FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15: In a religion that embraces the impermanence of life, a leader’s death is celebrated with great joy: Today, Mahayana Buddhists remember the death of Buddha, on Parinirvana Day. (Though some marked Parinirvana on February 8, most will honor it today.)
Following four decades of teaching, texts describe the 80-year-old Buddha’s last days as full of intense meditation. Close to his death, the Buddha readied for the transition from living nirvana—that state achieved after Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree—to Parinirvana, or “completed nirvana,” which can only occur after physical death. (View a scroll depiction of Buddha’s death, dated from 14th century Japan, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
As the final hour drew near, Buddha talked to his disciples about four places of future pilgrimage: the sites of his birth, Enlightenment, first sermon, and death. Finally, he warned them not to “hinder” themselves with his remains, but to focus instead on their own states of liberation.
Ancient texts detail Buddha’s final days on earth, as he traveled with disciples through the villages of India. When he reached Kusinara, or the present-day town of Kushinagar, he knew the end was near. Buddha instructed his disciple of 20 years, Ananada, to make a bed for him with the head turned “toward the north between two Sal trees.” Ananda did as he was asked, and the Buddha released his final breaths on the prepared bed. (Details are at Buddhanet.) Today, an enormous sculpture carved from a single block of red sandstone depicts Buddha on this bed, with his head to the north. The sculpture, rests in an Indian temple; it is flanked by three other scultpures, depicting the three disciples who were with Buddha when he died.
Today, Mahayana Buddhists across East Asia and the world read Buddha’s final words on Parinirvana, reflecting on their own journeys toward nirvana (release from the cycle of death and rebirth). Many devotees also bring gifts of food, money and household items to local temples and monasteries. (Listen to an online Parinirvana Dharmabyte Podcast, free via iTunes, courtesy of The Buddhist Centre.)