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Acvaghosha

Category: Mystic

 

Acvaghosha or Aśvaghoṣa (Devanagari: अश्वघोष) [əɕʋəgʰoːʂə]  was an Indian philosopher-poet, a Brahman by birth, a very competent musician, a mystic magician and a major champion, promulgator and expounder of Mahayana Buddhism

Introduction to the Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana – D T Suzuki
Acvaghosha, the first expounder of the Mahayanistic doctrine and one of the deepest thinkers among the Buddhist patriarchs, is known to most western Buddhist scholars simply as the author of the Buddha-caritakdvya [Sacred Books of the East Vol XLIX], the famous Poem on the life of Buddha.

 

The accounts of his life and of the significance of his philosophy are so few that the important influence exercised by him upon the development of Mahayana Buddhism has been left almost entirely unnoticed. That he was one of the most eminent leaders among earlier Buddhists; that he was in some way or other connected with the third convocation in Kashmir, probably presided over by the Bhikshu Parcva; that he had a wonderful poetical genius which rendered great service in the propagation of Buddhism, - these facts sum up almost all the knowledge possessed by scholars about Acvaghosha.  The reason why he is not known as he ought to be, is principally that the Sanskrit sources are extremely meagre, while the accounts obtainable from Chinese and Tibetan traditions are confusing and full of legends.

The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana is his contribution to philosophy; the two books The Life of Buddha and the Book of Great Glory show his poetic genius, but the following somewhat amusing story also indicates that he was a musician.

He [Acvaghosha] then went to Pataliputra …, where he composed an excellent tune called Lai cha huo lo, that he might by this means convert the people of the city. Its melody was classical, mournful, and melodious, inducing the audience to ponder on the misery, emptiness, and non-atman-ness of life. That is to say, the music roused in the mind of the hearer the thought that …. this corporeal existence is a sham, is as hollow as a plantain tree, is an enemy, a foe, one not to be intimately related with ; and again that like a box in which a cobra is kept, it should never be cherished by anybody; that therefore all Buddhas denounce persons clinging to a corporeal existence. …

 

Acvaghosha [then] had the melody played by musicians, who, however, not being able to grasp the significance of the piece, failed to produce the intended tune and harmony. He then donned a white woollen dress, joined the band of musicians, beating the drum, ringing the bell, and tuning the lyre, and this done, the melody in full perfection gave a note at once mournful and soothing, so as to arouse in the mind of the audience the idea of the misery, emptiness, and non-atman-ness of all things.  The five hundred royal princes in the city thus moved all at once were fully awakened, and abhorring the curse of the five evil passions abandoned their worldly life and took refuge in the Bodhi. The king of Pataliputra was very much terrified by the event, thinking that if the people who listen to this music would abandon their homes [like the princes], his country would be depopulated and his royal business ruined.  So he warned the people never to play this music hereafter.

When he was born and where he was born are a subject of dispute.  The dates and place are of paramount importance, as his role in the development of Mahayana Buddhism depend on knowing when he lived.  Mahayana Buddhism is said by some scholars to be the sole work of Nagarjuna, but the dates and work of Acvaghosha indicate his role may have been far more important.

 

Nāgārjuna (Sanskrit: नागार्जुन, Telugu: నాగార్జునుడు, Tibetan: ཀླུ་སྒྲུབ་, Wylie: klu sgrub Chinese: 龍樹; pinyin: Lóngshù, 龍樹 , Sinhalese: නාගර්ජුන, c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is widely considered one of the most important Buddhist philosophers after Gautama Buddha. Along with his disciple Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism.  But if as D T Suzuki says Acvaghosha was a contemporary or predated Nagarjuna, then Acvaghosha is the more important player.

Introduction to the Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana –D T Suzuki
It is very strange that those who are considered to be quite well acquainted with the development of the Mahayanistic thought, do not place in the right light a prominent, if not principal actor, who, so far as is known to us, practically initiated this great spiritual and intellectual movement in India… The Awakening of Faith is of paramount importance in its being the first attempt to systematise the fundamental thoughts of Mahayana Buddhism, as well as forming a main authority of all the Mahayanistic schools; those who study the doctrinal history of Buddhism cannot dispense with it.

Place of birth and later places of residence

 

All that can be reliably said about Acvaghosha is that he was born in South, West or Eastern India and not North India.  He acquired his highest reputation as a Brahman in Central India and after his conversion he was known as the greatest Buddha follower of the time, intellectually as well as morally.  His later life was spent according to Chinese sources in the North.

Life of Acvaghosha – translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva

After that a king of the smaller Yueh chih country [i. e., Tukhira] in North India invaded the Middle country [i.e, Magadha]. When the besieging had continued for some time, the king of Central India sent a message [to the invader] saying:
 “If there be anything you want, I will supply it ; do not disturb the peace of my people by thus long staying here,”  to which this reply was given :
 “If you really ask a surrender, send me 300,000,000 gold pieces; I will release you.”
The [besieged] king said : “Even this entire kingdom cannot produce 100,000,000 gold pieces, how can I supply you with 300,000,000?” The answer was:
“There are in your country, two great treasures:
 (1) the Buddha-bowl
(2) a Bhikshu of wonderful talent (i. e., Agvaghosha).
Give them to me, they are worth 300,000,000 gold pieces.”
The [besieged] king said : “Those two treasures are what I most revere, I cannot give them up.”  Thereupon the Bhikshu said to the king in explanation of the Dharma:

All sentient beings are everywhere the same, while Buddhism, deep and comprehensive, aims at universal salvation, and the highest virtue of a great man consists in delivering [all] beings. As our temporal administration is very liable to meet obstructions, even your rule does not extend itself outside of this one kingdom. If you, on the other hand, propose a wide propagation of Buddhism, you would naturally be a Dharmaraja over the four oceans. The duty of a Bhikshu is to save [all] the people and not to give preference to one or the other. Merits lie in our heart; truth makes no distinction. Pray, be farsighted, and do not think only of the present.”

The king who was from the first a great admirer of him, respectfully followed his advice and delivered him to the king of Yueh chih who returned with him to his own kingdom.

Dates

 

According to key sources, Acvaghosha was a contemporary of King Kanishka.  Kanishka (Kanishka the Great) was the emperor of the Kushan dynasty in 127–151 famous for his military, political, and spiritual achievements.

Journal of the Buddhist Text Society, Vol. I., Part 3,

Kanishka, king of Palhava and Delhi, was born four hundred years after the Nirvana. When he learned that Simha, king of Kashmir, abandoned the worldly life to become a Buddhist priest under the name of Sudarcana and obtained Arhatship, he went to Kashmir and heard a sermon delivered by Sudarcana.  At that time a Mahayana priest who held a most prominent position in northern countries was called Acvaghosha. His influence in the spiritual world was as incomparable as the temporal power of Kanishka who conquered Kashmir and Jalamdhara. The king sent a message to Acvaghosha to come to his kingdom, who, however, owing to his old age, could not accept the invitation, but sent him a leading disciple of his called Jnanayaca, accompanied with a letter treating the essential points of Buddhism.


Although the Tibetan tradition considerably differs in many respects from the Chinese accounts above mentioned, they both agree in this point that Acvaghosha and Kanishka had some intercourse, and that they were contemporaneous and known to each other. So we may take it as an established fact that Acvaghosha, was living at the time of Kanishka, old though he was at the time he was summoned.

If we now compare dates, we can see that Acvaghosha predates Nāgārjuna.

Acvaghosha’s master

 

It remains an open question as to who was the master of Acvaghosha.  There is, however, evidence of him having intimate spiritual communication with both Parcva and Punyayacas.  Parcva, who was an older contemporary of Punyayacas was probably already at an advanced age when Acvaghosha met him.  Both the Record of Buddha and the Patriarchs and the Transmission of the Dharmapitaka agree in making Punyayacas, and not Parcva, the master of the conversion.  In the following extract, Punyayacas and Acvagjosha have been in debate and Acvaghosha is not only proved wrong, but feels humiliated by the errors he made.

Transmission of the Dharmapitaka

Acvaghosha, who felt extremely ashamed of his [former] self-assumption, was thinking of attempting his own life. Punyayacas, however, attaining arhatship, entered into a samadhi and divined what was going on in the mind of Acvaghosha. He ordered him to go and bring some books out of the library.
Acvaghosha said to the Acarya : “The room is perfectly dark; how can I get in there?” To this Punyayacas answered “Just go in, and I shall let you have light.”
Then the Acarya through his supernatural power stretched far into the room his right hand whose five fingers each radiating with light illuminated everything inside of the walls. Acvaghosha thought it a mental hallucination, and knowing the fact that a hallucination as a rule disappears when one is conscious of it, he was surprised to see the light glowing more and more.  He tried his magical arts to extinguish it till he felt utterly exhausted, for the mysterious light suffered no change whatever.  Finally coming to realise that it was the work of no other person than his teacher, his spirit was filled with remorse and he henceforth applied himself diligently to religious discipline and never relapsed.


The Awakening of Mahayana Faith

 

Up until very recently, it was accepted that Aśvaghoṣa was the author of the Awakening of Mahayana Faith, then according to Wikipedia “modern scholars now agree that the text was composed in China”.  Modern scholars may believe this, but D T Suzuki was in no doubt that the author of the Awakening of faith was Aśvaghoṣa.  For this reason, this text is key to an understanding of this form of Buddhism.

Introduction to the Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana – translated by D T Suzuki
Acvaghosha is the philosopher of Buddhism. His treatise on The Awakening of Faith is recognised by all Northern schools and sects as orthodox and used even to-day in Chinese translations as a text-book for the instruction of Buddhist priests.  The original Sanskrit text has not been found as yet, and if it should not be discovered somewhere in India or in one of the numerous libraries of the Buddhist viharas, it would be a great loss; for then our knowledge of Agvaghosha's philosophy would remain limited to its Chinese translation.

In effect, although the only text that has been found is in Chinese, practising Buddhists recognise its authenticity as a Mahayanan text of Aśvaghoṣha.

 

Asvaghosha's treatise on The Awakening of Faith is a small booklet, a monograph of the usual size of Chinese texts, comprising in its Chinese translation no more than about 10,800 characters.  It can be read in a few hours.  But the importance of this monograph stands in no relation to its brevity.  Whilst the canonical books of Hinayana Buddhism have been systematically preserved in the Pali language, those of Mahayana Buddhism are scattered all over the fields and valleys of Asia and in half a dozen languages.  Most of the Sanskrit originals appear to have been destroyed, one reason being the systematic destruction of texts in the Buddhist libraries of Thibet by the Chinese communists.  Tragically, their translations in Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese had not been thoroughly studied by westerners before the destruction took place.

The Mahayana system is intricate, and ‘perplexingly abstruse’, as such any text that has survived on its origins and philosophy is absolutely key.

Introduction to the Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana – translated by D T Suzuki
…in this book almost all the Mahayanistic thoughts, as distinguished from the other religious systems in India, are traceable, so that we can take it as the representative text of this school. If the reader will carefully and patiently go through the entire book, unmindful of its peculiar terminology and occasional obscureness, I believe he will be amply and satisfactorily repaid for his labour, and will find that the underlying ideas are quite simple, showing occasionally a strong resemblance to the Upanishad philosophy as well as to the Samkhya system, though of course retaining its own independent thought throughout.


 

D T Suzuki has done a sterling job in the translation he has made of this text, but there are in places areas where the symbolism and subtlety of the original do appear to have got muddled – from Sanskrit to Chinese to English via a Japanese scholar, - however competent that scholar, - opens up the possibility for numerous mis-understandings and I think there are a number in the final text.  Thus in the observations I have concentrated on those paragraphs where the meaning and symbolism appear to have been better preserved.

Introduction to the Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana – translated by D T Suzuki
let me say a word about the difficulty of translating such an abstruse religio-philosophic discourse as the present text….. It is comparatively easy to translate works of travels or of historical events or to make abstracts from philosophical works. But a translator of the Mahayanistic writings, which are full of specific phraseology and highly abstruse speculations, will find himself like a wanderer in some unknown region, not knowing how to obtain any communicable means to express what he perceives and feels. To reproduce the original as faithfully as possible and at the same time to make it intelligible enough to the outside reader, who has perhaps never come in contact with this form of thought, the translator must be perfectly acquainted with the Mahayanistic doctrine as it is understood in the East, while he must not be lacking in adequate knowledge of Western philosophy and mode of thinking.

The present translator has done his best to make the Mahayanistic thoughts of Acvaghosha as clear and intelligible as his limited knowledge and lack of philosophic training allow him. He is confident, however, that he has interpreted the Chinese text correctly. In spite of this, some errors may have crept into the present translation, and the translator will gladly avail himself of the criticisms of the Mahayana scholars to make corrections in case a second edition of the work is needed.

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