Let us first decide the date, which varies according to different authorities from three hundred to six hundred years after the Parinirvâna of Buddha.
I. The li tai san pao chi (fas. 1), 2 quoting the Record of the Sarvâstivâdin school, says: "Açvaghosha Bodhisattva was born a Brahman in Eastern India some three hundred years after the Nirvâna. After he abandoned his worldly life, he refuted all the doctrines held by the tîrthakas (heathen), 3 and writing
the Mahâ-alamkâra-çâstra 1 in several hundred verses (gâthâ) greatly propagated the teachings of Buddha.
2. Hui-yuen 2 states in his commentary (fas. 1) on the Mahâ-prajñâ-pâramitâ-çâstra, 3 the on the authority of Kumârajîva (A. D. 339-413), that Açvaghosha flourished about three hundred and seventy years after the Nirvâna.
3. In the Life of Vasubandhu, 4 Açvaghosha is mentioned as a contemporary of Kâtyâyana who is said in the same book to have been living in the fifth century after the Nirvâna.
4. The writer 5 of the preface to the second Chinese translation of the Mahâyâna-çraddhotpâda-çâstra 6 says that this Çâstra "is the deepest of the Mahâyâna texts. Five hundred years after the Nirvâna, Açvaghosha appeared in the world. He was numbered
among the four suns [of Buddhists], and his teachings stood most prominently [among the doctrines prevailing] in the five countries of India."
5. Sang-ying 1 states in his preface to the Chinese translation of the Mahâ-prajñâ-pâramitâ-çâstra that Açvaghosha appeared towards the end of the period of Orthodoxy, i.e., five hundred years after the Nirvâna.
6. The Fu tsou t‘ung chi 2 (Vol. V.) says that it was the fulfilment of the Tathâgata's prophecy that six hundred years after the Nirvâna the Dharma was transmitted to Açvaghosha.
7. This six hundred year prophecy is adopted as if it were an unquestionable fact, by Fa-tsang, 3 a learned commentator of the Çraddhotpâdaçâstra (Discourse on the Awakening of Faith).
8. Chih-k‘ai who was the copyist for Paramârtha when he translated the Çraddhotpâdaçâstra, also adheres to the six hundred year tradition in his preface to the book just mentioned, saying that some six hundred years after the Nirvâna of the Tathâgata, many devilish heretical leaders clamorously protested their false doctrines against the good law of Buddha,
when a Çrâmana of very high virtue, called Açvaghosha, thoroughly versed in the philosophy of the Mahâyâna Buddhism and highly compassionate for those ignorant people, wrote this Discourse (the (Çraddhotpâdaçâstra), in order that he might increase the brilliancy of the Triratna, etc., etc.
9. The six hundred year tradition is very popular among Chinese and Japanese Buddhists. The Fo tsu li tai tung tsai 1 (fas. 5) also follows it.
10. The prophecy above referred to (see No. 8), which is doubtless a later invention, appears in the Mahâmâyâ sûtra 2 (fas. 2) as follows:
"After the death of Buddha, Mahâmâyâ asked Ânanda if Buddha had ever told him in his life anything concerning the future of Buddhism. Responding to this, Ânanda said: 'I heard one time Buddha say this with regard to the future decline of Buddhism: "After the Nirvâna Mahâkâçyapa with Ânanda will compile the Dharma-piṭaka, and when it is settled Mahâkâçyapa will enter into a Nirodha-samâpatti in the Lang chi shan [i.e., Mount of Wolf's Track, Kukkurapadagiri], and Ânanda too obtaining the fruit
of enlightenment will in turn enter into Parinirvâna, when the right doctrine will be transmitted to Upagupta who will in an excellent manner teach the essence of the Dharma. . . . When five hundred years are passed [after Buddha's death] a Bhikshu named Pao-tien [Ratnadeva?] will in an excellent manner teach the essence of the Dharma, converting twenty thousand people and causing all sentient beings in the eight creations to awaken the Anuttarasamyaksambodhicitta [most-perfect-knowledge-mind]. The right doctrine will then go to decline. When six hundred years [after Buddha's death] are expired, ninety different schools of the tîrthakas will arise and proclaiming false doctrines, each will struggle against the other to destroy the law of Buddha. Then a Bhikshu, Açvaghosha by name, will in an excellent manner teach the essence of the Dharma and defeat all the followers of the tîrthakas. When seven hundred years [after Buddha's death] are expired, a Bhikshu, Nâgârjuna by name, will in an excellent manner teach the essence of the Dharma, destroying the banner of false philosophy and lighting the torch of the right doctrine."'"
II. Referring to the statement of the above mentioned Sûtra, Nâgârjuna, a famous Buddhist philosopher who wrote a commentary on Açvaghosha's work, called Çraddhotpâdaçâstra, claims that there were six Açvaghoshas at different times, to fulfil the prophecy of Buddha and that the author of the book on which
he writes a commentary 1 was one who appeared on earth according to the prophecy in the Mahâmâyâ sûtra. Nâgârjuna even states that he was a disciple of Açvaghosha, but the work itself is regarded as spurious,
on account of some obvious contradictions, though the followers of the Mantra sect (Shingonshyu) insist on its genuineness, because they are anxious to have an ancient authority for their own mystic doctrines, which are here supported.
Deeply absorbed in metaphysical speculation, the inhabitants of India paid very little attention to history, and whenever we endeavor to ascertain the date of important historical figures we are sure to find our way to certainty barred. So we cannot decide which of the conflicting traditions above enumerated is to be considered as authentic. When taken independently of other historical events which are connected with them and whose dates have been already fixed, they have no value whatever. Besides it should be observed, the chronology of Buddha, to which every one of the traditions makes reference, is as yet unsettled and must have been still more so at the time when those traditions were current in India as well as in China. If they differed as to the date of Buddha, they might have maintained the same date for Açvaghosha; no one can tell. We have to seek a light from another source.
Another group of traditions centering around Açvaghosha is his connexion with a most powerful king of Yüeh chih , who established his extensive kingdom in Northwestern India. Who was this king? In the Tsa pao tsang ching
[paragraph continues] (Samyuktaratna-pitaka-sûtra?) 1, fas. 7, we read: "A king of Tukhâra, Candana Kanishṭha 2 (or Kanîta? Chinese chan-lan-chi-ni-ch‘a) had a close friendship with three wise men: the first one was a Bodhisattva, called Açvaghosha; the second, a minister of state called Mo-cha-lo (Maṭhara or Madara?); the third, an experienced physician called Chê-lo-chia (Caraka). With these three the king was on most intimate terms and treated them with the utmost cordiality, permitting them to approach his person. Açvaghosha said [one day] to him that if he [the king] would follow his advice, he would obtain in his coming life everything that was good, eternally put an end to all his misfortunes and forever be free from evil." . . . 3
Açvaghosha's relation with King Candana Kanishṭha (or Kanîta? Chinese Chi-ni-ch‘a) is told also in the Fu fa tsang yin yüan ch‘uan, 1 fas. 5:
"[At that time]. the king of Tukhâra was very powerful. He was called Candana Kanishṭha [or Kanîta? Chinese Chi-ni-ch‘a]. Being very ambitious and bold, and far superior in courage to all his contemporaries, every country he invaded was sure to be trampled down under his feet. So when he advanced his four armies towards Pâṭaliputra [Hua shih ch‘êng in Chinese], the latter was doomed to defeat in spite of some desperate engagements. The king demanded an indemnity of 900,000,000 gold pieces, for which the defeated king offered Açvaghosha, the Buddha-bowl and a compassionate fowl, each being considered worth 300,900,000 gold pieces. The Bodhisattva Açvaghosha had intellectual powers inferior to none; the Buddha-bowl having been carried by the Tathâgata himself is full of merits; the fowl being of compassionate nature, would not drink any water with worms in it,--thus all these having merits enough to keep off all enemies, they are on that account worth
[paragraph continues] 900,000,000 gold pieces. 1 The king [of Tukhâra] was greatly pleased at receiving them, and immediately withdrawing his army from the land went back to his own kingdom."
We have the same legend stated in a brief biography 2 of Açvaghosha as follows:
"After that a king of the smaller Yüeh chih country [i.e., Tukhâra] in North India invaded the Middle country [i.e., Magadha]. When the besieging had continued for some time, the king of Central India sent a message [to the invader] saying: 'If there be anything you want, I will supply it; do not disturb the peace of my people by thus long staying here,' to which this reply was given: 'If you really ask a surrender, send me 300,000,000 gold pieces; I will release you.' The [besieged] king said: 'Even this entire kingdom cannot produce 100,000,000 gold pieces, how can I supply you with 300,000,000?' The answer was: 'There are in your country two great treasures: (1) the Buddha-bowl, 3 (2) a Bhikshu of
wonderful talent (i.e., Açvaghosha). Give them to me, they are worth 300,000,000 gold pieces.' The [besieged] king said: 'Those two treasures are what I most revere, I cannot give them up.' Thereupon the Bhikshu said to the king in explanation of the Dharma:
"'All sentient beings are everywhere the same, while Buddhism, deep and comprehensive, aims at universal salvation, and the highest virtue of a great man consists in delivering [all] beings. As our temporal administration is very liable to meet obstructions, even your rule does not extend itself outside of this one kingdom. If you, on the other hand, propose a wide propagation of Buddhism, you would naturally be a Dharmarâja over the four oceans. The duty of a Bhikshu is to save [all] the people and not to give preference to one or the other. Merits lie in our heart; truth makes no distinction. Pray, be farsighted, and do not think only of the present.'
"The king who was from the first a great admirer of him, respectfully followed his advice and delivered him to the king of Yüeh chih who returned with him to his own kingdom."
Comparing all these traditions, we are naturally led to the conclusion that Açvaghosha, who was numbered as one of the four suns 1 of Buddhism, must have
had a very powerful influence over the spiritual India of the time, that the king who wished to have him as a spiritual adviser must have been a very devoted Buddhist so as to accept a Bhikshu instead of an enormous sum of money, and that such a devoted Buddhist king, ruling over the vast domain which extended from the bank of the Indus towards the lower Ganges, must have been living sometime between the third and sixth century after the Nirvâna, whatever the authentic date of Buddha might be. The next conclusion we can advance therefore will be the identification of this king who is called Candana Kanishṭha or Kanîta in the above stories, with Kanishka, 1 the originator of the third Buddhist convocation in Kashmir.
As to the difference of the name, we have to say this. While Hsüen-tsang's transliteration for Kanishka is Chia-ni-shê-chia which is quite an approximate reproduction of the original sounds, the Chinese method of transliteration before his time by the so-called "old translators" was rather irregular, loose and therefore often misleading. Add to this the liability to error on the part of local dialects, and we do not improperly identify Chi-ni-ch‘a, with Kanishka, while the former may be Sanskritised Kanishṭa or Kanîta. 2
In further support of this view, we quote from the Journal of the Buddhist Text Society, Vol. I., Part 3, an article on King Kanishka, taken from a Tibetan source, which bears a more historical appearance than the legends above referred to. The abstract is:
"Kanishka, king of Palhâva and Delhi, 1 was born four hundred years after the Nirvâna. When he learned that Simha, king of Kashmir, abandoned the worldly life to become a Buddhist priest under the name of Sudarçana and obtained Arhatship, he went to Kashmir and heard a sermon delivered by Sudarçana. 2 At that time a Mahâyâna priest who held a most prominent
position in northern countries was called Açvaghosha. His influence in the spiritual world was as incomparable as the temporal power of Kanishka who conquered Kashmir and Jâlamdhara. The king sent a message to Açvaghosha to come to his kingdom, who, however, owing to his old age, could not accept the invitation, but sent him a leading disciple of his called Jñânayaça, accompanied with a letter treating the essential points of Buddhism." 1
Though the Tibetan tradition considerably differs in many respects from the Chinese accounts above mentioned, they both agree in this point that Açvaghosha and Kanishka had some intercourse, or that at least they were contemporaneous and known to each other. So we may take it as an established fact that Açvaghosha, the author of the Mahâyâna-çraddhotpâda-çâstra (Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahâyâna), was living at the time of Kanishka. 2
I do not think there is any need here to enumerate all different opinions about the time of Kanishka, which has been already approximately fixed by the untiring investigation of European scholars, such as Princep, Lassen, Cunningham, Wilson, Fergusson,
[paragraph continues] Max Müller, and others. 1 So long as our present aim is to assign the time of Açvaghosha more definitely than stating vaguely some three or five hundred years after the Nirvâna of Buddha, suffice it to say that he lived at the time extending from the latter half of the first century before Christ to about 50 or 80 A. D. If we fix the date of Buddha's death in the fifth century before Christ, Açvaghosha must be said to have lived during the six hundredth year after the Nirvâna. At the very most his time cannot be placed later than the first century of the Christian era.
I have spared no pains, even at the risk of tediousness, in gathering all the information obtainable from Chinese sources relative to the date of Açvaghosha, because this date is of paramount importance when we enter into the discussion of the development of the Mahâyâna Buddhism, which is commonly and erroneously considered to be the sole work of Nâgârjuna.
2:2 Records of the Triratna Under Successive Dynasties, compiled by Chang-fang, A. D. 597; 15 fasciculi.
2:3 Tîrthaka, which literally means "ascetics," was first applied to a definite sect, viz., the naked ascetics of the Jains, but was later on extended to all dissenters and has therefore been translated ''heretics or heathen." The Chinese translation of the term literally means "[followers of] a doctrine other than Buddhism."
3:1 Translated into Chinese by Kumârajîva, circa A. D. 405. 15 fas.
3:2 A. D. 333-416. The leader of the Pai lien she (White Lotus Society), first Sukhâvatî sect movement in China.
3:3 Treatise on the Great Wisdom-Perfection, by Nâgârjuna. A Chinese translation by Kumârajîva, A. D. 402-405. 100 fas.
3:4 The original Sanskrit author is unknown. The present Chinese translation is by Paramârtha who came to China from Western India A. D. 546.
3:5 The writer's name is not mentioned there, nor the date; but judging from the knowledge he shows in treating the subject, as we shall see later, he must have been living either at the time of this second translation or immediately after it.
3:6 Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahâyâna, the principal work of Açvaghosha.
4:1 A. D. 362-439. One of the four famous disciples of Kumârajîva.
4:2 A history of Buddhism, compiled by Chih-p‘an , a Chinese priest, during the latter half of the thirteenth century. 54 fas.
4:3 643-712. A most prominent leader of the Avatamsaka sect in China.
5:1 A History of Buddha and the Patriarchs Through Successive Dynasties, by Nien chang A. D. 1333. 36 fas.
5:2 The Sûtra is also called the Sûtra on Buddha's Ascent to the Trayastrimsa Heaven, to Teach the Dharma to His Mother 2 fas. A second Chinese translation by Shih T‘an-ching of the Ch‘i dynasty (A. D. 479-502). His nationality and life both are unknown.
7:1 The Sanskritised title is the Mahâyâna-çâstra-vyâkhyâ, trans. into Chinese by Pa-ti-mo-to , an Indian priest, A. D. 401-402. 10 fas. The statements in full run as follows:
"In all there were six Açvaghoshas, owing to different predictions in the sûtras; each of them appeared to fulfil his mission according to the necessity of the time, and there is no contradiction in them."
The author then proceeds to make particular references to those sûtras:
"When we examine all different predictions in the sûtras taught by Buddha through his whole life, we find six different [personages all called Açvaghosha]. What are those six? (1) According to the Tai ch‘êng pên fa ch‘i ching (Mahâyânâpûrvadharmasûtra?) we have the following: When the peerless, great, enlightened, honored one was speaking about his intention of entering into Nirvâna, Açvaghosha rising from the seat knelt down, saluted Buddha's feet, and respectively joining his hands together turned towards Buddha, the world-honored one, and said this in verse: 'The peerless one whose heart is filled with great love and whose immeasurable virtues have been accumulated through æons which are like a boundless ocean, the Buddha, only on account of love and compassion for all sentient beings, now speaks about his entering into Nirvâna, and I and all the other members of the Saṁgha feel an unspeakable despair, utterly confused in mind and spirit. If even the world-honored one, full of great love, is going to another world, leaving his own children behind him, why then could not I who am not yet full of love and compassion go to another world following Buddha's steps? Who can blame me?' When finished uttering these words, Açvaghosha gazed at the pupil of Buddha's eye and gradually passed out of life. (2) The Pien ‘hua kung tê ch‘i ching (Vikriyâpunyasûtra?) says: Then the Bhagavat said to Açvaghosha: 'Three hundred years after my Nirvâna thou shalt obtain an inspiration from me and with various methods (upâya) p. 8 benefit and make happy all beings in coming generations. When thou dost not have any inspiration from me, thou canst not do this by thyself,' (3) The Mahâmâyâsûtra says as follows: 'When six hundred years are passed after the disappearance of the Tathâgata, ninety-six different schools of the tîrthakas will arise, and professing false doctrines, each will struggle against the other to destroy the law of Buddha. A Bhikshu called Açvaghosha, however, will in an excellent manner proclaim the essence of the Dharma and defeat all followers of the tîrthakas. (4) In the Ch‘ang tê san mei ch‘i ching (Sûtra on the Samâdhi of Eternal Merit) we read: In the eight hundredth year after the Nirvâna there will be a wise man, Açvaghosha by name. Among the followers of the tîrthakas as well as those of Buddhism, he will refute all those who cherish heretical views and will establish the Dharma taught by Buddha. (5) In the Mo ni ch‘ing ch‘i ching (Manivimâlasûtra?) is said thus: About one hundred years after the Nirvâna of Buddha, Açvaghosha Mahâsattva will appear on earth protect the right doctrine and safely hoist the banner of Buddhism. (6) In the . Shêng ting wang ch‘i ching (Crimûrdharâjasûtra?) is said thus: On the seventeenth day after the enlightenment of Buddha there was a tîrthaka called Chia-lo-no-chiu-shih-to (Kâlanakshiṭa?), who transforming himself into the figure of a great nâgarâja (i.e., snake-king) with 86,000 heads and 86,000 tongues, simultaneously proposed 86,000 contradicting questions and asked the Tathâgata [for the solution]. He then gave him a triple answer explaining all those paradoxes. The nâgarâja then proposed tenfold questions, again asking the Tathâgata [for their solution], to which he gave a hundredfold answers and explained their paradoxes. When this dialogue came to an end, Buddha said to the nâgarâja: 'Very good, very good, O Açvaghosha Çrâmana! in order to guard the castle of the Dharma, thou hast assumed this form of destruction, establishing p. 9 the doctrine of Buddha. Be patient, be patient, always discipline thyself in this way, always behave thyself in this way, do not go round in a small circle, but make a universal tour.' The nâgarâja then abandoning his assumed beast-form revealed his own real character and approaching the peerless, honored one and saluting him said rejoicingly in verse, etc., etc. This is the sixth Açvaghosha."
10:1 Sutra on the Casket of Miscellaneous jewels. The original Sanskrit author is unknown. Translated into Chinese by Chi-chia-yeh ( Kimkara?) of the Western country and T‘an-yao , A. D. 472. 8 fas. The original text is said to have existed at the time when the Chêng-yüan Catalogue was compiled (A. D. 785-804) by Yüan-chao a Buddhist priest of the Tang dynasty (A. D. 618-907).
10:2 Does Kanishṭha, which literally means "youngest," refer to the youngest of the three brothers who successively governed the Tukhâra district of India? If so, there is no question about the identity of him and King Kanishka.
10:3 The Fu fa tsang ch‘uan (Transmission of the Dharma-pitaka), fas. 5, also seems to refer to the same tradition, for it is stated that when a king of Tukhâra (probably Kanishka) was very much afflicted on account of his having committed many atrocious deeds in the war with Parthia (Eastern Persia), Açvaghosha told him that if he would follow the Dharma with a sincere heart, his sin would gradually be attenuated; and also that the same king had a physician called Caraka "who thoroughly understood pharmacy, p. 11 and who was clever, learned, intelligent, elegant, meek, and compassionate," etc.
11:1 Accounts Relating to the Transmission of the Dharmapitaka. 6 fas. The original Sanskrit author is unknown. The third Chinese translation now existent is by Chi-chia-yeh (Kimkara?) of the Western country, A. D. 472. The original text is said to have been existing when the Chêng yüan Catalogue (A. D. 785-804) was compiled.
12:1 This is a comical feature of the legend, for if these treasures could ward off all enemies why did they not protect the unfortunate king of Pâtaliputra against Kanishṭha?
12:2 Life of Açvaghosha , translated into Chinese by Kumârajîva. Very short. The author is unknown. The original Sanskrit text is stated in the Chêng yüan Catalogue to have been existing at that time, Cf. Wassiljew's Buddhismus, German edition, p. 231 et seq.
12:3 Fa-hien states that Kanishka (which is transliterated by him into Chinese Chi-ni-chia , corresponding to Sanskrit Kanika) as if a different person from the king of Yüeh chih p. 13 who invaded Gandhâra to get the Buddha-bowl. Vide Legge's translation of Fa-hien, pp. 33 and 34.
13:1 Hsüen-tsang's , Records of Western Countries, Beal's English translation, Vol. II., p. 302.
14:1 A. D. 85-106, according to M. Müller.
14:2 One objection to identifying Chi-ni-ch'a (Kanishṭha or Kanîta) with Kanishka is a single Chinese character appearing in the Mahâlamkâraçâstra (Book of Great Glory), the work ascribed to Açvaghosha. In fas. 3 as well as fas. 6 of the p. 15 same book referring to Candana Kanishṭha or Kanîta, the writer says: " Wo hsi ch‘ang wên, chan-t‘an chi-ni-châ wang," i.e., "I heard of old that King Candana Kanishṭha," etc. (in fas. 6., chia-ni-ch‘a), etc., etc. The Chinese character hsi usually means "of yore" or "in olden times," but it also signifies the past indefinitely, near as well as distant. If we thus understand the term in the sense of "some time ago," or simply "once," there will be no difficulty in demonstrating that Açvaghosha was an elder contemporary of Kanishka, though we cannot apparently accept the Chinese tradition which says they were intimately known to each other. Because in that case Açvaghosha would not refer to the king in such a hearsay manner as stated in the book above mentioned. Taking all in all, this does not prevent us asserting that they were contemporaneous.
15:1 Cf. A. Schiefner's German translation of Târanâtha's History of Buddhism, p. 89: "Nachdem König Çrîtschandra die Herrschaft ausgeübt hatte, waren viele Jahre vergangen, als im Westen im Lande Tili und Mälava ein an Jahren junger König Kanika in die Herrschaft gewählt wurde."
15:2 Târanâtha's statement differs from this. According to him Kanika and Kanishka are not the same king, the former being that of Tili and Mâlava, while the latter that of Jâlamdhara. Vide pp. 58 and 90. Târanâtha might have confused them.
16:1 Târanâtha also states this event (Geschichte des Buddhismus, p. 92). But the king is not Kanishka, but Kanika; and the name of the disciple is not Jñânayaça, but Dschnânakriya.
16:2 A further corroboration of this view will be met with when we treat later on of the conversion of Açvaghosha by Parçva or his disciple Puṇyayaças.
17:1 Max Müller's opinion, as stated before, is that Kanishka lived A. D. 85-106; Lassen thinks the Gondopharean dynasty was succeeded by Kanishka, king of the Yüeh chih, about one hundred years before Christ; Princep places his reign during the first century A. D.; Cunningham thinks his consecration was 58 A. D.; Fergusson, 79 A. D.; Rhys Davids, about 10 A. D., etc.