Nagarjuna's poetic presentation of the fundamental teachings of the Great Vehicle, or Mahayana—whose followers, driven by compassion, strive to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all beings—is remarkable for its concise style and memorable imagery, making it one of the most widely quoted sources in other commentaries on the Mahayana path. This work will appeal to readers with a general interest in Mahayana Buddhism, to those who wish to familiarize themselves with one of the great classics of Indian Buddhist literature, and to students who come across passages quoted in other Buddhist works and who wish to explore further. The great Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna (first–second century A.D.) wrote his celebrated poem "Letter to a Friend" as a gift of advice to a South Indian king, and it has since become a monument in the Indian shastra tradition.
Despite its short length (only 123 verses), it covers the whole Mahayana path, combining a practical approach to daily conduct with a theoretical exposition of the different stages leading to enlightenment. It has thus been an ideal source for many of Tibet 's great scholars seeking a scriptural authority to enhance their own descriptions of the Buddhist path. Any difficulties in understanding the poem are overcome by Kangyur Rinpoche's commentary, which turns Nagarjuna's sometimes cryptic poem into straightforward prose, expanding on each topic and ordering the different subjects in such a way that on returning to the original poem, the reader can easily make sense of the advice it contains.
It includes headings to explain Nagarjuna's frequent changes in subject and full explanations of the ideas introduced in each verse. In addition to the commentary, this book presents the original poem in the Tibetan and in a new English translation that attempts to emulate Nagarjuna's lines of metric verse. Also included are Kangyur Rinpoche's structural outline (sa bchad), a Tibetan line index to enable students to locate quotations used in other Tibetan works, full notes, and a glossary.
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TRANSLATOR’S INTRODUCTION Few people who have begun studying Tibetan Buddhism can remain unaware for long of the importance of Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend (Suhrllekha in Sanskrit), for even if they have not had the opportunity to read it on its own, they will sooner or later come across quotations from Nagarjuna’s poem in the many written and oral commentaries on other texts that the Tibetan tradition has produced. The Letter to a Friend, despite its short length, is a monument of the Indian shastra tradition for it covers the whole Mahayana path with unusual clarity and memorable imagery. For many students of Buddhism the original canonical texts—that is, the sutras and other works that recorded the Buddha’s teachings and were translated in the Tibetan Kangyur—could prove somewhat daunting, for there is a vast number of them and they often confine themselves to specific subjects, being in most cases delivered in response to specific situations. To gain an overall perspective of the whole Buddhist! path required not only an exceptional memory but a formidable ability to order and synthesize the material expressed in the sutras. It was to enable students to better grasp the real message of the whole scope and variety of the Buddha’s teachings that, centuries after the Buddha had left this world, Indian masters like Nagarjuna composed the many shastras of the later canonical tradition that were translated in the Tibetan Tangyur. To think of the shastras simply as commentaries is not always entirely meaningful, for such works as the Letter to a Friend and Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva condense rather than expand on the Buddha’s original teachings. They are, all the same, entirely based on the Buddha’s words, and indeed many lines in the Letter to a Friend specifically refer to passages in the sutras. These references serve as keys to jog the reader’s memory, though they assume, of course, that the reader is already familiar with these same sutras. A glance at the last two lines of verse 68, and at the corresponding section in the commentary with its quotation from the sutra alluded to, provides a good illustration of this. It also shows why it has been necessary for subsequent masters, both in India and Tibet, to in their turn compose commentaries that explain and expand on these shastras. Works like the Letter to a Friend, which could be easily memorized, thus provided a framework onto which the Buddhist practitioner could "hang" the detailed expositions to be found in the sutras. And, since they covered a wide range of topics, they were useful as scriptural sources to be quoted by Tibetan writers explaining specific points of the Buddhist teachings.
Nagarjuna Nagarjuna is generally considered with Asanga to be the most important figure in Mahayana Buddhism. Acknowledged as the father of Madhyamika, it was he who brought to the human world the Prajñaparamita in 100,000 verses (hitherto hidden in the realm of the nagas) which inspired his own Mulamadhyamaka-karika on which the entire Madhyamika is based. A prolific writer, his works include the Six Texts on Reasoning, hymns of praise and a number of discourses (including the Letter to a Friend). As principal abbot of Nalanda he was largely responsible for increasing this great monastic university’s reputation as a seat of learning and pure conduct. Most of the details of his life, however, have come down to us largely in the form of legend, and as with many great masters of the first few hundred years after the Buddha’s parinirvana, it is difficult to form a clear picture from all the numerous and varied accounts available. The Buddha himself predicted that Nagarjuna would be born ! 400 years after his own parinirvana, and that he would live 600 years. This in fact correlates with the dates most scholars attribute for him, which lie somewhere around the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Christian era, falling roughly in the middle of the period foretold by the Buddha. Despite this prediction of longevity, it seemed at first that Nagarjuna’s life would be a short one. A soothsayer consulted soon after his birth told his parents that the baby would only survive seven days unless they were to make offerings to one hundred monks, which condition they were only too happy to fulfil. But having been told subsequently that nothing could be done to extend the boy’s life longer than seven years, they sent him away shortly before his seventh birthday so that they would not have to endure the sorrow of seeing their son’s corpse. It was as a result of his arrival at Nalanda, where he was ordained and initiated into a tantric practice conferring immortality by the great master Saraha (also known in this context as Rahulabhadra), that he not only survived this second deadline but went on to become a learned scholar and fully accomplished practitioner, mastering the teachings of the sutras and tantras, and even the science of alchemy. Throughout his life! he significantly benefited the doctrine and sentient beings, on many occasions using miraculous powers. The special relationship he cultivated with the nagas, and which enabled him to retrieve the 100,000 verse Prajnaparamita, is reflected not only in his name but in numerous representations of him depicting the nagas’ cobra-like heads shading him from the sun as he taught the Dharma.
King Surabhibhadra While contemporary Sanskrit sources have provided modern scholars with some idea of Nagarjuna’s life, it is impossible to identify the friend for whom he wrote his Letter because no Sanskrit version of this work has survived. His original name can only be surmised by translating back into Sanskrit the two Tibetan names that exist in different versions of the text. As a result, we find him variously referred to in different translations of the Letter as Surabhibhadra (the name we have adopted here, albeit arbitrarily), Udayibhadra, Udayana, Gautamiputra, Kaniska, Satavahana and so on. All we can say is that he was probably one of a number of Andhran kings ruling in Central India at the time Nagarjuna lived there. Nonetheless, even if a knowledge of the historical background to a work of literature can sometimes give valuable insights into the text itself, in this case precise identification of the king is not crucial to understanding Nagarjuna’s message and does not affect its value as a basis for Buddhist practice.From the Author:
""The Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna (1st-2nd century) remains best known for his essential expositions of the Madhyamika philosophy. In Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend (Snow Lion, 2005), the Padmakara Translation Group presents another facet of the great master's works. Addressed to a king, this epistolary poem offers advice and instructions for applying the Buddhist teachings to life in the world. Although less abstract than Nagarjuna's philosophical compositions, the Letter to a Friend shows the same sophistication and descriptive skill that mark his better-known masterpieces. The concise and lucid commentary by Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche (1897-1975) reveals that the letter's 123 verses provide an overview of the entire bodhisattva path, organized into sections devoted to each of the six perfections. "--Buddhadharma, Books in Brief
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