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From the Buddhacarita to the Fo suoxing zan

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On Buddhist kingship: from the Buddhacarita to the Fo suoxing zan (t192)

by Laura Lettere


Many scholarly works have addressed the paradox underlying the definition of kingship in early Buddhism: in order to administer his kingdom, protect his subjects and safeguard peace, the king must use violence (dan. d. a) to punish culprits; the use of violent methods is in tautological contradiction with the Buddhist rule of ahim. sā, or non-violence, and puts the king in a difficult position from the perspective of karmic retribution1.

Michael Zimmermann2 has worked on an interesting reconstruction of the relationship between kingship and punishment in Buddhist texts, and has concluded his review of early sources by dividing Buddhist sources into three phases, according to each text’s attitude towards kingship and the proposed solution for the problematic relationship between kingship and violence:

1. in Pāli sources we find the adoption of a Brahmanical idea of kingship, accompanied by a decalogue for the king (rājadhamma), and usually no explicit mention of karmic retribution3;

2. the second phase is characterized by a stern ethical position that gives no positive solution to the paradox of kingship – the king is condemned to

1. See Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism in Thailand against a Historical Background, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 196, p. 52, and Michael Zimmermann, Only a Fool Becomes a King: Buddhist Stances on Punishment, in Id. (ed.), Buddhism and Violence, Lumbini International Research Institute, Lumbini 26, pp. 213-2. For a general introduction on kingship in Ancient India see Jan Gonda, Ancient Indian Kingship from the Religious Point of View, in “Numen”, vol.

bad retribution and a wise person should better step back from this dangerous position;

3. from the Māhāyanic perspective the wise king is likened to a bodhisattva who punishes in order to teach proper behavior and for the sake of all his subjectspunishment becomes the manifestation of the bodhisattva’s compassion.

The present study will demonstrate that the presentation of kingship in Aśvaghos.a’s Buddhacarita follows the pattern described by Zimmermann in the first two stages: the portrayal of kingship in the Buddhacarita seems to move from the first attitude, proper to Pāli sources (second sarga), and to shift towards a more rigid attitude of rejection of kingship (ninth and eleventh sarga).

We have no means of ascertaining whether the third phase of Buddhist kingship – the Māhāyanic perspective of a bodhisattva-king – was ever represented in Aśvaghos.a’s Buddhacarita: we can only appreciate the first fourteen chapters of this Sanskrit poem, the last fourteen chapters having been lost, and we can only access the second half of the poem through the filter of the Chinese (Fo suoxing zan, translated in the early fifth century, t192) and Tibetan (translated

some time between the second half of the thirteen century and the first decades of the fourteenth) versions6, each comprising twenty-eight chapters. This study will examine the discrepancies between the Sanskrit text and the Chinese translation on the theme of kingship and will trace the possible representation of the third perspective presented by Zimmermann – that of a Mahāyānic, bodhisattva-king – in the Chinese translation of the Buddhacarita.

5. Ibid., pp. 236-. The idea of bridging punishment (dan. d. a) with compassion (karun. ā) is also represented in Nāgārjuna’s Ratnāvalī, for which see Cristina Scherrer-Schaub, Immortality Extolled with Reason: Philosophy and Politics in Nāgārjuna, in Birgit Kellner, Ernst Steinkellner et al. (eds.), Pramānakīrti, Papers Dedicated to Ernst Steinkellner, Part 2, atbs Universität Wien, Wien 2, pp. 5-93.

6. References to the Tibetan translation of the Buddhacarita can be found in Friedrich Weller, Das Leben des Buddha: Tibetisch und Deutsch, E. Pfeiffer, Leipzig 1926. The edition by Weller stops at chapter seventeen. David Jackson, On the Date of the Tibetan Translation of Aśvaghos.a’s Buddhacarita, in “Studia Indologiczne”, n. , 199, pp. 1-62, provides useful information on the possible reasons for the difficult interpretation of the Tibetan text. A possible reconstruction in English of the lost chapters of the Buddhacarita was attempted in Edward Hamilton Johnston, The Buddha’s Mission and Last Journey: Buddhacarita, xv to xxviii, Brill, Leiden 193, through a comparison of the Chinese and Tibetan translations.