Parinirvana Day is a Buddhist festival marking the death of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha held on February 15 in East Asia. (South Asian Buddhist traditions celebrate the Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment day and death on a single day in springtime known as Vesak). After 45 years of teaching the Dharma and leading the community of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, at age of 80 and in declining health he announced to his followers that he would soon die and enter parinirvana.
The Buddha, being omnipotent, of course knew when he was going to die and was well prepared. He had set out as a young man to understand the causes of human sorrow, discontent and suffering and to find a release. In this he was successful when at age 35 after 6 years of searching he attained enlightenment, awakening, or nirvana at the sight of the morning star rising the in the east. From then on he traveled throughout what is now northern India teaching others how they might find that same release, bringing the Dharma to untold countless number of beings human and nonhuman.
But while the Buddha was prepared for his death, his disciples were certainly not. Perhaps they felt, like author William Saroyan, that while they always knew everyone died, but thought that in his case an exception might be made. Ananda, his personal attendant for all those years, ran out of the room crying at the thought of loosing his teacher and the leader of the Sangha. Shakyamuni sent after him and asked him to dry his tears and to return to the room where the Buddha lay.
“Who will guide us? Who will lead the Sangha when you die? How will we continue?, “ wailed Ananda. The Buddha replied that he taught for 45 years how to guide the Sangha, how to practice, how to attain awakening. “I have held back nothing. You have all the teachings I have to offer. They will be your guide,” Shakyamuni replied. To emphasize that the Dharma is not exclusive to anyone person, he named no successor. All of his disciples were able, if they followed the teachings he had offered during his lifetime, to reach nirvana.
And just what is nirvana? And Parinirvana? The Buddha said very little about either and discouraged speculative lines of thought when questioned. That, of course, hasn’t stopped over 2 millennia of commentators to offer their suggestions however. When he did speak of it, he usually spoke of what is not, rather than what it is.
The term nirvana comes from the root meaning to ‘blow out’ or ‘extinguish’. Which unfortunately and incorrectly is sometimes taken to mean ‘annihilation’. Rather, what the Buddha was saying was extinguished were negative states of mind based upon desire, anger and [spiritual] ignorance that lead to negative words and negative actions and hence, sorrow and suffering. When those negatives states are extinguished through clearly perceiving the true nature of reality, a pervasive subtle joy becomes the field of experience.
Parinirvana means ‘final’ nirvana. The experience of nirvana attained as a result of enlightenment or awakening puts an end to the generation of new karma that would impel additional rebirths. But because one still has a physical body subject to illness and death like Shakyamuni Buddha himself, while suffering has been extinguished, life continues its course. Sometimes this is referred to as ‘nirvana with residue’. At the time of death, final nirvana releases this ‘residue’ and there is no further rebirth.
There are two points to this story that foreshadow later understandings of the Buddha’s teachings. Here, his disciples believed that with the death of the Buddha he would become ‘extinct’ as the teaching say, that he would no longer be with them. But in saying that ‘the teachings will guide you’ he was suggesting, as was later made explicit, that the Buddha is synonymous with the teachings. When it becomes clear that the Buddha embodies the Dharma and the Dharma embodies the Buddha, then reality itself becomes the Buddha and the Dharma is seen to be universally applicable to all regardless of time or place, not just to those who lived in a particular place and a particular time. That everything that is impermanent, that there is no material gain that can be counted upon to give lasting peace and satisfaction, that nothing exists isolated and independent on its own but only in interdependence with everything else, can be seen to universally apply. So as it is related in the Lotus Sutra and elsewhere the Buddha could rightfully claim that his ‘extinction’ was only a skillful tale that would spur his students to dig deep into the teachings and their own abilities to carry them through. Meanwhile, he is actually “always present on Vulture Peak and elsewhere, always teaching the Dharma.”
Parinirvana Day offers us an opportunity to reflect upon the Buddha’s life and his death and the gift he offered—a way to the release from sorrow, discontent and suffering. It also offers us an opportunity to reflect upon our own life and death. When we think of death at all, we may, like Saroyan believe that an exception will be made in our case. Or we may think of it as a distant event that has no connection to our day-to-day actions. Or we may be frightened out of our wits. When we reflect upon our own death we are brought to acknowledge the gift we have been given with this life and the opportunities we have to use it well. A life seems like a long time to hold in your hand. Our life, though, is made up of the accumulated thoughts, words and actions that we take moment by moment. Aristotle said that “We are what we repeatedly do.” While a single action may not seem like much, those actions accrued over time make up a life.
Shakyamuni Buddha set out to investigate the nature of human discontent and suffering and to find a release. His used that intention to guide his actions day by day. Try this, see the results. If not try that, see those results. By so doing he attained his goal. And having attained the goal he then set out to share his realization and his methods with others. Day by day he taught individuals and large assemblies. He continued to practice and investigate. At the end of his life he had thousands of followers over a vast area. After his death his teaching spread benefiting countless others. Now they have spread around the world.
Often when we think of ‘purpose’ in our life, we might think in terms of meaningful career and get caught up in a grand vision or doubts about what is “good enough” or “meaningful enough”. I doubt Shakyamuni ever thought of founding a religion that would spread across the world and last thousands of years after his death. He did not plan for, nor imagine the day, when the Dharma would come to Indian Lake. All this he did by each moment of each day answering questions posed to him, offering assurance and instruction, and caring for members of his Sangha. That was his ‘purpose’. Likewise, when we think of ‘purpose’ we can refrain from grand fantasies but instead simply take each moment see to what opportunity it offers us to fulfill our Bodhisattva vows:
“Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them. Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put and end to them. The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them. The Buddha-way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it.”
In the spirit of Parinirvana Day reflections the Evening Gatha, chanted at the conclusion of the last meditation period of the day, reminds us:
“Let me respectfully remind you. Life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes swiftly by and opportunity is lost. Each one of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed! Do not squander your life.”