Part 20 The Buddha Enters Nirvana
The Master was growing old. When he was in Rajagriha, he called the monks together, and he spoke to them at great length: “Monks, do not forget the precepts I have given you. Observe them carefully. You will assemble twice a month, and you will confess your transgressions to one another. If you feel that you have done evil, and you keep it to yourself, you will be guilty of a lie. Admit your transgressions: the confession will bring you rest and peace. The four gravest sins a monk can commit are, as you know: to have intercourse with a woman; to steal anything whatsoever; to kill a human being or instigate a murder; and to pretend to possess a superhuman power that he knows he does not possess. A monk who has committed one of these four sins must be expelled from the community. Monks, do not bandy words with women, and do not corrupt them. Do not bear false witness against your brothers. Do not try to sow discord in the community. Do not strive to evade a reprimand. Never lie, and insult no one. Observe carefully, O monks, all the precepts I have given you.”
The Blessed One decided to go on a long journey. He wanted to visit certain of his disciples and exhort them to observe his teachings with scrupulous care. With only Ananda for a companion, he left the city of Rajagriha. The Master came to the banks of the Ganges, to the place where the city of Pataliputra was being built. He bowed before the walls that were beginning to rise out of the ground, and he exclaimed: “This city will one day have greatness and renown; many heroes will be born here, here will reign a famous king. A thriving city you will be, O Pataliputra, and down through the ages men will praise your name.” He crossed the river. He set out for Vaisali, but in the village of Bailva he became gravely ill. He suffered intense pain. Ananda wept, for he thought he was dying. But the Master remembered the many disciples he had still to visit; he did not wish to enter nirvana until he had given them final instructions. By the strength of his will, he overcame the sickness.
When he was well again, he went outside the house that had given him shelter, and he took a seat that had been prepared for him near the door. Ananda came and sat down beside him. “My Lord,” said he, “I see that you have recovered your health. When I found you so ill, my strength failed me; I was faint. There were times I could not realize that the Master was sick. And yet I was reassured, for I remembered that you had not disclosed your intentions regarding the community, and I knew you would not enter nirvana without first revealing them.”
The Blessed One spoke these words: “What more does the community want of me, Ananda? I have stated the doctrine, and I have taught it; there is not a single point I have not expounded! Let him who thinks, ‘I want to rule over the community,’ disclose his intentions regarding the community. The Blessed One, Ananda, never thought, ‘I want to rule over the community.’ Why then should he disclose his intentions? I am an old man, Ananda; my hair is white, and I have grown feeble. I am eighty years old; I have come to the end of the road. Be, now, each one of you, your own torch; look to no one to bring you light. He who is his own torch, after I have left the world, will show that he has understood the meaning of my words; he will be my true disciple, Ananda; he will know the right way to live.”
He set out again, and presently he arrived at Vaisali. He went through the city, begging his food from door to door. In the evening he assembled the monks of Vaisali, and he addressed them. “O monks, preserve carefully, the knowledge I have acquired and that I have taught you, and walk in the right path, in order that the life of holiness may long endure, for the joy and salvation of the world, for the joy and salvation of the Gods, for the joy and salvation of mankind. A few months more, and my time will have come; three months more, and I shall enter nirvana. I go and you remain. But never cease to struggle, O monks. He who falters not in the path of truth avoids birth, avoids death, for ever and ever avoids suffering.”
The following day, he again wandered through the city, in quest of alms; then, with a few disciples, he set out on the road to Kusinagara, where he had decided to enter nirvana. The Master and his disciples stopped at Pava, in the garden of Cunda, the blacksmith. Cunda came and paid homage to the Master, and said to him: “My Lord, do me the honor of taking your meal at my home, tomorrow.” The Master accepted. The next day, Cunda had pork and other delicacies prepared for his guests. They arrived and took their seats. When the Master saw the pork, he pointed to it and said: “No one but me could eat that, Cunda; you must keep it for me. My disciples will partake of the other delicacies.” When he had eaten, he said: “Bury deep in the ground what I have left untouched; the Buddha alone can eat of such meat.” Then he left. The disciples followed.
They had gone only a short distance from Pava when the Master began to feel weary and sick. Ananda grieved, and he cursed Cunda, the blacksmith, for having offered the Master this fatal meal. “Ananda,” said the Master, “do not be angry with Cunda, the blacksmith. Great rewards are reserved to him for the food he gave me. Of all the meals I have ever had, two are most deserving of praise: the one that Sujata, and the other that Cunda, the blacksmith, served to me.” He overcame his weariness and presently he reached the banks of the Kakutstha. The river was peaceful and pure. The Master bathed in the limpid waters. After the bath, he drank, then went to a mango grove.
There, he said to the monk Cundaka: “Fold my cloak in four, that I may lie down and rest.” Cundaka cheerfully obeyed. He quickly folded the cloak in four and spread it on the ground. The Master lay down, and Cundaka sat beside him. The Master rested a few hours. Then he set out again, and he finally arrived at Kusinagara. There, on the banks of the Hiranyavati, stood a pleasant, peaceful little wood. The Master said: “Go, Ananda, and prepare a couch for me between two twin trees. Have the head to the north. I am ill, Ananda.” Ananda prepared the couch, and the Master went and reclined on it.
It was not the season for trees to bloom, yet the two trees that sheltered the Master were covered with blossoms. The flowers fell gently upon his couch, and from the sky, sweet melodies slowly drifted down. The Master said to pious Ananda: “See: it is not the season for flowers, yet these trees have bloomed, and the blossoms are raining down upon me. Listen: the air is joyous with the songs that the happy Gods are singing in the sky in honor of the Buddha. But the Buddha is paid a more enduring honor than this. Monks, nuns, believers, all those who see the truth, all those who live within the law, they are the ones that do the Buddha supreme honor. Therefore you must live according to the law, Ananda, and, even in the most trivial matters, you must follow the sacred path of truth.”
Ananda was weeping. He walked away, to hide his tears. He thought, “For many misdeeds I have not yet been forgiven, and I shall be guilty of many more misdeeds. Oh, I am still far from the saintly goal, and he who took pity on me, the Master, is about to enter nirvana.” The Master called him back and said: “Do not grieve, Ananda, do not despair. Remember my words: from all that delights us, from all that we love, we must one day be separated. How can that which is born he other than inconstant and perishable? How can that which is born, how can that which is created, endure for ever? Long have you honored me, Ananda; you have been a devoted friend. Yours was a happy friendship, and you were faithful to it in thought, in word and in deed. You have done great good, Ananda; continue in the right path, and you will be forgiven your former misdeeds.”
Night came on. The inhabitants of Kusinagara had heard that the Master was reclining under two twin trees, and they came in great crowds to pay him homage. An aged hermit, Subhadra, appeared, and bowing before the Master, professed his belief in the Buddha, in the law and in the community; and Subhadra was the last of the faithful to have the joy of seeing the Master face to face. The night was beautiful. Ananda was seated beside the Master. The Master said: “Perhaps, Ananda, you will think, ‘We no longer have a Master.’ But you must not think that. The law remains, the law that I taught you; let it be your guide, Ananda, when I shall no longer be with you. He said again: “Verily, O monks, all that is created must perish. Never cease to struggle.”
He was no longer of this world. His face was of luminous gold. His spirit ascended to the realms of ecstasy. He entered nirvana. The earth shook, and thunder rolled across the sky. Near the ramparts, at dawn, they of Kusinagara built a great funeral pile, as though for a king of the world, and there they burned the body of the Blessed One.
Pataliputra or Pataliputta: The capital of Magadha (situated near the modern Patna). The Buddha visited it shortly before his death. It was then a mere village and was known as Pataligama. At that time Ajatasattu’s ministers, Sunidha and Vassakara, were engaged in building fortifications there in order to repel the Vajjis. The Buddha prophesied the future greatness of Pataligama, and also mentioned the danger of its destruction by fire, water, or internal discord. The gate by which the Buddha left the town was called Gotamadvara, and the ferry at which he crossed the river, Gotamatittha. The date at which Pataliputtta became the capital is uncertain. Hiouen Thsang seems to record that it was Kalasoka who moved the seat of government there. The Jains maintain that it was Udayi, son of Ajatasattu. The latter tradition is probably correct as, according to the Anguttara Nikaya even Munda is mentioned as residing at Pataliputta. It was, however, in the time of Asoka that the city enjoyed its greatest glory. In the ninth year of his reign Asoka’s income from the four gates of the city is said to have been four hundred thousand kahapanas daily, with another one hundred thousand for his sabha or Council. The city was known to the Greeks as Palibothra, and Megasthenes, who spent some time there, has left a vivid description of it. It continued to be the capital during the greater part of the Gupta dynasty, from the fourth to the sixth century AD. Near Pataliputtta was the Kukkutarama, where monks stayed when they came to Pataliputtta. Pataligama was so called because on the day of its foundation several patali shoots sprouted forth from the ground. The officers of Ajatasattu and of the Licchavi princes would come from time to time to Pataligama, drive the people from their houses, and occupy them themselves. A large hall was therefore built in the middle of the village, divided into various apartments for the housing of the officers and their retainers when necessary. The Buddha arrived in the village on the day of the completion of the building, and the villagers invited him to occupy it for a night, that it might be blessed by his presence. On the next day they entertained the Buddha and his monks to a meal. Pataliputta was also called Pupphapura and Kusamapura.
Pava: A city of the Mallas which the Buddha visited during his last journey, going there from Bhogagama and stopping at Cunda’s mango grove. Cunda lived in Pava and invited the Buddha to a meal, which proved to be his last. It was on this occasion that the Cunda Sutta was preached. From Pava the Buddha journeyed on to Kusinara, crossing the Kakkuttha on the way; the road from Pava to Kusinara is mentioned several times in the books. According to the Sangiti Sutta, at the time the Buddha was staying at Pava, the Mallas had just completed their new Mote hall, Ubbhataka, and, at their invitation, the Buddha consecrated it by first occupying it and then preaching in it. After the Buddha had finished speaking, Sariputta recited the Sahgiti Sutta to the assembled monks. Pava was also a centre of the Niganthas and, at the time mentioned above, Nigantha Nathaputta had just died at Pava and his followers were divided by bitter wrangles. Cunda Samanuddesa was spending his rainy season at Pava, and he reported to the Buddha, who was at Samagama, news of the Niganthas’ quarrels. The distance from Pava to Kusinara was three gavutas. It is said that on the way between these two places, the Buddha had to stop at twenty five resting places, so faint and weary was he. Mention is made in the Udana of the Buddha having stayed at the Ajakapalaka Cetiya in Pava. This may have been during a previous visit. After the Buddha’s death, the Mallas of Pava claimed a share in his relics. Dona satisfied their claim, and a Thupa was erected in Pava over their share of the relics.
Cunda: A worker in metals (kammaraputta) living in Pava. When the Buddha reached Pava on his way to Kusinara, he stayed in Cunda’s Mango grove. There Cunda visited him and invited him and the monks to a meal the next day. The meal consisted of sweet rice and cakes and sukaramaddava. At the meal the Buddha ordered that he alone should be served with sukaramaddava, and that what was left over should be buried in a hole. This was the Buddha’s last meal, as very soon after it he developed dysentery. The Buddha, a little while before his death, gave special instructions to Ananda that he should visit Cunda and reassure him by telling him that no blame at all attached to him and that he should feel no remorse, but should, on the contrary, rejoice, in that he had been able to give to the Buddha a meal which, in merit, far exceeded any other.
Kusinagara or Kusinara: The capital of the Mallas and the scene of the Buddha’s death. At that time it was a small city, “a branch-township with wattle-and-daub houses in the midst of the jungle,” and Ananda was, at first, disappointed that the Buddha should have chosen it for his Parinibbana. But the Buddha, by preaching the Maha-Sudassana Sutta, pointed out to him that in ancient times it had been Kusavati, the royal city of Maha-Sudassana. Between Kusinara and Pava, lay the stream of Kakuttha on the banks of which was the Ambavana; beyond that was the Hirannavati river, and near the city, in a south-westerly direction, lay the Upavattana, the Sala grove of the Mallas, which the Buddha made his last resting place. After the Buddha’s death his body was carried into the city by the northern gate and out of the city by the eastern gate; to the east of the city was Makutabandhana, the shrine of the Mallas, and there the body was cremated. For seven days those assembled at the ceremony held a festival in honour of the relics.
Malla: The name of a people and their country; included in the sixteen Mahajanapadas of the Buddha’s time. The kingdom, at that time, was divided into two parts, having their respective capitals in Pava and Kusinara. The Mallas of Pava were called Paveyyaka Malla, those of Kusinara, Kosinaraka. That these were separate kingdoms is shown by the fact that after the Buddha’s death at Kusinara, the Mallas of Pava sent messengers to claim their share of the Buddha’s relics. Each had their Mote Hall. It was at Pava that the Buddha took his last meal, of Sukaramaddava, at the house of Cunda. From there he went to Kusinara, and there, as he lay dying, he sent Ananda to the Mallas of Kusinara, who were assembled in their Mote Hall to announce his approaching death. The Mallas thereupon came to the Upavattana Sala grove where the Buddha was, in order to pay him their last respects. Ananda made them stand in groups according to family, and then presented them to the Buddha, announcing the name of each family. After the Buddha’s death, they met together once more in the Mote Hall, and made arrangements to pay him all the honour due to a Cakkavatti. They cremated the Buddha’s body at the Makutabandhana Cetiya, and then collected the relics, which they deposited in their Mote Hall, surrounding them with a lattice work of spears and a rampart of bows till they were distributed among the various claimants by Dona. The Mallas, both of Pava and Kusinara, erected thupas over their respective shares of the relics and held feasts in their honour. The Mallas in the sixth century BC were regarded, together with the Vajjis, as a typical example of a republic (gana sangha). The chief Mallas administered the state in turn. Those who were free from such duties engaged in trade, sometimes undertaking long caravan journeys. Both the Buddha and Nigantha Nataputta appear to have had followers among the Mallas. There was apparently some trouble between them and the Licchavis. Both the Mallas and the Licchavis were khattiyas, belonging to the Vasittha gotta, because in the books both tribes are repeatedly referred to as Vasettha. Manu says that both Licchavis and Mallas had kshatriya parents, but their fathers were Vratyas – i.e., had not gone through the ceremony of Vedic initiation at the proper time. There is reason to believe that the Malla republic fell into the hands of Ajatasattu, as did that of the Licchavis. Other places in the Malla country, besides Pava and Kusinara, are mentioned where the Buddha stayed – e.g., Bhoganagara, Anupiya and Uruvelakappa, near which was the Mahavana, a wide tract of forest.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a lacquered wooden statue of the Buddha entering Nirvana (from the Bac Ninh province, and dating back to the 17th century CE). It is preserved in the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts, in Hanoi. The image was uploaded by Daderot.