Practical Ethics and Profound Emptiness - Selections
Let a great Tibetan scholar guide you through one of Nagarjuna’s masterworks.
1. Starting on the Path to Happiness and Liberation
Praise and Homage
At the beginning of a treatise, the author first pays homage to the Three Jewels. This humbles the mind and the author reminds himself that he will explain the Buddha’s words; he is not going to make up something outside of the Buddhadharma. Here Nagarjuna pays homage to the Buddha, the Omniscient One. After this, the author writes a promise to compose the text. Here Nagarjuna tells us his motivation for writing the Precious Garland. He also explains the subject matter, the immediate and ultimate aims in writing the treatise, and the connection between these three. He also explains why he will write this lengthy epistle of Dharma to the king: because the king is receptive to hearing the Dharma, will benefit from hearing it, and will put it into practice—in other words, because he is a suitable vessel. Although Nagarjuna has explicitly written Precious Garland for a king, he has implicitly written it for all of those in future generations who will benefit from reading and studying it.
1. I bow to the Omniscient One,
[who is] utterly free of all faults
and adorned with all good qualities,
the sole friend of all sentient beings.
The Purpose of Praising and Paying Homage to the Buddha
Nagarjuna pays homage to the Buddha in order to fulfill his own and others’ aims. It perfectly fulfills his immediate aim because offering praise to a special object with a mind of faith pacifies obstacles to composing the text. Nagarjuna will also attain his ultimate aim, because composing the text contributes to the accumulation of merit that will allow him to attain liberation. He perfectly fulfills the immediate aims of others because they will be able to use his text to learn and practice the instructions without difficulty. He fulfills their ultimate aims because liberation and full awakening are attained on the basis of such study and practice.
An alternative meaning is that attaining the Buddha’s omniscient mind— the truth body or I—fulfills one’s own purpose because it is the most exalted and perfect state of mind. Attaining a Buddha’s two form bodies—the enjoyment body and the emanation body—fulfills the aims of others because by appearing to sentient beings via these bodies, buddhas teach and lead them to liberation and awakening.
The Meaning of the Praise and Homage
The Buddha has fulfilled his own goal because he is utterly free of all faults and adorned with all good qualities. “Utterly free of all faults” indicates the Buddha’s excellent abandonment. He has fulfilled his own aim of abandoning all that is to be abandoned in himself and is free of all defilements. This is an attribute of the Buddha’s truth body, which is completely free from both the afflictive obscurations that prevent liberation and the cognitive obscurations that prevent full awakening.
The Buddha’s quality of excellent abandonment covers the practice of the beings of three capacities—initial, intermediate, and advanced—as explained in the stages of the path, or lamrim teachings. The Buddha is free from all suffering of the lower realms and free from all suffering of cyclic existence in general. He is also free from self-grasping ignorance and self-centered thought. In short, he has abandoned all faults and defects of cyclic existence and of the personal peace of nirvana. All of these have been eradicated such that they can never return.
“Adorned with all good qualities” indicates that the Buddha possesses all excellent realizations and qualities of a fully awakened one’s body, speech, and mind. He knows all objects of knowledge and is adorned with all good qualities, thereby attaining the truth body adorned with ten powers, the four kinds of fearlessness, and the eighteen unshared qualities that distinguish fully awakened buddhas from arhats. His truth body is beautified with the wisdom that directly understands all sixteen aspects of the four truths of the aryas and perceives all phenomena with direct, unmistaken wisdom. Such excellent abandonment and realizations illustrate that the Buddha has fulfilled his own aim.
Nagarjuna also praises the Buddha because he fulfills the aim of others by having actualized the two form bodies of a fully awakened one. Motivated by love and compassion, he manifests physical bodies in order to lead sentient beings on the path. He appears to arya bodhisattvas as the enjoyment body in a pure land and appears to ordinary sentient beings as emanation bodies who guide and teach them. In this way, the Buddha protects sentient beings from duhkha—suffering and unsatisfactory experiences—and establishes them in temporal and ultimate goodness.
“The sole friend of all sentient beings” indicates that the Buddha fulfills all the aims of others. He helps others attain their goals without being biased by attachment to some and adverse toward others. He doesn’t favor those that help or revere him or discriminate against those who have harmed or insulted him, but rather helps all beings equally. Out of compassion he engages in every method possible to free each and every sentient being from all of their duhkha forever. He also works to bring about their happiness in any way possible. Thus he indeed is the sole friend of all beings.
To say that the Buddha is the sole friend of all beings highlights the difference between the Buddha and non-Buddhist teachers who may harm sentient beings by giving incorrect instructions that lead disciples to engage in destructive actions. For example, such teachers may tell their disciples to kill or may kill others themselves; they may instruct disciples to adopt stringent, ascetic lifestyles or opulent, self-indulgent lifestyles. The Buddha, however, knows the disposition and aptitude of each disciple and teaches accordingly, without leading them on erroneous paths.