Practical Ethics and Profound Emptiness - Introduction
Let a great Tibetan scholar guide you through one of Nagarjuna’s masterworks.
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.