釈迦如来楞伽山 shaka nyorai ryogasen
為衆告命南天竺 ishu gomyo nantenjiku
龍樹大士出於世 ryuju daiji shuttose
悉能摧破有無見 shitsu no zai ha umuken
宣説大乗無上法 senzetsu daijo mujoho
(Chant Book pg. 18-19)
“Shakyamuni Buddha, on Mount Lanka,
announced to the multitudes that, in South India,
a great being named Nagarjuna would appear in this world
to thoroughly crush the wrong views of being and non-being,
proclaiming the supreme Mahayana teaching.”
Having seen his three friends cut down before his eyes, Nagarjuna regretted his mistakes deeply. “Worldly passions are nothing but a source of trouble. Come to think of it, how fleeting our life is! The friends that I was talking to just a while ago are no longer in this world...” Where did the souls of his deceased friends go? What would have happened if he had been killed then? After having escaped from danger at the palace, Nagarjuna became more and more troubled day by day. Seeking salvation for his soul, Nagarjuna made up his mind to become a priest. He immediately became ordained at a temple and started reading Hinayana sutras. He finished reading through them all in just 90 days.
Yet even after that, he could not achieve salvation for his soul. His bottomless fear toward the afterlife was still the same. So he went on a journey to the foot of the Himalayas in Northern India to seek true salvation. He could not find the sutras he was looking for in the villages there. However, at an old temple in the mountains, he came across an old monk who had Mahayana sutras. Nagarjuna was delighted at finally finding the Mahayana sutras he had so dearly sought. As instructed by these sutras, he dedicated himself to ascetic practice. His practice was so harsh that it reminded people of Shakyamuni Buddha in the olden times.
Having found the Mahayana sutras he was seeking at last, Nagarjuna engaged in ascetic practice for decades. His dedicated efforts bore fruit, and he achieved the 41st level of enlightenment out of 52. Up until the 40th level of enlightenment, if one is not careful then one's enlightenment can collapse. Therefore, the levels up until then are called the "levels of regression." Once one has achieved the 41st level of enlightenment or higher, one's enlightenment can never collapse no matter what may happen. Therefore, the levels from this point are called the “levels of non-regression.” Since great joy that makes one leap and dance arises when one reaches the 41st level, this stage is also called the "first stage of joy" (shokangiji). There are only two people other than Shakyamuni Buddha who have achieved the 41st level of enlightenment through their own ascetic practices. Those are Nagarjuna and Asanga.
Bodhidharma engaged in Zen meditation while facing a wall for 9 years. This practice was so harsh that his limbs rotted and had to be cut off. But even so, it is said that he only achieved about the 30th level of enlightenment. We can see from this how difficult it is to achieve enlightenment with one’s own ascetic practices. Even though Nagarjuna achieved the 41st level of enlightenment, he came to realize how impossible it was to continue his ascetic practices. “If it was someone as great and strong-willed as Shakyamuni Buddha, then it would be possible. But I am a weak-hearted, cowardly, bad and foolish person. There is no way for someone like me to achieve the 52nd level of enlightenment,” he lamented. (To be continued)