Chapter 8: Nāgārjuna
Vindication of Middle doctrine
In this treatise the natural objection is placed in the mouth of the opponents of Negativism: If all is “void” and if there is no beginning and no end, then there could possibly be no four “noble truths,” no conduct of life on the principles of recognition of these verities, no fruit of good or bad deeds, no doctrine of the Buddha (Dharma), no monastic order and, finally, no Buddha himself. Accordingly the entire system of the Buddha’s religion should fall to the ground. To this Nāgārjuna replies:
“The doctrine of the Buddha is based on two verities – conventional truth, in which the profound sense is occult, and truth in the supreme sense. Who so does not know the
We see, indeed, no other possibility of reducing to sense many a passage of the Prajñāpāramitās which strikes us as meaningless or preposterous except on the basis of its accommodating itself in the history of philosophy to the not unknown assumption of a two-fold truth. Vallée-Poussin gives us a sound presentment of this Madhyamika doctrine in his “Buddhism” (pp. 189 ff., 290 ff. See also Anesaki, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ic, p. 838.)
Other works attributed to Nāgārjuna
Besides Madhyamakakārikās, many other works are attributed to Nāgārjuna, whether rightly or wrongly we are no longer able to decide.
Dharmasaṁgraha passes for his production. It is a small dictionary of Buddhist technical terms and the original Sanskrit text has been preserved to us. It is edited by Kenjiu Kasawara, Max Müller and H. Wenzel. It is to be noted that half of the termini of this Dharmasaṁgraha also occur in the Dharmasarīrasūtra which was discovered in the sands of Central Asia by Grünwedel (and which has been published by Stonner SBA, 1904, p. 1282 ff.). On the other hand, the Suhllekha or the “Friendly epistle” – a letter from Nāgārjuna to a king on the basic principles of the Buddhist religion in one hundred and twenty-three verses – is known to us only in an English translation from the Tibetan version, the original Sanskrit having perished. (Wenzel in Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1886, p. 1 ff.). Unfortunately we cannot determine who this king was to whom the epistle is addressed although, according to our Chinese sources, it was Sātavāhana, while the Tibetans call him Udāyana. It is noteworthy that the missive contains nothing which might not also appear in the Pāḷi
According to the biography of Nāgārjuna translated into Chinese in 405 by Kumārajīva, this Hindu master of Chinese was born in Southern India in a Brahman family. He studied the four Vedas and acquired all the sciences. He had, however, the reputation of being likewise a great wizard. By means of his sorcery he could make himself invisible and intruded himself, followed by three companions into the royal palace, where they offended the ladies of the harem. They were discovered, the three colleagues of Nāgārjuna were executed and he himself escaped by just previously having vowed to become a monk. He redeemed the pledge, in ninety days studied all the three Piṭakas and mastered their meaning but was not satisfied with the same and commenced to search for other sūtras till finally he received the Mahāyānasūtra from a venerable hermit in the Himālayas. With the assistance of Nāgarāja, the sovereign Serpent, be also came by a commentary on the sūtra. He energetically propagated Buddhism in Southern India. His biographer would have us believe that he was at the head of the religious propaganda for over three hundred years (Wassiljew, p. 232 ff.). The Tibetans, however, are still more extravagant, and make him six hundred years old when he died. Of these legends themselves much can be true;
Along with the biographies of Aśvaghoṣa and Nāgārjuna translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva about 404 A.D., we come across a life of Deva or Āryadeva who also is mentioned as a great master of the Mahāyāna “in antiquity” by I-tsing and Hiuen-tsang. But his “biography” is entirely legendary and of his works all that is surviving in Sanskrit is a fragment of a dogmatic poem which has the uncommon interest of being a polemic directed against the Brahmanic ritual. It inveighs, for instance, against the doctrine which assigns the power of purifying sins by a bath in the Ganges. But the verses do not contain anything specifically Mahāyānistic (Haraprasad Shastri, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal Vol. 67, 1898, p. 175 ff.) Otherwise all that we know of Āryadeva is from quotations in Sanskrit and from Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist literature. Candrakīrti cites Śataka-Catuśataka and Śataka-śāstra of Āryadeva and also Āryadevapadiya in his Madhyamakavtti. (La Vallée-Poussin, pp. 16, 173, 552 and 393; also La Vallée-Poussin, Le Museon, p. 236 ff., on the confusion of the name of Āryadeva with Candrakīrti and the epithet of Nīlanetra and Kanadeva as attached to Āryadeva, see N. Peri, Apropos de la date de Vasubandhu, p. 27 ff. Extract from Bullétin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême Orient, xi, 1911).
Asaṅga or Āryasaṅga was to the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism what Nāgārjuna was to the Madhyamika sect. The Yogācāra branch teaches Vijñānavāda, which is a doctrine that nothing exists outside our consciousness which
On the doctrine of the Yogācāra school see Vallée-Poussin, p. 200 ff; Outlines of Mahāyāna Buddhism, London, p. 125 ff. and Levi in the Introduction to his translation of Mahāyāna Sūtrālaṁkāra. On the Yogācāra literature in Tibetan sources see Zerbatskoi, Le Museon VI, 1905, p. 144 ff. The Bodhisattvabhūmi, the old text-book of the Yogācāra school in English, by S. Bendal and Vallée-Poussin, Le Museon, Vi, 1905, p. 38 VII, 213.
More philosopher than poet
As revealed also by Maitreya, or the future Buddha, is also regarded the Mahāyāna Sūtrālaṁkāra; but the scholar Sylvain Lévi who discovered the work fixes its authorship on Asaṅga. And indeed, the entire text consisting as it does of memorial verses or kārikās and commentary or ṭīkā is a production of Asaṅga. Without being an important poet, Asaṅga knew how to employ with ingenuity the Buddhist Sanskrit idiom and often
Asaṅga, more properly Vasubandhu Asaṅga, is the eldest of three brothers who were born in Puruśapūra, modern Peshawar, in the extreme north of India; as the sons of a Brahman of the Kauśika family. They probably lived in the fourth century and were all three adherents of the Sarvāstivāda school. Takakusu places Vasubandhu between 420 and 500 (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1905, p. 1 ff.). Wogihara assigns Vasubandhu a date between 390 and 470 and Asaṅga somewhere between 375 and 450 (op. cit. p. 16). Sylvain Lévi decides for the first half of the fifth century as regards the activity of Asaṅga. But N. Peri has made it probable that Vasubandhu was born about 350 A.D. (Apropos de la date de Vasubandhu, Bullétin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême Orient XI, 1911, No. 3-4.). The youngest son Vasubandhu Virincivatsa is not important in literature. All the more distinguished was the middle of the three brothers, Vasubandhu, one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the Buddhist letters. I-tsing reckons Asaṅga and Vasubandhu among the celebrated men of middle ages, that is, the period between the time of Aśvaghoṣa, Nāgārjuna and
For other authorities, consult Raj. Mitra, Nepalese Buddhist Literature, P. 3 ff., Bendall Catalogue, p. 25 ff.; Burnouf, Introduction, p. 502 ff.; Sylvain Lévi EBE. 1, p. 20 and La Vallée-Poussin in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics IV, p. 129 ff.
Standing entirely on the soil of the Hīnayāna is the Gāthāsaṁgraha of Vasubandhu with which we are acquainted in its Tibetan. It is a collection of maxims with an intelligent commentary, excerpts from which have been cited by A. Schiefner. These 24 gāthās are apophthegms conceived wholly in the spirit of the Dhammapada. The commentary shows us the philosopher Vasubandhu also as a humorous evangelist and the book is otherwise justly attributed to him. Here is an illustration:
“A jackal used to follow a lion because it yearned for the remnants of flesh devoured by him. Once upon a time the lion was hungry, and having killed a large bear, called upon the jackal to carry it. Now as the jackal was too feeble to bear the load and at the same time was afraid lest the lion in his anger should put it to death, could not make up its mind to agree to the demand. But it knew that the lion was proud and said: “In order to carry this burden two things are necessary, to groan and to bear the load. I cannot do both at the same time. You must take up one of the two.” As the lion was proud and was not willing to groan, he asked the jackal to groan and agreed to carry the load himself. Accordingly the lion bore the burden and the jackal followed groaning after the lion. Just in the same way I bear the burden of the preaching of the doctrine, but you are only in the position of assenting and say “That is so.”
Schiefner op. cit. p. 58; for Vasubandhu’s Gāthāsaṁgraha, Mélanges Asiatiques, VII (Bulletin XXIV, St. Petersburg, 1878) p. 559 ff
Opponent of Saṁkhyā philosophy
As a philosopher Vasubandhu also wrote a discourse to combat the Saṁkhyā philosophy. It is called Paramārtha Saptati or Seventy Verses of Supreme Verity. The Sanskrit original has perished, but it would appear to be refutation of the Saṁkhyāsaptati of Iśvarakṣṇa. Paramārtha mentions a heretic named Vindhyavāsa as the author of the Saṁkhyā book against which Vasubandhu’s polemic was directed. It is remarkable, however, that to the Chinese also Vasubandhu is the reputed critic of Iśvarakṣṇa’s work.
Takakusu, T’oung Pao, 1904, p. 15 ff.; Bullétin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême Orient, Vol. IV 1904, p. 1 ff.; Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1905, p. 16 ff. According to Takakusu Vindhyavāsa is identical with Iśvarakṣṇa.
It was not till late in life that Vasubandhu was converted to the Mahāyāna by his brother. Now he repented, his biography relates his earlier depreciation of the Mahāyāna so much that he was prepared to cut off his tongue, but his brother suggested to him that it would be a superior penance to employ henceforward his tongue with as conspicuous success for the elucidation of the Mahāyāna principles as he had done to combat its doctrine previously. Vasubandhu acted up to the counsel and wrote after the death of Asaṅga a large number of commentaries on the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka the Prajñāpāramitā and other Mahāyāna sūtras together with other learned works, as to whose existence we know only from their renderings in Chinese and Tibetan. Paramārtha praises the charm and the convincing power of his works and winds up with these words:
“Accordingly, all who study the Mahāyāna and the Hīnayāna in India use the productions of Vasubandhu as their text-books. There is nowhere a promulgator of the
For other authorities, consult Raj. Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p. 3 ff.; Bendall Catalogue p. 25 ff.; Burnouf, Introduction, p. 502 ff.; Sylvain Lévi, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics 1, p. 20, and La Vallée-Poussin in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, IV, p. 129 ff.
A treatise on the doctrine of the Vijñānarvādis in twenty memorial verses with a commentary called Viṁśakakārikā Prakaraṇa is translated from the Tibetan by La Vallée-Poussin (Museon, 1912, p. 53 ff.) Takakusu, T’oung Pao, 1904, p. 27.
To the School of Asaṅga belongs Candragomi who as a grammarian, philosopher and poet, enjoyed high renown in the Buddhist literary world. He was a contemporary of Candrakīrti whose doctrine he assailed and was alive at the time of I-tsing’s visit to India in 673. According to Tāranātha who has got a considerable deal of legendary nature to report about him, he composed innumerable hymns and learned works. Of the literary productions we own only a religious poem in the form of an epistle to his disciple, the Śiṣya Lekha Dharma Kāvya. In this the Buddhist doctrine is propounded in the elegant style of Kāvya.
Minayeff, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1899, p. 1133 ft., assigns him the close of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century. B. Liebich, Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes 13, 1899, 308 ff places him between 465 and 544. But for Sylvain Lévi’s views, Bullétin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême Orient, 1903, p. 38 ff. see above.
The most conspicuous amongst the later apostles of Mahāyāna Buddhism, who also distinguished himself as a poet, is Śāntideva who lived probably in the seventh century. If we credit Tāranātha be was born in Saurashtra or modern
Tāranātha, op. cit. 162 ff., although we know of a Sūtrasamuccaya only by Nāgārjuna, see Winternitz, Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes, 1912, p. 246 ff.
The Śikṣasamuccaya or the Compendium of Doctrine is a manual of Mahāyāna Buddhism which consists of 27 kārikās or memorial verses and a large commentary compiled by the author at the same time with the kārikās. We purposely say that the commentary by Śāntideva is “compiled” because it is composed almost entirely of quotations and extracts from the sacred texts which he has grouped together round his kārikās and arranged in chapters.
The work accordingly displays an extraordinary erudition and vast reading but little originality. However, it is most perfectly adapted to be an introduction especially to the technical study of the Mahāyāna on account of the numerous and often large citations from texts, which have perished, of great value. This is more especially so because Śāntideva proves himself in such cases, as we can check, very exact and reliable in his quotations.
Core of doctrine
The basic thought of the work and in fact the core of the Mahāyāna ethics is given expression to in the first two kārikās. They are: –
“When to myself just as well as to others fear and pain are disagreeable, then what difference is there between myself
The Śikṣasamuccaya has been edited by the English scholar C. Bendall in the Bibliotheca Buddhica Series of St. Petersburg with a lucid and masterly introduction and a conspectus of the contents. The edition is based on a unique manuscript but the editor has brought to his task his rare knowledge of the Tibetan into which the original Sanskrit was translated, between 816 and 838, the Sanskrit being written most probably in the middle of the seventh century.
Importance of the book
By means of numerous extracts from the Mahāyāna sūtras Śāntideva proves the salutariness of Bodhicittam, or the heart set upon enlightenment, the determination to enter upon the path of a Bodhisattva with a view thereafter to become a Buddha. But he who has made this high resolve must exercise self-denial and practise self-sacrifice for the sake of others to the uttermost limit of possibility. He must be prepared to give up for the sake of others not only his worldly possession but his personal salvation hereafter. He must not shrink from appropriating to himself the sins and sorrows of other creatures in hell. The Bodhisattva must say:
“I take upon myself the sorrows of all beings. I have resolved to undertake them, I bear them, I do not turn away from them, I do not fly from them, I do not tremble, I do not quake, I fear not, I retrace not my steps backwards, I do not despair. And why so! It is imperative that I assume
The above is an extract from the Vajradhvajasūtra (La Vallée-Poussin, Bouddhisme, 322 f. 337 f.). Next after compassion rank all other perfections (pāramitās) necessary to the pure conduct of a Bodhisattva, – meditation standing at the head of the list. It leads to supreme sagacity which is an insight into the “Void” or Śūnyata, to the understanding of the Nil and the faith which has its expression in the adoration of the Buddha in the building of stūpas and the like. And yet all this, notwithstanding, his mind must ever be directed to the salvation of other creatures “May I bring all creatures into the conditions of Nirvāṇa!” This has to be his constant thought. Śāntideva here quotes from the Ratnameghasūtra (op. cit. 348).
Quotations from previous works
Bendall gives a catalogue of the numerous texts which are strung together in Śikṣasamuccaya especially those which are represented by a large number of citations or by copious extracts. Thus the Akāśagarbhasūtra is drawn upon to dilate upon various kinds of sin, including the five criminal transgressions of a king,
The Ratnakūṭasūtra is said to have been translated into Chinese before 170 A.D. As to its contents as given in the Chinese rendering see Wassiljew’s Buddhismus, p. 167 ff.
Although the Sikṣasamuccaya is the production of a scholar of little originality and the Bodhicaryāvatāra is the creation of an eminent poet, there is no question but that we owe both to the same author. Apart from external grounds the two books so fundamentally different in their character take the same standpoint as regards the doctrine. In both the texts the moral ideal is the Bodhisattva who has resolved to attain to enlightenment, who strives to obtain his object in the first place by means of inexhaustible compassion for all creatures, and secondly, by means of adoration of the Buddha and who perceives supreme wisdom in the recognition of “Vanity” or Śūnyatā.
The text of the Bodhicaryāvatāra was edited by the Russian scholar I.P. Minayeff in the Zapiski, and it has also been reprinted in the Journal of the Buddhist Text Society. La Vallée-Poussin published for the Bibliotheca Indica Prajñākaramati’s commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra and also a translation of it.
Some of the passages occurring in the Śikṣasamuccaya have been taken over by Śāntideva in his Bodhicaryāvatāra, e.g., Śikṣasamuccaya, p. 155 ff. Bodhicaryāvatāra, vi. 120 ff. Note that in the Bodhicaryāvatāra (v. 105) Śāntideva recognises the necessity of a study of his Śikṣasamuccaya.
Barth (Revue de l'histoire des Religions 42, 1900, p. 55) characterises Śikṣasamuccaya as “l’a scholastique verbeuse et delayee usque ad nauseam” whilst he (Revue de l'histoire des Religions 1893, p. 259 ff.) greatly appreciates the Bodhicaryāvatāra as a counterfoil to the “Imitatio Christi” of Thomas á Kempis. The Bodhicaryāvatāra teaches by no means how to imitate the Buddha but how to become a Buddha. Compare Boucher, Revue de l'histoire des Religions, 1908, vol. 57 p. 241 ff.
The Śikṣasamuccaya expands itself in learned garrulity into a flood of quotations. The Bodhicaryāvatāra which means admission to the Bodhi life, or the conduct of life leading to enlightenment, not seldom rises to the loftiest strains of religious poetry. Śāntideva himself disclaims any literary object for his production. He observes
The work begins with the glorification of the Bodhicitta, meditations on enlightenment and the resolve to become a Buddha for the sake of the salvation of all creatures. Thus the poet says (i. 8):
“When you overcome the many hundreds of birth sorrows, when you free all beings from their misery, when you enjoy many hundreds of pleasures, then do not, ever on any account, relax your thought of the Bodhi.”
The poet pours out in inspired words his sentiments, after having thus directed his attention to enlightenment. He voices his inner joy at the good deeds of all creatures regarding their emancipation. He prays to all the Buddhas of all the quarters of the world that they may kindle the lamp of religion for all the ignorant. He implores all the Bodhisattvas to delay their own Nirvāṇa. He supplicates for the liberation of all creatures and finally offers himself up to all the creatures:
“By virtue of the merit which I have acquired through good deeds, may I bring mitigation to the sorrows of all creatures? May I be medicine to the sick? May I be their physician and their nurse so long as their malady endures. May I be a protection unto those that need it, a guide to such as have lost their path in the desert and a ship and a ford and a bridge to those who seek the farther shore. And may I be a lamp unto those that need light, a bed of repose to those that want rest; a servitor to all the creatures requiring service?” (III, 6; 7; 17; 18).
The aspirant’s obligations
The obligations that the Bodhisattva lays upon himself (chapters iv to viii) include the pledge to strive after Bodhi. He is responsible for the weal of all beings. He must exert himself for all perfections (pāramitās). Before all he must be prepared for self-sacrifice. He must likewise observe all the regulations of the religion and all the precepts of good conduct as prescribed in the holy scriptures which he must accordingly study with energy. And here certain texts are particularly recommended to the aspirant (V. 103, ff.). The worst of our enemies are anger, hatred and passion. We have to fight them. It is they who do us evil, not our foes. The latter we must love like all other creatures. For when we love the creatures we rejoice the Buddhas; in injuring them we injur the Buddhas. “When someone does me an evil turn, that is only the fruit of some previous act or karma. Why should I be wrath with him?” We should not hate even those who destroy the images of the Buddha, the stūpas, nay even the good religion itself.
Self and others: the difference
To the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who have so often ruined their bodies for the sake of other creatures and even have repaired to the inferno, to them he is beneficent who is kind to other creatures. Therefore must one show only kindness even to those who have done him an evil turn (see VI; 33; 68; 120; 124; 126). The Bodhisattva from the first diligently strives to avoid any difference between his Ego and others; and to identify himself wholly and entirely with others. This is a function which the Bodhisattva has particularly to practise.
“I must destroy the sorrow of the stranger because it pains like one’s own grief; I must therefore do good to others because they are beings like myself.” Just as a man loves his hands and feet because they are his members,
With admirable eloquence, which can only spring from reverential conviction, Śāntideva manages to advance almost as an obvious proposition that to the pious disciple of the Bodhi there is complete “equality between others and one’s self,” technically called parātmasamata and finally reduces it to “transformation of the neighbour into oneself,” known as parātmaparivartana (La Vallée-Poussin, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics 11, 749, 752 f.).
The ninth chapter is of a less philosophically ambitious nature and its contents are pure learning. In it the philosophical doctrine of the void or nihilism is developed according to the Madhyamika system. This chapter has been edited with the commentary by La Vallée-Poussin in his Bouddhisme. However irreconcilable the negativism of this system may appear to us with the renunciation and self-sacrifice with reference to other creatures taught in the first chapters, nevertheless with Śāntideva also the familiar doctrine of the difference between the two varieties of Truth is the means by which to bridge the apparent contradiction. In the end everything in the world is vacuity and nullity. But it is only the delusion as regards the Ego, the Ātmamoha, which is pernicious. The delusion as regards duties, Kāryamoha, is beneficent (La Vallée-Poussin Bouddhisme, p. 109 ff.). Still it is sufficiently strange that after all the teaching of active compassion the poet comes to the conclusion: (ix. 152 f.) [109 ]
“Since all being is so vacuous and null, what can, what shall be, acquired? Who can be honoured, who can be reproached? How can there be joy and sorrow, the loved and the hateful, avarice and non-avarice? Wherever you search for them you find them not.”
It seems to be the curse of Indian mentality that whenever it soars too high it lands itself in absurdity. Thus the legends of sacrifice often turn into ludicrous tales and so does the whole fabric of the philosophy of Mahāyāna end in – Nothing. On the other hand, with some justification we can look upon as a later accretion the tenth chapter which with its invocations to Vajrapāṇi and Mañjuśrī and its panegyric of acts show a spirit totally counter to that of the other chapters. Already Tāranātha reports that there was some suspicion regarding the genuineness of this chapter. (La Vallée-Poussin, Bodhicaryāvatāra tr. p. 143 f.).
last updated: December 2016