The Nagara Sutta – The Buddha Describes His Awakening

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This Dhamma article is an excerpt from my book Becoming Buddha. A preview of this book is available on Amazon.com

The Nagara Sutta is remarkable in its simplicity in describing Dependent Origination in a practically applied way. In this sutta the Buddha clearly shows how ignorance of Four Noble Truths and of The Three Marks of existence “originates” the process that all manner of disappointment, unsatisfactoriness, distraction, and suffering – in a word Dukkha – is “dependent” on.

The Three Marks of existence are Anicca, impermanence; Anatta – wrong or deluded views of self; and resulting suffering from this initial ignorance. [1] Dukkha is explained below.

In the Nagara Sutta the Buddha describes his own personal struggle with ignorance when he was an unawakened Bodhisatta. (Sanskrit: Boddhisattva) Through understanding the process of suffering arising in ignorance he directly abandoned the wrong views that would have otherwise continued his ignorance.

The Bodhisattva vow, the customary path of awakening in all modern Mahayana schools of Buddhism is a vow to seek awakening for the sake of all sentient beings. Often included in the vow is to intentionally delay awakening until all beings are awakened.

At first the Bodhisattva path looks like a self-less, highly compassionate, and reasonable “goal.” When looked at in the context of Dependent Origination and the Four Noble Truths, the Bodhisattva vow will seen as taking on the role of savior and establishes the Buddha’s teachings as a salvific religion.

In a somewhat subtle way, taking on the altruistic vow to save all sentient beings creates another self-referential identity as savior. The Buddha never presented himself as a savior or his Dhamma as a salvific religion. He taught an Eightfold Path so that individuals could “save” themselves.

Dependent Origination clearly shows that it is ignorance of Four Noble Truths that leads to all manner of confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing Dukkha, not the lack of a sufficient number of Boddhisattva’s in the world.

If saving all sentient beings was a reasonable path to awakening there would be no need for an Eightfold Path or individual development of understanding as described in the Nagara Sutta or in the many thousands of discourses the Buddha presented in the last forty-five years of his life. He would have simply taught to develop great compassion but he understood that compassion alone, no matter how great, would still leave one an “unawakened Bodhisattva.”

In order to awaken and have a truly useful impact on other’s the Eightfold Path is to be developed which ends conceit and brings profound wisdom to compassion. The development of wisdom ended the Buddha’s ignorance and developed the profound understanding of a Buddha, of an awakened human being.

I must mention that I have no disrespect for those that follow the many Mahayana paths and the Bodhisattva ideal. In order to understand what the Buddha actually taught, the many contradictions in modern Buddhism must be clearly seen.

The Buddha felt it was quite important to repeatedly refer to himself as an “unawakened Bodhisatta” to reinforce the understanding that this is a highly compassionate state but a preliminary state that lacks the complete understanding of Four Noble Truths.

He had great compassion prior to his awakening but was lacking understanding of Four Truths and the worldly conditions that confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing disappointing experiences wee dependent on for their origination.

If the Buddha had decided to delay his awakening until all other’s somehow became awakened there would not have been a Dhamma or an Eightfold Path.

The Bodhisattva vow alters the Dhamma in a way that the Buddha avoided for his entire Forty-Five year teaching career. He taught that ending ignorance of Four Truths through an Eightfold Path will bring individual awakening for anyone who engaged with his Dhamma.

The Buddha’s boundless compassion informed by true insight and profound wisdom is exemplified by his ongoing efforts at teaching thousands of others in his lifetime exactly how to develop understanding of these Four Truths and developing profound Right View. Everything the Buddha taught for the Forty-Five years of his teaching career was taught in the context of The Four Noble Truths.

Awakening is not dependent on anything other than direct engagement with this path and direct experience of the cessation of ignorance rooted in wrong views.

In the Majjhima Nikaya  (19) the Buddha describes the quality of his mind as an “unawakened Bodhisatta”:

“Monks, prior to my awakening, when I was an unawakened Bodhisatta, I thought I could continue to divide my thinking. I continued thinking intended on sensuality, ill will and harmfulness and thinking intended on renunciation, good will and harmlessness.”

Notice here the Buddha is describing precisely what happens when a goal other than developing the Eightfold Path and ending the conditioned thinking that caused conditioned thinking can be both harmful and altruistic simultaneously, which occurs continually in a mind that is ignorant of these Four Truths. This “feedback loop” is explained below.

 The Buddha continues: “As I remained mindful and well-concentrated thinking with the intention of clinging arose in me. I now recognized that thinking with the intention of clinging has arisen in me. Thinking with the intention of clinging brings suffering for me and others. This thinking can only lead to more ignorance and does not develop unbinding (from clinging).

“As I noticed that wrong intention develops more suffering, wrong intention subsided. Subsequently, when wrong intention arose in me I simply abandoned it.”

When I first read the Nagara sutta many years ago it was the guidance I needed to look closely at my recently taken Bodhisattva vows in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and finally, understand the confusing uneasiness I had over these vows. It was shortly afterward that I understood the contradictory views to the Four Noble Truths that these vows embrace.

I began to realize that the path the Buddha taught was not founded in a Boddhisattva ideal that contradicts the First Noble Truth – Dukkha Occurs – but in ending ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

This single realization changed the entire direction of my Dhamma practice – and my life. I ended clinging to the Bodhisattva vow and began wholehearted engagement with the entire Eightfold Path.

In this sutta the “world” is the ongoing struggle with Dukkha for everyone in the world. Dukkha is described by the Buddha as “Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, regret, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.” (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11 and many other sutta’s)

My comments below in italics.

The Nagara Sutta

The Buddha describes his awakening

The Buddha was at Savatthi at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. There he addressed those gathered:

“Friends, before my awakening, when I was only an unawakened Bodhisatta, (Sanskrit: Bodhisattva) I came to the realization of the difficulties of the world. The world is born, it ages, it dies, it falls away and returns, but there is no understanding of ending the stress and suffering of aging and death. When will the world understand the cessation of the stress and suffering from aging and death?

“Then I had the thought: What initiates aging and death? What is the requisite condition that aging and death are dependent on for arising?

“From my appropriate mindfulness came a breakthrough of understanding: From birth as the requisite condition comes aging and death.

“Then I had the thought: What initiates birth? What is the requisite condition that birth is dependent on for arising?

“From my appropriate mindfulness came a breakthrough of understanding: From becoming as the requisite condition comes birth.

“Then I had the thought: What initiates name-&-form? What is the requisite condition that name-&-form is dependent on for arising?

Name-and-form (Pali nama-rupa) means self-identification through clinging to forms and self-referential views. 

“From my appropriate mindfulness came a breakthrough of understanding: From consciousness as the requisite condition comes name-&-form.

In the Paticca-Samupadda-Vibhanga Sutta, the sutta on Dependent Origination [2] the Buddha shows that it is ignorance of Four Noble Truths that is the condition that the arising of mental fabrications are dependent on, and that the arising of consciousness is dependent on mental fabrications. Consciousness then in this context is ordinary ongoing thinking arising from ignorance. What arises from ignorance can only further ignorance.

“Then I had the thought: What initiates consciousness? What is the requisite condition that consciousness is dependent on for arising?

“From my appropriate mindfulness came a breakthrough of understanding: From name-&-form as the requisite condition comes consciousness.

What theBuddha is beginning to describe here is the feedback loop caused by self-referential views and relying on these views, rooted in ignorance, to describe reality. This much like “I think; therefore I am” the famous quote from  Rene Descartes who hoped to find an irrefutable statement. His reasoning was that since he could not refute his own existence it must be that his (self-referential) thoughts prove that he existed (as a substantial and sustainable “self.”

Lacking understanding the resulting reality described ignores (continues ignorance) any thought, word, or idea that arises that would challenge these views now conditioned by ongoing ignorance. Once established, a framework for recognizing this feedback loop is now necessary in order to recognize and abandon these wrong views.

When the Dhamma is developed it is clearly understood that what constitutes a “self” is always in a constant state of becoming. Consciousness rooted in ignorance can only continue this feedback look furthering ignorance. The world becomes the mirror feeding back wrong views. As the Buddha’s path is developed consciousness is framed by the Eightfold Path and becoming awakened, becoming Buddha, is now possible.

“Then I had the thought: This consciousness turns back at name-&-form, and goes no farther. It is to this extent that there is birth, aging, death, falling away and returning. This is where ignorance is established. From (self-referential views) name-&-form is the requisite condition that brings consciousness and from (self-referential views) consciousness is the requisite condition that brings name-&-form.

“Then I had the thought: The six-sense base (five physical senses and consciousness) is dependent on the condition of name-&-form, dependent on self-referential views, and this is the origination of the entire mass of suffering.

The Buddha is stating that it is being stuck in the feedback loop of self-referential views, seeing all objects, events, views, and ideas from the perspective of “ME” and how objects, events, views, and ideas may affect ME one way or another I.e: not getting what is wanted, receiving what is not wanted, ongoing disappointing and unsatisfactory experiences, all arise from the initial ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

“Vision arose, understanding arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illuminating insight arose within me with regard to things never known before.

“Then I had the thought: What is the condition that the cessation of the stress of aging and death is dependent on?

“From my appropriate mindfulness came a breakthrough of understanding: From the cessation of birth (birth of ignorance) as the requisite condition comes the cessation of the stress of aging and death.

“From my appropriate mindfulness came a breakthrough of understanding: From the cessation of consciousness (thinking rooted in ignorance) as the requisite condition comes the cessation of name-&-form.

“From my appropriate mindfulness came a breakthrough of understanding: From the cessation of name-&-form as the requisite condition comes the cessation of consciousness.

“I have attained the following path to awakening:

  • From the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of consciousness.
  • From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-&-form.
  • From the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of the six sense media.
  • From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact.
  • From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling.
  • From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving.
  • From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging and maintaining.
  • From the cessation of clinging and maintaining comes the cessation of becoming.
  • From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth.
  • From the cessation of birth, then aging & death, sorrow, regret, pain, distress, & despair all cease.

“This is the cessation of the entire mass of stress. Vision arose, understanding arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illuminating insight arose within me with regard to things never known before.

The confusion that often arises in modern Buddhism is taking these teachings out of the context of Dependent Origination and The Four Noble Truths. Each of these statements, when seen in the proper context, shows that ignorance of Four Noble Truths originates the process of becoming stuck in a feedback loop of wrong views, a thicket of views.

When wisdom and understanding is developed through the Eightfold Path then “giving birth” to further views rooted in ignorance ceases and the conditions that the stress of aging and death, of sorrow, regret, pain, distress, & despair are dependent on all cease. 

“In this way I saw a timeless path to be traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones. And what is this timeless path traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones?* Just this noble eightfold path:

“Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation.

“This is the ancient timeless path traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones. I followed this path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of (the stress of) aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of (the stress of) aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of (the stress of) aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of (the stress of) aging & death.

“I followed this path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.

“Following it, I came to direct knowledge of fabrications, direct knowledge of the origination of fabrications, direct knowledge of the cessation of fabrications, direct knowledge of the Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of fabrications. Knowing this directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers, so that this undefiled life has become powerful, rich, detailed, well-populated, wide-spread, proclaimed among many beings.”

End Of Sutta

The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path to overcome the common human problem of self-referential views keeping one stuck in the feedback loop of conditioned thinking, thinking conditioned by ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

*’In this way I saw a timeless path to be traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones. And what is this timeless path traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones?’ is often translated as ‘In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times?’

I have made these corrections so that this presentation does not contradict the Buddha’s statement here and many in many other sutta’s that “This is the cessation of the entire mass of stress. Vision arose, understanding arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illuminating insight arose within me with regard to things never known before.”

[1] Three Marks of Existence

[2] Dependent Origination

The suttas cited in this article are from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent translation of the Pali linked below. I have made contextual edits for further clarity, to minimize repetition, to modernize wording and phraseology, and maintain contextual relevancy to The Four Noble Truths. The context, purpose, and intent of these teachings are not altered.

Nagara Sutta

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