Buddha's Sermon at Benares
and The Edicts of Ashoka

About the Document
Few people have placed their print so emphatically upon history as Siddhartha Gautama. Born to the kshatriya caste in the mid-sixth century B.C.E., he enjoyed an early life of privilege denied to the masses of India. But at some point, perhaps in what is today called a mid-life crisis, he experienced disenchantment with Hinduism and the answers that it offered to society as a whole. In travel and meditation, Gautama discovered enlightenment. He preached, and those who listened often became his disciples. Ever increasing in numbers, they called him Gautama Buddha (from the Indian word bodhi, or wisdom), and they spread the religious philosophy of Buddhism around the world.

Buddhism borrowed key elements from Hinduism. It accepted the transmigration of souls and the role of karma in rebirth, as well as the importance of nonviolence and asceticism in the karmic cycle. Nirvana, the ultimate state of grace to be achieved by a soul, resembled Brahman, involving the ultimate extinction of self and immersion in what the Buddha called the "Great World Soul." At the same time, Buddhism directly challenged several key Hindu concepts. It denied the individuality of the soul, instead viewing it as a distinct portion of a group soul. It viewed the material world as an illusion, a transitory state above which the soul must rise to achieve nirvana. Only by escaping the pain and misery, joy and lust of materiality could one reach completeness. Most important, the Buddha rejected both the caste system and the pantheon of Hindu gods. He also forbade his followers to worship him as a god, thus making Buddhism a religious philosophy rather than a religion in the strictest sense of the term.

The selection below is from the Buddha's first sermon, and contains the cornerstone doctrine of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. This second selection examines the practical applications of Buddhist principles by the third emperor of the Mauryan Empire, Ashoka. During his reign, Ashoka caused thousands of stone pillars to be raised throughout the empire. Some commemorated the life of Buddha, but many featured edicts issued by Ashoka or celebrated events from his reign. The second selection features a number of those edicts.


The Document

From Buddha's Sermon at Benares

1.The Truth Concerning Misery

And how, O priests, does a priest live, as respects the elements of being, observant of the elements of being in the four noble truths?

Whenever, O priest, a priest knows the truth concerning misery, knows the truth concerning the origin of misery, knows the truth concerning the cessation of misery, knows the truth concerning the path leading to the cessation of misery.

And what, O priests, is the noble truth of misery?

Birth is misery; old age is misery; disease is misery; death is misery; sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair are misery; to wish for what one cannot have is misery; in short, all the five attachment-groups are misery….

This, O priests, is called the noble truth of misery.

2.The Truth of the Origin of Misery

And what, O priests, is the noble truth of the origin of misery?

It is desire leading to rebirth, joining itself to pleasure and passion, and finding delight in every existence--desire, namely, for sensual pleasure, desire for permanent existence, desire for transitory existence.

But where, O priests, does this desire spring up and grow? Where does it settle and take root?

Where anything is delightful and agreeable to men, there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

And what is delightful and agreeable to men, where desire springs up and grows, where it settles and takes root?

The eye is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

The ear… the nose… the tongue… the body… the mind is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Objects of Sense.

Forms…sounds…odors…tastes…things tangible…ideas are delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Objects of Sense.

Eye-consciousness…ear-consciousness…nose-consciousness…tongue-consciousness…body-consciousness…mind-consciousness is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Consciousnesses.

Contact of the eye…ear…nose…tongue…body…mind is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Contacts.

Sensation produced by contact of the eye…ear…nose…tongue…body …mind is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Sensations.

Perception of forms…sounds…odors…tastes…things tangible…ideas is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Perceptions.

Thinking on forms…sounds…odors…tastes… things tangible…ideas is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Thinkings.

Desire for forms…sounds…odors…tastes… things tangible…ideas is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Desires.

Reasoning on forms…sounds…odors…tastes… things tangible…ideas is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Reasonings.

Reflection on forms…sounds…odors…tastes… things tangible…ideas is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire springs up and grows, there it settles and takes root.

                                                                        The Six Reflections.

This, O priests, is called the noble truth of the origin of misery.

3. The Truth of the Cessation of Misery

And what, O priests, is the noble truth of the cessation of misery?

It is the complete fading out and cessation of this desire, a giving up, a losing hold, a relinquishment, and a nonadhesion.

But where, O priests, does this desire wane and disappear? Where is it broken up and destroyed?

Where anything is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire wanes and disappears, there it is broken up and destroyed.

And what is delightful and agreeable to men, where desire wanes and disappears, where it is broken up and destroyed?

The eye is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire wanes and disappears, there it is broken up and destroyed.

[Similarly respecting the other organs of sense, the six objects of sense, the six consciousnesses, the six contacts, the six sensations, the six perceptions, the six thinkings, the six desires, the six reasonings, and the six reflections.]

This, O priests, is called the noble truth of the cessation of misery.

4. The Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Misery

And what, O priests, is the noble truth to the path leading to the cessation of misery?
It is this noble eightfold path, to wit, right belief, right resolve, right speech, right behavior, right occupation, right effort, right contemplation, right concentration.

And what, O priests, is right belief?

The knowledge of misery, O priests, the knowledge of the origin of misery, the knowledge of the cessation of misery, and the knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of misery, this, O priests, is called "right belief."

And what, O priests, is right resolve?

The resolve to renounce sensual pleasures, the resolve to have malice towards none, and the resolve to harm no living creature, this, O priests, is called “right resolve.”

And what, O priests, is right speech?

To abstain from falsehood, to abstain from backbiting, to abstain from harsh language, and to abstain from frivolous talk, this, O priests, is called “right speech.”

And what, O priests, is right behavior?

To abstain from destroying life, to abstain from taking that which is not given one, and to abstain from immorality, this, O priests, is called “right behavior.”

And what, O priests, is right occupation?

Whenever, O priests, a noble disciple, quitting a wrong occupation, gets his livelihood by a right occupation, this, O priests, is called "right occupation."

And what, O priests, is right effort?

Whenever, O priests, a priest purposes, makes an effort, heroically endeavors, applies his mind, and exerts himself that evil and demeritorious qualities not yet arisen may not arise; purposes, makes an effort, heroically endeavors, applies his mind, and exerts himself that evil and demeritorious qualities already arisen may be abandoned; purposes, makes an effort, heroically endeavors, applies his mind, and exerts himself that meritorious qualities not yet arisen may arise; purposes, makes an effort, heroically endeavors, applies his mind, and exerts himself for the preservation, retention, growth, increase, development, and perfection of mertorious qualities already arisen, this, O priest, is called “right effort.”

And what, O priests, is right contemplation?

Whenever, O priests, a priest lives, as respects the body, observant of the body, strenuous, conscious, contemplative, and has rid himself of lust and grief; as respects sensations, observant of sensations, strenuous, conscious, contemplative, and has rid himself of lust and grief; as respects the mind, observant of the mind, strenuous, conscious, contemplative, and has rid himself of lust and grief; as respects the elements of being, observant of the elements of being, strenuous, conscious, contemplative, and has rid himself of lust and grief, this, O priests, is called “right contemplation.”

And what, O priests, is right concentration?

Whenever, O priests, a priest, having isolated himself from sensual pleasures, having isolated himself from demeritorious traits, and still exercising reasoning, still exercising reflection, enters upon the first trance which is produced by isolation and characterized by joy and happiness; when, through the subsidence of reasoning and reflection, and still retaining joy and happiness, he enters upon the second trance, which is an interior tranquilization and intentness of the thoughts, and is produced by concentration; when, through the paling of joy, indifferent, contemplative, conscious, and in the experience of bodily happiness—that state which eminent men describe when they say, “Indifferent, contemplative, and living happily”—he enters upon the third trance; when, through the abandonment of happiness, through the abandonment of misery, through the disappearance of all antecedent gladness and grief, he enters upon the fourth trance, which has neither misery nor happiness, but is contemplation as refined by indifference, this, O priests, is called “right concentration.”

This, O priests, is called the noble truth of the path leading to the cessation of misery.

Source: Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, Sermon at Benares' in Documents in World History, vol. 1 by Peter N. Stearns, Stephen S. Gosch, and Erwin P. Grieshaber (New York: Longman, 2000), pp. 71-4.


From The Edicts of Ashoka

When the king, Beloved of the Gods and of Gracious Mien, had been consecrated eight years Kalinga was conquered, 150,000 people were deported, 100,000 were killed, and many times that number died. But after the conquest of Kalinga, the Beloved of the Gods began to follow Righteousness (Dharma), to love Righteousness, and to give instruction in Righteousness. Now the Beloved of the Gods regrets the conquest of Kalinga, for when an independent country is conquered people are killed, they die, or are deported, and that the Beloved of the Gods finds very painful and grievous. And this he finds even more grievous—that all the inhabitants—brāhmans, ascetics, and other sectarians, and householders who are obedient to superiors, parents, and elders, who treat friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, slaves, and servants with respect, and are firm in their faith—all suffer violence, murder, and separation from their loved ones. Even those who are fortunate enough not to have lost those near and dear to them are afflicted at the misfortunes of friends, acquaintances, companions, and relatives. The participation of all men in common suffering is grievous to the Beloved of the Gods. Moreover there is no land, except that of the Greeks, where groups of brāhmans and ascetics are not found, or where men are not members of one sect or another. So now, even if the number of those killed and captured in the conquest of Kalinga had been a hundred or a thousand times less, it would be grievous to the Beloved of the Gods. The Beloved of the Gods will forgive as far as he can, and he even conciliates the forest tribes of his dominions; but he warns them that there is power even in the remorse of the Beloved of Gods, and he tells them to reform, lest they be killed.

For all beings the Beloved of the Gods desires security, self-control, calm of mind, and gentleness. The Beloved of the Gods considers that the greatest victory is the victory of Righteousness; and this he has won here (in India) and even five hundred leagues beyond his frontiers in the realm of the Greek king Antiochus, and beyond the Antiochus among the four kings Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas, and Alexander. Even where the envoys of the Beloved of the Gods have not been sent men hear of the way in which he follows and teaches Righteousness, and they too follow it and will follow it. Thus he achieves a universal conquest, and conquest always gives a feeling of pleasure; yet it is but a slight pleasure, for the Beloved of the Gods only looks on that which concerns the next life as of great importance.

I have had this inscription of Righteousness engraved that all my sons and grandsons may not seek to gain new victories, that in whatever victories they may gain they may prefer forgiveness and light punishment, that they may consider the only [valid] victory the victory of Righteousness, which is of value both in this world and the next, and that all their pleasure may be in Righteousness….

. . . . . .

Thus speaks Ashoka, the Beloved of the Gods. For two and a half years I have been an open follower of the Buddha, though at first I did not make much progress. But for more than a year now I have drawn closer to the [Buddhist] Order, and have made much progress. In India the gods who formerly did not mix with men now do so. This is the result of effort, and may be obtained not only by the great, but even by the small, through effort—thus they may even easily win heaven.

Father and mother should be obeyed, teachers should be obeyed; pity…should be felt for all creatures. These virtues of Righteousness should be practiced…. This is an ancient rule, conducive to long life. It is good to give, but there is no gift, no service, like the gift of Righteousness. So friends, relatives, and companions should preach it on all occasions. This is duty; this is right; by this heaven may be gained—and what is more important than to gain heaven?

. . . . . .

Here no animal is to be killed for sacrifice, and no festivals are to be held, for the king finds much evil in festivals, except for certain festivals which he considers good.

Formerly in the Beloved of the God’s kitchen several hundred thousands and animals were killed daily for food; but now at the time of writing only three are killed—two peacocks and a deer, though the deer not regularly. Even these three animals will not be killed in the future.

. . . . . .

I am not satisfied simply with hard work or carrying out the affairs of state, for I consider my work to be the welfare of the whole world, of which hard work and the carrying out of affairs are merely the basis. There is no better deed than to work for the welfare of the whole world, and all my efforts are made that I may clear my debt to all beings. I make them happy here and now that they may attain heaven in the life to come. … But it is difficult without great effort.

. . . . . .

By order of the Beloved of the Gods. Addressed to the officer in charge of Tosali. …Let us win the affection of all men. All men are my children, and as I wish all welfare and happiness in this world and the next for my own children, so do I wish it for all men. But you do not realize what this entails—here and there an officer may understand in part, but not entirely.

Often a man is imprisoned and tortured unjustly, and then he is liberated for no [apparent] reason. Many other people suffer also [as a result of this injustice]. Therefore it is desirable that you should practice impartiality, but it cannot be attained if you are inclined to habits of jealousy, irritability, harshness, hastiness, obstinacy, laziness, or lassitude. I desire you not to have these habits. The basis of all this is the constant avoidance of irritability and hastiness in your business….

This inscription has been engraved in order that the officials of the city should always see to it that no one is ever imprisoned or tortured without good cause. To ensure this I shall send out every five years on a tour of inspection officers who are not fierce or harsh…. The prince at Ujjain shall do the same not more than every three years, and likewise at Taxila.

. . . . . .

My governors are placed in charge of hundreds of thousands of people. Under my authority they have power to judge and to punish, that they calmly and fearlessly carry out their duties, and that they may bring welfare and happiness to the people of the provinces and be of help to them. They will know what brings joy and what brings sorrow, and, conformably to Righteousness, they will instruct the people of the provinces that they may be happy in this world and the next…. And as when one entrusts a child to a skilled nurse one is confident that… she will care for it well, so have I appointed my governors for the welfare and happiness of the people. That they may fearlessly carry out their duties I have given them power to judge and to inflict punishment on their own initiative. I wish that there should be uniformity of justice and punishment.

. . . . . .

In the past kings went out on pleasure trips and indulged in hunting and similar amusements. But the Beloved of the Gods… ten years after his consecration set out on the journey to Enlightenment. Now when he goes on tour… he interviews and gives gifts to brāhmans and ascetics; he interviews and gives money to the aged; he interviews the people of the provinces, and instructs and questions them on Righteousness; and the pleasure which the Beloved of the Gods derives therefrom is as good as a second revenue.

. . . . . .

The Beloved of the Gods… honors members of all sects, whether ascetics or householders, by gifts and various honors. But he does not consider gifts and honors as important as the furtherance of the essential message of all sects. This essential message varies from sect to sect, but it has one common basis, that one should so control one’s tongue as not to honor one’s own sect or disparage another’s on the wrong occasions; for on certain occasions one should do so only mildly, and indeed on other occasions one should honor other men’s sects. By doing this one strengthens one’s own sect and helps the others, while by doing otherwise one harms one’s own sect and does a disservice to the others. Whoever honors his own sect and disparages another man’s, whether from blind loyalty or with the intention of showing his own sect in a favorable light, does his own sect the greatest possible harm. Concord is best, with each hearing and respecting the other’s teachings. It is the wish of the Beloved of the Gods that members of all sects should be learned and should teach virtue…. Many officials are busied in this matter… and the result is the progress of my own sect and the illumination of Righteousness.


Sources:

The Edicts of Ashoka, in Sources of Indian Tradition by Wm.Theodore de Bary, Stephen Hay, Royal Weiler, and Andrew Yarrow (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 146-53.

Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translations: Passages from the Buddhist Sacred Books (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1953,) pp. 368-374.


Analysis Questions

  1. According to Buddha, how can humans escape misery?
  2. According to Buddha, what is "misery"?
  3. According to Buddha, why do humans live in misery?
  4. Did Buddhism make Ashoka a "godly" king? Why or why not?
  5. What does Ashoka mean when he uses the term "righteousness"?



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