Shown here is the reclining Buddha statue at the Mahaparinirvana Temple.
He died in the small town of Kushinagar or Kusinara in Northern India, in the same Utter Pradesh province where he gave his first dharma talk to those scorning ascetic companions.
The Buddha lived to the age of eighty. We are fortunate that he lived as long as he did, for he had time to refine his message, to correct any errors in understanding in his students so that the dharma he taught could survive over 2500 years. Because he insisted that students sense into their own connection and insights, using the teachings for guidance when they lose sight of the importance of the practice, the dharma hasn’t become dry dogma, but feels as fresh and alive today as I imagine it to have been in his time.
He was such a dedicated and generous teacher that even on his deathbed he is said to have asked his followers if there were any last questions they wanted clarified before he passed on. They were naturally distressed over the impending loss of their dear teacher and leader. They couldn’t imagine, perhaps, how they would go on without him.
According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, he told them, “Be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the dharma as a lamp; hold fast to the dharma as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourself. And those who either now or after I am dead shall be a lamp unto themselves, who take themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the dharma as their lamp, and holding fast to the dharma as their refuge, shall not look for refuge to anyone beside themselves, it is they who shall reach the highest goal.”
‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’ This is a vital core of the teachings that keeps it a living practice. It is what drew me initially to Buddhism. And when I did begin to seriously study and adapt my own meditation to Buddhist Vipassana style practice, I didn’t feel I was discovering anything new. It was more of a homecoming and a reassurance that my own findings were grounded in the dharma. I felt like I was finding a wonderful ready-made structure upon which I could drape my inner explorations, like a dress form for a seamstress. The dharma allows me the freedom to work on my own insights, but gives me a solid foundation.
In these words, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself,’ we are encouraged to practice, and to notice and explore the validity of our own insights. We are reminded not to accept any teachings on blind faith. Another time the Buddha is quoted to have said, “Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in diverse places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”
So that reminder to be a lamp unto yourself, given from his deathbed, was core teaching. How different Buddhism would have been without it!
But how did the Buddha die? There are several versions of the story, but recently a medical doctor did a careful analysis of all the accounts and came up with the hypothesis that makes the most medical sense from our current perspective. He said it was unlikely that it was food poisoning, but rather, caused by a mesenteric infarction, an intestinal condition that can be aggravated by eating a meal.
As any of you know who have lost someone near to you, the details of their death, as involving as they were at the time, become less interesting after a while. Instead, the celebration of their life becomes more encompassing. So perhaps we aren’t that interested in how the Buddha died. We are just grateful that he lived.
But the Buddha encourages us to look death in the face and not turn away from it. To be fearless when it comes to recognizing the nature of life and our tendency to act as if it is a given, that it will not be taken away, as if it’s a game of chance that we might just win. How often do people say, “If I die..” as if there was some option. We all die. Life is terminal. It is an incurable condition.
There is a Buddhist meditative practice of sitting in the charnel grounds amidst the cremated remains of the dead. Reality of the temporal nature of this earthly existence is a key acknowledgement. It is not a fascination with death or some death cult. Instead it is accepting the occasional naturally occurring reminder of life’s temporal nature, and is to be valued as such. With each occurrence there is the breaking of the shell of illusion that builds around each of us when we think nothing will change in our lives and that we and those we love will live forever.
I remember in the early days at Spirit Rock there was a skeleton on a stand in the corner of the community hall. It was a great weekly reminder. I wonder whatever happened to it? Did someone become like Siddhartha’s father and decide it was better if we weren’t exposed to it? Were they trying to protect us from the truth of impermanence in a place where the whole point is to remember it?
Did they remove it because they were afraid of facing it themselves? I think about the young Siddhartha’s discovery of illness, old age and death, and I think of my own generation’s plea, as sung by The Who ‘…hope I die before I get old.’ Death is not as scary to youth as old age, because death doesn’t seem real, something casually accomplished repeatedly in violent movies. Youth are known for taking outrageous risks of death, taunting it to take them. Death is more dashing than old age, which is ever present, both frustratingly authoritative and ‘ugly,’ — wrinkled, slow, hard of hearing, holding its own antiquated views of things. One of our family stories is how my father on receiving his granddaughter’s baseball-capped boyfriend into the house, roughly said, “We take our hats off in this house, young man.” Well, thanks for the welcome, you old fart, the boyfriend must have thought.
I remember when I was around twelve and my best friend and I had talks about old age, how horrible it seemed. We would play at being old, stacking our chins or stretching our necks to be fat old lady or skinny old lady, talking with our old lady voices, the ones we used for the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel. All old age seemed wicked to us. We were more terrified of becoming decrepit than we were of dying. What was death anyway?
Each generation vilifies old age out of terror of growing old. Then each generation ages and becomes the old ones. And suddenly it doesn’t seem so terrible. There are sayings like ‘old age isn’t for sissies,’ recognizing that illness and old age often come together, but not necessarily. I am to the stage now where I am able to see the benefits of good diet and exercise on some friends and family members and the effects of bad habits on others, and though there is no escaping death, and some diseases seem to be the genetic luck of the draw, still, the responsibility people are taking for their well being seems to be paying off. May it continue to be so! And may we deal with whatever arises, whatever losses or limitations, with an open mind that allows us to accept, not resign to, this new vantage point, this ‘new normal’ that is now our life in the present moment.
As we age, death does become more present. We lose more loved ones more frequently. I remember my mother when she was in her early seventies, returning to the dinner table after receiving a phone call that yet another friend had died. I think it had been three that week alone. “Dropping like flies,” she said. I was shocked at her casual statement, so distant was death from my own experience at the time. I’ll never forget that! Within a couple of years, she was dead, too. That was no casually received event for me, of course. Still, twenty-one years later, it breaks my heart all over again to say it. Yet I notice that the little piercings of pain glimmer like jewels. To have known her, to have loved her, to have been her daughter -what a precious gift that was, and still is. Having her only in photos, letters and memory is not the same as being able to hug her, to hear her laugh, to see her full of life. But this is what normal is for me now, and the other day I realized I am looking more like her. I look at my hands and I see how they are a combination of her hands and my paternal grandmother’s hands — an odd pairing, her dry skin with grandma’s wondrous raised veins I loved to push around when I was small. Clearly these are not hand model hands, but for me they hold so much more than any pretty pair of hands possibly could.