[Below is a draft of an Introduction I have been asked to write for the Saundarananda translation. I intend to start work soon on the translation of Buddhacarita.]
Aśvaghoṣa wrote two mahā-kāvya, or epic poems. The poem whose translation follows is the Saundarananda-mahā-kāvya, An Epic Story of Nanda, the Beautiful. The other, better known work is Buddhacarita-mahā-kāvya, An Epic Story of the Buddha's Life.
The Buddhacarita was translated into Chinese (as also into Tibetan), and is highly revered in Japan. The story of the Buddha's enlightenment as it is commonly told by good Zen teachers in Japan – who emphasize how the Buddha gave up ascetic grasping for an imagined truth and consequently realised the unfathomable enlightenment of just sitting -- is drawn from the Chinese translation of the Buddhacarita.
But Aśvaghoṣa is revered in Japan as much more than a biographer of the Buddha. In a line of fifty-one Zen patriarchs – of whom Mahākāśyapa was the first in India, of whom Bodhidharma was the first in China, and of whom Dogen was the first in Japan – Aśvaghoṣa is number twelve.
Hence, in the fifteenth chapter of Master Dogen's Shobogenzo, titled 仏祖 BUSSO, “the Buddha-Ancestors,” Dogen records that the Great Master Śākyamuni Buddha transmitted his Dharma to the Great Master Mahākāśyapa (1), who transmitted it to the Great Master Ānanda (2), who transmitted it to the Great Master Śāṇavāsa (3), who transmitted it to the Great Master Upagupta (4), who transmitted it to the Great Master Dhītika (5), who transmitted it to the Great Master Micchaka (6), who transmitted it to the Great Master Vasumitra (7), who transmitted it to the Great Master Buddhanandhi (8), who transmitted it to the Great Master Baddhamitra (9), who transmitted it to the Great Master Pārśva (10), who transmitted it to the Great Master Puṇyayaśas (11), who transmitted it to the Great Master Aśvaghoṣa (12).
In the Japanese Zen tradition, therefore, Aśvaghoṣa's writing could hardly be more important: it is revered as the first written record of the Buddha's teaching that we have authored by a Zen patriarch writing under his own name.
The fifty-first Zen patriarch, Zen Master Dogen, born in Japan in the year 1200 CE, though a native speaker of Japanese, was precocious in his ability to read and understand Chinese poetry. Even before he left Japan for China as a young man he was thoroughly versed in Chinese Buddhist texts, especially the Chinese translation of the Lotus Sutra. On his return to Japan, Dogen set about distilling, in his native Japanese language, what he had understood in China of the Buddha's teaching. The 95 chapters of Master Dogen's Japanese Shobogenzo, therefore, can be read as a distillation of teaching that had percolated into a vast body of Chinese Buddhist literature.
In a similar way, Aśvaghoṣa's Sanskrit epic poetry can be read as a distillation of the vast body of the Buddha's teaching that had been preserved prior to Aśvaghoṣa's time through memorization and recitation of the Pāḷi Suttas.
It is easy to make the mistake of assuming that this distillation might be concentrated in the second half of the Saundarananda, in which the Buddha lays before Nanda a blueprint for liberation. Some commentators who have made this mistake have argued that the earlier cantos are more concerned with poetry while the later cantos are more concerned with doctrine. These are the same commentators who have discussed whether Aśvaghoṣa was primarily a poet or a monk.
From the standpoint of Dogen's teaching, Aśvaghoṣa was primarily neither a poet or a monk; as indicated above, Aśvaghoṣa was Dogen's Zen ancestor. As such, his primary task was neither literary nor religious: his primary task was just to sit. Knowing this, though evidently not well enough, and fearing that I might not live long enough to get through all eighteen cantos of the Saundarananda, I began by translating the part of Canto 17 that relates directly to sitting-meditation, and left till later the cantos which seemed less relevant to sitting, like the tirade against women in Canto 8. In retrospect, I see that this approach was mistaken. The truth may be that devotees of Zen sitting practice who wish to hear Aśvaghoṣa's message should read the earlier chapters if anything more attentively than the later ones. Why? Because what Aśvaghoṣa clarifies for us above all in the Saundarananda is how NOT to sit.
As I gradually began to see this point, as a result of reading the Saundarananda as a whole, I realized that Aśvaghoṣa's primary emphasis on the negative tallies with personal experience, insofar as I do not know how to sit any better than I did thirty years ago; but I have garnered some clues along the way – with help, I would like to add, from FM Alexander – about how NOT to sit.
Saundarananda-mahā-kāvya means, on the face of it, “The Epic Poem 'Handsome Nanda.'” It is a poem, on the face of it, that celebrates the heroic doings of the Buddha's half-brother Nanda who was called 'Handsome Nanda' because he was so strikingly good-looking. But more than that, the Saundarananda is an ode to the beauty of non-doing; it is a story of rediscovering what was beautiful in us before we started striving after anything – hence “An Epic Story of Nanda, the Beautiful.”
Nanda, which means Joy, is everyman. The Saundarananda is the story of how the beauty that is joyfully inherent in every man and every woman may be realized by every man and every woman, through gradual elimination of those befouling faults – greed, anger, delusion, and the rest – which we trigger into action by thirsting after objects.
You are beautiful. (No matter what they say.) The message is not difficult to understand. The difficulty is in the realization. The difficulty is in crossing for oneself the fathomless sea of faults which the Buddha crossed.
You are beautiful. The fathomless sea of faults which is so hard to cross, you can cross.
But not by thirsting. Not by thirsting for any object, even if the valuable object for which you thirst is a spiritual one, like the far shore of enlightenment.
The beautiful practice of Buddha is to accept the golden treasure of oneself and to use it well. This is a very different thing from practising the ugly asceticism of self-denial.
In highlighting this difference, however, Aśvaghoṣa is invariably circumspect: he relies on irony and eschews anything that might constitute a direct affront to his Sanskrit-loving audience, whose values were most likely rooted in the ascetic traditions of Brahmanism. This, again, is why the earlier cantos require such attentive reading, so as not to miss Aśvaghoṣa's irony.
An Idealized Picture of Kapilavastu (Cantos 1-3)
The first three cantos of the Saundarananda set the scene, portraying in glowing terms the city of Kapilavastu (Canto One), the King of Kapilavastu (Canto Two), and the King's son Gautama who came back to Kapilavastu as the One Thus Come, the Realised One, the Tathāgata (Canto Three).
In Canto One Aśvaghoṣa seems on the surface to portray the Brahmanical religious ideal of ascetic practice as a noble pursuit, but if one reads the chapter carefully, keeping one's ears open for Aśvaghoṣa's irreligious use of irony, then Canto One takes on the opposite meaning. Canto Two is mainly devoted to singing the praises of Gautama's father, the King. Among the virtues emphasized are lack of conceit and reverence for dharma. Since the dharma in question is a non-Buddhist dharma, Aśvaghoṣa in this canto seems to be saying something about the universality of the principle of reaping what is sown. The message might be that one doesn't have to be a Buddhist to be, as the Buddha's royal father is glowingly portrayed to be, a very good person, blessed by cause and effect with two good sons – namely, Gautama and Nanda. Canto Three is a condensed account of the Buddha's path to enlightenment and his subsequent edification of Kapilavastu, whose citizens under the Buddha's benevolent influence enjoy a golden age.
Nanda & Sundarī: Two Real Individuals (Cantos 4 – 7)
If the first three cantos are thus idealized visions of the history and reality of Kapilavastu around the time of the Buddha, the next four cantos can be read, on the contrary, as a description of the concrete, discrete non-ideal side of reality.
There is nothing abstract about the descriptions in Canto Four of how handsome Nanda and his beautiful wife Sundarī cavort with each other in their palace penthouse. In the drama of this canto the Buddha makes a brief appearance as a character without a speaking part: while upstairs Nanda and Sundarī are making passionate love, downstairs the Buddha on his alms round stands in silence.
In Canto Five, in which Nanda is caused reluctantly to go forth into the wandering life, the Buddha again appears as a man of action before words: when Nanda invites him to eat the midday meal at his house, the Buddha silently declines with a gesture. Again, as a tactic to prevent Nanda from going home, the Buddha silently entrusts his bowl to Nanda. When the Buddha eventually does speak, his first words are to remind Nanda that death is an ever-present danger and to advocate the pursuit of peace.
Thus exhorted by the Buddha to go forth, Nanda consents; but then he changes his mind and announces that he won't go forth after all. This causes the Buddha to speak to Nanda more sternly, telling him to abandon the net of delusions he calls “my love.” And so the depressed Nanda finally has his head shaved by Ānanda. As his hair is being banished, Nanda's tearful downcast face resembles a rain-sodden lotus in a pond with the top of its stalk sagging down.
Cantos Six and Seven can be read as individual case-studies in grief – studies in the psychology of grief and also in the detailed physiology of grief, including vivid depiction of facial pallor or redness, arhythmic breathing, changes in postural tone, involuntary movements of arms and hands, and so on.
In Canto Six Sundarī takes centre stage, surrounded by her women, one among whom, senior in years, and good with words, holds Sundarī from behind in a firm embrace, wipes her tears away, and tells Sundarī in so many words to pull herself together. This direct approach, however, does not pass the pragmatic test of truth: it doesn't work. Sundarī only begins to come back to herself when another woman tells her, more intimately, what she wishes to hear: that Nanda will soon disrobe and return to her side. Here is a case, then, when denial of reality proves to be a truer course, in practice, than accurately foretelling the future.
In Canto Seven Nanda exhibits the kind of negative thinking against which the Buddha will later caution him. In so thinking, Nanda repeatedly refers to examples in ancient myths of Brahmanical heroes whose ascetic pursuit of religious ideals was scuppered by desire for women. Some commentators have suggested that through such references to Brahmanical tradition, Aśvaghoṣa sought to present the Buddha's teaching as the culmination of Brahmanism. Such a view arises from failing to catch Aśvaghoṣa's irony. The real point to take from Canto Seven is that when Nanda keeps harking back pessimistically to the examples of failed ascetics, he is demonstrating to us how NOT to think. This demonstration continues through the next four cantos.
How Not to Think, Continued: The Misogynist Striver (Cantos 8 - 9)
Canto Eight marks the appearance of an eloquent Buddhist striver who, while ostensibly acting for Nanda's benefit, actually continues in the same vein of demonstrating how NOT to think. Like the eloquent woman who took firm hold of Sundarī and encouraged her to get a grip, this Buddhist striver tries ineffectually, going for the direct approach, to straighten Nanda out. Though the striver has a good way with words, neither he nor Nanda can see the flaw in his argument which puts the blame for men's suffering on the women who are the objects of men's desire.
The way to enjoy this Canto, then, is with a sense of the ironic humour which is at play. The same applies to Canto Nine, in which the striver, who evidently has a high opinion of his own insight, takes Nanda to task for being vain and conceited.
How Not to Think, Continued: Nanda Is Inspired to Practice Asceticism (Cantos 10 – 11)
Canto Ten, titled “A Vision of Heaven,” gives us the clearest insight of any canto into the working of the mind of Aśvaghoṣa himself. Being pure fantasy, it provides a blank canvas on which Aśvaghoṣa can allow himself to paint, which he does in vivid colours, like beryl-blue and blazing red and untarnished gold.
In the vision of heaven that is presented, vivid individual things have philosophical meaning, if one looks for it. Why, for example, are particular trees and particular birds described as different from other trees and birds? And why are blue lotuses described as blue, red lotuses as red, and gold lotuses as gold?
More pertinently to the narrative of Nanda's redemption, in this canto Nanda spies the one-eyed she monkey, and sets eyes on the unspeakably gorgeous celestial nymphs, the apsarases. In the beauty stakes, Nanda has to admit, the gap between the nymphs and poor old Sundarī is greater than the gap between Sundarī and the monkey.
“Practice asceticism,” the Buddha tells Nanda – taking a long view which ultimately proves to be correct, but not in the way that Nanda imagines – “and you and the nymphs will be one.”
Thus is Nanda caused really to know, with his whole body-mind, what it means to thirst for an illusory object. And thus, at the beginning of Canto Eleven, as a result of his ascetic self-restraint in pursuit of the celestial nymphs, formerly handsome Nanda is described as having become extremely ugly.
Finally, having been encouraged by the Buddha to go to the outer limit of ascetic thirsting for an object, Nanda is then able to begin his journey back home, not to the Sundarī who once represented for him the female embodiment of beauty, but rather back home to the beauty of being himself. In making this about turn, Nanda is aided first by Ānanda's teaching of impermanence, and then by his own sense of shame, i.e. by his consciousness of having gone wrong, of having been led astray by the wrong kind of thinking.
The Buddha Preaches the Buddha-Dharma (Cantos 12 – 16)
Cantos Twelve through Sixteen take the form of a long monologue by the Buddha, interspersed with a few verses of Aśvaghoṣa's commentary. The key words in Canto Twelve are śraddhā (belief, confidence) and śreyas (better, a better way, a higher good): the Buddha praises Nanda for believing in better, for exhibiting confidence in a better way – a way that is better, for example, than hedonistic enjoyment of sensuality, and better than ascetic thirsting after objects.
A better way than thirsting after objects out there, the Buddha teaches Nanda, is elimination of the faults in here. To that end, the practice that the Buddha keeps coming back to, in Canto 13, Conquering the Senses through Integrity, in Canto 14, Stepping into Action, and in Canto 15, Abandoning Ideas, is smṛti (mindfulness, awareness, vigilance).
The importance of Canto 16, Exposition of the Noble Truths, can be gauged by its length: at 98 verses it is by far the longest of the Saundarananda's eighteen cantos. The Buddha's great monologue finishes, at the end of Canto 16, with him singing the praises of vīrya, directed energy. In the final analysis, evidently, understanding the teaching intellectually is never enough. In order to eliminate those faults which the Buddha compares to impurities in gold, it is necessary for each person to mobilize his or her own energy, like a diligent dirt-washer sifting for gold-dust or like a skilled goldsmith working at a furnace.
Nanda Makes the Teaching His Own (Canto 17)
Canto 17, therefore, is Aśvaghoṣa's account of how Nanda goes to the forest by himself and mobilizes his own energy in pursuit of liberation. Sitting upright with his legs crossed in the traditional manner, Nanda finds the body to be full of suffering, impermanent, and devoid of self, and thus he causes the tree of afflictions to shake. Then he gradually penetrates the ranks of the afflictions, cuts the three lower fetters, and obtains stream-entry, the first fruit of dharma. By reducing to a minimum love and hate, the fourth and fifth of the five lower fetters, he obtains the second fruit of dharma, And by going entirely beyond love and hate, he obtains the third of the four fruits of dharma. At this point in Nanda's progress Aśvaghoṣa describes how Nanda passes through four stages of sitting-meditation (dhyānas), by seeing faults at subtler and subtler levels and abandoning those faults. Even at the level of the fourth dhyāna, however – advanced Zen meditators take note – it still remains for Nanda to cut the five upper fetters, including spiritual ambition and conceit. This he duly does: like a lamp going out when all its oil is spent, Nanda comes to the utmost quiet, attaining the fourth and ultimate fruit of dharma, the worthy state of the arhat.
Affirmation (Canto 18)
In Canto 18 Nanda approaches the Buddha, expressing his realisation as “being present in the world without being of the world,” and prostrates himself on the ground with his whole body. Booming at Nanda like a thundercloud, the Buddha addresses him as “Conqueror of yourself” and asks him to stand up. “What a wonderful sight you are for me to behold!” the Buddha tells Nanda, “For even an unlovely sort is a sight to behold when he is well-adorned with his own best features. But a man who is full of the befouling faults, strikingly beautiful man though he may be, is truly ugly.” “How could I possibly repay you?” Nanda asks. “Among beings who are wandering in the night, their minds shrouded in darkness,” the Buddha replies, “let the lamp of this transmission be carried.”
In the final verse of the Saundarananda Aśvaghoṣa tells the reader that he has crafted a kāvya poem only as a pretext. What is paramount for him is not poetry but liberation, next to which elegant Sanskrit is so much dust. But out of the dust, with well-directed effort, Aśvaghoṣa encourages the reader, gold will emerge.