There was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century, and who has been confused with Nagarjuna (c. 150–250 CE) the “second Buddha” and founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy. The legends surrounding both are numerous.
In one story, the Tibetan Nagarjuna, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold. One day, as he was taking a meal, Nagarjuna saw a thief passing by his open door. The thief noticed the golden bowl and wanted to steal it.
Nagarjuna saw into the thief’s heart, and to save time, he went outside and gave his golden bowl to the man, encouraging him to go ahead and take it.
The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl to Nagarjuna, saying, “Great teacher! When you gave away this bowl so freely, I felt very poor and desolate. Show me the way to acquire the wealth that makes this kind of untroubled detachment possible.”
The story is about the importance of non-attachment, emphasizing that to let go of attachments to material things is to realize a state of wealth and abundance.
A key element in cultivating non-attachment is renunciation, a word that to me always seems to convey sacrifice. The Dalai Lama says, “True renunciation is a state of mind. It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”
In his version of the Tao Te Ching, the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang translated chapter 59 this way:
In guiding people and working according to nature,
It is best to follow renunciation.
Following renunciation means returning soon.
Returning soon means accumulating attainment.
Chang comments that “The key word in this chapter is se, or renunciation, which means returning soon to one’s original nature . . . Thus [Te-Ching’s commentary says]: What Lao Tzu means ‘in guiding people and working according to nature, it is best to follow renunciation,’ is that nothing is better than the cultivation of returning to one’s original nature.”
When I did an internet search for se, I found it defined as “stingy, mean.” But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl allegorizes, the state of mind of non-attachment includes generosity of spirit.
Atisha, in Kadamthorbu, Precepts collected from Here and There, is quoted as saying,
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”
And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action [found in Engaged Buddhist Reader], Robert Thurman writes,
Those who . . . simply consume and hoard, soon lose their wealth, just as Nagarjuna states. It is a fact of economics that the basis of wealth is generosity.”