Ashvaghosha, Buddhacharita

The birth of the Bodhisattva


There was once a king of the invincible* Shâkyas,     *ashakya

a mighty scion of the solar Ikshâku race;

Shuddhodana by name, he was pure in conduct,

and as dear to his people as the moon in autumn.


This counterpart of Indra* had a royal consort,     *king of the gods

whose splendour matched his power;

of outstanding beauty, and constancy,

she was called Mahâ-Mâyâ*, after the goddess Mâyâ.     *Great Maya


This sovereign lord embraced his queen

in the divine enjoyment of love;

she conceived the fruit of the womb without defilement,

as knowledge bears fruit when united with trance*.     samâdhi


Before her conception, and in her sleep,

she saw a white king elephant*     *the Bodhisattva in the Tushita heaven

entering into her body,

but causing her no pain.


So Mâyâ, the queen of that god-like king,

bore in her womb the glory of their dynasty;

yet she was free of fatigue, depression, and whims*,     *of pregnancy

and in purity she set her mind on the serene forest.


In her longing for forest solitude,

so conducive to trance, she asked the king

to go with her to the grove called Lumbinî*.   ....     *in present-day Nepal


In that glorious grove the queen perceived

that the time of her delivery was upon her;

she made her way to a sheltered couch,

surrounded by myriads of glad waiting-women.


The constellation Pushya was shining propitiously,

when from the side of the vow-hallowed queen

a son was born for the benefit of the world,

without causing her pain or injury.


His birth was after the manner of heroes:

Aurva from the thigh, or Prithu from the hand,

or Mândhâtri, the peer of Indra, from the head,

or Kakshîvat from the armpit.


He issued from the womb like one descending from the sky,

not coming into the world through the portal of life;

having purified his being over many aeons,

he was born not in ignorance but in awareness.


With his lustre and steadfastness

he looked like the young sun come down to earth;

yet when people gazed at his dazzling brilliance,

he held all eyes fixed on him like the moon.


The sun-like radiance of his limbs

eclipsed the glow of the lamps,

and beauteous with the hue of precious gold,

he illuminated all the quarters of space.


He was like the constellation of the Seven Seers,

walking seven steps with firm tread,

lifting his feet, unwavering and straight,

and taking long steady strides.


Surveying the four quarters like a lion,

he uttered these momentous words:

I have been born for enlightenment,

for the good of the world;  this is my last birth.   ....


At his nativity,the earth though fastened down

by the king of mountains*, shook like a wind-tossed ship;     *the Himâlaya

and from the cloudless sky a shower fell,

of blue and pink lotuses, perfumed with sandalwood.   ....




                     The homage of the Brahmins

The Brahmins, renowned for their conduct, learning, and eloquence,

when they heard about these omens and considered them,

their faces beaming with wonder and exultation,

they said to the king, who was filled with fear and joy alike:


On earth men desire for their peace

no other excellence than a son;

as this lamp of yours is the lamp of your lineage,

rejoice and make a feast today....


The signs found on this child of excellence,

his golden brilliance and radiant splendour,

show that he will either become an enlightened being

or else a universal monarch* in the world.   ....     *chakravartin


                           The great seer Asita

Then by virtue of the omens and the power of his austerities,

the great seer Asita learned of the birth

of the one who would put an end to birth,

and came thirsting for the true dharma to the Shakya king’s palace.   ....


The great seer beheld the king’s son in wonderment:

the soles of his feet each marked with a wheel*,   *one of  32 marks of a Buddha;

his fingers and toes joined by webs,                 see ‘The marks of a great man’

a circle of hair between his eyebrows*,     *the urna

and his testicles withdrawn like an elephant’s*.     *sign of great strength


When he saw the child on his nurse’s lap,

like the son of Agni* on the lap of the Goddess,     *Skanda

he stood with tears hanging from his eyelashes,

and sighing he looked heavenwards.


When the king saw Asita’s eyes filled with tears,

he trembled, fearing for his son....


The seer understood why the king was also distressed....


My sadness, he said, is not out of fear for him,

but from disappointment that my time is up,

just when the one is born who will comprehend

the mystery, so hard to grasp, of extinguishing rebirth.


Uninterested in worldly things, he will give up his kingdom,

and by strenuous efforts attain the ultimate truth,

so that his knowledge will shine forth like the sun,

to dispel the darkness of delusion in the world.


With the boat of knowledge he will save the world,

weighed down as it is with affliction,

from the ocean of suffering, with its foam of disease,

its waves of decrepitude and its fearsome flood of death.   ....


To those who are on the desert-tracks of samsara*,     *the cycle of existence

tormented by pain, and obstructed by sense-objects,

to such travellers who have lost their way,

he will proclaim the path that leads to salvation.


To people who are scorched by the fire of passions,

fuelled by sense-objects in the world,

like the rain from a great cloud at summer’s end

he will give relief through the rain of the dharma.


He will break open the imprisoning double door,

with its bolt of craving and its two halves of delusion and ignorance;

using the utterly irresistible hammer of the good dharma,

he will make a way of escape for living beings.


This world, entangled in the snares of its delusion,

overwhelmed by suffering and with no refuge,

will be freed from its bonds by this king of dharma,

when he has attained supreme enlightenment.


Therefore, do not be disheartened over him;

in this world we should feel sorrow for the person

whose mind is so deluded and so intoxicated by sensual pleasures

as to be unable to listen to this perfect dharma.


And though I have achieved proficiency in the trances,

I have not achieved this goal, and have fallen short of perfection;

so I regard living in the highest heaven as a misfortune,

because I will not be hearing his dharma.   ....


The king, to celebrate the birth of a son,

opened up all the prisons in his realm;

and in his affection for his son he had the birth ceremony

performed in a manner worthy of his family.


And when the ten days were completed,

in devotion of mind and overflowing joy,

for the welfare of his son he offered sacrifices to the gods,

together with prayers, oblations, and auspicious rites.

They returned to their city Kapilavastu and took up residence in the palace again.

 The prince in the palace


From the time of the birth of his son,

who would master himself and end birth and decay,

the king daily increased in wealth, elephants, horses, and allies,

as a river increases with the inflow of waters.   ....


There were many fertile cows in his kingdom,

contented and well-nourished, of unmixed colour*,    *or: docile

giving pure milk in abundance,

and having sturdy calves.   ....


Heaven sent down its rain in due time and place,

with the sound of gentle winds and clouds;

the sky was adorned with wreaths of lightning,

but unmarred by showers of thunderbolts or stones.   ....


So at the prince’s birth in the realm of that king,

it was like the reign of Manu* son of the Sun:     *the first human

gladness prevailed and evil perished,

dharma blazed forth and sin was quenched.   ....


But when Queen Mâyâ saw the great glory of her son,

which was like that of a seer* of the gods,     *rishi

she was unable to bear the joy it caused her,

and she passed on to heaven and dwelt there.


Then the queen’s sister*, who equaled her in majesty,     *named Prajâpatî

and was no less tender and affectionate,

nurtured the young prince as her own son,

he being like a scion of the gods.


Like the young sun on the eastern mountain,

or a fire fanned by the wind,

the prince grew up steadily towards full perfection,

like the lord of the stars in the fortnight of brightness*.   *the waxing moon


His friends brought him presents from their houses,

costly unguents of sandalwood,

strings of jewels filled with magic herbs,

little golden carriages to which deer were harnessed.


Also ornaments suited to his age,

toy elephants, deer, and horses, made of gold,

chariots yoked with little oxen,

and carts decked out with gold and silver.   ....


He passed through the period of infancy

and underwent the ceremony of initiation;

the knowledge appropriate to his station in life

he learned in a few days instead of many years.


But because the Shâkya king had heard from the great seer Asita,

that the prince’s future goal would be the supreme beatitude,

he feared that his son would withdraw into the forest,

and so he turned the prince’s attention to sensual pleasures.


From a long-established family of good reputation

he selected for him the goddess of Fortune in the form of a maiden,

Yashodharâ by name, widely renowned and virtuous,

endowed with beauty, modesty, and gentility.


The radiantly beautiful prince took his delight

with the Shâkya king’s daughter-in-law....


The monarch, to prevent his son from ever seeing

anything untoward that could perturb his mind,

housed him in the upper storeys of the palace,

and did not give him access to the ground.   ....


The palace was as glorious as the home of Shiva on Mount Kailâsa,

and the women danced as beautifully as apsarases*....     *celestial nymphs


There the women delighted him with their soft voices

and their sweet laughter....


Thus he became a captive to these women,

who were skilled in the arts of love and sensual pleasure;

he saw no need to come down from the palace to the ground,

as those who have merited Paradise do not think of coming down to earth.   ....


In the course of time the fair-bosomed Yashodharâ

bore to the son of Shuddhodana a son,

who was named Râhula*....     *’fetter’


All bodhisattvas have first tasted worldly pleasures,

and after a son has been born to them

they have left for the forest;...

and so he knew sensual pleasure until his enlightenment.

                                The excursions outside the palace


Then it was that he heard songs celebrating the forests....


Hearing of the enchanting nature of the city’s groves,

beloved of the womenfolk,

like an elephant locked up inside a house

he set his heart on an expedition in the outdoors.


When the king learned of his dear son’s wish,

he prepared a pleasure excursion....


But fearing that the prince’s tender mind

might be perturbed by it, he forbade

the appearance of afflicted people on the royal road.


With the utmost gentleness they removed

all the cripples, the mentally deficient,

the aged, the sick, and the like, and indigent beggars,

and made the royal highway utterly magnificent.   ....


The prince mounted a golden chariot,

to which were harnessed four placid horses....


Slowly he entered the royal highway,...

as all around the citizens gazed at him....


Thus the first time that the prince saw the highway,

it was thronged with respectful citizens,

and he was gladdened by this....


When the gods saw the city in jubilation...

they conjured up the illusion of a decrepit man,

to induce the king’s son to leave home.   ....


Good charioteer, he asked, who is this man

with white hair, supporting himself on a staff...?


The gods confounded the chariot-driver’s mind,

so that he told the prince what he should have withheld....


It is decrepitude that has broken him down,

the murderer of beauty, the ruin of vigour,

the birth-place of sorrow, the grave of pleasure,

the destroyer of memory, the assailant of the senses.   ....


Since his mind was purified by his intentions in past lives,

and the merit he had accumulated over countless aeons,

the prince was deeply disturbed on hearing of old age,

like a bull which has heard a thunderbolt-crash close by.   ....


So the prince returned to the palace,

but he was so overcome with anxiety

that it seemed an empty place to him....


Once again, with the permission of the king,

he went out as before....


The same gods created a diseased man,

his body all afflicted,...

and the son of Shuddhodana asked the charioteer....


Who is this man with swollen belly...,

emaciated and pale?


Sir, it is the great misfortune called disease...

that has made this man no longer master of himself.   ....


Hearing this truth, he was perturbed in mind....


He turned back with all glad feelings gone,

and gave himself up to brooding....


The king arranged another excursion outdoors

thinking that it might cause a change of mood.   ....


As the king’s son was going along the highway,

the same gods fashioned a deceased man,

so that only the chariot-driver and the prince,

but no one else, saw the dead body being carried.   ....


On learning about death he became faint....

                                The withdrawal from women


4.1-52 describes the attempts by the king’s courtesans to entice the prince into their embraces:


Some pressed him with their full firm breasts....


Others grasped mango-boughs and leaned over,

to display bosoms like golden jars....


Thus these young women, with minds carried away by love,

assailed the prince with every amorous stratagem.


But despite their allurements

the prince guarded his senses firmly,

and in his concern over the inevitability of death...


he meditated thus:


These women, do they not understand

the transitoriness* of youth...,     *impermanence

and that old age will destroy their beauty?


They apparently do not know anyone overwhelmed

by disease, if they can be so full of merriment....


And since they are sporting and laughing,...

they must be ignorant of death,

which carries all away.


What rational being could stand, or sit,

or lie at ease, or laugh,

knowing about decrepitude, disease, and death?   ....


It is not that I despise the sense objects,

and I know the world is devoted to them;

but my mind finds no delight in them,

because I consider them to be transitory*          *impermanent


If the triad of decrepitude, disease, and death did not exist,

I would surely take pleasure in the ravishing sense-objects.


If this beauty of women could have been made everlasting,

my mind would certainly have taken pleasure in the passions....


But when their beauty has been drunk up by old age,

it will be hateful even to them;

and so delight in it would be a sign of delusion.


A man who is subject to death, disease, and decrepitude,

and who sports unperturbed with those

who are subject to death, disease, and decrepitude,

is on a level with the birds and the beasts.   ....

                                     The rose-apple tree experience


The son of the Shâkya king, though encircled by seductive sense-objects,

did not yield to pleasure, and obtained no relief;

he was like a lion whose heart was pierced by a poison arrow.


Longing for spiritual peace and desiring to see the forest,

with his father’s permission he went out once again...,


mounted on his good horse Kanthaka....


He saw the soil being ploughed,

its surface broken with the tracks of the furrows....


Observing the ground in this condition,

with the young grass torn up and scattered by the ploughs,

and littered with dead worms, insects, and other small creatures,

he mourned as deeply as if he had witnessed the slaughter of his own kindred.


And as he watched the ploughmen, seeing their bodies

worn down by wind, dust, and sun,

and the oxen in distress from their labour,

the noblest of men felt the utmost compassion.


Alighting from his horse, he went walking,

slowly over the ground, overcome with sadness;

pondering on the origin and passing away of living things,

he cried out in his grief:  How pitiable this is.


And wishing to have complete solitude for his thoughts,

he withdrew from the friends who were following him,

and betook himself to a secluded spot,

under a rose-apple tree*....     *jambu


There he sat down on the clean ground,...

and reflecting on the origin and passing away of all things,

he took the path of mental stillness.   ....


He thus gained insight into the evils of disease, decrepitude, and death,

and the mental intoxication with self, arising from

belief in one’s own strength, youth, and vitality,

left him at that moment.


He was now neither glad nor downcast;

neither doubt, nor lassitude, nor drowsiness came over him;

he felt no longing for sensuous pleasures,

and no hatred or contempt for others.




       The vision of the mendicant

While this pure passionless state of mind

grew within his lofty soul*,     *sic!

there came to him, unseen by others,

a man in mendicant guise.


I am an ascetic*, who in fear of birth and death     *shramana

have left the home life for the sake of salvation.


Since the world is doomed to destruction,

I desire salvation and I seek the blessed incorruptible state;

I look on kinsfolk and strangers with equal mind,

and both longing and loathing for sense-objects has left me.


My home is wherever I happen to be,

under a tree, in a deserted temple, on a hill, or in a forest;

and I wander without possessions or expectations,

seeking the highest good, and accepting any alms I may receive.


So saying, before the prince’s very eyes, he flew up into the sky;

he was a celestial being who had also appeared to other buddhas....


Thus the best of men gained awareness of the dharma,

and he set his mind on leaving home.


5.23-62.  The king will not allow his son to become a monk, and the bodhisattva returns to the women, but intent on escaping from the palace.

                                The escape from the palace


The womenfolk, lying in various postures,...

looked like a lotus-pond whose lotuses

have been blown down and broken by the wind.


When the king’s son saw these young women lying thus,

looking so loathsome..., though usually beautiful,

he was moved to say in disgust:


Such is the real nature of women in the world,

impure and loathsome;

and yet, deceived by dress and ornaments,

men succumb to passion for women.   ....


Thus the desire arose in him to escape on that very night;

and so the gods, understanding his intention,

caused the palace doors to fly open.   ....


He awoke the groom, fleet-footed Chandaka,

and addressed him thus:

Quickly, bring my horse Kanthaka;

I wish to go from here today, to the state of deathlessness.   ....


The city gates opened noiselessly of their own accord

and the king’s son passed through.


He went forth from his father’s city, firm in his resolve,

unconcerned about leaving his devoted father,

his young son, his affectionate people,

and his unequaled magnificence.   ....

                                The farewell to all that


When the sun, the eye of the world, had risen,

the best of men saw the hermitage of the son of Bhrigu.   ....


Dismounting, he patted his steed, saying:

Your task is accomplished....


Then taking from his diadem the blazing jewel....

he uttered these words:


With this jewel, Chandaka, you must make obeisance

repeatedly to the king; and to abate his grief,...

give him this message from me:


I have entered this penance grove

to put an end to birth and death,

not out of yearning for Paradise,

or from lack of affection, or from anger.


So you should not grieve for me,

seeing that I have left my home for this purpose;

any union, however long it has lasted,

in time will cease to be.


And since separation is inevitable,

my thoughts turn to salvation....


If it is said that I have gone forth

to the forest at the wrong time,

I reply that there is no wrong time for dharma,

seeing how uncertain life is.   ....


With his webbed hand, marked with auspicious svastikas,

and bearing the wheel sign on the palm,

the prince stroked Kanthaka and spoke to him like a friend.   ....


Having unsheathed his sword...

he cut off his ornamental headdress and his hair....


Then he longed for a hermit’s robe.


A celestial being, knowing his thoughts,

took on the form of a deer-hunter, and approached him,

wearing an ochre-coloured robe....


Then with the utmost delight he took the hermit-garb

and gave the silk garment in exchange;

whereupon the hunter resumed his heavenly form,

and ascended to heaven with the white clothes.   ....


The prince dismissed the weeping Chandaka,

and wearing the ochre robe...

moved majestically into the hermitage.


7: Gautama lives with the ascetics, for a time but moves on dissatisfied.

8: Lamentations in the palace;  Shuddhodana and Yashodara distraught.

9: Deputation to the prince;  he refuses to return.

10: Gautama visits Rajagriha and speaks to King Shrenya.

11: Sermon to King Shrenya:


You say that for the sake of dharma I should carry out

the sacrificial ceremonies that are customary in my family,

and which bring the desired fruit;  but I reject sacrifices

and happiness sought at the price of others’ suffering.


It is not right for a compassionate man to kill another being,

who is helpless, out of desire for a profitable outcome,

even if the fruit of the sacrifice were permanent;

how much less so, when the fruit is transitory?


12:1-88 Dialogues with the hermits Arâda and Udraka.

                                    The extreme austerities


Then the sage, whose every endeavour was pure,

whose delight was in a solitary retreat,

made his abode on the pure bank of the Nairañjanâ river.


There he saw five mendicants, who had come there before him;

they had taken vows and were practising austerities,

proud of their control of the five senses.


The mendicants noticed him, and approached him,

desiring liberation....


They waited on him reverently,

becoming pupils under his instructions....


For his part, he undertook extreme austerities,

starving himself, thinking that this might be

the method for ending birth and death.


He carried out many kinds of fasting

which are very hard for a man to endure;

in his desire for quietude

he emaciated his body for six years.


Yearning to reach the further shore,

the unbounded shore, of the cycle of transmigration*,     *samsara

at meal times he merely ate a single jujube fruit,

with a sesamum seed and a grain of rice.


Whatever his body lost through these austerities

was replaced by an increase in psychic power.   ....


He wasted away, with fat, flesh, and blood all gone,

so that only skin and bone remained....


The sage, realizing that his body was being tormented

to no real purpose by the pernicious austerities,

in his dread of continual becoming

and in his longing for Buddhahood he reasoned thus:


This is not the way to passionlessness,

to enlightenment, to emancipation;

the proper procedure is the one I followed

that time when I sat under the rose-apple tree*.        ....*5.8-16


But how can the result that is to be attained by the mind

be achieved by someone who is not calmly at ease,

and who is so worn out with the exhaustion of hunger and thirst

that his mind is unbalanced by the exhaustion?   ....


The steadfast seer of unbounded wisdom concluded

that this method was based on the eating of food,

and he made up his mind to take some sustenance.


He bathed in the Nairañjanâ river,

and as he came up the sloping bank in his emaciated state,

the trees growing there lowered the tips of their branches,

in adoration and to give him a helping hand.


At that moment, by the instigation of the gods,

Nandabalâ, daughter of the overseer of the cowherdsmen,

came by, her heart bursting with joy.


She was wearing dark-blue clothing,

and her arms were gleaming with white shells,

so she looked like the great river Yamunâ,

when its dark-blue water is wreathed with foam.


Her delight was then increased by her faith,

and her lotus eyes opened wide,

as she bowed down before him,

and urged him to accept her milk-rice.


By partaking of that food he secured for her

the full reward of her birth,

and for himself, by satisfying his six senses,

the capability of obtaining enlightenment.   ....


The five mendicants came to the conclusion

that he had thus renounced the holy life,

and they left him....


Kâla the best of serpents was awakened

by the sound of the great sage’s feet...


O Sage, since the earth thunders as it is pressed by your feet,

and since your splendour is shining like the sun’s,

you will surely enjoy the desired goal today.


Since the flocks of blue jays circling in the air

are keeping their right sides towards you*,...     *act of devotion

you will undoubtedly become a buddha today.


After the lordly serpent had thus extolled him,

he collected some fresh grass from a grass-cutter

and came to the foot of a great pipal tree*,     *ficus religiosa ‘sacred fig’

where he made a vow to win enlightenment, and sat down.


He assumed the supreme, immoveable cross-legged posture,

with his limbs massed together like a sleeping serpent’s coils,

saying, I will not rise from this position on the ground

until I achieve the completion of my task.


As the holy one took his seat with determination,

the denizens of the heavens felt incomparable joy;

the birds and the herds of wild beasts uttered no sound,

and trees moved by the breeze did not even rustle.

                                                The defeat of Mara


When the great sage, and scion of a line of royal seers,

sat down and made his vow to win emancipation,

the whole world rejoiced, except Mâra,*     *god of lust and death

the enemy of the good dharma, who trembled.


The one they call Kâmadeva, the god of love,

with the shining bow and flower-arrow,

the lord of passionate living, the enemy of freedom,

is also known as Mâra.


His three sons, Whimsy, Gaiety, and Pride,

and his three daughters, Discontent, Delight, and Thirst,

asked him why he was so depressed in mind,

and he answered them thus:


That sage, wearing the armour of his vow,

and drawing the bow of resolution with the arrow of wisdom,

is sitting there intent on conquering my realm,

and that is the reason for my despondency.


If he succeeds in overcoming me,

and proclaims to the world the path of final bliss,

then today my realm will be empty....


Then,... to thwart the tranquillity of the Shâkya sage,

his army of followers gathered round him,

carrying lances, trees, javelins, clubs, and swords in their hands.


The hordes of fiends surrounded

the bodhi tree on all sides, eager to seize and to kill....


Some lifted up rocks and trees,

but were unable to hurl them at the sage,

merely collapsing with them....


When Mâra ... observed the great sage’s unshakability,

and his own efforts frustrated, he departed in dejection....


His hosts fled in all directions,

their bravado at an end, their labour fruitless;

their rocks, logs, and trees lay scattered all around....


The great seer, the passion-free conqueror,

remained victorious over the darkness of ignorance;

and the moon, like a smiling maiden, lit up the skies,

while a rain of moist, fragrant flowers gently fell.

                                         The sublime enlightenment


After defeating Mâra’s hosts by his steadfast tranquillity,

the master of transic meditation put himself into trance,

to obtain exact knowledge of the ultimate reality.


In the first watch of the night he called to remembrance

the succession of his previous births.


As if living them over again

he recollected thousands of births....


After recalling his birth and death in these various lives,

the compassionate one was filled with compassion

for all living beings.


Truly this world is helpless;

with the abandoning of kinsfolk in one life

and moving on to another existence,

it is like a wheel turning round and round.


And... the conviction grew in him

that the cycle of existence* is as unsubstantial     *samsara

as the pith of a plantain tree.


In the second watch of the night

he acquired the supreme divine eyesight....


...  and he gazed on the whole world

as if reflected in a spotless mirror.


His compassion grew more intense

as he saw the passing away and rebirth

of all creatures, according as their actions

were lower or higher.


Those living beings whose acts are sinful

pass to the sphere of misery;

those whose deeds are good

win a place in the triple heaven.   ....


But the dwellers in heaven fall back to earth in distress....


Paradise, attained by many labours,

is thus uncertain and transitory,

and suffering is caused by separation from it.


Alas, inexorably, this is the law of karma in the world....


This stream of the cycle of existence has no support

and is ever subject to death...


Thus with the divine eyesight he examined

the five spheres of life*,     *heaven, hell, animal, ghost, human

and found nothing substantial in existence,

as no heartwood is found in a plantain-tree when it is cut open.


Then as the third watch of that night drew on,

the supreme master of trance meditated,

on the real nature of this world.


Alas, living creatures have nothing but misery;

over and over they are born, they age,

they die, pass on, and are reborn.


Furthermore, their sight is obscured

by passion and by dark delusion,

and because of this intense blindness

they cannot see the way out of this great suffering.   ....


He came to understand the order of causality....


Consciousness is the causal condition from which

name-and-form is produced;

name-and-form is the support on which

consciousness is based.   ....


As red hot iron causes grass to blaze,

and as blazing grass makes iron red hot,

such is their mutual causality.


Thus he understood that from consciousness

arises name-and-form, and from that     *nama-rupa

the senses* originate, and from the senses     *six senses

contact* arises.     *touch


From contact, he knew, sensation* was born,     *feeling

from sensation thirst*,     *craving

from thirst appropriation*,     *grasping, clinging

from appropriation existence*.     *becoming


From existence comes birth,

from birth decrepitude and death* arise     *jarâ-marana

He rightly understood that the world

is produced by the causal conditions.


Then he reached the firm conclusion:

decrepitude and death are suppressed by the annihilation of birth;

birth itself is destroyed by the destruction of existence;

existence ceases through the suppression of appropriation;


appropriation is suppressed through the suppression of thirst;

thirst does not exist if sensation does not exist;

sensation does not come about if contact is removed;

contact is removed if the six organs of sense are non-existent;


senses are all destroyed if name-and-form is suppressed;

name-and-form is suppressed through the suppression of consciousness;

consciousness is suppressed through the suppression of the predispositions;


predispositions* are suppressed     *samskâra, factors (=karma)

through the complete absence of ignorance;

this the great seer understood and having achieved correct knowledge

of all there is to be known, he stood out in the world as the Buddha.


He saw no self anywhere, from the summit of existence downwards,

and he came to tranquility, like a fire when its fuel has burnt up.   ....


At that moment of the fourth watch when the dawn came up,...

the great seer reached the stage that knows no alteration,

the sovereign leader attained the state of omniscience.


When, as the Buddha, he knew this truth,

the earth swayed like a woman drunken with wine,

the quarters shone bright with crowds of Siddhas,

and mighty drums resounded in the sky.


Pleasant breezes blew gently, showers fell from a cloudless sky,

and flowers and fruits dropped from the trees,

out of due season, so as to do him honour.   ....


The great seers among the hosts of invisible beings

proclaimed his praises with loud voice;

all living beings rejoiced,...

but Mâra was filled with despondency.


Then for seven days the sage sat looking into his mind,

free from discomfort of body, his eyes never closing....


He had comprehended the idea of causation,

and was convinced of the absence of self....


When he saw that the world was lost in false views,

vain efforts, and gross passions,

and that the dharma of salvation was exceedingly subtle,

he was inclined to take no action.


But then he recalled his earlier pledge*,   *to enlighten all beings;  cp. 1.15 and 15.7

and returned to his resolve to preach peace....


When the two chiefs* of the heavenly habitations     *Brahmâ, Indra

saw that the Sugata* was deciding to preach peace,     *’well gone’, the Buddha

they were filled with concern for the world’s welfare,

and shining brightly they approached him.   ....


Sage, now that you have crossed over the ocean of becoming,

rescue the other living beings who are drowning in woe....


And so his determination was strengthened,

for the liberation of the world.


When the time came for the alms-round, the divine guardians

of the four quarters gave begging-bowls to the seer;

Gautama accepted the four, but turned them into one,

on account of his dharma*.     *a monk should not multiply possessions


At that moment two merchants from a passing caravan

came along, instigated by a friendly deity;

joyfully and with elated minds they did obeisance to the seer,

and they were the first people to give him alms.


The sage reflected that Arâda and Udraka Râmaputra

were two people whose minds could comprehend the dharma;

but he found that both had gone to heaven,

and so his thoughts then turned to the five mendicants.


Aspiring to preach peace and to dispel

the darkness of ignorance, like the rising sun,

Gautama looked towards the blessed city... Varânasî*.     *Benares


But the sage,... before proceeding to the Kâshi region,

to convert the whole world,

turned his entire body like an elephant,

and gazed back unblinkingly at the bodhi tree*.     * enlightenment tree



This is an abridgement of the first fourteen cantos of the Buddhacharita (“Buddha-performance”, “Buddha-doings”, or “The Acts of the Buddha”, on the analogy of “The Acts of the Apostles”).  This is a long poem recounting the life and teaching of Gautama, the son of the Shâkya king Shuddhodana, describing his path to the enlightenment of buddhahood, his mission to the world, his founding of a monastic order (sangha), and his attainment of utlimate nirvana (parinirvâna).

This biographical poem has twenty-eight parts:

Cantos 1-14 relate the birth and youth of the Buddha-to-be (bodhisattva), and are preserved in the original Sanskrit, and also Chinese and Tibetan translations; 

Cantos 15-28 cover the mission and death of the Buddha, and the Sanskrit original has not survived, so we have to rely on the Tibetan version, with the assistance of the Chinese translation.

The poet’s name was Ashvaghosha, and he lived around the beginning of the current era (1st century C.E., apparently).  His home-city was Sâketa in eastern India (see the end of the poem).

In preparing my version I have relied heavily on the translation of E.H. Johnston (1-14 was first published, with Sanskrit text, in Lahore in 1936, and 15-28 in 1937 in the Danish journal Acta Orientalia, 15) as reissued by Motilal Banarsidass:

E.H. Johnston, Asvaghosha’s Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha; in three parts (Delhi 1984).

A prose translation of the work, heavily abridged, can be found in E. Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (1959) 34-66.

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