Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Precious Garland and The Song of the Four Mindfulnesses / Nagarjuna and Kaysang Gyatso -- NY: Harper & Row, 1975.

The Precious Garland, also known as Suhrllekha, is a classic poetic Buddhist text written by Nargarjuna. It is Nagarjuna's advice to a king, written some 400 years after the life of the Buddha. It should come as no surprise that it is a stark contrast to Machiavelli's advice in The Prince. In The Precious Garland, Nagarjuna provides a brief exposition of Emptiness, the central doctrine of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism. For Nagarjuna, the foremost obligation of the king is to gain an understanding of the Emptiness of all things, or that all things exist only conditionally in relation to all other things. By understanding this, one achieves enlightenment.

Knowing that the doctrine is not easily understood, Nagarjuna recommends that the king work toward this understanding by practicing giving, ethics, and patience. Nararjuna goes on to explain that these practices allow one to collect merit and wisdom, and these "collections" allow one to achieve the necessary detachment from the world -- its suffering and its pleasure (really one and the same) -- and to develop a disposition to understand the Emptiness of the world.

In the fourth chapter, Nagarjuna gives advice that seems more clearly relevant to a king. He recommends such concrete policies as supporting Buddhist education, foregoing capital punishment, and selecting virtuous ministers. The contrast with Machiavelli is profound. Instead of using any means necessary to amass power, Nagarjuna asserts that it is the responsibility of the king to foster virtue within himself and within those in his realm.

The final chapter provides further advice even to bodhisatvas seeking to attain enlightenment.

The Precious Garland is one of the truly great works in the Buddhist canon. It reads clearly and concisely and can provide insight for the relative Buddhist novice as well as for the relatively learned. It is a joy to read.

The second work in the volume, The Song of the Four Mindfulnesses is a mere 30 lines in four sections, written by Kaysan Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757). It is an aid to mediation, stressing that one be constantly mindful of (1) the perfect wisdom of the teacher (the Buddha), (2) altruistic aspirations toward enlightenment, (3) the divine nature of one's own body, and (4) the emptiness of the world. Buddhists often memorize the 30 lines of The Four Mindfulnesses. A single reading will allow you to understand why.


  1. Well done and interesting. I just finished American Lion by Meachem so found your review of the Age of Jackson especially interesting. Being a Civil War buff I will look for the Schurz autobiography. Yes he took a lot of crap, on his military leadership.

  2. Many thanks for the compliment. I'm glad you're finding the reviews useful. Are there particular books on the Civil War that you have found worthwhile.