Sunday, February 15, 2009

Talk Not Spoken

Today is Nehan, the observance of the Buddha's death. "Celebration" doesn't quite sound like the right word, but his death is not exactly mourned either. Death, being the natural and inevitable outcome of birth, eventually came to the Buddha just as it comes to everyone else, and without Nehan we would have no Vesak (Buddha's birthday) and no Bodhi Day (Buddha's enlightenment).

Not necessarily in commemoration of this day, but more just because it was the date we had decided upon a month ago, I drove to Chattanooga today to participate in their Zen service, my second such trip since Arthur entrusted me with this task before leaving for Switzerland.

I had intended on giving a dharma talk on Buddha's death, but after giving a first-timer the basic orientation talk, and then going through individual practice discussions with each sangha member, I had used up all two hours (and then some) of the morning service. No time left for dharma talks. We recited the Four Bodhisattva Vows and performed Three Treasure Bows, and called it a day.

Since the topic of my planned talk was age-dated, I can't give it next week at the Atlanta Center even though I'm on schedule for next Sunday's dharma talk there, so here it is - the dharma talk that wasn't:

Most of what we know about the Buddha comes from his sermons as memorized by his disciples in the form of sutras. There are no existing first-person accounts of Buddha's life, no Matthews, Marks, Lukes, or Johns to write their own idiosyncratic gospels of his life and death. For obvious reasons, the Buddha's teachings did not include a running, detailed account of his own demise, so we do not have a death sutra, although we do have the Yuikyogyo, the Last Teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha. With his last breath, the Buddha is said to have taught, "Decay is inherent in all compound things. Work out your own salvation with diligence."

Biographical accounts of his death vary from author to author. Near the end of his 2007 biography, Buddha, A Story of Enlightenment, Deepak Chopra merely states, "Buddha lived quietly for another forty-five years, traveling throughout northern India as a renowned teacher before dying at the ripe old age of eighty. The cause of death was eating a bad piece of pork, an embarrassingly humble and mundane way to depart." It is almost as if Chopra was reluctant to discuss death in detail, or underestimated his readers' willingness to hear about death.

In contrast, Karen Armstrong's excellent 2001 biography, simply titled Buddha, details his final months and ultimate death over some 14 pages. From this and other accounts, we can know the story of his last days roughly as follows.

In his eightieth year, in the village of Beluva where he had gone to spend the Rain Retreat, the Buddha was stricken by a serious illness, the nature of which is not known. His ever-present attendant, Ananda, was quite grief-stricken, although the Buddha told him that there was no reason for sorrow. But after the Rain Retreat, the Buddha prophesied that he would pass away in three months. Despite his serious illness, he spent his next three months walking slowly and painfully from village to village addressing whomever would assemble and urging them to practice the doctrines he had taught.

During these final months, the Buddha had left the rest of his followers behind and, accompanied only by the faithful Ananda, preached in ever more remote villages. Picture two old men, one very ill, surviving solely on alms, addressing uncomprehending gatherings in small, backwater towns. Ananda, knowing the end was near, begged Buddha to return to the cities, so that his last sermons could he heard by throngs of his appreciative followers. But the Buddha insisted on pressing deeper into the jungle, "in order that this religion may last long and be perpetuated for the good and happiness of the great multitudes".

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 blacksmith 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 from a pig, the "bad piece of pork" of Chopra, others that it means soft food given to a pig, such as 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.

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 been 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.

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. At a retreat I attended at Sanshin Zen Center in Bloomington two years ago, Shohaku Okumura told us that Subhadda's question was, that among all of the spiritual teachers in India at that time, how was one to know whom to trust after the Buddha's death? Buddha replied that one should examine the teachings and ask oneself if they contain the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. If not, the teaching was not the true way to the extinction of suffering.

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path were first presented in the Buddha's very first sermon, the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, and were the subject of his last lesson. Everything he had taught in the 60 or so years between these two sermons was basically expounding and commenting on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, so he stayed remarkably "on message" throughout his career. 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.

In his last discourse, the Buddha expounded the fundamental truth – even though the physical body dies, the Dharma is eternal; in order to see the Buddha, it is necessary to see the Dharma. In this way, he taught his disciples the precepts and the way they should maintain the practice of Buddha’s Way. This sermon is called the Yuikyogyo, or the Last Teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha.

It is said that at the time of his death the Buddha was sleeping on a bed that had been prepared between two sala trees; his head to the north, his face to the west, and his right hand for a pillow. At that time, white flowers bloomed on the sala trees and fell continuously.

It took death for the Buddha to achieve his final nirvana, his parinirvana. At first this sounded a little nihilistic to me, until I came to understand a little more about the great matter of what life and death are. The nirvana following death is an existance beyond the self and its blissfulness is due to the fact that it is free of ego-attachment. As Karen Armstrong explains, "Those of us who are unenlightened, and whose horizons are still constricted by egotism, cannot imagine this state. But those who had achieved the death of the ego knew that selflessness was not a void."

It is hard for me to say too much more about it, constricted as my consciousness still is by my own ego-attachment. But in zazen, in deep meditation, we can begin to directly experience an existence beyond the ego-self. And this experience of things as they actually are allows us to overcome our fear of death, and joyously experience our life in the here and now.

1 comment:

Uku said...

Thank you for this truly inspiring post!

With palms together,