Jenny Roberts writes about the story of the Buddha’s passing as told in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta of the Pali Canon.
The fifteenth of February was Parinirvana Day, an important festival when Buddhists everywhere celebrate the death of the Buddha. And to mark the occasion there were special pujas all over the Triratna worldwide sangha – including at Leeds (and at Tiratanaloka where I happened to be at the time.)
This isn’t, as some might assume, a time for sadness. On the contrary it is a day of great celebration, for it marks the occasion when the Buddha’s Enlightenment found its full fruition. According to Vishvapani, who wrote Gautama Buddha, Parinirvana means complete or final Enlightenment or, perhaps better, Final Nirvana.
Yet grief was present at the time, particularly among his Sangha, for whom it was the greatest experience in their history. And in some ways, to hear the story of the Buddha’s last days, is also to remember Ananda, his faithful attendant who memorised all of his teachings. The two men had shared their lives for twenty-five years and would have understood each other instinctively. And here, in this sutta, without intending it, Ananda with his constant queries, worries, and amazements, becomes a central figure beside the Buddha himself.
According to the Maha Parinibbana Sutta, Sakyamuni was eighty years old when he became ill and announced that his Parinibbana would occur in just three months. It was a time of political unrest, with the very real prospect of war, when the Buddha set off on a final journey across Northern India.
“Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. Even as an old cart, Ananda, is held together with much difficulty, so the body of the Tathagata is kept going only with supports.”
When Ananda asked if he had any last instructions regarding the Sangha, the Buddha replied:
“…Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”
At one point Ananda, full of sorrow at his impending death, appeals to the Buddha, asking him to remain until the end of the world-period. But the Buddha refuses, saying that he had hinted several times previously, that he could stay if asked but that Ananda had not responded. Now it was too late.
“…Ananda, have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change, separation, and severance? Of that which is born, come into being, is compounded and subject to decay, how can one say: ‘May it not come to dissolution!’ There can be no such state of things. And of that, Ananda, which the Tathagata has finished with, that which he has relinquished, given up, abandoned, and rejected – his will to live on – the Tathagata’s word has been spoken once for all: ‘Before long the Parinibbana of the Tathagata will come about’ “
The Buddha had already taught all that was necessary for the attainment of Enlightenment so on this final journey his concern was to reiterate the teachings and impress on his followers the necessity of putting them into practice. And, hearing that the Buddha was making his final round of visits, disciples flocked to him in great numbers.
It was cooler after the rains and the Buddha was in no hurry, walking a few miles each day, going from village to village, explaining the nature of the path and the necessity for sincere effort. After nearly three months, the sutta tells us, the Buddha reached a place called Pava and stayed in the Mango Grove of Cunda, the metalworker, with a large community of bhikkhus. Cunda spoke to the Buddha and invited him to his house for a meal.
The Buddha agreed and went to Cunda’s house the following day. he told his host that he alone would eat the sukara-maddava that Cunda had prepared but that the bhikkhus should eat only the other dishes. After the meal, the Buddha instructed Cunda to bury what was left of his meal, so that no one else would eat it.
“When he had eaten Cunda’s food, I heard,
With fortitude the deadly pains he bore.
From the sukara-maddava a sore
And dreadful sickness came upon the Lord.
But nature’s pangs he endured. ‘Come, let us go
To Kusinara,’ was his dauntless word.”
As he walked he told Ananda that no one should blame Cunda for his death. “By his deed the worthy Cunda has accumulated merit which makes for long life, beauty, well being, glory, heavenly rebirth, and sovereignty. Thus, Ananda, the remorse of Cunda the metalworker should be dispelled.”
The Buddha and his bhikkhus eventually came to a grove of sal trees in Kusinara and Sakyamuni asked Ananda to prepare a couch between two trees, with its head to the north and the Buddha laid down on his right side, one foot upon the other, with his head supported by his right hand.
“At that time the twin sala trees broke out in full bloom, though it was not the season of flowering. And the blossoms rained upon the body of the Tathagata and dropped and scattered and were strewn upon it in worship of the Tathagata. And celestial mandarava flowers and heavenly sandalwood powder from the sky rained down upon the body of the Tathagata, and dropped and scattered and were strewn upon it in worship of the Tathagata. And the sound of heavenly voices and heavenly instruments made music in the air out of reverence for the Tathagata.”
The Buddha was now clothed (as was Ananda) in the golden-hued robes presented to him by a follower of Alara Kalama, one of his teachers from before his Enlightenment. The sutta records that Ananda had been surprised that these beautiful, bright golden robes seemed to fade in comparison with the radiant skin of the Buddha. The Buddha had replied that there were only two occasions when the Tathagata’s skin was so clear: at the time of Enlightenment and at the time of the final passing away.
At one point Ananda left the grove. he leant against a door post and wept, “Alas! I remain still but a learner, one who has yet to work out his own perfection. And the Master is about to pass away from me – he who is so kind!”
The Buddha sent for him and rebuked him: “Enough now, Ananda! Do not sorrow and cry. Have I not already repeatedly told you that there is separation and parting from all that is dear and beloved? How is it possible that anything that has been born, has had a beginning, should not again die? Such a thing is not possible.
“Ananda, you have served me with your acts of loving-kindness, helpfully, gladly, sincerely… You have gained merit, Ananda. In a very short time you too will become an arahant.”
Then the Buddha goes on to praise Ananda’s qualities to the gathering, saying that in him are to be found the four rare superlative qualities of a universal monarch. Then he dispatches Ananda to Kusinara and asks him to let the town’s people know that the Parinibbana will take place in the last watch of that night.
So it was that all the people of Kusinara, men, women and children came to the grove to bid a last farewell to the Buddha. Family by family, they bowed low down before him and bade him farewell. A wandering ascetic called Subhadda sought an audience with the Buddha and became his last convert and was admitted to the Order.
The vast gathering in that grove included the mythic as well as the worldly. At one point the Buddha asked an attendant to step aside as, he said, the sky was filled for miles around with a gathering of “most of the gods of the ten world systems (who have) assembled here to see the Tatagata.” Some of them apparently were muttering that they couldn’t see properly.
Now the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: “It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.”
Then the Buddha asked three times whether the assembled disciples had any questions regarding himself, the Dharma or the Sangha; the path or the practice, and each time they remained silent.
Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!”
This was the last word of the Buddha. Following this he entered into deep meditation, after which he passed away.
“And when the Blessed One had passed away, simultaneously with his Parinibbana there came a tremendous earthquake, dreadful and astounding, and the thunders rolled across the heavens.”
“And when the Blessed One had passed away the Venerable Anuruddha spoke this stanza:
No movement of the breath, but with steadfast heart,
Free from desires and tranquil – so the sage
Comes to his end. By mortal pangs unshaken,
His mind, like a flame extinguished, finds release.
“Then, when the Blessed One had passed away, some bhikkhus, not yet freed from passion, lifted up their arms and wept; and some, flinging themselves on the ground, rolled from side to side and wept, lamenting: ‘Too soon has the Blessed One come to his Parinibbana! Too soon has the Happy One come to his Parinibbana! Too soon has the Eye of the World vanished from sight!’
“But the bhikkhus who were freed from passion, mindful and clearly comprehending, reflected in this way: ‘Impermanent are all compounded things. How could this be otherwise?’ “
So, around 2,500 years after that event, on a night in February, we remember that scene in the Sal Grove near Kusinara, light candles, read verses and make offerings.
Om muni muni,