Life of BuddhaAśvaghoṣa

Buddha is undoubtedly the most potent name as a religious teacher, in the whole of Asia. The propaganda of the Buddhistic faith passed from the valley of the Indus to the valley of the Ganges, and from Ceylon to the Himalayas; thence it traversed China, and its conquests seem to have been permanent. The religion of Buddha is so far different from that of Confucius, and so far resembles Christianity, that it combines mysticism with asceticism—a practical rule of personal conduct with a consistent transcendentalism. It has, moreover, the great advantage of possessing a highly fascinating and romantic gospel, or biography, of its founder. Gautama, as the hero of Arnold’s “Light of Asia,” is very well known to English readers, and, although Sir Edwin Arnold is not by any means a poet of the first order, he has done a great deal to familiarize the Anglo-Saxon mind with Oriental life and thought. A far more faithful life of Buddha is that written some time in the first century of our era by the twelfth Buddhist patriarch Asvaghosha. This learned ecclesiastic appears to have travelled about through different districts of India, patiently collecting the stories and traditions which related to the life of his master. These he wove into a Sanscrit poem, which three hundred years later was translated into Chinese, from which version our present translation is made. There can be no doubt that the author of the Sanscrit poem was a famous preacher and musician. Originally living in central India, he seems to have wandered far and wide exercising his office, and reciting or singing his poem—a sacred epic, more thrilling to the ears of India than the wrath of Achilles, or the voyages of Ulysses. We are told that Asvaghosha took a choir of musicians with him, and many were converted to Buddhism through the combined persuasiveness of poetry and preaching. The present life of Buddha, although it labors under the disadvantage of transfusion from Sanscrit into Chinese, and from Chinese into English, is by no means destitute of poetic color and aroma. When, for instance, we read of the grief-stricken Yasodhara that “her breath failed her, and sinking thus she fell upon the dusty ground,” we come upon a stately pathos, worthy of Homer or Lucretius. And what can be more beautiful than the account of Buddha’s conversion and sudden conviction, that all earthly things were vanity. The verses once heard linger in the memory so as almost to ring in the ears: “Thus did he complete the end of self, as fire goes out for want of grass. Thus he had done what he would have men do: he first had found the way of perfect knowledge. He finished thus the first great lesson; entering the great Rishi’s house, the darkness disappeared, light burst upon him; perfectly silent and at rest, he reached the last exhaustless source of truth; lustrous with all wisdom the great Rishi sat, perfect in gifts, whilst one convulsive throe shook the wide earth.”


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