Human, all too human: the Buddha in Mahaparinibbana Sutta

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The Buddhist scriptures often describe the Buddha as a mythical figure whose life was filled with miraculous events—like his mother dreaming about a white elephant piercing the right side of her body upon conception, the new born baby immediately taking seven steps after his birth, and the prediction about the child becoming either a universal monarch or a universal spiritual guide. While such descriptions of the Buddha as a mythical figure were behind the birth of Buddhism as a system of religious faith in him as Amitabha Buddha, there is no question that the Buddha was also a historical figure with the human qualities that we all possess. The most striking descriptions of this aspect of the Buddha as a human being with mental sufferings and physical limitations are found in “Mahaparinibbana Sutta,” Sutta 16 of Digha Nikaya, which tells stories of his last days before his final passing. What we find in this longest sutta is not the Buddha as an extraordinary individual who exercises superhuman mental control and possesses superhuman physical power but an ordinary individual who, like the rest of us, gets tired, irritated and sick, grows old, and dies.

At a place called Nadika, the Buddha shows weariness when asked by Ananda about the fate of each and every person who died there: “Ananda, it is not remarkable that which has come to be as a man should die. But that you should come to the Tathagata to ask the fate of each of those who died, that is a wearisome to him.” (DN II.93) During the Rains while staying at the little village of Beluva, we are told about the Buddha becoming seriously ill: “the Lord was attacked by a severe sickness, with sharp pains as if he were about to die.” (DN II.99) In another passage, we find the Buddha telling Ananda of his impending death: “Ananda, I am now old, worn out, one who has traversed life’s path, I have reached the term of life, which is eighty. Just as an old cart is being held together with straps, as the Tathagata’s body is kept going by being strapped up.” (DN II.100)

To make matters worse, the Buddha is attacked by food poisoning at a place called Pava. While staying at the mango-grove of Cunda the smith, the Buddha received an invitation from Cunda for a meal, a special meal of the pig’s delight: “And after having eaten the meal provided by Cunda, the Lord was attacked by a severe sickness with bloody diarrhea, and with sharp pains as if he were about to die.” (DN IV.127) Still the Buddha continues his travels. At Kusinara, the Buddha goes to the foot of a tree and says: “Come, Ananda, fold a robe in four for me: I am tired and want to sit down.” Sitting down on the prepared seat, the Buddha says: “Ananda, bring me some water: I am thirsty and want to drink.” (DN II.129) To Ananda who tells his Master that the water there is dirty and not fit to drink, the Buddha shows impatience by repeating the same message three times.

Despite the weakening of his body, the Buddha’s travels took him to such places as Ambalatthika, Nalanda, Pataligama, Kotigama, Nadika, Vesali, Beluva, Bhandagama, Bhoganagara, Pava and Kusinara, giving discourses to his disciples and lay people. His discourses range from such topics as six things conducive to communal living, four foundations of mindfulness, and the Four Noble Truths. At Kusinara, which turns out to be the place for his final Nibbana, the Buddha tells Ananda: “There are two occasions on which the Tathagata’s skin appears especially clear and bright. Which are they? One is the night in which the Tathagata gains supreme enlightenment, the other is the night when he attains the Nibbana-element without remainder at the final passing.” (DN IV.135) He goes on to tell Ananda: “Tonight, Ananda, in the last watch, in the sal-grove of the Mallas near Kusinara, between two sal-trees, the Tathagata’s final passing will take place.” (DN IV.135) He then goes to the River Kakuttha, enters the water, bathes, and drinks. After that, the Buddha tells the venerable Cundaka: “I am tired and want to lie down.” He lies down, adopting the lion-posture, lying on his right side, placing one foot on the other mindfully. “Now monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay—strive on untiringly.” (DN VI.156) These were the Buddha’s last words.

What should we make of the Buddha as an ordinary individual as depicted in Mahaparinibbana Sutta? Indeed, no other sutta gives such vivid portrayal of the Buddha as a vulnerable and frail human being. In a way, it is a reminder to us of his teaching about the human condition: that every human who is born is destined to grow old, to get sick, and eventually to die. We may recall the discourse the Buddha gave to King Pasenadi of Kosala in which he says: “Great king, no one who is born is free from aging and death. Even those affluent khattiyas … Even those affluent Brahmins … Even those affluent householders … Even those monks who are arahants, whose taints are destroyed, who have lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached their own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, and are completely liberated through final knowledge: even for them this body is subject to breaking up, subject to being laid down.” (SN 3:3)

It is because of this human condition from which even the Buddha could not escape that the Buddha had this to say to Ananda: “you should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge.” (DN II.101) Human, all too human, yet the Buddha was an extraordinary teacher till the end of his life. This is indeed the reason why the Dhamma he taught has grown into a system of thought called Buddhism, which continues to inspire generation after generation of practitioners.