Excerpt: Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland

Read a brief of Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland: Ratnāvalī by Sara McClintock and John Dunne, and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Wisdom Publications.

By Sara McClintock

John Dunne

Constance Kassor’s review from the Summer 2024 Buddhadharma:

Monson’s translations highlight the important, and at times deeply personal, relationship between a master and a disciple. Other types of Buddhist literature are not always so explicit in evoking a conversational or relational tone. But Sara McClintock and John Dunne, translators of Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland: Ratnāvalī (Wisdom), suggest that readers would be better served by considering the broader relational contexts of Buddhist texts. The Ratnāvalī is composed as a set of instructions to an Indian king, offered by the master Nagarjuna. Although it is not written as a dialogue, McClintock and Dunne reason that this text is best understood as a voice. Reading the text well, they argue, “requires us as readers to train ourselves to discern that voice more clearly.” In other words, this is not some disembodied work of philosophy but a narrative and evidence of a relationship between two human beings. Approaching the text in this way can give readers insight into “the perennial and difficult problem of whether it is possible to integrate one’s spiritual journey with the hard-nosed realities of political life.” The translation itself is thoughtful and clear, based on the text’s extant but incomplete Sanskrit verses, as well as Tibetan translations and Indian commentaries. The second half of the volume contains working editions of the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions of the text in order to facilitate readers’ own study of Nagarjuna and enable them to examine the translators’ choices.

[Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of footnotes and diacriticals; these are not represented in this excerpt.]

The Excerpt:

Reading the Precious Garland

Intriguing as it is to speculate about the figure of Nagarjuna, to ponder his authorship of the Precious Garland and the other texts attributed to him, and to ask about the material conditions and other historical circumstances that helped give rise to this work, what we encounter when we actually read the Precious Garland is a voice—the voice of a learned monk addressing a figure of great wealth, power, and influence. On our view, reading the text well requires us as readers to train ourselves to discern that voice more clearly so that we can tease out some of its more important messages. Some of what we hear concerns the past, shedding light on prior practices and attitudes. And some of what we hear concerns the present. For what is heard is, after all, heard with our ears, and to this extent the message is transformed and made manifest as a matter of contemporary concern. But to be better listeners (or better readers), we need to attend to what the text wants us to see, feel, think, or do. Recognizing the work as a teaching for a king is one piece of the puzzle. Another piece concerns how the text fits together and whether we can find instructions within the text for how to listen to (or read) it. In this section of our introduction, we seek such instructions while also guiding our own readers to coax out some of the work’s most salient messages.

To get some assistance with this, we can turn to Umberto Eco, who, in his small collection of lectures Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, provides a set of reflections designed to help readers enter into and engage with the narratives they read. Likening reading a story to a walk through a dense wood, Eco observes that one might traverse a forest in two ways. The first is by trying to get to the other side as quickly as possible; one seeks the most direct path and does not linger. This is like a person reading a novel merely to find out how the story ends. The second way is slower and more meandering; it involves taking time to get to know the woods by exploring its different paths, thus encountering a far greater range of flora and fauna and gaining greater understanding of the overall topography. This is like rereading a novel multiple times, trying out a range of interpretative turns, in an attempt to make out not just the moral of the story but also how we get there. The goal of this kind of reader goes beyond just trying to understand the basic plot; it is a quest to learn “what sort of reader the text would like him or her to become.”

Although the Precious Garland is not a work of fiction or even a narrative, it shares features with narrative genres insofar as we encounter within it two distinct characters who engage in a dialogue. The first is a narrator, a seemingly simple Buddhist monk, who speaks in the first person. The second is an addressee, a king for whom the monk expresses affection and whom he addresses in the second person and with the vocative. We are invited to see the narrator as “Nagarjuna” because that is the name of the author of the text that has come down to us. And we are primed to see the king as a Satavahana monarch because that is what the traditional commentators and historians have told us is true and also what contemporary scholars have affirmed. Yet those historical figures belong to the world behind the text, the ancient context in which the text was composed. In the world within the text, the narrative universe of the work itself, we encounter just a single voice, that of a Buddhist monk, addressing a single person he calls a king. For us, contemporary readers who inhabit the world in front of the text, the space of its current reception, it is useful to have information about the world behind the text, but we must also find a way to enter the world within the text. One part of entering that world involves learning about the time and place from which the work comes down to us. For this, we direct readers to the earlier part of this introduction. But another part of entering the world within the text amounts to a highly individual project of deeply engaging with a work until we begin to feel we can hear its voice instructing us in how it wants to be read.

As translators, we have by necessity read and reread the Precious Garland on many occasions. The present translation is just one of dozens we have produced as we have visited and revisited our original effort over the past quarter century. When one reads a text like this, it is like traversing the woods in Eco’s second, more indirect and meandering fashion. In lingering on the meaning of the verses, one notices details that can give clues about the how the text seems to want us to read and take in the work. One such clue in the Precious Garland comes near the very end of the work, when the narrator proclaims:

This Dharma, however, is not explained

just for a king. It is also taught,

as is appropriate, to other beings

out of the desire to benefit them. //5.98//

We read this verse as instructing us readers to take all that the narrator has until now addressed to the king as words of personal instruction. Nagarjuna invites us with this verse to go back and read the entire teaching as if it had been written expressly for us. Here, we sense Nagarjuna’s sensitivity to his own context: anyone who could understand Sanskrit in his time would likely be a person of considerable privilege, and therefore a person of some power. Even if not a king, whatever power and wealth they had could be deployed in ways analogous to how the king in the Precious Garland was advised to do. Thus what appears to be counsel for a particular recipient turns out to be counsel for others as well, perhaps even for us.

The narrator in this work is a Buddhist monk, one we designate as “Nagarjuna,” even if that name does not appear anywhere in the work. He reveals his position as a Buddhist monk at the start of the fourth chapter, a section designated specially as teachings on the con- duct of a king. There, in a section on royal policy and administration, Nagarjuna-the-narrator sets the stage for his advice by emphasizing his relative powerlessness compared to the power of the king:

If, to begin with, it is difficult to say something

beneficial but unpleasant even to others,

how can I, a monk, hope to do so

to you, the king of a large realm? //4.2//

Nagarjuna not only insists on his own lack of political authority, he also contrasts the content of his advice with the advice of the king’s worldly advisors. Nagarjuna’s advice is “unpleasant” in that it does not conform to or confirm the typical values of the powerful. In this way, Nagarjuna claims his place as the voice of the spiritual order. Nagarjuna also reminds the king that such “beneficial but unpleasant” spiritual advice would be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain from those firmly ensconced in temporal concerns:

If a king acts in a way that contradicts Dharma

or does something improper,

his subjects mostly still praise him,

so it is hard for him to know what is and is not beneficial. //4.1//

The king may have power, but he is also its prisoner. For the king’s ministers will surely abandon him as he lays dying, already seeking to gain favor with his successor, and thus depriving the king of the opportunity to gain now desperately needed merit through charitable acts:

When dying, you will be unable to give away your possessions

because you will lose your autonomy to ministers

who, disaffected due to the loss of your dignity,

are seeking the affection of the next king. //4.16//

The need for spiritual advice is thus shown to be a matter of dire consequence, and no minister, no matter how clever, will be able to deliver it to the king. Only Nagarjuna, a simple Buddhist monk, dares to impart these unpleasant truths: the inevitability of death and the importance of wisely and generously offering one’s wealth while one still can. Ironically, by speaking not from the temporal but from the spiritual domain, Nagarjuna also claims greater clarity about how politics work than is possessed by those trapped within it.

Translating the work to our own time, to the world in front of the text, we see an opportunity to also interpret the teaching as addressing our own privilege as readers who have the opportunity—the luxury even—to explore such a work and reflect on what it asks of us. To the extent that this privilege as contemporary readers includes some degree of power, the Precious Garland is asking us to see how the monk’s guidance to the king might apply to the power that we hold, and how we might wield that power with wisdom and compassion. We may not be kings, but we each have our own domains of power and influence, sometimes obvious, sometimes unrecognized. Robert Thurman makes explicit the ways in which the inhabitants of what we now call the Global North can be counted in the category of royals who thus should be included in the audience for Nagarjuna’s sermon:

In fact, the entire populations of the “developed” countries are in a way full of people of royal powers, used to consuming what they want, being flattered and waited upon by people from “underdeveloped” lands, used to having unpleasantly realistic things such as corpses, sicknesses, madnesses, the deformities of poverty, kept out of their sight. They do not want to hear that all is impermanent, that life is essentially painful and fundamentally impure. They do not want to acknowledge that all beings are equal to them and their dear ones, equally loveable and deserving. They do not want to hear that there is no real self and no absolute property and no absolute right. But that they do hear it, and hear it well, is quite the most crucial necessity of our times. The hundreds of millions of “kings” and “queens” living in the developed world must face their obligations to other people, to other species, to nature itself. This is the crisis of our times, the real one, not the supposedly important competitions among the developed “big powers.”

Like the king, even those of us with privilege and wealth will die and be unable to take our possessions with us. We have opportunities to practice generosity now, and to replace anger with compassion, attachment with coolness, and delusion with clarity, just like the king. When reading the Precious Garland, we can consider what the text is asking of us, translating the advice to the king to our own lives as we contemplate the nature of politics, wealth, privilege, and power and whether and how these can be combined with an ethical life.

From Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland: Ratnāvalī by Sara McClintock and John Dunne. We thank Wisdom Publications for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Sara McClintock

Sara L. McClintock (they/them) is a Buddhist philosopher and scholar of religion whose interests converge at the intersections of ethics, metaphysics, truth, and story. They obtained their PhD from Harvard in 2002, and are now an associate professor at Emory University, where they teach graduate and undergraduate courses in Indian and Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist narrative traditions, women in Buddhism, and interpretation theory in the study of religion. A specialist in the work of Santaraksita and Kamalasila, they also write and translate more broadly on topics in narrative, epistemology, and ethics. Their current book project is a philosophical exploration of the transactional and camouflagic nature of truth, drawing on ideas from Indian Buddhist thinkers and putting them in conversation with contemporary concerns. While not busy with teaching and research, their passion is to discover ever new ways to nourish freedom and joy in daily life.

John Dunne

John D. Dunne serves on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the Center for Healthy Minds. He is also chair of the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures. His work focuses on Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice, especially in dialog with Cognitive Science and Psychology. His more than fifty publications appear in venues ranging across both the Humanities and the Sciences, including Foundations of Dharmakīrti’s Philosophy (2004) and Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics: The Mind (2020). John Dunne speaks in both academic and public contexts, and he occasionally teaches for Buddhist communities. His broader engagements include being a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, where he was previously a member of the board of directors, and serving as an academic advisor to the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal.