Practical Ethics and Profound Emptiness - Preface

A Commentary on Nagarjuna's Precious Garland

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



440 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9781614293248

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Editor’s Preface

Dear Reader, you are about to embark on a wondrous journey into the mind of one of India’s greatest Buddhist thinkers and practitioners, Arya Nagarjuna. In Precious Garland, he gives teachings to a king, instructing him on both Madhyamaka philosophy regarding the nature of reality and practical matters such as how to govern the kingdom. It is evident by the way Nagarjuna addresses the king that they have a close relationship. The king is receptive to hear the teachings, and being fond of the king as well as compassionate toward his subjects, Nagarjuna teaches the king in a straightforward, no-holds-barred manner.

While Nagarjuna addresses the king directly, he explicitly says that the teachings are meant for everyone: people living then as well as many generations that will come afterward. The Dharma teachings themselves apply to everyone at all times and locales and of all cultures. In contrast, in a few places Nagarjuna gives advice that corresponds to the societal organization and customs of ancient India but needs to be adjusted to fit present cultural norms and values in the West.

If the teachings are meant for everyone, why, then, were they given to the king? Someone who has a lot of worldly power can influence a great number of people for better or for worse. In a kingdom where leaders do not change every few years due to popular election, a leader who admires and practices the Dharma can make good policies that will remain in place for decades. Viewed by the populace as being like a protective and wise parent, such a leader can encourage his or her subjects to live ethically and cultivate kindness. King Ashoka of ancient India (304–232 bce) is an excellent example of this. Through his generosity and philanthropy, as well as his edicts and pillars containing wise advice, he instructed his subjects and brought peace to the land.

The Treatise and Its Author, Commentator, and Teacher

Precious Garland of Advice for a King, usually referred to as Precious Garland, is one of Nagarjuna’s great treatises. Preceding the stages of the path literature (lamrim) popular in Tibet by twelve or thirteen centuries, Precious Garland is the basis for much of the material in other Indian treatises. Many of the points in Precious Garland are further elaborated in Shantideva’s Engaging in the Bodhisattvas’ Deeds (Bodhicharyavatara), Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara), and Asanga’s Compendium of Knowledge (Abhidharmasamucchaya). Precious Garland is also a source text for the lamrim teachings.

The principal theme of Precious Garland—the method to attain higher rebirth as well as the highest good of liberation and full awakening—is reflected in the lamrim’s division of practitioners into three capacities. The goal of a person of initial capacity is to avoid an unfortunate rebirth and to take a higher rebirth. Liberation—one aspect of highest good—is the aim of practitioners of middle capacity, and full awakening—the other aspect of highest good—is the goal of practitioners of advanced capacity.

Precious Garland explains that higher rebirth is a steppingstone to liberation and awakening, not an end in itself. Similarly, in the lamrim we are instructed in the practices in common with the initial capacity person in order to attain a series of fortunate rebirths, and on that basis to engage in the practices leading to liberation. But liberation from cyclic existence, too, is not an end in itself, and the lamrim encourages us to become someone of advanced capacity, who, motivated by the altruistic intention of bodhichitta, seeks to attain the full awakening of a buddha in order to most effectively benefit other sentient beings. Then, by engaging in the practices of an advanced capacity being, we will attain full awakening, buddhahood. In short, the meaning, purpose, and practices of the Precious Garland and the lamrim go hand in hand.

Precious Garland was authored by Nagarjuna, the most erudite and renowned scholar-practitioner of ancient India. Although the dates of his life are not known, some people place him circa 50–150 ce, others circa 150–250 ce. Born in South India, he was well learned in both the writings of the fundamental vehicle and the universal vehicle. His writings, especially the seminal Treatise on the Middle Way, unpacked the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings in the perfection of wisdom sutras in a way that challenged the philosophical assertions of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists and sparked debates about the ultimate nature of reality that have continued to the present day. As the founder of what came to be known as Madhyamaka philosophy, Nagarjuna’s thought spread into China, Tibet, Japan, and other Asian countries and is now a topic of discussion in universities and monasteries worldwide. His view of dependent arising and emptiness is regarded as the pinnacle of ontological and soteriological thought in Tibetan Buddhism. In China and Japan, Nagarjuna is a lineage master in both Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism.

Which king to whom Nagaruna taught the Precious Garland is uncertain. Tibetans say it was King Udayibhadra. Some Western scholars say King Udayibhadra was also known as King Gautamiputra Shatakarni (ruled 80–104 or 106–30 ce) of the Shatavahana dynasty in present-day Andhra Pradesh, India. Some say he was the following king, Vashishtiputra Pulumayi (130–58 ce).

The Indian scholar Ajitamitra (perhaps of the eighth century) wrote the Extensive Commentary on the Precious Garland. The Tibetan scholarpractitioner Gyaltsap Darma Rinchen (1364–1432) wrote the commentary Elucidation of the Essential Meaning of the Madhyamaka Precious Garland. A close student of Je Tsongkhapa and a prolific writer, Gyaltsap also penned commentaries to Maitreya’s Sublime Continuum (Uttaratantra) and Shantideva’s Engaging in the Bodhisattvas’ Deeds, among others.

Khensur Jampa Tegchok, the abbot and resident teacher at Nalanda Monastery in France from 1983 to 1993, gave this teaching there in 1989. Born in Tibet in 1930, Khensur Jampa Tegchok became a monk at the age of eight. He studied major Buddhist treatises at Sera Jé Monastic University in Lhasa for fourteen years before fleeing his homeland in 1959. A geshe lharampa, he was abbot of the Jé College of Sera Monastic University in India for six years. He was also a beloved teacher in the West, being the resident teacher at Nalanda Monastery in France, Land of Medicine Buddha in California, and teacher of the master’s program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy. He passed away in 2014.

An Overview of the Precious Garland

After offering homage to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and promising to compose the book, Nagarjuna delineates the principal topics he will address in the Precious Garland: the causes and effects of higher rebirth and highest good. Higher rebirth refers not just to rebirth as a human or god but to a human or god rebirth in which we are able to learn and practice the Dharma. Highest good is liberation from cyclic existence and the full awakening of a buddha. The first and second chapters are dedicated specifically to explaining the causes for higher rebirth such as ethical conduct, generosity, and dedication of merit, and the causes for the highest good, the wisdom realizing emptiness. His discussions of selflessness, the emptiness of inherent existence, and freedom from the two extremes are incomparable in terms of stripping away all wrong views and false assumptions.

In chapter 3, he goes into more depth on the causes of full awakening: the two collections of merit and wisdom, which are the aspects of method and wisdom on the bodhisattva path. The practices of generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, and so on, done with the altruistic intention of bodhichitta and viewed as both dependent and empty of inherent nature, contribute to the collection of merit. The practices of learning, contemplating, and meditating on the ultimate nature of persons and phenomena—their emptiness of inherent existence—fulfill the collection of wisdom. Both collections act as causes for a buddha’s two bodies—the form body and the truth body. The form body, or rupakaya, of a buddha is of two types: the enjoyment body that teaches arya bodhisattvas and the emanation body that manifests in our world to teach and guide us. The truth body, or dharmakaya, is the omniscient mind of a buddha and its ultimate nature. The collection of merit is the principal cause of the form body; the collection of wisdom is the principal cause of the truth body. The verses describing how the king can fulfill the collection of merit by helping his subjects give us the vision of how a government based on compassion could operate.

Chapter 4 continues with Nagarjuna giving the king more specific advice on how to govern the kingdom in a way that accords with the Dharma. This ranges from the qualifications of ministers to the importance of establishing monasteries, and from the treatment of prisoners to the propagation of the teachings of the universal vehicle in the land. Here we learn how to be a skillful leader and at the same time a deeply spiritual, compassionate person who acts for the benefit of others. Nagarjuna teaches us how to be at peace with ourselves, due to living ethically and with kindness, and simultaneously how to be a successful leader who knows how to accurately appraise people’s qualities and work with them effectively.

Chapter 5 gives more advice on the practices of bodhisattvas, those beings who aspire to become fully awakened buddhas. Here Nagarjuna speaks of faults to abandon and excellent qualities to cultivate. Learning about qualities that we have the ability and potential to cultivate inspires our mind to make our life meaningful by both benefiting the world and deepening our wisdom of the ultimate nature of reality.

In the concluding verses, Nagarjuna speaks of the importance of properly relying on a qualified spiritual mentor when practicing the path and again gives some practical advice on how to relate to others in our daily life so that our actions bring peace and harmony, rather than conflict and division. Since progressing on the path depends on our effort—no one else can practice the path for us—he then encourages us to do just that.

Things to Note

Gyaltsap Je’s commentary is organized according to an outline system employed in almost all Tibetan works. The full outline is not in the text itself, as that would add unnecessary length, but if you would like to refer to it when reading the book, it is online at precious-garland-outline/.

One word may have different meanings in different contexts. Khensur Rinpoche usually notes this, but close reading of some passages is necessary. In general, repetitions have been removed, but in passages that are difficult to understand, Khensur Rinpoche explains the point more than once in different words to help us understand the point.

A glossary has been included to help you understand technical terms. Foreign words are italicized on their first usage only.


It has been my great privilege and joy to edit Khensur Jampa Tegchok’s teaching on Precious Garland so that it will be available for all who will benefit from it for many generations in the future. I had the fortune to study with Khensur Rinpoche from 1982 to 1985 during the time he was teaching the monks of Nalanda Monastery and the nuns of Dorje Pamo Monastery in France. Many years later, he taught twice at Sravasti Abbey as a guest teacher. I had the fortune to edit two of his previous books, Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage and Insight into Emptiness, and before he passed away he encouraged me to edit and publish other teachings he gave.

In 2015, I worked on the manuscript of Precious Garland as a form of retreat, completely immersing myself in the text. The translation by Bhikshu Steve Carlier was so clear that I often felt like I was there in the hall while Khensur Rinpoche was teaching. The text came alive for me; editing is a very different process than reading or listening and forced me to think more deeply about the teachings. So it is with delight that I offer this text by the scholar-practitioner Nagarjuna, taught by Khensur Jampa Tegchok and following the commentary by Gyaltsap Je, to you. Please enjoy and let the teachings influence your mind and heart.

Appreciation goes first and foremost to the Buddha and Nagarjuna, as well as to the lineage of masters including Gyaltsap Je, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Khensur Jampa Tegchok that brings these teachings to us.

Precious Garland was composed in Sanskrit and translated into Tibetan by the Indian Master Jnanagarbha and the Tibetan Lotsawa Lui Gyaltsen. The Tibetan translation was edited and corrected by the Indian Master Kanakavarman and the Tibetan Lotsawa Patsap Nyima Drak. The verses of the root text predominantly accord with the translation by John Dunne and Sara McClintock, although in some verses Jeffrey Hopkins’ translation was used. I changed some of the terminology of the translation of the verses to match the translation terminology of Bhikshu Steve Carlier, who did a wonderful job translating Khensur Rinpoche’s teachings. I thank all of these translators for their wonderful work that enables those of us who are not Tibetan speakers to have access to these works. I would also like to thank Bhikshuni Sangye Khadro for correcting the manuscript, and the staff at Wisdom Publications, for their kind help. Special thanks go to the sangha community of Sravasti Abbey and all our benefactors for their support while working on this book. All mistakes are my own.

Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron Sravasti Abbey