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Viveka, San Francisco, USA
Coleen, FBA Team
Aileen, Shetland Islands
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Coleen, FBA Team
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... Mahaparinibbana Sutta is the sixteenth sutta of the Digha Nikaya and gives an account of the last few months, and especially the last day--or rather night--of the Buddha's earthly existence. It is a composite work consisting of a number of different episodes and teachings. I would like to investigate four episodes from this sutta. These are the episode of the Mirror of the Dhamma, the episode of the teaching of `subjective' and `objective' Refuge, the episode of the Untimely Flowers, and the episode of the Last Disciple. The first two episodes took place on the road to Kusinara, and the second two took place at Kusinara, or rather just outside Kusinara, in the sala grove of the Mallas--between the twin sala trees.
The episode of the Mirror of the Dhamma involves Ananda; in fact, all four episodes involve Ananda in one way or another, because Ananda accompanied the Buddha on his last journey and was present at the Parinibbana itself. Ananda emerges from the Pali scriptures as a vivid and lovable personality. He also seems to have had a very inquisitive mind--as we shall see.
The episode took place at a little place called Nadika, where the Buddha was staying at the `Brick Hall'.
The Buddha had a large number of disciples in that area, so no sooner had the Buddha and Ananda settled down than Ananda went off to visit them. On his return he told the Buddha that a bhikkhu and a bhikkhuni, as well as quite a number of lay disciples, had all died since their last visit. Having an inquisitive mind, however, Ananda was not content just to give the Buddha this information; he wanted to know about the destiny of those deceased people. Where had they been reborn? Had they even been reborn at all? The Buddha--and one can imagine him heaving a sort of sigh here--tells Ananda what he wants to know.
It seems that quite a lot of people have died, so the Buddha's account takes rather a long time. When he has finished, he tells Ananda that it is becoming wearisome to have to go into this sort of thing every time someone dies. He therefore says that he will teach him how to work these things out for himself. He will teach him the Mirror of the Dhamma.
Although there is much that could be said about the Mirror of the Dhamma itself, I am actually concerned here with another point--one that arises in connection with this teaching. I am concerned with the number of lay disciples in that place who had, according to the Buddha, become `Non-Returners', `Once Returners', and `Stream Entrants'. The Buddha tells Ananda that the bhikkhu, having become an arahat, would not be reborn at all; the bhikkhuni had become a Non-Returner; one lay disciple had become a Once-Returner; one lay disciple had become a Stream Entrant. Then, he says, there were fifty-seven more lay disciples who had become Non-Returners, more than ninety who had become Once-Returners, and more than five hundred who had become Stream Entrants--all in one place, and all apparently since the Buddha's last visit.
All this clearly suggests that Stream Entry, at least, is not such a very rare occurrence as is generally supposed. On the strength of this passage alone, we must conclude that Stream Entry is well within the reach of the serious-minded practising Buddhist, whether living as a `monk' or `nun', or as a lay person.
Now comes the episode, or teaching, of `subjective' and `objective' refuge. The Buddha and his monk-disciples customarily spent eight or nine months of each year wandering from place to place. Then, for the duration of the rainy season, they would settle in one place. On this particular occasion, they stayed for the three months of the rainy season at the village of Beluva.
While they were staying there, perhaps because it was the rainy season, the Buddha became very ill.
However, thinking that it would not be right for him to pass away without taking leave of the order, he made a strong effort of will and suppressed his sickness. He had been staying during this time in a vihara, a lodging--probably a little cottage with no more than one room. On his recovery he came outside and sat in the shade, perhaps just enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.
As he sat there, Ananda came up to him. Ananda was quite disturbed by the thought of the Buddha's passing away, so the Buddha took advantage of this opportunity to make certain points, and to give him certain exhortations. In the actual words of the scripture, the Buddha said: `Therefore, in this regard, Ananda, abide self-reliant (attadipa), taking refuge in yourself, not taking refuge in others, reliant on the Dhamma, taking refuge in the Dhamma, not taking refuge in another.'<Digha Nikaya 16> This was the Buddha's exhortation.
There seems to be a sort of contradiction here. On the one hand one is being asked to take refuge in oneself--and on the other hand one is being asked to take refuge in the Dhamma. On the one hand there is what I call `subjective refuge', and on the other there is what I call `objective refuge'.
Unfortunately, the passage which immediately follows does not help us very much. Here the Buddha simply says that one takes refuge in the self and in the Dhamma by the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness, the four satipatannas: mindfulness of the physical body, mindfulness of sensations, mindfulness of thoughts, and mindfulness of dhammas (dhammas here meaning: mental objects, doctrinal categories or realities). In this way, apparently, the subjective and objective refuges are to be reconciled.
But, to go a little further than this, we could say that `subjective refuge' represents thinking of the spiritual life in terms of personal--or individual--development, while `objective refuge' represents thinking of the spiritual life in terms of devotion to a supremely worthwhile object. Actually, we have to have both, and we have to hold them in balance.
In our own movement that balance is possibly tilted in favour of the subjective refuge--though I think that this has started to change. We tend to think in terms of something being good for one's own personal spiritual development, in a rather `precious' sort of way. We tend, perhaps, to ignore the needs of the objective situation. One hears, for instance, of people not attending some business meetings because they don't feel in an `organizational mood' that morning. Going to the meeting, they seem to think, would be detrimental to their spiritual development. However, as I have said, this has started changing, and people's approach is beginning to be rather more balanced. More weight is being given to the needs of the objective situation, more weight is being given to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, more weight is being given to other people.
Thirdly, we have the episode of the `Untimely Flowers'. This episode took place in the sala grove near Kusinara, and it took place, as did the succeeding episode, between the twin sala trees. Let us try to visualize the scene.
The Mallas, the tribal people in whose territory Kusinara was situated, had planted two parallel rows of sala trees, running from east to west. At the eastern end of the two rows, between the last two trees, was a kind of platform which was apparently used for meetings. The Buddha lay down upon this with his head to the north and his feet to the south. Lying down, as he usually did, on his right side, his head to the north and his feet to the south, he would have been facing west, looking right down the great avenue of sala trees. Had you been walking up this avenue, you would have seen the Buddha lying between the last two sala trees right at the very end--a very impressive sight.
We should perhaps note that the Buddha passed away in the open air. According to tradition the Buddha was also born in the open air, gained Enlightenment in open air, and often taught in the open air. In other words, he lived very close to nature throughout his life.
While the Buddha was lying between the twin sala trees, something strange happened. The Buddha himself drew Ananda's attention to it. Here are the exact words of the Pali text: Then said the Exalted One to the venerable Ananda: `See, Ananda! All abloom are the twin Sala trees: with untimely blossoms do they shower down on the body of the Tathagata, they sprinkle it, cover it up, in worship of the Tathagata. Moreover, heavenly frankincense comes falling from the sky, showers down upon the body of the Tathagata, sprinkles it and covers it up, in worship of the Tathagata. And heavenly music sounds in the sky, in worship of the Tathagata, and heavenly songs are wafted from the sky in worship of the Tathagata.
Yet not thus is the Tathagata truly honoured, revered, respected, worshipped, and deferred to. Whosoever, Ananda, be he brother or sister, or lay-brother or lay-sister,--whosoever dwells in the fulfilment of the Dhamma, both in its greater and in its lesser duties,--whosoever walks uprightly in accordance with the Dhamma,--he it is that truly honours, reveres, respects, worships, and defers to the Tathagata in the perfection of worship.'<Ibid. p.347> Although the heart of the matter seems to be that true worship of the Buddha consists in the practice of his teaching, there is a danger of a misunderstanding. The passage seems to fit in very neatly with our Western, rationalistic way of thinking, our rationalistic pre-suppositions. The passage might seem to be saying that the offering of flowers, lights, and candles is unnecessary. But this is not what the passage is saying at all.
It is true that the offering of flowers and so on is by no means any substitute for the actual practice of the Buddha's teaching: the practice of morality (sila), the practice of meditation (samadhi), and the practice of wisdom (panna). But this does not mean that we should not offer those flowers. Offering flowers is ...