This article for the Great Masters Series focuses on Nagarjuna, the first of what His Holiness the Dalai Lama refers to as the Seventeen Pandits of Nalanda, whose works form the foundation for Mahayana Buddhist philosophy.
While Nagarjuna is usually considered to have lived in the second century and there are many stories and prophecies about him, there is little in the way of material facts about his life. Many Western scholars assume that Nagarjuna, whose writings and deeds span a period of over six hundred years, was actually two or more figures living at different times. However, Indian and Tibetan sources generally consider him to have been a single master skilled in longevity practices, one who was critical in revealing the Mahayana teachings and sutras and elucidating the meaning of emptiness and the Madhyamaka view in particular, as well as a great master of tantra.
What follows is a brief composite biography from a variety of sources. Also well worth the read is Butön Rinchen Drup’s biography of Nagarjuna from his History of Buddhism in India and Its Spread to Tibet, available here.
Nagarjuna was born to a Brahmin family in Vidarbha in present-day Maharashtra, India. Predicted to have a short life, he avoided an early demise by taking ordination at Nalanda monastery with Rahulabhadra, identified in some accounts as being the mahasiddha Saraha and in others as being the abbot of Nalanda; regardless, he is best known for his works in praise of Prajñaparamita. With an ordination name of Sriman, Nagarjuna undertook thorough studies of Buddhist teachings and became successful in defeating both Buddhists and non-Buddhists in debate.
Several nagas heard Sriman’s teaching and subsequently invited him down into their realm, from which he later brought back special naga clay that was used in the construction of many temples and stupas. He also brought back, most famously, important Prajñaparamita sutras. Thenceforth he became known as Nagarjuna. Butön describes the meaning of the name beautifully:
Naga signifies birth from the basic space of phenomena, abiding in neither the extreme of
eternalism or nihilism, mastery over the vault of precious scriptures, and being endowed with
the view that burns and illuminates. Arjuna signifies one who has procured worldly power.
Thus, he is named Arjuna because he governs the kingdom of the doctrine and subdues the
hosts of faulty enemies. Taken together, these two parts form the name “Nagarjuna.”
Nagarjuna’s activities were vast; his better-known accomplishments include the building of two structures in Bodhgaya—the stone fence around the Vajra Seat beneath the Bodhi tree and the stupa that sits atop the Mahabodhi Temple—as well as the wall around the great Dhanyakataka Stupa at Amaravati in present-day Andhra Pradesh.
Nagarjuna passed away when he offered his head to a greedy prince who thought he could ensure his own long life by killing Nagarjuna. No blade would cut Nagarjuna, but he told the prince that in a past life he had killed an insect with a blade of kusha grass, so his head could be cut off with a blade of that grass—which the prince then did. It is believed that Nagarjuna’s head and body were separated but do not decay and over time move closer together. Once they rejoin, his activity will continue.
There is a lot of debate about what Nagarjuna did and did not actually write, which is outside the scope of this article. Instead, we will focus on the major works widely attributed to him that are available in English.
His treatises are divided in various ways. Mabja Jangchub Tsondru divides them into three groups:
1. Those belonging to the Causal Vehicle of Characteristics
2. Those belonging to the Resultant Vehicle of Secret Mantra
3. Those that show the two above to be identical in meaning
A bit arbitrarily, we will follow another traditional division which groups the treatises as follows: works on reasoning, praises, and advice. This schema ignores the large body of work on tantra and medicine, but most of what is available in English is included in these three groupings.
Traditionally, there are five or six texts included in Nagarjuna’s works on reasoning.
Nagarjuna’s most famous text is his Mulamadhyamakakarika, or Root Verses of the Middle Way, which presents in twenty-seven chapters an initially challenging but extremely clear reasoning of how beings lack inherent existence and how this lack extends to samsara, nirvana, and even Buddha. While both historically and today many focus on the reasoning and the intellectual exercises this work promotes, it is more practical than that. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, the verses are “a great source of inspiration, for they suggest that each of us has the opportunity to scale the greatest spiritual heights, provided we tread the right path.” There are many translations available, including The Ornament of Reason, which includes the famous commentary by Mabja Jangchub Tsondru, the twelfth-century Tibetan master and one of the first Tibetans to rely heavily on Nagarjuna’s student Chandrakirti for his analysis.
An excellent contemporary commentary on the Mulamadhyamakakarika is Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso’s The Sun of Wisdom. Focusing on the most important root verses, it is a very accessible entryway into this fundamental but challenging text. As Khen Rinpoche says,
all the verses in this book are excellent supports for developing
your precise knowledge of genuine reality through study, reflection,
and meditation. You should recite them as much as possible,
memorize them, and reflect on them until doubt-free certainty in their
meaning arises within. Then you should recall their meaning again
and again, to keep your understanding fresh and stable. Whenever
you have time, use them as the support for the practices of analytical
and resting meditation. If you do all of this, it is certain that the sun of wisdom will dawn within
you, to the immeasurable benefit of yourselves and others.
Nagarjuna’s Shunyatasaptati, or Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (there are actually seventy-three), is really an expansion of the seventh section of the Root Verses, “Analysis of Characteristics of the Conditioned,” that addresses some questions people had about the presentation of conditioned phenomena and whether that conflicted with sutra teachings. As is often the case, the answer lies in the difference between the conventional point of view of beings and how things actually are. A translation of this work together with a commentary by Geshe Sonam Rinchen is available as Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas: A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness.
Of the remaining texts in this category, Nagarjuna’s Yuktisastika, or Sixty Verses on Reasoning, has been translated by Joseph Loizzo as Nagarjuna’s Reason Sixty and is available from Columbia University Press. The Vigrahavyavartani, or Refutation of Objections, was translated most recently by Jan Westerhoff and published as The Dispeller of Disputes by Oxford University Press. And lastly, Nagarjuna’s Vaidalyaprakarana is included in Nagarjuniana by Christian Lindtner, published by Motilal Banarsidass.
The Tibetan Tengyur identifies eighteen works of praise by Nagarjuna, and this praise is generally directed at Buddha Shakyamuni. However, the main work of Nagarjuna’s praises we have in English is the Dharmadhatustava, translated as In Praise of Dharmadhatu, and this work directs praise instead at the ultimate nature of mind. Karl Brunnhölzl’s translation, which includes an in-depth introduction to Nagarjuna and his works in general and this one specifically, also contains a commentary by the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje. The text shows how our buddha nature is obscured by stains but also how the stains can be removed by following the path of the Mahayana and can be fully revealed as buddhahood. Rangjung Dorje’s commentary is also of particular interest because even though he is known for his shentong views, this commentary shows how his actual understanding is far more subtle than scholars have sometimes supposed and is in fact an elegant synthesis of the two great streams of the Mahayana, Madhyamaka, and Yogachara.
Three other praises of Nagarjuna’s are included in the collection Straight from the Heart, also translated and introduced by Karl Brunnhölzl. Interestingly, in these praises Nagarjuna often refers to buddhahood in positive terms, in contrast to much of his other work, which deconstructs any possibility of phenomena truly existing. As Brunnhölzl points out,
despite there being nothing to pinpoint in the dharmadhatu as the
nature of the mind, it can still be experienced directly and personally
in a nonreferential way. In other words, enlightenment is not some
empty, dark nothingness, but wide-awake awareness of mind
completely free from reference points.
There are seven texts included in the advice category. The two most famous are the Suhrllekha, or Letter to a Friend, and the Ratnavali, or Precious Garland of Advice for the King.
Letter to a Friend is a set of verses of advice to a king whose identity is uncertain but who was most likely one of a number of kings in present-day Andhra Pradesh. There are several translations of Letter to a Friend, the most recent one being by the Padmakara Translation Group, which includes a commentary by Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche. The 123 verses are some of the most frequently quoted lines in all of Tibetan Buddhism and are taught often to this day. The text covers the entire Mahayana path, fusing daily conduct with the framework of stages that lead beings to fully enlightened buddhahood. It makes the entire path totally accessible to laypeople, demonstrating how to completely immerse oneself in the spiritual life while still living in society.
Precious Garland has been categorized by some as belonging among Nagarjuna’s works on reasoning, but more traditionally it is part of the advice collection. The work covers many practical topics such as personal happiness on a more worldly level and governmental policy as well as specifically spiritual guidance on how to live a life that culminates in enlightenment. An English translation is available in two works: Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland includes the Tibetan and extensive analysis by Jeffrey Hopkins, and the Dalai Lama’s The Buddhism of Tibet devotes half its length to Precious Garland, as it is so fundamental to the living Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Of the remaining works in the advice category, several are translated in Nagarjuniana.
Subsequent Commentaries by Great Masters
There are of course so many commentaries and commentaries on commentaries for Nagarjuna’s work, by masters starting with Aryadeva, then Chandrakirti, and many more great teachers up to the present. Several of these will be included in subsequent Great Masters Series articles.
Contemporary works that situate Nagarjuna’s work in the Tibetan tradition include Guy Newland’s Two Truths, which links Nagarjuna’s work with the Tibetan monastic tradition of debate, and William Magee’s The Nature of Things, which details Tsongkhapa’s analysis of the Root Verses.
One last book should be mentioned here, as it’s a bit of a leap from the traditional texts by and literature about Nagarjuna. The Prince and the Zombie: Tibetan Tales of Karma by Tenzin Wangmo is a book based on Tibetan oral folktale traditions. In this book, to be published in the spring of 2015, a young prince encounters Nagarjuna, who guides him and gives him the task of bringing a zombie—that’s really the best translation available—back from one of the great charnel grounds of India. It is a story full of magic and excitement and could serve as a brief vacation for the mind in between studying verses on emptiness!
The next article in the Great Masters Series will be on Nagarjuna’s student, Aryadeva.