The Creed of Half Japan, by Arthur Lloyd, , at sacred-texts.com
Everybody in Japan reckons As’vaghosha as the founder of the Mahāyāna Faith, and yet there is not a single Mahāyāna sect in Japan which traces its official lineage back to him. They all go back to Nāgārjuna, who is made to be responsible for very great varieties of doctrine; and one or two of them will then add, in a parenthetic and half apologetic manner, that As’vaghosha said something of the sort.
The Zen teachers give him in their list of Patriarchs 1 of the Mahāyāna, but do not in any way treat him as one of the pivots of their system. The mystic Kegon, now practically non-existent, spoke of As’vaghosha as their founder, in the sense that the germ of their teachings may be found in him who first roused his fellow-religionists to faith in the Mahāyāna, then coming into the world; but their doctrines they derived, through Nāgārjuna, from some mysterious books said to have been brought by that saint from some "Dragon's palace under the sea." And the believers in salvation by faith in the vow of Amida,
while acknowledging that the first signs of that faith are to be found in As’vaghosha's treatise, yet make Nāgārjuna the first in their list of Patriarchs. 1
There is a great deal of uncertainty about As’vaghosha's life. His advent is said to have been foretold by Buddha himself, but Suzuki, 2 who has written a very full and candid account of As’vaghosha, quotes a passage from a book claiming to be written by Nāgārjuna, in which it is stated that, in order to fulfil all the prophecies concerning him, there must have been six As’vaghoshas, each of whom "appeared to fulfil his mission according to the necessity of the time, and there is no contradiction in them." (Nāgārjuna's book was translated into Chinese in A.D. 401.) According to the first of these prophecies, As’vaghosha had been a disciple of Buddha in his earthly life. When the Buddha was telling his disciples of his approaching Nirvana, he had asked to accompany him, and then, "gazing at the pupil of Buddha's eye, had passed out of life." In the next prophecy, Buddha is said to have told As’vaghosha that three hundred years after the Nirvana, he would obtain an inspiration from him which would be for the happiness of mankind. According to another, he was to come six hundred years after the Nirvana to confute the heretics. A fourth prophecy places him in the eighth century after the Nirvana; a fifth brings him back to one hundred years. A sixth represents him as having appeared to Buddha, seventeen days after his Enlightenment, in the form of a monster serpent with 86,000 heads and 86,000 tongues, and to have asked the Tathāgata 86,000 questions all at once. This sixth legend was evidently invented to bolster up the pretended revelations of the Kegon Scriptures,
but it is not without its significance for the contemporary Ophite Gnosticism.
A similar uncertainty hangs about the name and place of birth. As’vaghosha 1 is the most common of his designations; but in Chinese books he is sometimes Punyaditya, or Punyaśrika, while in Thibetan he has at least eight other names. His place of birth is sometimes Ayodhya, sometimes Pataliputra, but Benares puts in a claim, and so do South India and Khorta.
All accounts agree in saying that he was a Brahman by birth; that he wandered through many parts of India searching for knowledge; that he eventually fixed his residence at Benares, where he acquired considerable reputation as a deep scholar and skilled reasoner. He was a pillar of Brahmanism, when, for reasons unknown, he was converted to the Hīnayāna. As a Hīnayāna monk he acquired a great reputation for sanctity.
The latter half of the first century was a period of trouble, and not for India only. The Scythians, who had long threatened the north-western frontiers, at last made their anticipated invasion. The year 50 saw the overthrow of the last Greek princelet by the Scythian king, Kadphises I., who also a little later overthrew the power of Gundaphorus of the St. Thomas legend. His successor, Kadphises II., extended his power down the valley of the Ganges as far as the gates of Benares, which he reached between 85 and 90 A.D. 2 The whole of India was in the tumult of war. The Scythians were on the move from Bactria to Benares, the Chinese under Panchao were
marching to the shores of the Caspian Sea, the Parthians were restless, there was war on the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire. The White Horse of the vision had been succeeded by the red, black, and pale steeds.
Benares, it is said, was saved by the sanctity of As’vaghosha. The Scythian king lay at its gates. He was willing to spare it, but he wanted money, and he also desired to impoverish the Magadhan kingdom. So he laid upon Benares a fine of enormous dimensions. The King of Benares declared himself unable to pay it. "Then," said the Scythian king, "give me Buddha's Begging-bowl and the person of your great sage As’vaghosha." (An alternative story adds a "compassionate fowl" which would not drink dirty water for fear of killing the insects in it. 1) Thus As’vaghosha and the Begging-bowl of Buddha saved Benares.
It has been said that it is unlikely that the Scythian king should thus accept a monk and a bowl in lieu of the heavy ransom which he had at first demanded from the city of Benares. Yet there is a good deal to be said in favour of its probability. The Scythian king had, by virtue of his recent conquests in Afghanistan, the Indus valley, Punjaub, and the Northern-Western Provinces, become the ruler of a great Buddhist kingdom, and the Buddhist provinces of his empire were about to be increased by the conquests in Central Asia which took place a few years later. Kadphises II. (if it were indeed that
monarch) was, in fact, the greatest Buddhist monarch of the world. The Begging-bowl, however, which is the prototype of the Holy Grail of the Arthurian legend, 1 was the holiest of all relics of the Buddha, and its possession, like the Sacred Sword 2 and Mirror of the Japanese Imperial House, brought with it the recognized spiritual headship of the whole Buddhist world. Neither Balkh, nor Peshawur, nor any other city that the Scythian king might choose for his capital, could hope to be the centre of Buddhism so long as the Bowl remained at Benares. With the Begging-bowl in his possession, the Scythian king might safely assert that the headship of the Buddhists had been transferred to him. The Bowl meant very little to the King of Benares, for the Hīnayāna was losing its prestige, and already that Hindu reaction had set in which well-nigh expelled Buddhism from the soil of India. To the alien ruler of recently annexed Buddhist provinces, its possession was beyond all price important.
As’vaghosha's conversion to Buddhism has been variously described. According to one story, he was converted by the singing of a bird, whose notes sounded like the praises of Buddha. According to another, he found, in a Buddhist book, a prophecy of Buddha's in
which his own name was mentioned. According to a third, which comes from Thibet, he was converted by Āryadeva, a prominent disciple of Nāgārjuna's, not by argument or reasoning, but by a liberal display of magic arts. According to a fourth, which agrees with Thibetan as well as with Chinese authorities, he was reasoned into belief by Pārśva, or Punyayaśas. These two men were As’vaghosha's immediate predecessors in the list of Patriarchs. Of the five lists given by Suzuki, three have Pārśva, Punyayaśas, As’vaghosha as consecutive Patriarchs; two omit Punyayaśas, and go straight from Pārśva to As’vaghosha. It is possible that Pārśva and Punyayaśas are one and the same person.
It may be that there is some truth in each of these stories. As’vaghosha was a poet, 1 and his poetical imagination may have been awakened and turned to Buddhism by the song of a bird. He would be neither the first nor the last man whose conversion has been due to a bird's song or a beautiful piece of scenery. Thus converted, he passes over from the Hindu worship of Mahes’vara to the faith of S’akyamuni, only to find that the Hīnayāna, seen from within, was not all that his fancy had painted it from without. He would not be the first idealist that has found his dreams destroyed by the disappointments of the actualities. And yet we may imagine that in this period of his life he may still have done good service to his new faith by the publication of the Vajrasuci, 2 in which he combats the mistaken Hindu theory of caste.
So far we may presume his literary activity to have gone in his Benares days. But following in the train of the Scythian monarch, he finds himself, in the dominions
of the conqueror, among what M. Sylvain Levi 1 calls "des cultes, des rites, des usages inconnues." His new companions are still Buddhists, but they have brought with them from Bactria, Turkestan, Khotan, new ideas, foreign to the Hīnayānists of Benares. Again his imagination is kindled; he recognizes in Pārśva a dialectician greater than himself, in Aryadeva, the master of a magic more powerful than any that he knows of, and he accepts the new and enlarged faith, and becomes its first great exponent. 2
In truth, there were, in germ, in the new Buddhism which was then coming into shape in the Indus valley, three modes of expression which must all be taken into account, if we would understand the ‚Japanese Mahāyāna of to-day. They are not confined to Buddhism: they are found in Gnosticism, in Hinduism, in Christianity; they are, in fact, universals of religion. They may, for brevity's sake, be termed the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the appeal to the affections, the intellect, the spiritual imagination of Faith.
The new Life imported into Buddhism, connected, as we have seen, with the Gnosis of the Egyptians, and profoundly influenced by the Magianism of Bactria, was quite ready to assert its claim to supernatural powers. It rested with As’vaghosha, while re-asserting the half-forgotten claims of S’akyamuni, to provide a philosophic basis for the polytheistic conceptions of the mixed multitude of the North-West, and thus to commend to the people of Hindustan the spiritual authority of the new Truth proclaimed by the new possessors of the Buddha's Begging-bowl.
It is noteworthy that in doing so he opens the Way to Life, which a large and constantly increasing school of Northern Buddhism has from the beginning interpreted as being Faith in one who is greater than S’akyamuni.
"Therefore" (these are almost the last words of his Discourse on the Awakening of Faith), "it is said in the Sutra that if devoted men and women would be filled with concentration of thought, think of Amitābha Buddha in the world of highest happiness in the Western region, and direct all the root of their good work toward being born there, they will assuredly be born there. Thus always seeing Buddhas there, their faith will be strengthened, and they will never relapse therefrom. Receiving instruction in the doctrine, and recognizing the Dharmakāya of the Buddha, they will by gradual discipline be able to enter upon the state of truth." 1
It is surely significant that at this particular period in the world's history the very first book which describes itself definitely as belonging to the Mahāyāna should end with a recommendation to faith in one who bears such a strange resemblance to Christ.
The name of Pārśva who converted As’vaghosha to the Mahāyāna gives a clue to As’vaghosha's date. For Pārśva was the chairman, or at any rate an active member, of Kanishka's Great Council which took place at Jhālamdara early in the second century. We may therefore, with a certain amount of confidence, place As’vaghosha about the year A.D. 80 or 90, some twenty or thirty years after St. Thomas, and about the same period before Kanishka's Council. 1
96:1 It is noteworthy that there are great discrepancies in these lists. Suzuki ("Awakening of the Faith," p. 33) quotes five lists. In most of them As’vaghosha comes about eleventh or twelfth, with Nāgārjuna thirteenth or fourteenth. But in the list given by the Sarvāstivādins As’vaghosha is 12 and Nāgārjuna 34.
97:1 See translation of the Shōshinge in "Shinran and His Work."
97:2 "As’vaghosha's Awakening of Faith." Chicago, Open Court.
98:1 Chinese, Maming; Japanese, Memyō. As’vaghosha means the Neighing Horse, and it is striking that he is in certain Japanese books connected with the "White Horse," which is one of the forms he is said to assume, e.g. in amulets.
98:2 Smith, "Early History of India."
99:1 The "compassionate fowl" I have found in Japanese sources, besides those mentioned by Suzuki. It is said that As’vaghosha not only appeared in the forms of a thousand white horses, but that he also caused a thousand white birds to sing, Issen no hakuba to genji, issen no hakuchō wo nakashimu. It is said of him that he was a manifestation or temporary incarnation of Dai Kōmyō Nyorai, "the great Tathāgata of Light," an expression which some explain as Vairoc’ana, others as Amitābha.
100:1 I will remind Celtic readers of the Welsh tradition preserved in Barddas that their ancient religion came to them from Taprobane, or Ceylon. In that case, it is within the bounds of possibility that the Arthurian legend may have been an adaptation of the Indian one, with Arthur as S’akyamuni, and Modred as Devadatta.
100:2 In Japan, the possession of the sword, mirror, and jewel makes their owner the legitimate sovereign. When the empire was for a few years divided between two rival lines, the legitimate line was recognized by these tokens, though it was the other line which eventually won the day. The Huns had the same tradition about the sword. But theirs had been lost for centuries (can it have been in Japan?), and was discovered accidentally and brought to Attila. The possession of this sword made Attila the recognized chieftain of all the Huns.
101:1 As’vaghosha's great poem is the Buddhacarita, of which there is a translation in S.B.E., vol. xix., but there are some other minor poems as well, in praise of Amida.
101:2 See Journal Asiatique, Ser. X. vol. xii. p. 1 (July, 1908).
102:1 See Journal Asiatique, Ser. X., vol. xii. p. 1.
102:2 As’vaghosha's great works are the "Awakening of Faith" and the "Book of Great Glory." See Suzuki, op. cit.
103:1 Suzuki, op. cit., p. 145. It is not known what Sūtra is here mentioned, but it is generally supposed to be the Sukhāvati Vyūha. If so, this is the earliest mention of the book, as it is also the earliest mention of the name of Amitābha. For the development of the doctrine of Amitābha, I will refer the reader to my "Shinran and His Work"; also to Haas, "Amida unsere Zuflucht" (Leipzig: Dietrich, 1910). The allusion to "seeing Buddhas" is capable of two interpretations, for the word for Buddha may be singular or plural. If singular, then it refers to Amitābha; if plural, it refers to the many inferior Buddhas, who are treated as so many "members" (bunshin) of the True Buddha Amida, who in the Sūtra of Forty-two Sections is treated as superior to all Buddhas. The Japanese Shingonists, who make Vairoc’ana to be the Supreme, say that Amida is identical with him.
The Dharmakaya is that spiritual body of Buddha which is capable of being spiritually present everywhere. The conception is not unlike that of the Christian "Real Presence" of Christ.
104:1 I would refer my readers to Professor Anesaki's article on As’vaghosha in vol. i. of Hasting's Encyclopædia of Religion and Philosophy, and to a long article by M. Sylvain in the Journal Asiatique for July and August, 1908.