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From Amitábha by Paul Carus
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Reservations   Contents    

  1. Ordination
  2. The Novice
  3. The God Problem
  4. Kevaddha's Story
  5. The Confession
  6. Gandhara
  7. King Kaníshka
  8. Magadha
  9. Asvagosha
  10. Amitábha
  11. The Conspiracy
  12. The Man-eating Tiger
  13. The Buddhist Abbot and the Brahman
  14. The Parable of the Elephant
  15. The Double Wedding

This is an abridged version of Amitábha by Paul Carus. It is a story about three historical personalities. The book details the early days of Cháraka as a Buddhist monk, his doubts regarding Buddhist theology, his friendship with the emperor Kaníshka I (c. 127–163 CE) and his subsequent conversations with the Indian philosopher-poet Asvaghosha (c. 80 – c. 150 CE). In the latter part of the book, Amitábha is described as the embodiment of dharma, creativity and bliss.

An abridged, slightly modified version follows.

1. The Ordination of Cháraka

Soon after the time of Asoka, the great Buddhist emperor of the third century before the Common Era, India experienced invasions and wars. Tribes from the North conquered the region of the upper Panjab and founded several states. These tribulations passed over the religious institutions without doing them any harm. By virtues of Buddhist priests, conquerors in their turn were spiritually conquered and embraced the way of enlightenment. They recognised they could be freed from suffering by abandoning selfish and do what is required, which includes moral conduct. The Buddhist Middle Way consists in right [fit and fulfilling] comprehension, right [proper and rewarding] aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right living, right endeavour, right discipline, and the attainment of the right bliss [a bliss that does not involve derangement].

Viharas, or Buddhist monasteries, continued to be the home of religious exercises. It was in one of these viharas in the mountains near Purushaputra, the present Peshawur, that Cháraka, a descendant of the Northern invaders, had decided to join the brotherhood. The vihara which Cháraka entered was excavated in the solid rock of an idyllic gorge. A streamlet gurgled by, affording to the hermits abundance of fresh water, and the monks harvested fruit and vegetables from near their cave dwellings.

The rocky walls were covered with ornaments. The monks intoned solemn chants. A passage in one of them ran:

Calming the mind;
In solitude our souls are still and prepared in silence
To find the truth by degrees.

The chanting went on:

"We follow His lead
Who taught us to read."

A venerable old monk said "There is a young man with us who desires to be admitted to the brotherhood."

The abbot replied: "Let him come forward."

It was Cháraka; and when he stepped into the middle of the brethren, the abbot asked: "What is your name and what your desire?"

Cháraka knelt down, saying: "My name is Cháraka. Raise me up to the height of spiritual perfection, please."

The abbot then said to the brotherhood: "This man Cháraka, is free from all obstacles to ordination. He has an alms-bowl."

These words were three times repeated, and there was no dissenting voice, so Cháraka recited the four main prohibitions: that an ordained monk must abstain from carnal indulgence, from theft of any kind, from killing, and from sad boasts.

2. The Novice

Cháraka the novice had a sonorous voice. To all appearances the Brotherhood had made a good acquisition; but the soul of the novice was full of dissatisfaction. The life of a monk was so different from what he had expected Sometimes he was startled. He wanted Nirvana bliss and its fullness, not extinction.

The venerable Subhuti thought this bright newcomer might be entangled in the meshes of a spiritual vanity. He recited to Cháraka:

Throughout the world ambition is unfurled;
But from all vanity Tathagatas are free."

Cháraka knew that there were fools among men considered saints. He was yearning for life, not for death, for a fullness of melody and a wreath of harmony, not for the stillness of the broken gong. A chill came over him, and he shrank from the ideal of saintal-mental suicide. "No, no!" he groaned.

3. The God-Problem

Buddha was spoken of as the teacher of gods and men; he was worshipped with a reverence which was peculiar to him. Life is taken seriously in a Buddhist monastery. When Cháraka spoke of God, a brother, Kevaddha, said: "Maybe you mean Krishna, the avatar of love, he who danced with all the shepherdesses at once?"

"My question refers to no one of the gods," replied the novice, "but to God".

Kevaddha exclaimed: "Ah, I see!" You do not mean any of the several gods, but God, saying: 'I do not want bananas, nor mangoes, nor grapes, nor pears, nor prunes, nor apples, nor pomegranates, I want fruit! Fruit in general!'"

"Be so good to understand what I mean. I mean him who made us, the Eternal Law of life."

"Well, well," replied Kevaddha, "But did you ever consider every one must find the path of salvation himself?"

Cháraka said, "He may be different from what we surmise him to be; true, and beautiful."

Kevaddha replied, "Children need toys and the immature need gods. Novice, you are a worshipper of Brahma!" Then he told a story.

4. Kevaddha's Story

There was a priest in Varanasi who was an honest fellow. The priest visited the gods of the higher heavens and approached their ruler, the great Brahma, and said: "Are you truly a living being?"

The great Brahma rose from his seat and approached the priest, saying: "You do not know. Further, the question ought never to have been put like that. The question ought to be: "Can water, fire and earth find a footing inside?

"The answer is: "In the realm of bright radiance, eternal light, the footing lies.""

"Then the priest understood the Supreme Being as Bright Light: If we desire to attain, somehow our effort are to be like him, to become lamps ourselves.

5. The Confession

The young novice was otherwise left to his own thoughts he began to ponder on the uselessness of the hermit's life. When he had familiarised himself with all the Sutras and wise sayings he felt that the religious discourses were becoming tedious.

Weeks went by. One evening all the brethren were gathered together. The senior monk arose and said, "Today is full moon, a fit day for unburdening our hearts. Those who are free from the consciousness of guilt, let them be silent."

A tall figure rose slowly and stood there quietly, motionless, before he lifted his head and began to speak. "Venerable father," he said and sobbed like a child.

The abbot encouraged the penitent brother to make a full confession. "Do not despair," he said.

"I entered the brotherhood with wrong aspirations," replied the novice. "My holiness is mockery; my piety is not genuine; I am false to myself; I am not worthy to wear the yellow robe."

"You are not expected to be perfect," replied the abbot."

Said Cháraka. "There is something wrong. I am a heretic on the wrong road in the wrong direction. I feel the grievousness of my stupid errors and am anxious to be led out of the darkness. I want to comprehend the deepest truths; I want to know and to taste the highest bliss; I want to accomplish the greatest deeds."

"Then you are worldly," suggested the abbot inquiringly.

"That my be," replied the novice; "I do not hate life. I love God. That is my fault."

The good abbot did not know what to say. Whether there was something wrong with the novice, no one could exactly say. He was not a Brahman, but a descendant of a noble family. By God he meant all that is right and good and true in the world and without whom there can be no enlightenment."

"Very well," said the abbot, "there is no sin in loving an Enlightened One, a Tathagata, either. The divinity of the gods is less than the noble life of a Bodhisattva."

Subhuti arose: "Cháraka is a man of deep comprehension and of an earnest temper. There is a philosopher living in the kingdom of Madadha, by the name of Asvaghosha." So Subhuti proposed to write a letter of introduction to Asvaghosha commending the brother Cháraka to his care and suggesting to him to dispel his doubts and to establish him.

The abbot agreed, and the general opinion among the brethren was in favour of sending Cháraka to the kingdom of Magadha to the philosopher Asvaghosha to have his doubts dispelled in the faith of Buddha.

Before they could carry out their plan the session was interrupted by a messenger from the royal court of Gandhara, who inquired for a novice by the name of Cháraka, a man well versed in medicine and other learned arts. A dreadful epidemic had spread in the country, and the old king had died while two of his sons were afflicted with the disease and now lay at the point of death. The oldest son and heir to the throne was in the field defending his country against the Parthians and some mountaineers of the East, nominally subject to the kingdom of Magadha but practically independent, had utilised the opportunity afforded by these circumstances to descend into the fertile valleys of Gandhara and to pillage the country.

Now, a special awe attached to Cháraka since it was known that the young king knew of him and sent a special messenger to call him back to the capital.

The abbot turned again to Cháraka saying, "Since you have openly laid bare the state of your mind, there is not such falsehood in you. I find no fault with your conduct; should you find that you cannot remain a monk, you must know that there is no law that obliges you to remain in the Brotherhood against your will."

The abbot then granted Cháraka permission to obey the king's call, saying, "You are free to leave the order in peace and goodwill, but do not leave your doubts unsettled: As soon as you have attended to the pressing duties which will engage your attention at the capital, make a pilgrimage to the Asvaghosha in the kingdom of Magadha. He will be a better adviser than I. This I enjoin on you."

6. Gandhara

The fogs of the rainy season obscured the way, so the two men reached the capital only when the shades of evening were settling on the valley. One of the princes had died and Chandana (commonly called Kaníshka), the third and youngest son of the king, was thought to be critically ill.

Cháraka was at once conducted to the royal palace. He was ushered into the dimly lighted bedroom of Prince Kaníshka. Cháraka stood motionless and watched the heavy breathing of the patient. Cháraka and Kaníshka had for some time been educated together and were intimate friends. To Princess Kamalavati, the king's daughter who stood nearby, he whispered,

"His condition is very bad, but not yet hopeless. We must adjust the diet to the condition of the patient."

Cháraka gave his instructions to the princess and the other attendants and then sat down quietly. When Kaníshka awoke from his restless slumber, he extended his hand and tried to speak, but the physician hushed him, saying: "Keep quiet."

"I will," whispered Kaníshka. "Tell my sister to call Matura to my bedside."

The scion of a noble Gandhara family, had served his country and was presently at the capital. He came and waited till Cháraka gave him permission to see the patient.

In this interview the prince explained to Matura that he had to keep the mountaineers out of the kingdom, saying, "Serve me as a chancellor in this critical situation. Raise troops to expel the marauders, but at the same time exhaust diplomatic methods."

Matura took charge of state affairs and Cháraka and Kamalavati united in attending to the treatment of the sick prince. Kaníshka survived and regained strength, first slowly, very slowly, then more rapidly, till he felt that he was past all danger.

But the mountaineers renewed their raids, and the king of Magadha was too weak to interfere with his stubborn vassals. The prince accordingly declared war on the kingdom of Magadha. He raised an army, and the young men of the peasantry, who had suffered much from this state of unrest, gladly let themselves to be enlisted.

7. Kanisha

The preparations for war against Magadha there came tidings from the Parthian frontier that the troops of Gandhara had gained a decisive victory, but the king himself had died on the battle-field. The crown now passed to Kaníshka who deemed it his first duty to overcome the enemies of his nation. Cháraka was requested to accompany him in the field, and Matura remained behind as chancellor of the state.

Cháraka loved the princess. She had been kindly disposed toward him from childhood; but now she admired him too, after watching him at the bedside of her brother. When the two parted she said smilingly: "Take care of my brother, and be good to yourself, for my sake."

Cháraka stood bewildered. He felt his cheeks flushing, and did not know what to think or say. He was not sure whether it was right for him to accept and press the beautiful woman's hand that was offered him in unaffected friendliness and with maidenly innocence.

He stood before her like a schoolboy. He stammered; his head drooped; and at last covering his eyes with his hand, he began to sob. At that moment Kaníshka approached to bid his sister goodbye, and very soon Cháraka and Kamalavati parted.

While the king and his physician were riding side by side, Kaníshka inquired about the trouble which had stirred Cháraka to tears. Cháraka said: "It is all my fault. When your sister bade me farewell, I became aware of a budding love toward her in my soul. I am weak, and that brought tears to my eyes."

"Do you think love a sin?" inquired the king.

"It is not celibacy," replied Cháraka.

"You ought to know more about it."

"Alas!" sighed Cháraka, "I am not fit to be a monk."

King Kaníshka asked, "Is your soul burdened with sin?"

"My heart is full of passion, I would fathom the mysteries of being and comprehend the law of existence, its source and its purpose. There is a yearning in my breast, to be useful to others, and to be rooted in the mysterious ground from which springs all life. I am a reproduction of the life impulses that preceded me, and I yearn for a union with that eternal substratum of all life which will never pass away.

The Tathagata has discovered the way of emancipation, which is the eightfold noble path of righteousness. Now, I am charmed with love. Love is life-giving, heart-gladdening, courage-inspiring! I admire heroism, the wild heroism of the battle-field! I long for wisdom, not the wisdom of the monks, but practical science which teaches us the why and wherefore of things and imparts to us the wizard's power over nature. Now, a solution I cannot grasp, and I call it God. However, I have been told here is one man in the world who can help me in my distress, and that is Asvaghosha of Magadha."

"Asvaghosha of Magadha!" replied the king. "Very well! We are waging war with the king of Magadha. Let the prize of combat be the possession of Asvaghosha!"

8. Magadha

Sometimes war cannot be avoided. Such was Kaníshka's maxim, and he acted accordingly. Subahu, king of Magadha, met his adversary in the field near Pataliputra with an army that had been rapidly assembled, but he could not stay the invader's victorious progress. In several engagements his troops were scattered to the four winds, his elephants captured, and he was obliged to retire to the fortress of Pataliputra. There he was besieged, and when he saw that no hope of escape was left he decided to make no further resistance and sent a messenger to king Kaníshka, asking him for terms of peace.

"If you are anxious to produce peace, come out to me in person and I will listen to your proposition. I wish to see you. Let us meet face to face, and we will consider our difficulties," was the message from King Kanisha. Subahu came out with his minister and accompanied by his retinue and was asked, "Why did you not render justice to me when I asked for it?"

"I wanted to preserve a peace at home," said Subahu. "In other words," interrupted King Kaníshka sternly, "your weakness prevented you from punishing the evil-doers under your jurisdiction, and being incapable of governing your kingdom, you lost your power and the right to rule."

"I have a clean conscience; You have carried the war into my country. You are the offender; and the Lord Buddha be praised!"

Kaníshka mastered his anger and replied calmly: "Are you so ignorant as not to know that a ruler's first duty is justice? To me you refused justice!"

"Man's first duty is to seek salvation,' replied the king of Magadha, "not by harshness but by piety," Subahu exclaimed. "What is the world if we but gain salvation?"

Kaníshka stared at the speaker, and then said, "Your piety is not of the right kind. This world is the place in which the test of truth must be made. I will not deprive you of your crown and title, but I insist on the penalty of three hundred million gold pieces. You shall remain king with the understanding that from now on you take council with me on all questions of political importance, for I see clearly that you stand in need of advice. Instead of three hundred million gold pieces I will accept the bowl which the Tathagata, the Blessed Buddha, carried in his hand when he was walking on earth, and as a ransom for your royal person which I hold here besieged in Pataliputra I request from you the philosopher Asvaghosha whose fame has spread through all the countries where the religion of enlightenment is preached."

The vanquished king said: "Truly, the bowl of Buddha and the philosopher Asvaghosha are amply worth three hundred million gold pieces. Yet you are generous and your conditions of peace are fair."

"Only worldly wise," said Kaníshka, embracing the king of Magadha.

9. Asvaghosha

Kaníshka was in good spirits. He was elated by his success, but affable to all who approached him. In a short time he had become the most powerful monarch of India Princes of smaller dominions willingly acknowledged his superiority. Peace was established, commerce and trade flourished, and Greek sculptors flocked to Gandhara, transplanting the art of their home to the soil of India.

It was the beginning of India's golden age which lasted as long as the Dharma, the doctrine of the Tathagata, was kept pure and undefiled. Missionaries went out who reached Tibet and China and even far off Japan.

Kaníshka and the king of Magadha enjoyed each other's company. One day they stood in front of a statue of Buddha and watched the graceful movements of a princess who led a flower procession in front of if and breathed, "If the princess will accept me I shall lead her as queen to my capital and she shall be the mother of the kings of Gandhara to come."

Magadha delivered to his powerful ally the sacred bowl and called for Asvaghosha, the old philosopher. Asvaghosha arrived at the Deer Park, bowed reverently and said: "Praised be the Lord Buddha! Gladness fills my heart when I think how your majesty treats your vanquished foe."

"Good, my friend," replied Kaníshka; "My knowledge, however, is imperfect and even my learned friend Cháraka is full of doubts on subjects of grave importance. Therefore I invite you to accompany me to Gandhara, where my people and myself are sorely in need of your wisdom and experience."

"Your invitation is flattering," said the philosopher, "but leave me at home. I am an aged man and could scarcely stand the exertion of the journey. Should I grow stronger I shall be glad to visit you in Gandhara."

"Cháraka!" said the king, "have a room fitted up for Asvaghosha in our residence at Varanasi, and so long as we remain here he shall pass the time in our company. Let him be present at our meals, and when we rest in the evening from the labours of the day let us listen to the words of the philosopher who is regarded as the best interpreter of the significance of Buddha's teachings."

10. Amitábha

One evening when King Kaníshka together with his friend Cháraka enjoyed the company of Asvaghosha, the youthful ruler of Gandhara 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 Asvaghosha: "Buddha is neither a god nor a man. We worship in Buddha wisdom and goodness, and application of the truth."

Cháraka interposed: "We do not speak of the gods, but of God, which means divinity itself. What would Buddha have taught about God?"

"You ask a question it will take a book to answer. But I shall be brief. Certainly, God 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. Recognition of this law gives us light on the conditions of our existence so that we may find the right path: We call it Dharmakaya, the body of the good law, or Amitábha, the source of infinite light, or by some other name."

"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 Asvaghosha. "The highest truth is eternal. What is more, Buddha can be recognised with the mind's eye alone."

"Then Amitábha is the principle of being as much as Brahma?" enquired Cháraka.

"Brahma is a personification of the principle of being," replied Asvaghosha, "but Amitábha is the standard of being. Amitábha is the intrinsic law which moulds life and develops it sensibly. The sage of the Shakyas [Buddha] is one ray of its light only. Wherever wisdom appears there is an incarnation, more or less partial, more or less complete, of Amitábha."

"Mark the doctrine and act accordingly," said Asvaghosha further. "You may call Divine Goodness God or Amitábha, or Allhood, or the eternal and the universal law. It exists, it is spiritual and it is and remains for all that exists the necessary norm; it is the rule and regulation. It is omnipresent in the universe, invisible. It is the womb of existence; it is that which gives definite shape to beings according conditions.

You have Amitábha in two aspects: (1) as the formation of particular existence and (2) as the general law of universal types.

Enjoyment of life is not wrong and the love of husband and wife is no cause for repentance when it runs well.

Those who mortify their bodies," continued Asvaghosha, "have not understood the doctrine."

Cháraka extended his hand and said: "Thank you, venerable sir. I have proved useful to King Kaníshka as a physician, perhaps also as a friend, and as a disciple of the Tathagata; 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 Asvaghosha. "In the material body the spiritual truths of goodness and love and veracity are actualized. Live in ennobling ways; that counts. 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 realized, mere abstract goodness will become apparent only in the vicissitudes of actual life."

"If I could serve Buddha as a householder, my highest ambition would be to be a brother-in-law to King Kaníshka," replied Cháraka.

Asvaghosha said with a smile, "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. In it is also perfection and sanctification of love, and joy, and family ties. We do not aim at 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 Asvaghosha added pensively: "The more the truth spreads, the more shall all relations and conditions be transfigured."

"Your instruction has benefited me too," said Kaníshka to the philosopher, and turning round to the king of Magadha, he continued, "If your daughter, the Princess Bhadrasri would consent to accept my hand and accompany me to Gandhara as my wife and queen!"

"My august friend," replied the king of Magadha, "the Princess worships you. She beholds in you the restorer of her father's fortunes. It is but for you to make her admiration blossom out into rich love and wifely devotion."

11. The Conspiracy

Asvagosha conversed daily with Kaníshka, and not only his friends Cháraka and the king of Magadha, but also his chosen bride, princess Bhadrasri, were now wont to join.

One day Subahu was detained by important affairs of state, and when he appearded in the circle of philosophical friends, he was full of distress.

"Friend," said Kaníshka, "what disturbs your mind?"

"Dear friend and ally," replied king Subahu, "it is your life that is endangered And I am given to understand that unless I join conspirators against you they will elect another king. But my duty is to save you or to die with you!"

Kaníshka was a man of deeds, not of words. He bade Cháraka to hoist on the tower of the palace a blue flag, which was the secret sign to summon the Gandhara generals that were camping in the vicinity of the town. He next asked the king to call for the treacherous prime minister who was at the head of the conspiracy.

The prime minister entered, and the king spoke to him about his fidelity to King Subahu and the kingdom of Magadha, and said that he himself, anxious to honour the people of Magadha, wished to show some recognition and confer some favour on him, the most faithful servant of King Subahu.

The prime minister felt uneasy, for his fellow conspirators, generals from the south, were waiting for a signal to overpower the few foreign guards, to close the gates, and take possession of the palace.

King Kaníshka and Subahu went with him to a hall where the generals were assembled. The conspirators were dumbfounded when they saw at the side of their most hated enemy their own sovereign accompanied by the prime minister. Kaníshka addressed the conspirators with great cordiality and said that the two nations Magadha and Gandhara should forthwith be like brothers, and that they would join.

King Kaníshka then told the story of Brahmadatta, the powerful king of Benares, how he had conquered the little kingdom of Kosala and had the captive king Long-suffering executed in Benares. But Prince Long-life escaped and, unknown to any one, entered the service of King Brahmadatta, whose confidence he gained by his talents and reliability. Thus he became King Brahmadatta's personal attendant.

Kaníshka was a good story-teller. So the conspirators were as though spellbound and forgot their evil designs; nor did they notice how the hall began to fill more and more with the officers of the king of Gandhara. They listened to the adventures of Prince Long-life; how on a hunt he was left alone with King Brahmadatta in the forest, how the prince drew his sword, how the king was frightened when he awoke and learned that he was in the power of his enemy's son; and finally how each granted the other his life and made peace, thus demonstrating the wisdom of the maxim, that hatred cannot be appeased by hatred, but is appeased by love, and by love only.

When the king finished the story of Prince Long-life, the hall was crowded with armed officers of the Gandhara army, and seeing his advantage, King Kaníshka, feeling the satisfaction of one who had gained a great victory in battle, paused and glanced with a good-natured look over the party of conspirators. He remained as self-possessed as a schoolmaster teaching a class of wayward boys. "I am anxious to be at peace with all the world," he said, "but what shall be done with traitors and conspirators who misunderstand my good intentions?" Then addressing the prime minister of Magadha by his full name and title, he added: "Let me hear your advice, my friend. I meant to promote your welfare, while you attempted to take my life."

The prime minister sobbed: "You are in wisdom like the Enlightened One!"

King Kaníshka made no answer. The conspirators, one by one, joined the kneeling prime minister. Then the king saw Asvaghosha in the audience, approached the sage respectfully and said: "Now, most reverend sir, it is your turn to speak, for I want you to tell me what a king ought to do to those men who conspire to take his life. Would it be wise for him to follow the behest of the Tathagata and to grant them forgiveness?"

Said Asvaghosha: "Pronounce judgement according to your own discretion."

"Thank you. I have learned that to hate none is a sign of highest wisdom. But a king cannot let crime go unpunished. The duty of a judge is justice. Rise, gentlemen, and if you will promise to banish from your heart all falsehood, spite, and envy from now on, come and shake hands with your august sovereign, the king of Magadha, and myself, his ally and brother."

12. The Man-Eating Tiger

King Kaníshka conquered his enemies but by the superiority of his mind.

It was at this moment that a messenger arrived and told that a man-eating tiger has been seen in its garden and parks, and people in the neighbourhood were sore afraid of the beast."

The generals of the South were allowed to go to hunt the tiger. They set out the same evening, while the two kings and their retinue with many officers followed them on the following day; Cháraka, however, stayed behind at the command of King Kaníshka, to observe the courtiers and councilors of King Subahu and keep an eye on the populace of the city, the capital of Magadha.

Cháraka sat at a window in company with the venerable Asvaghosha to see the suite of the two kings with their hunters and elephants leaving the city, and Cháraka said to the sage: "My reverend friend, I have seen how much evil can be avoided by kingly discretion. Then what about Amitábha, the omnipresent wisdom source?"

"My young friend," replied Asvaghosha, "No being has a right to blame Amitábha for existing. Beings exist by their own karma under the influence of circumstances.

"By Amitábha all beings are merely educated. Some have gained more insight than others. Amitábha is the same to all, but diverse creatures make different use of the benefits of truth.

"Amitábha is not a god that would assert himself or care for worship and adoration. He is not Ishvara, not Sakra, not Indra, not Brahma: He is the good law, the order and intrinsic harmony and the bliss of goodness.

"We are not creatures of Amitábha, but educated by Amitábha and raised by him: We are Amitábha's children.

"Ask your own self, but you grew to be what you are because you wanted to too."

"If I am determined to love life," asked Cháraka, "is it wrong and shall I be punished for it by suffering?"

Replied Asvaghosha: "There is neither punishment nor reward, my son, yet there is cause and effect. And what authority has any one to command his brother beings? The ten commandments are ten ways pointed out by the Tathagata how to avoid ten evils. He who does not take the Tathagata's advice must bear the consequences. As to love of life, there is nothing wrong in it. If you love life, you must not be afraid of suffering, but bear its ills nobly.

Avail yourself of the light of Amitábha. Let your light shine in the world and you will be like your master, Buddha-Amitábha, the omni-benevolent source of all illumination."  

13. The Buddhist Abbot and the Brahmin

King Kaníshka stayed at the summer palace to witness the tiger hunt, a Buddhist abbot came and told that a Shiva shrine close by was neglected."

"What can I do about it?" queried Cháraka.

Asvaghosha said,"The Shiva worshippers may be mistaken in their religious views, but in their own way do good service to the people."

Asvaghosha also said to clarify matters: "The good law is supreme, and it is a father omni-benevolent, as we rightly designate it. It is the measure of righteousness. Amitábha is love, and free from the vanity of egoism. Amitábha cares not for prayer, is indifferent to worship, and cannot be flattered by praise, but the good law is thwarted when his children err. Amitábha remains the same forever, all creatures are his disciples, he guides them, he teaches them, he is like a father to them. So far as they partake of his nature, they are his children."

"When I was young," said Asvaghosha, "I was a Brahmin myself. I know there is much that is good in the Brahman faith. I abandoned it, because the doctrine of the Tathagata was superior. The Tathagata says that those who believe the method of salvation consists in adoration, worship, and prayer, are subjected to a doctrine for children.

"Brahma, the Absolute, is generally interpreted to mean Being in general, but Amitábha is Enlightenment. We go for goodness, truth, inward purity.

"By Amitábha we understand the ever-light of comprehension. This light is the reality. An inborn standard of right and wrong is Amitábha. We have to ground ourselves on that which we know, and Amitábha is certainly not a limited self-consciousness, but a norm that is higher than any individual.

"We know something but not all about Amitábha. He is the Dharmakaya, the embodiment of the good law. He is the bliss of good deeds. The philosophers, scientists, poets, of the future, the thinkers and dreamers of mankind, will find in Amitábha a wonderful source of inspiration. The Tathagata's way of life urges the practical issues of life, and does not turn vague."

14. The Parable of the Elephant

Asvaghosha saw that every eye was intent upon him, and so he told the story of the white elephant. He said:

"There was a noble and mighty white elephant. He had a strong trunk and long tusks. Trained by a good master he was willing and serviceable in all the work that elephants are put to. This noble and mighty animal was taken by his trainer to the land of the blind. It was noised about in the land of the blind that the king of all beasts, the wisest of all animals, the strongest and yet the meekest and kindliest of creatures, had appeared in their country. So the wise men and teachers of the blind came to the place where the elephant was and everyone began to investigate his shape and figure and form.

When the elephant was gone they met and discussed the problem of the noble and mighty beast. There were some who said he was like a great thick snake. Others said he was like an average sized snake. The former had felt the trunk, the latter the tail. Also, there were some who claimed that he was like a high column, others declared he was large and bulky like a big barrel, still others maintained he was smooth and hard but tapering. Some of the blind had taken hold of one of the legs, others had reached the main body, and still others had touched the tusks.

Every one proposed his view and they litigated, bickered, quarrelled, and called each other names. Each one imprecated all the others, and each one denounced all the others, and they abused, scolded, anathematised, and excommunicated, and finally every one of them swore that every one else was a liar and accursed heretic. Everyone of these blind men had honest intentions and was sure of having the truth and relying on his own experience. In turn they formed schools and sects and factions and behaved in exactly the same way as you see the priests of the different creeds behave.

But the master of the mighty elephant knows them all, he knows that every one of them has a parcel of the truth, that every one is right in his way, but wrong in taking his parcel to be the whole truth.

Asvaghosha also told: "None of these sectarians observed the fact that the elephant was perfectly white and a marvel to see, for all of them were blind. Yet I would not say that they were either dishonest or hypocrites. They had investigated the truth to the best of their ability.

The master of the elephant is the Tathagata, the Enlightened One, the Buddha. He has brought the white elephant representing the truth, the noble and mighty elephant, symbolising strength and wisdom and devotion, into the land of the blind, and he who listens to the Tathagata will understand all the schools, and all the sects and all the factions that are in possession of parcels of the truth. His doctrine is all-comprehensive, and he who takes refuge in Him will cease to bicker, contend, and quarrel."

When Asvaghosha had finished the parable of the noble and mighty elephant, the two kings returned from the summer palace carrying with them in a solemn procession the slain tiger, and close behind on a white charger decked with garlands and gay ribbons, rode the hero of the day, one of the generals from the South, whose dart had struck the tiger with fatal precision and death-dealing power.

"Behold the hero of the day!” said Cháraka. "And had the conspiracy not miscarried the same man might now be an assassin and a miscreant.”

Asvaghosha added, "The purpose a life is devoted to, also gives worth to a life. Our aim is to avoid wrong doing and to let right and justice and loving-kindness prevail. Says the Tathagata:

Commit no wrong, but do good deeds,
And let your heart be pure.
All Buddhas teach this true doctrine,
Which will continually endure.
[Dhammapada 183]

15. The Double Wedding

Cháraka found his mental equilibrium by degrees and not without difficulties, whereas his friend Kaníshka seemed to possess it naturally. In the meantime King Kaníshka had sent a messenger to his chancellor and vice-regent at Gandhara, Matura, to bring Princess Kamalavati to Benares.

Princess Kamalavati arrived and was betrothed to Cháraka. Asvaghosha solemnised the nuptials of both couples, Kaníshka with Bhadrasri, and Cháraka with Kamalavati; and he read to them:

"Sweeter than fatherhood and motherhood is an old life spent in truth and purity; Sweeter still to reach enlightenment and keep free from evil." [Dhammapada 332-333]
When the marriage ceremony was over a feast was held at the palace.

When his friends praised him during the fiest, Cháraka replied: "My science is a beginning only. The Tathagata set the wheel rolling; it is now our duty to follow up, to spread enlightenment, and to increase it. Amitábha is without bounds; thus the possibilities of invention are inexhaustible.

But the enlightenment of our souls is most important. Therefore we praise the Tathagata [Buddha]."


Amitábha extracts from the story of Paul Carus, Mahayana Buddhist literature  

Carus, Paul. Amitábha. A Story of Buddhist Theology. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1906.

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