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 XXIV - Farewell to the Licchavis

1. When the venerable Ānanda saw that the earth and the heavens all around were shaking, he was startled in his heart and the hair on his body stood on end. He asked the Buddha why [these things were occurring].

2. The Buddha said to Ānanda, “I will remain alive for three [more] months. All remaining life formations have been abandoned. That is why the earth quakes.”

3. When Ānanda heard the Buddha’s explanation, he felt sad and his tears flowed. Just as, for instance, when a very powerful elephant disturbs a sandal wood tree and its wood is damaged—its fragrant gum flows down like tears.

4. As a relative [of the Buddha], as someone who held his worthy great teacher in esteem, possessing profound goodness, but not yet having renounced desire—because of these four things [Ānanda] could not overcome his pain.

5. “Now that I have heard the instructions of the World-honored One, that his nirvana is certain, my whole body has completely withered away. I have lost my direction and my usual bearing. I have completely forgotten the Law I have heard. In my disarray I have lost heaven and earth.

6. “Astonishing how [soon comes] the extinction of my master, savior of the world! In freezing cold, about to die, the fire I have encountered is suddenly extinguished again.

7. “Confused by the wilderness of afflictions, I have lost my direction. I unexpectedly met an expert guide but before I am saved I suddenly lose him again!

8. “I am like someone who has traveled a long road and who, exhausted by the heat, has thirsted for water for a long time. Suddenly coming across a cool pond he hurries to it, but finds it all dried up.

9. “His eyes gazing, with blue eyelashes, [the Buddha] clearly examines the three worlds. His wisdom shines in the darkness, but soon it will become dark!

10. “Suppose, for instance, during a drought a cloud appears and one anticipates the rain for the plants. But the cloud is quickly dispersed by a fierce wind. Hope ceases and one is left with an empty field.

11. “In the great darkness of ignorance, beings have all lost their direction. The Tathāgata has lit the lamp of wisdom but it will be suddenly extinguished. How will they escape?”

12. When the Buddha had heard Ānanda’s exposition, his bitter complaint and his sorrowful feelings, he softly spoke comforting words and explained the True Law to him:

13. “When someone understands his specific nature, he will not dwell in grief! All that is conditioned will all go to ruin.

14. “I have already explained to you that what is united will by nature be separated. Love is impermanent in principle. Give up thoughts of longing! 15. “The conditioned keeps flowing. One is born and one is extinguished. One will not maintain oneself. One may wish for a long-lasting existence, but will never achieve that state!

16. “If the conditioned were to permanently remain, nothing would change. This would be deliverance. What more would one want?

17. “What could you and other beings now want from me? I have already expounded to you what you should obtain.

18. “What use is this body of mine? The body of the fine Law will exist for a long time. I may remain or exist in quietude [but] what you require will indeed be here!

19. “As a teacher, I have never held anything from beings. Develop a notion of revulsion [for samsara], well established in your own territory!

20. “When you know your own territory, you must be attentive and diligently apply yourself! Practice alone and in tranquility, and reside in solitude! Do not follow beliefs in anything else!

21. “When you know the territory of the Law, you are certain to clearly see the lamp of wisdom. It can dispel delusion, and one may observe the four ranges.[1] Having obtained the excellent Law, one is free from any self and free from [‘I’ and] ‘mine.’

22. “The bones of the skeleton are plastered with skin and flesh, dipped in blood, and tied by sinews. After careful contemplation, [one sees that] this is all impure. Why be content with this body?

23. “Any experiencing comes from its conditions, just as bubbles [form] on water. Birth and extinction are impermanent and painful, far removed from any pleasant notion.

24. “Thoughts come into existence, exist, and are extinguished. Renewed again and again, they do not cease even for a while. When considering tranquility, the notion of permanence is forever abandoned.

25. “All formations are produced by causes and conditions. They gather and scatter, and are not constantly together. A fool produces the notion of a self, but a wise one is without any [‘I’ or] ‘mine.’

26. “Reflect on these four ranges, and correctly contemplate them! This is the path of the unique vehicle, by which all suffering is extinguished.

27. “If one can dwell in it and truthfully contemplate it correctly, this Law is permanent and without end, even while the Buddha’s body may be dead or alive.”

28. When the Buddha had expounded this fine Law and comforted Ānanda, the Licchavis heard about it. They were fearful and gathered together.

29. They all abandoned their mundane deportment and rushed to where the Buddha was. After they had made obeisance, they sat to one side. They wanted to question him but could not utter a word. The Buddha knew what was on their minds. He anticipated [their questions] and gave them a skillful explanation.

30. “As I observe you now, you have exceptional notions in your mind. You have abandoned the affairs that are the common lot [of human beings]. Yes, mindfulness of the Law is what you feel.

31. “If you now wish to receive learning and knowledge from me, do not grieve for me, whether I am alive or dead!

32. “Impermanence is the nature of the conditioned. It is fickle and changeable. Neither firm nor beneficial, it is not characterized by long-lasting duration.

33. “The seer kings of old, the seer Vasiṣṭha and others, the wheel-turning king Māndhātṛ, among many others,

34. “such former excellent ones were as powerful as the god Īśvara. They have all long since gone to ruin. Not one presently exists.

35. “Suns and moons, Śakras, rulers of the gods—their numbers were very great too, but all these have also turned to ruin. No one has existed for a long time.

36. “The number of buddhas in the past worlds has been [as many as] the sands on the banks of the Ganges. Their wisdom shone in the world but they have all been extinguished like a lamp.

37. “The same will apply to the future extinction of the buddhas of future worlds. Why would I now be any different? I [too] shall enter nirvana. 38. “Yonder there are others I have to save. Now I must go and proceed. Vaiśālī has been pleasant. Do feel at ease!

39. “There is not any support in the world and one should not enjoy the three worlds! Stop the suffering of grief and give rise to the thought of renunciation!

40. “Having decided on a long separation, I will travel north. I will slowly travel the long road, just like the sun nears the mountains in the west.”

41. The Licchavis, moaning sadly, complied as [the Buddha] went on his way. Looking up at heaven, they sighed with grief. “Alas! How astonishing!

42. “His appearance is like a mountain of real gold, fully adorned with all the marks, but before long he will crumble. How unkind is impermanence!

43. “We have thirsted in vain for a long time in birth and death. The Tathāgata is our mother of wisdom but suddenly abandons us now. Not having any rescue, what of our suffering?

44. “Beings have been in darkness for a long time, but through his light they may proceed in wisdom. Why does the sun of wisdom suddenly hide its light?

45. “Ignorance is a swift current, tossing beings about. Why will the bridge of the Law soon and so suddenly be destroyed?

46. “The fine medicine of the unsurpassed knowledge of the compassionate great physician-king can cure the suffering of beings. Why does he abruptly depart?

47. “The fine celestial banner of compassion, adorned with wisdom and covered with adamantine thoughts—the world would tirelessly observe it.

48. “But why will the banner of excellence, our sacrificial ornament, soon collapse? How little merit do beings have! They will continue to turn in the stream of birth and destruction.

49. “The gate to deliverance has suddenly closed. We will suffer for a long time, without any hope of escape. The Tathāgata is skillful at giving comfort but he has abandoned us to our feelings and has bade us farewell for a long time.”

50. Controlling their thoughts, [the Licchavis] endured their longing. They were like pale karṇikāra flowers. Hesitantly and slowly, they went on their way, dispirited. They were like those who had lost a relative and returned when the burial was over, after a long farewell.

Footnotes and references:


The four ranges, or spheres, of action (gocara) refer to the four applications of mindfulness (smṛtyupasthāna), i.e., to the body (impure), to experiencing (painful), to thoughts (impermanent), and to factors (without a self). These four are explained in stanzas 22–25.

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