Dec 14 2012

Nagarjuna – Change

Published by at 9:28 am under Poetry

by Nagarjuna

English version by Stephen Batchelor

If something has an essence–
How can it ever change
Into anything else?

A thing doesn’t change into something else–
Youth does not age,
Age does not age.

If something changed into something else–
Milk would be butter
Or butter would not be milk.

Were there a trace of something,
There would be a trace of emptiness.
Were there no trace of anything,
There would be no trace of emptiness.

Buddhas say emptiness
Is relinquishing opinions.
Believers in emptiness
Are incurable.

— from Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime, by Nagarjuna / Translated by Stephen Batchelor

/ Photo by Idol /

Several challenging statements here about essence and change, but I particularly want to focus on the final stanza:

Buddhas say emptiness
Is relinquishing opinions.
Believers in emptiness
Are incurable.

Clearly, sunyata or “emptiness” is what Nagarjuna wants us to come to terms with. Why then does he throw it back in our faces with the statement that “Believers in emptiness / Are incurable”?

One must meet reality without a mental overlay of projection and assumption. “Belief” is the intense clinging to an assumption of what something means. Belief, in other words, is a sort of mental insistence that things are a certain way and fit into a certain framework — all without truly knowing. That approach can help in the early stages of seeking, but it becomes a major stumbling block further along the journey. Belief becomes a barrier to knowing.

Belief always has something of yourself mixed in it. Belief is a swirling mix of what others have taught and your own limitations of mind, experience, and ego. To know truth, we must remove our ourselves from the process of perception.

Belief may initially point us in a good direction, but that’s when the work starts: We must actually make the journey. And all along the way, we must constantly test what we notice and test ourselves against those initial beliefs. Untested belief becomes brittle, and ever more opaque.

Yet so many refuse to loosen their grip on belief in order make the actual journey and test their beliefs against direct perception. It’s easier — and, for the ego, safer — to believe, rather than to know. This is why those who “believe” in emptiness (or Nirvana or Heaven or God) are “incurable.”

It’s a troubling teaching given by masters and mystics everywhere: Always better to know than to believe.

Nagarjuna, Nagarjuna poetry, Buddhist poetry Nagarjuna

India (150? – 250?) Timeline

Acharya Nagarjuna is one of the most important figures of early Buddhism. His significance is emphasized by the fact that he is sometimes referred to as “the Second Buddha.”

Nagarjuna was a leading voice in the establishment Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasized the Bodhisattva vow to work for the enlightenment and freedom from suffering of all beings and not merely oneself.

Nagarjuna lived in India in the second century CE, at about the time that Buddhism was being brought to China and other east Asian regions. He was born into a Brahmin family in Bedarwa (“The Land of the Palms”) in southern India, fulfilling a prophecy attributed to the Buddha:

In the Southern region, in the Land of the Palms,
The monk Shriman of great renown,
Known by the name, ‘Naga’,
Will destroy the positions of existence and non-existence.
Having proclaimed to the world my vehicle,
The unsurpassed Great Vehicle,
He will accomplish the ground, Very Joyful,
And depart to the Land of Bliss.

As a young boy, Nagarjuna excelled in his studies, showing early signs of his keen intellect, which is reflected in his later writings.

A fascinating story is told of how he came to the Buddhist path. As a young man, Nagarjuna along with three friends, learned the secret of invisibility from a sorcerer. They used this ability to secretly enter the royal palace and seduce the attractive young women at court. The ruse was discovered, and the royal guards were told to attack where they saw footprints appearing without apparent cause. All three of Nagarjuna’s friends were killed, and Nagarjuna survived only by staying close to the king. (An allegorical story with layers of meaning in it.)

This experience taught the young Nagarjuna how desires lead to suffering, and he fled to the mountains to become a monk, becoming the student of a Buddhist master.

He later journeyed throughout India, often engaging in theological debate with proponents of various religions, including other Buddhists who opposed the newly emerging Mahayana expression of Buddhism.

Nagarjuna eventually founded a monastery, establishing his own order of monks.

One of Nagarjuna’s major contributions to Buddhist literature is the hugely influential Prajnaparamita Sutras (or Wisdom Discourses), which is a series of conversations between the Buddha and his disciples on the importance of sunyata (“emptiness”) in coming to full awakening. The story is told that, one day while meditating near a lake, a naga, or water wisdom snake, came to the surface and asked him to journey to the underwater kingdom of nagas in order to teach them. He did so, and as a gift of thanks, he was entrusted with the twelve-volume Prajnaparamita Sutras, which were deemed ready to be released back into human consciousness. This event is also said to be how he came by his name, Nagarjuna.

Another important work associated with Nagarjuna is the Mulamadhyamakakarika (“Verses from the Center” or “Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way”), a series of koan-like riddles and inquiries into emptiness and the ephemeral nature of self-existence in the form of poetry.

In the iconography associated with Nagarjuna, he is often depicted seated in meditation beneath a protective canopy of nagas, the serpents associated with awakened wisdom.

More poetry by Nagarjuna

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Nagarjuna – Change”

  1. Jack Gilleson 14 Dec 2012 at 11:51 am

    Ivan, great poem! I want to share another dimension of this. This is based on the work of my friend Bob Campbell and his work can be found on his web site . It is a very complex and comprehensive discovery of his about how all things happen, but in regards to this part about emptiness let me say a little.

    All things are in both a ‘form’ and ’emptiness’ reality, going back and forth. Therefore everything is in both, but when in emptiness it is dialogue with the universal form of that reality. Thus all our actions commit to the Void the results and add to the universal dimension which then becomes available to all. A little bit like Sheldrake’s (sp?) and Bohm’s morphogenetic field work.

    Let me illustrate from my own history in Chemistry. Years ago when a new chemical was created they found that it was easier to get crystals anywhere else in the world. The only explanation they had was that micro-crystals must have gotten into the beards of the chemists and therefore made new attempts having access to seed crystals. Now it can be understood as access to the Void which transcends space and time.

    Anyway, I just want you to know how creative and powerful your sharing these mystic poems are. Thank you!


  2. bharation 15 Dec 2012 at 12:56 am

    As usual your explanation is wonderful.
    However I read the last verse differently:
    true believers in emptiness can never again be swayed by opinions, labels, false identifications…

  3. Pegon 15 Dec 2012 at 7:14 am

    As the Sophia of wisdom is finally here, let us know wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge through direct experience. The “linear” pattern is belief, then knowing, then wisdom. Wisdom is the greatest level of spiritual attainment.

    Thank you Jack. I enjoy both spaces, matter and the void. Though, I have to admit, I like the void better.

  4. Djanion 16 Dec 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you Ivan,as usely you went right in point here,and as usely you made me smile with delight.

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