16. Mahaparinibbana Sutta

Introduction

The Mahaparinibbana Sutta tells us about the last period of the Buddha’s life, about how He gave the last instructions, left his body, and how His disciples behaved, being left without the Teacher. The content of the sutta is imbued with Ananda’s confusion (based on his impressions, the basis of the sutta is recorded). In general, it can be said that this sutta is written not so much about the Buddha as about the Sangha.

Advice for Brahman Vassakara

Already known from Samaññaphala sutta (Digha Nikaya 2), King Ajatasattu sends his minister, Brahman Vassakara, to ask the Buddha whether Ajatasattu’s attack on his adversaries, Vajjis, would be successful. In response, Buddha praises the customs of Vajjis, and explains that as long as they observe their good habits, they won’t be defeated. The Vajjis gather for public meetings, their conversations take place in peace and harmony, they act in accordance with ancient laws, do not abduct women, respect their holy places, honor and protect the Arhats. Knowing the story of King Ajatasattu, who killed his father Bimbisara for the sake of gaining the throne, one can understand that the words of the Buddha contain instructions for King Ajatasattu himself. Brahman listens to the words of Buddha and then leaves, and King Ajatasattu, as becomes clear from the subsequent narrative of the Sutta, cancels his plans to attack. Instead, he decides to strengthen his own kingdom.

The Buddha’s Instructions on the Sangha prosperity

Preparing disciples for his leaving this world, the Buddha often gave instructions on the conditions of Sangha’s prosperity: frequent visits to general meetings; conducting business and talks in peace and harmony; implementation of common decisions (regulations); respecting the elders; no succumbing to the Triple Thirst that leads to repeated existence; preserving privacy; development of friendliness that allows people to live together in joy.

In addition, the Buddha instructed on the development of special qualities important for the prosperity of the Sangha:

Graceful purposefulness

When the followers of the Teaching will not indulge in empty entertainments, pampering feelings, will not be frivolous in conversations, will strive to maintain practice during sleep, will avoid bad company and look for a worthy company, will not give shelter to unwholesome desires, will not stop halfway, having achieved only minor successes – then the Sangha will prosper.

List of qualities required for a disciple

Faith; shame of bad behavior; mastery in learning; steadfastness, attentiveness and wisdom.

Seven Factors of Awakening

Mindfulness; distinction between states of consciousness; austerity (diligence); inspiration (zeal); peace of mind; concentration; detachment (equanimity).

List of good awarenesses

Awareness of impermanence; awareness of the absence of a real “I” in anything whatsoever; awareness of unattractiveness of the body; awareness of shortcomings and interference; awareness of the cessation of attachments; awareness of the advantages of equanimity; awareness of the non-occurrence of suffering (nirodha).

List of the good conditions of communication in the Sangha

Kindness of words, thoughts and actions; respectfulness; cooperative exercise of the good qualities of the behavior of the body, speech and mind; preservation of thoughtfulness and insight.

Morality, Concentration and Wisdom

The Buddha often instructed his disciples that the fruit of concentration becomes the greatest, when morality is fully developed; great is the benefit of wisdom when it is fully developed by concentration; and the mind, fully developed in wisdom, is freed from all drives – from attraction to sensual pleasures, from attraction to becoming, and from attraction to ignorance (oblivion).

Sariputta’s (Sariputra’s) Lion’s Roar

When the Buddha was in a mango grove in Nalanda, Sariputta came to him and with ecstasy and devotion began to praise the qualities of the Blessed. Sariputta said that it seems to him that there was not, there is not and will not be anyone who is more sublime and wise than the Blessed One.

In response, the Buddha asks Sariputta: does he know through direct personal experience the qualities of the Buddhas of the past and future? And, since he does not know them by personal experience, then why are these proud words, alike the lion’s roar, told by Sariputta?

Sariputta agrees with the Master that he does not know the qualities of the Arhats of the past and the future, however, having comprehended the pure Dhamma transmitted to him by the Buddha, he directly comprehends the following: all those perfect Arhats of the past and future that have reached or will reach complete liberation have gone and will go through the same way. This is the way of getting rid of mental disturbances (impurities), strengthening the mind by concentration, nurturing the good qualities of the mind, and obtaining perfect Awakening. Therefore, there never was and never will be a higher achievement than the achievement of the Buddha who has gone through this whole Path (Sariputta does not claim that the Buddha is superior to other Buddhas, he emphasizes the perfection of the state attained by the Buddhas).

Sermon in Pataligama

In the village of Pataligama, there was a large community of householders who were worldly followers of the Buddha. In preaching to them, the Buddha opposed the disadvantages of immoral behavior and advantages of high moral behavior:

Poverty and wealth

Evil deeds lead to a loss of conscience – a situation of extreme “poverty”. On the contrary, having become stronger in righteousness, a person finds considerable “wealth”.

Confusion and confidence in a noble assembly

He who does evil, fears the assembly of noble people. He who does good, feels confident in a meeting of noble people.

Fear and fearlessness

He who does evil, is in a constant fear of death. He who does good, gets rid of this fear.

Rebirth

After the destruction of the body, the evildoer is reborn in the lower worlds, in a state of anguish and suffering. He who does good is reborn in the abodes of happiness, in heaven.

The blessing of the advisers Sunidha and Vassakara and crossing the Ganges

Giving instructions to the advisers who invited the Buddha with his Sangha for a meal, the Buddha speaks about the benefits of generosity: if a person is noble, they feed virtuous people, thus bringing gifts to all the deities in this place; the deities patronize such a person.

After the meal, Buddha with the monks started his way back. The Ganges overflowed and everyone started looking for boats or rafts. The Buddha, along with his disciples, disappeared on this shore and appeared on the other shore (this story conveys an allegory frequent in Buddhist texts: crossing the stream of suffering through wisdom. This crossing of the river occurred for the entire assembly of the monks – a symbol of attaining wisdom by the whole Sangha).

Mirror of Dhamma

Ananda often asked Buddha questions about a state of the Dhamma followers after death. Buddha explained to him in detail: by destroying fetters that bind all beings to the world of feelings, overcoming mental disturbances, overcoming belief in the “I”, these beings attain higher worlds, those or other, according to how these ascetics managed to realize the Noble Way of cessation of suffering. Further, the Buddha tells Ananda that there is no need to bother him with constant questions about the fate of those who left the body. After all, Ananda himself, being endowed with knowledge of the Teaching, can prophesy about the future: good inclinations have good consequences, while unwholesome ones lead to suffering.

Ailment and the decision to prolong life

During a rain season, the Buddha was struck by a terrible illness and acute agony, the harbingers of death. However, He thought that it would not be right to leave this life without saying goodbye to the disciples, without giving last instructions. By effort of will, He cast off the ailment and kept himself in life, delaying the hour of death for a while. Ananda, frightened by the approaching death of the Blessed One, cheered up when he saw that the Buddha had recovered. However, the Buddha reminded Ananda that a body, carrying its own destruction in itself, cannot be eternal. “I’m old,” said the Buddha, “my stay here is nearing its end, I’m eighty years old. As an old chariot can move only quietly and carefully, so my body now moves quietly and carefully. Therefore, Ananda, be your own support, seek the Refuge in yourself, relying on the Dhamma and taking the Refuge in the Dhamma. How can this be done? Live, realizing the body in the body, perception in perceptions, the mind in the mind, qualities of the mind in the qualities of the mind; practice with thought and with pure consciousness; leave the desires and sorrows of worldly life – this is what means to be the support of yourself and the Refuge of yourself, relying on the Dhamma and taking the Refuge in the Dhamma”.

Buddha refuses to maintain life in the body

When Buddha meditated at the gravestone near the town of Vesali, an evil spirit Mara appeared to him. Mara began to persuade the Buddha to leave the body, reminding him that the Buddha decided to stay in samsara until the Sangha gained strength and until the Teaching spread to the world. And now, when the Sangha has reached maturity, when the Teaching is spread out, it is time for the Buddha to leave the world. The Buddha responds to Mara: “Rejoice, evil spirit! With my will, I will deny the rest of the earthly days. By the end of the third month, there will be a parinibbana of the Tathagata”.

At the moment when the Buddha makes his decision, an earthquake occurs.

Despair of Ananda

Preparing Ananda for acceptance of the inevitable, the Buddha gives him instructions that help to comprehend the illusory nature of the name-form:

The Buddha tells Ananda that when he entered the assembly of earthly beings (Kshatriyas, Brahmans, householders and hermits) and celestial beings (Four Great Kings, Thirty-Three Gods, Maras and Brahmas), He became like them in appearance, and his voice was similar to their voice. Then He preached to them and instructed them, and they wondered – who is this?

Further, the Buddha explains by what kinds of concentration the mastery of the illusory body is achieved: concentration on ordinary small and huge objects; concentration on ordinary small and huge objects with the help of internal perception; concentration on blue forms, yellow forms; red forms and white forms (these skills can be characterized as the basis of the art of visualisation). Then the Buddha explains to Ananda that mastery is manifested as freedom of perception and awareness in the world of feelings, in the world of (pure) forms and in the world of formlessness. Reminding and explaining the qualities of the liberated state to Ananda, the Buddha announces to him about the decision to leave the body in three months.

Ananda asks the Blessed to stay in samsara until the end of the kalpa. However, the Buddha reminds Ananda that everything that was born must die. Therefore, the Tathagata leaves his body (Ananda feels guilty because he did not persuade the Buddha to remain in the body until the end of the kalpa earlier, when, as the sutta describes, the Buddha mentioned supernatural possibilities, but a desire for an unlimited prolongation of the existence of a body contradicts the Teaching of the Buddha).

The Last Meal

Spending the last months of his life visiting various gatherings of monks, the Buddha strengthened their understanding of the Four Truths, morality, concentration, wisdom and liberation. The last meal that the Buddha took at the monks’ meeting was a meal at Cunda the blacksmith. Among other dishes, Cunda the blacksmith cooked tender boar meat. The Buddha ordered Cunda that he give this food only to Him, and bury the remains of the food.

After this meal, the Buddha’s great suffering starts again, but He, overcoming it, goes with Ananda to the village of Kusinara. The Buddha instructs Ananda that those who blame Cunda, that the Blessed had taken the last meal from him, received the following reply: “Blessed is Cunda, he has accumulated good karma for many rebirths by the fact that he had served the last meal for the Buddha. Great is his merit!”

On the way, Ananda witnessed a miraculous phenomenon: when the Buddha wanted to drink, a muddy stream through which many carriages passed suddenly became clear and fresh.

Inner Peace

Pukkusa from Kusinara approached the Buddha that was resting under a tree and asked Him about inner peace. He told the Blessed One that he had once met a hermit who retained complete equanimity and immersion in inner contemplation while a procession of chariots passed by him, leaving a layer of dust on his clothes.

The Buddha gave Pukkusa his own example of how deep a contemplation can be: He told how during a severe thunderstorm, when lightnings killed two villagers and four oxen nearby, the Buddha was so immersed in his reflections that he did not notice what was happening. In admiration, Pukkusa laid brocade clothes on the Buddha, but their radiance faded in the light that emanated from the body of the Buddha himself.

Parinibbana Place

Preparing to leave the body, Buddha lay down on his right side, in the lion’s pose, between twin sal trees. The sal trees had very large flowers with red petals, and these flowers rained down on His body. Ananda began to ask the Buddha to postpone leaving his body until the day when they will be in some civilized, known place, because the village of Kusinara was in the middle of the jungle. However, the Buddha stops Ananda: “Do not say that. There was a time when this place was the city of Maha Sudassana, the capital of a huge empire”.

Further, the Buddha talks about the wonderful qualities of Ananda: when Ananda begins to speak, everyone rejoices, and when he becomes silent, everyone is upset. Thus Buddha confirmed the credibility of Ananda’s stories, which later became the basis of suttas. In addition, He explained what would be the supreme penalty in Sangha. This supreme measure is the termination of communication with the offender – let him act as he wishes, but other members of the Sangha do not enter into communication with him.

Continuing the conversation with Ananda, Buddha recalled the four most sacred places associated with His activities: the place of birth, the place of attaining the Awakening, the place of turning the Wheel of Teaching and the place of retreat to parinibbana.

On the last night, the villagers received a blessing from the Buddha and He accepted the wandering ascetic Subhadda into Sangha.

Subhadda

The ascetic Subhadda was in doubt for a long, long time. He could not decide which of the hermits to follow, which community to join. Learning about the approach of the last hour of the Buddha, he decided to ask for instructions from Him. However, knowing Subhadda habit to empty reasoning, Ananda did not want to let the ascetic to the dying Teacher. Three times Ananda refused the ascetic, but then the Buddha, seeing Subhadda’s mind through his eye of wisdom, ordered the monk who was on duty to let the visitor in.

Entering, Subhadda began his usual inquiries about the truth of this or that teaching and the achievements of this or that teacher. But the Buddha answered him: “Enough, Subhadda. Let all of them claim that they have reached deep wisdom or have not reached it at all… I will tell you a profound Dhamma: if in someone’s Teaching and Rules of Behavior there is a good eightfold Path, then in this Teaching you will find ascetics of all (four) degrees of holiness; and if there is no eightfold Path in their Teaching and Rules of Behavior , then you will not find ascetics of any degree of holiness among these, following these Teachings and Rules.

In age but twenty-nine was I, Subhadda,
When I renounced the world to seek the Good;
Fifty-one years have passed since then, Subhadda,
And in all that time a wanderer have I been
In the domain of virtue and of truth,
And except therein, there is no saint.”

Subhadda became the last disciple accepted by the Buddha into the Sangha.

The last word of the Buddha

Maybe, – the Buddha instructed Ananda, – someone of you will think: “Ended is the word of the Master now”. No, Ananda. That Dhamma and that morality that I taught you – may they be your Teacher.

Now let the young monks respectfully address the elders: “Venerable”.

The Sangha can abolish all minor and unimportant rules.

After these orders, the Buddha uttered the last words: “All created things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!”

The Venerable Maha Kassapa

The Venerable Maha Kassapa (the story of whom is described in the Kassapa Sihanada Sutta, Digha Nikaya 8), received news about the Parinibbana of the Blessed One with delay. He was informed about this by a naked ascetic, carrying a mandarava flower, taken by him, as a relic, in Kusinara (apparently, a flower of the sal tree). The monks in the Kassapa’s Sangha reacted differently to these news: the less experienced ones began to mourn and surrender to despondency; those monks, whose passions died down, reasoned thus: “Is it possible that someone who was born, carrying destruction within themselves, never has been destroyed?” They were in a state of poise. There was also someone in their midst, saying: “Enough complaining! Beforehand we had to listen to all the decrees of the Great Ascetic. Now we can decide for ourselves what to do.”

Maha Kassapa gathered his Sangha and together they arrived in Kusinara. The funeral pyre could not be lit until Maha Kassapa came to say goodbye to the Blessed One.

Partition of the Relics

The rulers of many areas where the Buddha preached during his lifetime decided to demand his remains. Soon they began to argue, and the elders of the Sangha decided to divide the remains into eight parts. Those who arrived after the division took the ashes from the funeral pyre and erected a stupa above it. A separate stupa was erected for a vessel in which the body was laid in a pyre. Since there were ten directions of light in ancient India, ten stupas became a symbol of the spread of the Dhamma.

Vladimir Pyatsky and Smadar Pyatsky
Translation: Natalia Tsimbler