Buddhacharita’s Chinese version noticed by Samuel Beal in the Introduction to The Fo-sho-hing-tsan-king

The most reliable of the lives of Buddha known in China is that translated in the present volume, the Buddha-carita-kãvya (बुद्धचरितकाव्य. It was no doubt written by the Bodhisattva Asvaghosha, (बोधिसत्त्व अश्वघोष) who was the twelfth Buddhist patriarch, and a contemporary of Kanishka.1 (कनिष्क) Translators in China attribute both this book and the work which I have called the ‘Sermons of Asvaghosha’ (ta kwang yan king lun) to him, and there is no reason to question it. Kumarajiva(कुमारजीव), who translated the latter work, was too familiar with Indian subjects to be mistaken in this particular, and Dharmaraksha (धर्मरक्ष) (we will employ this restoration of his name) was also a native of Mid-India, and deeply versed in Buddhist literature (he became a disciple at six years of age). Both these translators lived about A. D. 400.

I am told, however, by Mr. Rockhill, that Taranatha (तारानाथ), the Tibetan author, mentions three writers of the name of Asvaghosha, the ‘great one,’ the younger, and one who lived in the eighth century A. D. This latter, who was also called Cura (शूर), could not be the Asvaghosha of our text, as the translation of the work dates from the fifth century. And as of the other two, one was called ‘the great’ and the other ‘the younger,’ it admits of little question that the Bodhisattva would be the former. But in the Chinese Catalogues, so far as I have searched, there is no mention made of more than one writer called by this name, and he is ever affirmed to have been a contemporary of Kanishka. In the book Tsah-pao-tsang-king, for instance (kiouen vi), there are several tales told of the Kandan ‘Kanika’ or ‘Kanishka,’ in one of which (fol. 13) Asvaghosha is distinctly named as his religious adviser, and he is there called ‘the Bodhisattva’ so that, according to evidence derived from Chinese sources, there seems no reason to doubt that the author of the book I have here translated was living at and before the time of the Scythian invasion of Magadha under the Kandan king Kanishka. With respect to the date of this monarch we have no positive evidence; the weight of authority sides with those who place him at the beginning of the Saka period, i. e. A.D. 78. It is therefore possible that the emissaries who left China A. D. 64 and returned A. D. 67 may have brought back with them some knowledge of the work of Asvaghosha called Fo-pen-hing, or of the original then circulating in India, on which Asvaghosha founded his poem. It is singular at least that the work of Asvaghosha is in five chapters as well as that translated by Ku-fa-lan. In any case we may conclude that as early as about A. D. 70, if not before, there was in India a work known as Buddhakarita (Fo-pen-hing).

As to the origin of such a work, it seems likely to have sprung from an enlargement of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (महापरिनिर्वाण सूत्र). We know that the record of the history of Buddha’s last days was extant under this title from early times, and nothing would be simpler than the gradual enlargement of such a record, so as to include in it not only his last days, but his work throughout his life. Each district in which Buddha taught had probably its own recollections on this point, and to any zealous writer the task of connecting these several histories would be an easy one. Such a man was Asvaghosha. Brought up in Central India, travelling throughout his life as a preacher and musician, and finally a follower of Kanishka through his Northern campaigns; such a man would naturally be led to put together the various tales or traditions he had gathered as to the birth and life of his great master, and connect them with the already recognised account of his end or last days on earth. The detailed account of Buddha’s death, recorded in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, finds a place at the end of the present work; this account being well known to Asvaghosha, there can be no difficulty in understanding how he came to write an entire poem on the subject of the master’s life and death

I am told by Professor Max Muller that the Sanskrit versions of the Buddhakarita(बुद्धचरित) break off at the end of varga (वर्ग) 17, that is, after the account of the conversion of the great Kasyapa (कश्यप). Whether this is accidental, or whether it indicates the original extent of the poem, I have no means of judging. One thing is certain, that at the time when the translation was made by Dharmaraksha (धर्मरक्ष) (viz. about A. D. 420), the work was of the size of the present volume. There is no a priori reason for supposing the later portion to have been added by a writer subsequent to Asvaghosha. A poem does not easily admit of ‘a continuation’ by another author; nor can we think that a distinguished writer like Asvaghosha would omit in his biography the account of the death of his hero, especially as the materials were at hand, and the dramatic effect of the poem would be undoubtedly increased by the addition of such a popular record. It seems therefore more natural to suppose that the Sanskrit MSS. are incomplete copies of the original, and that the Chinese version before us is in fact a translation of the entire poem as it came from its author’s hands.

There is little to add, with respect to the history of Asvaghosha, to the few notices I have given elsewhere (Abstract, &c, p. 95 sqq.) One or two allusions to him will be found in the work of Wong puh (Shing tau ki, §§ 186 and 190). These only confirm the general tradition that he was originally a distinguished Brahman and became a convert to Buddhism 2

The Buddhakarita contains sufficient proof of his acquaintance with and hostility to Brahmanical teaching, and the frequent discussions found therein relative to the non-existence of ‘I’ (an individual self) illustrate the record contained in § 190 of the work (Shing tau) named above, ‘ that Vira, a writer of Sastras (शास्त्र) (Lun sse), a disciple of Asvaghosha Bodhisattva, wrote a treatise in 100 gathas (गाथा) on the subject of “non-individuality” (wou ‘ngo lun), which the heretics were unable to gainsay.’ With reference to this doctrine of the non-existence of the individual subject, it is not possible in such a work as this to say much. I shall be glad to place on record, however, my belief that in Buddhism this question is much more than a speculative question of philosophy. It touches the skirt of the highest moral truth. For the individual self in Buddhism is the evil or carnal self, the origin of sorrow. This, the Buddhist says (at least as I read his confession of faith), does not exist ; the evil self is not a separate reality, it is the delusion of ‘sense;’ it is ‘nothing.’ Destroy this idea of self and there will be light. If we regard the question thus, it assumes a form more interesting and vital than that of any philosophical enquiry. As I said above, it touches the skirt of the highest truth; and in this approach to truth lies the power of the Buddhist doctrine.

  • Notes:
  • 1 There is no absolute certainty about the date of Kanishka; it may probably be referred to the beginning of the latter half of the first century a. d. (see next page).
  • 2. Mr. Rockhill has kindly given me an extract from a Tibetan work, Maiio-usrimulatantra, in which Asvaghosha is identified with Mãtrijãta (मातृजात) or Mãtrijita (मातृजित), concerning whom, see Abstract, &c., p. 141.
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