Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

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.

Nagarjuna-2016-1In 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.”


4 thoughts on “Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

    1. Thanks, Red. I have to say that I’m not much into these stages, but I see the connection you point out. I think of returning soon to original nature sort of like Basho’s journey home, where everyday is returning soon and the returning itself is original nature.

      1. Thanks David, that is much better interpretation, i kind of agree. But the quote “returning soon” seems to suggest as if someone “left” and are to return quickly (and everytime). I believe the real core of Buddha’s teaching is the concept of ending this cyce of birth-death (dukkha). This is not physical birth/death, but the concept of self-nature (bhavana) continuously in a cycle of change. And ultimately that bhavana extinguishes…not as in death…but as in beyond birth-death-cycle (which is a good thing, nirvana).

        Basho’s journey home suggests one found what they were looking for…and the SEARCH ENDED (no need to return, as they dont “leave” anymore – they go beyond leaving/returning).

        we may be talking about the same thing, but i kind of got mislead by wording “returning soon”

        1. I think of it as a metaphor. We haven’t left anywhere and we are not really going anyplace, for as Basho says, the journey itself is home.

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