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The Life of the Victorious Buddha
This work tells in a concise form the inspiring story of the Bodhisatta's aspiration for Awakening, its fulfilment at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, and the Early Ministry of the Buddha in the newly founded Sāsana as it has come down to us in the Theravāda tradition.
The author Ven. Medhaṅkara follows for the most part the story as it is found in the Jātakanidānaṁ, but he leaves out a number of matters which are present in his model,Noticeably the confirmation of the Bodhisatta's vow under the intervening Buddhas; and a number of the early conversions are omitted.01 and concentrates on the main story which gives his narrative greater concision and thrust.
The story opens with the youth Sumedha gaining insight into the nature of reality following the passing away of his parents, which is followed by his renunciation of the home life and very successful spiritual practice in the Himālayas.
He then comes into contact with a true spiritual teacher, the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, and being inspired by the meeting, he gives up the chance of liberation then and there, and makes his aspiration to attain Buddhahood himself, in order to help all living beings cross the great flood of Saṁsāra.
Such a high calling is not so easily fulfilled, of course, and he spends many aeons in self-sacrificial actions in order to fulfil all the moral perfections that make one fit to establish a Sāsana.
After being reborn in Heaven, he is urged by the Gods to take birth once more on Earth, and finally fulfil his mission. Having ensured that all the right conditions prevail, he descends and is born on Earth into a virtuous and prosperous family, who nurture and protect him until he reaches maturity.
Although in his new existence he is surrounded by all the material pleasures that his position can provide he is dissatisfied, and parallel to the youth Sumedha, he retires to the forest for spiritual practice.
After a number of dead-ends and intense, but ultimately futile, practice he overcomes all temptations and defilements, personified by the wicked Māra and his daughters, and attains Complete Awakening at the foot of the Bodhi Tree.
His story could have finished there and then, in that glorious liberation from the sorry round of birth and death, but if it had he would not have been the Sambuddha of his aspirations.
Instead, being inspired by his realisation that he could help others also to attain the liberation he had gained, he began his ministry, which was to last for forty-five long years, selflessly teaching beings how to escape from the unsatisfactory nature of existence, both by word and example.
The story continues with the Buddha's first teaching, the fulfilment of his promise to teach King Bimbisāra at Rājagaha, and his journey back to his home town of Kapilavatthu, and the conversion of his close family and other clan members.
The last event related in the story in any detail, as in the Jātakanidānaṁ is the Buddha's meeting with the rich merchant Anāthapiṇḍika, and his journey to Sāvatthī, where the merchant purchases and donates Jeta's Wood to the Saṅgha with the Buddha at its head, by which time the Sāsana is firmly establishing in the Middle Regions of India.
There is then a synoptic section which Ven. Medhaṅkara adds to what is found in his source relating where the Buddha spent the Rains Retreats during the 45 years of his teaching career, and indicating the main events that took place during the first twenty of those Retreats.
The poem concludes with the author making an extraordinary wish to have the chance to meet the coming Buddha Metteyya and then make his own aspiration for Buddhahood under Him, and getting it confirmed by the future Buddhas.In the Theravada tradition it is understood that a Bodhisatta vow can only be made in front of a living Buddha who must then confirm it. Ven. Medhaṅkara is therefore making an aspiration to have the chance to make a Bodhisatta vow, something I haven't seen elsewhere.02
Ven. Medhaṅkara manages to tell this beautiful story in a concise, vivid and quick-moving poem, that is at once informative and inspiring. Along the way there are many lyrical passages where the poet, who is a true wordsmith, describes the ancient cities and countryside against which the main drama unfolds. See for instance the following description of the road to Kapilavatthu in the Springtime:
The season of Spring has produced colourful and delightful buds and foliage, a thousand delightful branches together with glorious, and deep-green coloured leaves, trees crowded with various extraordinarily fragrant and variegated blossoms, many very beautiful animals, and flocks of birds singing in the excellent groves.
There are now countless delightful lakes, full of very blue and agreeable waters, which are decorated with very fragrant blue, white, copper-coloured, and red lotuses, having unstained and extremely pearly white sandbanks, with a multitude of sweet-sounding grey geese, and a variety of trees along the banks.
The banks themselves are resplendent with rows of flowers and blossoms, having plains covered with fresh and very green lawns, as though covered with pleasing lapis-lazuli, and skies full of light breezes. [vv. 347-351]
There are also numerous deft pen-portraits of the main characters involved in the story, and their appearance and character come to life as we read. Witness the Bodhisatta on alms-round in Rājagaha:
Because of (his) radiance the walls and gates, which were made of sapphire rock, appeared like a golden mountain. The mass of the people having seen him, became greatly excited, and asked: “Who is this? Is it a God, a Supreme Divinity, a Devil, or a Demon?” and so forth.
Having entered the city and gathered just enough food for sustenance, looking just a yoke's distance ahead of him he went along the Royal Highway. The people were disturbed by him, just as the ocean that was churned with Mount Meru as a churning stick was disturbed. [vv. 204-206]
Or see how he describes the effect the Buddha had on his wife, whom he was meeting for the first time since the Awakening:
Queen Yasodharā, known as Bimbā, whose body was resplendent with rays of light like one powdered with realgar, whose lips were as red as the Bimba fruit, trembling like a golden creeper approached the Teacher. The touch of the Teacher's feet, like supremely cool water, extinguished the great fiery grief burning in the fuel of her heart. [vv. 395-396]
The poem is full of such vivid and memorable scenes, which, as with all true works of art, remain in the mind long after one has put down the book.
The Present Translation
The original poem is written in High Medieval Pāḷi which has been influenced by the Sanskrit literature of mainland India. Both the metres (chanda) and the decorations (alaṅkāra) are at a high state of development, and the grammar of the work is often very involved, with complex sentences sometimes drawn out over a number of verses.
In simplifying this translation of Jinacaritaṁ my aim has been to make the text more presentable to an English reader. This has mainly entailed cutting down on the use of adjectives and adjectival phrases, which are often piled up in the Pāḷi; and simplifying the sentence structure, especially in the use of infinitives where we would normally use finite verb forms in English.
On the other hand I have also occasionally filled in quotations that were only hinted at in the original, and spelled out some references which may not now be clear. While making these changes I have endeavoured to remain as faithful as possible to the original, while making it more accessible to an English reading audience.
In preparing this edition of the work I have divided it into 3 sections in accordance with the Jātakanidānaṁ, which covers the Far Distant Past, the Not-so-Distant Past, and The Present Time. I have further added in Chapter Titles to help outline the progress of the story and the subject matter that is covered.
For a more literal line-by-line translation together with the Pāḷi text itself, please see Jinacaritaṁ - The Life of the Victorious Buddha in the Texts and Translations section; and for the establishment of the text itself, complete with metrical analysis, see Jinacaritaṁ in the Buddhist Texts and Studies section.
A Note on the Author
Nothing for certain is known about the historical life of Ven. Medhaṅkara, the author of Jinacaritaṁ. In the colophon to the work he merely states that he is living in a residence built by, and named after, King Vijayabāhu, and no further information is given. He doesn't mention his teachers or pupils (if he had any), and he doesn't say he is the author of any other work.
Malalasekera (DPPN, pg. 230) may be right in identifying him with the author of Payogasiddhi, as the author of that treatise states that he was living in the Jambuddoṇi Āvāsa. But Malalasekera then identifies the vihāra with the one mentioned in Mhv. 81.58, which was built at Wattalagama.We learn from Mhv. 81.51, that King Vijayabāhu III also built a vihāra called Vijayasundara, and from Mhv. 85.90 that that very vihāra was in Jambuddoṇi, so it seems that this is the more likely residence referred to.03 However, Medhaṅkara is a common name and it seems to me to be significant that neither work refers to the other, which is what we might expect if their author was one and the same person.
Given the style and content of the work, however, it seems reasonable to assume that the historians are right is believing that the work was composed during the late 12th or early 13th centuries, which under the influence of the Sanskrit literature which was flourishing on the mainland saw a great renaissance in learning and the arts in Śrī Laṅkā.
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last updated: April 2010