The Fo-Sho-Hing-Tsan-King (A Life of Buddha)

by Samuel Beal | 1883 | 108,941 words

This book is called “A Life of Buddha” by Asvaghosha Bodhisattva, in Chinese known as the “Fo-Sho-Hing-Tsan-King”. It was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Dharmaraksha (or Dharmakshara) A.D. 420. The most reliable of the lives of Buddha known in China is that translated in the present volume, the Buddhacarita-kavya. It was no doubt written...

Aśvaghoṣa's Style

The Chinese priest I-tsing says that the hymns used in the Buddhist church during his visit to India were composed and arranged by Aśvaghoṣa (Nan-hae, § 32). There can. be little doubt that he was a musician as well as poet. He travelled about, we are told, with a body of musicians, and was the means of converting many persons of distinction by his skill (Abstract, &c., p. 97). The work before us gives proof of his poetical talent. In translating his verses, even from the Chinese, an impulse to follow in his poetical vein has been felt. But the requirements of a literal translation forbad any such diversion. Nevertheless the reader will observe many passages that would have easily allowed a more 'flowery diction.' The passage in verse 629 and following verses is very touching—the consuming grief of Yaśodharā until 'her breath grew less and sinking thus, she fell upon the dusty ground.' The account of Buddha's enlightenment in verse 1166 and following is also striking: 'Thus did he complete the end of self, as fire goes out for want of grass; thus he had done what he would have men do; he first had found the way of perfect knowledge. He finished thus the first great lesson; entering the great Ṛṣi's house, the darkness disappeared, light burst upon him; perfectly silent and at rest, he reached the last exhaustless source of truth; lustrous with all wisdom the great Ṛṣi sat, perfect in gifts, whilst one convulsive throe shook the wide earth.'

There are many passages throughout the poem of great beauty; there is much also that is dry and abstruse, yet we cannot doubt that in that day and among these people the 'great poem' of Aśvaghoṣa must have had considerable popularity. Hence the translations of it are numerous; it must have tested Dharmarakṣa's powers to have turned it into Chinese. There is also a Tibetan copy of it; and whether it was originally composed in Sanskrit or not, we know that there are now various editions. of it in that language. I do not pretend to have found the author's meaning in all cases; the Chinese is not easy; but in the main drift of the poem I have followed my text as faithfully and literally as possible. The concluding portion of the last section, as it seems to sup-port the idea of only one Aśoka, first fierce and then gentle, or religious, is, to say the least, a curious passage. But we may not attach too much weight to an isolated statement of this sort; there may have been reasons more than we know of why the orthodox tradition of the Dharma-Aśoka, the patron of the Theravādi school, should have been ignored by a friend of Kaniṣka. But in any case the evidence is too slight to build upon; we can only say that in Aśvaghoṣa's time it had become usual to put the Council of Pāṭaliputra out of sight, and to regard the Theravādi school as one opposed to the generally received traditions of the North.

I cannot conclude this Introduction without expressing my thanks to Mr. Bunyiu Nanjio, who kindly suggested emendations of my translation of some passages at the beginning of the work, and also to Professor Max Müller, to whom I am indebted for the restoration of many of the proper names that occur throughout the text.


Feb. 4, 1883.

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