February is the month in which the Buddhist traditions of Japan observe the Nirvana Day Service commemorating the end of Śakyamuni Buddha’s life in this world and his passing into parinirvana approximately 2,500 years ago. We invite you join us at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for our Nirvana Day Service on February 11, 2018, at 9:30 a.m. As the Buddha approached the end of his life, he settled on a spot between twin sāla trees in a grove on the edge of the city of Kuśinagara in northern India to spend his last days in this world.
At that time, the Buddha’s disciple and constant companion Ānanda asked for specific guidance regarding how the Buddha’s remains should be venerated. The Buddha’s initial response is that wise householders will see to the veneration of his remains, so Ānanda and the other monastic disciples should remain focused on the goal of realizing awakening. Out of kind concern for the faithful householders, Ānanda humbly solicited guidance for those who would venerate the Buddha’s remains after he had departed from this world.
The Buddha proceeded to give clear and detailed instructions regarding how the remains should be cremated according to the customs for royal funerals and placed in a suitable monument for veneration.
After hearing these instructions, Ānanda must have been powerfully struck by the realization that the Buddha would indeed pass from this world in the coming days because he is said to have gone off to a dwelling where he stood weeping and lamented, “I am still only a learner whose task has yet to be completed. My teacher is about to attain final Nibbāna (Nirvana)—my teacher who has compassion on me!”
When the Buddha learned of his grief, he summoned Ānanda and instructed him, saying:
“Enough, Ānanda, do not sorrow, do not lament. Have I not already repeatedly told you that there is separation and parting and division from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed, and bound to fall should not fall? That is not possible. Ānanda, you have long and consistently attended on the Perfect One with bodily acts of loving-kindness, helpfully, gladly, sincerely and without reserve; and so too with verbal acts and mental acts. You have made merit, Ānanda. Keep on endeavoring and you will soon be free from taints.” (The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli, p. 318)
Having offered Ānanda these words of comfort, the Buddha goes on to praise his dedication to ensuring that all people, bhikkhus, bhikkhunīs, lay men and women, kings and commoners, and even followers of non-Buddhist teachings, are given the opportunity to hear the Dharma and receive instruction from the Buddha.
With this, Ānanda recognized his sacred duty and set out to encourage the local people to visit the Buddha in his last hour, so that they would not miss the rare and precious opportunity to see him before he passed from this world. To accommodate the vast assembly of devotees who flocked to the grove where Buddha was preparing to enter parinirvana, Ānanda instructed each clan to send one representative to receive the teachings and pay their respects to the Buddha. Despite his own grief, Ānanda continued his dedicated service to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
I find that among the Buddha’s disciples, I can most easily relate to Ānanda. While the Buddha’s fully enlightened disciples remain calm and composed, Ānanda is distraught at the prospect of parting from his teacher. It is in the Buddha’s conversations with Ānanda that we find the following precious teachings addressed to those, who like Ānanda at the time, have yet to realize full awakening:
“Ānanda, you may think: ‘The word of the Teacher is a thing of the past; now we have no more Teacher.’ But you should not regard it so. The Dhamma and Discipline taught by me and laid down for you are your Teacher after I am gone.”
(Ñānamoli, p. 323)
On another occasion, the Buddha offers the following guidance to those who would continue their journey on the path to awakening after he had departed from this world:
“. . . Ānanda, each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Dhamma his island, the Dhamma and no other his refuge. How does a bhikkhu do that? Here a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as body . . . contemplating feelings as feelings . . . contemplating consciousness as consciousness . . . mental objects as mental objects, ardent, fully aware, mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.” (Ñānamoli, p. 300)
The diverse Buddhist traditions in our world today all hold to these core principles, encouraging seekers of the Dharma to live with deep self-awareness illuminated by the light of wisdom, and to turn away from greed and stress about worldly matters. In the following passage from a letter written by Shinran Shonin, he describes how the truth of this wisdom comes to be reflected in a life that is settled in the Nembutsu of deep entrusting: “Signs of long years of saying the nembutsu and aspiring for birth [in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha] can be seen in the change in the heart that had been bad and in the deep warmth for friends and fellow-practicers; this is the sign of rejecting the world.” (Collected Works of Shinran, p. 551)
Namo Amida Butsu