- 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''  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
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
. 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 . The three principal divisions of Buddhist practice by
means of which Nirvana is to be attained are again mentioned later in the text  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 . 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  Interdependent Origination, pratityasamutpada,
ten-cing-drel-bar-zung-ba , the central teaching of the Buddha is also given prominence
and the ultimate truth, pararnarthasatya, don-darn-den-pa  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
. 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 . Again, Nagarjuna mentions the Seven Noble Treasures 
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 . 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 , 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 . 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  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 .
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 . 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 . 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.
. 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 . The injunction is almost Confucian in its emphasis upon filial
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 .
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 ones mother, sister or daughter.
Obviously, Nagarjuna was well aware of the quarrels and complications which result
from adultery . 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 ones 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 . 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 , 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
. 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
. Specially, he calls for those who practice the Dharma even though they may
live in the domain of other kings to be provided support .
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
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . He also calls for administrators and generals to be appointed who
possess virtuous qualities and who are not liable to abuse their positions .
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 . 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 .
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 . In fact, the simple thought of imprisoning someone for life is
a cause of breaking the Buddhist layman's Commitment to protect life .
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
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 .
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 . If such principles are
adhered to, Nagarjuna adds, the state will be one in which law, order, justice and
contentment prevail . 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 .
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 . 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 .
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.
 Ven. Lozang Jamspal, Ven Ngawang Samten & Peter Della
Santina, Nagarjuna's Letter to King Gautamiputra, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, India, 1978,
 ibid. 5
 ibid. 76
 ibid. 105
 ibid. 113
 ibid. 114 & 11 5
 ibid. 109-112
 ibid. 27
 ibid. 7
 ibid. 28
 ibid. 32
 ibid. 10
 ibid. 7
 ibid. 4
 ibid. 6
 ibid. 4
 ibid. 6
 ibid. 97
 ibid. 33
 ibid. 9
 ibid. 20
 ibid. 21
 ibid. 36 &37
 ibid. 61
 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
 ibid. 10 & 11
 ibid. 21
 ibid. 13
 ibid. 15
 ibid. 17 & 18
 ibid. 19
 ibid. 23-25
 ibid. 20
 ibid. 30-32
 ibid. 33
 ibid. 34
 ibid. 35
 ibid. 37
 ibid. 40-41
 ibid. 42
 ibid. 43
 ibid. 62
 ibid. 118
Sincere thanks to Binh Anson for providing us with