‘Death has nothing to do with Going Away. The Sun sets. The Moon sets. But they’re not gone.’
The ‘Buddha‘ is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in world history, and his teachings have affected everything from a variety of other faiths to literature to philosophy, both within India and to the farthest reaches of the Western world. We know the journey of the legend but not aware of the circumstances in which he left the mortal world.
After attaining enlightenment under the ‘Bodhi‘ tree, Buddha traveled, preaching the ‘Dharma‘ – the name given to the teachings of the Buddha, in an effort to lead others to and along the path of enlightenment. When he died, it is said that he told his disciples that they should follow no leader after his death but the knowledge.
The Buddha died near the town of ‘Kushinagar‘ in Northern India (now near the border with Nepal). The reason behind his death was food poisoning after accepting an offering of food that had gone bad. Several texts do not agree on the contents of the meal; some say it was spoiled pork, others poisonous mushrooms. As the news that the Buddha was dying spread, his grief-stricken followers gathered around him to hear the Buddha’s final teaching before he left the world forever.
In order to know the last day of the Buddha, one must read books on his life or better still, read the recorded ‘suttas‘. Scholars say that the best source is the ‘Maha Parinibbana Sutta‘ from the Pali collection of the ‘Digha Nikaya’, or the Wandering Sutra from the Sanskrit-Chinese collection of the ‘Digha Agama‘. There is a separate Chinese sutra, The Maha Parinirvana Sutra, which was also translated into Vietnamese, but this script has been widely regarded as being composed at a very late stage.
The Maha parinibbana Sutta, from the Long Discourse of Pali ‘Tripitaka‘ is, without doubt the most reliable source for details on the death of Siddhartha Gautama (BCE 563-483), the Lord Buddha. It is composed in a narrative style that allows readers to follow the story of the last days of the Buddha, beginning a few months before he died. To understand what really happened to the Buddha was never that easy to discover, though. The sutta, or discourse, paints two conflicting personalities of the Buddha, one overriding the other.
One version of Lord Buddha was that of a miracle worker who beamed himself and his entourage of monks across the Ganges River (D II, 89), who had a divine vision of the settlement of gods on earth (D II, 87), who could live until the end of the world on condition that someone invite him to do so (D II, 103), who determined the time of his own death (D II, 105).
The other personality was that of an aged being who was failing in health (D II, 120), who almost lost his life because of a severe pain during his last retreat at Vaishali (D II, 100), and who was forced to come to terms with his unexpected illness and death after consuming a special cuisine offered by his generous host.
These two personalities take turns emerging in different parts of the narration. Moreover, there also appear to be two explanations of the Buddha’s cause of death: One is that the Buddha died because his attendant, Ananda, failed to invite him to live on to the age of the world or even longer (D II, 117). The other is that he died by a sudden illness which began after he ate what is known as ‘Sukaramaddava‘ (D II, 127-157).
The former story was probably a legend, or the result of a political struggle within the Buddhist community during a stage of transition, whereas the latter sounds more realistic and accurate in describing a real life situation-old age, food poisoning and death, that happened in the Buddha’s last days.
The Buddha entered nirvana for the final time on the full moon day in the month of Vishakha. ‘Cunda’ the Blacksmith offered the Buddha a meal. As an alms gatherer, the Buddha accepted his offer for lunch the following day. Together with the Sangha, the Buddha went for lunch. But seeing the food – ‘sukara maddava‘ i.e. pig’s delight – being offered, he asked Cunda to only serve it to him and bury the rest. Falling violently ill, Buddha instructed his attendant Ananda to convince Cunda that the meal eaten at his place had nothing to do with his passing and that his meal would be a source of the greatest merit as it provided the last meal for the Buddha. Scholars such as Mettanando and Von Hinuber argue that the Buddha died of mesenteric infarction, a symptom of old age, rather than food poisoning.
According to the Maha parinibbana Sutta of the Pali canon, at the age of 80, the Buddha announced that he would soon reach Parinirvana, or the final deathless state, and abandon his earthly body. After this, the Buddha ate his last meal, which he had received as an offering from a blacksmith named Cunda. The precise contents of the Buddha’s final meal are not clear, due to variant scriptural traditions and ambiguity over the translation of certain significant terms; the Theravada tradition generally believes that the Buddha was offered some kind of pork, while the Mahayana tradition believes that the Buddha consumed some sort of truffle or other mushroom. These may reflect the different traditional views on Buddhist vegetarianism and the precepts for monks and nuns.
The Buddha asked all the attendant Bhikkhus to clarify any doubts or questions they had. They had none. According to Buddhist scriptures, he then finally entered Parinirvana. The Buddha’s final words are reported to have been: ‘All composite things (Sankhara) are perishable. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.’
When Ananda asked how should he treat the Buddha’s body after death, the Buddha said: ‘Do not hinder yourselves, Ananda, to honour the body of the Tathagata. Rather you should strive, Ananda, and be zealous on your own behalf, for your own good. Unflinchingly, ardently and resolutely you should apply yourselves to your own good.’
His body was cremated and the relics were placed in monuments or stupas, some of which are believed to have survived until the present. For example, The Temple of the Tooth or ‘Dalada Maligawa‘ in Sri Lanka is the place where what some believe to be the relic of the right tooth of Buddha is kept at present.
When Ananda was weeping, the Buddha told him: ‘Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve, do not lament. For have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved, their must be the change, separation and severance of that which is born, come into being, compounded, and subject to decay, how can one say: ‘May it not come to dissolution’ ? There can be no such state of things … Now you should put forth energy, and soon you too will be free from the taints.‘
Theravada Buddhist tradition has adhered to the assumption that the historical Buddha passed away during the night of the full moon in the lunar month of Vishakha (which falls sometime during May to June). But the timing contradicts information given in the sutta, which states clearly that the Buddha died soon after the rainy-season retreat, most likely during the autumn or mid-winter, that is, November to January.
Article is influenced by:
‘Last Days of the Buddha – The Maha Parinibbana Sutta’, 1988. Sister Vajira and Francis Story. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.
‘Thus I have heard – The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya)’, 1987. Maurice Walshe. Wisdom Publication, USA.
‘The Buddha and his teachings’, 1980. Narada Mahathera. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka (Ddu+’c Pha^.t va` Pha^.t Pha’p, translated by Pha.m Kim Kha’nh).