“But even for the faith follower, a basic level of intellectual understanding is indispensable to spiritual progress, and this is something Nāgārjuna goes on to illustrate later in the Precious Garland. It is not enough to store up merit by making offerings to shrines and stūpas, by chanting the sacred scriptures, or even by moral action. You have to engage with the deeper truth of things, and this must involve the intellect as well as the emotions, wisdom as well as faith. Ultimately we are looking for a quality of wisdom that supersedes conventional understanding. The term wisdom is therefore open to misunderstanding if it is distinguished from faith in too rigid a way. Wisdom is not a cognitive as distinct from an emotional faculty. One cannot speak of wisdom in terms either of ‘knowing’ or of ‘feeling’. It is both, once it is experienced at a high enough level. It is an intuitive understanding and also an intuitive feeling. In other words, at a higher level there is no real distinction between faith and wisdom, or devotion and understanding. They are not experienced separately or even jointly. It is comparable to the experience of being deeply engaged in a conversation. You are thinking and feeling at the same time, and it is not possible to distinguish between the two: the thought is the feeling and the feeling is the thought. The attainment of wisdom is like this, albeit at a much higher level.
So Nāgārjuna’s aim in the Precious Garland is not to generate an understanding of the Dharma in the king, but to generate the Dharma itself, just as the Buddha is described not as speaking about the Dharma, but as speaking Dharma. Nāgārjuna doesn’t want to talk about the truth. He wants to awaken the truth. He is reminding the king of his inherent potential for Enlightenment, for establishing the practices and becoming thereby a vessel of the Dharma.
Through faith one relies on the practices,
Through wisdom one truly knows,
Of these two, wisdom is the chief,
Faith is its prerequisite.
To summarize this verse: it is through faith that you are able to commit yourself to the practices and it is through the practices that you achieve high status. It is then through wisdom that you attain definite goodness and break the hold on your mind of the desire for happiness and high status.
Nāgārjuna’s interpretation of faith here seems to be pitched at quite a low level; he seems to be suggesting that it is relatively unimportant compared with wisdom. It is true that the word ‘wisdom’ implies intellectual cognition, and by definition gives the emotional side of things less emphasis. But to think of it in this way is to miss the heart of the matter. To understand the true relationship between faith and wisdom we do well to consider the teaching of the five spiritual faculties. Here, faith and wisdom are equal and coordinate, each balancing the other, without any suggestion that faith is somehow less important than wisdom. Following this teaching, one cannot say that wisdom is the ‘chief’ over faith any more than faith is the ‘chief’ over wisdom. One might just as well say that wisdom is the prerequisite of faith as that faith is the prerequisite of wisdom.”
Sangharakshita’s Living Wisely: Further Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland will be released in Februrary 2013. Please visit our website to find out more.