Mysterious Man of Letters
Aśvaghoṣa was born into a Brahmin family in Saketa in Northern India. He is counted as one of the early masters of Buddhism, teacher of Kapimala who, in turn was teacher of the famous Nagarjuna. In his own right, Aśvaghoṣa became one of the greatest poets in Indian history and was also a playwrite of note. He became a great populariser of Buddhism, especially of that approach in which faith (shraddhā and devotion (bhakti) are central. However, we know very little about his personal life. The Buddha taught effacement and Aśvaghoṣa practised it.
The Vital Encounter
According to traditional stories, he initially became a wandering Hindu ascetic. At that time it was common to hold debates between religious practitioners or philosophers. The loser would become the disciple of the winner. Aśvaghoṣa often challenged Buddhists, but none would debate with him because of his formidable reputation as a debater. Eventually, however, he met his match in an encounter with Punyayashas.
Aśvaghoṣa asked Punyayasas: What is Buddha?
Punyayasas said, You want to know that? So Buddha himself does not know.
This expression has a double meaning. At first sight it suggests that Aśvaghoṣa is Buddha even though he does not know it. However, it also means that a Buddha does not know what he is. In fact, a Buddha is endlessly finding out what it is to be what he is. A Buddha is constantly learning.
Later, Aśvaghoṣa became a famous poet. He wrote in classical Sanskrit and is acknowledged even by non-Buddhists as one of the finest poets in the early history of India. Some of his works survive to this day, notably his Buddhacarita (Life of the Buddha) and his poem Handsome Nanda. We can see from his Life of the Buddha that he thought of the Buddha as destined from birth for his role as Tathagata, yet also describes him as a hero struggling with obstacles. These two dimensions are only compatible if we assume that although the Buddha was destined, he himself did not know it, so that he was continually in a process of finding out what he is supposed to be.
This tells us something important about the spiritual life. It is a process of finding out, of investigating Dharma, as Shakyamuni himaself said. In order to do so one must have mindfulness in the Buddha's sense of that term, which is to say, a religious consciousness. One must have in mind one's relationship with the divine – with the eternal Buddha, the Tao, Heaven, however one conceives it – and then encounter each situation in life letting it be problematised by that mindfulness.
Aśvaghoṣa meets Punyayashas and asks, What is Buddha? So here are the three elements: self, other and Buddha. Awareness of Buddha is religious consciousness. If it was just an encounter between the two men it would be a purely humanistic situation, but if it is an encounter in which both have Buddha (or God, or the transcendental) in mind, then it becomes a koan.
Both men are, in that moment, enquiring about Buddha. Punyayashas sees Buddha in Aśvaghoṣa. Punyayashas, being spiritually awakened, is always discovering Buddha. In this instance, he discovers Buddha in his encounter with Aśvaghoṣa. By discovering Buddha in the other he discovers how to be himself and, therefore, we, as outside observers, can say, he is discovering how to be Buddha. Buddha is not a stereotyped role, it is to be genuinely alive in the fullness of one's situation, which, to say it another way, is to fulfil one's destiny.
To Know Each Other Completely
So, to completely fulfil one's destiny is to be Buddha in one way or another. Most people never do. So we can ask what it is that enables a person to do so. This is why Aśvaghoṣa is asking “How can I be Buddha?” Yet, a Buddha is somebody who is all the time finding out the answer to exactly that question. So in that moment, Aśvaghoṣa is Buddha discovering Buddha, and he discovers Buddha in the mirror that is Punyayashas.
Punyayashas, similarly, is finding out his destiny. So at this moment, these two are standing in one line. They know each other completely. Each is contributing to the destiny of the other. This is love.
Destiny does not mean the same as predestination. In predestination, what is fore-ordained must happen, whereas in destiny there is something on offer, but what is meant to happen does not always transpire. What Aśvaghoṣa really responds to in Punyayashas is the latter's love and it is this love, this deep knowing, that creates a destiny for Aśvaghoṣa that he, in turn, discovers through this encounter. In this manner, it is said that the old Aśvaghoṣa is chopped down, as a tree is felled, and a new Aśvaghoṣa appears, but the new Aśvaghoṣa is the one who is fulfilling his destiny.
We do not know what Aśvaghoṣa's name was originally. The name Aśvaghoṣa means “crying horses”. It seems that he was such an eloquent preacher that when he declared the Dharma even horses wept. His writing expresses a strong poetic tension between sensuality and asceticism. It seems to say that sensual pleasure is exquisite, yet renunciation is even better. He writes as somebody who seems to know what he is talking about so we can assume that this had been an important theme for him himself, yet we know nothing about his love life, nor about why he left home to become an ascetic. In fact, we know hardly any biographical details at all.
To Fulfil One's Destiny
Aśvaghoṣa's sense of the Dharma was connected with an idea of destiny. How are we to understand this? Shakyamuni is commonly presented in Buddhist texts as the successor to a long line of Buddhas going back in cosmic time. Aśvaghoṣa's writing does not include this element. Instead it sees him as the culmination of Indian religious and cultural tradition as a whole, not just Buddhist.
So there is here the sense that each person has something that they are to do, a destiny to fulfil. They may or might not do it. This destiny is shaped by the conditions that impose and the love that is available. The Buddhas are those who love copiously and so create great destinies for many other beings. These are like invitations. The Buddha predicted enlightenment for people when he saw that they had received and accepted such an invitation. To be awakened, therefore, is to set aside one's personal ideas and ambitions about oneself and become willing to receive and accept what the universe has planned for one, and, in doing so, one becomes a devotee and, incidentally, also becomes a maker of destinies for others. This is all by the power of love.
Beautiful continuation of the story of Nagarjuna and Kapimala! Thank you, I have find a nice new translation - job :-)