One evening when King Kanishka together with his friend Charaka enjoyed the company of Açvaghosha, the youthful ruler of Gandhâra turned to the venerable philosopher with this request: “And now, worshipful master, tell us, do we worship in Buddha a god or a man?”
Replied Açvaghosha: “Buddha is neither a god nor a man; he is more than either, for he is perfection incarnate. We worship in Buddha wisdom and goodness, that is, the comprehension and application of the truth, which are the qualities that alone render the gods divine. Truth is eternal, but all actual beings, not even excluding the gods, are transient.”
Charaka interposed: “We do not speak of the gods, but of God, which means divinity itself. What would the Buddha have taught about God?”
Kanishka added: “We mean God, not in the sense of Brahma, the principle of existence, nor of Ishvara, a personal Lord and manufacturer of universes, but God as goodness, as truth, as righteousness, as love? Does God in this sense exist or not? Is it a dream or a reality? What is it and how do we know of it?”
“You ask a question to answer which will take a book. But I shall be brief. Certainly, God in this sense is a reality. God, in this sense is the good law that shapes existence, leading life step by step onward and upward toward its highest goal—enlightenment. Recognition of this law gives us light on the conditions of our existence so as to render it possible for us to find the right path; and we call it Dharmakaya, the body of the good law, or Amitâbha, the source of infinite light, or by some other name. It is the norm of all nature involving the bliss of goodness and the curse of wrong doing according to irrefragable causation.”
“Accordingly, a man is not a Buddha by birth, but he can become a Buddha by attaining to Buddhahood,” said the king inquiringly.
“Exactly so,” replied Açvaghosha. “The highest truth is not a fabrication of the mind; the highest truth is eternal.15 Shakyamuni attained to Buddhahood, and there were many who saw him, yet they did not behold in him the Buddha; while now, after he has entered into Paranirvana, there are many who never saw him in the body, yet having attained faith may truly be said to behold the Buddha, for the Buddha can be recognised with the mind’s eye alone.”16
“Then Amitâbha is the principle of being as much as Brahma?” enquired Charaka.
“Brahma is a personification of the principle of being,” replied Açvaghosha, “but Amitâbha is the standard of being. Amitâbha is the intrinsic law which, whenever being rises into existence, moulds life and develops it, producing uniformities and regularities in both the world of realities and the realm of thought. It is the source of rationality and righteousness, of science and of morality, of philosophy and religion. The sage of the Shakyas is one ray of its light only, albeit for us the most powerful ray, with the clearest, brightest, and
purest light. He is the light that came to us here in this world and in our country. Wheresoever wisdom appears, there is an incarnation, more or less partial, more or less complete, of Amitâbha.”
“But existence,” rejoined Charaka, “is different from the good law. Being is one thing and the norm that moulds it another. There is the great question, whether or not life itself is wrong. If life is wrong, the joy of living is sin, the enhancement of life, including its reproduction, an error, and love, the love of husband and wife, becomes a just cause for repentance.”
“Mark the doctrine, noble youth, and act accordingly,” replied Açvaghosha. “I read in your eyes the secret of your heart which prompts you to ask this question. Goodness is a reality which exists in both existence and non-existence. Call it God or Amitâbha, or Allhood, or the eternal and uncreated, the universal law, the not-bodily, the nothing or nonexistence, for it is not concrete nor material, nor real to the senses,—yet it exists, it is spiritual and can be discovered by the mind; it is
and remains for all that exists the intrinsic and necessary norm; it is the rule and regulation for both things and thoughts. It is omnipresent in the universe, invisible, impalpable, as a perfume that permeates a room. Whatever makes its appearance as a concrete reality is affected by its savor and nothing can be withdrawn from its sway. It is not existence itself, but the womb of existence; it is that which gives definite shape to beings, moulding them and determining them according to conditions. You have Amitâbha in two aspects as the formation of particular existence and as the general law of universal types. The particular is the realisation of the universal; and the universal constitutes the type of the particular, giving it a definite character. Neither is without the other. Mere particularity is being in a state of ignorance; thus all life starts in ignorance; but mere universality is existence unrealised; it is as though existence were not. Therefore enjoyment of life is not wrong and the love of husband and wife is no cause for repentance, if it be but the right love, true
and unfailing and making each willing to bear the burdens of the other.
“The Lord spoke not of God, because the good law that becomes incarnated in Buddhahood is not a somebody, not an entity, not an ego, not even a ghost. As there is not a ghost-soul, so there is not a ghost-God.”
Said Charaka: “Now I understand the picture of the Lord Buddha with his two attendants, Love as Particularity on the elephant and Wisdom as Universality on the lion. Ananda, the disciple of loving service, and Kâshyapa, the disciple of philosophical intellectuality, have approached their master and grasped the significance of his doctrine from two opposite and contrasting sides.”
“Those who mortify their bodies,” continued Açvaghosha, “have not understood the doctrine. We are not ego-souls. For that reason the thought of an individual escape, the salvation of our ego-soul, is a heresy and an illusion. We all stand together and every man must work for the salvation of mankind. Therefore I love to compare the doctrine of the Buddha to a great ship or a grand vehicle
[paragraph continues]—a Mahâyâna—in which there is room for all the multitudes of living beings and we who stand at the helm must save them all or perish with them.”
Charaka extended his hand and said: “I thank you, venerable sir, for the light you have afforded me. I sought peace of soul in a monastery, but the love of life, the love of God, the love of knowledge, the love of my heart, drove me hack to the world. I have proved useful to King Kanishka as a physician, perhaps also as a friend, and as a disciple of the Tathâgata; and the problem before me is, whether it is right for me to remain in the world, to be a householder, to allow the particular, the sensual, the actual, a share in life by the side of the universal, the spiritual, the ideal.”
“Do not despise the particular, the sensual, the actual,” replied Açvaghosha. “In the material body the spiritual truths of goodness and love and veracity are actualised. Existence if it is mere existence, quantity of life and not quality, is worthless and contemptible. The sage despises it. The sensual, if it be void of
the spiritual, is coarse and marks the brute. But existence is not wrong in itself, nor is the sensual without its good uses. The sensual, in its very particularity, by being an aspiration that is actual, becomes consecrated in spirituality. Think how holy is the kiss of true love; how sacred is the relation between husband and wife. It is the particular in which the universal must be realised, mere abstract goodness will become apparent only in the vicissitudes of actual life.”
“If I could serve the Buddha as a householder, my highest ambition would be to be a brother-in-law to King Kanishka,” replied Charaka.
“I know it,” said Açvaghosha with a smile, “for the emotions of your heart are reflected in your eyes. Go home and greet the king’s sister with a saying of the Blessed One, and when you are married may your happiness be in proportion to your merit, or even greater and better. Buddha’s doctrine is not extinction, not nihilism, but a liberation of man’s heart from the fetters of selfishness and from the seclusion of a separate egoity. It is not the
suppression or eradication of love, and joy, and family ties, but their perfection and sanctification; not a cessation of life, but a cessation of ignorance, indolence, and ill will, for the sake of gaining enlightenment, which is life’s end and aim.”
After a pause Açvaghosha added pensively: “The more the truth spreads, the more shall all relations and conditions be transfigured by Buddhahood. Even the dumb creatures and inanimate nature are yearning for their emancipation that is to come.”
“Your instruction has benefited me too,” said Kanishka to the philosopher, and turning round to the king of Magadha, he continued, “but you my noble friend and host are still my debtor. Since Açvaghosha on account of his age finds himself unable to follow me to Gandhâra, you are in duty bound to procure an acceptable substitute. Now, there is a wav of settling your obligations to me, and that could be done if your daughter, the Princess Bhadraçrî would consent to accept my hand and accompany me to Gandhâra as my wife and queen!”
“My august friend,” replied the king of Magadha, “I know that the Princess worships you for the heroism you have displayed in battle, the wisdom you have shown in council, and the magnanimity with which you have dealt with your conquered enemy. She beholds in you not only the ideal of royalty but also the restorer of her father’s fortunes, worthy of her sincerest gratitude. It is but for you to make her admiration blossom out into rich love and wifely devotion.”