Canto 3: tathāgata-varṇanaḥ
A Portrait of the Tathāgata


The forty-two verses of this short Canto give as full an answer as can be given in forty-two verses to the questions: How did the bodhisattva Gautama become the Tathāgata, the Realized One? And what thereafter did he teach? The answer to the second question is presented not only in the abstract but also in a description of how the citizens of Kapilavāstu, under the Buddha’s guiding influence, all lived in peace, exemplifying in their lives what it means to keep ten precepts.



tapase tataḥ kapilavāstu haya-gaja-rath’-augha-saṁkulaṁ /
śrīmad-abhayam-anurakta-janaṁ sa vihāya niścita-manā vanaṁ yayau // 3.1 //

For ascetic practice, then, he left Kapilavāstu – a teeming mass of horses, elephants and chariots, / Majestic, safe, and loved by its citizens. Leaving the city, he started resolutely for the forest. // 3.1 //

vividhāgamāṁs tapasi tāṁś ca vividha-niyamāśrayān munīn /
prekṣya sa viṣaya-tṛṣā-kṛpaṇān anavasthitam tapa iti nyavartata // 3.2 //

In the approach to ascetic practice of the various traditions, and in the attachment of sages to various restraints, / He observed the miseries of thirsting after an object. Seeing asceticism to be unreliable, he turned away from it. // 3.2 //

atha mokṣa-vādinam arāḍam upaśama-matiṁ tathoḍrakaṁ /
tattva-kṛta-matir upāsya jahāv ayam apy amārga iti mārga-kovidhaḥ // 3.3 //

Then Arāḍa, who spoke of freedom, and likewise Uḍraka, who inclined towards quietness, / He served, his heart set on truth, and he left. He who intuited the path intuited: “This also is not it.” // 3.3 //

sa vicārayan jagati kiṁ nu paramam iti taṁ tam āgamaṁ /
niścayam anadhigataḥ parataḥ paramaṁ cacāra tapa eva duṣ-karaṁ // 3.4 //

Of the different traditions in the world, he asked himself, which one was the best? / Not obtaining certainty elsewhere, he entered after all into ascetic practice that was most severe. // 3.4 //

atha naiṣa mārga iti vīkṣya tad api vipulaṁ jahau tapaḥ /
dhyāna-viṣayam avagamya paraṁ bubhuje varānnam amṛtatva-buddhaye // 3.5 //

Then, having seen that it was not the path, he also abandoned that extreme asceticism. / Understanding the realm of meditation to be supreme, he ate good food in readiness to realise the deathless. // 3.5 //

sa suvarṇa-pīna-yuga-bāhur ṛṣabha-gatir āyatekṣaṇaḥ /
plakṣam avaniruham abhyagamat paramasya niścaya-vidher bubhutsayā // 3.6 //

With golden arms fully expanded and as if in a yoke, with lengthened eyes, and bull-like gait, / He came to a fig tree, growing up from the earth, with the will to awakening that belongs to the supreme method of investigation. // 3.6 //

upaviśya tatra kṛta-buddhir acala-dhṛtir adri-rājavat /
māra-balam ajayad ugram atho bubudhe padaṁ śivam ahāryam avyayaṁ // 3.7 //

Sitting there, mind made up, as unmovingly stable as the king of mountains, / He overcame the grim army of Māra and awoke to the step which is happy, irremovable, and irreducible. // 3.7 //

avagamya taṁ ca kṛta-kāryam amṛta-manaso divaukasaḥ /
harṣam atulam agaman muditā vimukhī tu māra-pariṣat pracukṣubhe // 3.8 //

Sensing the completion of his task, the denizens of heaven whose heart’s desire is the deathless nectar / Buzzed with unbridled joy. But Māra’s crew was downcast and trembled. // 3.8 //

sa-nagā ca bhūḥ pravicacāla huta-vaha-sakhaḥ śivo vavau /
nedur api ca sura-dundubhayaḥ pravavarṣa cāmbu-dhara-varjitaṁ nabhaḥ // 3.9 //

The earth with its mountains shook, that which feeds the fire blew benignly, / The drums of the gods resounded, and from the cloudless sky rain fell. Ostensibly rain falling from the cloudless sky is something fantastic, a miracle. In the hidden meaning, it is a suggestion of the dependently-arisen reality (see e.g. SN17.20-21) in which there is no such thing, as a thing unto itself, as a cloud. 01 // 3.9 //

avabudhya caiva paramārtham ajaram anukampayā vibhuḥ /
nityam amṛtam upadarśayituṁ sa varāṇasī-parikarām ayāt purīm // 3.10 //

Awake to the one great ageless purpose, and universal in his compassion, / He proceeded, in order to display the eternal deathless nectar, to the city sustained by the waters of the Varaṇā and the Asī – to Vārāṇasī. // 3.10 //

atha dharma-cakram ṛta-nābhi dhṛti-mati-samādhi-nemimat /
tatra vinaya-niyamāram ṛṣir jagato hitāya pariṣady avartayat // 3.11 //

And so the wheel of dharma – whose hub is uprightness, whose rim is constancy, determination, and balanced stillness, / And whose spokes are the rules of discipline – there the Seer turned, in that assembly, for the welfare of the world. // 3.11 //

iti duḥkham etad iyam asya samudaya-latā pravartikā /
śāntir iyam ayam upāya iti pravibhāgaśaḥ param idaṁ catuṣṭayam // 3.12 //

“This is suffering; this is the tangled mass of causes producing it; / This is cessation; and here is a means.” Thus, one by one, this supreme set of four, // 3.12 //

abhidhāya ca tri-parivartam atulam anivartyam uttamaṁ /
dvādaśa-niyata-vikalpam ṛśir vinināya kauṇḍina-sagotram āditaḥ // 3.13 //

The seer set out, with its three divisions The three divisions of the noble eightfold path, as clarified in SN16.30-33, are 1. the threefold discipline of integrity (śīla; using the voice and body well, and earning a living well); 2. threefold wisdom (prajñā; insight into the four noble truths, thinking straight, and initiative); and 3. twofold tranquillity (samādhi; awareness and balanced stillness). 02 of the unequalled, the incontrovertible, the ultimate; / And with its statement of twelvefold determination; Dvādaśa-niyata-vikalpam – perhaps better translated as “with its combinations of twelve causal connections.” EHJ translated “with its… twelve separate statements;” and LC “with its twelve connecting statements”. Dvādaśa means twelve. Niyata means fastened; fixed; connected with, dependent on. Vikalpa means alternation, alternative, option, variation, combination. However the phrase is translated, it refers to to the twelvefold teaching of dependent arising described in detail in BC Canto 14. 03 after which he instructed, as the first follower, him of the Kauṇḍinya clan. Kauṇḍinya is cited first in the long list of names of courageous individual practitioners that the Buddha holds up, from SN16.87, as examples for Nanda to emulate. Kauṇḍinya is also known as Ājñāta Kauṇḍinya,“Kauṇḍinya Who Knows” (Pali: Aññā Koṇḍañña), because at the end of the first turning of the Dharma-wheel, the Buddha is said to have declared, “Kauṇḍinya surely knows! Kauṇḍinya surely knows!”04// 3.13 //

sa hi doṣa-sāgaram agādham upadhi-jalam ādhi-jantukaṁ /
krodha-mada-bhaya-taraṅga-calaṁ pratatāra lokam api ca vyatārayat // 3.14 //

For the fathomless sea of faults, whose water is falsity, where fish are cares, / And which is disturbed by waves of anger, lust, and fear; he had crossed, and he took the world across too. // 3.14 //

sa vinīya kāśiṣu gayeṣu bahu-janam atho giri-vraje /
pitryam api parama-kāruṇiko nagaraṁ yayāv anujighṛkṣayā tadā // 3.15 //

Having instructed many people at Kāśi and at Gaya as also at Giri-vraja, / He made his way then to the city of his fathers, in his deeply compassionate desire to include it. // 3.15 //

viṣayātmakasya hi janasya bahu-vividha-mārga-sevinaḥ /
sūrya-sadṛśa-vapur abhyudito vijahāra sūrya iva gautamas tamaḥ // 3.16 //

To people possessed by ends, serving many and various paths, / Splendour had arisen that seemed like the sun: Gautama was like the sun, dispelling darkness. // 3.16 //

abhitas tataḥ kapilavāstu parama-śubha-vāstu-saṁstutaṁ /
vastu-mati-śuci śivopavanaṁ sa dadarśa niḥspṛhatayā yathā vanaṁ // 3.17 //

Seeing then all sides of Kapilavāstu – which was famed for its most beautiful properties, / And was pure and clean in substance and design, and pleasantly wooded – he looked without longing, as though at a forest. // 3.17 //

aparigrahaḥ sa hi babhūva niyata-matir ātmanīśvaraḥ /
naika-vidha-bhaya-kareśu kim-u svajana-svadeśajana-mitra-vastuśu // 3.18 //

For he had become free of belonging: he was sure in his thinking, the master of himself. / How much less did he belong to those causes of manifold worry – family, countrymen, friends and property? // 3.18 //

pratipūjayā na sa jaharṣa na ca śucam avajñayāgamat /
niscita-matir asi-candanayor na jagāma duḥkha-sukhayoś ca vikriyāṁ // 3.19 //

Being revered gave him no thrill, and neither did disrespect cause him any grief. / His direction was decided, come sword or sandalwood, and whether the going was tough or easy he was not diminished. // 3.19 //

atha pārthivaḥ samupalabhya sutam upagataṁ tathāgataṁ /
tūrṇam abahu-turagānugataḥ suta-darśanotsukatayābhiniryayau // 3.20 //

And so the king learned that his son had arrived as the Tathāgata, the One Arrived Thus; / With but a few horses straggling behind him, In BC10.16, King Śreṇya is described as nibhṛtānuyātraḥ, “having only a modest retinue.” The implication here, similarly, seems to be that going with a retinue of only a few horses was a mark of modesty. 05 out the king charged, in his eagerness to see his son. // 3.20 //

sugatas tathāgatam avekṣya nara-patim adhīram āśayā /
śeṣam api ca janam aśru-mukhaṁ vininīṣayā gaganam utpapāta ha // 3.21 //

The Sugata, the One Gone Well, saw the king coming thus, “Coming thus,” is tathāgatam, a play on tathāgata which, as an epithet of the Buddha, is open to very many readings. 06 composure lost in expectation, / And saw the rest of the people too, with tearful faces; wishing to direct them, up he took himself, into the sky. // 3.21 //

sa vicakrame divi bhuvīva punar upaviveśa tasthivān /
niścala-matir aśayiṣṭa punar bahudhābhavat punar abhūt tathaikadhā // 3.22 //

He strode over heaven as if over the earth; and sat again, in the stillness of having stopped. / Without changing his direction, he lay down; he showed many changing forms Bahudhābhavat can quite literally be translated as nothing more supernatural than “he manifested himself (abhavat) in many ways (bahudhā).” At the same time with these descriptions Aśvaghoṣa seems to be inviting the religiously-inclined to invent their own more unlikely scenarios. Hence EHJ: “He divided Himself into many forms and then became one again.” 07 while remaining, in this manner, all of one piece. // 3.22 //

salile kṣitāv iva cacāra jalam iva viveśa medinīṁ /
megha iva divi vavarṣa punaḥ punar ajvalan nava ivodito raviḥ // 3.23 //

He walked over water as if on dry land, immersed himself in the soil as though it were water, / Rained as a cloud in the sky, and shone like the newly-risen sun. // 3.23 //

yugapaj jvalan jvalanavac ca jalam avasṛjaṁś ca meghavat /
tapta-kanaka-sadṛśa-prabhayā sa babhau pradīpta iva sandhyayā ghanaḥ // 3.24 //

Simultaneously glowing like a fire and passing water like a cloud, The 2nd of four pādas often harbours subversive content, as the element opposed to the innocence of idealism in a four-phased dialectic progression. Jalam ava-√sṛj literally means “to let loose water.” Hence EHJ translated “shedding water like a cloud.” But in the hidden meaning (just as Jesus wept) the Buddha pissed. 08 / He gave off a light resembling molten gold, like a cloud set aglow by daybreak or by dusk. // 3.24 //

tam udīkṣya hema-maṇi-jāla-valayinam ivotthitaṁ dhvajaṁ /
prītim agamad atulāṁ nṛpatir janatā natāś ca bahumānam abhyayuḥ // 3.25 //

Looking up at him in the network of gold and pearls that seemed to wrap around him like an upraised flag, This is the first of several verses in Saundara-nanda in which Aśvaghoṣa alludes to the colour of the buddha-robe (see e.g. SN18.20). It is described as being yellow-red, and therefore, in the right light, having a golden hue. The robe is comparable to a net in that it is a patchwork of panels, stitched together in back-stitches whose heads sometimes look like little pearls. 09 / The king became joyful beyond measure and the assembled people, bowing down, felt deep appreciation. // 3.25 //

atha bhājanī-kṛtam avekṣya manuja-patim ṛddhi-sampadā /
paura-janam api ca tat-pravaṇaṁ nijagāda dharma-vinayam vināyakaḥ // 3.26 //

And so, seeing that he had made a vessel of the ruler of men, through the wealth of his accomplishments, / And that the townsfolk also were amenable, the Guide gave voice to the dharma and the discipline. // 3.26 //

nṛpatis tataḥ prathamam āpa phalam amṛta-dharma-siddhaye /
dharmam atulam adhigamya muner munaye nanāma sa yato gurāv iva // 3.27 //

Then the royal hero reaped the first fruit for the fulfillment of the deathless dharma. / Having obtained unthinkable dharma from the sage, he bowed accordingly in the sage’s direction, as to a guru. // 3.27 //

bahavaḥ prasanna-manaso ’tha janana-maraṇārti-bhīravaḥ /
śākya-tanaya-vṛṣabhāḥ kṛtino vṛṣabhā ivānala-bhayāt pravavrajuḥ // 3.28 //

Many then who were clear in mind – alert to the agony of birth and death – / Among mighty Śākya-born men of action, went forth into the wandering life, like bulls that had been startled by fire. // 3.28 //

vijahus tu ye ’pi na gṛhāni tanaya-pitṛ-mātr-apekṣayā /
te ’pi niyama-vidhim ā-maraṇāj jagṛhuś ca yukta-manasaś ca dadhrire // 3.29 //

But even those who did not leave home, out of regard for children or father or mother: / They also, until their death, embraced the preventive rule and, with ready minds, they held to it: The final word can also be read as dadhyire, in which case yukta-manasaś ca dadhyire means “And, with ready minds, they meditated.” EHJ’s rejection of this reading, on the grounds that meditation is not suitable for householders, is not well founded. The context, however, which is observance of the ten precepts, does seem to point more to dadhrire than dadhyire. 10 // 3.29 //

na jihiṁsa sūkṣmam api jantum api para-vadhopajīvanaḥ /
kiṁ bata vipula-guṇaḥ kula-jaḥ sadayaḥ sadā kim-u muner upāsakaḥ // 3.30 //

No living creature, no matter how small, was subjected to violence, even by a person who killed for a living, / Still less by a man of great virtue, good family and unfailing gentleness – and how much less by a servant of the Sage? Precept one: not to inflict needless harm on living beings. 11 // 3.30 //

akṛśodyamaḥ kṛśadhano ’pi para-paribhavāsaho ’pi san /
nānya-dhanam apajahāra tathā bhujagād ivānya-vibhavādd hi vivyathe // 3.31 //

The man not shy of hard work and yet still short of money, though he could not bear the other’s slights, / Did not, even so, carry off the other’s goods; for he shrank from others’ riches as from a snake. Precept two: not to steal.12 // 3.31 //

vibhavānvito ’pi taruṇo ’pi viṣaya-capalendriyo ’pi san /
naiva ca para-yuvatīr agamat paramaṁ hi tā dahanato ’py amanyata // 3.32 //

Even the man of money and youth with senses excited by objects of his affection – / Even he never approached others’ wives, for he deemed them to be more dangerous than a burning fire. Precept three: not to engage in illicit sexual relations. 13 // 3.32 //

anṛtam jagāda na ca kaś-cid ṛtam api jajalpa nāpriyaṁ /
ślakṣṇam api ca na jagāv ahitaṁ hitam apy uvāca na ca paiśunāya yat // 3.33 //

Nobody told an untruth, nor made true but nasty gossip, / Nor crooned slick but malicious words, nor spoke kindly words that had a backbiting motive. Precepts four, five, six and seven: not to engage in four kinds of false speech. 14 // 3.33 //

manasā lulobha na ca jātu para-vasuṣu gṛddha-mānasaḥ /
kāma-sukham asukhato vimṛśan vijahāra tṛpta iva tatra saj-janaḥ // 3.34 //

No greedy-minded person, in his heart, had any designs on the treasures of others; / Seeing sensual happiness to be no happiness, the wise went freely on their way, as if satisfied in that area already. Precept eight: not to covet. 15 // 3.34 //

na parasya kaś-cid apaghātam api ca sa-ghṛṇo vyacintayat /
mātṛ-pitṛ-suta-suhṛt-sadṛśam sa dadarśa tatra hi parasparaṁ janaḥ // 3.35 //

Nobody showed any hostility towards the other; rather, they looked on others with positive warmth, / As mother, father, child or friend: for each person there saw in the other himself. Precept nine: not to show hostility. 16 // 3.35 //

niyatam bhaviṣyati paratra bhavad api ca bhūtam apy atho /
karma-phalam api ca loka-gatir niyateti darśanam avāpa sādhu ca // 3.36 //

That the fruit of conduct, inevitably, will be realized in the future, is being realized now, and has been realized in the past; / And that thus is determined how one fares in the world: this is an insight that, again, each experienced unerringly. Precept ten: not to have any doubt about cause and effect. 17// 3.36 //

iti karmaṇā daśa-vidhena parama-kuśalena bhūriṇā /
bhraṁśini śithila-guṇo ’pi yuge vijahāra tatra muni-saṁśrayāj janaḥ // 3.37 //

By this most skillful and powerful tenfold means, by the means of their conduct, / Although virtue was lax in a declining age, the people there, with the Sage’s help, fared well. // 3.37 //

na ca tatra kaś-cid upapatti-sukham abhilalāṣa tair guṇaiḥ /
sarvam aśivam avagamya bhavaṁ bhava-saṁkṣayāya vavṛte na janmane // 3.38 //

But nobody there, because of his virtues, expected happiness in a resulting birth; / Having learned that all becoming is pernicious, people worked to eradicate becoming, not to become something. // 3.38 //

akathaṁkathā gṛhiṇa eva parama-pariśuddha-dṛṣṭayaḥ /
srotasi hi vavṛtire bahavo rajasas tanutvam api cakrire pare // 3.39 //

Even householders were free from endless doubting, their views washed spotlessly away: / For many had entered the stream, Srotasi hi vavṛtire. √vṛt with locative more literally means to advance in, to flow along in. Stream-entry is the first of four levels of awakening, or fruits of dharma, that Nanda is described as realizing in Canto 17, “having shaken off every vestige of the personality view” (SN17.27). The personality view is the first of ten fetters, viz: 1. personality view, 2. doubting, 3. clinging to rules and rituals, 4. sensual desire, 5, ill will; 6. desire for form, 7. desire for the formless or immaterial, 8. conceit, 9. restlessness, 10. ignorance. One who is free from fetters 1-3 is a stream-winner, having entered the stream to nirvāna. 18 and others Alternate translation: “Afterwards they reduced the passions to a trickle” – pare means 1. “others” and 2. “afterwards.” 19 had reduced the passions to a trickle. Rajasas, “the passions” here suggests sensual desire and ill will, the fourth and fifth of the ten fetters. One who, besides the first three fetters, has overcome fetters 4-5 in their grosser form, is a “once-returner.” He or she has attained the second fruit of dharma but, not yet being completely free of fetters 4-5, is still subject to one more return to the sensuous world. One who is fully freed from fetters 1-5 has attained the third fruit as a “non-returner.” The first five fetters are called “lower fetters,” since they tie us to sensuous realms, whereas the five upper fetters (see SN17.57) tie us to spiritual or aspirational realms. One who has cut all ten fetters, ending with ignorance, has attained the fourth fruit of arhathood (see SN17.57; 17.72). 20// 3.39 //

vavṛte ’tra yo ’pi viṣayeṣu vibhava-sadṛśeṣu kaś-cana /
tyāga-vinaya-niyamābhirato vijahāra so ’pi na cacāla sat-pathāt // 3.40 //

Even one there who had been given over to ends like wealth Cf. SN2.60 and 2.61. Aśvaghoṣa’s attitude to wealth at first glance seems contradictory. But on closer investigation, there is no contradiction: as a means, wealth is useful; but pursuit of wealth as an end is errant behaviour. 21 / Was now content with free giving, discipline, and restraint: he also fared well, not straying from the true path. // 3.40 //

api ca svato ’pi parato ’pi na bhayam abhavan na daivataḥ /
tatra ca susukha-subhikṣa-guṇair jahṛṣuḥ prajāḥ kṛta-yuge manor iva // 3.41 //

Neither from within the self, nor from without, did any terror arise; nor from fate. / By dint of their true happiness and material plenty and practical merits, the citizens there rejoiced as in the golden age of Manu. Manu means archetypal Man, progenitor of the human race. 22// 3.41 //

iti muditam anāmayaṁ nirāpat kuru-raghu-pūru-puropamaṁ puraṁ tat /
abhavad abhaya-daiśike mahārṣau viharati tatra śivāya vīta-rāge // 3.42 //

Thus exulting in freedom from disease and calamity, that city was the equal of Kuru, Kuru was the name of an ancient Indo-Aryan tribe, and of their kingdom (see also SN9.17 and 9.20). 23 Raghu and Pūru, / With the great dispassionate Seer serving there, for the good of all, as a guide to peace. Abhaya, peace, or absence of fear, is opposed to bhayam (“terror”) in the previous verse. Vi-hṛ, translated previously as “to fare well,” has a sense of freedom of movement, or carefree adventure, which has been lost in the translation of this verse (see also SN5.20). 24 // 3.42 //

iti saundaranande mahākāvye tathāgata-varṇano nāma tṛtīyaḥ sargaḥ //3//
The 3rd Canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda, titled “A Portrait of the Tathāgata.”