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 IX - The Search for the Crown Prince

1. As the king told his preceptor and his chief minister of his grief, they were moved. As if lashed to fine horses they rushed out like a swift current. They became fatigued but did not stop their efforts. They went straight to the forest of asceticism.

2. Giving up their customary five ceremonial ornaments[1] and keeping their faculties well under control, they entered the pure dwelling of brahmans and respectfully did obeisance to the seers. The seers invited them to sit down, expounded the Law, and comforted them.

3. They then informed the seers: “We have some inquiries in mind. We are preceptor and minister to King Śuddhodana, extolled as pure and a famous descendant of Ikṣvāku. We dutifully instruct him in matters of canonical rules.

4. “The king is like Śakra, lord of the gods, and his son is like Jayanta.[2] In order to cross over old age, illness, and death he has gone forth, and he may have come here. You should know, worthy ones, that we are here because of him!”

5. The [seers] replied, “There was such a man, with long arms and the characteristics of a great man. He chose some of our practices, which follow the law of birth and death. He has gone to Ārāḍa to seek excellent deliverance.”

6. After [the preceptor and minister] had obtained certainty [about the prince’s whereabouts], they honored their king’s urgent command, not daring to consider it tiresome. They asked the way and hurried there.

7. They saw that the Crown Prince was dwelling in a forest. He had completely given up his customary ceremonial ornaments. His actual body was still radiant, like the sun emerging from a black cloud.

8. The national preceptor, who serves celestial spirits, and the chief minister, who holds the Right Law, abandoned their usual dignified demeanor, dismounted, and advanced on foot.

9. They were like the royal Vāmadeva and Vasiṣṭha the seer,[3] who went to a mountain forest to see Prince Rāma. Each reverently did obeisance, complying with their actual duty, and made polite inquiries.

10. They were like Śukra and Āṅgirasa,[4] who waited upon Śakra, lord of the gods, wholeheartedly and with great respect.

11. The prince was respectful to the royal preceptor and the chief minister too, just like Lord Śakra comforting Śukra and Āṅgirasa.

12. [The prince] then ordered the two men to sit before him, just like the twin stars of Punarvasu waiting upon the moon at its side.

13. The royal preceptor and the chief minister stated their request to the prince, just like Bṛhaspati addressing Jayanta.[5]

14. “The king, your father, holds his crown prince dear. A sharp dart has pierced his heart, as it were. He is in disarray and disordered, lying in the dirt. Night and day his sad thoughts increase, and his tears flow constantly, like rain.

15. “He has given me his command. Please, listen attentively [to his words]! ‘I know that your feelings of happiness with the Law are certain, without any doubt.

16. “‘But you have entered the forest refuge at a wrong time. A longing is burning in my heart. If you hold the Law dear, you should grieve for me.

17. “‘The feeling [of relief] for which I have traveled far, hoping to be at ease—lessen my sense of being far away from it! Do not let the waters of my grief make the banks of my heart crumble!

18. “‘It is like the calamities of a storm, of the sun, of fire and hail, for clouds, water, grass, and mountains. My grief means four ailments: it sways, dries up, burns, and destroys the heart.

19. “‘Return and live in the land! When the right time has come, you may still travel to the seers. If you do not care for your relatives and also reject your parents, how could this be called the compassion that covers all!

20. “‘The Law is not necessarily in a mountain forest. One may practice in seclusion while remaining part of the family too. Gaining insight and diligence in one’s application, this is called going forth.

21. “‘Suppose one takes the tonsure, wears a dyed garment, and wanders in a mountain refuge, yet feels fear. How could such a person be called an anchorite?

22. “‘I wish to completely embrace you. When I have let water rain down on your head, have crowned you with a celestial crown, and have placed a parasol over you, once I have observed you [thus] with my own eyes, only then might I leave the family!

23. “‘Druma, the Senajit kings, Anuja, Āṣāḍha, Vajra, Bāhu, Vaibhrāja, Antideva, Janaka of Videha, Nārāyaṇa, and Śālvadruma—

24. “‘Such kings all wore a celestial crown. They adorned themselves with necklaces, and they wore pearls and rings on their hands and feet. They enjoyed a multitude of ladies but did not disregard the cause of deliverance. 25. “‘You may return home now. May you fully develop two things: Cultivate the superior Law in your mind, and be a superior ruler of the land! 26. “‘As my tears fall, agree with me and let me pronounce such words!

After you have heard this command, heed my instructions and return!’

27. “The king, your father, is drowning in a sea of grief because of you, without any rescue, without any support, and without a way to console himself. You must be his boatmaster and ferry him to a safe place!

28. “Upon hearing their father’s command, Prince Bhīṣma and the two Rāmas[6] respected his command. You should now also be like that!

29. “The love with which your kind mother has brought you up, for your whole life your gratitude should be endless! Like a cow that has lost her calf, she cries out sadly and forgets to sleep or eat.

30. “You should quickly return now to save her life! When a solitary bird is separated from the flock, it grieves. When a dragon-elephant wanders alone, it suffers. When someone who is reliant [upon another] has lost her protection, one should think about coming to the rescue!

31. “Your only son is like a young orphan. No one knows how to express the suffering he experiences. Spare him from the grief of being left alone, like someone who is saved from a lunar eclipse.

32. “The suffering of separation felt by the men and women in the whole country is burning. The smoke of their sighs rises to the sky. It fogs their wisdom and their eyes are obscured. I want only to see that the water that is you extinguishes this fire, and that their eyes see clearly.”

33. When the Bodhisattva heard the urgent instructions of the king, his father, and heard that he was utterly full of sorrow, he sat up, making right consideration, and courteously answered, as was fitting:

34. “I too know that the kind thoughts of the king, my father, are more than genuine, but I have disregarded his endless love because I fear birth, old age, illness, and death.

35. “Who would not, knowing of the separation in the end, hold his parents in esteem? Yes, the living may hold on to one another, but death will come. No one can stay. Therefore, knowing what to esteem, I have long since taken leave and gone forth.

36. “Hearing of the grief of the king, my father, a greater longing cuts through my heart. But we meet only for a while, just as in a dream, and we at once turn to impermanence.

37. “You most certainly know that beings are by nature not the same. Grief does not necessarily come from a son or a relative. As for the reason why the suffering of separation is brought about, it arises in any case from delusion.

38. “Suppose some people are walking along a road: they may meet halfway for a while, but in an instant they each separate. The principle of separation is actually natural.

39. “One unites and becomes a relative for a while, but following the principle of causality, one naturally separates. Profoundly comprehending that relatives [only] pretend to be united, one should not give rise to grief!

40. “Having disregarded one’s beloved in this generation, one still wishes for relatives in another generation. But [even if one may have] relatives for a while, one is separated again. Nowhere is there no relative. One is constantly united [with one’s relatives] and constantly parts [from them]. How would it do to grieve for every parting?

41. “While dwelling in the womb, one gradually changes. With every separation one dies and is born again. There is death at any time. How could it be a wrong time for [taking refuge in] a mountain forest?

42. “At any time one may experience the five desires, and the same applies to the time to seek for riches. Because one may die at any time, there is no ‘right time’ to seek the way to do away with death.

43. “As you wish to make me your king, it is hard to disregard your kindness, but it is just like taking the wrong medicine when sick. Therefore I am not fit for that. High or low, foolishness dwells there, and while being careless one complies with love or hate.

44. “My whole life I would constantly be afraid, anxious that my body and spirit will grow tired. By complying with the crowd, my mind would disregard the Law. A wise one does not do that.

45. “In a fine palace with the seven precious things a great fire is ablaze, and in the food of a hundred flavors [produced in] a celestial kitchen, there are various poisons. In a cool pond with lotuses there are many insects.

46. “A high position is an abode of calamities. The wise do not dwell there. When the previous excellent kings of the past saw many transgressions while dwelling in the land, increasing hardship for beings, they felt disgust and went forth.

47. “So, know that the contentment of practicing the Law is better than the suffering of royal rule! It would be better to dwell in a mountain forest and eat herbs like the birds and animals than to endure dwelling deep in a palace, sharing the pit with black venomous snakes.

48. “If one gives up a royal position and the five desires and wanders in a mountain forest enduring suffering, this then is fitting. Happy with the Law, one gradually increases one’s understanding.

49. “If I now abandon the forest of solitude, return to my family, and experience the five desires, night and day the law of suffering will increase. This is not fitting.

50. “A great man of a famous family finds happiness in the Law and goes forth. He forever turns his back on his famous family, establishing the determination of a great man. Abandoning his [fine] appearance and wearing the robe of the Law, he finds happiness in the Law and wanders in a mountain forest.

51. “If I were now to abandon the robe of the Law, I would have to disregard the shame in my heart. Even a celestial king must not do this. How much less could I return to my excellent human family?

52. “If one has vomited up greed, anger, and delusion, then returns and partakes of them, he is like someone who again eats his own vomit. How could he bear this suffering?

53. “When someone’s house is on fire, he does his best to get out. How would he be a clever person if he returned a moment later and reentered [the burning house]?

54. “When I saw the passing of birth, old age, and death, I was disgusted and went forth. If I were now to return and reenter that, my foolishness would be the same.

55. “If one tries to develop deliverance while dwelling in a palace, one is not in the right place. Deliverance is produced by quietude. Kingship adds to hardship.

56. “Quietude dispenses with royal majesty. Royal rule is separate from deliverance. Movement and tranquility are like water and fire. How could one have the two principles together?

57. “I have decided to develop deliverance and I will not dwell in a royal position. If you say that one may dwell in a royal position and develop deliverance, this would be a wrong decision. Deliverance is certainly not like that!

58. “After one has made such a wrong decision, one may have left [home] but he will return. I have now made my decision to break with the enticements of relatives. Having correctly applied myself to go forth, why would I return?”

59. The chief minister inwardly considered the resolute determination of the Crown Prince. He was very conscious that [the prince’s] virtue would be in compliance and that his explanation made sense. He said to the Crown Prince, “It is as you, Prince, have explained.

60. “The search for the Law should be that way! But now is just not the right time. The king, your father, is aged and feeble. Affection for his son increases his grief.

61. “Though you say ‘I find happiness in deliverance,’ still you do what is wrong. Even though you find happiness in going forth, it is without wisdom. You do not consider a very fine principle! While you do not see the cause, yet you seek for the fruition. You merely reject contemplating the present.

62. “Some say there is a later world; on the other hand, some say there is not. As that existence is not yet decided on, why reject present happiness? 63. “If there will be a later world, one will endure what will be obtained. If one says that a later world is nonexistent, its nonexistence means deliverance.

64. “Some say that there is a later world but they do not explain a cause for deliverance. Just like earth that is firm, fire that is warm, water that is moist, and wind that moves, a later world is like that too. It is by nature thus.

65. “Some explain that pure and impure both arise through their specific natures. It would be a foolish explanation to say that one may strive for change.

66. “When faculties proceed in their objects, their specific natures are in any case fixed. What is agreeable or disagreeable, their specific natures are fixed in the same way.

67. “The suffering of old age, illness, and death—who would strive to make them such? Water can extinguish fire, and fire causes water to dry up. One specific nature causes the destruction of another, but when natures are harmonious they complete a being.

68. “If one dwells in the womb, hands, feet, the limbs, and consciousness are naturally produced. Who has to do that [himself]?

69. “Who causes a thorn to be sharp? It is naturally like that. And all the birds and animals do not wish themselves to be as they are.

70. “Every birth in the heavens is caused by the god Īśvara, as well as by other creators. There is no one who is how he wishes by his own power.

71. “If there is a cause for birth, that could also cause extinction. Why the need to strive and seek deliverance?

72. “Some say that a self causes birth, and further that a self causes extinction, too. Some say there is no cause of birth and one is extinguished if one strives.

73. “If one raises one’s child and is not burdened by one’s ancestors, if one studies the scriptures bequeathed by the seers and serves the gods with great sacrificial offerings, if one is not burdened by these three things, one is called delivered.

74. “One may seek deliverance with these three, as transmitted in the past and present. If [one seeks deliverance] through any other effort, one toils in vain and without fruition.

75. “If you want to seek deliverance, just develop superior application! The grief of the king, your father, will be appeased, and your path of deliverance will be immediate.

76. “You have given up your family and wander in a mountain forest, but returning is still not wrong. In the past, King Ambarīṣa dwelled in the forest of asceticism for a long time. He had given up his crowd of followers and his retinue, but he returned home and resumed his royal position.

77. “Rāma, son of the king of the land, left the kingdom and dwelled in a mountain forest. When he heard that the customs of the land were being forsaken, he returned and maintained the right [generational] changes.

78. “The king of the Śālvas was called Druma. Father and son wandered through mountain forests, but in the end both returned to their country.

79. “The munis Vasiṣṭha and Antideva practiced pure conduct in a mountain forest, but after a long time they returned to their country.

80. “The right ways of such previous excellent ones are very famous. They all returned to their royal territories and shone in the world like lamps. Therefore, it is not wrong to give up the mountain forest and to be converted to the right way.”

81. When the Crown Prince had heard the chief minister’s kind words and his exposition for his own good, he answered him with the constant truth, without any confusion, unhindered and dignified, with firm determination and tranquil words:

82. “I am doubtful about existence or nonexistence. My double-mindedness is increased by suspicion. I will decidedly not accept your theory about existence and nonexistence. Purifying my knowledge and developing asceticism, I will certainly come to know for myself!

83. “In the world, doubtful argumentation is spread and handed down. I am not at ease with your [explanation of the] true meaning of existence and nonexistence.

84. “Someone who sees clearly distinguishes true from false. How could belief come from someone else? It is as if a person who was born blind takes a blind man as his guide. Where would he go to in the absolute darkness of the night?

85. “Concerning the way of purity or of impurity, the world has its uncertainties. If one does not see the truth, one should practice a pure path. It is better to practice the austerities of a pure way than to enjoy the practice of what is impure.

86. “Contemplating the theories received from someone else, not one is marked by certainty. When true words are accepted with an open mind, one is forever free from any wrong. A wise one does not pronounce erroneous words or false theories.

87. “You mention that Rāma and the others gave up their families and developed pure conduct, but in the end they returned to their countries and indulged in the five desires. This is lowly behavior and a wise one does not rely on that.

88. “I will now briefly explain to you the essential meaning. The sun or moon may fall to the ground, and Sumeru and the Snowy Mountains may change, but I myself will never change and retreat to the wrong place!

89. “Rather than returning to my country and entering the blaze of the five desires, if my goal is not accomplished it would be better to throw myself into a great fire.”

90. Having revealed this important solemn oath, he slowly rose and took his leave. The sharpness of the Crown Prince’s eloquence was as blazing as an abundance of sunlight.

91. There was no way the royal preceptor and the chief minister could be victorious in the discussion. Telling themselves that they had tried everything, they could only withdraw and return.

92. They felt deep reverence for the Crown Prince and did not dare bring any stronger pressure on him, but out of respect for the king’s command they did not dare return quickly and paused halfway. As they walked along the way, they went slowly while looking back.

93. They chose a clever person, a careful and ingenious man, to conceal himself and secretly observe [the prince]. Only then did they give up and go back.

Footnotes and references:


The five ceremonial ornaments are all emblems of social rank.


Jayanta was the son of Indra and Śacī.


Vāmadeva and Vasiṣṭha were King Daśaratha’s chief minister and his preceptor (purohita).


Śukra and Bṛhaspati, the son of Āṅgirasa, were ministers of Indra.


Bṛhaspati, Indra’s minister, addressing Jayanta, Indra’s son.


The Sanskrit version, Chapter IX, stanza 25, mentions Rāma, son of Daśaratha, and Rāma, descendant of Bhṛgu. The Chinese seems to phonetically render rāme(ṇa) ca bhā(rgaveṇa).

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