RECENTLY, I wrote a paper using Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative to interpret Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (The Way of the Bodhisattva) 3:18-22, which was written in the seventh century AD. This weekend I’m in the middle of a paper on Ashvaghosa’s Buddhacharita (Life of the Buddha), written in the first or second century AD. While re-reading it I noticed that the verses I worked with from Bodhicharyavatara actually borrow heavily from Buddhacharita.
First, here’s Buddhacharita 12:13, as translated from the Sanskrit by Patrick Olivelle. It’s a eulogy spoken by the Buddha-to-be to his first pre-enlightenment teacher, Aradah:
As a light for a man longing to see,
as a guide for a man longing to trek,
As a boat for a man longing to cross,
so do I regard your philosophy.
And, Buddhacharita 13:62-64, spoken by a god to the demon Mara as the later was unleashing his armies on the Buddha-to-be to frighten him away from attaining enlightenment:
When the world is swept along crooked paths,
he toils in search of the right path.
So it’s no more right to harass that guide
than to harass a skilled navigator
while the caravan is lost.
When creatures are lost in the great darkness;
this man is being made a lamp of wisdom.
It’s no more right for you, a gentleman,
to extinguish it than to extinguish
a lamp set up to shine in the darkness.
Seeing the world plunged in the great flood of samsara
and unable to find the farther shore,
This man is working to ferry that world across;
what gentleman would entertain
wicked thoughts against him?
Now, here’s Bodhicharyavatara 3:18-19, as translated from the Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group:
May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to cross the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
May I be an isle for those who yearn for land,
A lamp for those who long for light;
For all who need a resting place, a bed;
For those who need a servant, may I be their slave.
According to Vesna A. and B. Alan Wallace’s critical translation of Bodhicharyavatara (titled A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life), the original Sanskrit version of verse 19, above, doesn’t actually contain the line, “May I be an isle for those who yearn for land.” Apparently that bit was just added in the Tibetan translation. So, the Sanskrit version of Bodhicharyavatara is even more strikingly close to the metaphors in Buddhacharita.
In Buddhacharita, the Buddha-to-be compares Aradah’s philosophy to a light, a guide, and a boat; in Bodhicharyavatara Shantideva wishes to become a guide, a boat, and a light. In Buddhacharita, a god compares the Buddha-to-be to a guide, a light, and a ferryman; in Bodhicharyavatara Shantideva wished to become a guide, a ferry, and a light.
• • •
I wonder if these were common Sanskrit poetic conventions that both were drawing on, or if Shantideva was drawing specifically from Buddhacharita. I also wonder how each section would match up in the original Sanskrit, as opposed to their respective English translations.
Alas, both questions are beyond my abilities to answer. It is a neat discovery, though, and I think it says something about Shantideva’s intent. He wasn’t aspiring for just any damn thing or simply pulling aspirations out of thin air. He was aspiring to be like the Buddha and the philosophies that helped him along his path to enlightenment.
Note: This post was originally posted as “Tracing the Threads: Asvaghosa and Santideva” at Angelheaded Hipster on 3 March 2009.
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