Around the beginning of the second century of the common era, Arya Nagarjuna, a brilliant Indian philosopher, wrote a short treatise entitled Suhrillekha in Sanskrit or Letter to a Friend in English. It has become one of the most important texts in Buddhism's Mahayana tradition. Composed of just 123 verses, each of four lines, Letter to a Friend provides a lucid exposition of the "six perfections" or paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. These are the virtues of the bodhisattva, i.e., the Mahayana saint. A fuller treatment of these virtues and their significance can be found in another work, The Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Verses or the Prajnaparamita. Nagarjuna is said to have retrieved the Perfection of Wisdom from the realm of the nagas -- serpent-like beings-- and brought it to the world.
The most significant aspect of both Letter to a Friend and The Perfection of Wisdom is its treatment of wisdom. Perfecting wisdom amounts to coming to understand the "emptiness" of all things. This is the most important contribution made by the Madhyamaka tradition of Buddhism to Buddhism's philosophical development. Earlier Buddhist held that there was no self or subject. Instead, all things were composed of a multiplicity of dharmas, essentially infinitesimal atoms of reality that were in constant flux. In contrast, the Upanishadic tradition in India held that the fundamental reality was a universal self or, understood from another perspective, the unitary divine ground of being that had a permanent existence. The Madhyamaka tradition advanced arguments against both of these views. The argumentative technique was essentially critical: reality was not one, it was not many, it was not neither one nor many, and it was not both one and many. Furthermore, what did exist, existed conditionally or only in relation to all other things. Reality is "emptiness." This should not be confused with nothingess. The Madhyamaka view is not nihilistic. Reflecting on these metaphysical views establishes, for the Madhyamika, a frame of mind that leads one to be able to develop the other five perfections and thereby achieve enlightenment. Madhyamaka metaphysics is perhaps the highest development of metaphysics within the Buddhist tradition.
Letter to a Friend is short enough that it often has been memorized by the Buddhist faithful. At the same time, it does an excellent job of bringing to mind the full scope of the path of the bodhisattva. Its brevity, however, make a commentary useful. In the edition under review here, Kangyur Rinpoche provides an admirable but not terribly extensive or detailed commentary. Too often Kangyur Rinpoche merely re-expressed the concise poetic formulations of Nagarjuna in a wordier prose form, but in other instances, Kangyur Rinpoche makes illuminating comments.
Reading the edition cover to cover amounts, essentially, to reading the Letter three times. First, it is presented in its translated form without commentary. Second, it is presented, verse by verse, in the commentary, which -- as noted -- often provides a re-phrasing of the verses. This is by no means a drawback. The Letter is well worth multiple readings. Finally, there is a useful introduction by the translators, a glossary of terms, notes on the commentary, and the entire text in Sanskrit and Tibetan. It is an edition well worth owning.