An excerpt from
The Buddha’s Life
Old age, Illness, and Death
In his eightieth year, in the village of Beluva where he had gone to
spend the Rains Retreat, the Buddha was stricken by a serious illness,
the nature of which is not known.
Seeing that the Buddha was so ill, Mara, who had not
troubled him for so many years, came to him and said, “It’s time
now for you to attain final Nirvana.” The Buddha replied that he
would not do so until he had “given security to the afflicted”,
until he saw Buddhism “flourishing, held by many, and well proclaimed.”
Mara said, these things have already come to pass, and the Buddha, having
had the satisfaction of hearing Mara testify that he had succeeded in
his mission, told the Evil One that he would attain the final Nirvana
in three months’ time.
Mara then departed, knowing that evil would persist
in the world even though the Buddha had taught the way to purification.
Mara knew that some people, perhaps many, would attain enlightenment by
following the Buddha’s path, whereas others, perhaps many more, would
not attain enlightenment because they would be addicted and attached to
the evils which Mara symbolized.
The moment the Buddha declared that he would pass away
in three months’ time the earth staggered, great bolts of lightning fell
from the sky, mountains toppled, and heavenly drums thundered. Ananda
saw this commotion and asked the Buddha what had caused it. The Buddha
said that even though he might have chosen to remain alive “for a
cycle” he was tired “as an old cart kept together with thongs”,
that he was worn and ill, and had decided that he would sustain his life
for three more months only. He told Ananda that one of the occasions when
earthquakes occurred, as this one had, was when a Buddha “shakes
off the sum of his life”.
The sad news alarmed Ananda and he wept. He asked the
Buddha what would happen to the Sangha after his death, whom could the
disciples turn to for instruction and inspiration? The Buddha answered
that the disciples had learned from him everything he was able to teach
them and that now they should “dwell as having refuges in themselves
and not elsewhere, as having refuges in the Doctrine and not elsewhere.”
Ananda then asked what those disciples should do who
had become accustomed to pay reverence to the Buddha when the Rain Seasons
had ended. The Buddha told him that there were four places to which a
faithful disciple might go, places that would rouse his devotion: where
the Buddha was born, where he attained enlightenment, where he delivered
the first discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Doctrine, and where
he would soon attain complete nirvana—Lumbini Grove, Bodhgaya, Benares,
and Kusinara, now the four most holy places of Buddhism.
After the Rains Retreat, and despite his serious illness,
the Buddha spent his next three months walking slowly and painfully from
village to village addressing assemblages of monks and urging them to
practice the doctrines he had taught them, “in order that this religion
may last long and be perpetuated for the good and happiness of the great
When the Buddha arrived at Pava, on what was to be
the last day of his life, he stayed in the mango grove of a smith named
Cunda, who prepared for him a meal of “hard and soft food” and
a serving of sukaramaddava. Scholars have been unable to agree on the
precise meaning of sukaramaddava, some believing that it means soft food
of a pig, others that it means soft food given to a pig, mushrooms. Whatever
the food may have been, it made the Buddha dreadfully ill, causing blood
to flow from him and violent pains to assail him.
Through the force of mindfulness and meditation the
Buddha was able to control the pains, and he and his faithful attendant
Ananda started on their way to Kusinara. On the way the Buddha sat down
to rest near a stream, and asked Ananda to bring him water from the stream.
Ananda returned empty-handed and told him that the water was not drinkable,
that it was muddy and turbid. The Buddha asked Ananda to go back to the
stream, and when Ananda did so he found that the water, thanks to the
Buddha’s wondrous powers, was now clear and pure.
The Buddha, sensing that Cunda might be feeling guilt
and remorse, told Ananda to inform Cunda that in a future birth he would
receive a great reward, because having eaten the food he had given—the
Buddha’s last alms—the Buddha was about to attain nirvana. Two gifts,
he said, will be blessed above all others: the food given him by Sujata,
which revived him so that he could attain Buddahood under the bodhi-tree,
and the food given him by Cunda, which brought about his passing away.
Proceeding to a grove outside Kusinara the Buddha lay
down for the last time, asking Ananda to arrange a bed with his head to
the north. He then arranged himself in “the lion position” on
his right side, and seeing that an elder monk was standing in front of
him and fanning him, he told the monk to step aside. He explained that
a multitude of gods had assembled to see him and that the elderly monk
was obstructing their view.The Buddha then sent Ananda to the villagers
of Kusinara with his invitation to come see him and be presented to him
for the last time. So many came that they could not be presented individually,
and Ananda had to ask them to come to the Buddha a family at a time.
His next act of compassion was to assemble the monks
and speak to them about the insight and kindness of Ananda. He told Ananda
not to weep, reminded Ananda of what he had so often taught him about
the impermanence of all things, and assured Ananda: you have always done
well, persevere and you too will be freed from the thirst of life, the
chain of ignorance.
Later at night a brahmin philosopher named Suhhadda
came to see the Buddha hoping that he might he able to ask him some questions
about the Dhamma. Ananda tried to turn him away lest he disturb the Buddha’s
final moments, but the ever-compassionate Buddha told Ananda to bring
Subhadda to him. Talking to him patiently and quietly, the Buddha was
able to resolve Subhadda’s doubts, after which Suhhadda was admitted to
the Sangha and eventually attained enlightenment.
Then the Buddha asked the five hundred assembled monks
if any of them had doubts, misgivings, or questions about any matter of
the Dhamma. All were silent, and when Ananda expressed his surprise, the
Buddha assured him that all the monks present had entered the path and
were certainly destined for enlightenment.
With his last breath, the Buddha addressed this final
advice to his disciples: “Decay is inherent in all compound things.
Work out your salvation with diligence.”
Then, as the founder of one of the world’s great religions,
the compassionate teacher who showed mankind how to escape suffering,
entered final nirvana, lotus blossoms fell from heaven and covered his