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Dying After Death: The Buddha's Final Liberation

Article of the Month - January 2007
Viewed 50440 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

The Joy of Death

Once when the Buddha was wandering in search of alms with his disciple Ananda, a devotee offered them two golden drapes. Ananda was astonished to observe that when the lord wore the robe, it seemed to loose its luster, paling in comparison to the Buddha’s own body. The ancient texts present this picture in a verse:

Two robes were they offered of gold,
Brighter shone the teacher manifold. (Digha Nikaya: 16.4.38)

Nirvana Buddha Under the Tree of Life
Nirvana Buddha Under the Tree of Life






The Buddha explained to his disciple that there are two occasions when his skin turns exceptionally bright. One was the night when he gained supreme enlightenment (Nirvana)






Buddha's Parinirvana
Buddha's Parinirvana




and the other when he would finally pass away without any remainder (Complete or Pari-Nirvana).





This was not the only instance when the venerable Buddha equated enlightenment with final demise. When eating a meal at the house of one his devotees named Chunda, he became seriously ill and it was clear that the end was near. Lest after him his followers chastise Chunda, the Buddha said:

"It is to your merit Chunda, that I am going to final Nirvana after taking this last meal from you. Two offerings of food are more meritorious than any other. The first is the one after eating which I attain supreme enlightenment, and the other after which I gain the Nirvana without remainder." (D.N. 16.4.42)

In fact, the Buddha looked forward to the day when his body would fall and he be finally released from the bondage of life and death. During his last moments he asked his followers not to grieve and said:

"Don’t mourn at this moment of joy." (BC 25.68)

"Is it proper to lament and weep for me when this body, the great storehouse of suffering is passing away? The great danger of rebirth is at last being uprooted, and I am being released." (Buddhacharita 25.71)

"When the darkness of ignorance within me has been illuminated with the lamp of knowledge, and I have seen the world to be without essence, then contentment accompanies my end as does the cure to an illness." (BC 26.86)

"Peace is gained only from that peace which leaves no residue behind." (BC 27.2)

Buddha’s Life – The Key to His Death

To understand Buddha’s approach to death we have to go back to his life. When he was exposed to the three inevitable sufferings, which must be undergone by all living beings – namely disease, old age and death the would-be-Buddha was taken aback with fear.

The charming and ancient poem Buddhacharita, forming one of the principal sources for the life of Buddha, describes his poignant encounter with death:

Buddha's Encounter with Death
Buddha's Encounter with Death




"This person bereft of intelligence, sense organs and breath, is now but a lifeless log of wood. He is abandoned by his near and dear ones who had once painfully taken care of him. Destruction indeed is inevitable for all in the world" (BC 3.57)




Till then having led a sheltered existence of consumption and enjoyment, the shock of his eventual destiny shook him to the core. Buddha realized that death is the only certainty in this uncertain world. How then could one pass his hours in indulgence when the sword of time ‘kala’ hung threateningly over his head? The true destiny of humanity was to reach that fearless state (Abhaya Pada) which transcended death.

He lamented:

"Which rational being could be at ease, or still less laugh, when he knows of old age, disease and death? Which sentient being could remain unmoved on seeing an aged, ill or dead person? This is perhaps like a tree which remains unaffected even as its neighbor falls bereft of flowers and fruit or is cut down mercilessly." (BC 4.59-61).

It was only later when he witnessed a wandering monk with an unmistakable calm on his face did Gautama felt that salvation was possible. The monk who had withdrawn himself from the world had in a sense died to it. Indeed, the only way to defeat death was to die before death. Since death is but an impetus to a fresh birth (and death), when overcome in this manner, there is no coming back to this world.

The Nature of ‘Virtual Death’

Regarding the nature of withdrawal from this external world, the Buddha gives a vivid example of a time when he was staying at a small town and saw a crowd gathered near his dwelling. He asked a person standing nearby:

"Friend, why are all these people assembled here?"

"Sir, there has been a great storm which has killed two farmers and four oxen. But you my lord, where have you been?"

"I have been right here, friend."

"What did you see my lord?"

"Dear friend, I saw nothing."

"What did you hear?"

"I heard nothing."

"Were you sleeping dear sir?"

"No friend I was not asleep."

"Then sir, were you conscious?"

"Yes, I was conscious."

Even though fully awake, the Buddha neither saw nor heard the great storm raging outside, so absorbed was he within his own self. This is parallel to the ancient Indian ideal of ‘atmaram’, or the contented soul ‘which sports within its own self.’

No wonder then that this ideal formed an important constituent in Buddha’s final discourse:

"I am now worn out, having completed eighty years. As an old cart can be held together only with the help of straps so have I kept my body going. It is only when I withdraw my attention from all outward things and concentrate it inwards that I know comfort. Thus you too become a lamp (deepa) unto yourselves, illuminating your inner selves, relying on no external help, becoming your own refuge." (DN 16.2.26)

Interestingly, the Pali word ‘deepa’ rendered above as lamp also can mean ‘dvipa’ or island, which is indeed preferred by many translators. In that case the words of Buddha hold a beautiful meaning suggesting each of us to live like islands, detached from the world, where however, some near and dear ones may alight for a short while and then disperse, without us being attached to them in any manner. The Buddha says:

"Like birds spending a night together on a tree, and going their separate directions the next morning, so inevitably the union of all beings ends in parting."

"As clouds coming together in the sky only to separate again, so do creatures collect together and then disperse." (BC 6.46-47)

The Path to Virtual Death

Ancient Indian tradition recognizes two ways of living in this world:

1). Pravrtti Dharma (Inclination to action)

2). Nivrtti Dharma (Finished with action)

The Buddha makes his preference clear:

"Set your mind on the cessation of activity (nivrtti), because where there is no inclination to action (pravrtti), there is no suffering" (BC 20.43)

"The continuance of active being (pravrtti) is suffering and the cessation thereof (nivrtti) is freedom from suffering." (BC 26.18)

He put it eloquently in a verse:

"Monks do collect your thoughts,
Be mindful restrain all resolves." (DN 16.3.51)

Considering the fact that with his parinirvana Buddha attained final and total freedom from all karma (pari-nivrrta), his visible joy at his impeding end is but understandable.

However, for ordinary folks like us, less traveled on the path of enlightenment, the thought of bereavement from the Buddha could be highly traumatic as it was for many of his disciples. The ever-compassionate Buddha tried his best to calm them with the words:

"Recognize the true nature of this world and don’t be anxious, for separation is but inevitable. Strive that this world never happens to you again (i.e. you are not born again)" (BC 26.85)

What After the Buddha?

To the grieving monks assembled at his final gathering, anxious as to how they would bear their separation from him, the Buddha said:

"Whether my body remains or I pass away – it will be the same, because even then my Dharmakaya (the Dharma preached by me) will remain in this world. It does not then matter that my form remains or not." (BC 24.20)

"Salvation does not come from the mere sight of me without strenuous yogic practices. Whoever thoroughly understands my law, is released from the net of suffering even though he may never see me." (BC 25.77)

"Just as man cannot be cured of a disease by the mere sight of a physician without taking the prescribed medicine, similarly the one who hears my Dharma but does not put it into practice, he cannot be liberated by mere sight." (BC 25.78)

Then he said what can act as a comforting reassurance to those of us feeling lost in the vast ocean of the modern world:

"In this world, a self-controlled practitioner of Dharma, even though he may be far from me, is seeing me, while he who does not conform to the highest good may dwell at my side and yet be distant from me." (BC 25.79)

Conclusion: The Compassion of Buddha

After his supreme enlightenment, there remained only one thing binding the Buddha to this world – his body. However, out of compassion for his fellow beings, Buddha continued to survive physically even after Nirvana. It was only when he realized that his work was done, and a solid foundation laid for the Dharma did he finally decide to let his body fall, putting his feelings into the following verse:

I wandered forth when twenty-nine,
To seek well-being, the life divine,
Since then fifty have gone over this life of mine. (DN 16.5.27)

Ripened is my life,
Little remains to thrive,
All’s done I need not survive. (DN 16.3.51)

Buddha in Maha Parinirvana
Buddha in Maha Parinirvana






References and Further Reading:

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  • I am fascinated by how a simple story of one man's search for enlightenment can spawn such controversy (just as the story itself). This was not the intended purpose of the story, the life, or the intentions of Buddha himself (or any being searching for enlightenment for that matter). It Has become very easy to loose one's focus & purpose in this world that we have built. It is wise to look beyond the basic words of any teaching to find it's meaning. Inside the meaning is found truth for the individual. That truth is specific for the individual grasping that meaning, & within each individual meaning exists a different yet equal truth. From the day we are born until the time in which we decide to disconnect (if ever) from the consciousness of the universe, we are learning through " our own eyes" to seek out the importance of the individual & the lessons to be learned. Many will walk through their entire mortal existence blind, dumb, & deaf to the individual teachings the universe has to offer along the path. It is wise to truly Question one's ideals, morals, & beliefs each & every day, & to examine the cause & affect of each on one's life. Their is a dominant path within everyone, this path is called "Self Mastery" (to master one's self). Every thought & inspiration, every feeling, every action one experiences is a step along the path of "Self Mastery". IT is the current trend to look outside one's self for the faults & blame of the hardships of life. Yet, everything that is to one's self began inside one's self & therefore the solution also resides within one's self. It is all there and can be found there (if you look). Everything that is, will be, or ever was in the entire universe is, has always been, and always will be connected as one (regardless if you choose to recognize it or not). Condemning one another over principals of Who's God or who's teachings are the true and only is not ex-amplifying godly wisdom. "Heaven" & "Hell" are what you choose to make of everyday life, and that life will and has been passed down through each new generation through our DNA, our energy, and our very thoughts, from the very first spark of life to the last. It is wise to mind one's thoughts, one's actions, one's feelings, and one's intentions. For all things are connected as one, "Physically", "Mentally", and "spiritually" and that information is passed on both forwards and backwards through all dimensions of existence. Remember: The world is often not as it seams and as humans we are prone to make mistakes. Analyze your every moment and open yourself, your eyes and your mind to the teachings offered to you each and everyday by life. Take them inside, learn from them, give them your love and send them into the world to grant the universe; inspiration, peace, love, and happiness. As I part, I thank You for entering into my thoughts for even just a moment. I hope you find them useful inside the struggle along the path of whatever you are preparing for. For preparation is key.

    by "The Thoughts & Mind of Spencer Maxfield." on 29th Jan 2007
  • Thank you so much for this article, I have been on a 12 year knowledge and experience dedicated death journey myself and in this process five years ago, had two visitations by 2 Buddhas - one in my night dreaming a buddhist monk and one in a manifested form in California a tibetan master, this story has come at the perfect time for me in my despair of no-thing or empty vessel state. Now i understand where I am at in my journey by the story.

    Thought i would share the poem too....

    Saviors of a Rathful Diety

    Hearing her silent songs of Eternity
    laying in the presence of broken hearts.
    From stillness and death, the mystery
    stand before you opening poetic embraces
    of desire and sudden awakenings.
    Pleasures of such awakenings within
    one infinite moment yearns separation from
    such blood thirsty Rathful Deities.

    In my presence they were my savior
    of my own searching for Eternity inside a
    Dream that does not reveal anything but death.
    I was like Sleeping leaves, branches of my lives
    reaching out near the great sky with limitation.
    No wisdom until Fall brings death and the leaves
    finally meet the Spirit of the worlds of the Wind.
    A heart is frozen flying above these sacred trees
    and flowing rivers. Deaths pain attached to no
    one but me. I feel my ecstasy but belong not
    to any God. The Buddha understood this pain
    and so do I.

    When limits of time have all been shattered
    languages becomes short breaths of joy and laughter.
    Feelings are pleasures and pain becoming love
    and a time worn Soul touching it's own depth
    with understanding of the her eternal dreaming.
    This is the most sacred dance on the endless spirals.
    Spirit of your Savior, a Rathful Diety, a primordial

    Blessings and Love and may you cherish the Earth.
    by Mary on 18th Jan 2007
  • I have much benefited from my own Buddhic studies over many years, including finding peace of mind, and a more opened heart around those things of life that can indeed cause suffering. Yet, I do not 'avoid' suffering, nor try to ease my fears by seeking to attain states of no emotion-attachment, as in being subdued, 'above and beyond it all'.....motivated by fear..... If you are familiar with the teachings of Abraham Hicks - a worthy balancing act to your renderings of Buddha's teachings --we ponder the activation of "life energy" towards creation here on earth - via enthusiasm (similar to Eckhart Tolle's findings) -- aiming towards what deeply "feels good" - right - in our hearts. The paradox is, perhaps, that in allowing it all -- including our 'suffering,' we lose 'resistance' to what we are perceiving as ill, hardship, etc, and achieve moments of Grace - in the world, wholly and fully, but not "of it ,' i.e., knowing that which I Am is vast and mysterious beyond what my senses register, or my mind 'desires', or --?? Blessings,
    by Marcia Singer on 17th Jan 2007
  • I absolutly loved reading the article you sent. Not only was it informative but it also had some amazing quotes throughout.
    by Roxanne on 16th Jan 2007
  • I thought this was a particularly good piece of writing.

    Thank you,
    by Kristina Joyce on 15th Jan 2007
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