Nagarjuna – 1st True Pure Land Master

Mahasattva Nagarjuna

龙 树 大 士

Nagarjuna - artwork

In these beautiful verses from the Gatha of True Faith, Venerable Master Shinran deeply expresses his gratitude to Mahasattva Nagarjuna, quoting the essential teachings on The True Pure Land Way, personally selected and expounded by this great teacher, who was cited as the 1st Lineage Master of Jodo Shinshu…

“Shakyamuni Tathagata on Mount Lanka
Prophesied to the masses that in South India
Mahasattva Nagarjuna would appear in this world
To dispel the views of being and non-being.

Proclaiming the unexcelled Mahayana Teachings
He realized the Stage of Joy and was born in the Land Of Peace and Bliss 
Revealing that difficult practices are like hardships on the overland way  
He urged us to take the easy path of Shinjin sailing joyfully by waterway.

When one deeply remembers Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow
Naturally in that instant, one enters the Stage Of Definitely Settled           
And solely Saying the Tathagata’s Name always  
Gratefully respond to Great Compassion’s Universal Pledge and grace.

Thus, the first teacher of the True Pure Land lineage, had strongly encouraged all mundane foolish persons (凡 夫, bombu), like ourselves – miserable human beings who simply do not possess the spiritual capacity for difficult, self-powered, Buddhist practices – to entrust ourselves single-heartedly, to Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, the Other Power that guarantees our complete freedom from all pain and suffering. Bodhisattva Nagarjuna exhorted us, through his wonderful expositions of the sutras and personal realization, to take this ‘Easy Path’ especially made for foolish spiritual idiots, that absolutely assures our attainment of Buddhahood at the end of our present lives.

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Bodhisattva Nagarjuna was a great Buddhist teacher, Philosopher and Alchemist who lived an extremely long life (said to be over 150 years) in Southern India, around the 2nd – 3rd century CE.. His appearance in this world, to dispel wrong views about the Buddha Dharma, had been prophesied by Shakyamuni Buddha earlier. Being exceedingly intelligent by nature, he was well-versed with various sciences in his youth. His first exposure to the Buddha Dharma was in the Theravada teachings but became a strong proponent of Mahayana Buddhism after receiving excellent sutras from an old monk in the Himalayas. He was considered the teacher of Aryadeva – the well-accomplished Buddhist Master and author of the famous Madhyamika texts. Therefore, Nagarjuna is widely known as the founder of the Madhyamika School.

According to some legendary accounts, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna had recovered from the palace of the Nagas (dragon deities), at the bottom of the ocean, a huge number of sacred Buddhist Sutras that were meant for future generations. These obscure, transcendental teachings had been entrusted to the Naga king by Shakyamuni Buddha earlier for safekeeping and for dissemination to future generations, at the appropriate time.

Nagarjuna’s best-known writing is on ‘Emptiness (Sunyata)’, which is summarized in his “Fundamental verses on the Middleway”. In this Madhyamaka teachings he clearly expounded, debated and defeated non-Buddhist philosophys on the extremes of, self and no-self, existence and non-existence, permanence and annihilation; self-indulgence and self-mortification. He also wrote a large range of very important expositions and commentaries on other Mahayana Buddhist texts, including the well-known Prajnaparamita Sutra (Perfection of Wisdom). Thus, he had been regarded by at least seven other major Mahayana sects, as their founder or lineage master.

In Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana), Bodhisattva Nagarjuna’s teachings have become the dominant interpretation of their Buddhist philosophy. He is also widely regarded as a Mahasiddha –  an accomplished yogi – who, through the practice of sadhanas (secret tantric meditational instructions), possessed psychic and spiritual abilities, as well as wonderful powers. He is therefore considered as an important teacher and Master by all the Vajrayana schools.

However, the most interesting aspect of Nagarjuna’s own spiritual journey, was specifically highlighted by Master Shinran. Despite his deep knowledge and active propagation of other Buddhist paths contained in Shakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime teachings, this wonderful King of Dharma, often considered the greatest, accomplished Teacher after Shakyamuni Buddha, actually took the True Pure Land path himself and attained the Stage of Joy – the Stage of the Definitely Settled. This Path of “Easy Practice” is strictly based on the entrusting faith (Shinjin – 信 心) in Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow, which embodies Saying the Buddha’s Name.

Bodhisattva Nagarjuna states in the Commentary on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages:

“If a person desires quickly to attain
The stage of non-retrogression,
He or she should, with a reverent heart,
Say the Name, holding steadfast to it.

When persons doubt as they plant roots of good,
The lotus [in which they gain birth] will not open;
But for those whose shinjin is pure,
The flower opens, and immediately they see the Buddha.”

Further, in his gathas in praise of Amida Buddha, Nagarjuna clearly professed:

“The person who thinks on Amida Buddha’s
Virtues of immeasurable power
Immediately enters the stage of the definitely settled;
For this reason I constantly think on Amida.

If a person aspires to attain Buddhahood
And thinks in his heart on Amida,
At that moment the Buddha will appear before him;
For this reason I take refuge in Amida.”

Thus, setting an excellent example for deluded, foolish suffering beings like ourselves, Boddhisattva Nagarjuna took the Path of Faith and Nembutsu (念 佛) and was finally born in the Land of Peace and Ultimate Happiness.

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The True Pure Land Dharma specially taught by Bodhisattva Nagarjuna was the sole interest of Master Shinran, as it directly revealed Amida Buddha’s Universal Vow of Boundless Compassion, made to effectively save ordinary foolish persons, like ourselves. In the chapter on ‘Easy Practice’ (品), Nagarjuna clearly tells us that there are two ways to obtain enlightenment – one is through the “Difficult Path” of self-power by performing deep meditational practices, strict precepts, perfect moral conduct and other non-meditational disciplines; the other is by the “Easy Path” of simply entrusting in Amida Buddha and His Primal Vow.

Knowing that this “Easy Path” is the only appropriate path especially meant for badly defiled, ordinary foolish persons, overwhelmed by greed, hatred, ignorance, arrogance and doubt, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, without any reservation, urged us to choose this wonderful path which he himself finally took.

The Primal Vow, is Amida Buddha’s absolute promise to save all miserable persons like ourselves who are incapable to perform any spiritual practice. Thus, abandoning all self-powered practices, and single-heartedly relying on this Vow of Great Compassion, is now, the only option available to us, if getting out of samsara at the end of this life, is indeed our goal. Persons with entrusting faith (Shinjin – 信 心) in the Primal Vow, are truly settled in their minds and hearts, knowing that their attainment of Buddhahood is absolutely assured.

Entrusting Faith (Shinjin – 信 心) on our part – the persons to be saved – is the faith-mind consciousness that fully accept the Primal Vow without any doubt. It comes about with the awareness that we are evil beings who have been transmigrating from the beginningless past with absolutely no possibility of escape from this vicious cycle of relentless pain and suffering. Thus, we accept Amida Buddha’s Primal Vow that embraces us and that its Vow power absolutely guarantees our births in the Pure Land. We would then, Say the Buddha’s Name – (南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛 – Namo Amida Butsu) – for the rest of our fleeting lives, in deep gratitude to the Buddha for having saved us.

Stage of the Definitely Settled (正 定 聚), also called the Stage of Non-retrogression (住 不 退 轉) – is a term originally used in the traditional Mahayana teachings to describe the stage of spiritual development in the Bodhisattvas’ paths to enlightenment, when these Bodhisattvas will never backslide in their attainments. Their arduous practices of vast merit gathering, good deeds and flawless difficult disciplines on the Path of Sages, through countless billions of lives, have brought them up to the eighth stage (Sanskrit: bhumi) on a ten bhumi spiritual climb, before realizing Buddhahood. These Bodhisattvas on the 8th bhumi and above have attained the Stage of Non-retrogression – they belong to the group of persons absolutely assured of advancing to Nirvana.

This Stage of Non-retrogression, which Nagarjuna ascertained, is also the same stage instantly received by us – foolish sentient beings with the lowest spiritual capacity – the very moment, here and now, when our Shinjin is truly settled. As we have now single-heartedly taken the Path of Easy Practice, by simply relying fully on the Other-power of Amida’s Primal Vow, we too are absolutely assured of advancing to Nirvana, without going through countless billions of lives, performing self-power, difficult practices, on the Bodhisattvas’ path.

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Ten Hymns on Bodhisattva Nagarjuna – composed by Master Shinran in profound reverence and gratitude to this great Jodo Shinshu teacher (based on his writings): 

(From: Hymns of The Pure Land Masters – 1997 copy right Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha)

1…
Our teacher, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, abundantly praises the Pure Land in the west
In such works as his commentaries on the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra
And the Ten Bodhisattva Stages,
And urges us to practice the nembutsu.

Nagarjuna (Ryuju, literally “naga [dragon]-tree”): Nagarjuna was born beneath    a tree and taken and raised by a naga-king. Later, he became the son of a king in southern India. Hence his name, Nagarjuna.

2…
The World-honored one foretold
That a monk named Bodhisattva Nagarjuna
Would appear in south India and would crush
The wrong views of being and nonbeing.

South India: Further south, there was a great spirit king who was master of Mount Lanka, which rises from the sea. Because this king loved the Mahayana teaching, Sakyamuni Tathagata crossed the sea to his kingdom and taught the dharma to him. On that occasion, Sakyamuni foretold that some time after his entrance into nirvana, Nagarjuna would appear in the world and vanquish the nonbuddhist teachings.

3…
Our teacher, Bodhisattva Nagarjuna,
Clarified the unexcelled dharma of the Great Vehicle;
Having attained the stage of joy,
He wholeheartedly recommended the nembutsu to all.

Stage of joy: the stage of the truly settled. In the term “joy” (kangi), kan means to be gladdened in body and -gi means to be gladdened in mind. To rejoice, realizing that one is assured of attaining what one shall attain, is called “joy.”

4…
Mahasattva Nagarjuna appeared in the world
And distinguished the paths of difficult and easy practice;
Thus he leads us, who are wandering in transmigration,
To board the ship of the universal Vow.

Difficult: the Path of Sages.
Easy: the Pure Land path.

5…
People who hear and accept the words
Of our teacher Bodhisattva Nagarjuna
Should be mindful of the Primal Vow
And say the Name of Amida always.

6…
Those who desire quickly to attain
The stage of nonretrogression
Should, with a heart of reverence,
Hold steadfast to and say Amida’s Name.

Reverence: to worship with humility. Hinayana speaks of making offerings; Mahayana speaks of reverence.
Hold steadfast to: to take and hold in one’s mind; not to scatter or lose; never abandoning once one has taken hold.

7…
The ocean of birth-and-death, of painful existence, has no bound;
Only by the ship of Amida’s universal Vow
Can we, who have long been drowning,
Unfailingly be brought across it.

8…
The Commentary on the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra states:
The Tathagata is the supreme dharma-king;
With bodhisattvas as dharma-vassals,
The person to be deeply revered is the World-honored one.

9…
All the bodhisattvas state:
“When we were in the causal stage,
We passed through countless kalpas
Performing the myriad good acts and practices,

10…
But the attachments of affection were extremely hard to sever,
And birth-and-death was extremely difficult to exhaust.
Only by practicing the nembutsu-samadhi
Could we eliminate the obstructions of karmic evil and gain liberation.”

Here ends the Hymns on Bodhisattva Nagarjuna.

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Listening Deeply to the True Pure Land expositions of Master Shinran and the core teaching of Bodhisattva Nagarjuna that is firmly rooted in Amida Buddha’s Vow of Great Compassion, may all foolish mundane persons, take heed of the benevolent advice of these truly accomplished teachers. Let us seize this extremely rare opportunity and make full use of this precious human birth before it quickly comes to the inevitable end.

Thus, abandoning all self-power meditative and non-meditative practices and entrusting our karmic destiny entirely to Amida Buddha and The Primal Vow, we have definitely taken the Easy Path out of samsara. Without any doubt we have HEARD:

The Call of Boundless Compassion

The Buddha’s infinite merits and virtues
Are bestowed equally on all beings.
May all accept Amida’s Gift of Shinjin
And obtain birth in His Land of Peace and Bliss.

南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛 – Namo Amida Butsu
南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛 – Namo Amida Butsu
南 无 阿 彌 陀 佛 – Namo Amida Butsu