Nagarjuna’s Hymns

Nagarjuna Conqueror of the Serpent (Nicholas Roerich)

Although he is best known for his complex philosophical works, there are a number of devotional pieces attributed to the incomparable Buddhist teacher, Nagarjuna (ca. 150–250 CE). These are often called “hymns,” and they were poems or songs of praise, possibly intended to be used in devotional acts.

Devotional practice in Buddhism can either be puja (“to offer”) or sadhana (“means of achievement” or “realization”). Puja is a more general term, and can be bowing, chanting, or making offerings of food, goods, incense, lamps, scriptures, or “any offering for body or mind.” Sadhana is associated with Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, and it refers to a proscribed method of ritual, usually involving visualization, set down in a text.

Many Buddhists grit their teeth at the idea of devotion in Buddhism. I think that’s because they see it as a form of worship. And it’s true that in some Buddhist traditions, worship, either venerating the Buddha as the personification of perfection and an exalted being, or as an act of faith directed toward mystical Buddha or force, is an integral part of practice.

Devotional practice does seem odd considering the Buddha discouraged veneration of himself or his relics, and I imagine he wouldn’t be too keen either about faith in fictional Buddhas. Yet, as Nyanaponika Thera once pointed out,

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the Buddha disparaged a reverential and devotional attitude of mind when it is the natural outflow of a true understanding and a deep admiration of what is great and noble.”

Devotion, then, is just another tool we can use for the cultivation of mindfulness and realization. This, I must assume, is how Nagarjuna felt, because it is difficult to picture the man who taught the emptiness of all things, going around doing a lot of bowing and veneration. Yet, that is how it must have been, for if Nagarjuna was an historical person, he certainly would have been a person of his times and its mindset, and as far as practice goes, he was part of the Buddhist mainstream.

Calling these devotional pieces “hymns” is perhaps a bit problematic in that the word implies some sort of worship. So, maybe poems or songs might be better. Yet, hymns does have a nice ring to it. Another problem is the authenticity of these pieces, as there is some doubt whether or not they are genuine works by Nagarjuna. Regardless of who composed them, the poetry, for me, lacks the power of Shantideva’s works, but they are interesting nonetheless.

Here is my version of one of the shorter devotional pieces, the Cittavajrastava. It reflects Nagarjuna’s belief that the mind is pure in its ultimate nature, and the word “purity” for him was a synonym for Nirvana. The mind is luminous, brightly shining.

Hymn to the Jewel of the Mind

Praise to one’s own mind, the jewel that ends the confusion of thoughts, and in its natural state, removes the net of delusion generated through mind alone.

Though beings invent, through their own inclinations, various gods, owing to the jewel of the mind, no god, other than liberation, can be established.

In attainment, the mind is luminous; only in mind are the five kinds of destiny, and neither the essence of bliss nor the root of suffering exist beyond the mind.

All that is seen by sentient beings, even while engaged in some meditative practices, are in the mind’s deceitful net, according to the words of he who taught the dharma of truth.

The mind, lacking imagination, caught in samsara, born from imagination, is nothing other than imagination – where there is no imagination, there is liberation.

Therefore, all beings should offer sincere praise to this mind of illumination, for it causes them to acquire the mind’s jewel, called “Sublime Illumination.”

Mind, the product of the elements, is bound to the body – when the mind is calmed, the elements are calmed, so become a strong custodian of your mind, for only when the mind is calm and pure does awakening arise.


5 thoughts on “Nagarjuna’s Hymns

  1. This is lovely, David! I wonder if the bowing and veneration is by nature empty. Just recalling a Thich Nhat Hanh-style “hymn” –

    The one who bows
    and the one who is bowed to
    are both by nature empty.
    That is why the communication between them
    is indescribably perfect.

  2. Can you imagine if we sang this in school instead of “All things bright and beautiful…” 😉

    When you say your version, is this your own translation?

    1. I don’t think we sang that here in the States, but we did sing “This Land is Your Land” on occasion. I adapted this from some other translations. Didn’t change the meaning just the words and phrasings around.

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