Nagarjuna on Relative Bodhicitta

Min Bahadur Shakya

Buddhist Himalaya: A Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods

Vol. X No. I & II  (1999-2000)


Copyright 1999 by Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods




Nagarjuna’s writings are found abundantly among the commentarial literature of Buddhists up to the present. Although his birth took place nearly two thousand years ago on this Indian sub-continent, his relevance endures.


It seems that his name has been synonymous with doctrine of “Emptiness” or Sunyata. We are familiar with his writings solely on his relativistic doctrine of Pratityasamutpada and its relation with Sunyavada doctrine of Madhyamaka Buddhist Philosophy. His systematization of Madhyamaka philosophy on the nature of body and phenomena is without parallel in the history of Indian philosophy.


Nagarjuna’s writings left a profound effect on the development of Indian philosophy and had enhanced the many systems of Indian philosophical reflection significantly. In his own time his system of Madhyamaka philosophy was deemed highly profound and difficult to understand for eminent philosopher of his age, even those from non-Buddhist traditions.


Views of selflessness are taught in both the vehicles, the Mahayana and Hinayana and with respect to the Mahayana in both Sutra and Tantra divisions. Nagarjuna’s frank and bold statement about the proper view of the Buddhist Path concerning the three types of Yana is expressed in his Lokatitastava (1.21) thus:


From full discernment of the dharmadhatu, there is no force to discern the vehicle.

What are called the three-fold yanas are made manifest to beings by You [O Buddha]


Nagarjuna clearly states that from the point of view of wisdom there is no difference between three yanas or Vehicle but Buddha elucidated three vehicles only to tame sentient beings.


Buddhist scholars acknowledge that Nagarjuna’s system is deemed supreme among the Mahayana Schools. His presentation of two truths1, non-production theory based on the four point analysis2, elucidation of the non-identity and non-differentiation of Pratityasamutpada and êènyata3 are without parallel in the history of Buddhist philosophy.


In this paper I am not going to present his doctrine of emptiness but another practical and human aspect of Buddha’s doctrine that is “Great Compassion” or Bodhicitta — the “mind of awakening”. The doctrine of Bodhicitta is the acme of Mahayana Buddhist doctrine that affects all aspects of human life. Since there is a dearth of writings on this aspect of doctrine and since a majority of scholars have dealt little with this topic, I have attempted to illuminate this aspect of the teachings of Arya Nagarjuna.


It is taught that there are two kinds of Bodhicitta, relative and ultimate. Much is devoted to the ultimate aspect of Bodhicitta which is none other than Emptiness but little is found concerning “relative” Bodhicitta. The present paper explores the traces of teachings on relative aspect of Bodhicitta among his various writings.



Textual Sources


It is said that Buddhahood is the realization of the unity of Sunyata and Skillful Means (Prajñopaya). Nagarjuna was thorough in his exposition of Sunyata doctrine through manifold means of logical inquiry. It would be injudicious to state that he neglected the importance of relative Bodhicitta.


Among the several writings of Nagarjuna, the following texts deal with the relative aspect of Bodhicitta together with the Buddhist ultimate, i.e. Sunyata.


a) Bodhicittavivarana


This text was published by Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath 1991, edited and translated into Hindi by Gyaltsen Namdol and into English by Christian Lindtner (in Nagarjuniana: Studies in the writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna, Motilal and Banarsidas, Delhi, (Reprint), 1987, p. 180-217). It has 112 verses. Verses No. 1-73 deals with exposition of emptiness and 74-112 deals explicitly with conventional Bodhicitta.


b) Ratnavali


Translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins and Lati Rinpoche with Anne Klein (Wisdom of Tibet, Series 2. Vikash Publishing House, Delhi 1995). In Chapter Five of this text a substantial portion of the discourse is dedicated to the elucidation of relative Bodhicitta.


c) Bodhisaµbharaka


In this text, Nagarjuna, apart from explaining the importance of the accumulation of Wisdom for the attainment of the Dharmakaya of the Buddha, devotes a great majority of verses to an exposition of relative Bodhicitta or the exposition of Five Paramita or “Perfection”. As many as 165 verses are devoted to Punyasambhara and Jñanasambhara, accumulating merit and wisdom. This text is addressed to both householder (Grhastha) and wandering mendicant (Pravrajita) Bodhisattvas. An English translation of this text can be found in Nagarjuniana of Christian Lindtner (p. 225-227)


d) Sattvaradhana Gatha4


In this strota Nagarjuna emphasizes that only through serving sentient beings can one attain Buddhahood. Serving sentient beings is the Bodhisattva’s principal worship. Without sentient beings there can be no generation of compassion, patience, loving kindness and equanimity. Without sentient beings, there is no question of liberation and the attainment of Buddhahood.


e) Sutrasamuccaya


Nagarjuna has provided a list of Mahayana Sutras extant in his times in his Sutrasamuccaya5. He says “Living beings who produce Bodhicitta are rare (durlabha); mahakaruna towards living beings is rare. A Bodhisattva must not apply himself to the gambhiradharmata (emptiness) without upayakausalya.


f) Suhrllekha


This text, known also as “Nagarjuna’s letter to King Gautamiputra.”6 In this text Acarya Nagarjuna advises his royal friend of the value of an altruistic attitude.


Born like Arya Avalokitesvara, aided through his conduct,

Many stricken people, disease, old age, attachment and hatred dispelled,

Dwell for limitless lifetime, like the protector of the World,

The Blessed One Amitabha, in his Buddha field. (verse 120-21)


These and other works of His Eminence Nagarjuna, clearly testify that he was a sublime master in his dissemination of the teachings concerning the Bodhisattva path both of wisdom and compassion.



Nagarjuna’s Method of Generating Bodhicitta


Although there are many methods of developing Bodhicitta that have been explained by the learned Masters of the past, two of the most well known are the Seven Instruction on Cause and Effect ascribed to Acarya Asanga and Exchanging Self with Others ascribed to Acarya Nagarjuna.


It is taught that there are two lineages of Bodhicitta generation transmitted since the time of Buddha. Traditionally speaking, the first lineage, called Extensive Lineage (Vipul Parampara) is said to have been transmitted by Buddha Sakyamuni to Maitreya and through him to Asanga. Whether Maitreya was a historical figure or celestial Bodhisattva is a topic in itself, a topic with which we need here not concern ourselves. The second is called Profound Lineage (Gambhira Parampara) is said to have been transmitted by Buddha Sakyamuni to Bodhisattva Mañjusri and through him to Acarya Nagarjuna.


On the basis of Nagarjuna’s work above, Santideva formulated an important and unique four-fold theory of the generation of Bodhicitta (Bodhicittotpada) in his Bodhicaryavatara. The following are the central features:


a)      The Equality of Self and Others (Paratmasamata)

b)      The Fault of Self Cherishing (Atmasnehadosa)

c)      The Importance of Others and Cherishing of others (Parasneha)

d)      The Exchange of Self with others (Atmaparavartana)


Acarya Santideva, following the tradition of Acarya Nagarjuna, explained these concepts in great detail in the eight chapter of Bodhicaryavatara in the chapter Dhyana Paramita (The Perfection of Concentration). Though the term Paratmasamata were not coined by Acarya Nagarjuna himself, he is thought to have accorded central importance to this notion. Therefore these concepts were further developed by Acarya Santideva in his Bodhicaryavatara.


To begin with Acarya Santideva established these critical concepts in these verses:


At first, I should make effort to meditate on the equality of self and others;

All beings should be protected by me as myself, for all are equal in [seeking] pleasure and [avoiding] pain.

Bodhicaryavatara, VIII, Verse. No. 90


Acarya Santideva was rather original in writing just these stanzas ascribed to him by most scholars, but the basis of this idea arose in Nagarjuna 's works7, and of course, from the utterance of the Buddha before him.


The practice of the equality of oneself and others is very rare because it is counter to our selfish desires and feelings. In acquiring happiness and eradicating sorrow, the goal of all being is the same. But in our practice we desire to eliminate our own suffering but question the necessity of eliminating the suffering of others.


In a similar manner, the fault of self-cherishing is well expressed in the following verses:


Hell beings, Ghosts, animals and those who experience different sufferings

Are caused by the harm done to the sentient beings.8

Further, it is very difficult to eliminate sorrow caused by hunger, thirst, mutual beating or killing.

These sufferings come as a result of creating obstacles to sentient beings,

Or is the outcome of not cherishing others.9


Nagarjuna says that one should serve sentient beings with all the materials at our disposal and protect them as our own body, giving up the habit of not cherishing others (Self-Cherishing) as the poison.10


Usually we do not see the importance of others. We always harbor the thoughts like this, “If I give up my wealth, possessions, clothing and so forth to others, how shall I ever be happy? What shall I eat? What shall I wear?” These sorts of questions come flooding into a self-cherishing mind. People fear spirits because they are afraid they will cause harm to them, but if we banished our self-cherishing attitude, we would not be afraid even if a whole army of ghosts appeared before us. From exalted kings and heads of state down to beggars, all beings are beset with fear due to their self-cherishing attitude.


Further, the necessity and importance of helping others is stressed in the Bodhicittavivarana in these lines:


It is obvious that hearers (Sravakas), not desiring the happiness of others, attained only an inferior enlightenment. On the other hand, Bodhisattva, because of not abandoning sentient beings attained perfect enlightenment. How can any Bodhisattva dwell even for an instant on the idea of self-cherishing if he considers the corresponding result of cherishing of others? Nagarjuna declares if one can attain the status of Buddhahood with the help of the sentient beings, then there is no surprise if one attains the state of Brahma, Indra, Rudra, Lokapala and so on. There is nothing in this triple world one cannot find by working for the benefit of other sentient beings.11


Once we have understood the importance of others, we should make an attempt to generate the indomitable thought of holding other sentient beings dear in our hearts. The cultivation of the attitude of cherishing others is worthwhile. The supreme qualities of enlightened beings as well as the temporary worldly happiness we enjoy result from our efforts for the welfare of fellow sentient beings.


As we have discussed in the hymn called Sattvaradhana, Nagarjuna says there is no question of liberation and omniscience if there are no such things as “sentient beings”.


Nagarjuna expressed the concept of exchanging self with others especially in Ratnaval´. A famous verse is worth citing (Chapter V. 484)


May their sins ripen for me

And all my virtues for them.


Nagarjuna expresses his great compassion to sentient beings to such an extent that he wanted to exchange his happiness and virtues for others and accept their suffering for himself. Exchanging self with other does not mean that we become others but change our attitude. It is possible that we experience sorrow when another suffers and similarly, experience happiness and joy in the attainments of others. A mother feels greater suffering when her child is in pain than if she were actually suffering herself. She also feels happy when her child is happy because she holds her child more precious than herself. Her ability and capacity of exchange is limited to one being, but our aim is to extend it to all sentient beings.


Nagarjuna stresses that although this seems to be a difficult practice, it is not impossible either. Our Jambudvipa has produced several great sages who keep the Bodhicitta as their ideal.


In Bodhicittavivarana too, he cites a similar passage


Those who are engaged in this (Bodhicitta practice) and have gained confidence. They enter even the Avici realm, that most negative of worlds, to suffer for the benefit of others giving up the bliss of meditative stabilization. There is no question of their generosity if one gives up their own flesh and blood and material possession to others.12


It is wonderful simile that portrays the great Bodhisattvas such Samantabhadra and others, that, although they had burnt up all disturbing emotions and defilements through the fire of wisdom, they abide always in the water of compassion.





Nagarjuna proved himself a great Bodhisattva by his exposition of many varieties of means to realize Bodhicitta in its two aspects, namely the ultimate and the conventional. Certain scholars, without exploring his exposition on conventional Bodhicitta, labeled him a nihilist. This is a gross error on their part.


As he was the staunch exponent of the doctrine of Sunyata, he was equally and firmly adherent to the validity of proper moral conduct (§´la). His renown as the chief abbot at Nalanda was as much due to his learned exposition as to his rigid observance of discipline. He was a great scholar and a great teacher. Nagarjuna was above all a great sage who realized the illusory nature of this mundane nature of samsara.


Although these practices are very difficult to perform, it is absolutely necessary for us to make an effort to generate them within ourselves. Buddha teaches these practices and techniques for the sole purpose of liberating sentient beings from sorrow. To practice this technique, one need not be a Buddhist. One can generate and practice the attitude of benefiting others with the force of compassion, irrespective of caste, creed, sex and dogma. It is due to our self-cherishing attitude that we question the validity of teachings like this. As one verse begins:


If you and the world wish to attain unsurpassable full awakening,

The root is the awakening mind.


This precious Bodhicitta will enable us to accomplish our own welfare as well as that of all other sentient beings. For these reasons the great beings and saints keep this altruistic mind of Bodhicitta as their practice. In these modern days we need it even more than before. In the days of yore, the great beings of the past like Nagarjuna and his disciples left a legacy of this great thought and practice. We need just to incorporate it.


May all beings attain Buddhahood.