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 XII - Visits to Ārāḍa and Udraka

1. When the moonlight descendant of Ikṣvāku arrived in that quiet grove, he respectfully went to the muni, the great seer Ārāḍa.

2. When the adept son of the Kālāma family saw the Bodhisattva coming from afar, he praised him from the distance in a loud voice. He comforted him and said, “Welcome!”

3. Holding their palms together, they exchanged reverences and asked after one another’s well-being. After they had made mutual inquiries about their troubles, they sat down in a dignified way.

4. When the brahman saw the Crown Prince, his appearance and his careful deportment, washing [his feet] he bowed down to his virtue, as if he were thirstily drinking the nectar of immortality.

5. He raised his hand and said to the Crown Prince, “I have known that you have gone forth for a long time. You have broken with the bonds of your beloved ones, like an elephant who has shaken off his hobbles. Your profound knowledge, your insight, and your wisdom are bright, capable of avoiding this poisonous fruition.

6. “The bright excellent kings of the past gave up their thrones and handed them over to their sons, just as someone wearing a garland discards it when it is withered. It is still better not to desire the position of a noble king when you are in your prime.

7. “I see that your determination is very firm. You are fit to be a receptacle of the Right Law. You will board the ship of knowledge and cross the sea of birth and death!

8. “When a common person is enticed to come and study, I only teach him after I have investigated his ability. I now know your firm and resolute determination. Just study as you wish! I will never conceal anything from you!”

9. When the Crown Prince heard these instructions, he was glad and responded, “You may instruct me well with an impartial mind, without any love or hate! Just accept me with an open mind, and my wish will be fulfilled!

10. “When one obtains a torchlight while walking at night, when someone who has lost his direction receives guidance, or when one obtains a light boat when crossing the sea, the same applies to me now.

11. “I have now received your merciful permission, and I dare ask you about my inner doubts. The calamities of birth, old age, illness, and death— how can one avoid them?”

12. When Ārāḍa had heard the Crown Prince’s question, he briefly gave his explanation, using scriptural texts:

13. “You are an ingenious gentleman, the highest among the intelligent. Now, listen to my explanation of birth and death, the meaning of origination and extinction!

14. “Nature, change, birth, old age, and death—these five are [the constituents of] sentient beings. Nature is a pure [state]; and, as for change, faculties and objects secondary to the five great elements, to self, to intellection, and to seeing are called change.[1]

15. “Matter, sound, smell, taste, and the tactile—these are called objective elements. Hands, feet, speech, and the two paths [of excretory functions]—these are called the five faculties of action.

16. “Eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body—these are called faculties of intellection. For the faculty of mind the two meanings are combined: both action and that called intellection. Nature and change are a cause, and the knower of the cause[2] is the self.

17. “The seer Kapila and his retinue of disciples studied the important meaning of this self and obtained deliverance. That Kapila is Prajāpati[3] now.

18. “That which knows birth, old age, and death is called the seen.[4] The opposite of the above is called the unseen.

19. “Foolishness, action, and desire are said to turn the wheel [of existence]. If one dwells in these three, one is not free from [existence as a] sentient being.

20. “Non-confidence, self, doubt, random, non-distinction, absence of means, profound attachment to objective elements, being bound to what is mine.[5]

21. “Non-confidence proceeds when turning things upside down. One both acts and understands differently. ‘I explain and I know. I come and go, and I stay.’ Such counting on a self is called the process of the activity of a self.

22. “Being doubtful about the nature of things, and not obtaining the truth about right or wrong—such uncertainty is called doubt.

23. “If one says that the right way is the self, and that [the self] is nothing but mind, saying that it is intellection and action, and if one says that fate is further called the self,

24. “such non-distinction is called random. Not understanding foolish or clever, nature and change, is called non-distinction.

25. “One may do homage and recite the scriptures, kill living beings and sacrifice them to heaven, consider water and fire as purifications, and have the notion that these things mean deliverance—such views are called absence of means.

26. “When mind, speech, intellection, and action are attached to foolishness, and also to the objective elements, this is called attachment.

27. “‘Everything is mine.’ This is called grasping. Such eight kinds of delusion engulf one in birth and death.

28. “The fools in every world are in the grasp of five nodes: darkness, delusion, great delusion, anger, and fear.[6]

29. “Laziness is called darkness. Birth and death are called delusion. Desire is called great delusion, because even a great person may be misled by it. Resentment is called anger. Mental distress is called fear.

30. “The foolish common person is attached to the five desires, the basis of the great suffering of birth and death. As the wheel turns, he is reborn in five destinations.

31. “He keeps turning in rebirth, [thinking]: ‘I have seen and heard, and I know that I am caused.’ Because of this counting on a self, he follows the flow of birth and death.

32. “This cause is not his nature, and the result is not the possession of his nature either. He namely considers correctly when four factors direct him toward deliverance: the clever and the foolish, the seen, and the unseen.

33. “If he knows these four factors, he can be free from birth, old age, and death. When birth, old age, and death have ended, he has reached a place without end.

34. “All brahmans in the world practice their pure conduct relying on the meaningfulness of this, and they have widely explained it to the people.”

35. When the Crown Prince heard this explanation, he further asked Ārāḍa, “What are the means of application, and what place does one finally reach?

36. “What pure conduct should one practice, and further, for how long? Why would one practice pure conduct, and what place will one reach in this way? Do fully explain such important things to me!”

37. “Ārāḍa then gave an explanation according to his scriptural texts. With his wisdom and means he briefly made further distinctions for [the Crown Prince].

38. “First, one leaves the common and goes forth, relying on alms. Extensively concentrated on dignified demeanor, he keeps his right morality.

39. “He has little desire and knows satisfaction with whatever he obtains, fine or coarse. Happy to be alone, he practices residing in solitude and diligently studies the scriptural texts.

40. “He sees desire as fearful and renunciation as purification. Controlling the dwellings of his faculties, he puts his mind at ease in quietude.

41. “He renounces desire, evil, and the unwholesome, the afflictions of the realm of desire. Having renounced, he brings forth joy and happiness, and he obtains the first trance,[7] with adjusted and discursive thinking.

42. “After he has obtained the happiness of the first trance, and also adjusted and discursive thinking, he brings forth the notion that this is wonderful, and in his foolishness his mind is attached to happiness. When he relies on the happiness of renunciation and his life ends, he is reborn in the Brahma Heaven.

43. “The wise one is fully conscious that he has expediently produced adjusted and discursive thinking. He strenuously seeks to advance to what is associated with the second trance. When he is attached to the flavor of that joy and happiness, he obtains rebirth in the Ābhāsvara Heaven.

44. “Expediently renouncing joy and happiness, he further develops the third trance. If he is content and does not seek for excellence, he is reborn in the Śubhakṛtsna Heaven.

45. “If he gives up that happiness of mind, he reaches the fourth trance. When both suffering and happiness are stopped, he may give rise to the notion that he is delivered.

46. “With the retribution of the fourth trance he is reborn in the Bṛhatphala Heaven. Because one has a long life, it is called ‘with extensive fruition.’[8]

47. “Emerging from that trance, he sees the possession of a body as wrong. While advancing, he develops wisdom and becomes weary of the fourth trance. He decides to advance in his search, and expediently does away with his desire for matter.

48. “He begins with [contemplating] the cavities of his own body and gradually develops an understanding of emptiness.[9] In the end he completely accomplishes the contemplation of solid parts as space.

49. “He cuts short the objective element of his contemplation of space and advances to the contemplation of unlimited consciousness. Skilled in inner quietude, he is free from ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ The observation of nothingness is the sphere of nothingness.

50. “Just as the stalk and sheath of muñja [grass][10] are separated, and just as a wild bird leaves its cage, his deliverance is like that, free from an objective element.

51. “He is a superior brahman, free from his physical appearance, permanently and without end. The wise one must know that this is true deliverance!

52. “The means you have asked about and the deliverance you seek— these are as I have just explained. If you firmly believe it, you must apply yourself!

53. “The seers Jaigīṣavya and Janaka, Vṛddha Parāśara,[11] and the others who have sought the path have all obtained true deliverance following this path.”

54. When the Crown Prince had heard this explanation, he pondered over its purport. Motivated by his previous causality, he again asked:

55. “I have listened to your excellent wisdom, to the subtle and very fine meaning, but if it does not reject the knower of the cause, it is not the final path.

56. “The knower of the cause, of nature and change, may be said to be delivered, but your contemplation of a self has a way of coming into existence, and it also has a way of being a seed.

57. “You may think that when the self is purified, it is truly delivered. But if it meets with a combination of causes and conditions, it will return to its bonds.

58. “For example, when the proper season, soil, water, fire, and wind for the seed are separated, its reasons for growth are separated. But when it meets with the [appropriate] conditions, the seed will grow again.

59. “They may be called freed when ignorance, the cause of action, and desire are rejected, but beings who maintain a self do not have final deliverance.

60. “One may reject these three[12] everywhere and further obtain three superiorities, but because the self always exists, it subtly follows.

61. “Because a subtle fault follows, the mind does not apply itself. Life becomes long-lasting, yet you think that one is truly delivered.

62. “You may say that one is free from any [thought of] ‘mine,’ but if one were free, then even that would not exist. As you are not free from any enumeration,[13] how would one be free from any attribute?[14] So, know that one is not delivered when one has an attribute!

63. “The meanings of a possessor of an attribute[15] and of attribute may be different, but they are essentially one. If one says that the one is separate from the other, one will never have the right sphere! If color and heat are separate from fire, distinct fire cannot be obtained.

64. “For example, before a body there is no possessor of the body. In the same way, before an attribute there is no possessor of an attribute either. So, one may have been delivered at first but then one is bound to a body.

65. “Furthermore, when the knower of the cause is without body, he is either knowing or unknowing. If one says he is knowing, he must have something to know; and if there is something to be known, he is not delivered.

66. “If one says he is unknowing, then a self is useless! If one is free from a self but is still knowing, the self then is the same as a log or a rock.

67. “Being in possession of the knowledge of fine and coarse, one may turn one’s back on the coarse and respect the subtle. But if one is capable of giving up everything, what may be caused is finished.”

68. Ārāḍa’s explanation could not please [the Bodhisattva’s] mind. He knew that he was no all-knower and that he should practice and further seek for excellence. He went to the seer Udraka, but he too relied on an existing self.

69. Although he observed a subtle object, he saw that it was beyond perception and non-perception.[16] Dwelling in the absence of perception and non-perception, he still did not have the road to escape.

70. “As beings reach that, they will certainly fall back again!” Because the Bodhisattva was seeking to escape, he also rejected the seer Udraka.

71. He searched further for an excellent fine path and ascended Gaja Mountain[17] to the forest of asceticism called Nagarī, where five bhikṣus dwelled.

72. He saw that the five bhikṣus were well in control of their sense faculties. They dwelled in that forest of asceticism, keeping the precepts and practicing austerities.

73. The bank of the Nairañjanā River was quiet and very pleasant. In that very place the Bodhisattva immediately pondered in tranquility.

74. When the five bhikṣus knew that [the Bodhisattva] was seeking deliverance with a fine mind, they wholeheartedly came to worship him, as if paying respect to the god Īśvara.

75. They humbly treated him as their teacher and never left his side, whether going or staying, just as the faculties of a practitioner proceed following the mind.

76. In his diligent application the Bodhisattva had to cross old age, illness, and death. He wholeheartedly practiced asceticism and, restraining himself, he forgot to eat.

77. Purifying his mind, he observed a fast that  any practitioner would find unbearable. He meditated in silence for a full six years.

78. He ate one sesame seed and one grain of rice a day, and his body became utterly emaciated. In his search to cross birth and death, his grave delusion became even more serious.

79. “The path will be accomplished through understanding. Not eating will not be the cause!” Although his four limbs were weak, his wise mind became increasingly clear.

80. His spirit was empty and his body was shrunken, but his famous virtue became widely renowned. It was like the opening up of a kumuda[18] flower when the moon has just risen. His excellent fame spread all over the land. Men and women rivaled to come and see him.

81. His suffering body was like a dead log for almost six years. Fearful of the suffering of birth and death, he wanted only the cause of right awakening.

82. He thought to himself, “Not through this will I be free from desire or will quiet contemplation arise. The wonder I previously obtained beneath the jambū tree[19] is better still. Know that that is the right path!

83. “The path will not be obtained by an exhausted body. It must be sought after with corporal strength. When food and drink fulfill the faculties, the faculties rejoice, so that the mind is at ease.

84. “When the mind is at ease, it complies with quietude. Tranquility is the snare for trances. Through meditation one knows the Right Law, and with the power of the Law one may obtain what is hard to obtain.

85. “In quietude one may leave old age and death, in the highest form free from any impurity. Such fine ways all come from food and drink.”

86. Having considered the meaningfulness of this, he washed himself on the bank of the Nairañjanā. After bathing, he wanted to come out of the pond but he was weak and could not pull himself out. A celestial spirit pressed down the branch of a tree, and he raised his hand, held on to it, and came out.

87. At the same time, on the other side, beyond the forest, there was a cowherd chief. The chief’s daughter was called Nandā. A god of the pure abodes came to tell her, “The Bodhisattva is in the forest. Go and worship him!”

88. Nandā Balajā happily went to where [the Bodhisattva] was. She wore bracelets of white shells on her arms, and a garment that was dyed dark blue. The dark blue and the white reflected one another, just like something immersed in purifying water.

89. Her trusting mind increased her joy. She bowed at the Bodhisattva’s feet and respectfully offered fragrant milk-rice, considering that he would deign to accept it, seeing her concern.

90. The Bodhisattva accepted [the meal] and ate it, and [Nandā] obtained a present fruition. Having eaten, his faculties rejoiced and he was fit to experience bodhi.

91. His body became brighter, and the reputation of his virtue became ever more lofty, just as the hundred rivers increase the sea and the new moon daily increases its light.

92. When the five bhikṣus saw [the Bodhisattva take food], they were startled and thought it was contemptible. They thought he had withdrawn from his spiritual path. They abandoned him and moved to a better dwelling place, just as when one is delivered he is free from all five great elements.

93. The Bodhisattva wandered alone, and went to the auspicious tree.[20] Underneath that tree, he would accomplish the path of perfect awakening. The ground was wide and level, and smooth, with soft grass growing there. 94. With dignity, he walked like a lion, and at every step the earth shook. The movement of the earth moved the dragon Kāla. He rejoiced and his eyes saw clearly.

95. He said, “When I saw the former buddhas, the earth moved just as it does now. Your virtue, muni, is very worthy, unsurpassed on the great earth!

96. “As your feet tread on the ground, with every step it makes a thundering sound. Your fine light shines in the world, just like the light of the morning sun.

97. “A flock of five hundred blue tits hovers in the sky, making circles to the right. A gentle and cool breeze follows and blows all around.

98. “All these auspicious signs were the same for the buddhas of the past. That is why I know that the Bodhisattva will accomplish the path of right awakening.”

99. From another man who was cutting grass, [the Bodhisattva] obtained pure and soft grass. He spread out the grass underneath the tree and sat down, his body upright. He sat cross-legged and did not move, like the coiling body of a dragon.

100. “I will not rise from this seat until I fully achieve what I have to do!” When he made this true and solemn oath, the gods and dragons all rejoiced.

101. A cool and gentle breeze came up yet the twigs of the bushes and trees did not rustle. All the birds and animals were quiet; none gave a sound. All these were signs that the Bodhisattva would certainly accomplish the path of awakening.

Footnotes and references:


Here we have an early explanation of Sāṃkhya philosophy. The individual corporal being, sattva, is made up of eight constituents for primary nature or matter (prakṛti), sixteen constituents for secondary matter, change (vikāra), birth (jāti), death (maraṇa), and old age (jarā). Nature’s constituent is mainly the unseen power (avyakta; the text has “seeing,” perhaps meaning the unseen), but also intellection (buddhi), the self (ahaṃkāra), and the five great elements (earth, water, fire, wind, and space). The sixteen secondary material elements are the five sense faculties and their objects (eye and form; ear and sound; nose and smell; tongue and taste; body and tactile sensation), hands, feet, speech or voice, the organs of generation and secretion, and the faculty of the mind. The five faculties are called the faculties of intellection. Hands, feet, speech, and the two “paths” are the faculties of action. The faculty of the mind is twofold: action and intellection.


Instead of the term “knower of the field,” the text always has “knower of the cause,” i.e., the self (ātman). See also stanza 56, below.


Prajāpati is thought to be Hiraṇyagarbha. Kapila, the traditional founder of Sāṃkhya, is said to be a personification of Hiraṇyagarbha, the creator.


“The seen”: vyakta.


These are the eight causes of the three items listed in the stanza above: foolishness, action, and desire.


The five modes are the fivefold types of ignorance listed here: darkness, delusion, great delusion, anger, and fear.


Stanzas 41–47 describe the four trances (dhyānas). The Abhidharma explains them in the same way.


In Buddhism, the four trances (dhyānas) occur in the realm of form. The number of heavens associated with them varies. In the case of Aśvaghoṣa, the total number probably was seventeen or eighteen. “Brahma heaven” is a term used to designate all the heavens of the first trance. Ābhāsvara (Universal Light) and Śubhakṛtsna (Universal Purity) are the highest heavens in the second and third trances. Bṛhatphala is a heaven of the fourth trance, the highest heaven of which is Akaniṣṭha. As Ārāḍa is explaining Sāṃkhya yoga, it seems that the four heavens mentioned in these stanzas may be the highest of his respective trances.


Stanzas 48–50 give an explanation of the three spheres (āyatanas) in the immaterial realm. They are the spheres of unlimited space, of unlimited consciousness, and of emptiness. For the fourth sphere, see stanza 70, below.


Muñja is a sedge-like grass.


Jaigīṣavya, Janaka, and Vṛddha Parāśara, also known as Pañcaśikha, are all Sāṃkhya seers.


The “three” that are rejected: foolishness, action, and desire.


Sāṃkhya is understood as “enumeration.” Here, in particular, anything counted as “I” and “mine” seems to be meant.


Guṇa: attribute, quality, or psychic state, specifically of the self.


The possessor of an attribute (guṇa) is a guṇin, i.e., a self.


Udraka taught the fourth immaterial sphere, i.e., that of of neither perception nor nonperception.


Gaja means “elephant.” This refers to Mount Gayaśiras, famous for its numerous ascetics (whence probably the name Nagarī, “town”), near Gayā.


Kumuda is a lotus flower.


See Chapter V, stanza 12ff.


The aśvattha, or bodhi tree (ficus religiosa).

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