All of Nagarjuna’s works were written in verse, though I don’t know if you could say they are poetry per se, and certainly they are not as poetic as many of Shantideva’s verses. Nagarjuna was primarily a logistician and his dialectic is often described as a form of reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”), the method of pointing out the contradictory or absurd consequences of an opponents argument. Although, Nagarjuna maintained that “If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical error; but I do not make a proposition, therefore I am not in error.”
Karl Jaspers wrote, “Nagarjuna strives to think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable. He knows this and tries to unsay what he has said. Consequently he moves in self-negating operations of thought.” On the surface, it appears that Nagarjuna’s logic is rather negative, however, as many have pointed out, it would be a mistake to brand it as nihilism.
Here is more of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on one of Nagarjuna’s most famous works. In this transcript, I have only included those verses that were read aloud to the audience. If you would like to read the verses the Dalai Lama refers to, or the entire work, go here. It’s not the same translation as was used at the teachings, but the differences are minor.
The Free Tibet Network has reported that Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year old Buddhist monk died Monday after setting himself on fire in protest against the continuing Chinese crackdown on Tibetan monks. According to witnesses, as he set himself ablaze, the monk shouted, “We Tibetan people want freedom,” “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.”
Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna
June 5-8, 1997
In the next two verses, the text defines what are the ten non-virtuous acts: violence, theft, adultery, lying, divisive speech, harsh words, idle talk, miserliness, maliciousness, and nihilistic views. It says there are ten bright paths of action and that the reversal of the virtuous actions are the ten negative actions.
In verse 10, Nagarjuna, in addition to the list of positive actions, gives a list of another six dharmas: three dharmas of avoidance and three dharmas of acceptance [not drinking liquor, maintaining a proper occupation, abandoning harm, being respectfully generous, honoring the worthy, and cultivating love].
The point of indentifying these as the dharma here is to insure that the individual does not give any opening to negative actions or engage in negative activity. These are said to be the 16 Paramitas [Perfections], the ten positive actions plus the six dharmas, the 16 Paramitas is aimed at attaining the elevated states of existence, which means higher forms of rebirth.
Given the adoptions of these positive actions are constituted by abstaining from their opposite forces, what is important is to abstain from these negative actions throughout one’s entire life. If not, at least avoid them as much as possible. Even in the event that we find ourselves engaging in these negative actions, what is important is that we insure that our thoughts are influenced by repentance, so that we won’t take pleasure in the commitment of these deeds, so that there is no degree of indifference, because if someone has no regard for what happens in engaging in these acts, to such a person it is said that there is not even a smell of a good, practicing Buddhist.
So in verses, 11, 12, and 13, the text emphasizes the fundamental point that dharma activity by nature must be a beneficial activity. Because the essence of dharma is to be of benefit to oneself and others. If it is an activity that involves inflicting pain on others or on oneself, such forms cannot be considered as being the dharma of liberation or dharma that leads to higher forms of rebirth. In these verses, the text defines that if in engaging in such physical austerities, pain is inflicted on oneself or others, then it is not dharma at all.
Whenever I give instructions in Buddhism, I always tell people that the entire teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in two principles: one is the cultivation of the view of the interdependent nature of reality, and two is adopting a form of behavior that is not harming others. Those two principles capture the entire essence of the Buddha’s teachings.
The next set of verses address the question that sometimes one might wonder how murder and stealing and telling lies can be said to be negative in the sense that they cause pain, because certain things, which are said to be negative, can also bring a degree of satisfaction to the individual. For example, someone who has committed a murder or someone who has stolen something might, for a short time, feel satisfaction. So one could argue that these actions may not always be negative.
Nagarjuna addresses that question by showing how all these actions are negative and lead to undesirable consequences with the individual, and he suggests that in verse 18 that “prior to all of these there is a bad rebirth,” suggesting that these negative actions – if the deeds are done with strong emotion, great intensity and cool, calculated motivation, then the karmic result of these acts leads to rebirth in lower states of existence, even if one is reborn as a human being, these acts lead to undesirable consequences. This is described in verses 14 through 19.
The last verse indicates that when you refrain from these negative actions, you can have positive results, if you abstain from murder, you will have a long life span. If you abstain from violence, you will not be an object of violence.
Verse 20 of the text summarizes what is meant by negative or non-virtuous actions, and positive or virtuous karma, in terms of negative or positive in the sense that an action leads to liberation or not.
The next several verses summarizes the definition of what is meant by negative action and what is positive action, on the basis of what kind of effect it produces. Those actions which produce happiness and positive rebirth are virtuous. There are three doors from which actions are committed: body, speech, and mind. The text says that the dharmas given here are to be committed in observance of the right kind of code of ethics for body, speech, and mind. Then it reads that if one engages in such a dharmic way of life, not only will one attain higher forms of existence in the next life, but within that life one will also gain results like happiness and less suffering.
Verse 24 explains that within the realm of enlightened states, there are more elevated states of existence corresponding to the levels of consciousness and subtlety of concentration. And also there are said to be four levels of concentration and formless realms, regardless of whether or not they exist in the objective world. However, it is true as we approach deeper into the more subtle levels of consciousness there is a degree of tranquility, a corresponding level of freedom from the conceptual restlessness that seems to dominate our minds in the ordinary states of existence. So, compared to thoughts of the individual in the realm of existence, those individuals abiding in the formless realms are said to be at a level where these is a degree of tranquility and freedom from the gross levels of affliction of the mind, delusions and so on.
Within the formless states there are different levels of subtlety. For example, in the scriptures, there is a mention of a formless state which is said to be infinite space. Then the next state is infinite consciousness, which is even more subtle than infinite space, and next is the state of non-observation of nothingness, that is said to be more subtle than the state of infinite consciousness. And the highest level of formless realms is sad to be the most subtle.
The point is that as a result of engaging in different forms of concentration and absorptive meditation states of mind, one can attain corresponding subtleties of consciousness.
In the Prajna Paramita [“Transcendent Wisdom”] Sutras, there is mention of different yanas or vehicles. There’s discussion of human vehicles and deva [“radiant ones”] vehicles and Brahma [in this context, the ultimate divine reality] vehicles. And all the practices within the cultivation of these form and formless realms are said to be the Brahma vehicle, referring to levels of tranquility. The practice of the ten virtuous actions and the six dharmas that we spoke of earlier can be said to be part of the human yana or vehicle. And corresponding to the diversity of conceptual qualification, there are diverse forms of yana or existence.
Do we have the questions ready? [The answer is no]. So in that case, I will continue to read from the text and you can prepare the questions for tomorrow. You can write down the questions on a piece of paper and give them to the usher and tomorrow we will deal with them in one of the sessions.
To be continued . . .