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Nagarjuna: A Good Friend
Dr. Peter Della Santina

A great deal has been written and said about Nagarjuna, the Second century Bodhisattva and author of many famous texts of Buddhist philosophy, in  recent years.  Nagarjuna certainly deserves the attention he has received.  He has been held in the highest esteem by at least two of the major Buddhist traditions of the world.  The Tibetan and Mongolian traditions regard him as the founder of one of the most important philosophical systems of the Mahayana, that is the Madhyamaka and the Ch'an and Zen traditions regard him as one of the earliest of their patriarchs.  There is also much more than mere tradition to attest to Nagarjuna's importance.  There is a vast amount of written material attributed to Nagarjuna.  Even if we exclude the Tantric works which modern scholars  refuse to recognize as authentic, there are still a large number of texts which were undoubtedly written by Nagarjuna.  Among these are his very significant works on philosophy such as the Foundation Stanzas of the Middle Way, Mulamadhyamakakarika, and numerous others.

Naturally modern scholars have been drawn to Nagarjuna's philosophical works because of their very great significance laying out as they do the foundations of the philosophy of Emptiness or Relativity.  Some important and valuable knowledge has been disseminated in this way about the philosophy of Emptiness, and even at this moment many scholars are busy working  on new  translations  of  Nagarjuna's   works  and explanations of his teaching.  It is probably true to say that Nagarjuna in particular and the Madhyamaka in general are the most popular subjects currently being studied by Buddhologists.

The extraordinary interest in Nagarjuna's philosophical works which has been evinced by modern scholars has unfortunately also had a negative side effect as well.   It is that Nagarjuna, for many modern scholars and students, seems a distant and rarefied personality, a logician, a dialectician, and most of all a knower of the highest and most subtle truth, the truth of Emptiness.  Nagarjuna certainly was some of these things, but he was also a very good friend, companion and mentor in the common practical affairs of everyday life.  This is a side of Nagarjuna which has too often been neglected by modern scholars.  Some of them even forget that Nagarjuna was a good Buddhist, and besides Emptiness, taught all the basic Buddhist truths and practices.

Two works among Nagarjuna's many particularly reveal this little known, to modern scholars, side of Nagarjuna.  I say to modern scholars, because of course the ancient Indians as well as Tibetans and Mongolians of the past and present are quite familiar with it.  They are the Suhrillekha, She-pai-tin-yig and the Ratnavali, Rin-chen-teng-wa.  I and a close friend had the good fortune many years ago to be taught the Suhrillekha by H. H. Sakya Trinzin.  It was our Introduction to the world of practical Buddhism.  Although we had both come into contact with Buddhist texts and books about Buddhism, we had not learned much about practicing Buddhism.  That first teaching received from such a high authority eventually made its way into a book, "Nagarjuna's Letter to King Gautamiputra'' [1] and it is that text which gave me the inspiration for the title of this article.  It is because the word She-vai in the Tibetan title of the text  - Sanskrit - Suhrid - means friend.  The Sanskrit etymology of the term suggests, one of good heart, or perhaps a good-hearted person, in other words, a friend.  In the Tibetan the word reoccurs in the compound Ge-vai-she-nyen.  Ge-vai-she-nyen is the standard Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit term Kalyanamitra and it is usually applied to monks of learning.  It has even come to signify a degree of learning in a monastic institution teaching advanced philosophy replacing the widely used earlier term, rab-jam-pa,which is still retained in some quarters.  The fact is that the original meaning of the Sanskrit term Kalyanarnitra seems to have been, "a friend of virtue" that is to say, a good friend.   Hence the title of this article.

Nagarjuna's Suhrillekha is actually not a text at all.  It is a letter - a friendly letter - and it is a letter to his friend the then king of what is now Andhra in the south of India.  Nagarjuna actually wrote two letters, the texts which I mentioned earlier, that is the Suhrillekha and the Ratnavali and both to the same person, his friend, the king Gautamiputra of Andhra.  Now of course there may be some scholars of the contemporary academic scene who would wish to contest this in general or in particular, but taking a practical view, its seems very likely indeed that Nagarjuna wrote both letters to the same person, although one, the Suhrillekha is certainly prior to the other, the Ratnavali.  Both letters, for they are letters, nonetheless contain much instruction on the basics of Buddhism and good advice about how to conduct ones individual and social life.  More astoundingly still they contain much good advice about organizing the affairs of a nation.  The latter is to be found in the Ramavail which as I have said was the later of the two letters.  It also contains some instruction regarding the ultimate truth of Emptiness, which the Suhrillekha only mentions once.

In his friendly letter, for instance, Nagarjuna tells his friend to always practice the way of the ten virtuous deeds.  That is to say to avoid the ten actions which are the causes of suffering three of body, four of voice and three of mind [2].  This is a basic teaching of Buddhism, so basic indeed that it was caused to be inscribed by King Srong-tsan-gam-po  on stone for the edification of the public right at the dawn of the Buddhadharma in Tibet.   Nagarjuna also mentions the three disciplines which his teaching has in common with that of the Theravada, Morality, Meditation and Wisdom [3].  The three principal divisions of Buddhist practice by means of which Nirvana is to be attained are again mentioned later in the text [4] which runs to a hundred and twenty-three stanzas.  Another most famous essential of Buddhist practice is also recommended to the king, Nagarjuna's friend and disciple, The Noble Eightfold Path [5].  The Noble Eightfold path is the fourth of The Four Noble Truths, aryasatyani, den-pa-zhi, the Truth of the Path, marga, Lam, and Nagarjuna also mentions these in his letter [6] Interdependent Origination, pratityasamutpada, ten-cing-drel-bar-zung-ba [7], the central teaching of the Buddha is also given prominence and the ultimate truth, pararnarthasatya, don-darn-den-pa [8] is also mentioned.

Nagarjuna also stresses the importance of moral and ethical behavior.   This of course is also implicated in the ten virtuous or wholesome actions.    But Nagarjuna also mentions Morality particularly, in several places.    He tells us that we should practice morality which is not flawed by faults [9].  The importance of Morality along with Wisdom is also emphasized over common qualities like: high cast, attractive appearance and ordinary learning in another stanza in Nagarjuna's letter [10].  Again, Nagarjuna mentions the Seven Noble Treasures [11]   given by the Buddha to his only son Rahula.  The story recounted about the bestowing of this teaching is very interesting.  Rahula, it is said, was persuaded by his mother on the occasion of his father, the Buddha's return to Kapilavastu to go and ask his father for his inheritance.  Doubtless, there was a little ranker in this stratagem.  The Buddha however, characteristically  changed the entire level of the discussion.  The Buddha pointed out the perishable nature of worldly wealth such as houses, gold, silver and the like and gave to his son instead another inheritance, the Seven Noble Treasures, i.e., Faith, Morality, Giving, Study, Modesty, Humility and Wisdom.    Therefore, it is clear that Nagarjuna, notwithstanding his profound knowledge of Emptiness did not hesitate to emphasize the importance of Morality in his letters to his friend.  Morality of course is the avoidance of the ten unwholesome actions mentioned above.  It may also be presented in the form of the five precepts, pancashila to  be practiced by Buddhist laymen, i.e., abstinence from killing, stealing, lying, abuse of the senses and alcohol [12].  However the specific injunctions and prohibitions of Morality may be formulated, their essence is the same.   It is the principle of non-injury, ahimsa.   This principle which finds its expression in the Commitments tending towards individual liberation, pratimoksha may also be joined later by the Bodhisattva's Commitments, the essence of which is  the active intention to help others 'whenever possible, and even by the Tantric Commitments.   While Nagarjuna stresses the fundamental role of Morality, calling it the 'foundation of all ordinary and extraordinary qualities [13], he also gives his friends lots of sound advice meant to help them build happy and socially healthy lives.

Nagarjuna also asks us to call to mind six objects worthy of recollection.  They are the three gems, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and Giving, Morality and the Gods [14].  Recalling the Triple Gem clearly serves a largely religious function, but Giving, Morality and the Gods, have a basically social significance.   Giving, that is the practice of extending assistance to worthy 'or needy persons [15] is an important part of Buddhist social practice.  It, not only is one of the three divisions of practice commonly extolled in the Theravada tradition, i.e., Giving, Morality and Mental Development, but it is also the first of the Perfections that are to be practiced by the aspiring Buddha -the Bodhisattva.   Morality too, for its part is also one of the three elements of practice often stressed in the Theravada tradition and one of the perfections of the Bodhisattva.   But, one might ask, why are the Gods particularly recommended by Nagarjuna as objects worthy of recall? Buddhism is, one might think, largely a non-theistic religion, and so it is.  The reason is that it is the Morality and Mental Development practiced in former lives by the Gods that has brought them to their high station in the world, and therefore by bringing them to mind, one can remind oneself to practice Morality and Meditation similar to that once practiced by the Gods [16].

Again Nagarjuna warns the laymen against the dangers of an unwholesome pursuit of wealth.  Wealth is unreliable and without substance.  It is usually associated in the Buddhist tradition with three forms of suffering: the suffering of acquiring it, protecting it and eventually and inevitably losing it.  Again, the insubstantiality of wealth is used by Nagarjuna as an occasion to enjoin once more the virtue of giving [17].  Not only is Nagarjuna unstinting in his advocacy of Giving, he also warns against the consequences of its opposite, that is miserliness.  The sufferings of the hungry ghosts, he warns, are various, but their cause is one.  It is none other than avarice and miserliness [18].  Once again, taking his inspiration directly from the words of the Buddha himself, Nagarjuna asks us to avoid six indulgences which, as he says, result in the loss of ones good name and rebirth in states of woe.   They are gambling, laziness, association with unwholesome friends, alcohol etc. [19].  It might be added that such indulgences not only lead to the loss of ones good name and suffering in the after life, but are also occasions for the waste of wealth, that is to say the squandering of ones money.

Basic social values intended to ensure the stability and benevolence of the social order are enjoined by the master philosopher.  He recommends respect for ones father and mother, saying that those who cultivate such an attitude are similar to the God Brahma [20].  The injunction is almost Confucian in its emphasis upon filial piety.

Nagarjuna proceeds to give his friend a lot of sound advice about the conduct of everyday social affairs.  He tells the king that persons have to be judged according to both their actions and intentions.  In order to make himself clear, he uses the simile of mangoes.  Some he says appear to be ripe, but are in fact green, others, appear to be green, but are in fact ripe.  Yet others appear to be green and are in fact green, while still others appear to be ripe and are indeed ripe [21].   The appearance of the fruit and its actual state of maturity correspond to the actions and intentions of people.  One, he says, should endeavor to have friends whose actions and intentions are both wholesome.  This is the criterion which should be adopted in choosing friends for oneself.

Nagarjuna also offers some appropriate advice for the all too common failing of hankering after the wives of others.  Although he begins by asking us not even to look upon other's wives, he hastens to add, if one should happen to see them, one should regard them, according to their age as one’s mother, sister or daughter.   Obviously, Nagarjuna was well aware of the quarrels and complications which result from adultery [22].  Still, a layman is bound to marry, and Nagarjuna is not averse to giving his friend some wise council in regard to the sort of wife which should be avoided, and alternatively the kind which should be sought.  In this, he is wholly in accord with the Buddha's own teaching.  The stanzas which treat the question of wives are in fact almost an exact quotation from the words of the Buddha.  He tells the king that wives who are associated with one’s enemies should be avoided.   Besides, those who are excessively proud should not be taken as wives, nor should those who are dishonest and given to theft be considered.  On the other hand, one should seek for ones wife one who is concerned about ones welfare like a mother, dear like a friend, kind like a sister or obedient like a servant [23].  While the reference to the quality of servant like obedience may well give offence to some women in the contemporary social environment, it really should not.  It has to be remembered that Nagarjuna's council, in this case, is meant to secure the benefit of his friend.   Moreover, if we assume as we must that the king is a worthy and virtuous man, then obedience to him on the part of any future wife can surely not be the occasion for any harm coming to her at the hands of her husband.

Finally, Nagarjuna draws the attention of his friend, the king, to the extraordinary good fortune which his special status in society has given him.  The king lives in pleasant and congenial surroundings.  He has access to good friends upon which he can rely for advice and he has collected merit in the past [24], therefore, he does not have to toil over much for his daily sustenance.  One might add that such special conditions which make the practice of the Dharma easier are no longer the exclusive prerogatives of kings.  Indeed, in our modern age when many of us are blessed with a relatively high standard of living, we are all in a way blessed with particularly good conditions for the practice of the Dharma.  So long as the struggle for simple survival remains the predominant concern of ones life, practice of the Dharma will usually take second place.  But when one has achieved a relatively secure livelihood, there is nothing which should prevent us from dedicating ourselves to the practice of self improvement, the conscious and consistent endeavor to achieve greater Mental Development and the benefit of others as well.

The special position of his friend the king also prompts Nagarjuna to give him a lot of good advice about the management of the kingdom, that is the affairs of state, and this is offered in his second letter to his friend, the Ratnavali.

As I have already mentioned, the Ratnavali contains a large amount of additional instruction in regard to the higher aspects of the Dharma.  In fact, it can be said that in this letter to his friend, Nagarjuna imparts all of the essential instructions needed even for an understanding of the Ultimate Truth of Emptiness.   However, it is not my purpose in this article to dwell upon the teaching of Emptiness given by Nagarjuna.  Rather, it is my intention to highlight the social and even political advice given by the great philosopher to a person living in the world.   In the Fourth Chapter of the Ratnavali which Nagarjuna dedicates to the subject of statecraft or statesmanship, Nagarjuna advises the king, in regard to the management of his kingdom.  His advice is not only sound, but extraordinarily laudable if we recollect that the letter was written in the second century C.E.  Indeed, the foundations of the welfare state as well as the basis of the conception of fundamental human rights are indicated in this chapter of the Ratnavali.  In general, he again takes up the theme of Giving and the correct use of wealth which he had already dealt with in the Suhrillekha.  He tells his friend that if he does not make appropriate use of his wealth through suitable acts of generosity, he will not obtain wealth in the future [25].  Naturally, Nagarjuna urges the king to use the wealth of the kingdom to support the Dharma and to establish and maintain centers in which the Dharma is taught [26].  Specially, he calls for those who practice the Dharma even though they may live in the domain of other kings to be provided support [27].

Although I personally have some reservations about the ultimate worth of state support of a religion, and am inclined to believe in the western notion of the separation of church and state, Nagarjuna's plea is completely comprehensible.  It is my view that state support of a religion often has the effect of weakening the religion in the long run.  We only need look at the historical examples of Tibet and Poland to see what I mean.  In Tibet, it seems to me, the real value of Buddhism was recently diminished under a regime of state sponsorship.  In Tibet, once state sponsorship ended, as the result of the Chinese occupation, the religion has only become stronger, more authentic and dynamic.  As a counter example we have Poland, where the common religion of the people was not merely ignored, but actually suppressed for many years by the communist authorities, and yet, the result seems to have strengthened the faith of the people.  Lately, on the contrary, now that times have changed, and the new regime more or less supports the church, it is becoming more common to criticize and resent its influence.

Nagarjuna's advice however, is directed more toward the elevation of the king's own qualities than to the general question of the merit of state sponsorship of religious institutions.  He points out that at the time of death, the king must necessarily renounce all his wealth, and so it behooves him to use what wealth he has for the furtherance of the Dharma, for such generosity will certainly bear fruit in a future life [28].  Again, on the subject of the correct use of wealth, Nagarjuna points out that through using wealth here and now there is happiness, while through giving it away, there is happiness in the future.  On the other hand, through neither using nor giving away wealth, there is only suffering [29].  Nagarjuna enforces the urgency of his request to use wealth wisely for the furtherance of the Dharma by reminding his friend of the impermanence of life and the eminence of death.  He repeats an analogy which he has already had recourse to in the Suhrillekha where he likens human life to the flame of an oil lamp standing in the wind.  Inasmuch as one never knows when one may die, one ought to act quickly to further the practice of the Dharma, whether it be in ones own life, or in the life of the society in general [30].  Nagarjuna is careful to urge the king to have the centers of the Dharma he supports administered by worthy   persons who are capable of overseeing their day to day functioning with honesty and devotion [31].  He also calls for administrators and generals to be appointed who possess virtuous qualities and who are not liable to abuse their positions [32].

Nagarjuna also displays a keen sense of social consciousness and requests the king to provide benefits even now only matched in the most advanced social democracies of the west.  He calls for the blind, the sick, the poor, the homeless and the crippled to be always provided with food and drink [33].  In other words, Nagarjuna in the second century C.E. called for an extensive system of social welfare to be established by the state.  This has been the ideal of socialism for the seventy odd years of its existence, and it has in fact been largely implemented by the welfare states of Western Europe without undue hardship to the well off.

Nagarjuna does not neglect even the case of offenders against the law, common criminals.  Even those who deserve punishment because of their ill deeds should be treated with compassion.   Compassion should in fact be generated even towards those who have committed awful crimes.  Murderers in particular should be objects of compassion for those who are of a virtuous nature [34].

Nagarjuna went so far as to concern himself with the treatment of prisoners.  He recommends that the weaker prisoners be freed after a single day or at the most five days of imprisonment.  Indeed, one should never think of imprisoning anyone for life [35].  In fact, the simple thought of imprisoning someone for life is a cause of breaking the Buddhist layman's Commitment to protect life [36].

Conditions in the prisons too do not escape Nagarjuna's attention.   He says that as long as prisoners are not freed, they should be made comfortable.   They should be provided with barbers, baths, food, drink and medicine.   Finally, Nagarjuna expresses a concept that only dawned upon western social philosophers at the time of the eighteenth century so called "enlightenment" in Europe.  That is, wrong doers should be punished with the sole wish to reform them, not with the wish to exact revenge or retribution.  Like sons who have gone astray, prisoners should be punished in such a way as to make them once again worthy members of society [37].

To this day, in many ostensibly advanced societies, let alone in other far-flung corners of the world, it is certainly doubtful whether this most worthy and sensible advice is applied in the meting out of punishment to prisoners.  It is indeed, an abiding disgrace that in the United States, the free world's bastion of democracy, the death penalty is still in force in many states.  Thankfully, the European community has abolished the death penalty in spite of popular support for it.   Not only is the death penalty counter productive inasmuch as it encourages wrong doers to multiply their acts of violence since they have nothing more to lose, but it clearly runs counter to the idea of punishment as a means of reform.  Obviously, a dead man cannot be reformed, and Nagarjuna clearly perceives this and therefore opposes capital punishment.  The harshest punishment which Nagarjuna is prepared to tolerate is deportation.  That too is only in the case of well-known and hardened criminals, and it should be enforced with out killing or even torturing them [38].

In the foregoing instances, we can clearly see Nagarjuna's concern   for social welfare and for the human and compassionate treatment of prisoners.   I can conjecture without fear of error that Nagarjuna would not have approved the idea of political prisoners, and it is also abundantly clear that his attitude toward all kinds of imprisonment which may be necessary in order to maintain the stability of the state was motivated solely by compassion.  In conclusion, Nagarjuna enjoins his friend the king to be gracious and benevolent.  The populous, he says, will gather about the king who is compassionate.  If he also happens to be strong, he is liked all the more, just as a sweetmeat spiced with cardamom [39].  If such principles are adhered to, Nagarjuna adds, the state will be one in which law, order, justice and contentment prevail [40].  Once again, Nagarjuna reminds his friend, that his kingdom belongs to him only in the present life time.  He did not bring it with him from a past life, nor will he take it with him to his future life.  The kingdom which the king rules is the fruit of wholesome actions done in the past, and so wholesome actions have to be done in order to preserve similar good fortune in subsequent rebirths [41].

The advice given by Nagarjuna to his friend, the King, is indeed the council of a good friend.  Nagarjuna himself stresses the importance of a good friend in the Suhrillekha.  There, he says that reliance upon a good friend, kalyanamitra, makes liberation possible [42].  The letters indeed are meant to convey the whole meaning of the Dharma to the ordinary person.  They use a language and style appropriate to the understanding and situation of the common man.  They use everyday examples and they teach common sense.  All the same, they are in accord with the real spirit of Buddhism.

Nagarjun says in the Ratnavali, that the Dharma if practiced correctly leads first to happiness, abhyudaya, to-ri and eventually to liberation, nihshreyas, nyer-per-leg-pa.  Both are legitimate goals of the practice of Buddhism.  The ordinary man may not be interested at first in Emptiness or liberation.  He may be simply interested in happiness now and in the future.  To that end, Nagarjuna like the skillful physician gives the ordinary man what he needs, that is good advice about how to be happy.  He also gives him in the letters enough instruction about the practice of Buddhism to take his friend, a practitioner who could be anyone, all the way to freedom.  But, he realizes that it is not possible for everyone to fulfill all that is suggested in the letters, and he concedes that only a few of the practices enjoined may be possible for the ordinary man Of the world to follow.  Still, he says, if the practice of even a few of the injunctions  contained  in  the texts is earnestly pursued, then one can make ones life worthwhile [43].

Nagarjuna's letter set the pattern for a whole class of Buddhist literature.  To follow in his footsteps were Matricheta or Ashvaghosha, who composed the Kanishka lekha - also a letter containing good advice and also written to another king.  The great Atisha too composed a letter of good advice while on his way to Tibet for the king of Nepal.

 In Tibet the great Sakya Pandita composed the Sakya-lek-she in the same mold as Nagarjuna's texts.  Later, Cho-gyal Phag-pa wrote a similar letter, the Gyal-po-la-dam-pai-rab-che, to Kublaikhan.

All of these texts seem to have achieved their objective.  They were enormously popular with ordinary practitioners of Buddhism.  Even l-tsing who visited India in the seventh century C.E. reports that the Suhrillekha was on the lips of practically every child throughout the length and breadth of India.  The Sakya-iek-she too for its part was and is extremely popular with Tibetan and Mongolian practitioners of Buddhism.  It is not surprising inasmuch as the texts have the remarkable characteristic of being able to teach a comprehensive version of Buddhism which is also useful and accessible to the ordinary person like you and me.


[1] Ven. Lozang Jamspal, Ven Ngawang Samten & Peter Della Santina, Nagarjuna's Letter to King Gautamiputra, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, India, 1978, 1983
[2] ibid. 5
[3] ibid. 76
[4] ibid. 105
[5] ibid. 113
[6] ibid. 114 & 11 5
[7] ibid. 109-112
[8] ibid. 27
[9] ibid. 7
[10] ibid. 28
[11] ibid. 32
[12] ibid. 10
[13] ibid. 7
[14] ibid. 4
[15] ibid. 6
[16] ibid. 4
[17] ibid. 6
[18] ibid. 97
[19] ibid. 33
[20] ibid. 9
[21] ibid. 20
[22] ibid. 21
[23] ibid. 36 &37
[24] ibid. 61
[25] Ratnavali, Jeffrey Hopkins & Lati Rimpoche (translated & edited), The Precious Garland and The Song of the Four Mindfulness, Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., Delhi, India, 1975, verse no. 7
[26] ibid. 10 & 11
[27] ibid. 21
[28] ibid. 13
[29] ibid. 15
[30] ibid. 17 & 18
[31] ibid. 19
[32] ibid. 23-25
[33] ibid. 20
[34] ibid. 30-32
[35] ibid. 33
[36] ibid. 34
[37] ibid. 35
[38] ibid. 37
[39] ibid. 40-41
[40] ibid. 42
[41] ibid. 43
[42] ibid. 62
[43] ibid. 118


Sincere thanks to Binh Anson for providing us with this article


Updated: 1-7-2000

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