in a village, or things that grew in clear water. Others ate flowers and fruits. Several paths, each one different, and the food they consumed was not the same either.

16. Some cultivated the life of birds. They pecked their food like twolegged creatures. Some followed deer and ate herbs. Serpent-seers inhaled the wind.

17. Some did not eat things that were pounded with wood or a stone. Biting with two teeth, they made lesions. Some begged for their food and gave it to others, accepting remnants as their own food.

18. Some constantly submerged their heads in water, and some worshiped fire. Seers who practiced like fishes dwelled in water. Such were the various kinds [of practices].

19. When a brahman practices asceticism, he is reborn in heaven when his life has ended. Because of his asceticism he will obtain a pleasant fruition.

20. When the worthy one, the most honored one among two-legged beings, heard about these austerities, he did not see their real meaningfulness and his inner feelings were not pleased. In his consideration he felt grief for them. In his mind and verbally he said to them:

21. “Alas, for your great austerities! You seek only for recompense as a human or god. As the wheel revolves, you turn to birth and death. The suffering will be plentiful but the happiness little.

22. “When one disregards relatives, gives up excellent objects, and decides to seek celestial happiness, even if one may avoid some small suffering one will finally be bound by great suffering.

23. “You let your bodies wither and practice austerities, but while seeking to experience rebirth you increase the cause of the five desires. Because you do not contemplate birth and death, you seek suffering by means of suffering.

24. “All kinds of beings are constantly afraid of death in their heart. If you strenuously seek to experience rebirth, you will, being reborn, meet with death. Even though you may be afraid of suffering, you will be submersed in the sea of suffering for a long time.

25. “This life is utterly wearying, and in a future life one will not rest either. While you endure suffering, you seek happiness in the present but the search for rebirth in heaven is wearisome too. A mind that seeks happiness is inferior. In both cases one falls into meaninglessness.

26. “You give way to something utterly base. Exertion is excellent, but it is still better to develop knowledge. When one rejects both, one is forever unconditioned.

27. “If it is right to let the body suffer, happiness would be wrong. If one is happy after the practice of what is right, the result that relies on what is right is wrong.

28. “Origination and extinction in one’s corporal practice all come from the mind’s strength. If it is without a mind, this body is like a dead log. Therefore, subdue the mind! If the mind is subdued, the body is naturally right.

29. “If eating something pure brings merit, then birds and animals and poor persons, who usually eat fruits and herbs, should thus be meritorious.

30. “If one says that austerities are the cause of merit when a fine mind has come into existence, why are the happy practices not produced by a fine mind? If happiness is not produced by a fine mind, that which is fine is not the cause of suffering either.

31. “If heretics consider water to be a purification, the evil actions of the beings that enjoy dwelling in water should constantly be pure.

32. “The place where a seer with fine basic qualities dwells is held in esteem by the wider world, because a seer with qualities is living there. One should honor the qualities! One should not hold the place in esteem!”

33. Thus [the Bodhisattva] gave an extensive explanation of what was right, and eventually came the sunset. He saw that some were making offerings to fire. Some were using friction or blowing [to make] a fire. Some were sprinkling ghee, and some were chanting incantations with raised voices.

34. It was like that all night and day. He observed those practices, but as he did not see their real meaningfulness, he then wanted to reject them.

35. The brahmans then all came and invited him to stay. They had regard for the Bodhisattva’s qualities and fondly and diligently urged him:

36. “You have come from a place of the wrong law to the forest of the

Right Law, yet you want to abandon it. So we urge you to stay!”

37. The elder brahmans had disheveled hair and wore garments of vegetation. As they followed behind the Bodhisattva, they beseeched him to pay attention for a while.

38. When the Bodhisattva saw that the elder ones were pursuing him and they were physically tired, he stopped underneath a tree, comforted them, and sent them on their way back. The brahmans, young and old, surrounded him, held their palms together, and beseeched him:

39. “You came here unexpectedly, and the grove was filled in a fine way, but now you abandon us and go away. It will consequently become a wilderness.

40. “Just as someone who loves life does not want to give up his body, we are like that too. Please, stay for a while!

41. “The brahman seers here, royal seers and celestial seers, all rely on this place. It is furthermore near the edge of the Snowy Mountains. No place surpasses this to increase one’s asceticism.

42. “Many anchorites were reborn in heaven along this way. All anchorites, seeking merit, have turned to the north from here. Having received the Right Law, the wise do not go south.

43. “If you believe that we are lazy and not vigorous, and practice unpleasant ways, and if you do not want to stay, we should all go away, but you may stay here.

44. “These brahmans are always seeking for a companion in asceticism. If you are excellent in asceticism, why would you abandon them?

45. “If you can stay here, they will serve you as Lord Śakra, and as the gods serve Bṛhaspati.”

46. The Bodhisattva explained to the brahmans what he himself wished for in his heart. “By developing right application, I want only to extinguish all existence.

47. “Your intentions are upright, and in your practice of the Law you were tranquil and silent. You are kind to a visitor and I am really happy in my heart.

48. “Beautiful words may move one’s heart. They bathe all who hear them. Upon hearing your words, they increase my feeling of happiness with the Law.

49. “You have all turned to me, thinking that I am your good friend of the Law. But abandoning you now, I feel very sorry.

50. “Previously I disregarded my own relatives, and now I am separating from you. The suffering of uniting and separating—that suffering is equal and without any difference. It is not the case that my heart is not happy. And I do not see any other error either, but the fact is that

51. “In your asceticism you all seek only the happiness of rebirth in heaven. I seek to extinguish the three existences,[5] rejecting [physical] form and contrary to the mind’s [normal tendencies].

52. “As for the Law you are practicing, you yourselves practice the actions of your former teachers. I will extinguish all accumulation in my search for the Law without accumulation. So it will never be right to stay longer in this grove.”

53. When the brahmans heard the Bodhisattva’s explanation, his true and meaningful words, eloquent in expression and eminent in principle, they were very joyful at heart then, and profoundly increased their feeling of respect.

54. There then was a brahman who was constantly lying down in dirt. With twisted locks he was clothed in tree bark. [He had] yellow eyes and a long, high nose.

55. And he said to the Bodhisattva, “Your purpose is firm and your wisdom is bright. You will decidedly complete your passage beyond birth. Knowing how to be free from rebirth, one is at ease.

56. “Nonattachment to the good fortune of rebirth in heaven and an earnest search for eternal extinction of the person, this is wonderful. I see it only in this one person.

57. “Offering sacrifices, praying to celestial spirits, and with all kinds of austerities, everyone seeks the happiness of rebirth in heaven, but they are not yet free from objects of desire.

58. “If one can fight desire and earnestly search for true deliverance, one is a human being, certainly a person of right awakening.

59. “It will not do to stay in this place. Go to the Vindhya Mountains.[6] There is a great muni called Ārāḍa.[7]

60. “Only he has obtained final certitude, the highest and most excellent eye! Go to him and you will hear the true path!

61. “He can make your heart rejoice. You have to practice his way! But when I observe your resoluteness, I am afraid you may not be assured either. You will give up on him too and go away, seeking for more learning. 62. “A high nose and wide, long eyes. Red lips and white, sharp teeth. Light skin and a face that is bright. The red tongue is long, soft, and thin. Those with such fine characteristics will all drink jñeya water.[8]

63. “You will cross an unfathomable depth and be unequaled in the world. You will obtain that which the elder seers will not obtain.”

64. The Bodhisattva accepted his words and left the seers. The multitude of seers circumambulated him to the right and each took their leave and returned.

Footnotes and references:


I.e., Prabhāsa.


The two Aśvins appear in the sky before dawn, and are considered to be the physicians of heaven.


Māra rules the realm of desire (kāmadhātu), which contains six kinds of desiring gods.


The brahmakāyika gods are the first in the first trance (dhyāna) of the material realm, above the realm of desire.


The three existences are those of the past, present, and future.


The Vindhya Mountains are a famous mountain range, far to the south of the Snowy Mountains (the Himalayas). In stanza 42, above, the Bodhisattva was warned by the brahmans not to go south.


Ārāḍa was Śākyamuni’s famous Sāṃkhya teacher. See Chapter XII, especially stanzas 14–34 and 38–54.


Jñeya water: the water of what is to be known.

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