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
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 dharmakaya—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.