Today is the day that Buddhists around the world mark the death of the historical Buddha, a moment called his parinirvana. Thanks to Rev. Danny Fisher for the reminder. on the BBC page about this day, they remark that
The day is used as an opportunity to reflect on the fact of one’s own future death, and on friends or relations who have recently passed away. The idea that all things are transient is central to Buddhist teaching. Loss and impermanence are things to be accepted rather than causes of grief.
Having just last week lost a woman from my family that I have routinely described as the living hearth of my extended family, I will certainly be meditating on her passing, and impermanence. I miss you, Aunt Jackie.
Now, a word about the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddhist text which describes the days leading up to the Buddha’s final nirvana:
The Mahaparinibbana sutta is the locus classicus for discussions of funerary ritual, relics, and post-mortem attitudes toward the dead. Toward the end, the Buddha gives directions for his funeral (which is expertly analyzed by John Strong in his excellent book Relics of the Buddha as a rejection of kingly, brahmanical authority and prestige), and the division of the Buddha post-cremation relics.
What is rarely noted about the text however, is the way in which the entire sutta is framed by war. At the beginning, patricide king Ajatasattu (“He who is without enemies,” largely because he seems to have murdered them all) asks the Buddha for advice on how to conquer a neighboring republic. The Buddha advises the king that as long as Ajattasattu’s neighbors continue to practice the community teachings of the Buddha – which are explicitly non-religious, and not even terribly ‘Buddhist’, but generally just good advice – he will be unable to conquer them. The king decides to go after them anyway, and begins preparations for war.
The Buddha then begins to travel from the kingdom of Ajatasattu to that of his neighbors. As the Buddha crosses the border, he notices that even gods and angels are assisting in the fortification effort, preparing for war. The Buddha continues, giving regular and repetitive advice to laypeople and monks.
Then there’s a section in which the Buddha travels around with his cousin, best friend, and personal attendant Ananda. This section largely explains how the Buddha comes to die (food poisoning, unintentional) and offers up an image of Ananda which will later (but not in this sutta) be the basis for First Council attacks on Ananda.
Finally, after the Buddha’s cremation (which only happens when the severe ascetic Kassapa, leading his 500 monks, finally arrives late, which magically provokes a spontaneous combustion of the Buddha’s body), we return to the theme of war.
Now, instead of just one warlike king, there are eight. Everybody wants a (literal) piece of the Buddha. Rather, everyone wants all the pieces of the Buddha. Prepared to do battle in a classically Indian apocalyptic manner (recall the moments before the foundational battle of the Mahabharata, for instance, recalled so sensitively in the opening lines of the Bhagavad Gita), peace is preserved, precisely by the distribution and sharing of the Buddha’s relics.
There’s a lot to be said here, and much exegesis to do, but I’m busy today. So for now, allow me to merely make this wish:
May all beings be happy, peaceful, cooperative, and healthy; may we end our wars and share our wealth equally with all.