Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Those who speak with discretion
Are respected by humanity,
Like the sun, gleaming through the shadows,
Engenders warmth by its rays.

Though you suffer in the practice of Dharma
Let not your mind be anxious.
When the moon has been eclipsed,
Will is not shine freely again?

To garland the altar
Only full blossoms are gathered;
A gardener does not
Uproot the plant too soon.

Careless speech will get you caught
Like the parrot, the songster and the water-hen
Man fails to catch the water-duck,
Whose skill is his silence.

It is easy to live shouldering others' loads,
And easy to don tree-bark in the forest.
It is easier for men to die,
Than to pass their days in quarrelling.

Moral conduct, self-restraint,
And total control of the mind –
What else does one ever need
Who perseveres in these?

The Staff of Wisdom NAGARJUNA


Ashvaghosha's efforts to demonstrate the underlying unity of diverse schools of Buddhist thought left a precious legacy in The Awakening of Faith. It did not, however, turn the tide of dogmatic sectarianism. The eighteen schools drifted ominously towards exclusivity, each claiming to have the only complete and correct formulation of the truth. Monks of differing persuasions continued to live together, and the gradual emergence of Nalanda as a centre of Buddhist studies encouraged this custom. Nonetheless, sectarian attitudes undermined the heart of the Buddha's teaching and saddened those who had tread the Path of the Tathagatas. Since the philosophical basis for unity within divergence in respect to details had been laid, a method was needed to give the foundation vitality. Nagarjuna provided a philosophical, psychological and magical method which could lead individuals to see far beyond their divergent perspectives to the universal horizon of Buddhadharma.

Mystery and legend surround every aspect of the life of Nagarjuna, and even the oldest sources disagree about his birth, the time during which he lived and exactly what he wrote. There is universal agreement, however, that he was born in south India outside the highly developed Buddhist centres. Most likely, he was born into a Brahmin family sometime in the latter quarter of the second century A.D. According to many traditions, including Taranatha's history, astrologers determined that Nagarjuna would die at the age of seven. When the fateful year approached, Nagarjuna's parents could not bear to watch their remarkable son die, and so they sent him to a small Buddhist monastery whose monks were known for their compassion. His diligent study of Buddhist texts overcame his fate, and he survived by gaining the vajra or 'diamond body'. Some sources add that the Buddha Aparimitayuh aided him by encouraging him to revere the Aparimitayurdharani in his devotions. Kumarajiva, however, wrote that Nagarjuna grew up as a Brahmin who learnt the secret of invisibility. With three companions, he would enter the royal palace and have his way with the women there. Even though invisible, the guards discovered their indiscretion and managed to kill Nagarjuna's friends. Though he escaped, he saw that lust leads to sorrow, and he entered a monastery to discover the path to enlightenment and freedom from all desires.

Nagarjuna became the friend of kings, repaired monasteries and stupas, and spread the teachings of the Buddha. His skill as an exponent of Dharma made him famous throughout India, and it attracted the Nagas, the guardians of wisdom who dwell in Nagaloka outside of Jambudvipa. They attended his discourses in the guise of young boys and were so deeply moved that the king of the Nagas invited him to visit their realm. This tradition holds that the Nagas were guardians of the Mahayana sutras, the arcane teachings of the Buddha, and scholars generally agree that these texts came out of south India, though their ultimate origin remains unknown. Nagarjuna persuaded the Naga king to allow him to take some of the scriptures back to Jambudvipa, where he placed them before the world. Another account avers that Nagarjuna was given the Mahayana sutras by a sage who dwelt in the secret fastnesses of the Himalayas. Given the rich symbolism surrounding the Nagas, who are sometimes said to be high spiritual Initiates, both stories may tell the truth. Until this time, Nagarjuna had been known as Arjuna because his mother had given birth to him under an arjuna tree, thus recalling the birth of the Buddha, and 'Naga' was prefixed to it because of his intimate friendship with the Nagas.

According to some accounts, Nagarjuna taught for a number of years at Nalanda, and though he personally did much to restore and maintain the sacred sites at Bodhgaya, the centre of Buddhist teaching gradually shifted to Nagarjuna's seat. Later in life he returned to southern India where he spread the Dharma in every direction. Having mastered the deepest teachings of the Mahayana, he acquired siddhi, riddhi and abhijna – psychic powers, magic and spiritual clairvoyance. Once, during a severe famine, he created gold out of base material and exchanged it for foreign grain, thereby sustaining the Sangha. It was said that he enlisted the aid of Yakshas and Nagas to build stupas and monasteries. He did not use his remarkable powers for himself, however, and employed them only when ordinary means were unable to accomplish a necessary task.

Some biographers said that he lived for a hundred years, basing their assertion on the relative dates of kings and teachers whom he knew. Others, however, told a more remarkable tale. On his way to visit several classes of invisible beings, he saw some children playing together and predicted that one of them would become a king. When he returned twelve years later, he found that the boy had indeed become King Udayana. The two became close friends, and Nagarjuna taught him the secret of the elixir of life so that the king would not die before Nagarjuna renounced his vajra body. Many years later, Sushakti, the king's youngest son, discovered the reason for his father's longevity. Already mature and desiring the throne, he despaired because he knew that Nagarjuna could not be killed and showed no inclination to leave his work. Nonetheless, Sushakti went to the Bodhisattva and 0xplained his plight. Nagarjuna remarked that he had once beheaded a man in a previous incarnation, and told Sushakti to cut off his head with a blade of kusha grass. He added that he would eventually return to use the vajra body again. Sushakti beheaded Nagarjuna and his father died soon afterward, but fearing that the Bodhisattva would return quickly, he interred the head and body in shrines placed four miles apart. The head split open, revealing five stone images of Avalokiteshvara, and the two shrines began moving gradually towards one another. It is said that they are now within hearing distance of each other and that Nagarjuna will return when they meet. In this account, Nagarjuna lived about four hundred years.

The impact of Nagarjuna's teaching is as awesome as the story of his life. He was hailed as the father – and perhaps founder – of the Madhyamika or 'Middle Way' school of Buddhist thought. He made accessible the great Mahayana scriptures, and especially the Prajnaparamita sutras, and wrote commentaries and explanations. In addition, he composed verses which distilled the teaching of the Buddha in a way that disciples of every school could appreciate, and he wrote letters which set forth practical rules which kings could follow even while fulfilling their duties. He was one of "the four suns which illumined the world", the other three being Ashvaghosha, Kumaralabdha and Aryadeva. In Tibet, Nagarjuna is revered as an incarnation of Manjushri. Nagarjuna is honoured wherever Mahayana Buddhist thought prevails, and his works survive in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese. When Buddhist thought was threatened by the delusion of sectarianism, the Indian Chronicle recorded, "Who but the two master-workmen – Ashvaghosha and Nagarjuna – could set it right?"

Building on the metaphysical doctrines delineated by Ashvaghosha, Nagarjuna sought to abolish contention amongst the schools by showing that assertions arising out of relative truth lead invariably to absurdity. Since absolute truth cannot be formulated, Nagarjuna could say, "I have no pratijna – proposition or position – to defend." His fourfold negative dialectic reduced any standpoint to incoherence insofar as it claimed to embody the truth. But Nagarjuna did not aim to turn monks into sceptics, but rather to make them sceptical of the images and formulations of truth which they were tempted to convert into dogmas. Once stripped of the insidious belief that one's deepest insights are somehow the absolute truth itself, one is open to authentic wisdom. Nagarjuna responded to the desire for spiritual knowledge by expounding the meaning of the Prajnaparamitasutra in its different forms. For those who were sufficiently grounded in their understanding of the arcane teachings, he provided methods of practice in his strict monastic disciplines, advice on living the spiritual life through his verses, and secret instruction in magic for those who were ready and could make spiritual use of such knowledge.

Nagarjuna insisted that all understanding must be rooted in a clear recognition that there are two levels of truth, relative truths which may be useful in a limited context but are illusory from a more inclusive standpoint, and absolute truth which is concealed by all relativities.

Those who do not understand the distinction between these two truths, do not understand the deep significance of the Buddha's teaching.

If the distinction between the two kinds of truth is grasped, one will recognize that ultimate truth can be neither conceptualized nor formulated. In addition, however, every relative truth falls short of absolute truth by reifying entities and objects when, in fact, they are empty of independent reality.

One of the profoundest teachings of Mahayana is called shunyata. If one can understand this doctrine, one can understand Mahayana and possess the six paramitas without hindrance.

Given the centrality of these doctrines, how could different schools dogmatize the teachings of the Buddha? For Nagarjuna, anupalambha, non-contentiousness, was the heart of the Buddha's message, and the tendency to make exclusive or absolute claims was a sad example of graha, clinging, a manifestation of tanha, the thirst for embodied existence. Thus, the very doctrine which could emancipate humanity had become yet another means of bondage. Nonetheless, this unfortunate misapplication demonstrated the thirst in human beings for the Real, but without dharmanam bhutapratyaveka – right understanding – spiritual aspiration is inverted and becomes craving for concretion and form.

This error is the root of all conflict and suffering, and the first step towards its removal is a comprehension of pratityasamutpada, conditioned origination. If everything subject to name and form is dependent on something else for its existence – that is, if everything is caused by something else – no thing can have an independent reality or self-nature. But the cause of everything is likewise dependent on something else for its existence, and in manifestation there is an infinite regression of dependencies. Therefore nothing subject to name and form is real in itself, and so no thing can in itself aid one in discerning Reality. Clinging to name and form distances one from Truth. Put in another way, the congeries of qualities and characteristics which constitute manifest objects of every kind is determinate, whilst ultimate reality is forever indeterminate. The indeterminate is the ground of the determinate, but, Nagarjuna insisted, it is not a separate entity but rather the ultimate nature of everything.

Each human being is determinate, conditioned, and as limited by name and form as anything else. Yet, like everything manifest, man is not merely grounded in the Real, for his essential nature is the Real. The lack which human beings experience as aspiration arises from their essential nature. The ignorant imagination, however, mistakes the relative duality of man's determinate and indeterminate nature for an absolute separation, and this gives rise to clinging and, eventually, to despair. The mind imprisoned in its own avidya, ignorance, is therefore its own enemy. Realization of this error – and, in time, of the truth – is possible because the mind can come to see the contradictions inherent in its false viewpoint. Nagarjuna's analysis of categories, the elements of existence and of the understanding aimed to reveal the shunyata or void ness of conditioned existence and the voidness of shunyata itself. Through the reversal of clinging to form by cleaving to shunyata, it is possible to awaken the Real, to see the voidness of the seeming full and the fullness of the seeming void.

Nagarjuna's dialectic was not simply apophatic, because his negation of every standpoint did not simply prove them false but appreciated their relative truth without confining one to any particular formulation. "Everything holds good in the case of one who is in agreement with shunyata", Nagarjuna taught. Prajna, the capacity to discern the degree and level of truth in every standpoint while recognizing the relative nature of them all, is the key to the Madhyamika or Middle Way. As the principle of comprehension, it is that Way.

Ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of mundane truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, nirvana cannot be realized.

As one's understanding increases through garnering the truth present in limited perspectives, the dualism which alienates the individual from himself gradually gives way before a dawning metapsychological integration that also reveals a harmony with the whole of Nature through a recognition of its divine ground, shunyata. As sectarian dogmas fall away, the aspirant discovers that Truth is no view yet underpins all views, just as they each reflect some aspect of it to a degree. The aim and purpose of the Madhyamika is to instil a sense of the Real through recognition that conditioned reality is based upon, rooted in and nothing but shunyata.

In the Dvadasadvarashastra (The Treatise of Twelve Portals) Nagarjuna delineated twelve portals through which one could pass to understanding without residues of doubt. The first portal concerns causal conditions.

Things are produced from diverse conditions,
and therefore have no self-nature (svabhava).
If they have no self-nature,
how can there be such things?

A careful analysis of causation discloses that things which are caused – and all manifestation is caused – have no independent reality. In terms of what they seem to be, they are shunyata, empty. The second portal addresses the problem of production.

If an effect is already present in a cause,
there can be no production.
If an effect is at the outset unreal in respect to a cause,
there likewise can be no production.
If an effect is both real and unreal,
there can be no production.
How then can there be production?

Further, the third portal attests,

Briefly and broadly,
conditions do not contain effects.
If there are no effects within conditions,
how can they come from conditions?

The first three portals teach that no ontological meaning can be given to the concept of causality. The fourth portal shows that the same analysis applies to characteristics or qualities of things, whilst the fifth portal demonstrates that the three universal characteristics of all things – origination, persistence and destruction – are themselves unreal, that is, empty. In the sixth portal, Nagarjuna holds one cannot prove either that an object is identical with its characteristics or that it is different from them. Since both standpoints are true in part and untrue in part, it is possible to move towards Truth through mundane truths so long as one adheres to this Middle Way.

The seventh portal attacks the seemingly fundamental distinction between being and non-being.

There cannot be being with non-being,
nor can there be being without non-being.
If there can be being with non-being,
then being should always be non-being.

Origination and persistence are characteristics of being, whilst decay and destruction belong to non-being. Thus being and non-being can neither exist together nor separately. The eighth portal applies the argument regarding being and non-being to Nature to show that since all things are in a condition of ceaseless change, there is no self-nature in them. The ninth portal adds that since things cannot be understood in terms of their essential nature or from the process of causation, they are shunyata.

Since there can be no creation without cause and effect, as the tenth portal teaches, and since causality is empty, there is no creation. Nagarjuna applies this conclusion to the idea of suffering to show that even suffering has no real existence. The eleventh portal examines creation from the standpoint of time to demonstrate that it cannot occur in the past, present or future, and so cannot occur at all.

'Earlier than', 'later than' and 'simultaneous with'
– such events are impossible.
How then can events be produced by causes?

The twelfth portal uses the argument from time to show that nothing can be produced.

The effect already produced is not to be produced;
that not yet produced is not produced.
Without that which is already produced
and that which is not yet produced,
that which is being produced is not produced.

Although Nagarjuna's fame is due in large measure to his stunning dialectical paradoxes, he did not devise them for idle amusement. He was convinced that anyone who assiduously meditated upon shunyata would possess the alchemical key which, when used to unlock the portals on the Middle Way, would lead one to the elixir of life. He gave a talisman for all aspirants in the Mahaprajnaparamitashastra:

There is realization of Reality, but not as it is imagined in any extremes. Neither anything nor nothing, devoid of all prapanca – conceptualization and elaboration – this is what is called realization of the Way. If one were free from extremes, then prapanca itself would be the Way. Bodhi is itself the Way, the Way is itself bodhi.