Nagarjuna is counted as one of the most important and influential thinkers in Buddhist history and all the major schools of Mahayana Buddhism claim him as a founding figure. On the one hand, he can be seen as an original thinker who put into circulation the ideas that later became the core of Mahayana - emptiness, altruism and other-power - yet, on the other hand, it is equally possible to portray him as simply having, with great skill, reiterated the essence of what had been taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, thereby correcting the course of Buddhism and putting it back on track.

There are many stories and legends concerning Nagarjuna. It is said that he was from a rich family and, as a young man, was a bit of a playboy. One day he and two friends decided to climb over the wall of the raja’s palace and go to see the women in the harem. According to the story they had found a way to make themselves invisible. However,  the guards got wind of what was happening and slashed the air with their swords. Nagarjuna’s two friends were both killed. This incident had a deeply troubling and sobering effect upon him.

He decided to turn to religion and began to study. He studied every religion trying to find the meaning of life. In particular, he wanted to find his true nature which he thought of as a kind of precious and eternal pearl within himself. Gradually he became very learned in matters of religion. However, he was dedicated only to his own salvation. To this end he retreated to a hermitage deep in the mountains.

One day the Buddhist sage Kapimala (Japanese: Kabimora) was travelling in the area. The king of the region had given Kapimala the use of a hall some distance from the royal palace in which to practise and teach. Kapimala gave teachings to animals as well as humans and one day he gave the refuges to a python. From the python, Kapimala heard of Nagarjuna as a hermit living at an isolated place much deeper in the mountains where there were no people. Nagarjuna taught the animals and dragons.  The name Naga-arjuna implies “triumphant over dragons.” If we want to put a symbolic meaning on this we can say that Nagarjuna was concerned with mastering his own dragons in his search for his own inner nature - the bright pearl that he believed was to be found within himself.

Kapimala went to see Nagarjuna. When they met, Nagarjuna wondered if Kapimala was a true sage or not and whether he had found the pearl. Kapimala realised what was on Nagarjuna’s mind and said to him that he should not worry about whether he, Kapimala, was an enlighened sage or not, but that he, Nagarjuna, should become a proper monk. We will come back to the inner meaning of this conversation in a minute.

Nagarjuna questioned Kapimala about whether he had the pearl that Nagarjuna was seeking. Kapimala did have the pearl. Nagarjuna wanted to know what the pearl was like. Kapimala said that the pearl was not like anything. This pearl could take any form whatsoever. The jewels of the ordinary world all have aspects, and consequently are not real jewels, but the pearl of the Dharma was beyond having fixed aspects.

The point of all this conversation is that a real monk is, from the perspective of Kapimala, somebody who lives to help others and is willing to take on whatever is necessary in order to do so. He is not somebody who spends his time chasing after his own enlightenment, own Buddha Nature, own realisations or peak experiences or anything of the kind. Nor is he somebody who has overcome all his own dragons and become a great saint necessarily. Nagarjuna want to know if Kapimala has done what Nagarjuna is trying to do - achieve complete self-mastery and Buddhahood - but Kapimala says, “it really does not matter whether I am such a saint or not. What matters is that you become a proper monk and stop chasing your own spiritual ambition. The pearl that you seek is not the kind that you are looking for. Furthermore, although it is true that this pearl is the most precious in all the world, it is also true that all the world is this pearl.” He means that for the true monk there is nothing in the world that is outside of the Dharma, nothing that cannot be the cause and means of saving sentient beings.

Nagarjuna was greatly enlightened by his encounter with Kapimala who evidently did not care whether people regarded him as enlightened or not but was still possessed of the precious pearl of Dharma that has no fixed aspects. This idea of aspectlessness became a central feature of Nagarjuna’s teaching in the future. He called it emptiness (shunya). He saw that all systems of rational ideas, even Buddhist ones, become incoherent if you push them to their ultimate conclusion and so can never be a basis for the kind of self-validation that he had been seeking. Broadly Buddhism is concerned with cause and effect, but nothing can be said to be wholly caused by something else nor not caused by anything else. There is an essential freedom. However, although these ideas seem ontological, for Nagarjuna they are soteriological. He is not really setting out a philosophy of the nature of being, but rather one of how people are to be rescued from slavery to their own egotism, which so often takes the form of attachment to views and opinions (drishti).

Like so many other great sages we can see Nagarjuna’s enlightenment as falling into two stages. The first stage occurs when his friends are killed. He comes up against impermanence in a way that cuts very deep. At this point he gives up his old ways and devotes himself to religion. He then adopts a method by which he hopes to arrive at his own salvation. Eventually he has his encounter with Kapimala who shows him how his self-power path is missing the point.

Now Nagarjuna became such a great sage - perhaps second in Buddhism only to the Buddha himself - because he realised just how subtle delusion can become. He saw his own spiritual materialism and his teaching thereafter included the most devastating demolition of such self-justifying rationalisation in the whole of Buddhist philosophy.

Nagarjuna’s insights were the foundation of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. It is said that he travelled into the depth of the ocean and received the Prajna Paramita literature from the king of the dragons (Nagas). Interpreting this psychologically we can say that he explored his unconscious and, instead of finding the pearl he thought he was looking for, that would be a kind of ultimate self-justification, what he came up with was shunyata, the essence of prajna paramita, complete freedom from attachment to self-power.

Shunyata, in Nagarjuna’s philosophy, is the opposite of svabhava. You can find a huge amount of literature upon these two concepts. Much of this literature takes an ontological rather than a soteriological perspective but, I suggest, in doing so misses the point. Svabhava is not about the absence of a self-defining essence in entities in the world, it is simply another term for self-power. Sva means self and bhava means becoming. Nagarjuna had been trying to make himself into a saint until he met Kapimala. He hoped by doing so to extinguish the passions that had got his friends killed and so very nearly brought disaster to himself. Kapimala had the jewel of the Dharma but was not interested in whether he was a saint or not. The self-creation project (svabhava) was just an irrelevance.

Much of Nagarjuna’s writing is in the most extreme level of abstraction and therefore of wide application, but the application that is most pertinent is to the personal spiritual path. When he says that there is nothing that arises from itself yet to say that something arises from something else that is not itself is equally incoherent, he is, among other things, saying that one does not wake up spiritually completely by your own effort, yet even if you are awakened by an encounter with somebody else - as he had been - you do not become that person or identical to that person. The spiritual awakening of each person is unique and yet not independent. One relies upon other power. One does not become the other, one is not the other, and yet what one comes to be is not produced independently of the other either.

Nagarjuna’s shunyata is freedom within conditions, not because conditions limit freedom but because conditions are the bright pearl, the substance of the activity that we call Dharma, nirvana appearing in the world. One can always look at the conditioned aspect and see conventional truth (paravritit), or one can look at the unconditioned or ultimate (paramārtha). To live the spiritual life you need both. Again, this is a practical point about the spiritual life. As a “proper monk” in Kapimala’s sense, one should be able to deploy all ordinary circumstances in the service of ultimate ends. Religion is about  ultimate purposes alive within ordinary life.

According to the Pureland tradition, it was also Nagarjuna who originated the idea of an easy path and a difficult path. Again we can see how this relates to his own life and experience. The difficult path was what he attempted in his hermitage in the mountains, trying to cut off his human nature and defeat all his dragons. That is svabhava, self-power, and it is, as he said, as difficult as crossing the Himalayas on foot unaided. The easy path is one in which one gives up the quest for personal perfection, receives the jewel freely bestowed by the Buddhas, and lives a life of faith, finding the Dharma manifest in all the miscellaneous circumstances of life. Rather than crossing the Himalayas on foot, this is like sailing in a boat.

Centuries later Zen Master Gensa was noted for the phrase “The whole universe in ten directions is one bright pearl” and he used this expression to test the understanding of his students. Those who come into spiritual practice are often, like the young Nagarjuna, thinking that they can find the pearl within themselves, but as Dogen says in Ikka no Myoju “as the mind is not personal, why should we worry whether we have got a bright pearl or not got one - even such worry is not separate from the one bright pearl.”

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Replies to This Discussion

Thank you David for this story. It has brought me about some reflections these two days that I would like to share., though I am not sure if I will be able to express myself clearly enough with my poor English

I wonder if it is really posible to start the search through the easy path since we are bombu and start always from a delusion.

It seems that many of the stories describe someone trying to reach some sort of perfection or self-empower that afterwards is reconverted by means of grace which adopts the form of a person  that appears or a experience of any kind. It seems that when the person is prepared, maybe when he or she has known deeply his or her limited nature , then he or she is ready to surrender to the Other, like the Buddha or Jesus on the Cross.

Nagarjuna was ready and Kapimala appeared. That is why sometimes I wonder if this search through the “difficult path” wiil be “necessary” or unavoidable in most cases to go beyond

Dear Nati, yes, I know what you mean. It is a bit paradoxical. Even if we think we are starting on the other power path, it is extremely likely that what we are actually doing is injecting a self-power idea into our notion of what that path is or consists of. Whatever we do to begin with we do using our deluded mind. Sooner or later we may have an upset that shows us our error and then we might realise our own foolishness, or realise it more deeply han we did before. If we are lucky, "our Kapimala" will show up at just the right moment.

By the way, it will be fine for you to write in Spanish when your English is not sufficient. Between us we will work it out.

Thanks Dharmavidya and thank you Nati. I couldn't agree more about the surrender point Nati. Surrender was the undeniable catalyst for my own spiritual experience and continues to be so. This has become the source of great spiritual strength for me as I now recognise opportunity in my defeats and am brought closer to Amida every time I turn to him with my burdens. Apparently, when I'm broken I am ready to hear and feel and know what is good for me! Brokenness, along with foolishness, seems to be a foundation for my relationship with the Buddha and the bright pearl of the Pure Land. Namo Amida Bu( : P.S. Your English is pretty good by my estimation!!( ;

Thank you David and Adam for your comments and support...Great! I will go on writing in English while it works because it is also a good practice for me.( though i will have into account your suggestion, David, if it is too difficult for me:)

The idea of surrender, as you say Adam, means strength for me as well, because  it is in that moment when I drop my defences and personal expectations allowing Life flows through me. I think that many times this concept is misunderstood and considered as a sign of weakness .

"Brokenness along with foolishness seems to be a foundation for my relationship with the Buddha..." I love the innocence that transmits me this statement. it inspires me the idea of approaching as a naked child (a very little one)

Namo Amida Bu


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