Theosophy – August 1897

BUDDHA'S RENUNCIATION: I (Ashvaghosha's Buddha-Charita) — trans. Charles Johnston

Being an Original Translation from the Sanskrit of Ashvaghosha's Buddha-Charita.

It is not quite certain when the poem, from which is taken this story of The Great Renunciation, was written; but we shall go near the truth if we say it dates from about two thousand years ago. So famous was this life of the Redeemer of Asia, and so great was the honor in which its author was held, that, when the Good Law passed beyond the barrier of the Snowy Mountains that hem in India like a wall, this book, carried with them by the Buddha's followers, was translated into the tongues of northern lands, and versions of it, in both Chinese and Tibetan, are well known at the present day. These versions were made when Buddha's doctrine first penetrated to the north, and from them, more than from any other book, the ideal of Buddha, as it lives among the disciples beyond the Himalayas, was formed and confirmed.

The manuscripts of this life of Buddha, which have been brought to the west, are copies of a single original, preserved in the library at Khatmandu, the capital of Nepal; and from the same place came our earliest knowledge of Buddha's teaching, and our earliest copies of Buddhist books. Looking back to our first acquaintance with Buddhism, and calling to mind the numberless books that have been written of recent years concerning Buddha's doctrine, we cannot refrain from marvelling at the persistence with which a teaching so simple and so full of light has been so grievously misunderstood. The truth seems to be that our linguists are no philosophers, and that our philosophers are no linguists; and so, between them, they have done the doctrine of the Buddha much wrong, painting it either as a pessimism so dreary and full of gloom that we are forced to wonder whether it was worth the prince's while to leave the pleasures of his palace, even though they had begun to taste bitter-sweet in his mouth, in order to discover so lugubrious an evangel; or giving us instead, as his authentic doctrine, a nihilism so complete that it could never have brought hope or light to the most miserable wretch that breathed, and from which even its expounders turn away repelled. In short, to hear his western prophets, the Buddha's mission was a ghastly failure, his glad tidings were something darker than our darkest fears, his gospel of hope, a confession of utter hopelessness, his renunciation made in vain.

But it is very certain that to no such doctrine as this would half the world have gladly turned, nor, in all the long years of his ministry, could one, bringing only such a message, have raised hope in a single sorrowing human heart, much less drawn after him those countless followers, the story of whose glad conversion is told in the annals of his faith.

To rid ourselves of these nightmare views of Buddhism, there is nothing like the teachings of Buddha himself, and the study of the books that have inspired his followers for twenty centuries. And in doing this, we shall be well-advised to turn first to this old Life of Buddha, written, as we have said, some two thousand years ago. Of all our western books on Buddhism, none has even rivalled the success of The Light of Asia, and this because the teaching put forth in it does really speak of hope and healing; does really appeal to the heart of man, as, the old traditions tell us, the spoken words of Buddha had appealed, when he first delivered his great Message, two and a half milleniums ago. The life of Buddha, one chapter of which we here translate, offers numberless most interesting points of comparison with The Light of Asia, and it is no disparagement of the modern poet, if we award the palm to the more ancient, as having a deeper grasp of the great Teacher's thought, a more philosophic insight, and, withal, a richer and more abundant wealth of poetry, finer beauty of imagery, and a purer and robuster style. How easy, for instance, it would have been, for a lesser poet, to have fallen into faults of corruption in that last, splendidly colored scene of Buddha's revulsion from the pleasures of life, and the supreme temptation of sensuous things. But the best comment on the poem is the poem itself.


So he, the Shaky a sovereign's son, unenslaved by things of sense, even those that are full of allurement, did not delight in them nor find contentment in his heart, like a lion pierced by a poisoned arrow. And, once on a time, with a following of the sons of the courtiers, most skillful, and of his companions eloquent, led by the desire to see the forest, and seeking pleasure there, he set forthwith the permission of the King. He was mounted on his steed, Kanthaka, decked with a bridle of new gold, with tinkling bells, and adorned with waving yaktails, set in fair gold, as the moon might mount a comet. And led by the charm of the forest, he wandered on to the border of the wood, desiring to behold the beauty of the earth. And he beheld the fruitful earth being ploughed, as the path of the share divided the soil like the waves of the sea; and he saw also how, when the grassy sods were cut and thrown aside by the plough, the numberless lives of minute creatures were scattered and slain. Viewing the earth thus, he greatly grieved, as for the death of his own kin. Watching the men who were ploughing also, and how they were stained and parched by the sun and the wind and the dust, and seeing the draught oxen galled by the burden of the yoke, he, noblest of all, was full of pity. Thereupon, dismounting from his horse's back, he wandered slowly away, penetrated by grief; thinking on the birth and the passing away of the world. "Pitiful, indeed, is this!" he said, oppressed by sadness. Desiring, therefore, loneliness in his spirit, he sent back his friends that would have followed him, and sat down in a solitary place at the root of a rose-apple tree, heavily laden with luscious leaves; and he rested there on the earth, carpeted with grass and flowers, enameled as with precious stones.

And meditating there on the coming into being, and the passing away again of the world, he sought for a firm pathway for his mind; and when he had reached a firm resting-place for his mind, the desire for things of sense, and all longing towards them, suddenly left him. He reached the first meditation, discernment with clear reason, full of peace, and of nature altogether free from fault. And reaching this, he passed on to the soul-vision born of discernment, which is happy with supreme delight; and he went forward in thought from this to the path of the world, understanding it perfectly.

"Pitiful is it, in truth, that man born thus, to sickness, to waste away, to perish, the life-sap sinking out of him, should despise another, oppressed by old age, full of sickness or stricken with death, blinded by desire; but if I also, being such as they, should despise another, then that were against the nature of my being. Nor may such a thing as this be possible for me, who know the higher law."

As he thus spoke, beholding the world's dark shadows, sickness and age and misfortune, in the full activity of his life and youth and force, the joy in them that had filled his heart, faded suddenly away. Nor was he thereby overcome with astonishment, nor did remorse overtake him, nor did he fall into doubt, nor into faintness and oblivion. Nor was his mind inflamed by the allurements of desire, nor did he hate or despise anyone. So this wisdom grew in him, free from every stain and pure, in him mighty-souled.

Then, unbeheld of other men, one drew near to him, in the garment of a wanderer; and that son of the king of the people questioned him, speaking thus:

"Say what man thou art!" thus he commanded him. And he made answer:

"Thou leader of the herd of men, I am a wanderer, oppressed by the fear of birth and death, a pilgrim seeking after liberation; I wander forth seeking to be free, in this world whose very nature it is to fade; and so I seek a blessed resting-place, unfading. No more akin to other men, I am equal-minded, turned back from sin and rage after things of sense. I rest wherever it may chance, at the root of a tree, or in some desert dwelling; or among the mountains, or in the forest. So I move through the world, without lust of possession, without hope or fear, a pilgrim to the highest goal."

And as the king's son thus beheld him, speaking these things he ascended again into heaven, for he was indeed a dweller of the celestials, who had taken that form to rouse the prince to memory, seeing that his thought was deeper than his mien. And when he had passed away through the air, like a bird of the air, he, the best of men was astonished, and marveled greatly. Then understanding what should be, he prepared his soul for the battle, knowing well the law. So king over his senses, like the king of the gods, he mounted his steed most excellent.

Turning back his steed, that looked towards his followers, and thinking on the pleasant forest, he found no delight in the city, free from desire for it, as the king of the elephants enters the circle of the yard from the forest-land.

"Happy and blessed is that woman whose husband is even such as thou art, large-eyed one!" thus spoke the king's daughter, seeing him enter the long pathway to the palace; and he, whose voice was like the sound of the wind, heard this; he found therein great joy. Hearing that word of hers, of "happiness," he set his mind on the way to supreme liberation. So the prince, whose body was like the pinnacle of a mount of gold, whose arm was in strength like an elephant, whose voice was as the deep voice of the wind, whose eye was keen as a bull, entered the dwelling, the desire of the imperishable law born within him, his face radiant as the moon, and lion-like in valor. Advancing, stately like the king of the forest, he approached the king of the people, who was sitting there, in the midst of the host of his counsellors, as the mind-born son of the Creator might draw near to the king of heaven, naming in the midst of the powers of the breath. And making obeisance to him, with palms joined, he thus addressed him:

"O sovereign of the people, grant me this request! I would set forth a pilgrim, seeking for liberation, for certain is the dissolution of mankind here below." The king, hearing this speech of his, shivered, as shivers a tree when an elephant strikes it. And clasping those two hands of his, lotus-like, he spoke to him this word, his voice choked with tears:

"Put away from thee, beloved, this mind of thine, for the time is not yet come for thee to enter on the pilgrimage of the law. In the first age of life, when the mind is still unstable, they say it is a grievous fault to enter thus on the path of the law. For the heart of a young man, whose appetites are yet eager for the things of sense, infirm in the keeping of vows, and who cannot remain steadily determined, the mind of him, still without wisdom, wanders from the forest to the things of unwisdom. But mine, O lover of the law, is it now to seek the law instead of thee, giving up all my wealth to thy desire. O thou of certain valor, this law of thine would become great lawlessness, if thou turnest back from thy master. Therefore putting away this determination of thine, be thou devoted yet for a while to the duties of a householder. And after thou hast enjoyed the pleasures of manhood, thou wilt find truer delight in the forest and forgetfulness of the world."

Hearing this word of the king's he made answer in a voice modulated and low:

"If thou wilt become my surety in four things, king, then will I not seek the forest and renunciation: that this life of mine shall not turn toward death; that sickness shall never steal upon my health; that old-age shall not cast down the glory of my youth; and that calamity shall not rob me of my prosperity."

The king of the Shakyas made answer to his son, thus putting upon him such a heavy quest:

"Abandon thou this mind of thine, set upon going forth, and this plan of thine, worthy of ridicule, and full of wilfulness."

And so he, who was the lord of the world, spoke thus to his lord:

"If thou doest not as I have said, then is my course not to be hindered. For he who would escape from a dwelling that is being consumed by fierce flames, cannot be kept back. And as in the world separation is certain, but not in the Law; then better separation lest death carry me away, powerless to resist, with my mission unfulfilled, my peace unwon."

The king of the land, hearing this speech of his son, eager to set out on the search for freedom, thinking: "he shall not go!" set a strong guard upon him, and most excellent allurements. And he, escorted by the ministers, as was fitting, with much honor and obeisance as the scripture teaches, thus forbidden by his father to depart, returned to his dwelling, greatly grieved. There he was waited on by fair women, their faces kissed by trembling earrings, their breasts rising and falling in gentle breathing, their eyes furtive, like the eyes of a fawn in the forest. And he, shining like a golden mountain, stirring the hearts of those fair-formed ones with passion, held captive their ears by the sweetness of his voice, their bodies by the gentleness of his touch, their eyes by his beauty, and their very hearts by his many graces. Then when the day was gone, lighting up the palace by his beauty like the sun, he slew the darkness by the shining of his presence, as when the day-star rises on the peak of the holy mountain. When the lamp was lit that sparkled with gold, and was filled with the excellent scent of the black aloe, he rested on his golden couch, very beautiful, whose divisions were splendid with diamonds. And then, in the gloom of evening, those fair women drew round him most fair, with sweet-sounding instruments, as they might draw near to Indra, king of the gods. Or as, on the crest of the Himalaya, on the snowy summit, the singers of the celestials might gather round the wealth -god's son; yet he found no joy in them, nor any delight at all.

For of him, the blessed one, the desire of renunciation, for the joy of the supreme goal, was the cause that he found no delight in them. Then, through the power of the gods that watch over holiness, suddenly a deep sleep fell upon them, woven of enchantments, and, as it came upon them, they were entranced, and the power of motion left their limbs. And one of them lay there, sleeping, her cheek resting on her tender hand; letting fall her lute, well-loved, and decked with foil of gold, as though in anger; and so it lay, beside her body. And another of them gleamed there, the flute clasped in her hands, the white robe fallen from her breast, as she lay; and her hands were like two lotuses, joined by a straight line of dark-bodied bees, and her breast was like a river, fringed with the white water's foam. And another of them slept there, her two arms tender, like the new buds of the lotus, with bracelets interlinked of gleaming gold, her arms wound round her tabor, as though it were her wellbeloved. Others decked with adornments of new gold, and robed in robes of the topaz color, lay helpless there, in that enchanted sleep, like the branches of the forest tree, that the elephants have broken. And another lay there, leaning on the lattice, her body resting on her bended arm, and gleamed there, bright with pendant pearls, stooping like the curve of an arch in the palace. So the lotus-face of another, adorned with a necklet of gems, and scented with sandal, was bent forward, and shone like the curve of a lotus-stem in the river, where the birds sport in the water. And others lay, as the enchanted sleep had come upon them, with bosoms pendant, in attitudes of little grace; and they gleamed there, linking each other in the meshes of their arms, the golden circlets heavy upon them. One of them had sunk to sleep, her arms woven round her lute of seven strings; as though it were her well-beloved companion; and she stirred the lute, tremulous in her hands, and her face with its golden earrings gleamed. Another damsel lay there, caressing her drum, that had slipped from the curve of her arm, holding it on her knees, like the head of a lover, wearied with the subtle sweetness of her allurements. Another fair one shone not, even though her eyes were large, and her brows were beautiful: for her eyes were closed like the lotus-blooms, their petals all crushed together, when the sun has set. So another, her hair all falling in loosened tresses, her robe and adornments fallen in disorder, lay there, the jewels of her necklet all dishevelled, prone like a tree uprooted by an elephant. And others, powerless in that trance, no longer kept the bounds of grace, even though they were of well-ordered minds, and endowed with every bodily beauty; for they reclined there, breathing deep and yawning openly, their arms tossed about, as they lay. Others, their gems and garments fallen from them, the folds of their robes all tumbled, without consciousness, with wide eyes staring and unmoved, shone not in beauty, lying there, bereft of will. The veils had fallen from their faces, their bodies were crowded together, their wide-open lips were wet, their garments fallen in disarray. And another, as though wine had overcome her, lay there, her form all changed, and powerless.

And he, the prince, of fascinating beauty, rested there, quite otherwise, full of seemliness and becoming grace, and bore his form like a lake, when the wind not even stirs the lotuses on its waters. And seeing them lying there, their forms all changed, powerless in their young beauty, even though they had every charm of body, and shone in their endowments, the heart of the prince was repelled within him;

"Unholy and unseemly, in this world of men, are the charms of these enchanting women; and a man becomes impassioned of a woman's beauty, deceived by her fair robes and adornments. If a man should consider the nature of women, thus overcome, and changed by sleep, it is certain that his passion would grow no longer, but he falls into passion, his will overcome by their allurements."

So to him, thus beholding them, the desire of renunciation came suddenly there, in the night. And he straightway perceived that the door was set wide open by the gods. So he went forth, descending from the roof of the palace, his mind turned in repulsion from those fair women, lying there in sleep; and so, all fear laid aside, he crossed the first courtyard of the house, and went forth; and awaking the keeper of his steed, the swift Chhandaka, he thus addressed him:

"Bring hither quickly my steed, Kanthaka, for the desire has come upon me to go forth to seek immortality. And as this happiness is born in my heart today, and as this mission of mine is fixed irrevocably, so I have now a lord, even in the wilderness, and the goal that I have longed for, is surely before my face. For, as these youthful beauties, putting away all shame and sense of reverence, fell into this trance, before my eyes, and as the doors were opened of their own accord, so it is certain that the hour is come for me to go forth after that which no sickness overtakes."

Obedient then to his master's command, even though he saw that this was the matter of the king's decree, as though moved in mind by the will of another, he set his thoughts to the bringing of the swift-going steed. So he led up that most excellent horse to his master with the golden bridle fitted in its mouth, and its back scarce touched by the light-lying bed — the horse endowed with force and excellence and swift speed, and beautiful with long tail, short ears curved back and breast and sides. And he, strong breasted, mounting it, and soothing it with his lotus-hand, quieted it with his voice as sweet as honey, as though he were getting ready to enter the midst of the army:

"Many are the foes that are turned back in the battle, by the king mounted on thee, and, as I am to seek supreme immortality, so acquit thyself, my steed most excellent! For very easy to find, in truth, are companions, when happiness is sought in things of sense, and when wealth is abundant. But hard to find are companions, for a man who has fallen into misfortune, or who has taken his refuge in the higher law. And they who were my companions in the darkness, in the law, when I take refuge in the law, the truth comes to my heart within me, that they also certainly have their part therein. So understanding this, my search after the law, and knowing that my purpose is set for the weal of the world, do thou, my excellent steed, strive well with thy speed and valor, for thine own welfare, and the world's welfare too."

Thus addressing that best of steeds, as though he were instructing a well-loved companion, he, best of men, longing to go forth to the forest, mounted his white horse, as the sun mounts an autumn cloud lighting up the darkness of the way, and full of beauty.

Then the excellent steed neighed not lest the rest might hear him. And the sound of his neighing restrained and all in silence he set forth, with hurrying and uncertain footsteps. And as he went the gnomes, that are the courtiers of the treasure-god, bending their bodies before him, strewed lotuses in the way, their arms decked with golden bracelets, lotus-like; and with their hands held up the hoofs of him, going timidly. And as the king's son went, the gateways of the city, whose doors were held by heavy bars, such as could not be lightly lifted away, even by elephants, opened before him, noiselessly, of their own accord. So the prince left behind him his father, well-disposed towards him, his child, his beloved people, and his unequalled fortune, firm in mind, and looking not behind him; thus he departed from his father's city. Then viewing the city, with eyes like full-blown lotus-flowers, he sounded the lion note:

"Until I shall have beheld the further shore of birth and death. I shall return no more to Kapilavastu."

Hearing this word of his, the gnomes that wait on the wealth -god rejoiced, and the hosts of the gods, glad at heart, wished him well, in the task he had undertaken. And in their bodies of flame others of the dwellers of the celestials, seeing that what he had undertaken was very hard to accomplish, made a brightness on the midnight path, as when the footsteps of the moon break through the openings of the clouds. And the good steed, swift as the swift steeds of the gods, went forward, as though moved of an inward power, covering many a long league, until the red dawn barred the sky with gold.