There’s some doubt about whether Nagarjuna actually composed all the texts attributed to him, but most scholars accept The Precious Garland as part of his official corpus of works. According to the preface in the commemorative book given out at the Dalai Lama’s teachings, “The text is classified by the Tibetan tradition as belonging to the ‘Epistles’
As far as I know the king to whom the epistle was written for, has never been identified. But as Nagarjuna states in the text, he did not write it solely out of his “affection” for a king, but “also due to my compassion for beings.” In that sense, The Precious Garland is really a letter to all humanity.
In this section, the Dalai Lama offers some indispensable guidance on the various ways we approach the path and on the nature of faith and wisdom.
The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna
June 5-8, 1997
There have been some problems with the lights in the auditorium (Pauley Pavilion at UCLA). When the lights are restored to the stage, they go out again in the audience area.
So, now . . . if you can read in this dark – [laughter].
Translator: In that sense, he has an advantage over you [referring to the Dalai Lama – more laughter.]
Now, we read from the text:
King, I will explain the wholly virtuous Dharma
So that you may accomplish it,
For the practices will be accomplished when it is explained
To a vessel of the true Dharma.
In one who first practices the Dharma of elevation;
Afterwards comes the highest good,
For, having obtained elevation,
One proceeds gradually in stages to the highest good.
Here, I say that elevation is happiness,
And the highest good is liberation.
Briefly, the method for attaining them,
I summarize as faith and wisdom.
Because one has faith, one relies on the Dharma;
Because one has wisdom, one truly knows;
Of these two, wisdom is primary,
But faith must come first.
What is being stated in these verse is that the dharma being taught is the dharma of the Buddha. And what is the Buddha’s dharma? It is the way and means by which the highest good, which is liberation, is attained. Since the attainment of liberation may take a long process, it becomes essential for the practitioner to insure that during the process moving toward liberation, one possesses the right kind of existence, the right forms of existence, which equips the individual to use the resources toward the perfection of liberation. Thus, there are two principle forms of dharma: there is the dharma of elevated states of existence, such as human existence, and the second dharma, which is the more important dharma, that is related to the process of attaining liberation. And practice associated with the first kind of dharma has more to do with the cultivation and development of faith.
Faith here refers to the Three Jewels, the three objects of refuge: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It also refers to a conviction in the validity of the law of cause and effect. By developing that kind of faith, one engages in a life style where the individual lives within the bounds of an ethical way of life, thus insuring the possibility of attaining higher forms of existence.
For the dharma of attaining liberation, it is not faith that is crucial, but wisdom or insight is the essential aspect of the path. And wisdom here refers to the wisdom that penetrates into the ultimate nature of reality, thus being able to act as a direct antidote to dispelling the afflictions of a distorted state of mind. So although faith precedes wisdom, wisdom is central to the path.
One who does not neglect the practices
Through desire, anger, fear, or ignorance
Should be known as one who has faith,
A supreme vessel of the highest good.
A wise person is one who
Having thoroughly analyzed
All actions of body, speech and mind,
Always practices for the benefit of self and others.
In verse six, Nagarjuna is talking about engaging in a formal practice of dharma. He defines what he sees as four flawed ways of pursuing the practice of dharma. One is pursuing one’s practice of dharma on the basis of a strong attachment of one’s own approach – because it is my approach, it is the best – and that way of pursuing the path is totally flawed, in the sense that your attachment prevents you from actually understanding the true nature of the path. Your approach is not grounded in a valid understanding of the process of the path.
The second flawed way of pursuing the path is to pursue an approach that is based on anger, hatred, or revulsion. And this refers, again, to a formal practice where you totally reject someone else’s approach on the grounds that is it not your own. And this strong revulsion to others opinions blinds you from any possibility of gaining insight from others approach.
Nagarjuna defines the third flawed way as where your approach is hindered by inhibition or fear. Fear in the sense that you feel threatened and this inhibits your approach to the path.
And the fourth flawed way is where you approach the path or practice purely on the basis of blind faith. You understand nothing, it’s just simple faith that is totally blind. It is again a flawed way of pursuing the path. By drawing contrast to these four wrong ways of going about one’s practice, the text defines what is the true sense of faith.
Here Nagarjuna defines that someone who’s faith in the path, the Three Jewels, and the law of cause and effect, is grounded in a personal understanding and knowledge—such a person is someone who is said to possess the right kind of faith, the right kind of competence to engage in the path.
The kind of understanding that is referred to here, upon which one must ground one’s faith, is a fundamental understanding of the Two Truths [Skt. samvrtisatya ‘conventional truth’ and paramarthasatya ‘absolute truth’] of the Buddha’s teachings. Then on the basis of understanding the Two Truths, one will develop a good understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Understanding the Four Noble Truths will allow you to develop a greater appreciation of the Three Jewels, and though this understanding one can develop a deep conviction in the law of karma. Thus one will be able to engage in a dharmic life, and live according to a life-style that is with the bounds of an ethical and disciplined way of life. Such a person, whose faith and conviction in dharma is grounded in such an understanding, is said to be the ideal practitioner.
This sets the actual procedure of the process of the path, the first stage of the dharma practice is engaging in the practice where the primary emphasis is to disengage one’s body, speech, and mind from any kind of negative actions. So there is an element of restraint here. The next stage is to engage in the practice of understanding the Anatma [no-self] teachings. Once the level of understanding of no-self is developed then one should be able to adopt the third level of practice, which I view as the primary level, which is overcoming not only delusions but also the imprints left by delusions. Someone who is capable of understanding such an approach to dharma is said to be a wise practitioner, is said to be truly insightful.
So these considerations are directly related to the three qualifications that are recommended on the part of the student in Santideva’s “Four-hundred Verses on the Middle Way”, where he defines three principle characteristics that are necessary on the part of the student listening to the teachings. One is open-mindedness. The second is intelligence, in the sense that one is able to employ his or her critical faculties. The third is that a person should have a good degree of enthusiasm and commitment.
If you lack the first qualification of objectivity, then you will be swayed by your prejudices and certain preconceptions that you may have and this would then color your judgment and you won’t be able to really appreciate what is being taught. Also, you won’t be able to engage in discourse.
The second qualification of intelligence is vitally important, especially for the Buddhist practitioner, for within the Buddhist scriptures there are different types of scriptures that are taught to different audiences for different purposes at different times. So, because of these specific contents, one should be able to apply a critical faculty to be able to judge what are the definite true meaning of the scripture and what are conditional, to what degree what is said explicitly in this scripture is contextual, relative to a particular context and cannot be applied universally across the board, or to what extent there is a deeper underlying subject matter that is being taught.
So on the part of the Buddhist practitioner there is a real need for the ability to draw from one’s own critical resources so that one is able to really discern the true meaning of the scriptures. Without a critical faculty, one may not be able to judge the validity of what is being taught to you, especially when one comes across a teacher who either out of ignorance or pride or certain prejudices gives a teaching that is not in the true spirit of the Buddhist teachings. Then if you lack this critical ability to determine the validity of the teachings, there is a real danger of being led astray.
Then the question is how do we determine what is being taught by a particular teacher is valid of not? And you can only do so by comparing it and relating it to your own understanding of the overview of Buddhist teachings. It is vitally important for the practitioner to always examine whether what is being taught really accords with the cardinal line set in the basic teachings of Buddhism. If it does not accord with that cardinal line, then it is something to be rejected. This is always the bottom line to be constantly checked against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.
Now the question of how do we acquire a knowledge of the basic tenets or an understanding of the fundamental framework of the Buddhist path? Here I would suggest to all of you that before taking someone on as a teacher—one should not be hasty in selecting a teacher, rather one can attend lectures on the teachings and one should do as much reading as possible. These days there are books and texts available, thus try to develop a good body of knowledge of the basic framework of the Buddhist path, then you will be equipped with the critical ability to analyze and examine what is being taught, so that you will not be led astray.
And the third qualification is that you must have a degree of interest or commitment. This is important, otherwise there will be an absence of engagement on your part.
To be continued . . .