Saturday, March 19, 2011

Parinirvana Day of Shakyamuni Buddha

Statue of Lord Buddha in the reclining Parinirvana posture
(Image: Fanyun Enterprise Co, Ltd 凡云企業有限公司)

According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Parinirvana Day of Shakyamuni Buddha (釋迦牟尼佛涅槃日 Shijia Mouni Fo Niepan Ri) is observed on the 15th day of the 2nd Chinese lunar month .

To understand the concept of the Sanskrit word Parinirvana (Pali: Parinibanna), we should first know the meaning of its root word Nirvana (Pali: Nibanna) (涅槃 Niepan). The term Nirvana is usually translated and understood as meaning Enlightenment. However, Nirvana literally means to extinguish or to blow out and refers to the complete ending of suffering due to the extinguishing of greed, hatred, and delusion. In Buddhism, the Three Poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are what keeps sentient beings in the endless cycle of transmigration (e.g. the continuous cycle of death and rebirth). As long as one is not enlightened, one is bound to transmigration and will always eventually experience pain and suffering. Only when enlightenment is achieved and Nirvana is attained is one totally free from pain and suffering. The state of Nirvana is described as the highest happiness and peace because the root causes of desire and aversion are completely destroyed.

Parinirvana (般涅槃 Bo Niepan) then is the Final Nirvana that is attained upon the death of the physical body. Parinirvana is also sometimes called Maha-parinirvana (大般涅槃 Da Bo Niepan) which means Great Final Nirvana. Therefore, this day is commemorated as the day that the Buddha physically died and entered the final state of Parinirvana (or Maha-parinirvana). The day is also sometimes called The Buddha’s Day of [Final] Extinguishment [of the causes of suffering] (佛滅日 Fo Mie Ri).

The Buddha about to attain Parinirvana
(Image: Unknown source)

The Buddha had thrice mentioned to his attendant Ananda that a Buddha had the ability to remain alive until the end of an aeon. However, Ananda did not understand the significance of this and failed to request the Buddha to remain (in the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha always granted a request if it was asked of him three times). When Ananda later realized his mistake, he implored the Buddha to stay longer but was refused. On the day before his passing, the Buddha was offered a meal from Chunda, a pious metalsmith. The Buddha accepted the meal offering, but instructed that nobody else should partake of it because the food was contaminated. The food caused the Buddha to become fatally ill, and Chunda was overcome with guilt and remorse when he learned that his offering would probably lead to the Buddha's demise. The Buddha consoled him by saying that the one who offers the Buddha's last meal acquires great merit that is equal to the merit from an offering made to the Buddha right before his attainment of Enlightenment.

The Buddha about to attain Parinirvana
Depicted in attendance are his community of monks and also the devas (heavenly gods)
(Image: Unknown source)

It should be emphasized here that the Buddha was not accidentally poisoned and that he knew very well that the food was bad. This is evident in the fact that he instructed that nobody else should eat it and that any leftover should be buried in the ground (so that nobody can accidentally consume it). As a fully enlightened being, the Buddha would of course immediately see the true nature of all things. The reason why he accepted it then was because, firstly, he did not wish to deny anyone the merit of making an offering to the Buddha; and secondly, he was already eighty years old at the time and he wanted to show as a lesson to everyone that all living beings without exception are susceptible to impermanence and death.

There has also been some confusion as to what the Buddha actually ate at his last meal. Some early translators of Buddhist literature had translated the food offered by Chunda as being “pork” or “pig’s feet.” However, some other better informed translators translated the food as “pig’s truffles.” In all likelihood, the Buddha’s last meal probably consisted of truffles (underground mushrooms) that pigs dug up with their feet to eat. This would possibly explain the translation of “pig’s feet.” It is unlikely that the Buddha was offered pork or actual pig’s feet as a meal. The reasons are because, firstly, a pious layperson would know not to offer animal flesh as food for the Buddha, especially when ahimsa (non-harming towards all living beings) is a basic tenet and also the basis for the very first precept of Buddhism. Secondly, Chunda was a metalsmith so he belonged to the Vaishya caste of ancient India and members of this caste adhered to a sattvic diet. Sattvic foods are those that have the qualities of promoting clarity and balance of mind. These foods include cereals, grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, dairy, and honey. Meat and alcohol are avoided. Followers of a sattvic diet would not eat pork. Therefore, Chunda would not have prepared pork in his home as a meal offering for the Buddha. Therefore, in all probability, the Buddha consumed some kind of truffles or mushrooms that were contaminated or poisonous, and that was what led to his fatal illness.

The Buddha about to attain Parinirvana
Sakra and Brahma are also depicted in the assembly (green and white deities, respectively)
(Image: Unknown source)

The Buddha, in spite of the pain from his illness, continued to walk with his group of monks towards the city of Kushinagar (拘尸那羅). Kushinagar is today identified with the modern village of Kasia in eastern Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Shortly before his passing, the Buddha went into a grove of trees on the banks of the Hiranyavati River in Kushinagar. At a spot between two unusually tall sala trees, the Buddha reclined on his right side in the lion posture. He then asked his followers if they had any last queries. Everyone remained silent so the Buddha then gave them his last instruction: Now, monks, I declare to you: All conditioned things are of transient nature; Strive on untiringly with diligence. The Buddha then entered Maha-parinirvana - the great, final, and ultimate state of everlasting peace attained by an enlightened being at the moment of physical death.

The Buddha attains Parinirvana

Homage to the Root Teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha (南無本師釋迦牟尼佛 Namo Benshi Shijia Mouni Fo)!

Text © 2011 Harry Leong


  1. Buddha attempt to eat the poisonous truffles even after knowing the food being poisonous already showed that he would actually be attaining Parinirvana in the three weeks after his encounter with Mara Demon and decided to attain Great Final Nirvana in Kushinagar.

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