Practical Ethics and Profound Emptiness - Introduction

A Commentary on Nagarjuna's Precious Garland

Let a great Tibetan scholar guide you through one of Nagarjuna’s masterworks.

 

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Introduction
When we look at the Buddha’s spiritual journey from an ordinary being
to a fully awakened one, we see that in the beginning he generated bodhichitta,
the aspiration to attain full awakening for the benefit of all sentient
beings; in the middle he practiced the path to full awakening; and at the
end he attained peerless awakening and gave abundant teachings in order
to lead others to this most marvelous state. All the teachings he gave were
given in accordance with the minds of the trainees, his disciples: to those
who were primarily interested in being free from cyclic existence he taught
the fundamental vehicle that leads to liberation, and to those who were
primarily interested in attaining full awakening he taught the universal
vehicle that leads to buddhahood.
The Context of Nagarjuna’s Writings
The teachings of the universal vehicle fall into two groups: those that teach
the perfection vehicle and those that teach the vajra vehicle. Of these, the
Precious Garland contains teachings of the perfection vehicle. The most outstanding
of the Buddha’s teachings are the perfection of wisdom sutras that
contain all the teachings of the perfection vehicle. These teachings are considered
most marvelous because they clearly explain the profound meaning
of the ultimate nature of reality, the emptiness of inherent existence of all
phenomena. The realization of emptiness is crucial to attaining awakening
because the wisdom directly realizing emptiness is the only antidote capable
of completely eradicating the self-grasping ignorance that is the root of
cyclic existence. The elimination of all the cognitive obscurations that prevent
the attainment of full awakening also depends on direct perception of
emptiness. In the Questions of Rashtrapala Sutra (Rashtrapala-paripriccha
Sutra) the Buddha says that sentient beings wander in cyclic existence
because they do not understand the three doors of liberation—emptiness,
signlessness, and wishlessness. To be free of cyclic existence and all the
duhkha (unsatisfactory circumstances) that it involves, we must realize the
three doors of liberation, which comes down to realizing the emptiness
of inherent existence. Given its immense importance, the Buddha taught
many methods and logical reasons to help us understand emptiness.
Someone asked the Buddha, “After you pass away, who will explain the
meaning of emptiness clearly and without error? Who will perfectly discriminate
between definitive sutras that explicitly present ultimate truth in
an unmistaken way and provisional sutras that do not deal with ultimate
truth or whose words cannot be taken literally?” In reply the Buddha predicted
that four hundred years after his passing, Nagarjuna would perform
this important task.
To accomplish this, Nagarjuna composed six texts collectively known as
the Collection of Middle Way Reasoning (yuktikaya), so called because they
use reason to establish the meaning of emptiness. The six texts are Treatise on
the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika), Finely Woven (Vaidalyasutra),
Refutation of Objections (Vigrahavyavartani), Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness
(Shunyatasaptatikarika), Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning (Yuktishashtikakarika),
and Precious Garland (Ratnavali, or Rajaparikatha-ratnamala). Some people
say that only five of Nagarjuna’s texts are on reasoning, including Precious
Garland in Nagarjuna’s Collections of Advice instead. Nagarjuna also composed
the Compendium of Sutras (Sutrasamucchaya), an anthology of quotations
from many different sutras that demonstrate that his explanation of
emptiness is just as the Buddha himself explained it and not a fabrication
without a valid source in the sutras.
Among the texts that form the Collection of Middle Way Reasoning,
Treatise on the Middle Way, Finely Woven, Refutation of Objections, and Seventy
Stanzas on Emptiness were specifically written to explain emptiness of
true existence, the object that one must realize to attain liberation, whereas
Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning and the Precious Garland are mainly concerned
with cultivating the mind that realizes that object. This mind is the wisdom
realizing emptiness, and it is the root of liberation and full awakening.
Treatise on the Middle Way principally and directly addresses the thesis of
the essentialists—those who propound true existence—while Finely Woven
mainly addresses their reasons. Both of these texts point out the faults of
asserting true existence. To counter the essentialists’ assertion that all phenomena
truly exist, Treatise on the Middle Way asserts that phenomena do
not truly exist and cites the numerous faults that would follow if they did.
Finely Woven, on the other hand, refutes the reasons that the essentialists give
to prove that things truly exist by showing that their reasons are not valid.
Here we see two different ways of proving that phenomena are not truly
existent and are empty of true existence. One is to explicitly refute true
existence, in which case non-true existence is implicitly proven. Another
way is to explicitly prove non-true existence, in which case true existence is
implicitly refuted. Treatise on the Middle Way and Finely Woven do the former.
Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness and Refutation of Objections principally
prove the non-true existence of persons and phenomena by mainly using
the reason of tenability. That is, they say that phenomena must be non-truly
existent because the functioning of agent and action, coming and going,
causes and their results are all tenable within phenomena being empty
of true existence. On the other hand, if phenomena were truly existent,
they would not be able to function. Their functioning would be untenable
because truly existent agents could not perform actions and truly existent
causes could not bring results. Because of being non-truly existent, causes
bring results and agents can perform actions.
Refutation of Objections is considered a supplement to the first chapter of
Treatise on the Middle Way, and Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness is seen as a
supplement to its seventh chapter. The first chapter of Treatise on the Middle
Way examines the essentialists’ argument that if things lacked inherent
existence, the system of cause and effect would not work. Nagarjuna shows
the contrary—that unless cause and effect were non-truly existent, they
would be unable to function and incapable of change. Refutation of Objections
elaborates and provides additional arguments for this.
Nagarjuna also deals with the essential assertion that it would be untenable
for reasons to refute or prove statements if things do not inherently
exist. Refutation of Objections demonstrates that reasons that prove and
refute statements, as well as the acts of proving and refuting, work precisely
because things do not truly exist.
In the seventh chapter of Treatise on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna explains
that if arising, abiding, and ceasing existed inherently, they could not function.
Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness further elaborates on this topic. There,
Nagarjuna replies to the essentialist insistence that arising, abiding, and
ceasing would not work if things lacked inherent existence. He demonstrates
that, on the contrary, these three function only because they do not
inherently exist; they are tenable only because they lack inherent existence.
In short, these four texts from the Collection of Middle Way Reasoning are
the same in terms of explaining emptiness, but they differ in the way they do
so. Some refute the object to be negated, inherent existence, and some refute
the object the essentialists seek to establish, inherent existence. Both are right,
since inherent existence is the object of negation according to the Prasangika
view, and inherent existence is also the object to be proven according to the
essentialists such as the Chittamatra and Svatantrika.
As mentioned above, Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning and Precious Garland
explain the subject or mind—the wisdom realizing emptiness—and why
it is important as the root of liberation and full awakening. Sixty Stanzas
of Reasoning discusses why the wisdom realizing emptiness is the main
root of attaining liberation from cyclic existence and becoming an arhat.
If taken literally, Nagarjuna’s texts that explain the wisdom realizing
emptiness may give the impression that he believes that all phenomena
neither exist nor do not exist, and that by meditating on that liberation is
attained. However, he is actually saying that meditating on things being
truly existent on the ultimate level and totally nonexistent on the conventional
level cannot free us from cyclic existence. Instead, by understanding
and meditating on the middle way view that phenomena are empty of
inherent existence yet exist dependently, people gradually come to directly
perceive emptiness and attain the path of seeing. By further familiarizing
themselves with emptiness, they will attain the path of meditation and
finally the path of no more learning, nirvana.
Precious Garland emphasizes that the realization of emptiness is
extremely important not only because it is the principal root of liberation
but also because it is one of the principal roots of full awakening. Nagarjuna
shows this when he refers to the so-called “three factors indicated on this
occasion” that are essential to attain buddhahood—bodhichitta, wisdom
realizing emptiness, and compassion (verse 175). Thus the Precious Garland
is situated in the context of all of Nagarjuna’s works on reasoning.
When attempting to understand the definitive meaning of emptiness as
expressed by the Prasangika Madhyamikas, we must rely on Nagarjuna.
Thus studying his Collection of Middle Way Reasoning is essential. Those
with critical wisdom who wish to determine whether or not the meaning of
emptiness that Nagarjuna explains in these six texts genuinely comes from
the Buddha should read his Compendium of Sutras that conveniently gathers
together all the principal sutra passages on the subject so that readers
don’t need to search through the sutras themselves.
If you wish to read further, look at Four Hundred Stanzas on the Middle
Way (Chatuhshataka) by Nagarjuna’s student Aryadeva. This text explains
the Prasangika view of emptiness and the thought behind Nagarjuna’s Collection
of Middle Way Reasoning. You may also wish to consult the texts of
Buddhapalita, Chandrakirti, and Shantideva. Of all the outstanding works
that unpack Nagarjuna’s meaning, Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the Middle
Way is paramount. A supplement to Treatise on the Middle Way, it principally
explains the meaning expressed in that text and fills out the other practices
to be done on the path to full awakening. This text clearly explains all of
the difficult points of Nagarjuna’s work. Chandrakirti explains the words of
Treatise on the Middle Way in his commentary Clear Words (Prasannapada).
The above texts can still be quite difficult to understand, so it is useful
to refer to Je Tsongkhapa’s texts the Ocean of Reasoning: The Great Commentary
on the “Middle Way” (Tsashé Tikchen), Illumination of the Middle
Way Thought (Gongpa Rabsal), and Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path
(Lamrim Chenmo), where he explains the meaning of the texts by Nagarjuna,
Chandrakirti, Aryadeva, and Buddhapalita.
You may wonder, “Why make things so confusing by having to read all
these books? Why can’t we just refer to the words of the Buddha or study
Nagarjuna directly?” The people who lived at the time of the Buddha were
able to immediately understand the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings
because they had enormous merit, but those who lived after he passed
away had less merit and couldn’t properly understand his teachings by
simply reading the sutras. Misconceptions about the meaning of the Buddha’s
teachings arose due to this, so great Indian sages wrote treatises to
unpack and clarify the meaning of the sutras for the practitioners of that
time who had the merit to correctly understand the view. Such people
could realize emptiness by meditating on the six texts of the Collection of
Middle Way Reasoning. But as time passed, people’s merit again declined,
and it became extremely difficult for most people to understand the previous
texts. Therefore it is necessary from time to time for great scholars
who correctly understand the meaning to compose texts to explain it and
clarify the difficult points of prior works. To this end, in our study of the
Precious Garland, we will refer to the commentary of Gyaltsap Je, one of Je
Tsongkhapa’s principal disciples.
Meaning of the Title
In Sanskrit the title is Rajaparikatha-ratnamala; in Tibetan, rgyal po la gtam
bya ba rin po che’i phreng ba. Raja means “king,” parikatha means “advice”
or “instruction,” ratna means “precious,” and mala means “garland.” The
full title of the work in English is thus Precious Garland of Advice to a King.
Some people say that the advice is for kings in general who lived in India
at Nagarjuna’s time. Others say this advice was given to a specific king who
was one of Nagarjuna’s benefactors. Some say the king was also the recipient
of Nagarjuna’s text Friendly Letter (Suhrillekha). His name was Dechö
Sangpo in Tibetan.