So if the Buddha’s life story could be thought of as chiasmic, why choose one particular work like the Buddhacarita?
Before I start on this topic, I would first like to tell you why I even got interested in the Buddha’s biographies in the first place. At some point during my current course (that is supposed to lead to a Masters of Arts in Buddhist Studies) it occurred to me that, as a Buddhist, I should learn more about the personality that allegedly started the faith/religion. It was a pretty simply impulse which I’m sure many more Buddhists share, and a powerful one, for I couldn’t help but feel there was so much to be gained reading these stories – so much that I had to continue reading and understanding them.
Take my word on these: reading well-written, meaningful stories of the Buddha (or I’m sure that is true for all other religious figures) is energizing, to say the least!
But still, why the Buddhacarita? The answer to that has to start with my initial searching into the Taisho Shinzokyo edition of the Chinese Buddhist Canon for the Buddha’s life stories (unfortunately, I can’t read any other canonical Buddhist language). I found 14 extent versions of the stories, and because I didn’t have the time to read them all (in time for my paper), I worked with those with were organized into chapters (with chapter titles to tell me what they were roughly about). That left me with 7 of them, of which only 2 had complete — from birth to death (nirvana) — stories of the Buddha’s life.
One of which is Buddhacarita, much better known, and as I were to later find out, has extent portions in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Another plus is that quite a few scholars — Samuel Beal, E.H. Johnston, Friedrich Weller — have worked on critical editions of the Sanskrit text, and they translated it into English. (And if you are interested, I highly recommend Johnston’s Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha.)
The author of this work is well-established as Asvaghosa, whom we know lived in North India during the 1st to 2nd century C.E. Although I can’t read the original Sanskrit work, it is reportedly in Classical Sanskrit, and the author displays very deep knowledge of Brahmanic literature, as evidenced by the many allusions to Vedic and Brahmanic stories within conversations in the Buddhacarita. The translation itself is wonderfully poetic, which is some testament to that it was meant to be performed/read in the royal court during the author’s days.
There were days when I spent, in the attempt to familarise myself with the text, just reading the translations aloud, and I truly enjoyed them. As a Venerable, who is a PhD student with our department puts it, it is indeed a luxury (not all can or will learn to enjoy) to light some incense, have cups of tea, while reading/reciting/learning about the Buddha or his teachings.