Thursday, July 25, 2013

Losing the Buddha

The Buddha in the fog, Tian Tan, Po Tin Monastery (Annahytam/
The Buddha, Gandhara (Wisdom Quarterly)
Among Ananda's conversations with the Awakened One is the account concerning the last events in the life of the Buddha, in which Ananda played a leading role.
It is The Great Final Passing into Nirvana Sutra (DN 16), the discourse on the Buddha's passing away.
  • See The Last Days of the Buddha (, The Wheel 67/69).
These records convey a special mood, namely that of parting, which was especially painful for Ananda (the Buddha's monastic attendant, cousin, and close companion over many past lives).
It is also the first small beginning of the decline of the Dharma (the Buddha's teaching), which will slowly disappear with increased distance from the Buddha's lifetime, until a new Buddha [Maitreya] arises. 
This entire text gives, as it were, voice to the admonition to practice Dharma while there is still chance! It reflects once more Ananda's whole character. Therefore, it is valuable to follow its course and emphasize those points which are important as far as Ananda is concerned.
Buddha with half of his chief disciples
The first section of the sutra starts at Rajagaha, the capital of the Indian state of Magadha. Devadatta's attempt to create a schism in the Sangha (Monastic Order) had happened seven years earlier. King Ajatasattu (who usurped his noble father's throne, one of the Buddha's chief royal disciples) reigned in Magadha.
King Pasenadi of Kosala had just been overthrown and the Shakya clan [the Buddha's family living far to the west, on the northwest frontier lands of ancient India,  Gandhara and modern Afghanistan] had come to its tragic end in which Ananda's brother, Prince Mahanama, was killed [along with most of the Buddha's royal family who did not becoming wandering ascetics and go east].

The Buddha teaching in the World of the Thirty-Three (Wolfgang Kaehler/
At that time, three famous warrior clans lived north of the Ganges, near the Himalayas. They were the Koliyas, the Mallas, and the Vajjians, all of which had retained relative independence from the great [patricidal] King Ajatasattu. He had the intention of destroying the Vajjians and incorporating their land in his.
Sitting under an enlightenment tree for peace
While the Buddha could not prevent the ruin of those Shakyans who had not entered the Monastic Order, because [of the overwhelming strength of a particular] karmic debt, he did help the Vajjians and later indirectly also the Mallas. [He chose the territory of the Mallas to take his final nirvana, in a very rural and out of the way area that was once a mighty country in prehistoric times.]

This is the external "political" background of the last years of the Buddha's life. In detail, this incident happened as follows:
The king gave orders to his minister, Vassakara, to go to the Buddha and announce his intention to go into battle against the Vajjians. While Vassakara delivered his message, Ananda stood behind the Buddha and fanned him.
Seven Questions
More useful than a list of "mortal sins"
The Awakened One [used this opportunity to teach as he] turned to Ananda and put seven questions to him about the lifestyle and conditions of the Vajjians.
Ananda declared that they often had (1) council meetings in which they deliberated harmoniously, (2) did not repeal their old laws, (3) followed the advice of their elders, (4) did not rape or abduct women, (5) honored their temples and shrines, (6) did not revoke [regular] gifts to religious places, (7) and that they gave protection and hospitality to all virtuous priests [real Brahmins] and ascetics [wandering mendicants]. 

With these seven qualities in place, the Buddha taught that one could expect prosperity for the Vajjians, not decline. 
Some time earlier the Buddha had given them these exact seven rules. The king's minister replied that even one of these qualities would be enough for their continued existence as a clan. As long as the Vajjians kept to these seven rules, it would be impossible for the king to conquer them, except through inner dissension or treachery. 
The minister left with this conviction in mind and reported to the king that it would be useless to start a war against the Vajjians. Indians in those days had so much confidence in the spiritual strength (morale, heart, spirit) of a people, that the hint of moral superiority was sufficient to prevent a war.
Only much later, after the passing away of the Buddha, was it possible for the king to overrun the Vajjians, and this only because they had meanwhile forsaken their virtue and moral integrity.
This highly political discussion was used by the Buddha as an occasion to request Ananda to call all of the monastics (by that time a great number of nuns and monks and novices) of the area together.

Final nirvana of the Buddha memorialized in gold leaf coated reclining statue in a massive cave in Ban Krut, Thailand (Orangebropton/
Seven Principles
He would give them an exhortation about seven things, which would serve for the continued existence of the Monastic Order. The monastics should: (1) assemble frequently, (2) conduct their affairs amicably, (3) not make new rules but adhere to the established ones, (4) honor the elders of the Order and give heed to their advice, (5) abandon craving, (6) enjoy solitude, and (7) practice mindfulness at all times. 

The reason given for following these was so that like-minded persons would be attracted, and those who were already successfully living the high-life (the life of monastic meditation and purity) would be serene happy.
After the Buddha had spoken in this way to the monastics, he gave them the following terse summary of the teaching [an outline of the discourses he delivered which led to the sudden enlightenment of so many hearers in the texts], which recurs many times throughout this narrative:
The Buddhist Path
Guardstone, Abhayagiri, Anuradhapura
That is virtue; that is concentration (serene collectedness, absorption, samma-samadhi); that is wisdom.

Concentration fortified with virtue brings great benefits and great fruits.
Wisdom fortified with concentration brings great benefits and great fruits.
The mind fortified with wisdom becomes liberated [freed of the fetters] from all taints -- namely from the taint of sensual bondage, the taint of  (craving for) renewed becoming (rebirth), and the taint of ignorance (delusion, wrong view, nescience).
Final Journey
After this exhortation, the Buddha commenced his last journey. He always went to places where there were people ready to give ear and understand Dharma, or where misunderstandings needed to be rectified, or where brute force could be prevented. 
On this last journey he went first in the direction of the Ganges river to Nalanda, which later became the famous Buddhist university (the forerunner to our modern institutions of higher learning) and monastic training center. This town was Sariputra's birthplace, and here he took leave of the Buddha. [It is said that all chief disciples pass into nirvana before the buddha they assist; no mention is made of the passing of the two chief female disciples, Ven. Khema and Ven. Uppalavana.] 
Sariputra wanted to stay there and teach Dharma to his mother before he passed into final nirvana. When saying farewell, this great disciple voiced once more the Buddha's praise: "It is clear to me, venerable sir, that there is no one more distinguished in wisdom."
  • See "Sariputra's Lion's roar" in The Life of Sariputta,, The Wheel 90/92.
The Buddha, ancient Thailand (fredMin/flickr)
Then the Awakened One went with a large company of monastics to Vesali. This town was the capital of the Vajjians, whose virtue he had praised, and from whom he had averted the threat of King Ajatasattu's attack. Why did the Buddha go to the capital of the Vajjians and spend the last of the 45 rains retreats of his life in that vicinity?
It is not too farfetched to think that this was meant as a non-aggressive warning to King Ajatasattu to keep the peace and a message to the Vajjians to keep up their virtue.
At Vesali the Buddha became ill with a deadly disease. He overcame it by jhana-power, as he did not want to pass away without having assembled male and female disciples once more. That a buddha can become ill is due to the imperfections of the body, but that one can master the illness at will is due to the perfection of Awakened Ones.
Ananda had been extremely aggrieved about the Buddha's illness. He was so worried that he could not think properly. He related to the Buddha that he had found consolation in the fact that surely the Awakened One would not attain final nirvana without having given regulations about running the Monastic Order.
But the Buddha rejected this; what was there left to pronounce for the monastic disciples? He had taught the Dharma in all its aspects. And unlike other teachers, he had kept nothing secret (no secret doctrine, no special dispensation, no elite monastic instruction, as was so common in India, but later Buddhist teachers did claim such doctrines, hid and obscured key teachings).

The Buddha addressing nuns and monks in the Sangha or Monastic Order (Buddhisam)
Only one who believed that it was the Buddha who had to guide the Monastic Order, one who was still possessed of the "I am" conceit [one of the remaining subtle defects of stream enterers until they become arhats], could believe one to be so important. 
Furthermore, the Buddha declared that he was now 80, had reached old age, and could move this body only with difficulty, just like a jury rigged old cart. His body was only at ease when he entered upon and dwelled in the "signless deliverance of mind" (animitta-cetovimutti, a deep state of meditation that transcends the "signs," or marks, of conditioned existence).
With this he implied that a buddha's body is subject to the law of impermanence like ALL other conditioned (composite) phenomena. But he immediately gave Ananda an antidote for the sadness caused by these words:
"So Ananda, each one should be an island unto oneself, with oneself and no other as guide/refuge [island, light, beacon]; each one should make the Dharma one's island, have the Dharma and no other as one's guide, light, beacon, refuge." [This is possible because when one attains stream entry and higher insights, liberating-wisdoms, one no longer depends on any teacher or guide; one sees the Truth directly and is freed thereby.]
The third chapter of the sutra is located at Vesali, where the Buddha dwelled for the rains retreat. One day he requested Ananda to take a sitting mat (out of grass and folded robes) and go with him to the Capala Shrine to pass the day there in meditation.
When they were seated there, the Blessed One looked at the peaceful landscape before him and reminded Ananda of the many beautiful spots in the vicinity. The reason for this seemingly unmotivated description of the countryside becomes clear later. More

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