The Sūtra of Nanda’s Going Forth
Degé Kangyur, vol. 72 (mdo sde, sa), folios 254.b–257.a.
Translated by the Alexander Csoma de Kőrös Translation Group
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
In this sūtra, the Buddha Śākyamuni, accompanied by Ānanda, visits the house of Nanda during his stay in Banyan Grove near Kapilavastu. A discourse ensues in which the Buddha explains to Nanda the importance and benefits of going forth as a monk. Nanda expresses hesitation about going forth, so the Buddha explains by means of analogies how fortunate Nanda is to have obtained an auspicious human birth, to have met the Buddha, and to have the opportunity to become a monk. Nanda is deeply impressed by the Buddha’s teaching and decides to renounce worldly life and go forth.
This sūtra was translated from the Tibetan, introduced, and edited by the Alexander Csoma de Kőrös Translation Group: the translators Zsuzsa Majer and Krisztina Teleki in collaboration with Karma Dorje (Rabjampa), a native Tibetan speaker and Tibetan language expert. The Sanskrit consultant was Beáta Kakas.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
In this sūtra, the Buddha Śākyamuni, accompanied by Ānanda, visits the house of Nanda during his stay in Banyan Grove near Kapilavastu. The Buddha explains to Nanda the importance and benefits of going forth as a monk. Nanda expresses hesitation about going forth, so the Buddha uses two memorable analogies to explain to Nanda how fortunate he is to have obtained an auspicious human birth, to have met the Buddha, and to have the opportunity to become a monk. Nanda is deeply impressed by the Buddha’s teaching and decides to renounce worldly life and go forth.
The setting of the teaching is Kapilavastu, the ancient city and capital of the Śākya state, where Siddhārtha Gautama lived until the age of twenty-nine before he renounced worldly life. Seven years after his awakening, he returned to Kapilavastu for the first time since his departure, upon his father’s request. His cousins Ānanda and Devadatta, his half-brother Nanda, his barber Upāli, and even his son Rāhula joined the saṅgha in Kapilavastu, and the propagation of several rules of the Vinaya later took place in Banyan Grove.1
Having specified the setting, the text follows a typical sūtra structure as the narrative unfolds, beginning with the Buddha visiting the home of his younger half-brother Nanda, accompanied by his disciple Ānanda. In the dialogue that ensues, the Buddha begins by asking Nanda why he does not go forth. Nanda replies with the request, “Blessed One, please explain what is meant by the words going forth.” At this request, the Buddha proceeds to give a teaching, in verse, explaining the meaning of going forth and describing how fortunate Nanda is to have obtained an auspicious human birth, to have met the Buddha, and to have the opportunity to become a monk. The Buddha also mentions royal and lay devotees who decided to go forth. He then encourages Nanda to do the same.
The Buddha begins by defining going forth (Skt. pravrajyā, Tib. rab tu byung ba), listing its advantages. The expression to go forth means to renounce the worldly life of a householder, or lay person, and become a monk or nun.2 In the translated text several other variations of this expression appear, such as “abandon one’s land and go forth” (Tib. sa bor nas rab tu byung), “abandon one’s home and go forth” (Tib. khyim rnams bor nas rab tu byung), “go forth and renounce the world” (Tib. rab tu byung bar nges par ’byung ba), and “go forth from home into homelessness” (Tib. khyim nas khyim med par rab tu byung).
After hearing about the manifold advantages of going forth, Nanda hesitates and says that he will remain a lay person, but he will make various offerings and donations to the Buddha and the saṅgha. The Buddha explains that no offering can remotely compare to the intention to go forth. The Buddha then uses two memorable analogies to illustrate how fortunate Nanda is to have obtained favorable circumstances and met the Buddha, and he again encourages him to go forth, comparing the rarity of meeting a buddha to the rarity of the uḍumbara flower.
The two analogies that the Buddha gives to illustrate the difficulty of obtaining a human birth are the improbability of a blind turtle putting its head through a yoke tossed about on the waves of a vast ocean, and the improbability of a mustard seed passing through the eye of an upright-standing needle when a handful of seeds are tossed at it. Both analogies are widely known as illustrations of the rarity of obtaining a human birth. This sūtra seems to be the only mention in full in the Kangyur of the analogy of the blind turtle,3 and it is therefore presumably to this canonical source that Śāntideva refers in his Bodhicaryāvatāra.4 The Buddha adds that the “favorable conditions” of a rebirth in which there is the opportunity to go forth are even more fortunate. Thus, he persuades Nanda to make the most of this opportunity and become a monk. The sūtra concludes with Nanda going forth and, together with Ānanda, praising the speech of the Buddha.
Nanda was to became an important monastic disciple of the Buddha, but several accounts of his early experience of going forth suggest that it was not an easy commitment for him to make. The Buddha (as Siddhārtha Gautama) and Nanda were the two sons of King Śuddhodana, but were half-brothers since the Buddha’s mother, Māyādevī, had died seven days after his birth. Nanda’s mother was the king’s second queen, Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī, the Buddha’s maternal aunt and the woman who raised him after his mother’s death. Of the Śākya kingdom’s nobility, Nanda and the Buddha’s son Rāhula in particular, as well as their cousins Ānanda and Devadatta, were thus important as potential royal successors, and one could imagine that all of them eventually choosing to follow the Buddha in renouncing such positions for the spiritual life was seen as consequential from a temporal perspective. No such considerations are directly mentioned in any of the texts that relate Nanda’s going forth,5 but in the present text they can perhaps be discerned in the explanations and comparisons the Buddha uses as he describes the benefits of going forth.
There is another well-known version of the story leading to Nanda’s going forth that also illustrates the careful skillful means through which the Buddha introduced the idea to him.6 It relates that the Buddha, on the third day of his arrival at Kapilavastu, after taking part in a meal in Nanda’s house, handed his bowl to Nanda and departed, thereby propagating the Dharma to his half-brother without words. However, Nanda, not understanding this, followed him to Banyan Grove to return the bowl. There, the Buddha asked Nanda if he would become a monk. Although Nanda had just married, he went forth.
Details of the difficulties Nanda subsequently experienced at the start of his life as a monk are related in several other canonical texts. They are found, for example, in a sutta in the Pali Canon entitled The Nanda Sutta (Udāna 3.2)7 as well as in The Finer Points of the Monastic Discipline (Vinayakṣudrakavastu, Toh 6)8 and The Teaching to Nanda on Entry into the Womb (Nandagarbhāvakrāntinirdeśa, Toh 57).9 According to the version of the story found in the latter, although Nanda became a monk, he could not focus on the spiritual path because he missed his wife. Recognizing this, the Buddha took Nanda to the Heaven of the Thirty-Three (Skt. Trāyastriṃśa, Tib. sum cu rtsa gsum). On their way, Nanda saw a blind female monkey clinging to a tree. The Buddha asked him how the physical appearance of his wife compared to that of the monkey, to which Nanda replied that the physical appearance of the monkey could not compare in any way to the beauty of his wife. Finally, when they reached the Heaven of the Thirty-Three, Nanda saw beautiful celestial nymphs there. When the Buddha asked whether he considered his wife or the nymphs more beautiful, Nanda confessed that the physical appearance of his wife could not compare in any way to the beauty of the nymphs. The Buddha promised Nanda that he would meet the nymphs if he did not disrobe. Thereupon, Nanda endeavored with great intent, but nevertheless the monks scorned him for his attachment to sensual desire. Recognizing his attachment to sensual desire, the Buddha took Nanda to the hells, where Nanda saw for himself what awaited him after his sojourn in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three to sport with the nymphs. In the end, Nanda would recognize the true nature of desire and become an arhat.
Despite the multiplicity of accounts of Nanda’s going forth, however, the Buddha’s advice to him on the importance and benefits of doing so, as set out in the present short sūtra, does not seem to be included in any of the longer texts transmitted in the Mūlasarvāstivāda and Lokottaravāda vinaya traditions and its provenance remains unknown.
There is to our knowledge no extant Sanskrit version of this sūtra. It seems to have been translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan no later than the early ninth century, as its title is recorded in the Denkarma11 and Phangthangma12 Tibetan imperial translation catalogs. Versions of the Tibetan translation are found in all the known Kangyurs. A Mongolian translation of the text is available in the Mongolian Kanjur,13 entitled Nandi toyin boluγsan-u sudur (The Sūtra of Nandi’s Ordination).14 A Chinese translation of a similarly titled sūtra is available in the Taishō Canon (難提釋經 Nandi shi jing, Taishō 113), but it bears little resemblance to the Tibetan translation. The colophon names its translator as Fa Ju (Skt. Dharmalokā), who was active in Luoyang between 290 and 306 ᴄᴇ, toward the end of the Western Jin dynasty.15 There is to our knowledge no English translation of the text to date, nor any translation into another European language.
As for the Tibetan versions of this text, those included in the Kangyurs of the Thempangma line, such as the Stok Palace Kangyur (Tib. stog pho brang bka’ ’gyur), provide no information about who translated the text in their colophons, which say only that the text “is included in the first teachings of the Buddha” (Tib. ’di bka’ dang por gtogs so), that is, the teachings included in the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma. However, in the short colophon of the versions found in Kangyurs belonging to the Tshalpa line, such as Degé, Lithang, and Choné, as well as in independent or “mixed” Kangyurs such as Lhasa and Narthang, only the editor of the translation is named, Tsang Devendrarakṣita (Tib. rtsangs de ben dra ra k+Shi ta). This figure is named as the text’s translator in Butön’s History of Buddhism (Tib. bu ston chos ’byung).16 Furthermore, the colophon of the version found in the Gondhla collection states that the sūtra was edited and finalized by the Indian scholar Dharmākara (Tib. dar ma ka ra ba) together with the monk-translator Tsang Devendrarakṣita.17 Dharmākara is the only attested Sanskrit name of a scholar who worked on Tibetan translations during the imperial period that vaguely corresponds to the odd dar ma ka ra ba.18
This English translation is based on the Tibetan version in the Degé Kangyur, in consultation with the Stok Palace Kangyur version, the variant readings recorded in the Comparative Edition (Tib. dpe bsdur ma) of the Kangyur, and the Phukdrak (Tib. phug brag) manuscript Kangyur.
Thus did I hear at one time. The Blessed One was staying in Banyan Grove near Kapilavastu. One morning he put on his upper and lower robes, took his alms bowl, and went to Kapilavastu for alms, attended by the śramaṇa Venerable Ānanda. The Blessed One approached the house of the noble son, Nanda. Nanda saw from afar that the Blessed One was coming. Having seen this, he quickly arranged a seat for him and said, “Do come inside, Blessed One! Welcome, Blessed One! Please take a seat, Blessed One!”
“Nanda, the happiness of going forth is far superior even to the happiness of the dominion of a universal monarch. What’s more, Nanda, favorable circumstances are exceedingly difficult to find, even in one billion eons,22 yet for a buddha to have come is far more difficult to find than even that. Nanda, royal sages wishing for liberation, as well as universal monarchs endowed with the seven royal treasures, [F.256.b] together with their retinues of queens, have abandoned their lands23 and gone forth. Similarly, householders and congregations of brahmins have also abandoned their homes and gone forth.”
Thereupon the noble son Nanda replied to the Blessed One, “O Honorable One! I will remain a householder and give donations, make merit, and venerate the Blessed One and the community of śrāvakas. I will also supply them with monastic robes, alms, bedding, medicine for healing illnesses, and other necessities, too.”
The Blessed One replied as follows: “If for one hundred years faithful noble sons and noble daughters were to make offerings of monastic robes, alms, cushions, medicine for healing illnesses, and other necessities to as many thus-gone, worthy, complete, and perfect buddhas as would fill the whole universe and its three realms, Nanda, it would not compare to as much as a sixteenth fraction of the intention to go forth and renounce the world.
“Suppose, Nanda, that this whole wide world comprised the waters of one great ocean in which there dwelled a single, blind turtle, and that there was also a single yoke with a hole, tossing about. Considering this,24 that blind turtle entertains the thought that it must put its neck through the hole of this yoke, but the yoke with its hole is buffeted by the wind and tossed about in all directions. In that case, Nanda, what are the chances that the blind turtle’s neck would ever accidentally enter the hole of that yoke, even in a hundred years?25 In the same way, Nanda, this human birth may not be found, nor the excellence of a favorable circumstance.
“Suppose, Nanda, someone tosses some white mustard seeds at the eye of an upright-standing needle. In that case, Nanda, what are the chances that any single white mustard seed would pass through the eye, even in a hundred years?26 In the same way, Nanda, this human birth may not be found, nor the excellence of a favorable circumstance.
“Nanda, it is very difficult to find this human birth; and thus, if you have found perfect favorable conditions,
“Why is that so?
dga’ bo rab tu byung ba’i mdo. Toh 328, Degé Kangyur, vol. 72 (mdo sde, sa), folios 254.b–257.a.
dga’ bo rab tu byung ba’i mdo. bka’ ’gyur (dpe bsdur ma) [Pedurma Comparative Edition of the Kangyur], krung go’i bod rig pa zhib ’jug ste gnas kyi bka’ bstan dpe sdur khang (The Tibetan Tripitaka Collation Bureau of the China Tibetology Research Center). 108 volumes. Beijing: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang (China Tibetology Publishing House), 2006–9, vol. 72, pp. 724–30.
dga’ bo rab tu byung ba’i mdo. Stok Palace Kangyur, vol. 57 (mdo sde, cha), folios 147.b–151.a.
dga’ bo rab tu byung ba’i mdo. Phukdrak Kangyur, vol. 90 (mdo sde, khe), folios 163.a–167.b.
Chibetto Daizōkyō Tanjūru Kandō Mokuroku 1 (A Comparative Analytical Catalogue of the Kanjur Division of the Tibetan Tripitaka: Edited in Peking During the K’ang-Hsi Era, and at Present Kept in the Library of the Otani Daigaku Kyoto), Vol. 1, Texts 1-729. Kyoto: Otani Daigaku Library, 1930–32.
Chibetto Daizōkyō Tanjūru Kandō Mokuroku 2 (A Comparative Analytical Catalogue of the Kanjur Division of the Tibetan Tripitaka: Edited in Peking During the K’ang-Hsi Era, and at Present Kept in the Library of the Otani Daigaku Kyoto), Vol. 2, Texts 730-928. Kyoto: Otani Daigaku Library, 1930–32.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan [/ lhan] dkar gyi chos ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Toh 4364, Degé Tengyur, vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folio 301.a.
Nandi toyin boluγsan-u sudur. Mongolian Kanjur, vol. 88, folios 338.a–341.b. Ed. Lokesh Chandra. (Śata-piṭaka Series 101–208) New Delhi: Sharada Rani, 1973–79.
Phangthangma (dkar chag ’phang thang ma). Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2003.
Burlingame, Eugene Watson, trans. A Treasury of Buddhist Stories. From the Dhammapada Commentary. Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society, 1996.
Buswell, Robert E. Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Butön (bu ston rin chen grub). bde gshegs bstan pa’i gsal byed chos kyi ’byung gnas [The Source of the Dharma: The Illumination of the Teaching of the Thus-Gone One]. gangs ljongs shes rig gi nying bcud. Beijing: krung go bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang, 1988.
Covill, Linda, trans. Handsome Nanda by Aśvaghoṣa. New York: New York University Press, JJC Foundation, 2007.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee, trans. The Application of Mindfulness of the Sacred Dharma (Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna, Toh 287). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2021.
’dul ba phran tshegs kyi gzhi (Vinayakṣudrakavastu). Toh 6, Degé Kangyur vol. 10 ('dul ba, tha), folios 1.b-310.a; vol. 11 ('dul ba, da), folios 1.b-333.a.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
Kritzer, Robert, trans. The Teaching to Nanda on Entry into the Womb (Nandagarbhāvakrāntinirdeśa, Toh 57). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, forthcoming.
Ligeti, Louis. Catalogue de Kanǰur Mongol Imprimé. Vol. 1. Catalogue. (Bibliotheca Orientalis Hungarica III). Budapest: Société Kőrösi Csoma, 1942.
Miller, Robert, trans. The Chapter on a Schism in the Saṅgha (Saṅghabhedavastu, Toh 1-17). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, forthcoming.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, trans. Nanda Sutta: About Nanda (Ud 3.2). Dhammatalks.org. https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/KN/Ud/ud3_2.html Accessed October 11, 2021.
Resources for Kanjur and Tanjur Studies. Universität Wien. Accessed October 11, 2021.
Skorupski, Tadeusz. A Catalogue of the Stog Palace Kanjur. Bibliographica Philologica Buddhica, Series Maior 4. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1985.
Tauscher, Helmut. Catalogue of The Gondhla Proto-Kanjur. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien, 2008.
Wallace, Vesna A. and B. Alan Wallace, trans. A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life by Śāntideva. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1997.
yab dang sras mjal ba’i mdo (Pitāputrasamāgama). Toh 60, Degé Kangyur vol. 42 (dkon brtsegs, nga) folios 1.b-168.a.
- nyon mongs pa
A type of mental imperfection or disturbing emotion that binds one to saṃsāra.
- phung po
The five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness. On the individual level, the five aggregates refer to the basis upon which the mistaken idea of a self is projected. They are referred to as the “bases for appropriation” (Skt. upādāna) insofar as all conceptual grasping arises on the basis of these aggregates.
- n+ya gro dha’i kun dga’i ra ba
A grove of banyan trees (Skt. nyagrodha, Tib. nya gro dha) near Kapilavastu, where the Buddha resided during his first visit to the city after his awakening. It was donated to the monastic community by King Śuddhodana, the father of the Buddha. It is said that several rules of the Vinaya were promulgated there.
- bcom ldan ’das
In Buddhist literature, an epithet applied to buddhas, most often to Śākyamuni. The Sanskrit term generally means “possessing fortune,” but in specifically Buddhist contexts it implies that a buddha is in possession of six auspicious qualities (Skt. bhaga) associated with complete awakening. The Tibetan term—where bcom is said to refer to “subduing” the four māras, ldan to “possessing” the great qualities of Buddhahood, and ’das to “going beyond” saṃsāra and nirvāṇa—possibly reflects the commentarial tradition where the Sanskrit bhagavat is interpreted as “one who destroys the four māras.” This is achieved either by reading bhagavat as bhagnavat (“one who broke”), or by tracing the word bhaga to the root √bhañj (“to break”).
- dge ’dun
The community of noble ones, or those who have realized the nature of reality; in a more conventional sense, the community of monks and nuns.
In the present text this refers to the mental continuum.
- ’dod pa’i khams
One of the three spheres of existence, it comprises the traditional six realms of saṃsāra up to and including the desire realm gods—including the human realm. Rebirth in this realm is characterized by intense cravings via the five senses and their objects.
- bskal pa
An aeon or cosmic period of time.
- bum pa bzang po
This likely refers to the vase of inexhaustible treasures known from Indian mythology, which provides beings with copious wealth and sustenance.
- gzugs kyi khams
In Buddhist cosmology, the sphere of existence one level more subtle than our own (the desire realm), where beings, though subtly embodied, are not driven primarily by the urge for sense gratification.
- gzugs med pa’i khams
In Buddhist cosmology, the sphere of existence two levels more subtle than our own (the desire realm), where beings are no longer physically embodied, and thus not subject to the sufferings that physical embodiment brings.
- rab tu byung ba
To go forth from the home into homelessness, or to renounce the worldly life of a lay person, in order to become a monk or nun.
Higher states of existence
- mtho ris
The realms of the gods.
- btsun pa
An epithet for a monastic.
- ser skya’i gnas
An ancient city, capital of the Śākya state, where Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha Śākyamuni) lived until the age of twenty-nine when he renounced worldly life. Later, some years after his awakening, the Buddha returned to Kapilavastu, where his cousins Ānanda and Devadatta, his half-brother Nanda, his barber Upāli, and his son Rāhula joined the monastic community.
- phra rgyas
Various unwholesome mental states that lead to continued suffering and existence.
Lower states of existence
- ngan song
The lower realms of hell beings, hungry ghosts (pretas), and animals.
The demon who assailed the Buddha Śākyamuni prior to his awakening; the personification of cognitive and emotional obstacles.
- rnal ’byor spyod pa
Literally, a “practitioner of yoga,” meaning one dedicated to meditation practice. It can be synonymous with yogin. This is not a reference to the Yogācāra school of thought that developed within the Mahāyāna.
Mountain of bones
- rus pa’i ri
This is a reference to saṃsāra, which is called a “mountain of bones” since the skeletons of the beings born therein would, if accumulated over countless rebirths, be enough to form a mountain.
- mya ngan las ’das pa
The “extinguishing” of suffering; the state of freedom from the suffering of saṃsāra.
- sgrib pa
Usually a reference to five hindrances: longing for sense pleasures (Skt. kāmacchanda), malice (Skt. vyāpāda), sloth and torpor (Skt. styānamiddha), excitement and remorse (Skt. auddhatyakaukṛtya), and doubt (Skt. vicikitsā).
Ocean of milk
- nu zho’i rgya mtsho
This is a reference to saṃsāra, which is called an “ocean of milk” since the beings therein are sustained by their mother’s milk which, if accumulated over countless rebirths, would be enough to fill an ocean.
- thams cad mkhyen pa
An epithet of a buddha.
Renounce the world
- nges par ’byung ba
Definite emergence or release from saṃsāra; also a term for renunciation.
- shAkya thub pa
An epithet for the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama: he was a muni (“sage”) from the Śākya clan. In this text and elsewhere, he is counted as the fourth of the first four buddhas of the present Good Eon, the other three being Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, and Kāśyapa. He will be followed by Maitreya, the next buddha in this eon.
- ’khor ba
The cycle of birth and death driven by mental afflictions and karmic actions.
Seven royal treasures
- rin po che sna bdun
The seven precious royal treasures of a universal monarch: wheel, jewel, queen, minister/officer, elephant, excellent horse, and army officer.
- don grub gau ta ma
- Siddhārtha Gautama
Siddhārtha was the Buddha Śākyamuni’s personal name, while Gautama (“descendants of Gotama”) was his family name.
- dge sbyong
The Sanskrit term literally means “one who toils,” i.e., an ascetic, and the term is applied to spiritual renunciants or monks, whether Buddhist or otherwise.
- nyan thos
A follower of those teachings of the Buddha that focus on the monastic lifestyle and liberating oneself from suffering, in contrast to followers of the Bodhisattva Vehicle who seek awakening for the sake of all beings.
- de bzhin gshegs pa
“Thus-Gone One,” an epithet of a buddha. A buddha is one who has “gone” to thusness, suchness, or nirvāṇa.
- rtsangs de ben dra ra k+Shi ta
Editor of the Tibetan translation of The Sūtra of Nanda’s Going Forth.
- u dum ba ra
The mythological flower of the fig tree said to appear on rare occasions, such as the birth of a buddha. The actual fig tree flower is contained within the fruit. The flower also came to be portrayed as a kind of lotus.
- ’khor los sgyur ba’i rgyal po
The term “universal monarch” denotes a just and pious king who rules over vast areas of the universe according to the laws of Dharma. Such a monarch is called a cakravartin because he wields a disc (cakra) that rolls (vartana) over continents, worlds, and world systems, bringing them under his power.
- tshe dang ldan pa
A respectful form of address between monks, and also between lay companions of equal standing. It literally means “one who has a [long] life.”
- yid bzhin gyi nor bu
A gem or jewel that grants the fulfillment of all one could desire.