The legend is that these teachings were given to him by snake-like spiritual beings called nagas that came out of the bottom of the sea. The story is that the Buddha, during his life, had given the teachings to these beings for safekeeping until the world was ready.
By Daniel Scharpenburg
Nagarjuna is one of my heroes in Buddhist history.
He was a scholar, adventurer, mystic and wanderer—and a prolific writer whose work is still with us today.
Everything I write about and practice comes from Nagarjuna. And because I took his Bodhisattva vow, I am part of his lineage.
He’s sometimes called the Second Buddha. He’s the only figure given such a high distinction. He lived in the second century and he’s considered a key figure in several different branches of Buddhism. He’s revered in Zen Buddhism as a patriarch and in Vajrayana Buddhism as a treasure revealer.
He came from the southern part of India. It’s said that he lived for 600 years, but of course that’s a legend. It’s said that he came from a Brahmin family, but other than that very little is known about his life before he became a dharma teacher.
A Buddhist monk and a renegade scholar, he traveled around teaching everyone, not just monks. He presented the same kinds of teachings to everyone, rather than giving some teachings to monks and lesser teachings to everyone else. This was probably unheard of at the time. It seems that he just traveled around giving teachings, but also doing an incredible amount of writing. There’s a tradition of mystic scholars in Buddhism now but Nagarjuna is really one of the early ones.
An adherent of the Mahayana School, which emphasizes the Bodhisattva path of wisdom and compassion, he defended Mahayana practice, which many Buddhists at the time believed wasn’t authentic Buddhism. He founded his own branch of Buddhism called Madhyamika, or middle way.
He’s also associated with a collection of sutras called Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom, sutras which is really foundational to all of the Mahayana Path. The legend is that these teachings were given to him by snake-like spiritual beings called nagas that came out of the bottom of the sea. The story is that the Buddha, during his life, had given the teachings to these beings for safekeeping until the world was ready. For this reason he’s often depicted with snakes around him. That’s where his name comes from—it means Noble Naga, or Noble Serpent.
It was believed that every teaching has to come from the Buddha, but since he had been dead for hundreds of years, that wasn’t possible. So this elaborate story was created, not just for these teachings from Nagarjuna, but for all sorts of teachings.
The Prajnaparamita Sutras are my favorites, and I tend to think Nagarjuna wrote them. We don’t need elaborate mythology to explain why his ideas are Buddhist. We recognize that Buddhism is an evolving culture of awakening, not a system that depends entirely on the teachings of one man.
Nagarjuna was a monk, but he addressed his teachings to all sorts of audiences. His overriding theme is the bodhisattva journey, the cultivation of compassion and wisdom in order to attain enlightenment. By wisdom, he meant an understanding of emptiness. He’s also credited with taking the confusing way emptiness was expressed in older sutras and making it a little easier to understand. Not that emptiness is ever easy to understand, but Nagarjuna expressed it with far less reliance on metaphorical speculations and wild mythology than the Buddha or other early teachers did.
The Buddha talked about walking a “middle way” between the extremes of self denial and self indulgence. What Nagarjuna did was extend that middle way view to philosophy. He identified our existence as a middle way between real and imagined, between permanence and oblivion.
We take these teachings for granted now, in modern Buddhism, but they came from Nagarjuna. He was inspired by the Buddha and writing in the Buddhist tradition, but he was the one that explained things in this way.
There are two different branches of Bodhisattva Vows, and he created one of them called “The Profound View.” This is a series of vows that is taken in the Mahayana tradition as a way to strengthen and demonstrate our commitment to the Bodhisattva path, to cultivate compassion and wisdom for ourselves and others. We take this vow to demonstrate our great determination to cultivate the six perfections; generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom.
The Bodhisattva’s journey was further elaborated later on by a monk named Shantideva in a well known work called The Way of the Bodhisattva.
Nagarjuna said that we should dwell in emptiness—that an intuitive understanding of the emptiness inherent in all things is the road to enlightenment and, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.”
In his view delusion is the source of our suffering and it’s a belief in separation, a dualistic worldview. It’s the belief that think things exist independently and permanently. Emptiness, is not lack of existence, but rather lack of dualistic existence, lack of separation, lack of boundaries.
We are empty like the sky, boundless and beautiful.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Daniel lives in Kansas City. He's a Teacher in the Dharma Winds Zen Tradition. He regularly teaches at the Open Heart Project and he leads public meditations. His focus is on the mindfulness practices rooted in the earliest Zen teachings. He believes that these teachings can be shared with a little more simplicity and humility than we often see. He has been called "A great everyman teacher" and "Really down-to-earth"
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