– Introduction –

Abbreviations:

BC: Buddha-carita
DN: Digha Nikāya (Collection of Long Discourses)
EBC: EB Cowell
EHJ: EH Johnston
LC: Linda Covill
MMK: Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (“The Middle” of Nāgārjuna)
MN: Majjhima Nikāya (Collection of Middle-Length Discourses)
MW: The Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary
PO: Patrick Olivelle
SN: Saundara-nanda

 

First edition of these texts and translations in this format: Nov, 2015.

(Prepared in digital format for free distribution by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu.)

 

Cover shows a detail from a Borobudur carving, depicting Siddhārtha's flight from Kapilavāstu on the horse Kanthaka.

“This royal war-horse, also, as he went, did not touch the ground, the tips of his hooves seeming to dangle separately in midair.” (BC8.45)

 

Convenient Fictions, Irreligious Irony, & Golden Sitting

For the last seven years, at the therapeutic snail’s pace of one verse per day, I have been translating two works of Aśvaghoṣa known in Sanskrit as mahā-kāvya, epic poems or epic tales. They are not exactly works of fiction; they are based on historical fact, but only loosely. In any case, they are not to be taken too literally, because they are so full of metaphor and – in the gap between their ostensible and hidden meanings – so full of irony.

Some teachings, like the Buddha’s four noble truths, are well represented both on and below the surface.
Those four noble truths are:

1. the truth of suffering,
2. the truth of the arising of suffering,
3. the truth of cessation of suffering, and
4. the truth of a practical means leading in the direction of the cessation of suffering.

Aśvaghoṣa records the Buddha’s statement of the four noble truths, in brief, like this:

iti duḥkham etad
“This is suffering.
iyam asya samudaya-latā pravartikā

This is the tangled mass of causes producing it.
śāntir iyam

This is cessation.
ayam upāya iti

Here is a means.” See Saundara-nanda (SN) 3.12. 01

Here the fourth noble truth is not expressed in terms of a metaphor. Upāya means that by which one reaches one’s aim, an expedient of any kind, a means-whereby.

At the same time, the Buddha did use for the fourth noble truth the metaphor of a path (mārga). Hence:

“This is suffering, which is constant and akin to trouble; this is the cause of suffering, akin to starting it; / This is cessation of suffering, akin to walking away. And this, akin to a refuge, is a peaceable path.” // SN16.4 //

The Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Way, is a metaphor for the threefold practice of ignorance-destroying wisdom (prajñā), backed by twofold practice of meditative balance (samādhi), backed by threefold practice of integrity (śīla). In the Mahaparinibbāna-sutta, the Buddha seems to emphasize this particular order – śīla (using voice and body well, making a clean living) supporting samādhi (true mindfulness, balanced stillness) supporting prajñā (seeing and thinking straight, true initiative) – while at the same time each element supports the others in a circular fashion. So it might be a case of “altogether, one after the other.” 02

In reality there is such a thing as practice of threefold śīla, twofold samādhi, and threefold prajñā, leading in the direction of ending of ignorance, but there is no such path as a Noble Eightfold Path. The Path is a kind of fiction. In the real world, there are real, non-fictional paths that can be walked, like the ancient Ridgeway running across England from Salisbury Plain to East Anglia. There are real roads that can be travelled, like the Pan-American highway linking many nations in Northern, Central and South America. But no Noble Eightfold Path or Middle Way is marked on any map.

So even such a core teaching as the Noble Eightfold Path is a metaphor, a fiction. It is something akin to the dream which, if we are lucky, helps our tired bodies and minds to recuperate during the night.

But Zen masters from the time of the Buddha, though invariably steeped in actual practice, have shown themselves to be skilled in the use of such dreamlike fictions – using their fingers, metaphorically, to point at the moon. And none has been more skilled in using metaphors, similes, parodies, et cetera, than Aśvaghoṣa.

 

Convenient Fictions

Speaking of putting fictions to practical use, in 1906, in a book titled The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, Sir Charles Sherrington wrote of “the convenient fiction of the simple reflex.”

The convenient fiction of the simple reflex.

A lot of irrational, fearful, unconscious human behaviour can be explained with reference to a primitive fear reflex called (after the Austrian paediatrician Ernst Moro who identified it) “the Moro reflex.” As a simple reflex, a thing unto itself, the Moro reflex is a convenient but empty fiction. Any simple reflex is an empty fiction because the human organism and its environment all work unfathomably together, in an integrated way, as a whole. And yet the Moro reflex, though a fiction, is convenient. When in Buddha-carita Canto 8 Aśvaghoṣa describes arms being thrown up and out in grief, BC8.24, 8.37. 03 when in Saundara-nanda Canto 6 he describes Sundarī performing the same abduction of the arms while gasping and going red, SN6.27.04 and when indeed in SN Canto 12 he describes the shocked Nanda seeming to go white, SN12.8. 05 I find it convenient to refer in my footnotes to the Moro reflex – as if there were such a thing, as a thing unto itself, as a Moro reflex.

The use of convenient fictions as a means to convey the real gist of the Buddha’s teaching, as evidenced in the first instance by the Noble Eightfold Path, goes back all the way to Gautama Buddha himself. The Lotus Sūtra emphasizes how skilled the Buddha was in the use of expedient means (upāya-kauśalya), including the kind of metaphors and parables with which the Lotus Sūtra abounds. The 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra is titled “Expedient Means,” and the 3rd chapter is titled “Parable” or “Metaphor.” 06

The 14th Zen patriarch in India, Nāgārjuna, again, is known for the explicit distinction he makes between two levels of truth:

The direction in dharma of the buddhas is grounded in two truths: conventional truth and the ultimate philosophical truth. Those who do not know the distinction between these two truths, do not know how it is in the profound depths of the buddhas' teaching. Without being based in everyday practice, the ultimate truth is not revealed. Without realizing of the ultimate truth, nirvāṇa is not attained. Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (MMK) chapter 24, Investigation of the Noble Truths (verses 8 – 10). 07

Twelve generations after Gautama Buddha, and two generations before Nāgārjuna, sits the 12th Zen patriarch in India. His name, Aśvaghoṣa – Horse (aśva) Whinny (ghoṣa) – is so far less well known than the name of his Dharma-grandson Nāgārjuna. This is despite the sterling efforts of EH Johnston, the Oxford professor who laid the foundations of Aśvaghoṣa study with his Sanskrit texts and English translations of Aśvaghoṣa’s two epic poems, Buddha-carita (“Acts of the Buddha”; 1936) and Saundara-nanda (“Nanda the Fair”; 1932). Almost all of Aśvaghoṣa’s original Sanskrit text of Saundara-nanda is extant, and largely for this reason I followed EHJ in translating it first. But I believe, for various reasons, that Aśvaghoṣa wrote Buddha-carita first. One reason is that Aśvaghoṣa covers the teaching of dependent arising in detail in BC Canto 14; then in Saundara-nanda he refers only lightly in passing to the 12-fold chain. 08

Another Oxford University academic, Linda Covill, has more recently demonstrated in her book A Metaphorical Study of Saundara-nanda (2009) how very adept Aśvaghoṣa was, as a poet on a par with Kālidāsa, at dealing in convenient fictions.

What so far has not been well recognized is

(1) the extent of the irony which resides in the gap between the ostensible and hidden meaning of Aśvaghoṣa’s fictions; and
(2) the extent to which Aśvaghoṣa, like the Buddha before him and no less than the Zen masters of China and Japan who followed him, was concerned with the conventional truth of everyday sitting practice. Much academic debate has been devoted to the question of whether Aśvaghoṣa was primarily a poet or a monk. But that is a stale debate. Discussion of what Buddhist school Aśvaghoṣa belonged to has even less to recommend it. Aśvaghoṣa is better revered as a person who defied categorization, a person who was – in his own terms – anya, different. 09

 

Investigating Aśvaghoṣa’s Irony – Being Caused Constantly to Mind the Gap

The first of Aśvaghoṣa’s two poems, Buddha-carita, ostensibly means “Acts of the Buddha” or “Life of the Buddha.” Ostensibly, Buddha-carita is a biography, an epic poem that tells the life-story of Gautama Buddha. Below the surface, however, the Sanskrit word buddha is a past participle meaning “awakened.” And carita is also a participle meaning “gone” or “going,” and by extension “acting, action, practice.” Below the surface, then, buddha-carita can be understood to mean “awakened action.” Below the surface, buddha-carita is a word by which Aśvaghoṣa may have intended to point obliquely in the direction of sitting practice that is liberated from unconscious doing.

The second poem, Saundara-nanda, ostensibly means “Nanda the Fair,” as per EH Johnston, or “Handsome Nanda,” as per Linda Covill. Ostensibly, Saundara-nanda is another biography, a poem that tells the story of the Buddha’s younger brother Nanda, who is notably good-looking (saundara) and whose name (nanda) means “Joy.” Below the surface, saundara-nanda can be understood to mean “beautiful joy” – in which case saundara-nanda is a word by which Aśvaghoṣa may have intended, again, to suggest the beauty and joy of just sitting.

Not only the titles of the two poems, but also the title of every canto, and turning words within each verse, all seem to invite investigation along these lines. Ostensibly, the meaning is this. But below the surface, the meaning is this, or – digging deeper – the meaning might also be this, or this, or maybe even this.

Here are a few examples to illustrate the point. In square brackets in the translation, and in the footnotes to each canto, you will find many more examples highlighted.

In BC Canto 2 Aśvaghoṣa praises the King as follows:

He gave direction to the one and guarded the seven; he shunned the seven and turned his attention to the five; / He experienced the three and minded the three; he knew the two and abandoned the two. //2.41//

This is a kind of riddle. I think it is designed to draw our attention to the fact that practically every verse can, like this one, be read on more than one level.

Ostensibly the King in question is Prince Siddhārtha’s father, King Śuddhodana, in which case the one would seem to refer to the person of the King himself, or else his kingdom. Below the surface, giving direction to the one may be read as a suggestion of what Dogen calls the secret of sitting-meditation – naturally becoming one piece. In the original edition of his instructions for sitting-meditation (Fukan-zazengi-shinpitsu-bon), Dogen expresses the secret of Zazen as 自成一片 (ji-jo-ippen), naturally/spontaneously becoming one piece. 10

EH Johnston notes that the sevens are the seven constituents of a kingdom and the seven vices of kings. Patrick Olivelle Life of Buddha (2008). 11 identifies the seven constituents of a kingdom as king, minister, countryside, fort, treasury, army and ally; and the seven vices of a king as three vices springing from anger (verbal abuse, physical assault, and plunder of property) and four vices springing from passion (hunting, gambling, women, and drink). In the hidden meaning, however, the seven could be the seven limbs of awakening – as, in the first instance, virtues to be developed; and in the second instance, antithetically, as idealistic concepts to be negated. The seven, mentioned in SN17.58, are investigation of things, energy, joy, confidence, equanimity, balanced stillness, and mindfulness. 12

EHJ notes that five refers to the five upāyas, means of success against an enemy. Olivelle traces these five back to the Mahā-bhārata, which lists the five policies as conciliation, giving gifts, fomenting dissension, war, and staying quiet. In the hidden meaning, however, the five might be the five senses, which the Buddha so often compared to dangerous enemies.

Ostensibly the three are the triple set of dharma, wealth, and pleasure, the three aims of a king’s life. In the hidden meaning, the three to experience and – in practising mindfulness of the mind – the three to mind, might be greed, anger and delusion.

Ostensibly, again, the two a king should know are good and bad policy. But in the hidden meaning the two to know, as a prelude to abandoning that duality, are body and mind.

Why did Aśvaghoṣa write a verse as ambiguous as this? I think because he wanted to cause us to consider more than one possible meaning of each element. He wanted to cause us to dig below the surface of his convenient fictions, not only in a verse like this one, which looks like a riddle, but also in all his other verses which don’t look like riddles, but each of which is in fact a riddle. There are said to be many instance in the Pali Suttas (e.g Samyutta Nikaya 1) of the Buddha posing riddles in a similar way. 13

The lord of the earth (bhūmi-patiḥ, BC1.7) – also called the protector of men (nṛpaḥ, BC4.22), the best of men (narendraḥ, BC8.17), the king (rājā, BC9.7), et cetera – ostensibly means King Śuddhodana, ruler of Kapilavāstu and father of Prince Sarvārtha-siddhaḥ. In the hidden meaning, the King means a king of dharma. In the hidden meaning, every man and every woman who sits supported by the earth, dropping off body and mind in the earth’s gravitational field, is a lord of the earth.

The son of the best of men (narendra-sūnuḥ, BC3.60; narendra-putraḥ, BC8.10) – also called the self-begotten of a protector of men (nṛpātmajaḥ, BC3.29), the son of a protector of men (nṛpa-sutaḥ; BC12.4) et cetera – ostensibly means Prince Sarvārtha-siddha, son of King Śuddhodana. In the hidden meaning, every recipient of the Buddha’s teaching – i.e. you and I who are endeavouring to get to the bottom of this teaching now – is a son or a daughter of the best of men.

The royal seat of the best of men (narendra-sadmā; BC3.47) – also called the palace (bhavanam, BC1.88) – ostensibly means King Śuddhodana’s fortified palace in Kapilavāstu. In the hidden meaning, the samādhi which is king of samādhis, i.e. sitting up in the full lotus posture, is just the royal seat of the best of men. Providing further potential for ironic wordplay, bhavanam, besides meaning a palace, has the secondary meanings of 1. coming into existence, and 2. the place where anything grows (BC3.88; BC12.5).

The royal road (rāja-mārgaḥ, BC3.4) – also called the road of the best of men (narendra-mārgaḥ; BC3.53) – ostensibly means the main street in the capital city, the royal highway, Kapilavāstu High St. In the hidden meaning the royal road is the process of practising the practice that leads in the direction of cessation of suffering.

In many places where Aśvaghoṣa describes individuals within a group, but especially in connection with women, he will talk about some women and then about another woman (anyā, BC3.17) or about several others (anyāḥ, BC4.35). In the hidden meaning, anyā is one who is different. In Shobogenzo such a person is given the ironic epithet of 非仏, a non-buddha. See Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo chap. 28., Butsu-kojo-no-ji, para [58]; trans. Gudo Nishijima, Chodo Cross. 14 A non-buddha means a real individual practising buddha, as opposed to the ideal generic saint that we tend to expect a buddha to be. In a similar way Dogen in his revised edition of his instructions for Zazen (Fukan-zazengi-rufu-bon) says that 非思量, non-thinking, is the secret of sitting-meditation. Non-thinking is usually understood to mean “what is different from thinking,” i.e. action itself, the action of just sitting. But 非思量can also be understood to mean true mindfulness, mindfulness that we remember to direct where it ought to be directed – in other words, mindfulness, but not what people generally think mindfulness to be. So 非思量 ostensibly means “action which is different from thinking”; but below the surface 非思量 might mean thinking, but not what people understand by thinking.15

One of the adornments of the one who is different is the being-without virtue (nairguṇyam, BC6.24). When the Prince speaks of himself in terms of being without virtue, the hidden meaning has to do with the virtue of being without – for example, the virtue of being without anger, greed and delusion, or the virtue of being free of the doings which are born of ignorance.

When the heavy gates barring the way out of Kapilavāstu spontaneously open up, the horse-master Chandaka describes it as daivo vidhiḥ (BC8.46), which ostensibly means something like “a divine accomplishment” or “an act of God.” On the surface, daivo vidhiḥ suggests a miracle in the religious sense of a happening, realized by divine intervention, that defies the law of cause and effect. But vidhi can mean any act or action, and daivaḥ means “coming from the gods” not only in a literal or religious sense, but also in the irreligious sense intended by a sportsman or an actor who speaks of the gods being on his or her side. In the hidden meaning, then, the seemingly miraculous happening is nothing more religious or supernatural – and nothing less valuable – than what happens when a performer is temporarily in the non-doing zone.

The ostensible meaning of kāñcanam āsanam (BC5.44) is a golden seat, a seat made of gold – something solid and absolute. But āsanam is an -na neuter action noun whose original meaning is sitting. So the hidden meaning of kāñcanam āsanam is golden sitting. In which case, like the royal seat of the best of men, it suggests in its hidden meaning something less set, less weighty, and more fluid and relative than what it seems to mean on the surface.

These are a small sample of the convenient fictions that Aśvaghoṣa uses in Buddha-carita as he continues, verse by verse, to play with verbal irony, dramatic irony, and – under the smiling eyes of the gods – cosmic irony. I haven’t even mentioned Māra’s army of demon throngs (bhūta-gaṇāḥ) in BC Canto 13, or the fire-coloured molten metal (agni-varṇam ayo-rasam) that wrong-doers are caused to imbibe in BC Canto 14, or the fabulous birds and trees of Indra’s paradise described in SN Canto 10.

But perhaps the best indication of how far Aśvaghoṣa can go in his use of irony – and especially in the use of what I have called his irreligious irony – is seen in his treatment of women.

Sometimes when Aśvaghoṣa describes the behaviour of a group known collectively as “the women” or “the girls” or “these fine ladies,” he is simply parodying the behaviour – which he evidently sees as beautiful even in its unenlightened barging about – of a group of monks in a vihāra, or place of practice. Thus, for example, in BC Canto 3:

But some among these fine ladies, hurry though they might in their eagerness, / Were stopped in their tracks, by the heft of the mighty chariots of their hips and their corpulent breasts. //BC3.16//

This, I think, is a humorous parody of heavy-footed Friar Tuck types – monks who were unduly interested in their midday meals.

Another use of irony which I think is peculiar to Aśvaghoṣa appears in BC Canto 4. It is a kind of inverted double entendre whereby behaviour that is overtly sexual is understood by the knowing reader to represent some aspect of the Buddha’s teaching. For example:

One girl, whose mouth with copper-red lower lip betrayed a whiff of distilled nectar, / Whispered in his ear, “Let the secret be revealed!” //4.31//

What is thus suggested, below the surface, might be a teacher’s effort to transmit the secret of true mindfulness.

But use of this technique is at its most wickedly subversive in a series of verses in BC Canto 5 where Aśvaghoṣa describes “different” (i.e. enlightened) ones who are manifesting all kinds of unconventional postures, having totally dropped off. In the verse which concludes the series, we can’t help worrying that Aśvaghoṣa might have gone too far, when he seems to paint a picture of a woman who is so deeply fallen into a drunken stupor that she is showing off her genitals:

With her oral cavity open and her legs spreading out, so that she sprayed saliva, and made visible what normally remains secret, / One very different one had dropped off; rocking somewhat in her intoxication, she did not make a pretty sight, but filled an irregular frame. //BC5.61//

In the hidden meaning, the individual in question has not dropped off in the sense of having fallen asleep, but has totally dropped off body and mind. In that sense, she, or he, is manifesting the real secret of sitting practice – not by trying to conform to somebody’s false conception of “correct posture,” but on the contrary by having let go of all of that.

 

Golden Sitting, Revisited

sabba-pāpassa akaraṇaṁ, kusalassa upasampadā /
sacitta-pariyodapanaṁ etaṁ buddhāna’ sāsanaṁ // Pāḷi. Dhammapāda 183. 16

sarva-pāpasyākaraṇaṁ kuśalasyopasaṁpadaḥ /
svacitta-paryavadanam etad buddhasya śāsanam // Sanskrit. Udānavarga 28.1.17

諸惡莫作 衆善奉行
自淨其意 是諸佛教 Chinese. Quoted from Master Dogen’s Shogenzo chap. 10, Shoaku-makusa. 18

The not doing of any wrong, undertaking what is good,
Cleansing one’s own mind – this is the teaching of buddhas.

Here in four languages is one teaching that, we can all agree, was just the original teaching of the Buddha.

But what did the Buddha mean exactly by cleansing the mind? Cleansing one’s own mind of what?

Aśvaghoṣa’s writing, I am confident, can help us – whichever tradition we belong to – at least to begin to clarify our thinking about what it means to cleanse our own mind of doings born of ignorance.

In BC Canto 14, Aśvaghoṣa describes the Buddha’s enlightenment in exactly these terms, saying that when the great seer understood that doings (saṁskārāḥ; the 2nd link in the 12-fold chain of dependent arising) are inhibited by the complete absence of ignorance, then the Buddha knew properly what was to be known and stood out before the world as the Awakened One.

But human ignorance (avidyā; the 1st link in the chain), Aśvaghoṣa makes clear in SN Canto 15, is a function of ideas. And so the Buddha taught the methodical abandonment of ideas, using mindfulness of breathing.

In the first place there are gross misconceptions, like the idea of me, in my ignorance, intervening to try and make my breathing how I think and feel it ought to be – for example, free, full and contented, like a buddha’s breathing. This wrong idea is countered by letting a long in-breath be long and letting a long out-breath be long, and equally by letting a short in-breath be short and letting a short out-breath be short. In Aśvaghoṣa’s gold-mining metaphor, this is like letting coarse grains of dirt be washed away by water – whereas if we did something directly to try and make our breathing better, we might be like an ignorant dirt-washer who tried, with his dirty fat fingers, directly to pick out grains of gold.

The next stage in mindfulness of breathing is the mindfulness that, when I breathe in, I will breathe in being conscious of the whole body; and when I breathe out, I will breathe out being conscious of the whole body. This mindfulness represents abandonment of more subtle conceptions, like the idea of the primacy of the head and neck, or the primacy of the spine, or the primacy of the diaphragm, or the primacy of what the Japanese call the hara, or of what the Chinese call the dan tien, et cetera. Such ideas, when they are associated with doings like trying to arrange the head on the spine by pulling in the chin, or with abdominal breathing, are akin to finer particles of dirt.

The ultimate stage in mindfulness of breathing is the mindfulness that, when I breathe in, causing bodily doings to cease, DN22 (in Pali) has passambhayaṁ kāya-saṅkhāraṁ assasissāmī, “causing body-doings to cease, I will breathe in.” In Sanskrit passambhayaṁ kāya-saṅkhāram is praśamayan kāya-saṁskārān. Praśamayan is causative of the present participle of pra-√śam, to become calm or cease. But it needs to be clarified that bodily doings cannot be calmed directly. To try to calm bodily doings by doing something, does not work. Hence the title of SN Canto 15, Abandoning Ideas. 19 I will breathe in. And equally, when I breathe out, causing bodily doings to cease, I will breathe out. This mindfulness represents the giving up of all ideas that might trigger bodily doings, like water that washes away even the finest particles of dirt, leaving only the rudiments of gold. Hence:

A dirt-washer in pursuit of gold washes away first the coarse grains of dirt, / Then the finer granules, so that the material is cleansed; and by the cleansing he retains the rudiments of gold. // SN15.66 // In the same way, a man whose mind is poised, in pursuit of liberation, lets go first of the gross faults, / Then of the subtler ones, so that his mind is cleansed, and by the cleansing he retains the rudiments of dharma. // 15.67 // Just as gold, washed with water, is separated from dirt in this world, methodically, And just as the smith heats the gold in the fire and repeatedly turns it over, / Just so is the practitioner’s mind, with delicacy and accuracy, separated from faults in this world, And just so, after cleansing it from afflictions, does the practitioner temper the mind and collect it. // 15.68 // Again, just as the smith brings gold to a state where he can work it easily in as many ways as he likes into all kinds of ornaments, / So too a beggar of cleansed mind tempers his mind, and directs his yielding mind among the powers of knowing, as he wishes and wherever he wishes. // SN15.69 //

Champsecret, France; Aylesbury, England.
September – October 2015

 

Acknowledgements

I would like here to express thanks and pay respects to teachers and fellow swimmers in four streams of practice – namely 1. the Zen/Mahāyāna tradition that spread from India in the west to Japan in the Far East, 2. the Theravāda tradition of Thailand, Sri Lanka, and South-east Asia, 3. the Nālandā tradition as preserved in Tibet, and 4. the more recent stream of non-doing practice which is the FM Alexander Technique.

Top of the list of teachers to whom I am indebted has to be the Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima, whom I met in Tokyo in June 1982, when I was 22 and he was 62. He firmly established all his students on the way of daily sitting-practice. At the same time he very much emphasized the importance of going back to ancient texts and, like archaeologists with spades and brushes, excavating their lost meanings. Always painting with broad and unworried strokes, he taught that sitting-meditation is something we practice for our own benefit, whereas translation work is to benefit others. That is not strictly accurate, of course, but as a starting point, it is not a bad approximation of the truth.

Gudo Nishijima practised and taught “just sitting” as championed by the 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen in his great work Shobogenzo. This practice of just sitting, it is clear from Shobogenzo, Dogen regarded as thoroughly conducive to the cultivation of wisdom. Still, when from the age of 48 I began to read descriptions in Aśvaghoṣa’s writing of the Buddha’s teaching of bhāvanā, I seriously lacked wisdom in regard to what bhāvanā might really mean. As a word, bhāvanā means cultivation, or development of the mind, or mind training, or meditation. But what did it mean as a practice?

One could argue – especially with the benefit of hindsight – that the “just” of “just sitting” expresses the absence of doings (saṁskārān) born of ignorance (avidyā); therefore, truly just to sit is already to be cultivating the wisdom that puts an end to all doings born of ignorance. In which case, who needs other kinds of bhāvanā, beyond the cultivation of just this wisdom?

In Canto 16 of Saundarananda, however, the Buddha teaches Nanda to cultivate, when occasion demands it, not only wisdom in general but also, for example, friendliness (maitrī) as the particular antidote to ill-will (vyāpāda).

This kind of developing of the mind in certain directions, as a meditative practice, is not something I had become familiar with, during my years in Japan translating Shobogenzo into English and purporting to practise “just sitting.” So translating Aśvaghoṣa forced me to turn to (a) the descriptions of different kinds of bhāvanā in original Pāḷi texts, like for example the Rāhula Sutta, translated in exemplary fashion by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu; and (b) the first-person testimony of Tibetan monks like the 14th Dalai Lama, as elucidated in particular by Matthieu Ricard, the French monk who has been famously burdened – through no fault of his own, but because of the measurable benefits of his own mind-training – with the title “the happiest man in the world.”

Second on my list of teachers to acknowledge here, then, is the Theravāda monk Ānandajoti Bhikkhu. To him I am indebted not only for his exemplary translations from Pāḷi, all of which are made freely available at his website (www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net), but also for his unstinting guidance and encouragement along the way. The publication of this translation in its present form is very largely due to his example of how to go about making an ancient text one’s own, through painstaking study of the variants (different ways in which an ancient manuscript can be read) and of the metre, and how then to go about making the ancient text, together with an English translation of it, easily and freely available.

Though I have not met Matthieu Ricard in person, thanks to the internet I almost feel as if I have met him, along with the Dalai Lama whose teaching of mind-training Matthieu Ricard has done so much to clarify. So I would like to express a sincere debt of gratitude to all those many generations of teachers who kept the Nālandā tradition alive in Tibet, even after it had died out in its Indian birthplace. I see Aśvaghoṣa as very much belonging to that Nālandā tradition, as also to the Zen/Mahāyana tradition, and to the Theravāda tradition.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that these various traditions all belong originally to nobody but the Buddha, to whose non-sectarian teaching Aśvaghoṣa was entirely devoted.

In his efforts to establish the Zen tradition in Japan, Dogen wrote at the very beginning of Shobogenzo that the buddha-tathāgatas possess a subtle method which is supreme and free of doing (無為). This freedom from doing (無為, Chinese: wu-wei; Japanese: mu-i) is a truth that seems to have emerged in China thousands of years ago, more or less independently from the Buddha’s teaching. This same truth of freedom from doing emerged again, at the end of 19th century, in Tasmania when a young actor named FM Alexander stumbled upon it in his detailed investigations, using a three-way mirror, of how he was using himself. And so I have come to be indebted also to many teachers of the FM Alexander Technique who have given me glimpses of what freedom from doing might really be. Among these many Alexander teachers, I would like to express my gratitude to four teachers in particular, two men and two women.

I ended up training as an Alexander teacher at a school in Aylesbury run by Ray Evans and Ron Colyer. My family set up home in Aylesbury in order to be close to the training school, and my wife Chie trained as an Alexander teacher with Ray and Ron after I finished my three-year training.

The core principle of Alexander work is that if we stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself. Sadly, how the right thing does itself remains a mystery beyond the greedy grasping of the intellect. But how, in spite of our best intentions, we end up doing the wrong thing, is something that our minds can become clearer about. That being so, I am indebted to Ray Evans for his singular insights into how, when a person goes directly for an end, wrong doing emerges out of what Alexander called “faulty sensory appreciation.”

Ray led his trainees to understand how immature primitive reflexes (and especially a primitive fear reflex called the Moro reflex) can cause anybody (but especially a Zen practitioner with an emotional investment in sitting well) to become a slave to the feeling that he is sitting in the right posture. The feeling is delusory, because in fact there is no such thing as a right posture. As FM Alexander truly said, echoing Nāgārjuna, “There is no such thing as a right position.... but there is such a thing as a right direction.”

If the late Ray Evans was a genius in this matter of unreliable feeling or “faulty sensory appreciation,” Ray’s fellow teacher-trainer Ron Colyer has remained in my eyes a master of allowing others to experience freedom from what Alexander called “end-gaining” – the emotional habit of going directly for a desired end.

End-gaining involves going for a desired end without paying due attention to intermediate steps in the process. Trying to be right – as one is invariably prone to try, as a would-be Alexander teacher (or, worse still, as a would-be Zen master) – is end-gaining itself. And stopping this end-gaining, it turns out, is not so easy.

On an Alexander teacher training course, then, as an antidote to end-gaining, it is vital that work is done in an atmosphere in which it is perfectly OK not to be right, where it is OK to be as wrong as ever one is. An Alexander lesson from Ron Colyer, everybody who has ever had such a lesson agrees, is an experience in being given limitless such freedom to go wrong. Nobody can keep taking himself too seriously in a room filled with the deep, warm, resonant laughter of a teacher who never fails to encourage the individual to be the individual he or she is, and who never fails to put the Constructive into Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual is the title of the 2nd of FM Alexander’s four books. When simply “Constructive Conscious Control” was suggested as an alternative title, for a saving of three words, Alexander is said to have replied, “But don’t you see? That would be to omit the most important part!” 01

After I finished Alexander teacher training with Ray and Ron, I continued for a number of years to have one-to-one Alexander lessons from two very experienced women teachers of the technique. One of these teachers was Nelly Ben-Or, who once described her efforts to teach me as costing her half her life! Nelly’s teaching demands on a deep level “the giving up of what ordinarily governs us.” I am afraid that, despite Nelly’s best efforts, I have continued to hold on tightly – and sometimes incredibly aggressively – to what ordinarily governs me. So, to Nelly, both heartfelt thanks and shame-faced apologies. I am sorry Nelly, for being such a terrible student, and for being so rude and aggressive while you were only trying to help me! Please forgive me.

Next, my undying gratitude goes out to the late Marjory Barlow, the niece of FM Alexander, who taught me, while I was lying on her teaching table with my knees bent, to give up three ideas: (1) the idea of being right; (2) the idea of doing the process of undoing which is described by words like “back to lengthen and widen”; and (3) the idea of moving a leg – in order to be truly free to go ahead and move the leg.

I should not neglect to acknowledge the encouragement and support I received from readers of a daily blog, Mining Aśvaghoṣa's Gold, that I kept while working on these translations. Particular thanks go out to my brother Ian Cross, and Sanskrit pundits Karttikeya and Malcolm Markovitch. The late Michael Thaler (author of the blog One Foot In Front of the Other) offered encouragement and inspiration in my early days of blogging. Others who helped in various ways – in some cases simply by leaving me to get on with it – were Maggie Lamb, Nuria George, Gisela Wilson, Pierre Turlur, Laurie Blundell, Alex Gould, George Askounis, Denis Le Grand and David Essoyan. Special thanks are due to Jordan Fountain who in 2012 made a website for the audio recordings of Saundarananda, painstakingly linking each verse back to the corresponding page on Mining Aśvaghoṣa's Gold.

Last but by no means least I would like to say thank you to two staunch supporters I met while living in Japan. First, thank you to my wife Chie who has put up with me for more than 25 years now, and made many sacrifices along the way to allow me to continue tap, tap, tapping away on this keyboard. Second, I would like to thank for his generous support over many years, a wise and kind Japanese economist named Tadashi Nakamae. After working fairly unhappily for four years in Japan as an English teacher and then as a copy editor, I decided in the summer of 1986 to give up work, shave my head, and devote myself whole-heartedly to just sitting. This needless to say, had perilous financial implications. But a few weeks into the 90-day sitting retreat that I had decided to practise in my Tokyo flat, I got a phone call quite out of the blue. An independent research company called Nakamae International Economic Research had just been established in the city. Would I be interested in attending an interview for a part-time job as English editor of the NIER Quarterly Report? I ended up working for NIER for the next 25 years, in Tokyo, where I was enabled not only to survive but actually to save some money, and when I returned to England, working remotely via the internet. The Zen gods were clearly on my side in the summer of 1986 when that phone call came in – as seemed to be confirmed when Mr Nakamae turned out to have a strong connection with the late Japanese Zen teacher Tsunemasa Abe. Tsunemasa Abe in turn, from an early age, was like a grandson to perhaps the most famous Zen teacher in Japan in the 20th century, Kodo Sawaki.

In conclusion, then, in writing these acknowledgments I am conscious of how much this translation owes itself, in countless unfathomable dependently-arisen ways, to the wisdom and compassion of many others. Since I received financial support from the Japan Foundation for the Shobogenzo translation, I feel in some sense indebted to the whole of Japanese society. Again, since my two sons received excellent educations at the expense of the British tax-payer, I feel similarly indebted to everybody in this great free country where I was born and to which I returned twenty years ago.

Over the course of those twenty years, the last seven of which have been spent with Aśvaghoṣa as guide and travelling companion, this translator has not had the smoothest of rides. This is largely due, I am sure, to the influence of what FM Alexander called “unduly excited fear reflexes and emotions.” And yet somehow – even in spite of the translator continuing to carry with him his heavy baggage of fear and ignorance – this translation of two truly wonderful epic poems now seems, with the gods on its side, to have been allowed to arrive at its end. So thank you to all the many people not mentioned here by name who have allowed this work to come to what, I feel, is a satisfactory conclusion.

There again, feeling is ever prone to be unreliable.

 

A Note on Source Texts

The texts used for these translations of Buddha-carita and Saundara-nanda, except where noted, are the Sanskrit texts published by EH Johnston in 1934 (BC) and 1928 (SN).

1. Buddha-carita

Aśvaghoṣa wrote Buddha-carita in 28 cantos. We know this from a 28-chapter Chinese translation completed around 420 CE by the Chinese monk Baoyun (376–449), and from a 28-chapter Tibetan translation probably done between 1260 and 1280 CE.

All that remains in Sanskrit, however, are four Nepalese manuscripts, all of which end abruptly in the middle of BC Canto 14, along with some latterly discovered Central Asian fragments which partially cover a total of 64 verses in BC Cantos 2, 3, 13, and 16.

Three of the four Nepalese manuscripts were copies of a transcript by Amṛtananda, the Regency pandit in the days of Brian Houghton Hodgson, British resident to the Court of Nepal from 1833 to 1840. EB Cowell based his ground-breaking translation of 1895 (the Editio Princeps) upon these three manuscripts.

In 1909 Hari Prasad Shastri related in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (JASB) the discovery of a much older manuscript, now retained in the Kathmandu library, which was acquired by the Nepal Durbar (court) and sent over to England in 1924 to be copied.

EH Johnston cites this old Nepalese manuscript (which EHJ calls A and dates to within 50 years of 1300 CE) as the chief authority for his Sanskrit text of Buddhacarita, published in 1934. EHJ’s paleographic and textual studies left him in no doubt that the old Nepalese manuscript was the original source for Amṛtananda’s transcript and the copies thereof, which “repeat A’s minor errors and are almost invariably faulty where A is corrupt or difficult to read.”

The old Nepalese manuscript originally consisted of 55 palm leaves, which reproduced the first 13 chapters and 31 verses of the original 28 chapters of Buddha-carita. Of those 55 palm leaves, leaves number one and three (covering verses BC1.1 to 1.8b and BC1.24d to 1.40c) had gone missing before Amṛtananda made his copies, while leaves number seven and eight (covering verses BC2.1 to 2.35) were lost after that time.

Amṛtananda evidently responded to the missing verses in Canto 1 by making up his own verses, which bear no relation to the Tibetan and Chinese translations. So EHJ for the missing verses in Canto 1 discarded Amṛtananda’s Sanskrit text and indicated gaps in the old Nepalese manuscript with asterisks ( * * *). When he came to publish his English translation, EHJ reconstructed some verses, notably the opening verse, working back from the Tibetan translation.

For the first 35 verses in Canto 2 (verses contained in leaves no. seven and eight, which went missing from the old Nepalese manuscript after Amṛtananda had copied them), EHJ relied on Cowell’s Sanskrit text.

Subsequent to the publication of EHJ’s Buddha-carita translation in 1935, six fragments of Buddha-carita manuscripts were discovered in Central Asia, as documented in 1999 by Richard Salomon, further to the work of the German scholars Friedrich Weller (1953) and Jens-Ewe Hartmann (1988). These Central Asian fragments cover seven verses in BC Canto 2 (BC2.48a to 2.54d), 13 verses in BC Canto 3 (BC3.16b to 3.28a), 27 verses in BC Canto 13 (BC13.28 to 13.29; 13.58b to 13.59; 13.66b to 13.68; 13.70 to 13.72; 13.66d to 14.1a), and 17 verses in BC Canto 16 (BC16.20d to 16.36d). Where EHJ’s text has been modified in light of the Central Asian fragments this is noted in the footnotes.

2. Saundara-nanda

EH Johnston’s Sanskrit text of Saundara-nanda is drawn from two Nepalese manuscripts; the first manuscript, which is more reliable but less complete, is written on thirty-five palm leaves; the second manuscript, which is evidently a copy of the first, is written on paper.

The bottom of each page of EH Johnston’s Sanskrit text contains a list of variants, indicating where (a) the Nepalese manuscripts diverge from each other, and (b) where EHJ’s text diverges from either or both of the Nepalese manuscripts. Some of the latter variants are EHJ’s own conjectures and others are based on the conjectures of H.P. Shastri, A. Gawronski, E. Hultzsch, H. Jacobi, C.W. Gurner, J. S. Speyer, A. Baston, L. de la Vallee Poussin et al.

In the many places where the lettering of the palm-leaf manuscript has been lost, the paper manuscript, though less reliable, was EHJ’s only source. Therefore, in order to understand the significance of the variants listed by EHJ, it is necessary to understand the state of legibility of the palm-leaf manuscript for the lettering concerned.

Subsequent to the publication of EHJ’s critical edition in 1928, two further fragments of old manuscripts of Saundara-nanda were discovered in Central Asia, as again documented by Richard Salomon. The first of these fragments – which was published in a German paper by Friedrich Weller in 1987 – contains 15 verses corresponding to the 14 verses from SN4.39 to 5.6c of EHJ’s edition. The second fragment – which was originally published in 1971 (by Ernst Waldschmidt et al), and first identified in Jens-Ewe Hartmann’s paper of 1988 – contains the text corresponding to the 13 verses from SN16.21c to 16.33a of EHJ’s edition. Both of these fragments were found in Sorcuq (on the ancient Northern Silk Road near the oasis of Turfan in the sparsely populated Xinjiang region of China, formerly known as Chinese Turkestan). The former fragment is described by Weller as written in a Central Asian Brāhmī script, “not older than the 6th century AD.” The second fragment is an early palm-leaf manuscript of about the 2nd or 3rd century CE written, probably not in Sorcuq where it was found but in India, in a Kushan script.

 

Bibliography

The Buddha-Carita or The Life of Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa
(Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1895), translated from Sanskrit into English by EB Cowell. Text and translation available online at Ancient Buddhist Texts

The Buddhacarita or “Acts of the Buddha,” translated from Sanskrit into English
EH Johnston (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi,1936). Part I : Sanskrit Text, Sargas I-XIV. Part II : English Translation Cantos I-XIV. Part III English Translation of Cantos XV-XXVIII from Tibetan and Chinese Versions.

Life of the Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa
translated from Sanskrit into English by Patrick Olivelle (Clay Sanksrit Library, 2008).

佛所行讃 [“In Praise of the Buddha’s Conduct”],
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A Life of Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa Bodhisattva (1883)
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translated into English from the Chinese by Charles Willemen. Available online through Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Buddha tsa ri ta ma h’a k’a bya
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The Saundarananda of Aśvaghoṣa
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Handsome Nanda by Aśvaghoṣa
Linda Covill (Clay Sanskrit Library, 2007).

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Ein zentralasaitisches Fragment des Saundaranandakāvya
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Neue Aśvaghoṣa- und Mātṛceṭa Fragmente aus Ostturkistan
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Some Comments on the Recensional History of His Works in Light of Recent Manuscript Disoveries
by Richard Salomon, University of Washington, one of a collection of essays published in Buddhism Across Boundaries (1999).

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Mahārāhulovādasuttaṁ (MN 62)
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Bodhirājakumārasuttaṁ (MN 85)
The Discourse to Prince Bodhi, trans. Ānandajoti Bhikkhu (2014).

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trans. Ānandajoti Bhikkhu (2013).

(Paṭiccasamuppāda)-Vibhaṅgasuttaṁ (SN 12.2)
The Discourse giving the Analysis (of Conditional Origination), trans. Ānandajoti Bhikkhu (2009).

Pratītyasamutpādādivibhaṅganirdeśasūtram
The Discourse giving the Explanation and Analysis of Conditional Origination from the Beginning, trans. Ānandajoti Bhikkhu (2009).

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Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo
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