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Dramatis Personae Window

Chapter 28: Returning North To Die

For the 45 years of his teaching the Buddha never ceased in his work, preaching tirelessly to all kinds of people. He never became impatient with a question, or found one that he could not answer. By the end of this 45 years of ministry, he was 80 years old, and he knew that the time was drawing near when he would attain the state of nirvana. Before that happened, he wanted to return to the Himalayas where he had been a child, so he took Ananda and a few others and left the town of Rajagaha.

He journeyed north through the town of Vaishali. There a courtesan named Amrapali (Āmrapālī) offered him a beautiful mango grove to establish a hermitage, which came to be known as Amrapali Grove.

As they continued toward Kapilavastu they reached the Bamboo Forest Retreat that King Bimbisara had made for him so long before. (V chapter 19.) When they got there, the Buddha told his bhikshus to spread out and stay wherever they were offered space. He and Ananda stayed in the village. While they were there, the Buddha took sick. When he recovered, Ananda admitted that he had been worried that the Buddha might die, when there was more to teach.

“There is no more to teach,” said the Buddha. “I have taught you everything about how to reach nirvana and left nothing out. There are no secret teachings. You must not depend on me. You must depend on yourselves. The Law (dharma) is the heart of everything. There is nothing else.”

The following morning, the Buddha felt better, and went out to beg as usual, then went to meditate in the shade of a tree near a stupa called the Stupa of the Skull (kapāla-stūpa). As he meditated, he experienced a premonition that in three months he would attain his “final nirvana” (parinirvāṇa = physical death). When Ananda came to help him back that evening, he said to him, “Ananda, the Lord of the World will attain his final nirvana on the 15th day of the 6th month. There are still three months.”

Ananda was not happy at the prospect of the Buddha leaving him, but the Buddha assured him that death was inevitable, and there was no point in worrying about it. Some people believe that the Buddha three times hinted that he could live to the end of the era if Ananda would ask him to remain on earth, but that Ananda, influenced by the demon Mara, failed to notice these hints, and therefore did not make the request.

The Buddha wanted to see the town of Vaishali for one final time, and he went in begging with Ananda, and then he told Ananda to assemble all the bhikshus in the town of Vaishali at the hermitage. There the Buddha preached to them, telling them of his attaining final nirvana. He reminded them that nothing in this world is unchanging, and he reminded them of his teachings on how to avoid the sufferings of the cycle of life and death.

“This is our last time begging together in Vaishali, Ananda,” he said. “Let’s go and spread the word in the nearby villages.” Today there are pagodas in some of these places commemorating this.

picture by Tu Hoang And an Anonymous Fellow Student
The Buddha could go no further and asked Ananda to prepare him a bed among the trees. Then he lay there resting, as peaceful as ever in the past.
Drawing by Tu Hoang, Thurgood Marshall College (UCSD), Class of 2011, and an Anonymous Fellow Student, Eleanor Roosevelt College (UCSD), Class of 2009, by permission

Finally he led his followers to the Stupa of the Skull, where he had had the premonition about attaining his final nirvana. On the way they rested in a mango grove which belonged to a goldsmith’s son named Junda. The Buddha preached to Junda and his family. The next day, at their invitation, he returned. But among the foods they offered to him was an herb tea and a local specialty called “soft pig” (sūkaramaddava). Oddly, the Buddha told everyone that when he had finished, the leftovers should be buried, for none but a Buddha would be able to eat this dish. No one today knows what “soft pig” was. Some think it was a vegetarian pastry. Say insist it was a kind of mushroom. Some people believe it was cooked pork. Whatever it was, shortly after the Buddha ate it he was stuck with an attack of dysentery.

Despite his illness, the Buddha continued his wandering. This time he headed towards the town of Kushinagari (Kuśinagarī), where he would die.

Along the way they met Prince Pukkusa of the Malla (Mālla) clan, which was the clan that ruled the town of Kushinagari. The prince was a student of the Buddha’s old teacher Arada Kalama. (V. chapter 15.) When the Buddha told Pukkusa who he was and what he was doing, Pukkusa immediately became his follower, and presented him with two bolts of fine golden cloth. The Buddha received one, and asked that the other be given to Ananda. But it is said that the beautiful gold was nowhere near as radiant as the skin of the Buddha.

When they had rested, they crossed the rivers and approached the town of Kushinagari. When they reached a grove of shala trees outside the gates of the town, the Buddha could go no further and asked Ananda to prepare him a bed among the trees. Then he lay there resting, as peaceful as ever in the past. Many bhikshus believed that he was poisoned by Junda’s food, but the Buddha told them that even if that was true, Junda should not be blamed. On the contrary, he had gained religious merit by providing the Buddha’s final meal on this earth.

Ananda, who still suffered from attachment, withdrew into the wood and wept as he thought of his master dying and leaving him alone in the world. While Ananda was grieving, the Buddha opened his eyes and, not seeing him, asked where he had gone. One of the bhikshus told him about Ananda crying his heart out in the wood. The Buddha sent for him, and very compassionately consoled him. And he told the bhikshu that all the buddhas of the past had had illustrious assistants, but none surpassed Ananda, which was true.

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