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A Few Quotations on the Life of Nagarjuna, Lhudrub Nyingpo
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Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche said that it is not really important knowing exactly when a great Mahasiddha or yogi was born, what he ate, how he walked, and the like, rather, “The main thing is that he lived.” A few quotations on the life of one of the most eminent Siddhas the world has known, most excellent Nagarjuna, may be inspiring, although these notes are only fragments that point to an awesome life.
Maybe it would be helpful to recollect the early spread of Buddhism according to instructions by His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa in order to appreciate the continuation through our luminaries who continue giving us so much: “The phase of early Buddhism: The historic Buddha expounded the teachings and his disciples preserved the teachings.
This occurred approximately from the middle of the 6th to the middle of the 5th century B.C.E.
The phase of interpretations of the teachings: The beginning of the divisions into various (Hinayana) schools on the basis of different interpretations of the teachings of Buddha (Councils) started to occur, the criterion of the second phase.
This took place approximately from the 4th century to the 1st century B.C.E.1 The phase of the rise of Mahayana Buddhism: The rise of Mahayana Buddhism occurred approximately from the 1st to the 7th century C.E.
It expanded even more during the time of Saraha, Nagarjuna, and other great Mahasiddhas and finally came to Tibet in full through the blessings of Guru Padmasambhava, Marpa the Great Translator, and many other eminent Indian and Tibetan masters.”2
Rangjung Yeshe presented a short biography of Noble Saraha that is readily available and a wonderful support: “Saraha was a Mahasiddha who worked as an arrow-maker and had a consort of the same trade.
5 Shenphen Osel offered a song of realization by Saraha that underlines the significance of Thrangu Rinpoche’s precious teachings on “The Five Reasonings of Nagarjuna,” instructions that, in turn, illuminate the short verse written by Saraha, which states:
Mind is the basis of samsara and nirvana. Once you realize (its nature), rest in the ease of non-meditation. Other than within yourself, to look for it elsewhere is completely deluded. There is nothing of “It is this,” “It is not this.” Everything abides within the natural state.6
And all along Saraha, who was Nagarjuna’s spiritual master and friend, urged his students to unite wisdom with means, because, he said, “Without compassion, the view of emptiness will not lead you through the sublime path.”7
He was one of the greatest dialecticians the world has known, and his works definitively established the ‘Middle Way’ (Madhyamaka in Sanskrit) between the dualistic extremes of origin and cessation, nihilism and eternalism, coming and going, monism and pluralism.
As a teacher at the famous monastic university of Nalanda,8 his expositions on emptiness and other topics of Buddhist philosophy are still used today as authoritative guides for intellectual understanding and contemplative practice.
Nagarjuna’s commentaries on this profound teaching led to the formation of the tradition of Profound Philosophy, which establishes the intellectual understanding of emptiness as a basis for contemplation.”9
A few word usages connected to the term naga from the Rangjung Yeshe Tibetan-English Dictionary may help clarify questions that can arise, especially seeing that it is said that nagas protected Lord Buddha from attacks of the maras on the night before his enlightenment:10 “klu - Naga.
They generally live in the form of snakes, but many can change into human form; klu khang – naga protector temple, behind Potala in Lhasa, residence of nagas, built by the Sixth Dalai Lama; klu skyes – tree; klu rgyal rigs – nagas as warrior caste (in ornamental symbolism).”11
The ocean is said to be inhabited by nagas.
Nagas are sea serpents and are incredibly clean creatures, which is why, if a corpse ever falls into the ocean, it always washes up on the shore.
Legend tells us that Lord Buddha prophesied the coming of Nagarjuna, who lived some time between 150 and 250 C.E. According to accounts, he was born into a Brahmin family in South India and converted to Buddhism.
In the Biographical Notes of Rangjung Yeshe it is stated, “An astrologer predicted that in the best case (if he practiced the Dharma), the child would live for no more than seven years. When seven years were almost gone, the parents sent their son away on pilgrimage with a servant, because they could not bear the thought of seeing his corpse.
Holding one leaf in his hand and concealing the other in the sole of his sandal, he travelled across the ocean to an island where a famous alchemist lived. Nagarjuna requested instructions in the making of gold.
Nagarjuna replied, ‘We should exchange our crafts’ and gave him the leaf he held in his hand.
There, too, he composed many treatises. His teachings on Vinaya were equalled to Lord Buddha’s First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, his teachings on emptiness to the Second Turning, and his Collection of Praises (such as The Praise to the Absolute Expanse, Dharmadhatu) to the Third Turning.”17
Noble Nagarjuna was preordained by Buddha Shakyamuni to recover the Prajnaparamita Sutra, which had been entrusted to the nagas by Ananda, Lord Buddha’s closest disciple, and to explain these teachings precisely.
Kalachakranet wrote about the origin of the prayer wheel and on this occasion spoke about the land of the Naga King: “Arya Chenrezig predicted to Master Ludrup Nyingpo,18 ‘In the palace of the land of Naga is the Naga King Bodhisattva, who is the owner of a profound wheel of Dharma.
‘Oh, Naga King Bodhisattva, please pay attention to me. I have come here because Arya Chenrezig prophesied that the benefits to sentient beings will be enormous if I beg from you your profound wheel of Dharma, which can liberate beings from all types of sufferings of lower rebirths just by hearing, seeing, touching, or thinking of it. Kindly give it to me.’
“Naga King Bodhisattva replied, ‘This wheel of Dharma, which has the quality of quickly liberating all transmigrators from the great suffering of the three lower rebirths merely by hearing, seeing, touching, or thinking of it, was kindly given to us in the past by the Buddha Marmed Tse, and has given nagas much happiness, through it many have been led to the grounds and paths of Buddhahood.
This Dharma Wheel is the wheel of the mantra OM MANI PADME HUNG, the essence mantra that Arya Chenrezig received from the Buddhas upon request and which represents the essence of all the qualities of body, speech, mind, and actions of the Buddhas.
I shall give this wheel to you.
Isn’t the jewel all living beings seek an echo of the inner forces of energy when integrated and expended wholesomely? Thrangu Rinpoche taught that Yid Shin Norbu, the “Wish-Fulfilling Jewel,” exists “in the naga or deva realms and gives the owner whatever he or she wants.”
Doubtless, there was a little ranker in this stratagem.
The Buddha pointed out the perishable nature of worldly wealth such as houses, gold, silver, and the like and gave to his son instead another inheritance, the Seven Noble Treasures, i.e., faith, morality, giving, study, modesty, humility, and wisdom.
The specific injunctions and prohibitions of morality may be formulated, their essence is the same. It is the principle of non-injury, ahimsa. (…) Nagarjuna also asks us to call to mind six objects worthy of recollection.
The reason is that it is the morality and mental development practiced in former lives by the gods that has brought them to their high station in the world, and therefore, by bringing them to mind, one can remind oneself to practice morality and meditation similar to that once practiced by the gods. (…)
Once again, taking his inspiration directly from the words of the Buddha himself, Nagarjuna asks us to avoid six indulgences, which, as he says, result in the loss of one’s good name and rebirth in states of woe. They are gambling, laziness, association with unwholesome friends, alcohol, etc. (…)
“Nagarjuna proceeds to give his friend a lot of sound advice about the conduct of everyday social affairs. He tells the king that persons have to be judged according to both their actions and intentions.
In order to make himself clear he uses the simile of mangoes.
Some, he says, appear to be ripe, but are in fact green; others appear to be green but are in fact ripe. Yet others appear to be green and are in fact green; while still others appear to be ripe and are indeed ripe.
He even concerned himself with the treatment of prisoners. (…)
He expresses a concept that only dawned upon western social philosophers at the time of the 18th century so-called ‘enlightenment’ in Europe, i.e., wrong doers should be punished with the sole wish to reform them, not with the wish to exact revenge.
“All of these texts seem to have achieved their objective.
They were enormously popular with ordinary practitioners of Buddhism.
It is not surprising inasmuch as the texts have the remarkable characteristic of being able to teach a comprehensive version of Buddhism which is also useful and accessible to the ordinary person like you and me.”21
The Rangjung Yeshe Glossary noted that Nagarjuna lived for 600 years, that he erected pillars and stone walls to protect the Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya and that he constructed 108 stupas. Furthermore, “Having attained realization of Hayagriva,22 he transmitted the lineage to Padmasambhava. (…)
Rangjung Yeshe tells us, “Once a young prince, who coveted his father’s kingdom, was told by his mother, ‘Your father’s life is linked to that of Master Nagarjuna, who himself attained eternal life. Therefore, you will never rule the kingdom.’
We are invited to participate and realize, as best as we possibly can, the most invaluable instructions that, through Lord Buddha’s inspiration, Noble Nagarjuna summarized in the following praise for the benefit of his pupils living beyond any restrictions of space and time:
Are conceptualised and then superimposed.
His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa told us at the beginning of these pages, “Tantric Buddhism existed in India at the time in an extremely hidden or secret form and was not made public or accessible to the general Buddhist practitioners.
It expanded even more during the time of Saraha, Nagarjuna, and other great Mahasiddhas and finally came to Tibet in full through the blessings of Guru Padmasambhava, Marpa the Great Translator, and many other eminent Indian and Tibetan masters.”27
Our Lineage Masters realized and always live according to the few words Padmasambhava used when he spoke about himself approximately 700 years after the life of Nagarjuna: “My realization is higher than the sky. But my observance of karma is finer than grains of flour.”28
Compiled & written by Gaby Hollmann, May 2006
1 See Thrangu Rinpoche, The Three Buddhist Councils. How the Arhats authentically preserved the Buddha’s Teachings, in the site: Simhas.org, teaching 31, 2006.
2 The Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, Buddhism in India, in the site: Kagyuoffice.org, Feb. 2006.
3 Saraha, in the website of Rangjung Yeshe: Blazing Splendour, 2006.
4 Shenphen Osel, issue 8, Jan. 2000, page 15.
5 Thrangu Rinpoche, Transcending Ego: Distinguishing Consciousness from Wisdom. Translated by Peter Roberts, Namo Buddha Publications, Crestone, 2001, page 11.
6 Shenphen Osel, issue 7, Oct. 1999, page 76. See especially the Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, The Mahamudra Dohakosa of the Mahasiddha Saraha, in the site: Kagyuoffice.org, Library of Sacred Texts, Jan. 2006.
7 In the article by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, The Power of Positive Karma, in: Shambhala Sun, May 2006,
8 The six Buddhist universities of ancient India were Nalanda, which was probably built during the reign of King Kumara Gupta (415-455) and therefore founded much later than the historical recordings about Mahasiddha Nagarjuna (yet an earlier, smaller site may have existed), Vikramashila, Odantapuri, Somapura (now in the territory of Pakistan), Jagaddala, and Vallabhi (West India).
Odantapuri served as a model for Tibetan monasteries, especially Samye Gompa in Central Tibet.
The great universities were destroyed along with other major centres of Buddhism in India when Muslims invaded Bihar and unleashed a period of destruction.
9 Jamgon Kongtrul, The Great Path of Awakening. Translated by Ken McLeod, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 1987, pages 52-53.
10 See Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, Commentary on Mipham’s Sherab Raltri, entitled “The Moon,” in the site of Rangjung Yeshe: Blazing Splendour, 2006.
11 Rangjung Yeshe Tibetan-English Dictionary, online, 2006.
12 Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Chandrakirti’s “Entrance to the Middle Way,” in: Shenpen Osel, vol. 5, no. 2 & 3, Dec. 2001, page 31.
13 Bodhisattva Amitayus, Tse-pa-med in Tibetan, imparts long life and is the Sambhogakaya emanation of Buddha Amitabha.
14 Magadha was one of the four main kingdoms of India at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni.
The core of the kingdom was that portion of Bihar that lies south of the Ganges, with its capital at Rajagriha.
Buddha was born as a Prince of Kapilavastu in Kosala, which had been annexed by the Kingdom of Magadha at that time.
Therefore Magadha was the scene of many incidents in his life.
15 Shankara was the great philosopher of non-dualistic Vedanta. - The Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa states, “Shankara's argument (vide Brahmasutra Sankarabhasya) that elementary particles are actualised in terms of having various qualities, rather than quantities per se, is equally invalid, since difference would still presuppose physical measurement in the final analysis.
Shankara's supposed groupings of qualitative particles are thought to combine in order to produce the gross atoms and molecules of material perception and yet, once again, the very singularity of the supposed ultimate building blocks of nature precludes their combination, since to combine they would have to possess 'parts.'
A singularity is by definition partless and unitary. (…)
It follows that Shankara's analogy of ‘rope and snake" is also naive compared to Arya-Vasubandhu's elephant analogy (…) in introducing his system of Adwaita Vedanta, suggested that the world was like a segment of rope mistaken for a snake. The rope is lying on the ground.
Dusk has gathered and it is not easy to see clearly.
An observer walking along the road mistakes the old piece of rope for a poisonous cobra and takes fright. In this manner, says Shankara, the world and its suffering is perceived, when the reality is the pure Absolute (Brahman) alone.
The world is purely illusion (maya). When the illusion is seen for what it is, just as the snake instantly becomes again the rope that it always has been, so too the world transforms back into Brahman. By this means Shankara posited nonduality (adwaita).
This analogy overlooks the dichotomy established by it, of an absolute reality opposed to an absolute illusion, or existence (sat) versus non-existence (asat).
Although Shankara and Vasubandhu are pointing in the end to the same final truth, Shankara's ‘languaging’ of the problem falls short of Vasubandhu's. It is the same mistake which Shankara makes in terms of his so called qualitative atoms.”
The Cuckoo of Awareness.
An Ornament for Acquiring Realization known as the Six Diamond Stanzas, in the site: The Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, Kagyuoffice, Library of Sacred Texts, Dec. 2005.
16 Thrangu Rinpoche taught, “The middle view of Madhyamaka is sometimes referred to as Prajnaparamita, which means ‘Mother of all Buddhas’ since it is the basis for realization. Only with perfect insight into the transcendent nature of Prajnaparamita - the Sanskrit term that was translated into Tibetan as Shes-rab-kyi-pa-rol-tu-phyin-pa (‘Perfection of Wisdom’) - can freedom from samsara be attained and nirvana be realized. The mother of all Buddhas, i.e., the middle view and perfection of wisdom, is the cause for realization of Buddhahood.“
17 Nagarjuna, in the site: Rangjung Yeshe, April 2006. - The Praise to the Absolute Expanse can be found at the end of this article. - The work “Mulamadhyamakakarika, dBu-ma-rtsa-ba-bshes-rab-shes-bya-wa - The Treatise on the Middle Way” is definitely attributed to Nagarjuna by academia.
It explains relative and ultimate truths, proves that nothing arises of its own accord, that nothing is self-existent, and therefore permanence is refuted. Phenomena are explained to be dependent, transient events, rather than having their own inherent nature, and therefore annihilation is refuted.
It is said that emptiness should not be taught to those who are not prepared to understand because they may develop negative reactions, but the fundamental goal of Buddhism is to overcome suffering, which is achieved by realizing emptiness that can also be described as the lack of impediment for spatial existents. – Concerning the works of Nagarjuna, see “Suhrillekha, She-pai-tin-yig - Nagarjuna’s Letter to King Gautamiputra with a Commentary by Sakya Trizin, Jamspal Chophel.”
Translated by Dr. Peter Della Santina, Motilal Banarsidass Press, New Delhi, 1978. Other works attributed to Nagarjuna are “Shunyatasabtikarika, sTong-nyid-bduen-chu-pa – Sixty Verses on Emptiness” and “Yukitashashakakarika (?), Rigs-pa-drug-chu-pa – Seventy Verses on Reasoning,” furthermore, “Ratnavali, Rin-chen-teng-wa – The Precious Garland,” which has been translated & edited by Jeffrey Hopkins & Lati Rinpoche, Vikas Publishing House, Delhi, India, 1975. - Although Nagarjuna is said to have lived hundreds of years, the texts have been dated to the first few century C.E.
18 Nagarjuna is called “The Heart, The Essence” in Tibetan, i.e., “The Heart that has power over the nagas.”
19 Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, in the site: Kalachakranet.org, Feb. 2006.
20 Thrangu Rinpoche, Transcending Ego: Distinguishing Consciousness from Wisdom, page 108. - "According to the sacred tradition of the Hindus, the deep caverns of the Nagas contain fabulous treasures, illuminated by flashing precious stones.
The subterranean abodes are now to be in certain parts of both the Himalayas and Tibet, particularly around the Lake of the Great Nagas - Lake Manasarowar." Andrew Tomas, On the Shores of Endless Worlds, in the site: Shambhala, the World Mountain, 2005.
21 Dr. Peter Della Santina, Nagarjuna. A Good Friend, in the site: ecst.csuchico.edu/friend, 2005.
22 Hayagriva Tantra is from the Eight Sadhana sections of Mahayoga and was “discovered and taught by Arya Nagarjuna.
The Terma text was procured from a copper casket in the Shankarakuta Stupa at the charnel ground of Sitavana near the present day Bodhgaya in North India.” Hayagriva, in the site: Himalayaaart/431, April 2006.
23 Rangjung Yeshe Glossary, Nagarjuna.
24 Kusha grass was used as a ritual seat in earliest Vedic times: “In the Bhagavad Gita it is said that such a seat or asana must be made up of a mat of kusha grass, covered with a deer skin, on top of which a silk cloth must be spread.
Why so? Kusha grass is traditionally considered sacred. Besides, it is almost an insect repellent. Insects like white ants might attack wood, but not kusha grass. The hardest of the three materials, i.e., the kusha grass, forms the lowest base of the asana. Deer skin of softer variety and the silk covering is meant to prevent feeling hurt sitting for a long time.” Swami Brahmeshananda, On Asana, in the site: Sriramakrishnamath/magazine, April 2006.
25 Nagarjuna, in the site: Rangjung.com.
26 Nagarjuna, In Praise of the Dharmadhatu. Translated by Jim Scott, in: Shenphen Osel, vol. 3, no. 2, Oct. 1999, page 1. – Dharmadhatu is “the suchness in which emptiness and dependent origination are inseparable; nature of mind that lies beyond arising, dwelling and ceasing.”
Eric Pema Kunsang & Marcia Binder Schmidt, Blazing Splendour, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Boudhanath, 2005, page 402. Ven. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche explained, „In general, we can know that, of all the phenomena that cause samsara and nirvana, not one of them moves from the expanse of the dharmadhatu.
The essential nature of samsara and nirvana is nothing other than the dharmadhatu. Yet, it is the case that we do not realize that; we do not realize the genuine nature of reality. Therefore, we have the confused appearances, the mental afflictions and the suffering that constitute samsara. Because of our ignorance of the dharmadhatu, we go around in samsara.” Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, The Dharmadhatu, in: Bodhi, issue 4, 1999.
27 The Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Ugyen Trinley Dorje, Buddhism in India.
28 Printed in the article by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, The Power of Positive Karma, page 63.