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How did the Buddha die?

Binh Anson


The Buddha died of old age, when he was eighty years old. The death was triggered by his body reaction to a dish of wild mushroom. He died peacefully and mindfully.


In order to know the last day of the Buddha, we should read books on his life or better still, read the recorded suttas. The best source is the Maha Parinibbana Sutta (Kinh Dda.i Ba't Nie^'t Ba`n) from the Pali collection of the Digha Nikaya (Tru+o+`ng Bo^. Kinh), or the Wandering Sutra (Kinh Du Ha`nh) from the Sanskrit/Chinese collection of the Digha Agama (Tru+o+`ng A Ha`m). There is a separate Chinese sutra, The Maha Parinirvana Sutra, which was also translated into Vietnamese, but this script has been widely regarded as being composed at a very late stage (about 200-400 AD).

II.1. References

In English:

[1] Last Days of the Buddha - The Maha Parinibbana Sutta, 1988. Sister Vajira and Francis Story. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.

[2] Thus I have heard - The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Digha Nikaya), 1987. Maurice Walshe. Wisdom Publication, USA.

[3] The Buddha and his teachings, 1980. Narada Mahathera. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka (Ddu+'c Pha^.t va` Pha^.t Pha'p, translated by Pha.m Kim Kha'nh).

In Vietnamese:

[4] Tru+o+`ng Bo^. Kinh (Digha Nikaya), 1991. Thi'ch Minh Cha^u\. Vie^.n Nghie^n cu+'u Pha^.t ho.c, Vietnam (translated from the Pali script).

[5] Tru+o+`ng A Ha`m (Digha Agama), 1991. Thi'ch Tri' Ti.nh. Vie^.n Nghie^ n cu+'u Pha^.t ho.c, Vietnam (translated from the Chinese script).

[6] Ddu+o+`ng xu+a ma^y tra('ng, 1992. Thi'ch Nha^'t Ha.nh. La' Bo^'i, USA (English version: Old path, White cloud).

Personally, I prefer Ref. [1]. The sutta was beautifully translated into English with thorough footnotes and explanation. It is a small and inexpensive booklet (US$ 3.50 plus postage), which can be obtained from:

The Buddhist Publication Society
54, Sangharaja Mawatha

or in USA:

Bodhi Tree Bookstore
8585 Melrose Avenue
West Hollywood. CA 90069
Tel. (310) 659 1733

II.2. The last meal

The last meal offered to the Buddha was prepared by Cunda, the metalworker [1]:

"... And Cunda, the metalworker, after the night had passed, had choice food, hard and soft, prepared in his abode, together with a quantity of sukara-maddava, ..."

".... And with the sukara-maddava prepared by him (Cunda), he served the Blessed One; and with the other food, hard and soft, he served the community of bikkhus."

"Thereafter, the Blessed One spoke to Cunda, saying: "Whatever, Cunda, is left over of the sukara-maddava, bury that in a pit. For I do not see in all this world, with its gods, Maras and Brahmas, among the host of ascetics and brhamins, gods and men, anyone who could eat it and entirely digest it except the Tathagata alone."

In the translation from the Pali script, "SUKARA-MADDAVA" was not translated in the English version [1; 2; 3], although Walshe translated it as "pig's delight" [2]. However, the Vietnamese versions contain the words "na^'m" (mushroom) and "mo^.c nhi~" (edible black fungus) [4; 5; 6]. In some other books, which I forgot the exact titles, the terms "pork meat, boar meat" were used. According to many Pali scholars [1; 2]:

sukara: pig, boar
maddava: delicate, well-liked, soft, tender

So, sukara-maddava may nean:

(1) the tender parts of a pig or boar
(2) what is enjoyed by pigs or boars, which may be referred to a mushroom or truffle, or a yam or tuber.

In some other commentaries, sukara-maddava was also mentioned as a "medicinal plant" in classic Indian medicine, or as "young bamboo shoots trampled by pigs".

All the current scholar monks agree with the meaning of "mushroom or truffle", and I concur with them. According to the monastic rules, the monks are not allowed to eat meat from animals specifically killed to make food for them. The meaning of sukara-maddava as "pork/boar meat" is thus not appropriate here.

II.3. The last hours

3.1 "And soon after the Blessed One had eaten the meal provided by Cunda, a dire sickness fell upon him, even dysentery, and he suffered sharp and deadly pains. But the Blessed One endured them mindfully, clearly understanding and unperturbed.

" Then the blessed One spoke to the venerable Ananda, saying: "Come, Ananda, let us go to Kusinara."

3.2 He was thirsty and asked Ananda to get some water from a nearby stream which was quite muddy and turbid. However, when Ananda took the bowl to the stream, the water became clear, pure and pleasant.

3.3 He met Pukkusa of the Malla clan, taught him about the state of calmness of those who had gone forth from the world (ie. the monks and nuns). Pukkasa was impressed, asked to be ordained, and took refuge in the Triple Gems. It is noted that in this part of the Sutta, as well as in many other Discourses, the Pali recitation of the 3 Refuges which is still recited in many Theravadin countries in present time was presented:

Buddham Saranam Gachami (I take the refuge in the Buddha)
Dhammam Saranam Gachami (I take the refuge in the Dhamma)
Sangham Saranam Gachami (I take the refuge in the Sangha)

3.4 When ordaining Pukkusa, the Buddha and Ananda accepted new robes offered by him. When Ananda helped the Buddha changing robe, he observed the skin of the Buddha becoming exceedingly clear and radiant. The Buddha told him that there were only two occasions when the Tathagata's body was in such state: Nibanna (Enlightenment) and Parinibanna (Final Passing Away). The Buddha told Ananda that He would enter Parinibbana in the last watch of that night.

3.5 He then took a rest, and advised Ananda to tell Cunda, the metalworker, not to have any remorse because of that last meal. He told Ananda that there were two equally important meals which had been offered to him: the one offered to him before Enlightenment and the one before Parinibanna.

He then spoke of the importance of generosity, moral conduct, and mind training (Dana, Sila, Bhavana - Bo^' thi', Tri` gio+'i, Thie^`n ddi.nh):

"Who gives, his virtues shall increase;
Who is self-curbed, no hatred bears;
Whoso is skilled in virtues, evil shuns,
And by the rooting out of lust and hate
And all delusion, comes to be at peace".

3.6 The Buddha went to Mallas's sala grove, in the vicinity of Kusinara, and asked Ananda to prepare a couch for him, between the twin sala trees, with the head to the north. He then instructed Ananda on how to respect and venerate Him:

"... Whatever bikkhu or bikkhuni, layman or laywoman, abides in the Dhamma, lives uprightly in the Dhamma, walks in the way of the Dhamma, it is by such a one that the Tathagata is respected, venerated, esteemed, worshipped and honoured in the highest degree. Therefore, Ananda, thus should youtrain yourselves: 'We shall abide by the Dhamma, live uprightly in the Dhamma, walk in the way of the Dhamma.' ..."

3.7 The Budhha advised all beings present at the site, including many deities, that:

"Impermanent are all compounded things. How could this (his imminent death) be otherwise?"

3.8 The Buddha advised Ananda on the four places a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence: His birth place, the place where He became enlightened, the place where He gave the first discourse (Setting the Dhamma Wheel in Motion), the place where He passed away.

3.9 When Ananda asked how should he treat the Buddha's body after death, the Buddha said:

"Do not hinder yourselves, Ananda, to honour the body of the Tathagata. Rather you should strive, Ananda, and be zealous on your own behalf, for your own good. Unflinchingly, ardently and resolutely you should apply yourselves to your own good."

3.10 When Ananda was weeping, the Buddha told him:

"Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve, do not lament. For have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved, there must be change, separation and severence? Of that which is born, come into being, compounded, and subject to decay, how can one say: 'May it not come to dissolution' ? There can be no such state of things ... Now you should put forth energy, and soon you too will be free from the taints."

3.11 The Buddha taught Sabhadda, a wandering ascetic, about the Noble Eightfold Path, and admitted him into the Order. Sabhada was the last disciple.

3.12 The Buddha told Ananda and other bikkhus that after his death, they should abide to his teaching as their teacher:

"Ananda, what I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma and discipline will be your teacher when I am gone."

3.13 The Buddha asked all the monks whether they had any doubts or uncertainty about the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, or about the path or the practice. He asked them three times but they all kept silent.

3.14 And the Buddha addressed the monks, saying:

" Behold now, bikkhus, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay. Strive on with earnestness."

These were the last words of the Tathagata.

3.15 The Buddha then entered the first jhana, the second jhana, the third jhana, the fourth jhana. Then he entered the sphere of Infinite Space, the sphere of Infinite Conciousness, the sphere of Nothingness, the sphere of Neither-perception-nor-nonperception. Then, he attained the cessation of feeling and perception.

Leaving the attainment of cessation of feeling and perception, he entered the sphere of Neither-perception-nor-nonperception, the sphere of Nothingness, the sphere of Infinite Conciousness, the sphere of Infinite Space. Then he entered the fourth jhana, the third jhana, the second jhana, the first jhana.

Leaving the first jhana, he entered the second jhana, the third jhana, the fourth jhana.Leaving the fourth jhana, the Blessed One immediately passed away.

II.4. What can I learn ?

Every time I read the Maha Parinibbana Sutta [1; 2], I always discover something new to my understanding of the Dhamma:

(1) The Buddha reached Enlightenment when he was 35 years old, but he still lived on to the age of 80, to teach the Dhamma and the path to liberation. His body, however, was just like our body consisting of the five heaps (skandas: form, feeling, perception, volition, and conciousness), and thus subjected to decay and death.

(2) The food prepared by Cunda, the metalworker, was not poisonous, but could be regarded as a catalyst triggering his death.

(3) Enduring the pain with calmness and mindfulness, he continued to teach the Dhamma to his followers to the last moment, and accepted two more disciples.

(4) He was also very thorough in instructing Ananda not to blame Cunda for the last meal, by summarising his teaching in Generosity - Moral Conduct - Mind Training, instructing the people to revere the Dhamma, instructing the monks how to keep the Dhamma alive as their guide and teacher after his death, and also made sure that his teachings were fully understood by his disciples by asking them three times. His final words were again a Dhamma on the impermanent nature of things, and an advice to his disciples to continue their training effort.

(5) He approached the final moment with dignity, peace and mindfulness as he had always advocated: entering into all stages of meditative absorptions, and without attachment, leaving them behind before passing away.

Binh Anson,
Perth, Western Australia
September 1996

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