A consensus of traditions both Tibetan and Chinese maintains that Açvaghosha was in his earlier life a most powerful adherent of Brahmanism, though we are tempted to discredit it on the ground that later Buddhist writers may have wished to exaggerate the superiority of Buddhism to all other Indian philosophical and religious doctrines, by chronicling the conversion of one of its strongest opponents to their side. Whatever the origin of the legend may be, how did his conversion take place? By whom was he converted? About these points the Tibetan and the Chinese tradition by no means agree, the one standing in a direct contradiction to the other. While the Tibetan account is full of mystery and irrationality, the Chinese is natural enough to convince us of its probable occurrence.
According to Târanâtha 1 Âryadeva, the most eminent disciple of Nâgârjuna, defeated and proselyted Açvaghosha, 2 not by his usual subtlety in dialectics, but by the superiority of his magical arts. Açvaghosha made use of every tantric formula he could command, in order to free himself from the enchantment in which he was held by his enemy, but all to no purpose whatever. Thus when he was in an utterly desperate condition, he happened to read the Buddhist Sûtra which was kept in his place of confinement and in which he found his destiny prophesied by Buddha, 3 he was seized with deep regret for his former hostile attitude toward the Dharma, and immediately renouncing his tîrthakism, professed the doctrine of Çâkyamuni.
The Tibetan tradition presents some unmistakable indications of a later invention: the use of tantric formulæ, the so-called prophecy of the Tathâgata, and the anachronism of Âryadeva. On the other hand, the Chinese records are worth crediting, though they are not unanimous as to how the conversion took place and who was the proselytist.
According to the Life of Açvaghosha, Parçva 4 was
the man who converted him. They agreed at their first meeting that on the seventh day thence they should have the king, ministers, çrâmanas, tîrthakas and all great teachers of the Dharma gathered in the Vihâra and have their discussion there before all those people. "In the sixth night the sthavira entered into a samâdhi and meditated on what he had to do [in the morning]. When the seventh day dawned, a great crowd was gathered like clouds. The Sthavira Parçva arrived first and ascended a high platform with an unusually pleasant countenance. The tîrthaka [i.e., Açvaghosha] came later and took a seat opposite him. When he observed the çrâmana with a pleasant countenance and in good spirits, and when he also observed his whole attitude showing the manner of an able opponent, he thought: 'May he not be Bhikshu Chin? His mind is calm and pleasant, and besides he bears the manner of an able antagonist. We shall indeed have an excellent discussion to-day.'
"They then proposed the question how the defeated one should be punished. The tîrthaka [Açvaghosha] said: 'The defeated one shall have his tongue cut out.' The sthavira replied: 'No, he shall become a disciple [of the winner] as the acknowledgement of defeat.' The tîrthaka then replied: 'Let it be so,' and asked, 'Who will begin the discussion?' The
[paragraph continues] Sthavira Parçva said: I am more advanced in age; I came from afar for the purpose [of challenging you]; and moreover I was here this morning earlier than you. So it will be most natural for me to speak first.' The tîrthaka said: 'Let it be so. Following the subject of your argument, I shall completely baffle you.'
"The Sthavira Parçva then said: 'What shall we have to do, in order to keep the kingdom in perfect peace, to have the king live long, to let the people enjoy abundance and prosperity, all free from evils and catastrophes?' The tîrthaka was silent, not knowing what to reply. As now according to the rule of discussion one who could not make a response is defeated, Açvaghosha was obliged to bow [before the opponent] as a disciple of his. He had his head shaved, was converted to a çrâmana, and instructed in the perfection-precepts.
"When he [Açvaghosha] was alone in his room, he was absorbed in gloomy, unpleasant reflexion as to why he, possessing a bright intellect and far-sighted discretion, and having his reputation widely spread all over the world, could be defeated with a single question and be made a disciple of another. Parçva well knew his mind and ordered him to come to his room where the master manifested himself in several supernatural transformations. Açvaghosha now fully recognised that his master was not a man of ordinary type, and thus feeling happy and contented, thought it his duty to become one of his disciples.
"The master told him: 'Your intellect is bright enough, hard to find its equal; but it wants a final touch. If you study the doctrine I have mastered, attend to my capability and insight into the Bodhi, and if you become thoroughly versed in the method of discussion and clearly understand the principle of things, there will be no one who can match you in the whole world.'
"The master returned to his own country [North India]; the disciple remained in Central India, making an extensive study of the Sûtras, seeking a clear comprehension of the doctrine, Buddhistic as well as non-Buddhistic. His oratorical genius swept everything before him, and he was reverentially honored by the four classes of the people, including the king of [Central] India who treated him as a man of distinction."
According to the Transmission of the Dharmapitaka (Fu fa tsang chuan), however, Açvaghosha was not converted by Parçva, but by his disciple and patriarchal successor, Puṇyayaças. Though the two works, Life of Açvaghosha and the book just mentioned, differ in some other points, they are evidently two different versions of the one original legend. As the book is not as yet accessible to English readers, I here produce the whole matter translated from the Chinese version. The comparison will prove interesting.
"Full of a proud and arrogant spirit that speedily grew like a wild plant, he [Açvaghosha] firmly believed
in the existence of an ego-entity and cherished the ultra-egotistic idea. Being informed that Âcarya called Puṇyayaças, who, deep in knowledge and wide in learning, proclaimed that all things are relative [= çûnya, lit. empty], there is no âtman, no pudgala; Açvaghosha's arrogant spirit asserted itself, and presenting himself to Puṇyayaças challenged him saying: "confute all [false] opinions and doctrines in the world, as hailstones strike tender grass. If my declaration prove false and not true' I will have my own tongue cut out in acknowledgment of defeat.' Thereupon Puṇyayaças as explained to him that Buddhism distinguishes two kinds of truth, that while 'Practical truth' hypothetically admits the existence of an âtman, there is nothing conditional in 'pure [or absolute] truth,' all being calm and tranquil, and that therefore we cannot prove the ego as an absolute entity.
"Açvaghosha would not yet surrender himself, because being over-confident of his own intellectual power he considered himself to have gained the point. Puṇyayaças said: 'Carefully think of yourself; tell not a lie. We will see which of us has really won.'
"Açvaghosha meanwhile came to think that while 'practical truth' being only conditional has no reality at all, 'pure truth' is calm and tranquil in its nature, and that therefore these two forms of truth are all unobtainable, and that if they have thus no actuality
[paragraph continues] [or existence], how could they be refuted [as false]? So feeling now the superiority of his opponent, he tried to cut out his tongue in acknowledgement of the defeat. But Puṇyayaças stopped him, saying: 'We teach a doctrine of love and compassion, and do not demand that you cut out your tongue. Have your head shaved instead and be my disciple.' Açvaghosha thus converted was made a çrâmana by Puṇyayaças. 1
"But Açvaghosha who felt extremely ashamed of his [former] self-assumption was thinking of attempting his own life. Puṇyayaças, however, attaining arhatship, entered into a samâdhi and divined what was going on in the mind of Açvaghosha. He ordered him to go and bring some books out of the library. Açvaghosha said to the Âcarya: The room is perfectly dark; how can I get in there?' To this Puṇyayaças answered: 'Just go in, and I shall let you have light.' Then the Âcarya through his supernatural power stretched far into the room his right hand whose five fingers each radiating with light illuminated everything inside of the walls. Açvaghosha thought it a mental hallucination, and knowing the fact that a hallucination as a rule disappears when one is conscious of it, he was surprised to see the
light glowing more and more. He tried his magical arts to extinguish it till he felt utterly exhausted, for the mysterious light suffered no change whatever. Finally coming to realise that it was the work of no other person than his teacher, his spirit was filled with remorse, and he thenceforth applied himself diligently to religious discipline and never relapsed." 1
The Record of Buddha and the Patriarchs (Fo tsou lung tsai) agrees with the Transmission of the Dharma-pitaka (Fu fa tsang chuan) in making Puṇyayaças, instead of Parçva, the master of the conversion. But the former does not state how Açvaghosha was converted.
Though so far it remains an open question who was the real master of Açvaghosha, we can be sure of this, that he had intimate spiritual communication with both Parçva and Puṇyayaças. Parçva, who was an older contemporary of Puṇyayaças, was probably already advanced in age when Açvaghosha came to be personally acquainted with him, and so he did not have time enough to lead the young promising disciple to a consummate understanding of the doctrine of Buddha. After the demise of this venerable old patriarch, Açvaghosha therefore had to go to Puṇyayaças for a further study of his religion, till he was capable of forming his own original thoughts, which are set forth in his principal work, the Discourse of
the Awakening of Faith (Çraddhotpâda-çastra). This assumption is justified when we notice that Açvaghosha in the Book of Great Glory pays his homage to Parçva as well as to Puṇyayaças.
Now by way of a supplementary note to the above, let us say a word about Wassiljew's observation, 1 which states that while Hînayânists or Çrâvakas ascribe the conversion of Açvaghosha to Parçva, the Mahâyânistic record says that Âryadeva converted him. This assertion is evidently incorrect, for the Life of Açvaghosha as well as the Transmission of the Dharmapitaka (Fu fa tsang chuan) in which the honor of his conversion is given to the successor of Parçva as aforesaid, do not certainly belong to the work of the Hînayâna school. It is the Tibetan tradition only, and not the general Mahâyânist statement, that Âryadeva converted Açvaghosha, and there is no ground at all for the assertion of Wassiljew, which practically leads us to take everything Tibetan for Mahâyânistic and everything Chinese for Hînayânistic.
25:1 Geschichte des Buddhismus, German translation by Schiefner, pp. 94-85.
25:2 He is mentioned there by the name of Durdarshakâla.
25:3 Cf. this with the accounts of Mâtṛceṭa-Açvaghosha told in I-tsing.
25:4 The conversion of Açvaghosha by Parçva as here stated may be considered an addition to the proof already demonstrated for the contemporaneousness of Açvaghosha and King Kanishka; for p. 26 Parçva, according to the Tibetan as well as the Chinese authority, was a co-operator at least, if not the president, of the third Buddhist convocation promoted by the King of Kashmir.
30:1 The reasoning is somewhat unintelligible. The passages must be defective, and although I might venture to supply the necessary words to make them more logical and intelligible to the general reader who is not acquainted with the çûnyatâ philosophy. I have not tried to do so, thinking that it is enough here if we see in what the subject of the discussion consisted.
31:1 The Transmission of the Dharmapitaka (Fu fa tsang chuan) fas. 5.
32:1 Buddhismus, German edition, p. 222, and also see Târanâtha, translated by Schiefner, p. 311.