By Sera sMad Geshe Lobsang Tharchin
Acarya Nagarjuna, as is widely known, founded the Madhyamika tradition of Buddhism. His appearance was prophesied in many sutras, among them the Lankavatara, Manjusrimulakalpa, Mahamegha, and Mahabheri.
Four hundreds years after the nirvana of the Buddha Sakyamuni, there was living in the southern India in a land called Vidarbha (literally, the ” Land of Palms”), a prosperous Brahman who had no sons. A sign appeared to him in a dream, indicating that he would receive a son if he paid homage to 100 Brahmans. He did so, praying earnestly that his deeply-held wish might be fulfilled, and 10 months later a son was born.
The newly-born child was taken to a soothsayer, who said that although the infant did indeed have the signs of an exceptional person, he would live only seven days. The anxious parents asked whether something couldn’t be done to avert the fate. The soothsayer replied that if they gave food to 100 persons, the boy would live for seven days and that — if they made offerings to 100 monks — he would live for seven years. Nothing beyond that could be done. As the end of the seven years approached they sent the young boy, in the company of several attendants, on an excursion, for they would not have been able to bear the sight of their son’s corpse.
While traveling, the boy experienced a vision of the god Khasarpana (a particular manifestation of Arya Lokesvara). Soon afterwards, the party reached the great monastery of Nalanda. While they were standing near the dwelling of one Brahman Saraha, the boy uttered several verses of poetry. The Brahman heard the lines and invited the party inside. He asked them about their journey and of how they had come to reach Nalanda. One of the attendants related the boy’s history and told of his imminent death. Saraha replied to this that if the boy were to abandon the worldly life by taking a vow of renunciation, there was a way to avoid the plight. The boy agreed to do so and was first initiated into the “Mandala of Amitabha which Conquers the Lord of Death”. Afterwards he was instructed to recite dharani mantras. On the eve of his seventh birthday in particular he recited mantras through the night and thus overcame this encounter with the Lord of Death.
Upon reaching the age of eight, the boy took the vow of renunciation and began studies of the traditional sciences. He studied as well scriptural texts of each of the major schools of Buddhist thought. Sometime afterwards he again met his parents, and later requested the very same Brahman Saraha to instruct him in the esoteric teachings of Sri Guhya Samaja. He was taught the appropriate tantras, together with their complete oral instruction. Next, after submitting a formal request to the monastery’s abbot, he took the full ordination of a monk and became known as Bhiksu Srimanta.
Being of those who are watched over by Manjusri in all their lives, the monk found opportunities for hearing, in its entirely, the Dharma of both sutras and tantras from the Bodhisattva teacher Ratna Mati, who was a manifestation of Manjusri in his “divine youth” aspect. In this way Srimanta came to be a consummate master of the Dharma.
At a later time a great famine arose, leaving the sangha of Nalanda with no means of subsistence. The abbot, Sthavira Rahula Bhadra, appointed Bhiksu Srimanta the sangha’s steward. Although the famine lasted 12 years and greatly reduced the population of the surrounding land of Magadha, the bhiksu was able to sustain the sangha by utilizing his knowledge of alchemical science. He had acquired this knowledge from a Brahman versed in alchemy, in the following way. The bhiksu first prepared two sandalwood leaves as charms for the Siddhi of Swiftfootedness. Carrying one leaf in his hand and the other concealed in the sole of his sole, he then proceeded to the distant land where the Brahman lived and asked to be given the instruction of the “elixir which transforms common metals to gold”.
The Brahman thought to himself that the stranger must have had some special charm allowing him to come to the isle. Desirous of acquiring it, he said to the bhiksu: “Knowledge must be exchanged for knowledge, or compensated in gold.” “Well, then,” replied Bhiksu Srimanta, “we must exchange knowledge,” and he gave the Brahman the charm he had been carrying his hand. Thinking that the visitor could no longer leave the island, the Brahman gave him the instruction. Using the leaf he had kept in the sole of his shoe, the bhiksu then returned to Magadha. He was thus able to provide Nalanda’s sangha amply with all their essential needs, through transmuting great quantities of iron to gold with the alchemical elixir.
Some time after this, Bhiksu Srimanta served as the abbot of Nalanda. He paid great tribute to those members of the sangha who observed the Three Trainings properly and expelled those bhiksus and sramanas who were morally corrupt. He is reputed to have banished as many as 8,000 monks.
It was during this period as well that one Bhiksu Samkara composed a scripture entitled The Ornament of Knowledge. It was written in 12,000 verses and represented an attempt to discredit the Mahayana doctrine. By means of logic, the Bhiksu Srimanta was able to refuge the argument completely. He also disproved many other scriptures denying the validity of the Mahayana. On one occasion, in a place called Jatasamghata, he defeated 500 non-Buddhist scholars in debate and converted them to the Buddhist religion by overcoming their false views.
During that time when the Acarya was teaching the Dharma of the Tripitaka widely to many followers, two youths who were actually emanations of nagas came to him seeking the Dharma. With their presence the entire area became filled with the fragrance of sandalwood. Upon their departure it disappeared and when they returned the fragrance reappeared as well. The Acarya asked them the reason for this, and the youths replied that they were sons of the naga king Taksala. They had anointed themselves with essence of sandalwood as immunization against human impurities.
The Acarya then asked them to give him some of the sandalwood for an image of Tara and to assist him in constructing temples as well. The youths answered that they would have to ask their father, and then left. They returned after two days to tell the Acarya that only if he himself came to the Land of the Nagas could they do as he bade. Aware of the benefit to all beings that would result from his going, the Acarya journeyed to the Land of the Nagas, where King Taksala and other righteous-minded nagas presented him with innumerable offerings. The mahatma preached the Dharma to the nagas in compliance with their every supplication, bringing them so much satisfaction that they entreated him to remain among them permanently. He answered: “Because I have come here for the purpose of securing the sutra of Prajnaparamita in 100,000 verses and ‘naga clay’ — which is needed for the construction of temples and stupas — I have no opportunity now to stay. I shall perhaps be able to return in the future.”
When he had acquired the expanded version of the Mother of the Jinas, several shorter texts of the Prajnaparamita, and great quantities of naga clay, the Acarya prepared to return to our world of the Jambudvipa. It is said that in order to ensure the Acarya’s return to their land, the nagas kept from him a small portion at the end of the 100,000 verses. The missing portion — the last two chapters of the unabridged Sutra on the Prajnaparamita — was therefore replaced by the corresponding chapters of the Prajnaparamita Sutra in 8,000 verses. This is why the final two chapters of each Sutra are identical.
After securing the Prajnaparamita sutras, the Acarya greatly advanced the influence of the Mahayana tradition. When he preached the Dharma in the monastery park, the nagas performed acts of reverence such as six of the serpents forming a parasol to shade him from the sun. Having thus become the Lord of the Nagas, the Acarya was named “The Naga”. Because his skill at spreading the Mahayana Dharma resembled the shooting speed and mastery of the famed archer Arjuna, he became known as well as “The Arjuna”. It is otherwise explained that he was called “Nagarjuna” because, by practising the sadhanas of the goddess Kurukulla, he gained authority over such nagas as King Taksaka and others.
Nagarjuna later traveled to the area of Pundravardhana where, utilizing the practice of alchemy, he performed many acts of great generosity. In particular, he bestowed great quantities of gold upon an elderly Brahman couple and thus instilled them with great faith. The Brahman elder served Nagarjuna and listened to the Dharma from him, and after his death he was reborn as the Master Bodhinaga.
Nagarjuna also constructed many temples. Once, when he was preparing to transform a large, bell-shaped boulder into gold, an emanation of Tara with the form of an old woman appeared and said to him: “Instead of doing this, you should go to the Mountain of Splendour and practice the Dharma.” Later he did go there to practice the sadhanas of Tara.
On another occasion, where he had accomplished the sadhana for invoking the goddess Candika, the goddess herself carried the Acarya into the sky and attempted to take him to the celestial realms. “I have not exerted myself in order to travel to the celestial realms,” he said to her. “I have invoked you in order to provide support for the Mahayana sangha, for as long as the Buddha’s teaching remains.” They returned, and the goddess established herself to the near west of Nalanda, manifesting herself in the form of a noblewoman of the royal caste. Nagarjuna instructed her, saying: “A great stake of khadira wood, so large that a man can barely lift it, has been driven into the wall of a stone temple dedicated to Manjusri. Until that stake turns to ashes, you must provide subsistence for the temple’s sangha.”
With articles of every sort, the noblewoman made offerings to the sangha for 12 years. During this time the steward of the monastery, a sramanera of evil nature, made continual promiscuous advances to her. The noblewoman made no replies, until one day she finally said: “If the khadira-wood stake ever turns to ashes, we could be united.” The wicked sramanera therefore set the stake afire. When it had become ashes, the goddess herself vanished.
There was another time when a number of elephants were threatening to damage the Bodhi tree at Vajrasana (present-day Bodhgaya). Nagarjuna erected two stone columns behind the sacred tree which provided protection for many years. When the elephants later returned, the Acarya erected two images of Mahakala astride a lion, wielding a club. This was also effective but the danger nonetheless reappeared and a stone fence was built around the tree. Outside the enclosure, the Acarya constructed 108 stupas. The stupas were huge and each one was crowned by a smaller stupa containing sacred bone-relics of the Buddha.
The Acarya further constructed many temples and stupas in the six major cities of Magadha – Sravasta, Saketa, Campaka, Varanasi, Rajagrha and Vaisali – and provided preachers of the Dharma with adequate subsistence.
Above all, Nagarjuna knew that virtually no one understood the true meaning of the Prajnaparamita basket of Sutra. He also knew that without having realized this unerringly there was no means for achieving liberation. He thus widely proclaimed the Middle Path, which asserts that sunyata (the essential meaning of Dependent Origination, that all things are totally void of self-existent nature) is totally consistent with principles expressing an infallible relation between “black” and “white” karma and its consequences. By means of his five-part collection of works on logic the Acarya clearly expounded the ultimate meaning of the Buddha’s wisdom. This collection consists of the major treatise, the Mulamadhyamika Karika and its four limbs: the Yukti Sastika, Sunyata Saptati, Vaidalya Sutra, and Vigraha Vyavarttani.
After this period, Acarya Nagarjuna stayed for six months on Mount Usira, to the north. He was accompanied by 1,000 disciples and sustained each one with a daily tablet of a quicksilver rasayana he had prepared. One day a disciple, Siddha Singkhi, respectfully touched the pill to his head but did not eat it. The Acarya asked why, and his follower answered: “I have no need of the pill. If it pleases you, Acarya, please prepare a number of vessels by filling them with water.” Thus, 1,000 large containers were filled with water and placed there, in the forest. The siddha then added a drop of urine to each of the vessels, which transformed all the liquid into “elixir for gold”. The Acarya took all the vessels and concealed them in a secluded, inaccessible cave, uttering a prayer that they might serve to benefit beings of the future.
This Siddha Singkhi had not always been so adept. When he first met the Acarya, he was so dull-witted that he could not learn even a single verse over a period of many days. The Acarya then told him, in a jesting tone, to meditate that a horn had grown on top of his head. The disciple did so, maintaining his object of meditation so sharply that he achieved the tangible and visible sign of having grown a horn. He was therefore unable to leave the cave in which he was meditating, for the horn got caught on the walls. The siddha was then instructed to meditate that the horn was no longer present, and it subsequently disappeared.
Realizing that his disciple’s mental faculties had now become sharply developed, the Acarya taught him several profound meanings of the secret mantras. Nagarjuna then instructed him to meditate once more, and the follower ultimately attained the siddhi of the Mahamudra.
Later the Acarya traveled to the northern continent of Kurava. Along the way, in a city named Salamana, he encountered several children playing in the road. Nagarjuna read the palm of one of them, a boy named Jetaka, and prophesied that he would become king. On the return journey, following the accomplishment of his goal in Kurava, the Acarya met the former youth, who had since become the king. For three years Nagarjuna remained with the king, who bestowed upon the Acarya many jewels. In return he composed for the king a jewel of the Dharma: namely, the Ratnavali.
It was then that he traveled south, as he had been advised by the emanation of Tara, to practice meditation at the Mountain of Splendour. Here Nagarjuna also turned the Wheel of the Dharma, that of both sutras and tantras, extensively – and it was at this time that he composed, in particular, the scripture Dharmadhatu Stava.
In general, the Acarya’s compositions are divided into three collections:
1. The Collection of Discourses – including such works as the Ratnavali, Suhrllekha, Prajna Sataka, Prajna Danda, and Janaposana Bindu;
2. The Collection of Tributes – the Dharmadhatu Stava, Lokatita Stava, Acintya Stava, and Paramartha Stava; and
3. The Collection of Logic Writings – the aforementioned Mulamadhyamika Karika, etc.
In addition to these, he wrote other important treatises explaining the meanings of both sutras and tantras and, indeed, performed activities as though the Buddha had returned again.
It is said that Nagarjuna made three “great proclamations of the Dharma”. The first was upholding the Vinaya discipline in Nalanda, as previously explained. This was like the first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma by the Bhagavan. The second was his clear exposition of the Pure Middle View, through the composition of the collection of logic treatises and others. This was similar to the Bhagavan’s second turning of the Wheel. The third great proclamation constituted the Acarya’s activities upon the Mount of Splendour in the south, where he composed such works as the Dharmadhatu Stava. This was akin to the final turning of the Wheel of the Dharma by the Bhagavan.
Such extensive works on behalf of the Dharma and living beings aroused great displeasure in Mara and the forces of evil. A boy, Kumara Saktiman, had earlier been born to the queen of King Udayibhadra. Years later, the mother was presenting her son with a rare, fine garment when the boy told her: “Put this away for me. I shall wear it when it is time for me to rule the kingdom.” “You shall never rule,” replied his mother, “for the Acarya Nagarjuna has brought it about that your father and he will not die unless the Acarya does.” The boy was so overcome with grief that his mother continued: “Don’t cry so! The Acarya is a Bodhisattva, and if you ask him for his head he will not refuse. With that, your father will also die — and you shall acquire the kingdom.”
The child followed his mother’s suggestion and Nagarjuna did indeed agree to give his head. Yet however much effort the boy used, his sword could not cut Nagarjuna’s neck. The Acarya told the boy: “Long ago, while cutting some grass, I happened to kill an insect. The force of that misdeed remains with me still, and you can thus sever my head by using a blade of kusa grass.” This the boy did, and so was able to cut off Nagarjuna’s head. The blood which flowed from the wound turned to milk, and the following words issued from the dismembered head: “From here I depart to Sukhavati heaven. In the future, I shall enter this body again.”
The wicked prince cast the head away at several leagues’ distance, fearing that it would once more join the body. Since the Acarya had attained the practice of rasayana, however, his head and body became stone-hard. The two are said to be coming nearer and nearer, one to the other, every year, in the end to be joined once more. Nagarjuna will then again perform great works for the benefit of the teaching and all living beings.
As is written in the Manjusrimulakalpa, the Acarya Nagarjuna lived for a total of 600 years:
‘After I, the Tathagata, have passed away
And 400 years have elapsed,
A bhiksu, “The Naga”, shall appear, of Great faith and benefit to the teaching.
He shall achieve the stage of Great Joy
And for 600 years remain living.’