When I received the Clay Sanskrit Library version of Buddhacarita a few weeks ago, the first thing I did was turn to the end of Ashvaghosha's biography of the Buddha, to see if there might be, as I had hoped, some account of the Buddha's final eightfold preaching, as recorded by Master Dogen in the final chapter of Shobogenzo.
Unfortunately, the original Sanskrit has been lost for the second half of Canto 14 through to Canto 28 of Buddhacarita, although the content has apparently been preserved reliably in a Tibetan translation, and also via translation into Chinese.
In the Clay Sanskrit Library version of Buddhacarita, these translations are summarized very briefly. Hence, the summary of Canto 26, The Maha-parinirvana, relates simply that:
The Buddha then gives his final instructions to his disciples by telling them that after he is gone they should consider the Pratimoksha, the code of monastic rules, to be their guide. There follows a long discourse on how the monks should conduct themselves.
The Clay Sanskrit Library version gives no clue as to the content of this final discourse.
The day before yesterday, however, a copy arrived through the post of Ashvaghosha's Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha, translated by E.H. Johnston and first published in 1936.
This version contains, among other things, a mind-numbing scholarly discussion of which sect of Buddhism Ashvaghosha might be regarded as belonging to. Johnston thus announces himself as something of a sand-counter -- one whose years of Ashvaghosha study did not result in him getting even to first base in understanding for himself what Ashvaghosha was really intending to convey.
To his eternal credit, on the other hand, the scrupulously conscientious Johnston evidently went back to the Tibetan and Chinese versions in order to arrive as nearly as he could at the meaning of Ashvaghosha's original text. And so, in his translation from the Tibetan of Canto 26, Johnston relates the Buddha's final teaching as follows:
42. "...Pass the entire day and also the first and last watches of the night in the practice of yoga, and lie down in the middle watch, full of awareness so that the time of sleep does not bring on calamity.
43. For when the world here is being burnt up by the fire of Time, is it proper to sleep for the whole night? When the sins, which strike down like enemies, abide in the heart, who would go to sleep?
44. Therefore you should sleep, after exorcising with knowledge and the repetition of sacred texts the snakes of the sins which reside in the heart, as one does black snakes in a house by magic and charms; besides it is a question of self respect.
45. Self-respect is an ornament and the best clothing, the ankus for those who have strayed from the path. Such being the case, you should act with self-respect; for to be devoid of self-respect is to be devoid of all the virtues.
46. A man is honoured to the extent to which he has self-respect, and he, who is lacking in self-respect and who is devoid of discrimination between what is and what is not his real good, is on a level with the brute beasts.
47. Even should anyone cut off your arms and limbs with a sword, you should not cherish sinful thoughts about him or speak unforgiving words; for such action is an obstruction to you alone.
48. There are no austerities equal to forbearance, and he who has forbearance has strength and fortitude, whereas those who cannot tolerate harsh treatment from others do not follow the way of those who lay down the Law, nor are they saved.
49. Do not allow the slightest opening to anger, which ruins the Law and destroys fame, and which is the enemy of beauty and a fire to the heart; there is no enemy to the virtues like unto it.
50. While anger is contrary to the profession of religion, like the fire of lightning to cold water, it is not contrary to the life of the householder; for the latter are full of passion and have taken no vows about it.
51. If pride arises in your heart, it must be controverted by touching your head shorn of its beautiful locks, by looking on your dyed clothes and your begging bowl, and by reflecting on the conduct and occupations of others.
52. If worldly men who are proud strive to overcome pride, how much more should those do so, whose heads are shaven, who have directed themselves to salvation, and who eat the bread of mendicancy and have proved themselves.
SMALL DESIRE (1)
53. Since deceitfulness and the practice of the Law are incompatible, do not resort to crooked ways. Deceitfulness and false pretences are for the sake of cheating, but for those who are given to the Law, there is no such thing as cheating.
54. The suffering which comes to him whose desires are great does not come to him whose desires are small. Therefore smallness of desire should be practised, and especially so by those who seek for the perfection of all the virtues.
55. He who does not fear the rich at all is not afraid of the sight of stingy people; for he obtains salvation, whose desires are small and who is not cast down on hearing that there is nothing for him.
56. If you desire salvation, practise contentment; with contentment there is bliss here and it is the Law. The contented sleep peacefully even on the ground, the discontented are burnt up even in Paradise.
57. The discontented man, however rich is always poor, and the contented man, however poor, is always rich. The discontented man, seeking the beloved objects of sense, creates suffering for himself by toiling to obtain satiety.
58. Those who desire to obtain the highest bliss of peace should not give themselves up to the pleasures in such degree. For even Indra and the other gods envy the man in the world who is solely devoted to tranquility.
59. Attachment is the roosting-tree of suffering; therefore give up attachment, whether to relations or to strangers. He who has many attachments in the world is stuck fast in suffering, like a decrepit elephant in the mud.
APPLICATION OF ENERGY (4)
60. A stream, whose waters ever flow, however softly, in time wears away the surface of the rock. Energy finds nothing impossible of attainment. Therefore be strenuous and do not put down your loads.
61. The man who stops repeatedly in drilling with fire-sticks finds it hard to get fire from wood, but by the application of energy it comes easily. Therefore where there is diligence, the task is accomplished.
NOT LOSING AWARENESS (5)
62. When awareness is present, the faults do not enter into activity; there is no friend or protector equal to awareness, and if awareness is lost, all certainly is lost. Therefore do not lose hold of awareness directed towards the body.
63. The firm in mind, putting on the armour of awareness towards the body, conduct themselves in the battlefield of the objects of sense like heroes, who gird on their armour and plunge fearlessly into the ranks of their foes.
PRACTICE OF CONCENTRATION (6)
64. Therefore, keeping your feelings level and restraining your minds, know the origin and passing away of the world and practise concentration. For no mental ills touch him who has obtained concentration of mind.
65. Just as men diligently make embankments for holding up water that is overflowing, so concentration is declared to be like the embankment for bringing the water of knowledge to a stand.
CULTIVATION OF WISDOM (7)
66. The wise man, who abides giving away his possessions and entirely devoted to this Law in his heart, is saved; how much more then should the mendicant, who has no home, be saved?
67. Mystic wisdom is the boat on the great ocean of old age and death, a lamp, as it were, in the darkness of delusion, the medicine that smites all illnesses, the sharp axe that cuts down the trees of the sins.
68. Therefore practise learning, knowledge, and meditation for the increase of mystic wisdom; for he who has the eye that is of the nature of mystic wisdom, though without ocular vision, has indeed sight.
FREEDOM FROM MENTAL ACTIVITIES (8)
69. Although a man has left his home, yet, if he is engaged in the varied activities of the mind, he is not saved; those who desire to obtain the supreme tranquility should know this and become free from all activities.
70. Therefore adhere to heedfulness as to a guru, and avoid heedlessness as an enemy. By heedfulness Indra obtained sovereignty, by heedlessness the arrogant Asuras came to destruction.
71. I have done all that should be done by a compassionate sympathetic Master, Who aims at others' good; do you apply yourselves and bring your minds to tranquility.
72. Then, wherever you may be, on the mountains or in empty dwellings or in the forest, ever be strenuous in religious practice and do not give way to remorse.
73. It is for the physician, after full consideration of their constitutions, to explain the proper medicines to his patients, but it is the sick man, not the physician, who is responsible for attending to their administration at the proper time.
74. When the guide has pointed out the magnificent straight level road which is free from danger, and those who hear him do not proceed along it but go to destruction, there is no debt in the way of instruction still due from the guide.
75. Whoever of you has any desire about My teaching of the Four Truths, suffering and the rest, let him confidently speak out to Me at once and cut off doubt."
76. When the Great Seer thus spoke aloud, they were free from doubt and said nothing.