Parinirvana: How the Historical Buddha Entered Nirvana

The Last Days of the Buddha

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Detail of the Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho Temple, Bangkok, Thailand. Peter Adams / Getty Images

This abridged account of the historical Buddha's passing and entry into Nirvana is taken primarily from the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story. Other sources consulted are Buddha by Karen Armstrong (Penguin, 2001) and Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press, 1991).

Forty-five years had passed since the Lord Buddha's enlightenment, and the Blessed One was 80 years old.

He and his monks were staying in the village of Beluvagamaka (or Beluva), which was near the present-day city of Basrah, Bihar state, northeast India. It was the time of the monsoon rains retreat,when the Buddha and his disciples stopped traveling.

Like an Old Cart

One day the Buddha asked the monks to leave and find other places to stay during the monsoon. He would remain in Beluvagamaka with only his cousin and companion, Ananda. After the monks had left, Ananda could see that his master was ill. The Blessed One, in great pain, found comfort only in deep meditation. But with the strength of will, he overcame his illness.

Ananda was relieved but shaken. When I saw the Blessed One's sickness my own body became weak, he said. Everything became dim to me, and my senses failed. Ye I still had some comfort in the thought that the Blessed One would not come to his final passing away until he had given some last instructions to his monks.

The Lord Buddha responded, What more does the community of monks expect from me, Ananda? I have taught the dharma openly and completely. I have held nothing back, and have nothing more to add to the teachings. A person who thought the sangha depended on him for leadership might have something to say. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea, that the sangha depends on him. So what instructions should he give?

Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. My body is like an old cart, barely held together.

Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no other refuge; with the Dharma as your island, the Dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

At the Capala Shrine

Soon after he had recovered from his illness, the Lord Buddha suggested he and Ananda spend the day at a shrine, called the Capala Shrine. As the two elderly men sat together, the Buddha remarked upon the beauty of the scenery all around. The Blessed One continued, Whosoever, Ananda, has perfected psychic power could, if he so desired, remain in this place throughout a world-period or until the end of it. The Tathagata, Ananda, has done so. Therefore the Tathagata could remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it.

The Buddha repeated this suggestion three times. Ananda, possibly not understanding, said nothing.

Then came Mara, the evil one, who 45 years earlier had tried to tempt the Buddha away from enlightenment. You have accomplished what you set out to do, Mara said. Give up this life and enter Parinirvana [complete Nirvana] now.

The Buddha Relinquishes His Will to Live

Do not trouble yourself, Evil One, the Buddha replied. In three months I will pass away and enter Nirvana.

Then the Blessed One, clearly and mindfully, renounced his will to live on. The earth itself responded with an earthquake. The Buddha told the shaken Ananda about his decision to make his final entry into Nirvana in three months. Ananda objected, and the Buddha replied that Ananda should have made his objections known earlier, and requested the Tathagata remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it.

To Kushinagar

For the next three months, the Buddha and Ananda traveled and spoke to groups of monks. One evening he and several of the monks stayed in the home of Cunda, the son of a goldsmith. Cunda invited the Blessed One to dine in his home, and he gave the Buddha a dish called sukaramaddava.

This means "pigs' soft food." No one today is certain what this means. It may have been a pork dish, or it may have been a dish of something pigs like to eat, like truffle mushrooms.

Whatever was in the sukaramaddava, the Buddha insisted that he would be the only one to eat from that dish. When he had finished, the Buddha told Cunda to bury what was left so that no one else would eat it.

That night, the Buddha suffered terrible pain and dysentery. But the next day he insisted in traveling on to Kushinagar, located in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. On the way, he told Ananda not to blame Cunda for his death.

Ananda's Sorrow

The Buddha and his monks came to a grove of sal trees in Kushinagar. The Buddha asked Ananda to prepare a couch between to trees, with its head to the north. I am weary and want to lie down, he said. When the couch was ready, the Buddha lay down on his right side, one foot upon the other, with his head supported by his right hand. Then the sal trees bloomed, although it was not their season, pale yellow petals rained down on the Buddha.

The Buddha spoke for a time to his monks. At one point Ananda left the grove to lean against a door post and weep. The Buddha sent a monk to find Ananda and bring him back. Then the Blessed One said to Ananda, Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve! Have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change and separation? All that is born, comes into being, is compounded, and is subject to decay. How can one say: "May it not come to dissolution"? This cannot be.

Ananda, you have served the Tathagata with loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought; graciously, pleasantly, wholeheartedly. Now you should strive to liberate yourself. The Blessed One then praised Ananda in front of the other assembled monks.

Parinirvana

The Buddha spoke further, advising the monks to keep the rules of the order of monks. Then he asked three times if any among them had any questions. Do not be given to remorse later on with the thought: "The Master was with us face to face, yet face to face we failed to ask him." But no one spoke. The Buddha assured all of the monks they would realize enlightenment.

Then he said, All compounded things are subject to decay. Strive with diligence. Then, serenely, he passed into Parinirvana.