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 XXVIII - The Division of the Relics

1. The crowd of Mallas made offerings to the relics. They brought unsurpassed worship with exquisite fragrant flowers.

2. Then the kings of seven countries[1] heard that the Buddha was extinguished. They sent messengers to the Mallas requesting the Buddha’s relics.

3. The multitude of Mallas revered the Tathāgata’s body but, completely relying on valiance, they had proud thoughts. They would rather give up their own lives than give up the Buddha’s relics.

4. The messengers all returned empty-handed and the seven kings became very angry. They raised armies and like clouds and rain they came to Kuśinagara.

5. The people who were outside the city all returned in fear. They notified the multitude of Mallas that the armies and horses of the [other] countries were coming, that their chariots with elephants and horses and their multitudes on foot had surrounded Kuśinagara.

6. The groves outside the city, the springs and ponds, the flowers, fruit, and trees, were all trampled by the armies. The splendid observation towers were all smashed.

7. When the Mallas climbed the observation towers on the city wall, [they saw that] their property was all destroyed. They prepared their weapons for battle in order to aim them at the enemy outside.

8. Bows and crossbows, carriages for catapults, and flying torches—all came forth. The seven kings surrounded the city and each of their armies were [composed of] elite troops.

9. Their ceremonial plumes were very bright, just like the light of the seven luminaries.[2] Their bells and drums were like thunder and their ferocity formed a profuse cloud. The Mallas were very rash. They opened the gates and ordered [their warriors] to confront them.

10. The elderly men and women who believed wholeheartedly in the Buddha’s Law were startled and made a sincere vow: “May they not cause harm when subduing the others!” They lovingly admonished them to not wish to do battle.

11. But the valiant men were wearing their heavy armor. They wielded their battle-axes and brandished their long swords. As bells and drums sounded in confusion, they grasped their weapons, though they had not yet crossed them in battle.

12. There was a brahman called Droṇa. He was learned and possessed superior cleverness. His modesty was honored by all. He was kind at heart and found happiness in the Right Law. He said to the kings:

13. “Observe the state of these walls! Even one man is enough to withstand you. How much less could you subdue them with their singleminded vigor!

14. “Yes, if you destroy them, what meritorious fame would there be? After you have crossed your sharp weapons, the conditions would not be good for either of you.

15. “If you harm others because of this, both will be hurt. In battle there is much volatility, and the conditions are difficult to predict.

16. “The strong may overcome the weak or the weak may overcome the strong. When a man in his vigor makes light of a poisonous snake, how could he not hurt himself?

17. “Some men are gentle by nature, praised by women and children, but when facing the enemy they become warriors, as if oil had been poured onto a fire.

18. “Do not make light of a weak enemy in battle, thinking he is fit for nothing! His physical strength may not be sufficient to rely on, but the force of his strategy may be stronger.

19. “Once there was an excellent king, called Karandhama. Sitting upright, he gave rise to friendly thoughts, yet he could subdue his enemies.

20. “Even though he ruled over the four worlds and his fame and riches were abundant, eventually all was destroyed, just as an ox turns back when he has had enough to drink.

21. “You should apply yourselves to your duty, to righteousness, and to harmony! A victory in war increases resentment, but after a victory of harmony there is no distress.

22. “Your present bloodthirsty hostility, this is absolutely not possible! As you wish to bring worship to the Buddha, you should follow the Buddha’s forbearance!”

23. Thus the brahman decidedly expressed his sincerity. As his way was proper and his meaning was in agreement with what is reasonable, he had spoken out without fear.

24. The kings then said to the brahman, “You have now skillfully responded to the occasion. You are clever and [what you say] makes much sense.

25. “Your friendly and utterly honest words comply with the Law and rely on a strong principle. Do listen to our explanation of our duty as a ruler!

26. “One may feel contempt for a clash of strong forces competing due to the five desires, or one must not hurry off to fight seeking some diversion. We are fighting for the Law now. What is astonishing about that?

27. “When one is proud and disregards righteousness, people in the world still humbly comply. All the more so in the case of the Buddha, who is free from pride and converts others to humility! But we cannot bring him worship if we destroy ourselves.

28. “In the past the rulers of the great earth, the Vṛṣṇis and the An dhakas, fought over a beautiful maiden and destroyed each other.

29. “How much more should we now bring worship to our teacher, who is in quietude, free from desire! Holding oneself dear and valuing life, do not strive with force!

30. “The former kings, the Kauravas, fought with the Pāṇḍavas, and in the process they destroyed each other, all due to their greed. How much more do we further wish for life for the sake of our teacher, who is without greed! 31. “The son of a seer, Rāma, was angry at the thousand-armed king. He destroyed the land and killed its people, just because he was angry. How much more should we value life for the sake of our teacher who is without anger!

32. “Rāma killed the demons for the sake of Sītā. How much less should we destroy life for the sake of our teacher who is received by the gods!

33. “The two demons, Alāyudha and Baka, were steadfast enemies. Due only to their foolishness, they greatly harmed beings. How much more should we further value life for the sake of the wise teacher!

34. “Among many others, such ones senselessly ruined themselves. How much more should the teacher of gods and humans now be revered by the world all around! Should we not diligently strive to bring worship, considering ourselves and valuing life?

35. “If you want to stop the fighting, enter the city for us and urge them to open up [their minds], so that our wish is fulfilled!

36. “You have appeased our minds for a while because of your right words, just as a venomous snake is stopped for a while by the power of an incantation!”

37. The brahman then accepted the kings’ instructions. He entered the city and went to the Mallas. He made polite inquiries and expressed his sincerity to them.

38. “The kings among people outside all want to destroy this city. They have their sharp weapons in hand and are wearing their heavy armor. Their elite troops dazzle in the sunlight and they will burst forth with the ferocity of a lion.

39. “But because of the Law they are still afraid of [committing] wrong behavior. That is why they have sent me here. Their purpose is to inform you of something.

40. “‘[We do not wish to take] your land and neither do we seek cash possessions. Nor [do we come] out of pride and neither do we feel resentment in our hearts.

41. “‘We have come here because we respect the great seer. Since you know our intention, why take pains to oppose us?

42. “‘As both parties are the same as to whom they respect, we are brothers in the Law. Let us with all our hearts bring worship together to the bequeathed spirit of the World-honored One!

43. “‘Stinginess concerning money is not the greatest fault. The fault of parsimony concerning the Law is the worst, despised by all in the world!

44. “‘Those who have decided not to be open should develop a way of hospitality! But if you do not have the ways of a kṣatriya, close the gates and guard yourselves!’

45. “They are all like this in expressing the way of their destiny. I have my personal feelings, but I have expressed their sincerity.

46. “Both parties must not oppose one another! All should reasonably be united! When the World-honored One was in the world, he always taught forbearance. If one does not comply with his noble teaching, why would one use the term ‘worship’?

47. “People in the world argue about the five desires, about riches and lands and dwellings. If one acts according to the Right Law, one should follow its noble principle. When one tries to act according to the Law but feels enmity, this contradicts reason.

48. “The Buddha is quiet and compassionate, and he always wishes to put all at ease. Yet by [wishing to] worship the One with Great Compassion you may bring great harm. You should equally divide his relics and let them be worshiped everywhere!

49. “By complying with the Law, your fame will spread. When righteousness pervades your principles, it will be proclaimed! If others behave wrongly, you should bring harmony to them with the Law! That then is happiness with the Law, so that the Law may abide for a long time.

50. “The Buddha has said that of all gifts the gift of the Law is most excellent. People perform the giving of riches, but it is difficult to perform the gift of the Law.”

51. When the Mallas heard these words, they were ashamed and looked at each other. They responded to the brahman, “We are deeply moved by your purpose in coming.

52. “Your words, which show friendliness and which comply with the Law, are spoken in a refined and correct way, in agreement with reason. Befitting a brahman, [your words] agree with your qualities.

53. “You have skillfully brought harmony to the contentions of both parties and have shown us the essential path, just as when one controls a horse which has lost its way and returns to the correct way.

54. “We should adopt this as reasonable and follow your explanation! If we do not accept your sincere words, we would certainly feel regret later!”

55. They immediately opened the [container of] the Buddha’s relics and divided them equally into eight parts. They themselves brought worship to one part and the seven other parts were handed over to the brahman.

56. When the seven kings obtained the relics, they rejoiced and accepted them, [raising them] to their heads [as a sign of respect]. They took [the relics] and returned to their own countries. There they erected stupas and brought worship.

57. The brahman asked the Mallas for the container of their relics as his share. He further asked the seven kings about the division of the eighth share. He took it[3] back and enshrined it in a caitya, calling it the Shrine of the Golden Pitcher.[4]

58. The people of Kuśinagara collected the remaining ashes and erected a caitya, called the Ashes Shrine.[5]

59. The eight stupas erected by the eight kings, the Golden Pitcher, and the Ashes [Shrine]—in this way ten stupas were initially erected in Jambudvīpa.

60. The men and women of the whole country all held up a precious flowered parasol and brought worship to their stupas, decorating them like the golden mountain.[6] Night and day they brought lasting praise with all kinds of music.

61. At that time, five hundred arhats had forever lost the protection of their great teacher. They were afraid, having no one on whom to rely, and returned to Mount Gṛdhrakūṭa. They gathered at the cliff [dwelling] of Lord Śakra[7] and assembled the treasury of scriptural texts.

62. All together they promoted the elder Ānanda. “From the first to the last expositions of the Tathāgata, great and small, you have heard them all! Vaideha muni, proclaim them for the great assembly!”

63. In the great assembly Ānanda ascended the lion throne. Just as the

Buddha had expounded his expositions, he declared, “Thus have I heard.”

64. All in the entire council let their tears flow. They were moved by the sound [of this phrase], “I have heard.” It was written down as expounded, as to the doctrine, as to the time, as to the place, and as to the persons [present at the time of the teaching]. Finally they completed the treasury of the scriptural texts.

65. Through diligent application and study they all obtained nirvana. The same applies to the nirvana one now obtains or will obtain.

66. When King Aśoka (“Without Sorrow”) appeared in the world, as an imposing person he could well cause sorrow. As a gentle person he removed sorrow, just like a blossoming aśoka tree.

67. Ruling over Jambudvīpa, his mind was steadfastly without any worry and he deeply believed in the Right Law. That is why he was named King Aśoka.

68. Progeny of the Mauryas, he was born endowed with the correct nature. He saved the world all around and erected shrines. His former name was Caṇḍāśoka but his present name is Dharmāśoka.[8]

69. He opened the stupas of the seven kings to collect the relics. He divided them and erected eighty-four thousand stupas in a day.

70. Only the eighth stupa, situated in Rāmagrāma, was guarded by divine dragons. The king could not take those [relics].

71. Even though he did not obtain its relics, he knew that the Buddha’s bequeathed spirit was there, worshiped by divine dragons, and his serene faith increased.

72. While the king ruled over the land, he obtained the first noble fruition.[9] He let all in the world everywhere bring worship to the Tathāgata’s stupas. In the past, in the future, and in the present, all may obtain deliverance.

73. Those who respectfully brought worship to the Tathāgata when he was in the present world, when he was in nirvana, and to his relics—their merits are equal and without any difference.

74. When a wise one profoundly observes the Tathāgata’s qualities with a supreme mind, when he cherishes his path and brings worship, his merits will be excellent too.

75. When the Buddha had obtained his worthy excellent Law, he was worthy of receiving everyone’s worship. After he had reached the deathless place, his believers were at ease too. That is why all gods and humans should always bring worship.

76. The highest and most compassionate one has thorough insight into the highest meaning, and saves all beings. Who would not be moved by hearing about him?

77. The suffering of birth, old age, illness, and death—no suffering in the world surpasses these. The suffering of death is the greatest suffering, feared by gods.

78. When he is forever free from the two kinds of suffering,[10] why not bring him worship? The happiness of not having to experience a later experience [of existence] is unsurpassed among any worldly happiness.

79. The endless round of birth [and rebirth] is the greatest suffering. This suffering is unequaled in the world. The Buddha is free from the suffering of rebirth and neither will he experience the happiness of a later existence. He has extensively shown this to the world. Why not bring him worship?

80. I have praised the most worthy of the munis and his acts throughout [this text]. I did not manifest my own understanding, nor did I seek fame. I have followed the explanations of the Buddha’s scriptural texts in order to rescue the world.

Footnotes and references:


The seven countries are: 1) the Mallas from Pāpā, 2) the Bulukas from Calakalpā, 3) the Krauḍyas from Rāmagrāma, 4) the Brahmans from Viṣṇudvīpa, 5) the Śākyas from Kapilavastu, 6) the Licchavis from Vaiśālī, and 7) the Varṣākāra, sent by Ajātaśatru from Magadha. It just so happens that in China there were also seven wellknown states during the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.).


The seven luminaries are the sun, moon, and five planets: Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, and Saturn. The term may be used to indicate the days of the week.


After the Mallas of Kuśinagara and the seven kings had agreed to share the relics, the eighth share was transported in a golden pitcher.


Sauvarṇakumbha bhṛṅgāra. The stupa may be called Kumbha Stupa.


Aṅgāra Stupa.


Mount Kailāsa? See note 106.


Indraśailaguhā, the cavern of Indra’s Rock.


As a conqueror, Aśoka (lit., “Without Sorrow”) was called Caṇḍa (“Fierce”). After his conversion he was known as Dharma (virtuous, dutiful).


The fruition of stream-winning. He was a srotaāpanna, having gained the first of the four fruitions of a śramaṇa, asceticism.


The two kinds of suffering: 1) On earth (stanza 77ab), and 2) in heaven (stanza 77cd).

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