When Kanishka, the great Buddhist emperor of the Kushana dynasty, rode out of the northwest and across central India, he conquered everything in his path. The ideal of Ashoka had inspired the religious and social policies of a succession of western Indian kingdoms, and his exemplary statecraft impelled them to seek a new Indian unity. Kanishka came to the gates of Pataliputra, and though its king resisted furiously, the city fell. Legend holds that Kanishka demanded nine hundred million gold pieces as indemnity for the war. The king could not provide even a small fraction of that sum, but he went before the emperor like a defeated monarch prepared to come to terms. He offered Kanishka three treasures, each of which was worth a third of the amount demanded. The first was a fowl which was said to embody compassion. The second was a begging bowl which had belonged to the Buddha. The third was Bhikshu Ashvaghosha, a renowned playwright and master of Buddhist philosophy. Kanishka accepted the three as full payment, and Ashvaghosha joined him in Purushapura (Peshawar) and became the spiritual counsellor for the court.
Ancient chroniclers differ on the details of Ashvaghosha's birth and life. He is said to have been born in eastern, western or southern India – but not in the north – into a Brahmin family. His exceptional intelligence manifested almost from the beginning, for he excelled in every department of knowledge even as a young student. Fiercely Brahminical in his convictions, he enthusiastically and readily defeated the simple Buddhists he encountered in debate. Longing for more challenging confrontations, he journeyed to Magadha in central India, where he could dispute Buddhists in one of their strongholds. His dialectical eloquence is said to have silenced a bell in a vihara, and he sent a shock wave through the Buddhist world. His notoriety brought him to the attention of Parshva, the northern Buddhist thinker whom the Chinese call the eleventh Indian patriarch. Parshva decided not only to debate Ashvaghosha but to convert him. He travelled to Magadha, where Ashvaghosha enthusiastically accepted the challenge. Parshva proposed that the defeated individual should become the disciple of the victor, and Ashvaghosha accepted. He also deferred to the patriarch's age and permitted him to speak first.
To the surprise of the large assembly, Parshva did not burst into metaphysical discourse or an elaborate line of argumentation. Rather, he asked just one question: "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?" To their even greater surprise, Ashvaghosha remained silent for a time, then bowed his head in submission to the patriarch. Thus, he became a shramana and began to study the Sutras. He was not immediately convinced of Parshva's wisdom, of course, but when he demonstrated his integrity by submitting to the conditions of the debate without cant or conditionality, Parshva manifested himself in several luminous transformations. Then Ashvaghosha knew that his new Teacher was no ordinary human being, and he joyfully undertook the life of the disciple. Parshva returned to the north, leaving his closest disciple, Punyayashas, to instruct Ashvaghosha. According to Taranatha, however, Ashvaghosha was defeated by Aryadeva in a battle of mantramic magic. While wrestling with his bitter defeat, he happened to read a Buddhist text in which his conversion and destiny were prophesied by the Buddha, and he joined the Sangha at once.
Ashvaghosha's genius shone in many directions. He wrote plays on Buddhist themes, though only the Shariputra-prakarana (Play about Shariputra) survives save for scattered fragments. He developed the kavya style of Sanskrit poetry and became the father of Sanskrit drama, remaining its undisputed master until the advent of Kalidasa three centuries later. He composed epics, at least two of which survive, including the Buddhacarita, the first complete life of the Buddha. Chinese records tell of seven philosophical works attributed to him, including works which foreshadow the standpoint of Nagarjuna. Two of these are time-honoured spiritual classics – the Mahalankarasutrashastra (Book of Great Glory), consisting of stories illustrative of retributive karma, and the Mahayanashraddhotpadashastra (The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana), a text fundamental to most schools of Mahayana thought. There is also a tradition that claims Ashvaghosha composed a musical score for voice and instruments around the theme of shunyata and the emptiness of worldly delusions. It is said that so many people, including a number of princes of Pataliputra, were moved by the piece to join the Sangha that the king forbade its performance out of fear that his kingdom might otherwise be depopulated.
Little is known of Ashvaghosha's later life. After the death of Parshva, Punyayashas became patriarch, and upon his demise, Ashvaghosha received the title. During the reign of Kanishka, a fourth Buddhist council was organized by Ashvaghosha. He used his remarkable rhetorical skills to elucidate the arcane concepts and subtle logic of Mahayana metaphysics and ethics, winning northern Buddhist acceptance of them. This congregation did not have the universal representation found in earlier councils, however, and southern Indian and Sinhalese monks did not attend. The Awakening of Faith may have been written for this occasion as an affirmation of the utterly transcendental nature of ultimate reality, which is both the goal and the means for reaching it. When Ashvaghosha disappeared from human history about A.D. 150, he left a sacred legacy which has served as the fountainhead of Buddhist schools and doctrines from Gandhara and Central Asia to China, Korea and Japan.
In The Awakening of Faith, Ashvaghosha sought to free the receptive mind from every form of bias, ism and particularized viewpoint by using a few abstract and universal concepts in a philosophical dialectic to unfold spiritual consciousness. His clear rejection of philosophical dualism, pluralism, materialism and nihilism gives his teaching the superficial appearance of monism, though a thoughtful reading will show that his concepts are transcendental and open-textured, perhaps more akin to spiritual therapeutics than epistemology. His text opens with an invocation and closes with a promissory exhortation and benediction. The sections between these two move from above below, beginning with the absolute unity of the One Mind, its two fundamental aspects and its three great features – essence, attributes and influences – then applies the teaching in terms of faith and, finally, efficacious practice. The text is traditionally mnemonically summarized as a discourse on "One Mind, Two Aspects, Three Greatnesses, Four Faiths and Five Practices".
Beginning with an invocation of the Buddhas in the ten directions, the Dharma and the Sangha, Ashvaghosha outlined the contents of his text and indicated its purpose: to arouse faith in the Mahayana, banish doubts and nurture the seed of bodhichitta, the Buddha-consciousness. For Ashvaghosha, 'Mahayana' did not refer to a body of doctrine and practice distinct from that of the Hinayana or Theravada, but rather to the essence of reality – bhutatathata – without attribute or quality in itself and the ground of being as the One Mind. As bhutatathata, it is inconceivable and indescribable suchness, but it manifests as samsara, the round of birth and death, in three aspects. The first is its quintessential nature, the second comprises its attributes, which are collectively Tathagatagarbha, the womb or matrix of the Tathagata, and the third is its activity, the impulse towards good which makes it Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. It is a vehicle – yana – because the Buddhas ride it, and Bodhisattvas who ride it will become Buddhas. It can be called the One Mind because it is the hridaya and chitta, the heart and mind, of all sentient beings, the "soul of things".
The One Mind is the Absolute, bhutatathata, expressed in the temporal order, samsara. As the Absolute, it is transcendental, but as the round of birth and death, it is phenomenal. Bhutatathata should not be conceived of as outside the temporal order like a rather abstract extra-cosmic god, for it is coextensive with the kaleidoscope of phenomena. Bhutatathata and samsara are two dimensions of one reality, differing epistemologically but not ontologically. Meditation and right conduct constitute the raft which carries one across the sea of samsara to the infinite shore of reality, or, in an alchemical metaphor, the Alkahest or universal solvent which resolves sentient consciousness into its ultimate ground, the Absolute. Each human being lives at the nexus of these two dimensions, being essentially inseparable from the Absolute, yet through ignorance – avidya – an exile in the phenomenal realm. Tathagatagarbha is the connecting point, the embryo of Tathagata, which is bhutatathata in man. It is the seed of the Dharmakaya – the body of Pellucid Truth or Pure Reality – which is the plank of salvation for human beings lost in the fickle currents of samsara. Thus Tathagatagarbha is chittaprakriti, the essence of Mind, both parishuddha and prabhasvara, pure and radiant. The two aspects of the One Mind cannot be said to be identical, yet there is no duality involved. The Absolute suffuses the relative world of phenomenal consciousness as Alayavijnana, the universal treasury of mind, containing the seeds of ignorance as well as of Enlightenment.
Enlightenment is like Akasha, space, for it is Dharmadhatu, universal unity, and is therefore the Dharmakaya of the Tathagatas, who are said to abide in it eternally. Because human beings are unenlightened, it is necessary to speak of Enlightenment as if it occurred at some time. Yet, since Enlightenment is not an event in the temporal order, but rather its timeless transcendence, such language is only a heuristic device. Ordinary people advance towards Enlightenment by renouncing the tendency to draw conclusions. When shravakas, Pratyeka Buddhas and novice Bodhisattvas recognize personal perceptions for what they are, they free themselves from the snares of gross particularization and gain Enlightenment in appearance. Bodhisattvas who recognize the Dharmakaya but are not yet one with it achieve approximate Enlightenment. When they merge with the source of consciousness, they attain true Enlightenment, and they realize that it appears in two aspects, pure wisdom (prajna) and incomprehensible activity (karma). Alayavijnana dissolves for them, and they realize that there is no Enlightenment in time.
Non-enlightenment arose in Mind because of a disturbance – ignorant action, avidyakarma – which resulted in a distinction between subject and object, and this distinction produced the pervasive condition of dukha, misery. Consciousness of a perceiver led to awareness of an external world – ego-produced environment – and six kinds of phenomena resulted: sensation, memory, attachment, ideas or names, deeds which produce a sense of individuality, and suffering that expresses the loss of freedom in consciousness. Ashvaghosha analysed this process in meta-psychological detail and pointed to the process which sustains ignorance.
This spiritually soporific process can be reversed through discipline and effort which lead to nirvana, the condition of action without an actor.
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas incarnate in myriad guises to bring about the entrance of all beings into nirvana. They may use four methods of 'entertainment' – dana, giving; priyavacana, endearing speech; arthacarya, beneficial action; and samanartha, cooperation – the six paramitas or any mode that aids in perfecting bodhi, wisdom. Out of their boundless compassion, Mahakaruna, they do whatever is necessary to induce beings to tread the path to Enlightenment, whether by sudden or gradual means.
Ashvaghosha saw in the personalized concept of the Atman the single greatest block to Enlightenment. Whilst he affirmed the reality of the Mahayana, he argued that the aspirant must realize that there is neither a permanent personal self nor any permanent particular thing, that individuals and objects are neither rupa (form) nor chitta (mind), neither prajna (intelligence) nor vijnana (consciousness), neither abhava (non-being) nor bhava (being). Strictly speaking, they are inexplicable, although the Tathagata teaches by means of words and definitions as part of his skilfulness (upaya) in coaxing people to abandon delusion for tattvajnana, real knowledge. The Bodhisattva, who has renounced gross illusions yet still strives to merge with the Absolute through serving all beings, cultivates this skilfulness through practising truth, nurturing true repentance, strengthening the roots of merit (kushalamula) by reverencing the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and through mahapranidhana, great vows.
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, despite their innumerable virtues, powers and skilful means, cannot help human beings who do not make themselves receptive to Dharma.
Human beings prepare their minds by arousing faith, shraddha, in themselves. This faith is ultimately in bhutatathata, and specifically in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. It is perfected through five kinds of action: dana (giving), shila (right conduct), kshanti (patience), virya (constant energy), shamatha (tranquillity) and vidarshana (insight). The first three deal with compassionate action and self-restraint, which are nurtured by dauntless energy motivated by compassion. Shamatha is initially practised by withdrawal and meditation upon bhutatathata as alakshana, devoid of all attributes, uncreate and eternal. In time their consciousness will come to practise shamatha in all states of activity and withdrawal.
Many individuals cannot readily sustain meditation upon bhutatathata, attributeless reality, because they have insufficiently cultivated the root of merit over lives. They will be distracted by visions both horrible and alluring, including visions of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, by the crowd of memories or restless anticipation of the future. If the practitioner gains some facility in meditation, beings may appear to teach him supernormal powers, including clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, memory of previous lives, miraculous abilities and the destruction of passions. He or she may drift into some state of static abstraction or enter a supercelestial realm of idealized pleasures. Although these marvellous powers come naturally to the enlightened Arhat, they are the poisonous serpents hidden under Mara's delusive flowers for those who have not attained perfect wisdom. The aspirant should remind himself or herself that all the things of the world are nothing in themselves, and are in essence nirvana. Thus one should reject them as tempting mental hallucinations and turn towards the transcendent essence of Mind.
Meditation alone will not lead to the highest reality. Without clear intellectual insight, vidarshana, one will be estranged from compassion and seek the subtle selfishness of spiritual indolence. To avoid this error, one should contemplate seven truths. First of all, one should think of the transience of all things.
Thirdly, one should recognize that whatever has a body is impure, the lodging place of false views. One should see that ignorant minds take the unreal for the real. Whatever comes into existence should be thought of as a chimera, without reality. Sixthly, one should realize that absolute truth, Paramarthasatya, is not a product of the individuated mind and that no reasoning or analogy can encompass it. Finally, one should dwell on the fact of suffering as the invariable result of ignorance. In addition to meditation and contemplation, the aspirant should take the great vow to renounce the whole process of samsara, should nourish in himself or herself the seeds of compassion for all beings.
Those who follow this course of thought and action will be drawn inexorably, if gradually, to the Buddhakshetra, the Buddha-realm, wherein they may behold the World-Honoured One and gain immeasurable spiritual benefit. Their feet will be securely placed on the path that leads to an Enlightenment which, however distant it may seem in the future, is wholly out of time and therefore eternally present.