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 XVII - Conversion of the Great Disciples

1. Then, when King Bimbisāra bowed and invited the World-honored One to come live in the Veṇuvana, he felt merciful and kept silent. After the king had seen the truth, he paid his respects to [the Buddha] and returned to his palace.

2. The World-honored One and his great multitude changed their residence and stayed in the Veṇuvana. He established the light of the lamp of wisdom in order to save living beings. He dwelled there with those of the brahma abodes, with those of the celestial abodes, and with those of the abodes of the noble.[1]

3. Then, as Aśvajit had subdued his thoughts and controlled his faculties, and as it was time to go on almsrounds, he entered the city of Rājagṛha.

4. His complexion was outstanding in the world, and his demeanor was at ease and dignified. All the men and women in the city were joyful when they saw him. Passersby stopped, coming forward to welcome him or following behind him.

5. The seer Kapila had saved many disciples, but the most excellent and learned among them was called Śāriputra.

6. When he saw the dignity of the bhikṣu [Aśvajit], who having quieted his faculties had a quiet and refined bearing, [Śāriputra] paused and waited for him to approach. He raised his hand and asked:

7. “Your youthfulness and quiet bearing—I have never seen such. What exquisite law did you obtain, and which teacher do you serve as his principles? Who has expounded your teacher’s teaching? Please, tell me and settle my doubts!”

8. The bhikṣu was pleased with [Śāriputra’s] questions, and humbly answered with a serene countenance, “He is endowed with omniscience, born in the excellent family of Ikṣvāku. He is most excellent among gods and humans. He is my great teacher.

9. “Because my age is young, my time of study is still limited. How could I propagate the very profound and subtle meanings of my great teacher?

10. “With my shallow knowledge I will now briefly explain the Law taught by my teacher: The arising of any existing factor comes from causality. The factors in birth and extinction may all be extinguished; the exposition of the path is the means.”

11. As Upatiṣya, the twice-born, heard this, his mind knew inner harmony. He was free from any impurity and his pure eye of the Law arose.

12. What he had previously practiced assuredly was the [philosophy of] the knower of the cause and the uncaused. All was inactive, all coming from the god Īśvara. When [Aśvajit] had made the Law of causality known, the knowledge that there is no self was clear.

13. All afflictions, strong or weak—no one had been able to finally do away with them. Only through the teaching of the Tathāgata were they forever ended, leaving nothing behind.

14. It is not the case that by being in the grasp of any “mine” one can be free from a self. Light appears because of the sun or a lamp. But what can cause the absence of light?

15. If one cuts down the stalk of the lotus, its fine fibers are still connected. But the Buddha’s teaching does away with affliction as if it were completely annihilated by a rock.

16. [Upatiṣya] respectfully did obeisance at the bhikṣu’s feet, then withdrew and returned home. After the bhikṣu had begged for alms he returned to the Veṇuvana too.

17. When Śāriputra returned home, his appearance was very serene. The worthy Maudgalyāyana, his good friend, had the same nature and his talent for learning was equal.

18. In the distance he saw Śāriputra, his countenance and deportment very joyful. He said, “When I see you now, your expression is different than usual.

19. “Your ordinary disposition is quite serious but now your joyful appearance is obvious. You have certainly obtained the law of immortality. This appearance is not without cause.”

20. [Śāriputra] answered with what the Tathāgata had said. He really had obtained the wonderful Law. Invited to explain it, he immediately did so to [Maudgalyāyana]. When [Maudgalyāyana] had heard it, his mind opened up. All impurity was removed too, and he subsequently produced the eye of the Right Law.

21. As the fine fruition of a cause they had long ago planted, they observed, as it were, a lamp in their hands. They attained unshakable faith in the Buddha. Both went to where the Buddha was, together with a crowd of followers, two hundred and fifty disciples.

22. The Buddha saw the two worthies from afar and said to his multitude, “The two who are coming will be my chief disciples. The wisdom of the one will be peerless, and the supernatural power of the other will be the highest.”

23. He immediately announced in his profoundly pleasant and pure voice, “Welcome! Here is the law of purity. Having gone forth, you may completely achieve its path.”

24. In their hands they held tridents; they had twisted locks and carried pitchers for cleansing. When they heard Buddha’s welcoming voice, they immediately changed into śramaṇas.

25. The two teachers and their disciples all adopted the deportment of bhikṣus. They bowed at the World-honored One’s feet, withdrew, and sat to one side. He courteously expounded the Law to them, and they all obtained the path of arhatship.

26. At that time there was a twice-born one, the bright lamp of the Kāśyapa family. He was learned and endowed with the physical marks. His riches were abundant and his wife was utterly worthy,[2] but he had given them up and had gone forth, earnestly searching for the path of deliverance.

27. On his way he approached the Bahuputraka Shrine and unexpectedly met Śākyamuni, whose bright deportment manifested his brilliance, like a banner when bringing sacrifices to the gods. Reverently his whole person was respectful. [The twice-born one] made obeisance and bowed at his feet.

28. “You, worthy one, are my great teacher. I am your disciple. For a very long time I have been accumulating the darkness of delusion. Please bring me the light of your lamp!”

29. The Buddha knew that the twice-born one was joyful in his heart, holding deliverance in high esteem. In his pure and soft voice he welcomed [the twice-born one].

30. Upon hearing the command, [the twice-born one] was relieved at heart and the fatigue of his body and spirit was alleviated. His mind was fixed on excellent deliverance and he was quiet, free from any impurity. As befitting [one of] great compassion, [the Buddha] gave a brief explanation.

31. He understood all profound factors, and accomplished the four unhindered analytical knowledges.[3] Because his great virtue was renowned everywhere, he was called Mahākāśyapa.

32. He had formerly seen the body and a self as different, or believed that the self is the body. The view of an existing self and “mine” was forever done away with. He saw only a mass of suffering. When free from suffering, there is nothing left.

33. Keeping the precepts and practicing asceticism were no cause, but they had been viewed as a cause. He universally saw the nature of suffering and was forever free from clinging to anything.

34. Whether seeing existence or nonexistence, the two views give rise to doubtfulness, but universally seeing the truth he was certain, free from any doubt.

35. Profoundly attached to riches and beauty, one is infatuated and desire arises, but with their impermanence and the notion of their impurity one is forever without covetousness.

36. With a mind of friendliness he thought in an impartial way. He did not think of friend and foe differently. As he felt compassion for all, he had dispelled the poison of anger.

37. Relying on matter, all was remedied, and all kinds of various notions arose. As his reflection destroyed all notions of matter, he could put a stop to desire for matter.

38. Even if he was born among the gods of no form, their lives still would certainly come to an end. In their foolishness about the four attainments they had the notion that [the four attainments] meant deliverance. Tranquil and free from any notion, his covetousness for the immaterial was forever removed.

39. Restless thoughts are disturbing, just like a strong wind whipping up the waves. He deeply entered firm concentration and quieted his excited mind.

40. He contemplated that factors have no [“I” or] “mine,” and that in birth and extinction they are not solid. Not seeing any weak, intermediate, or strong, his arrogant thoughts were naturally forgotten.

41. Having lit the lamp of wisdom, he was free from any darkness of delusion. He saw the law of destruction and absence of destruction, and absolutely nothing remained of his ignorance.

42. Considering the ten qualities, the ten kinds of affliction were extinguished.[4] He was at rest, having done what he had to do. Deeply moved, [Mahākāśyapa] gazed at the Honored One’s countenance.

43. Free from the three and having obtained three,[5] the three disciples[6] had removed the three.[7] Like the three stars[8] lined up in the Trāyastrimśa Heaven, waiting upon the thirty-five,[9] the three [disciples] attended the Buddha in the same way.

Footnotes and references:


I.e., the four pure abodes: 1) of those in the realm of form, and 2) of those in the realm of no-form. Collectively referred to here as the brahmavihāras. 3) the celestial abodes of the six kinds of desiring gods, and 4) the abodes of the noble ones who have embarked on the noble path.


Bhadrā, the wife of Mahākāśyapa.


The four analytical knowledges (pratisaṃvid): 1) of factors, 2) of the meanings, 3) of expression, and 4) of inspired speech.


The Abhidharmahṛdaya explains that with the ten kinds of knowledge, the ten kinds of affliction are removed. Dharmaśreṣṭhin’s work is older than the Buddhacarita and so is Kātyāyanīputra’s Aṣṭagrantha. See the Introduction in C. Willemen, The Essence of Scholasticism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2006).


I.e., having converted from “the three” of brahmans—duty (dharma), riches (artha), and desire (kāma)—to “the three” of Buddhists, the Three Jewels (triratna): Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.


The three disciples are Śāriputra, Maudgalyāyana, and Mahākāśyapa.


The three poisons, or primary afflictions: greed, anger, and delusion.


The three-starred constellation, Jyeṣṭhā.


thirty-three gods of the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven, plus the sun and moon.

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